Alone In The Ontario Night

My brother Adam, Uncle Alan, and two cousins left southern Missouri for International Falls Minnesota before heading deep into Ontario in pursuit of a Northwoods adventure. The cell signal was nonexistent, and the moose crossing signs first seen as exotic when entering Canada turned into Caribou crossing signs as we eased north on the gravel road. Minatare statues of men made from piles of rocks lined the roads.  Tokens crafted from the local native population to ward off evil spirits or perhaps just to give outsiders the creeps.  If the latter is to be believed, it was working.


We finally arrived at the 1890s trapper shack that would serve as shelter for the week. The shack had no electricity, running water, or heat outside of a small wood stove in the corner. The building was sliding off its foundation at an aggressive angle, so you would always roll off your cot towards the north wall.  It was exactly the type of dwelling you hope for on your first adventure in the north.


The outfitter had dozens of bait stations established in the wilderness surrounding the camp. One gravel road running east to west served as the only access point and the only way to distinguish where you were being dropped off was by counting the mileage between you and the last hunter drop-off.  The most distinguishable difference between the deciduous hardwoods of the southern oaks, and hickory, I knew and the forest surrounding the camp is the sheer density of vegetation. An unmarked, unkempt jungle rose from the gravel road hundreds of feet into the air stratified by various levels of flora.  Ferns and vines crept along the forest floor, succeeded by tag alders, aspens, and various blue and blackberry bush varieties tall as a man, but these layers were dwarfed by the huge cedar, pine, and fir trees that grew thick and close together with trucks coated in moss.  No sign of human presence existed in these woods beyond the bait station. No trail, no marks on trees, just wilderness.


The guide drove a passenger van loaded with hunters from the two groups in camp. I checked the odometer upon exiting and calculated I was 21 miles from where Adam and Alan disembarked, and 33 miles from the cabin. The guide pointed north and told me, “Go a mile until you see an old gravel mine. The bait is just past it, there’s a hill you can sit on nearby” Then he handed me a ribbon to tie to a tree when I was done hunting and his counterpart would be back after sunset to pick me up.  


The rock pit was about 10 yards by 15 yards across in an oval shape that sloped downward from where the bait sat. The edges of the clearing around the pit were littered with the small stone cairns some only a few inches tall, others almost waist height. I sat on the edge of the clearing above the pit. At 6:00 p.m. I saw my first bear of the day. He was small, probably a fresh cub spending his first summer alone. After a few minutes, the bear started clawing tree trunks, growling, and acting uneasy. The bear was not focused on me but on something in a dark grove of fir trees fifty yards past the bait.  Larger bears will sometimes chase off a smaller bear for access to the bait the guide said that morning. Getting excited I scanned the tree line looking for another bigger bear only to find a pack of wolves. The center wolf sat staring while the other four paced in and out of view behind it. The wolf wasn’t staring at the bear but at me.  No, not at me, through me.  The wolf didn’t have hunger in its eyes or any hint of aggression. The wolf had an air of vanity, unlike any other creature in nature. Deer are cautious, squirrels dance around skittish, and even the bears looked over their shoulder while eating, but this wolf didn’t mind anything. It just sat there and stared at me, neither moving a muscle. The wolf knew exactly what belonged where in this forest, the trees, the mosquitos, the deer and it knew I didn’t belong. Eventually, the wolves decided either the bear or I wasn’t worth the fight and moved on. Shortly after the bear too abandoned the bait and I was alone again.


At 7:15 p.m. a sow with two cubs came into the bait and milled around before being chased off by another bigger bear. Then that bear was itself run off by an even bigger bear. It was 7:20, shooting light expired at 7:26 and the light was fading fast. I knew if this was the bear, I wanted I would need to act now. The bear quartered away from me at 40 yards and offered me an opportunity.


In the months prior to the hunt, I had been researching bear hunting and was expecting to hear a death moan.  I listened and listened in the silence you find in a forest recently interrupted by a gunshot. The was no moan. Five minutes later I saw the small aspen trees directly across the pit start to shake where the bear disappeared. Bringing the gun to my shoulder I watched the trees shudder and quake as something moved through them towards the bait. 


The light was fading from the trees and the dense canopy blotted out any ambient light from the horizon.  A bear emerged from the trees at the bait station. It was past the legal shooting light, and I couldn’t be sure this was the same bear I injured.  The gun dropped from my shoulder as the bear fed on the bait and I waited. After thirty minutes the bear retreated along the path he came from. I crossed the pit and scanned the gravel for blood. Nothing.


