Apr 29 2024

Good Friday

Freezer Filling in BC

As I smelled the vital rot of the forest floor, just after the snow melted, I angled precipitously down a mountain mining trail to intercept a bear I had glimpsed from over a kilometer away. It was early springtime hunting for me, which runs a tight second to fall and the smells are identical, mushroomy and gamey. The landscape was steep, varied, dry, and rocky, with lodgepole pines and aspen above lending to riparian tree species near the river. Flanking the path was alder, the trees here and there rooted within the trail twisting into a sinewy mess—which would make it barely passable by an ATV but okay for walking itself. Areas with less understory were composed of douglas firs, ponderosa, and white pines,  offering shooting lanes, while these gave way at the river bottom to more alder and cottonwoods. It was dry above, wet below.  

I had just a quick glimpse of the bear and just as quickly plotted his course. We would likely meet with him side-hilling the shale-strewn incline above the riverbed. I might hear the clatter of stones or catch him in another opening. Nearby mountains capped at 8,800 ft, with the river bottom being the lowest elevation at 1,800. It was Good Friday, too soon in the season, but I was hopeful for this region's earliest ursine risers. I moved quickly because the afternoon was over, and I would soon run out of light. The first frogs were starting up, so it would happen soon. I felt confident the bear was a male and he looked to be a big one. 

Bear hunting is a family thing for us. My family of seven lives on black bear meat, harvesting many large and average bears, even small bears. We eat every part, from skull meat to their feet. Our children go for seconds of liver and heart. We break them down and pack them out in the dark through grizzly country because their flesh has great value for us, and preserving it is our most sacred trust. We have never once lost any of that precious meat to bone sour, rot, or flies. That fact alone is the one great highlight of my hunting career. Sometimes, I wonder how, at my age, I remain as physically strong as I do, but in the end it makes sense. Living almost entirely on bear meat, I am composed of bears. 

I believe God created bears because there is something special about them, the idea of them. On the sixth day, He created particular creatures, unlike rabbits, deer, or cows. He established large carnivores for the prey animals because the classes ultimately belong together. Prey species require predators to remain true to their best wild selves. Like a tiger or leopard, the creation of bears was on the order of imagining a tornado or a Nor’easter. He was making something which acts solely on its behalf, without consultation, without the want for approval, with personality and fervor, and devoid of malice. A storm levels the coastside town, but not because it hates towns; the tornado disassembles a farmer's barn, but not because it dislikes agriculture.  

That’s what a bear is, a beautiful and impersonal, sometimes frightful force of nature. Caring for no one, mindful of nothing but its solitary need to be what it is created to be. Look into a bear's eyes, and what’s there has scarcely more for you than a glance from a hen. I’m not suggesting bears are stupid, but I am insisting they hold other creatures with a fierce disregard.  

I was still moving quickly and without effort to be quiet, only mindful of the sometimes swirling air currents. I judged myself to be over halfway now. Drawing closer to a predator so indifferent to other life that they will eat their progeny while still alive places the bear hunter on a singular footing. It's a grand drama, old as time.  

I think people get bears wrong. A bear is not a big dog; oddly enough, they share more than a few characteristics with cats. Watch the wary approach of a bear to see if I’m wrong. If you believe having an observably nervous disposition means that they pose little threat to a man, then you have never attempted to contain the freedoms of a feral kitten. Then pick up a dead cat or try to carry a bear, which is like lugging a great mass of jello. Languorous when alive, more so after they expire, battling either is contesting a profoundly armed physical being in near liquid form.  

The scripture says a record is kept of every life, man, and beast until the day the scales are balanced. How did each live and die? Do they remember grappling with their siblings? I don’t know. I know an old bear remembers their mother, or at the very least, her lessons. They are solitary creatures from the time their mother drives them away, but they never forget how to seek safety within a large tree, just as she taught them. 

I knew it would happen quickly, and my opportunity would be limited by the thick undergrowth, up close and personal, with dying light. Was he as big as I sensed after one glimpse from a kilometer away? I hoped this bear would go home with me that night in coolers packed with frozen water bottles. I hoped my history and his would cross so I could carry forward alone. Whatever brought us to this place was significant to each, but I wanted to merge our stories into one. Things I learned about hunting from my father and the cub lessons he retained from his mother were about to converge. 

I was walking this same mining path while bow hunting two years before when a sow grizzly suddenly boiled out of the brush. I was nothing more than a footnote because she had more significant problems. In a hard lope, chuffing and blowing, she ran uphill while checking her back trail. The bear I was hunting now was chasing her off, something I pieced together later. As I encountered this black bear for the first time, which shared some characteristics with a brown bear, I was impressed by its size. I told my wife about the 600-pound chocolate colored black bear I’d witnessed chasing off an adult grizzly.  

Bears of that size are a rarity in the mountains of British Columbia. Far from farms or towns, living on an arcane diet doesn’t produce fat bears. These are mountain bears who need to be able to scale a sheer rock face hunting sheep and goats. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to kill the same bear during twilight, and from just three or four yards away using a lever gun with iron sights. On April 15, right after the snow melted, I would kill this early riser. 

The sun had now set over the Camelsfoot Range, and under the sprawling conifer canopy I was suddenly unable to see much. I slowed my pace to use my ears, feeling I was close. It was getting darker by the minute when I thought I heard something. I stopped and listened intently. Had I heard a squirrel? Mixed with the smell of clay and rotted leaf matter was another odor. The whole effect was a bit intoxicating. I could smell a bear's coat and skin, the singular and pleasant aroma of a black bear. 

I waited and tried to peer wherever I could into the dense alders. But there was nothing except for a wall of shadows. I crouched and leaned from side to side while my feet remained planted. I could hear soft rustling close by. The darkness was thick, so I checked my hunting app for legal hours. I had thirty minutes to go, but under the great trees it was completely dark. Behind the trunks of towering trees, the sky was a gray-blue slate, but near the ground all was black. I stood as I was for five or six minutes.  

I realized my rifle had just three round nose 30-30 cartridges in the tube, while I had two additional in my pocket. I drew them from there without averting my eyes from the screen of alders and I fed one into the side gate. An explosion of noise and activity blew up in my face. Huffing exhalations and popping branches and limbs from the bear rocketed into the large pine hardly more than a hockey stick’s length away from me. What seemed impossible was the speed of his lunges and how much elevation was gained by each one. The size of the bear and the gains he made seemed incongruous. 

I thumbed back the hammer and put the rifle up while the bear was perfectly silhouetted against the evening sky, and bang! I shot him once, through the heart. He made two more lunges, then his forelegs fell limp and he landed after a graceful reverse swan dive. That bear’s nerves failed him, and with his pads soft from his winter rest, he reverted into cubhood, treed in fear. It was his mistake and it cost him his life. The night was -7 degrees, and his fall from high in the pine upon that steep incline meant he would likely pile up a few hundred feet downhill. I put it to bed for the night so we could recover him the following day.  

The next morning, we went as a family, babies and all, down to the riverbed where we could glass the hillside to look for him. After about an hour, my wife spotted him. We took a couple of pictures before dislodging him from a stump. One of his canines was broken off already and we let him roll the rest of the way down to land on the gravel below. I recognized him immediately as the bear I’d seen chasing off the sow. When we skinned him, there was a thick layer of fat, much more than usual for a spring bear, and his skull measured at just under 20 inches after drying. He was a successful animal in the prime of his life.