Monday, May 25, 2015

Impromptu Bear Hunt

What does a bear hunt have to do with fishing?  Not much.  But the adventure started with an attempted fishing trip.  It was just the kids and myself, and we set out to find a way into one of the more prominent drainages in the mountains near our home.  We'd looked down into it from another spot once before, but the kids being the ages they were, we didn't go further.  There's no trail I'm aware of, and any road that leads into the valley travels through private land for miles before entering forest service.  Perhaps the stream is a dud, or perhaps its a little gem tucked away under everyone's noses.

The kids and I set out to explore a possible access point, packs loaded with sandwiches, fly gear, and maybe a stuffed animal or two.  We followed the gps with ownership overlay to the point where a nearby road intersected a patch of BLM ground.  On a map it looks like a short hike over to the stream on that public ground.  In reality its a sheer rock face.  Two hundred yards away on private land it'd be a stroll through the pasture.  Such is life.  We continued on up the road till we could hike in above that cliff, but we were now way above the stream we wanted to hit.  The kids had already done a ton of vertical for their little legs and we paused to sit on the spine of the ridge to eat a sandwich and take in the view while listening to the rush of the unreachable stream pounding below us. 

It was then that I noticed a moving black dot on a slope nearly one mile distant across the valley.  A quick check with the binos confirmed what I anticipated - it was a bear.  Spring bear season was open, and I would love to have been hunting anyway.  I'd been out a few times previously but hadn't spotted one yet.  Today I figured a hunt was not realistic since it was just me and the kiddos and had settled on a different kind of adventure.  So of course I'd see one now.  And all I've got on me is the .44 mag sidearm for unpleasantly close encounters. Certainly not for lobbing slugs outside of bow range.

I watched the bear for over half an hour, and spent the entire time aiding my son and daughter in trying to find it.  I think my daughter saw it.  She's always the first to spot animals, and her body language said she was telling the truth.  My son spent too much time despairing over his inability to find it to have been able to spot it in the first place.  Trying to point it out to him was like trying to shove a melon through a keyhole.  However, he obviously believed me whole-heartedly despite not being able to find it himself (which all too often in his little mind it's "if I don't see it, it couldn't possibly exist") because when I suggested that we go on up the ridge and see if we could find a place that would allow an easier descent to the creek, he and his sister both protested that we weren't going to go after the bear.  I tried to explain it was too far and across too much terrain, plus I didn't have my rifle.  I said we'd have to go home to get it.  They jumped at that, and said "Let's do it then."

I mulled this over and decided to humor them.  In reality, it was very doable - without them.  But, this was now their hunt as much as it was mine.  I wasn't going to try and figure out a way to drop them off somewhere, even if it basically killed my chances of being able to make a move on it.  The bear was obviously content roaming over the piece of hillside he'd claimed as his own.  Chances were decent he'd be on it all afternoon.  To do this we needed to hike back to the truck and drive around to a different drainage anyway in order to be able to hike in from above the bear as well as to cross the expanse of private land between us, so why not detour another five miles and pick up the rifle at home.  We stopped at the house long enough for me to grab the rifle, some blaze orange, and stuff a few meat bags into my pack.  I dumped out the fly gear and other oddball things that were now no longer in the plans for use today and traded them for a few hunting gadgets like my rangefinder and smoke-in-a-bottle.

We drove back up into the mountains, this time on the opposite side of the drainage we'd been hoping to drop down into for the day.  Before we left the ridge we had watched the bear from, I projected where I thought the bear was and dropped a pin there on my gps - nine tenths of a mile from our vantage point on the opposite mountainside.  I knew the area a little bit from other hikes and hunts out that way and was able to tell from glassing the mountainside that we'd be able to park at a particular tailhead, hike a ways on established trail, and then drop down a spur ridge before
reaching the hollow the bear was in.  A few lone pines at the head of the slope made for good markers.  I tried to explain all of what I was doing to the kids.  The way I was mapping out the hillside for later that afternoon when we actually got there.  Why we'd need to remember those trees, that ridge, the old burned spot.  Maybe it will make sense to them later in life if not that very afternoon.

We'd spotted the bear about 3 or 3:30  and had watched it for more than half an hour.  The kids had tumbled down the mountainside and made it back to the truck in record time.  It was unbelievable seeing their motivation.  By 5:30 or so we had been home and were leaving the next trailhead.  By 6:30 we'd reached the ridge we needed to go down.  I couldn't believe their determination.  I'd never seen them hike like this.  As we were driving I'd tried to explain how there could be no whining.  There had to be silence and they had to go as fast as they could.  If they got hurt, they needed to stay as quiet as possible.  They needed to be tough if they wanted to see this bear again,  and they assured me they were up for it.  So far they were proving themselves.

We left the trail when we got to the ridge I speculated was the one above where the bear had been foraging earlier in the day.  I explained how there was only a small chance he'd still be in the same area.  I tried to temper expectations. But really, he could be anywhere around us now, given that we were just a short distance from where he'd been "as the bear walks."  I tried to impart lessons of how not to take in too much field of view before you could see it all -  how we needed to pause and look every few steps because new clearing was exposed every time we stepped;  that it was imperative we see the bear before it sees us or there'd be no chance.  We checked the wind with my little bottle of powder.  My daughter instantly grasped the concept of being smelled and asked me several times as we descended to see which way the wind was blowing.

