We’ve all started stories this way. Well, not typically me. My brother began his stories this way many times and it usually ended with trips to the ER and stitches. I was a very “safe” kid in the sense that I didn’t play contact sports. I was not at all physically adventurous. I was pretty much scared of getting hurt by anything. Easy as far as being my mother goes…
Fast forward to today. I am pushing forty and have decided in the past decade to test almost all of the boundaries that I used to avoid. I’ve tried mountain biking some of the more difficult trails in the slickrock desert (not my favorite past time). I played roller derby for a season but then retired before surgeries were needed. I’ve raced down mountain passes on skinny bicycle tires at speeds topping out at 50 mph. And, during hunting season, I head into the woods at least two days a week alone to chase after big and small game. My mother has not only taken it all in stride but she has been my champion, my babysitter, and my audience as I retold the tales over a beer after the hunt. She admitted that her stomach is usually a little “tied up” until she knows I am safe out of the woods. But, I think we have both become a little complacent to it as I’ve now been doing this for many years. Complacency is defined as a “feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often unaware of some potential danger…” Yes, complacent I had become.
This past Monday I decided to take my bow and .22 caliber Colt Woodsman pistol out for a walk in the woods. There are only a few days left before the sound of rifles will join me out in the field and the animals will be pushed “to and fro” all “willy nilly”. I headed out alone midday and started my slow and steady climb up to a higher elevation. I saw no fresh sign of any kind for the first two hours; only old rubs and dried tracks from long forgotten rains. Still, I cow called every twenty minutes or so with my mouth reed and then waited for the sound of a bugle to call back. No response, this little cow was to be without a beau. It really didn’t matter so much to me because, “All together now…’A bad day hunting is better than a good day at work!'”.
Finally, a sign of life is presented to me in the form of the nervous chatter of a few grouse in the brush to my left. I can tell by the increasing staccato of their alarm calls that they know I am here. Without my bird dog I need to flush them so I take a few well aimed steps in their direction and they burst from the bushes in the awkward and always heart stopping flight of the grouse. They are not graceful and are not quiet as they break the silence of the woods like a boom of thunder. I get my pistol out of the holster and begin to look for where they have flushed. To a tree or to the ground? This is the hardest part, like a real life game of “Where’s Waldo?”. I accidentally find them and flush them again, performing no better than my 50/50 bird dog. The hunt begins and becomes comical as I flush them over and over, them always seeing me before I see them.
I had just decided to “give up the grouse” for now and re-holstered my pistol when….there it is….the sound I have been waiting for. Far off in the distance is the beautiful sound of a bugle. I don’t let the distance fool me, though, because from past experience I know that a bull in the mood can move pretty quick when motivated. So, I respond with my cow call allowing the need in my voice to elongate the sounds. I am hoping to convince that bull that I am one lonely cow in a world full of needy hurt. After calling I set myself up as best I could remember from internet and peer research, as I actually have zero experience archery hunting for elk. I check the wind and try and guess which way the big guy will come in and find myself a spot in between two trees that would offer me a nice broadside shot at 20 yards if I judged the situation correctly. There I sat with my bow in hand when all of the excitement began.
I hear a loud crashing moving down the hillside and to my right from across the trail I am sitting above. I can’t see it yet but my heart is racing uncontrollably. I am rescue breathing. I am visualizing the elk. I am not drawing my bow yet because I am afraid I will just let the arrow fly into the dirt I am shaking so badly. The crashing stops as the animal gets to the open trail and moves into sight headed toward me. That is no elk, I think stupidly. That is a bear. This is the weird part. The shaking stops. My heart stills. I am looking at a bear 20 yards in front of me as it looks around quickly and takes off again coming towards me but 10 yards to my right. I am literally holding my breath as it continues to crash through the brush as if it is being pursued.
Recalling this moment many times since, I keep thinking of the random thoughts that were filling my head. “You’re the bear. This is your home. I am on your turf. You don’t want to see me any more than I want to see you. I am not here for you, bear. Why are you running, bear? What is chasing you? What makes a bear run?”
