Monday, October 6, 2014

Goin' on a Bear Hunt: A Preposterous First Experience

The author and one of the hunt dogs

I sat shivering, feet and calves soaked from water with the rest of my body damp from sweat, in the early morning light on the side of a ridge.  Early in the walk, about one-third of the way to my destination, there had been one of three mountain streams to cross.  This stream in particular was noteworthy because it was the one responsible for my currently half-frozen state while bear hunting in the middle of the ruggedly beautiful Cherokee National Forest.

Rising at 4 a.m., we had left the semi-comfort of the ‘motel, lodge and trailer camping’ long before the first glimmers of sunrise could begin to hint at the sky.  Arriving at the trailhead in the pre-dawn hours, we had donned loads of gear and guns to begin our trek into the wild.  I had a headlamp – a light affixed to a strap that could go around my head – but the battery in mine was dead so it laid impotent back at the hotel.  One of my party had a spare hat-light and handed it to me as he grabbed a flashlight.  Not far into the trek, I hear my name called and turned to see why I was beckoned. “Don’t go too fast,” Daryl (“D”) says, holding up his flashlight which shone with the weak light of a firefly in the dark, battery dead.  From that point on, I steadfastly held my own small light shining behind me, giving D (who was the last in our party) any benefit of its glow.  I, on the other hand, decided to test my resolve and grace by carefully watching the silhouettes of Heather’s feet and tried to mirror any steps she took ahead of me.  In front of Heather was her dad and, at the lead of my group, Ed.  Most of the walk was relatively uneventful with only an occasional stutter-stepped stumble on the odd root or rock.  All, that is, save for the 2nd creek crossing.  Here, the water was about 9-inches deep.  My boots, on the other hand, were only water-proof up to around 6-inches deep.  Determined to not be “that girl” who forces others to look for a better crossing (after all, they slogged through just fine), I set my chin and simply slogged through as well.  Funny thing about waterproof boots… they hold water in just as well as they can hold water out. 

For the next 2 miles I squished up the side of the ridge as the sky slowly took on the glow of early morning light.  Here my party came to a split in the trail.  It was at this point that we were going to separate.  Ed, Robert (the dad), and Heather were going to bound up the right fork (with Ed splitting from them shortly thereafter) while D and I took the left fork to cross a waterfall and continue up the ridge a ways.  We keyed into our hand-helds, ensuring we all had contact with each other and with various others in our 75-man hunting and dog-handling party.  Satisfied, D and I continued on our way.  We trekked up the hill, no longer needing the light, and decided on a "finger" of the ridge that, once climbed, would provide a decent amount of visibility on the "finger" we were on and the 2 fingers to either side of ours, reaching from the ridge top down into the valley.  We ambled up the steep incline and finally selected the base of a large oak tree to settle in for the days’ hunt.  Within moments, I was shivering and D, noticing the depth of my bone-chill, volunteered to light a fire. 

A fire?  Well, that’s not very hunting-savvy.  But I admit I couldn’t resist and was deeply thankful that he ignored my protests that a fire would scare all of the game away.  After a small fire was built I slowly removed my sodden boots and equally drenched socks.  My left foot had taken the brunt of the soaking and we carefully draped the sock over a stick which I held above the fire while D took the boot and, hanging it upside-down by carefully tying and then balancing it with the laces, made an effort to dry it.  An hour later I replaced my steaming sock and boot, after having also thawed my foot and hands near the fire.  We diligently ensured the fire was out and opted to trek about 20 yards further up the mountainside.  We both knew we were the epitome of how not to hunt effectively because of the fire and the not-terribly quiet conversation we had bantered during the drying process. 

In the distance, we heard the baying of dogs coming from a ridge a distance away.  We had planned for the hunt with different firearms for different purposes.  I, carrying my scoped .30-06, was meant to be useful for game – bears today – that were seen at a distance.  D, with his 12-guage shotgun equipped with slugs, was meant for quarry that was far closer.  The dogs bayed again, closer.  We used our ears to mark distance and possible trajectory. They bayed again, already obviously closer.  Another set of baying and my eyes widened, my senses suddenly straining with alertness.

“They’re coming straight at us,” I said.  D keyed up the radio, asking Robert – who was more experienced at bear hunting – if we should travel towards the baying or stay put since it was obviously coming our way.  The advice was to stay put.

“I mean it,” I exclaimed excitedly, “they are coming right at us,” I said as we both turned and took a few steps closer to the ridgeline from behind which the sounds were emerging.  We stood there, the baying of the dogs feeling so close that there was a palpable sense of anticipation, knowing we were just on the verge of something happening but unsure of exactly what.  Our guns were off our shoulders and clasped in our hands but neither exactly at the ready.  Our eyes and ears were straining, desperately striving to provide more information to our minds.  The ridge of the finger across from us was about 40-yards away and clearly visible.  The ground cover wasn’t too thick and even less directly in along the path in front of us; we stood on an obviously well-used game trail, giving us a clear view of the next crest.  Being a finger like ours, reaching out from the top of the ridge and extending to the valley floor with us being near the top, there was a gentle slope down the adjacent ridge and then gently back up to our location.  My mind was blank, thinking nothing, as my senses were alight with the anxious tension of knowing I was about to have an experience I had never had.  The next events, which I will express in detail, took all of 5 seconds in reality.  To help you understand the event, which like all exciting events means that time loses all meaning, I will preface each with the second that marks the event. 

