Encounters With Black Bears

The old forest at the western ridge of the Hollow.

The old forest at the western ridge of the Hollow.

Late September morning was chilly with the temperature down near 45F. It was still dark when I had awakened at 4:30 a.m. and I was in the kitchen sipping a mug of Russian Earl Grey tea and finishing a hearty breakfast of poached eggs and pork shoulder. On the couch in the living room was the gear I would need for the day: my faithful recurve bow with a 60-pound draw, a deep back quiver with four broadhead arrows in it, and a large fanny pack containing rations, a tiny long-range radio, compass, emergency matches and a few other oddments. I was dressed in a complex pattern of camouflage from cap to boots.

I finished breakfast and slipped the gear on. All in all it weighed only about 10 pounds, pretty light compared to the 70-pound packs I sometimes take to trek into the bush. But I would only be gone the day, no further than five miles from our cottage in the deep Highland forests, and if worse came to worse I could radio the cottage for assistance. I kissed my wife, Daphne, goodbye and headed out at half past 5:00 a.m. I wanted to be deep in the woods long before the sun rose.

The archers’ deer season had arrived, a special season set aside for those few of us who like to do things the hard way–we of the bent stick. And among archers, I probably do things hardest of all. No ATVs to scoot to my hunting grounds, no compound bows with their mounted pulleys to make the bow’s draw weight lighter. Sometimes I used a horse to chase game and track, but not today. I feel that hunting in this most traditional way honors the game, and the spirit of the Green Man, whom I follow. Today I was going into the Old Forest, a vast forest of virgin timber that grows north and east of our hollow.

I hiked east, following a barely used dirt road up the shallow mountainside. Our homestead is already near the top of the mountain and I needed only ascend the ridge, just a few hundred feet. About two miles up the road I took a left and crossed a meadow of wild blueberry. There I stopped at a thicket of birch and slipped into the shadow, checking the surrounding meadow for deer that might cross my path. In the dim light every young white spruce and old stump looked like game but nothing moved and I determined after half an hour, in dawn’s first whitening, that the meadow was well and truly empty.

I dropped to my right knee. “Green Man, the deer and bear are yours. You know I only hunt for meat and use hide and hair and sinew. And the forest this year holds so many of each. But they will starve a slow death if their numbers are not culled. Grant me a deer or just as well a bear. So mote it be.” I rose and left the birch thicket, taking hidden trails north to the foot of the ancient maples and birches that are the staple trees of the Old Wood.

The sun had barely come over the horizon and the forest rose rapidly to the east, so that beneath it’s thick canopy the contrast made glancing into the wood’s depths like looking into the night.

I honor the Green Man with the deeply Nature-oriented way I live, and I have found he is often quick to answer me. But he has a sense of humor and often his answers, while beneficial, come in ways I don’t anticipate, and so it was to be this day.

I was yet two hundred yards from where the little used trail entered the dark forest, watching the ground for tracks as I had already come across coyote and fox spoor and the odd deer track, when I glanced upward as I was rounding a thicket of raspberry canes. About 150 yards off was a black bear beating up the path fast in my direction. I was being charged by a bear again, entirely unprovoked, for the fourth time in my life!  But this time, unlike my years in the Alaskan wilderness, I had no gun. In the face of such situations I find I become strangely cool. Oh, the adrenaline will rush and leave me with the shakes, but that tends to come after the excitement is over.  The bear was really moving and I had only seconds, and what passed through my head as I prepared to fight it off was, “Hmm, this will be different.”

I am a big guy. I’m tall and built somewhat like a barrel, and living most of my life in the wilderness and on a farm has made me somewhat stronger than the average person. I’m no weightlifter or superman, but I am capable.  And I’ve spent my whole life with animals–so I am pretty confident around them. Thus, encountering a charging bear was enough to alarm me but nothing like panic. I stepped aside into the thicket to do what had to be done.

A bear can move fast–up to thirty miles per hour. This bear wasn’t all out running at me, but he was moving at a good clip.  I knew I had only seconds till it was at my position. I drew an arrow from my back quiver and knocked it to the string. Then I pushed back the flap of my jacket so I could get fast at the 16″ puukko I always carry into the deep woods (something like a Bowie knife). I figured if the bear meant to attack, it would come down to a hands-to-claw fight even if I could put an arrow or two into the black because arrows need time to bleed a target out.

So I waited and the seconds passed, but no bear. This made me more concerned because I’ve been hunted by a bear before–a grizzly in the Alaskan wilderness. But I’d never heard of such clever hunting behavior among black bears. I listened. A black bear is a big animal and it could not just sneak up on me. I would have heard it crashing through the thicket, but there was nothing. Finally, I stepped from the cover of the thicket and looked up the trail. There was the black bear, standing on his hind legs–a posture a bear does when it knows something is amiss. It was sniffing for me. Then it burst left and took off into the forest.