This bear was not a big bear. It was not a cub either. It was a young black bear, black in color. Yes, it was not big but it was still big enough to toss me around and remove flesh from bone if it desired. I was terrified. After less than a minute that seemed like an eternity; I realize it was long gone and focused on one thought out of many, “What would a bear be running from? Would an elk make enough noise to scare a bear?” With that last thought I decided that perhaps my big boy was on his way after all. As if on cue, another crashing down the hillside starts up again. This time I can just briefly see the body of the animal coming down the hill to the exact same trail. And this time the color is right, it is the reddish brown color of elk. I am gripping my bow and saying this mantra, “Please be an elk. Please be an elk. Please be an elk.”
Here is where I might ask you, “What is scarier than a bear? Well, a bigger bear, of course”.
Coming at a slower and more deliberate pace up the trail 20 yards below me is another bear in pursuit of the first. This bear is probably more than double the first bear’s size. It is cinnamon in color and it’s head is huge. I am frozen. I don’t have a plan. I don’t have bear spray. I have a bow and a pistol; the latter of which I am gripping tightly in my palm. What will I do if that bear keeps moving towards me or even cuts up to my right like the littler bear did. Right about now that little bear seems cute, almost like a pet I could spoon at night in my bed. Is this one a grizzly? Should I stand up tall and make myself known? Should I walk away slowly while glancing over my shoulder to be sure it isn’t after me now? My momentarily paralyzed body answers for me by simply remaining frozen in place. That big head is slowly swinging hypnotically up high into the air and then to the right and then to the left. It is raising and lowering it’s head as if to say “yes” and then “no”. I am waiting for it’s final decision with bated breath. It decides to leave, just as deliberately as it arrived. Turning around in the trail it headed back up the same steep hillside it had bulldozed through moments before. I am numb. I don’t even know that what I was feeling at that moment was fear. My brain had simply turned off; waiting to see what should be done next rather than computing or executing any plans at that moment.
After a few deep breaths, thoughts slowly came back to me. Weirdly enough, my first thought after “Oh shit, I just saw two bears!” was to wonder if that big daddy elk was still coming my way. Considering the possibility that it was I used my cow call again and put myself into a new position in the same area of the bear encounter. I am sitting there waiting when all of the sudden a slide show begins to play in my mind. Elk shot broadside with arrow. Elk bleeding out a lovely little scent trail as it wanders to find a place to die. Ignorant hunter following blood trail to find elk where it died. Bear to my rear, bear to my front, excellent noses on seductively swinging heads….What the hell am I doing still sitting here?
I move along and as I do I see a small group of beef cows watching my retreat. A new thought enters my mind, “Yum, cows. Yes, bear like cows. Much more meat on dem bones.” This could be good, the cows could be the bear’s food. I have just about convinced myself to keep calling in that elk, I even called a few times and then set myself up, when I realized how late it was. I realized it would be dark in the woods before I was able to walk out…..alone….with bear one and bear two nearby…covered in elk blood….The adrenaline high I was riding began to wane and I ended my hunt and began my descent down.
First, I decided to take the longer way out to avoid the bears. Then, I decided I needed to “get back on that horse” otherwise I might hesitate to enter the woods alone again. Because, in reality I have probably encountered bears before but just never seen them. I risk those chance encounters every time I head into the woods. So, I turned myself around and walked right back through that place where my heart and my mind and my body had frozen for a few moments in time.
The complacency I had been enjoying turned into paranoia. Every tree stump, every beef cow, every strangely shaped shrub became something with big teeth that wished to eat me as I stumbled my way back down to the valley floor. Now I had time to be shaken up. Now I had time to rehash all that had happened. Tripping over dead fall, hanging onto tree limbs, and being lashed by branches as I sped my way down hill; I realized how scared I was. I texted my mom and said, “Time to meet for a beer?” and she replied “Yes!.”
Walking into that bar she sat on a stool with an easy smile on her face. I sat down next to her and ordered us two beers. I turned to her and said, “I am going to tell you a story about my hunt today, but first you have to promise that you won’t freak out. I am okay and a lesson was learned.” She agreed.
It turned out that the beer wasn’t quite strong enough.