Second 5- A black head, heralded by ears immediately followed by face, chest, and front legs of a bear crests the top of the finger directly across from me on the game trail. My mind registers "bear!" and sees the path and trajectory of bear meeting up with where I currently stand... forty yards from me and coming towards me in a full-bore run.

Second 4- I raised my gun, scope to eye level, as the bear begins the downward decent.  In my scope, I catch just the hint of the bear’s body as it races down the gentle slope (though even now I have no idea what part of the bear glanced through my scope's view) and squeeze the trigger.  Nothing happens and instinctually I click the safety off.  In the sudden need of my gun, I had neglected this matter.  It wouldn’t have mattered though; as quickly as the bear was in my scope, it had vanished.  The bear is thirty yards from me. 

Second 3- “Shoot the bear, Steph!” I hear from my right and just behind me.  Keeping my gun snuggly against my shoulder I lower the barrel.  I already know I can’t get a shot at the bear, running straight at me at full speed going down a slope.  Not with this gun... not with my scope zoomed in for long range shooting. Even in this last passing second, the bear was now at the gentle curve marking the bottom and about to start up my slope.  The path of the beast hadn’t changed; it was still coming straight at me, now closing to 20 yards and not slowing. Time was so slow that I drank in every detail of the bear.  Its muzzle was light but not brown and I wasn't sure if this was from tint or thinness of hair.  Its ears were forward and eyes gleaming like dark marbles set just behind the lighter area of its muzzle.  Not large but not small, it ran in lumbering up-and-down strides.  I felt no danger from attack, the bear didn’t care about or even notice me as its instinct merely relayed one message to it: “Run”. Twenty Yards.

Second 2- “Shoot the bear!” now yelled from the same area behind and to my right.  “Can’t” is all I reply.  The barrel of my gun now pointed in the direction the bear will travel, placed purposefully because I already know I have to wait until it's right in front of me. Only then - when the bear is literally about to run me down - will I have the ability to shoot my long-range rifle with any sense of accuracy.  The upward slope the bear runs up hasn’t slowed its progress at all.  The bear is staring both at me and through me.  I am nothing more than something in the way.  I have no sense of fear, no sense of panic.  The situation is what it is; I know that the bear will be to me in another second and, only then, will I have any hope of hitting it with my bullet.  Ten Yards.

Second 1- In some other world I hear the click-clack of a shotgun shell being chambered followed by the deafening report of a shotgun fired around 18-inches from my right ear.  It doesn’t even startle me.  An intense high-pitch trill fills my ear before the second immediate shot is fired, which I barely hear.  The bear, mere feet in front of me now on its near-collision course (I think it was actually going to run between the two of us) and 4 feet from where my own gun would have been effective veers slightly to its right, my left. It swerves, suddenly aware from the gun report that it needs to change course.  Because of that change in course, my barrel is no longer facing it and I won't get a shot after all.  As it veers course, I turn simultaneously with the bear as it passes to my left, six feet from me.   

I can’t hear anything but the head-splitting whine in my ear.  I take two ardent strides back up my ridge in the direction the bear was headed, trying to figure out which way it went but unable to hear any indicators. My eyes catch a glimpse of movement from low shrubs and brush settling back into place.  “It went that way!” I likely yelled (not meaning to but unable to hear very well) and desperately scan the hillside for some indicator of the bear.  It’s no use.  The bear’s course had taken it directly towards a rhododendron thicket and it had disappeared.  A moment later I turn to see the first of the dogs, 2 blacks ones, as they bounded up the hill and began baying up the tree we had been standing by. 

The Scene Captured!

We start yelling (not angrily but in amusement) to the dogs that we hadn’t treed the bear and that, being obvious amateurs, they should continue their pursuit.  After a moment, they gave us a blatant yet thoughtful look of "Ah, I see! You idiots missed it!" and realized their (or perhaps our?) error and did just that.  A few moments later 4 or 5 more hounds followed, baying.  At this point we were able to rationally start laughing about the odds of being nearly run-over by a bear at a full run that just so happened to be on the exact game trail we had chosen to stand on.  Two more dogs, the stragglers, arrived and carried on past us, almost without noticing us. 

From this point the bear had run back down the hill and into the valley, crossed over the creek near the waterfall area and then headed back the way it had started.  Not too long a distance from where the chase possibly began, the bear was taken by a man named Curtis, another hunter in our party.  D and I had already started down the trail at this point, eager to tell those in our immediate group of the preposterousness of the event after D had fielded questions about our luck via hand-held when others heard 2 gunshots.  We regaled the story over and over throughout the remainder of the day, laughing at the absurdity of the bear being on a literal collision course with us, my resolute (and probably daft) decision to not fire until the bear was directly in front of me, and D’s 2-shot miss… divulging that the first “click-clack” I heard was him unthinkingly ejecting an already-chambered shell and reducing his possibility of shooting the bear by one-third.  In reality, hitting the bear would have been a grand ending to the tale but his primary intent was for the bear to not run us over (which I ardently argued would have been the perfect end to the tale).

We all decided that it would have simply been too much if either he or I had shot and hit the bear in such close proximity.  Regardless of the ending of our absolutely amazing tale, we would be hard-pressed to ever find a hunter with such a ridiculously exciting and yet laughable tale of their first-ever bear hunt. 

"THE" Bear.

Author’s note:  Curtis, knowing the immediate history of his bear, gave me a chunk of the tenderloin so that I could share in the spoils of the bear that almost ran me down.  For that small courtesy, I will forever be grateful to him. OH - as a PS: the bear weighed 115 lbs.