By Chelsea Hansler
The Year of 174 Bears
With the onset of spring, the anticipation was high as we loaded the dog box for the start of another bear season. A familiar routine that we execute the same as most days prior and certainly seasons before on a variety of game. Despite the familiarity with a day that we have seen countless times, this season felt a little different. The kids were alongside us with the schools cancelled once again, six month puppies were loading into the dog box for their first time and there was a sense of contentment in our new found adventure at our cabin.
It’s a strange thing to most, living your life around the hounds and one that we don’t take for granted. We have shaped our world into one that prioritises hunting and being in the great outdoors. So much so, that we impulsively sold our home the summer of 2019 and moved to our hunt camp, smack dab in the middle of where we bear hunt. We are surrounded by thousands of acres of crown land, not a neighbour for miles and completely off the grid. What once was our hunt camp, where we would gather after a day's hunt for a few cold ones, has become our home. Not much has changed in that regard but living here full time has not been without its challenges. “Off the grid” can mean something different to everyone, but for us, we have kept it fairly simple. All of our meals are enjoyed atop of our old timer wood stove or the bbq and “ indoor plumbing” consists of hauling buckets of water from the river. Despite the outhouse runs in the deep cold of winter, we have all grown to love and appreciate this slow paced way of living. Hounds on the couch, kids at play and a hot meal on the stove, what more could you ask for?
Living where we do, we were fortunate that the most impactful change for us with the ongoing mandates, was that school was all completed remotely. With minimal internet access, our kids spent most of their “school days'' learning through nature, hunting and by experiencing life at a slower pace. Math was taught by counting the hounds as they leapt from the tailgate, English by reading books while we were bouncing down bush roads and geology exploring the various terrain we would cover in a day. A day bear hunting turned into a world of learning possibilities and endless lessons that I won’t soon forget. My daughter, the eldest of the two, astounded me with her ambition and drive to participate in every single outing. It is no small feat that she was able to keep pace with my husband all spring, both in days hunting and miles walked. Every bear tree, every bay up, she was there and she wouldn’t let you tell her otherwise. Even days that I suggested she needed some rest, she would refuse, lacing up her boots through her argumentative tears as she dashed for the truck. My son, a year younger, hasn't quite found the same desire as his older sibling yet but through some imagination we managed to go on many “expeditions” and see many bears in a tree. We searched for the illusive prehistoric moose antlers on our treks, we walked through the mossy swamps looking for giant ground sloths and even found a cave where the cave bear had likely slept. Despite not always being enthusiastic about the walk, I managed to step into his world and create a day of adventure fueling both of our interests; hunting and prehistoric mammals. I realised years ago that if you can fuel their mind, their little feet are far more capable than we give them credit for. One hundred and seventy four bears treed is proof of that with the kids and I being there for likely half. When my husband set out with his goal of 100 bear by the year's end, I knew that there were going to be many days where he would not be home. What no-one expected was that we could hit that mark as a family only half way through the year. Of course, he then carried on through to the fall, treeing the remaining 74 bear by season's end. Nearly doubling his goal and documenting each and every day to share amongst friends and family, it will surely be a year that won’t soon, if ever, be exceeded.
One hundred bear seemed like a far-fetched dream at the beginning of the season but as the days went on, we crept closer and closer, treeing multiple bear a day. Before we knew it, the goal of 100 was fast approaching. We had countless adventures and made even more memories, providing us with stories to tell for years. There were countless bay ups, sows with numerous healthy cubs and even some more disturbing instances where a boar had skinned a cub inside out during breeding season. We explored and found new places with the kids. There were laughs and of course there were tears and an abundance of snacks were had. You would assume that these multiple bear in a tree would be tallied separately but being the stubborn man that he is, counted one tree as such, despite how many bear were above. To think that the kids and I only saw a fraction of the year's events is astounding.
With countless high points of the season also came some disastrous lows. The moment my phone rings and I see “Matt is calling” displayed across the screen, my heart stops. From past patterns I know that generally a phone call when he’s hunting means 1 of 2 things; a dog is injured or he is broken down and needs me to come find him. On this particular fall day, it was the first. I could tell by his voice, which is usually calm even in the most hectic situations, that this time, it was critical. The day following the phone call was a blur of emotions and events while everyone including Matt and two separate vet offices fought to keep our lead dog and family pet alive . A shattered shoulder, broken ribs, torn muscles and severe blood loss, our boy was fighting for his life. The outcome of an injured bear that should have died from a typically fatal shot, yet managed to slide down the tree and take off once again. A day that for once I am thankful to have not been there for. The bear, after running another few hundred yards, turned to stand its ground, but Hooch, not realising it through the thick brush, ran directly into his grasp. Matt running behind on foot, rifle in hand could hear the struggle as well as the other two walkers who just caught up, baying. He readied his rifle to kill the bear on sight and hopefully not before it was too late. Still running to the sound, through the thick alders, he could see the agitated bear and Hooch with severe bleeding.
