There was scat along the trails, and long-clawed tracks in just about every wet spot. We were in bear country. More specifically, we were in grizzly country. At least one of the bears had marked a tree close by camp with deep scratch marks. Although I didn’t particularly want a bear to drop by for dinner, this wasn’t especially frightening. We were the wilderness of western Canada, and there are supposed to be grizzlies. Fortunately, wilderness bears, as opposed to park bears, are generally at least a little bit cautious about we hairless apes. We weren’t hunting bears, so the respect was completely mutual. We’d only be hunting there for a few days, so the chances were pretty good they’d leave us alone for that amount of time.
We were hunting Rocky Mountain goat, but a couple of days later my buddy shot a moose. Our own food was in camp, along with lots of wood smoke and human scent. Now we had several hundred pounds of unwanted bear bait! We built a meat pole and hung the quarters a little distance from camp, and that’s about all we could do. Surprisingly, we finished our hunt and got out of that valley without ever seeing a bear. But I’m pretty sure the local bears knew we were there.
For me wilderness is defined by the presence of bears. I’m mostly thinking about the long-clawed, dish-faced grizzly/brown bear tribe, which are not limited to North America… but I’m pretty much a nut over all bears. They are magnificent creatures, and even our common black bear is just unpredictable enough to turn the tables. They are also wary and intelligent, and can be extremely difficult to hunt.
All of this is to the good, and adds to the experience of bear hunting. Unfortunately, there are issues. Black bears make good sausage and, sometimes, amazing smoked ham. But I’ll be perfectly honest: I’ve spent enough time around bears to have a pretty good handle on what they eat (which is just about anything, use your imagination and don’t ask any questions). So I’m not real crazy about bear meat. This greatly limits my justification for hunting them. I have rugs, I have a couple of life-size mounts, I even have a really cool shoulder mount from a really large Alaskan brown bear… it looks like a 55-gallon drum coming out of the wall.
Although I must admit I’ve lost count on black bears, I actually have just that one Alaskan brown bear. And just one of his Asian counterparts, from Kamchatka…and just one Euopean grizzly, from Romania. There were a couple of early grizzlies, taken many years ago, but just one last big one, taken on about the fourth try along Alaska’s Noatak River. I would love to hunt the polar bear, but I waited too long. We can no longer bring Canadian bears into the U.S., and although I would like to have the experience, I’m not sure I could put myself through that kind of misery (and expense) and not be able to bring the skin home.
I will undoubtedly go black bear hunting again, and hopefully I’ll share some bear hunting with Donna and the kids, but, basically, I’m running out of excuses to go bear hunting. So it probably isn’t something I will do more of personally. Part of me regrets that-I get really excited over bears, but the rest of me is really grateful for fine memories of bear hunting. I’ve taken some great bears, some through blind luck, some through hard work. My big Alaskan bear was pure luck; it was the first day of a hunt now 30 years ago. I didn’t know a whole lot back then, and I certainly didn’t have any idea how big the bear was or how rare the opportunity.
I would have passed if my guide hadn’t insisted, so I owe that one to him. My Asian brown bear held the world record for several years, which was lucky, but it came at the end of a snowy, difficult hunt at a time when Russia was just opening up. I’ve been lucky on some big black bears and some gorgeous color phase bears, but I suppose the luckiest of all was a glacier bear, the blue color phase of black bear. I tried a couple of times, actually saw more than one, and finally got one.
My favorite bear, however, was my big grizzly, taken on snowshoes in an Alaskan blizzard. Unfortunately this is the bear that, after many years and multiple attempts, pretty much ended my grizzly hunting. I can’t beat him, and I really don’t want to try. But, oh my, do bears get me excited…and the bigger they are the more excited I get. Just the sight of bear tracks in that high valley in the Chilcotin really got me going. I’m sorry I didn’t see one of the bears making those tracks, but I’m equally glad we didn’t have an encounter. I’m not actually afraid of bears… I love them. But I love them best from a safe distance!