We'd now bitten off a lot of distance and elevation.  I'd had my doubts we'd make it this far, but they were really pushing.  Their silence was stunning.  Not only did they not talk or complain, but they walked with extreme care. They stifled cries when they slipped and fell or raked thorns across their shins.  It was amazing.  I'd never seen them behave like this.  Still, we had to cover everything we'd covered so far again in a return trip.  We finally got to a vantange point that would let us confirm whether or not I'd chosen the right ridge.  Sure enough, there were the landmarks I'd noted and pointed out from the other side.  My projected gps point fell within only a few hundred yard of where I'd last seen the bear from nearly a mile away.  Had we been sitting on this spot at 3:00 in the afternoon, it would have been a very easy shot.  I showed the kids where we'd been earlier.  I tried to impress upon them the magnitude of what we'd done so far and how we'd been able to navigate right to the spot we'd been watching earlier in the day.  And then, there it was.

The bear was much further down slope from where it'd been hanging earlier.  Way down there.  It was working the margin between the edge of an aspen stand and a clearing.  It was actually on the private land, but only barely across the line.  As much wandering as it'd been doing, chances were good it'd be back on the forest service soon.  The most important thing was that now, all at the same time, all three of us could see it plain as day.  High fives and smiles were had all round at our success.  Take this bear or not, we'd pulled off a feat, and I was so thankful to have Cooper and Cadi rewarded for their efforts.  It was fun watching their excitement. I pointed out the things they'd accomplished to get us to where we were and told them how proud I was of all they'd done.

We watched the bear for a bit, and there was no indication that it was headed anywhere.  Just wandering and foraging like it had been doing all day.  I was hesitant to make the drop.  It was a lot of elevation to lose, and even as good as the kids had been doing, I was uncertain of the humongous climb that was inevitable to return to the truck.  I told it to the kids plainly, glossing nothing over - the return trip, the climb, darkness, and the fact that the bear wasn't even on land we could take it from.  They were both wholeheartedly committed to making a move.

I laid out my plan to the kids.  I pointed to the terrain we'd cover, the ridgelines we'd cross and the timber we'd hide ourselves with.  They soaked it up.  We dropped down down down.  The next time we got to a vantage point, we got to watch the bear stand on its hind legs and peer over a fence - it had crossed back onto public ground.  It scratched its back on a corner post.  We were around 600 yards out.  Well beyond what I was willing to shoot, but now within range for many folks.

One last drop got us within the range we needed to be.  Time passed and it didn't show in the beautiful strip of meadow I'd picked out that it should have appeared in based on the last course it was walking.  There were two main funnels it could be taking - the draw to the left and the draw to the right.  We zigzagged between them, peering over the edge of each trying to catch sight again.  There it was, right back at that fence post again.  The marker between public and private lands.  I held each kid up in turn so they could see it again over the tops of the trees.  Alone, I would have been on that bear a long time ago.  But this was fantastic.  I was stalking a bear with my two little buddies, and they were eating it up.  I saw the bear commit to a direction - the draw to the right - and I reacted accordingly, dashing to a slight knob below us that was going to give us a two-to-three hundred yard shot as it meandered by.  I say "dashing" but the pace was brutally slow.  Still, I felt really good about our chances as we dug in on that knob.  I deployed the bipod and started glassing in earnest.  We had made it to the moment we'd been working toward all afternoon and evening.  I had just stalked to within range of a bear with my two kids.  Only a couple days ago they had finished up kindergarten and first grade.

There were more trees than I'd hoped, and the view was solidly obstructed in a couple spots.  There were plenty of open patches for it to pass through, but just as many thickets to obscure it.  My daughter noted that the wind was good.  I shook my head that she was even thinking of that.  The minutes ticked by.  It didn't show.  Maybe it'd moved on through unaware of our presence and never crossed into our field of view.  Maybe it figured us out.  Maybe we didn't get to the little knob in time.  But it didn't show.

Obviously, if we shot this bear we'd be hiking out in the dark.  But with the bear not showing and presumably gone, I began to lean towards beginning the monumental climb while there was still daylight.  We wouldn't retrace our steps.  We would now head back up in a more direct route because of where we had ended up.  Lots of clear mountainside we couldn't have approached through before, but also some timber and old burn patches.  I was winging it a bit though, having not walked that route before, and was feeling the urge of cautiousness when it came to bushwacking our way back to the truck across a couple miles and a few hundred feet of vertical. Especially in the dark.

We eased down through the aspen stands and scattered spruce groves.  The kids maintained their vigilance as we peeked into each new opening.  If the bear was still here, it was right here.  We were walking on ground we'd watched it cover from above.  We walked up to the fence posts it had stood next to and pulled some of its hair off the barbed wire.  The kids examined the rocks it had overturned as it foraged in the field.  With teamwork, they managed to roll one of them back into the hole it'd left behind when the bear flipped it over.  We were so close!  They were so disappointed to not take it home.  And boy had they worked for it.

They watched closely as I mapped out the route ahead of us with my finger.  They weren't pleased with the climb that was coming, but they did it.  There was some moaning now and again.  Some downright whining on occasion.  But the progress was steady.  I often had each of them by the hand, one on each side.  They were scared of the idea of hiking in the dark, and still despairing over leaving the bear behind.  But the time was passed as we noted the landmarks of all the places we'd been today, now seen from yet another angle.  They'd stop and stare at the view.  Cadi would pick flowers.  Cooper found a spider eating a stink bug.  We crossed over some old mining remnants and glassed some deer.  The monotony and strenuousness of the climb was broken up with plenty of delightful deviations.  Cadi remained in high spirits, and her silliness and laughter kept Cooper happy.
The adventure was grand.  The hike was beyond incredible for what I expected out of them.  Their drive toward and attentiveness to the hunt was inspiring.  And I was in awe that they could have been that quiet.  Shocked really.  We'd accomplished far more than I expected we would, let alone actually find the bear again and then move in on it.  It is a day we'll all remember.  We didn't pull the trigger, but we had been utterly successful.  We even made it back to the truck with enough daylight to see.

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