Thinking I had at worst wounded a bear or at best missed, my feet drug me back along the trail to the road. The stone men mocked my failure as I struggled against the blackberry brambles grabbing at my wrists and ankles.  The forest was alive with sound. Every ten yards animals seemed to spring forth from the brush just out of range of my headlamp. The woods at night are not a new experience for me but in my mind, every noise was the wounded bear taunting my lack of courage and shooting ability.   


At 8:45 p.m. I found the road, tied my ribbon to a tree, and sat shamefully thinking of how I would explain my failure to the others. Surrounded by the sounds of the forest coming alive in the darkness I thought the van had come and gone after not seeing me on the road shortly after shooting light.  Maybe the guides miscommunicated the drop-off point.


By 11:00 I was certain some sort of accident had occurred as the trip back from the farthest bait station was only ninety minutes, then twenty minutes to learn of my absence, and another thirty minutes to come to get me. Everyone would be back at camp for dinner, and they would certainly notice my absence. Instead of formulating a plan, I became more and more consumed with what the hell is walking circles around me in the trees. I had turned off my headlamp to preserve the batteries in case I needed them more later. But on this moonless Ontario night, my courage failed me, and the headlamp flipped on again.


At midnight I started a fire. The vastness of this cold hard wilderness and the thick soupy darkness were so heavy they pressed the fire into an absurdly small space.  It was as if this land unmolested by man saw my fire as a dastardly insult to its existence.  How dare this creature bring even this smallest of technological advances into the forest realm.


At 2:00 a.m. I stalked the perimeter around my fire unwilling to acknowledge that a human simply cannot look in all directions at once. Still, the night pressed in closer.  Footsteps, barks, and low growls reverberated through the forest. I am used to hearing deer or other critters creep through dry leaves in the dark but the quick, rapid heavy steps galloping through the pine needles became more frequent as the night went on.


At 3:00 a.m. I began talking to myself as well as the forest.  I had depleted all the wood I could reach without venturing away from the security of the fire. The flame died away into coals, and the dim red glow of the coals dissipated into ash. I alternated between shouting threats of violence upon any creature who dared show itself, and insane bargaining with the inanimate darkness offering not to do it any harm if the forest would begrudge me two minutes of security to gather more wood.  


Now in complete darkness, the calls of the ravens and howls of the wolves intensified. The incessant prowling of whatever stalked just beyond my vision crept closer and bargains transformed into loud open threats shouted at the highest volume possible. I dared the stalking creature to show itself. I damned the forest and its inhabitants for cowards and laughed at their failure to attack me.


 4:00 a.m. found me waiting for the fight that was inevitable at this point. A glow of light on the eastern horizon interrupted the fight to be. It must be the rising sun I thought but quickly realized that was an hour away.  Soon the light crested a small hill. It was a car!


Adam and Alan searched for me all night.  Adam shot a bear late in the day.  He field dressed and marked the bear so he could get help dragging him back to the road. The guide picked them up at sunset and drove them back to camp to get more people to help drag the bear. When they arrived back at the cabin dinner was ready and they decided to eat before recovering the bear. The excitement of the success was sufficient enough that the absence of one-party member went unnoticed.


After dinner, the guide went home being assured by all they could handle the bear.  At 10:00 p.m. the group drove back to where my brother thought he had hung his ribbon but got lost in the dark. Eventually, they found the ribbon.  It was a long drag and took them over two hours before they got back to the cabin at midnight.  Now they noticed that I still had not returned. The guide having gone home for the night couldn’t be reached due to a lack of cell signal. While the rest of the guests went to sleep Adam and Alan started driving to where they thought I was dropped off. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the right stretch of road, so they drove 10 mph scanning the trees for ribbon for the rest of the night.


At 4:35 a.m. the headlights outlined a human figure at the base of a tree. With fresh headlamps, we set out to find the blood trail from the bear I shot.  After a short track, we recovered the bear 50 yards from where I shot it. The shaking of the aspen trees I had seen and the other bear at the bait were just other bears in the area.


Both our tags filled Adam and I spent the next few days eating bear chops and fishing for walleye. My night in the Canadian wilderness lingers in my mind as a shocking reminder of how wild the world can be, and how quickly these wild places can force a man to revert to the animalistic tendencies of those creatures who dwell in such places.