Multiple shots to be safe and the beast falls. Barely alive, he throws Hooch over his shoulders and dashes to the truck where our friend and daughter waited, without any indication at what had just unfolded. With the vet over an hour away, Matt performs first aid, keeping him conscious and stopping the bleeding while a friend drives. Not long after he arrives at the first office, he is sent on to the next clinic over 4 hours away so that he could receive the blood transfusions he desperately needed for any chance at all of surviving . Waiting for updates, I welcomed the task of retrieving the bear that was still where he fell a few hours prior. My mind turned, calculating the timeline for the next few hours and if the kids and I could get the job done. It would take us over an hour to get to the closest access point plus the walk bringing us to an hour before dark. If I could skin and quarter the bear within an hour, we could make it out just before darkness fell. My pack was already stocked with my everyday supplies including my knife and snacks so I told the kids to get ready to go. On route, I called my brother to let him know where I would be as a safety precaution and to my relief, he offered to help. Knowing the approximate location from Matt’s description and deciphering the rest from the track history on the gps, we made our way to where we believed the bear would be. To our dismay, after vigorous searching, it was nowhere to be found. The kids were getting cold, darkness was looming and the pressure in the air hinted at the weather shifting to rain. With the day preceding, I felt defeated. Not wanting to give up, I decided to search the same area once more. This time I inspected every nook and cranny knowing all too well how a black bear can disappear into the shadows of the forest. I peaked over some deadfall into a small gap between two fallen logs and to my disbelief, there not 10 yards from where I walked 20 minutes prior, was the bear, all 300 + pounds of it . The work began as we instantly started skinning, working methodically with my brother on one end, and I on the other. The light was fading quickly and darkness began to fall. With the kids tending to the flashlight and the hide removed, I carefully disconnected the large head from the spine, leaving the skull removal for a later date. I rolled it up and threw it into my pack, moving on to removing the quarters and any other meat we could salvage. Darkness fell long before we were done and to our dismay we could hear thunder in the distance. We strapped on the packs with everything loaded and began the heavy walk out. Within our first few steps, it began to violently pour rain making the visibility even more difficult to see our way through the thick swamp and entanglement of alders. Thunder roared through the woods, yet the lightning was still far in the distance. Sensing the kids' uneasiness, I took the time while we walked ever so slowly to inform them on how to judge the distance of the lightning.
Realising they were in no danger, we carried on. Step by step we carefully made our way back to the truck. I stripped the kids from their cold, wet outer layers and wrapped them in what dry clothes I had. I cranked the heat and headed home. Back to cell service I called Matt for an update and to notify him of our progress as well. Hooch was stable; barely, but he was alive and the bear recovered. The aftermath of the next few weeks resulted in heaps of bear meat, a dozen jars of bear fat, a beautiful hide and likely many grey hairs on both of our heads. Miraculously, Hooch would come home, weeks later pieced back together by some very skilled surgeons. A hound that has broken his femur, had a rib removed, pieces of his shoulder missing, muscles repaired and infinite scars, he could undoubtedly rival Frankenstein. Despite the tribulations during those few weeks, everything remained as it should with Hooch still on our couch, healthy, eating all the pastries off the counter when our back is turned and recovering to hopefully chase bear again come spring.
Of course, I realise that this past year was unique and extraordinary in more ways than one. An eternal optimist, I will forever see the silver lining and through the lockdowns has been no exception. It has allowed us to spend day in and day out, in the woods as a family following our hounds, living through a season we will likely never encounter again. Obligations on hold, all that existed in a time where the country stood still, was us. Hunting and painting took up almost all of my time and it brought me to the realisation that this is where I belong; hunting by day, painting by night. A dream that 5 years ago wouldn’t have seemed possible without ever having picked up a paintbrush prior. Through countless hours of practice and taking on commissions across the continent, I have arrived at a place where I can paint the subjects that my heart loves; hounds, wildlife and the rugged, raw moments spent in the woods. It is my hope and my dream to paint these moments, providing a glimpse into these fractions of time that provoke a memory for houndsmen, for outdoorsmen and for people like me. This year is full of possibilities in more ways than one and you can expect many original paintings depicting many of the stories of our unfortgettable bear season.