Big mountain bruins: hunting spring bear

 

I wake up to bitter cold. In my sleeping bag I’m comfortable enough, but the second I try to leave, I feel the chill go deep into my bones. I start to shiver and the first thing I do is to put on multiple long-sleeve base layers. I get dressed with most of my body still in my sleeping bag, and I have on four layers before I reach outside the tent to grab my boots. It’s five in the morning, so everything is done by headlamp, with as much of my body in the sleeping bag as possible. In the other tent, I can hear my hunting partner shifting around and cussing looking for his headlamp. We both climb out of our tents and put everything we need into day packs. Besides my rifle, most of what I carry is a combination of emergency supplies and extra warm clothes. Before we head out, we do one last double check and spray ourselves with scent killer. Then we say goodbye to our first ever bear camp and head up into the mountains.

Learning to hunt a particular animal, especially with any modicum of chance for success, requires a great deal of forethought, planning, preparation and learning. I read regulations, double-checking to make sure I’ll be in legal areas. I spent time scouting, walking around the areas that bears may frequent, looking for tracks, scat, food, water, dens and of course, actual live bears. I poured over forest service maps for hours, trying to figure out places to hunt and how difficult those places will be to get to.

Finding the animal, even finding places where the animal might be, is only half the battle. I have to figure out how I’m going to get a bear out from where I shoot it, and finding them seven miles back may be great, but then I have to pack out 200 pounds worth of meat, fur and bone. Even after that, I have to figure out what to do with the meat and the hide. Sure a rug would be sweet, but then I’d need a place to tan the hide, and a place to put the rug once I’m done.

And of course, there’s the danger. Hunting bear is not like bird hunting, or even other big game like elk. Bears are dangerous creatures; there is a reason they are one of the state’s top predators. So I carry my rifle and bear spray, but I also carry a .44 mag and the knowledge that a well-placed first shot is an absolute must.

But there is also great beauty in bear hunting. We come up to the spot I chose, a small mountain lake that runs into a creek. It’s one of the best water sources for miles around, and surrounded on all sides by bushes and downed pines. We set up among the trees on the edges of the lake, speaking in whispers and sitting with our backs against trees and our eyes glued to glass. After the snow and the cold of last night it is shaping up to be a beautiful morning. Snow sticks to tree limbs like gum, and the pine needles throw their sharp scent to cover our sweat and our labored breathing. A beaver slaps his tail against the water, and ducks quack as they fly overhead. In the background, I can hear the bustling roar of the creek, swollen with fresh spring glacier melt. We stay until well past sunrise, and without seeing so much as a hint of anything, we decide to call it a day. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Illustration by Davis Connelley
Illustration by Davis Connelley