“What is going on?” I wondered. First it’s charging me then it turns tail and runs? That would be really weird behavior for a black bear. They are far less inclined to charge than grizzlies, but if they do they are far more inclined to kill, whereas a grizzly will often do a bluff charge. But this one had sensed me, stopped, then lit out in another direction.

Cautiously, arrow still knocked, I continued up the trail. A gentle breeze wafted through the air, bearing fragrances of summer life, of deep living forest and of autumn all at once. I eyed the raspberry thicket carefully but there was no sign of the bear. It had bolted deep into the forest. Stranger and stranger. Another hundred yards and I was satisfied the bear was gone. I dropped the arrow back in the quiver–it’s dangerous to walk with a razor sharp broadhead on your bow–and continued on up the trail. I had not gone another hundred yards and just entered the woods when surprise number two met me as, once again, I was eyeing the trail for tracks.

Another black bear was on the trail, bent over and eating something. It was so invested in its meal that it had not even noticed me, though I was only about fifty yards from it. But the ground was moist, the breeze from out of the north, so my steps were ghost silent and my scent did not waft over to the bear which was east of me. Now I knew what had happened–the first bear had not really been charging me at all. The first one had been a smallish black, one hundred fifty, maybe two hundred pounds. The bear in front of me now was about twice that. Bears don’t tolerate each other well and the first bear had probably been run off from the food by the bear now in front of me. It had been running up the very trail I was approaching the forest on, saw me, probably thought some dung-related expletive, and beat it northeast into the Old Wood.

But now there was this second, much bigger bear in front of me. I was really after deer but I had a bear license in case luck brought me across one, and luck–or the Green Man’s pranks–had just done exactly that–twice! Out from my quiver came the arrow and I knocked it to the string. Then began a slow cat-and-mouse game in which, over the space of a half an hour I covered twenty yards, moving so slowly the movement could not be perceived, going silently over the forest duff. Bears have poor eyesight and if it did not see or scent me, I figured I could get within twenty-five yards of it. At twenty-five yards I am deadly with a traditional bow.

At thirty-five yards I espied fresh bear droppings on the ground. I walked intentionally through them in order to increase my bear scent, making me more invisible to the creature. At thirty yards I began to ponder taking the shot, but the difference between twenty-five yards and thirty is considerable with traditional bows. They don’t have sights–you shoot by instinct–and arrow drop is significant past 25 yards.  I’ve shot a traditional bow a very long time and am as expert with it as any serious archer has a right to claim, but I go from deadly to hitting my target about 80% of the time in just that five yards difference. So I decided to try to get to twenty-five yards, a range where I was certain to score a good hit.  So doing, I respect the game by not taking a shot unless I know there will be a quick, clean kill. So the long minutes passed as I ever-so-slowly creeped closer.

Then I was nearly to twenty-five. But just a pace or two from where I planned to shoot, the black stood up from where it had been eating fallen apples and scented me. A random shift in the wind had betrayed me. It went to all fours and rapidly ambled south into a raspberry-thick glade that led into the Old Wood beyond. I pondered taking the shot as it went.  My bow is in the old style–no sights, no fancy gadgets–just a simple recurved length of wood with an arrow shelf to lay the shaft on.  It’s use is all instinct, and such bows can be knocked and aimed fast if one is well practiced.  I could have put two arrows in the air in a moment. But I might just have easily only injured the beast. I decided against it.  Even if I managed a kill, it would not have been ethical.  I lowered the bow.

With a deep sigh, I placed the arrow back in the quiver, leaned against the trunk of a massive maple probably a century old. I had asked the Green Man to show me a deer or bear and within ten minutes of that request he had shown me two bears.  But with the first one, he made me think we’d be locked in mortal combat.  With the second, he let me stumble almost on top of it then have it slip away.  I felt like a prank had just been played at my expense, and suddenly I realized that was exactly what had happened.

“Another time, brother bear, ” I whispered into the forest in the direction the bear had gone, deciding not to track it through the thorny thicket of raspberry. It had earned its escape. Then to the Green Man, I whispered, “Ha, ha, very funny. Now, let’s go find a deer, you prankster.”  I sensed I had earned a turn of luck.

(Reprinted from a bear encounter in 2009)

1 Comment

One thought on “Encounters With Black Bears

  1. I love a happy ending…and you know I’m still back at the “raspberry-thick glade” ;~)

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