Close Encounters of the Bear Kind

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Bill Hall

69 Cal.
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October 2001 found me muzzleloader elk hunting in what was traditionally our family's deer hunting area. The elk had recently moved into that area, and since I had been seeing a few nice bulls while deer hunting, I thought I'd give it a try. The rifle deer season coincided with my muzzleloader elk hunt, so my dad and nephew, Jeremy, were in camp with me, hunting deer the "modern" way.

My family has hunted this area for four or five generations, mostly because we very rarely see any other hunters in "our" mountains. The reason being, most sane hunters will not venture into country as rough and rugged as our area. Mostly steep rocky canyons, rock slides, cliffs, cactus, not really mountains, more like God's huge rock pile. Up the main canyon, there are two geographic features we call the "cracks". Narrow places in the canyon bottom, no more than ten feet wide, maybe a hundred yards long, having walls extending straight up for fifty feet or so. Kind of like caves with no ceilings. The first crack starts at our camp, since it marks the end of the road. The second crack is a mile or so up the canyon.

I arrived in camp at night, a day after my elk season started, since my schedule kept me at work all day. Jeremy informed me that he had a bear tag, and had already killed a bear, and I needed to help him pack it out the next morning. I asked him where he killed it, and he told me it was at the second crack, in fact, he told me it fell into the crack from above. I wasn't too keen on taking more time from my hunt, but I figured a big black bear was too much for one guy to handle, so I agreed to help him.

When we arrived at the bear the next morning, it was indeed lying in the bottom of the crack, but I was surprized to find it weighed a mere 50 to 60 pounds. Jeremy looked embarrassed and tells me the whole story. He had run into three bears, one big sow and two yearling cubs, but decided to pass on them. At that point, the sow started charging towards him, so as he puts it, "I kinda panicked and started emptying my gun at the big one". At his forth shot, the big sow stopped short of reaching him, but one of the smaller bears ran around his mother and right up to jeremy. His fifth shot killed the little bear, and it rolled off a cliff and into the crack. I thought since Jeremy was young, 18 or 19, he embellished the story somewhat to cover his lack of courage.

Ok, we get back to camp and now I can go hunting. Didn't see anything the rest of that day, and missed a chance at a bull running through the trees the morning of the next day. I got back to camp to eat some lunch the same time my dad was dragging himself into camp with a look of terror on his face. He tells me he just killed a big boar bear that was charging down the steep canyon at him. He said it died right at the far opening of the second crack (a few feet from where Jeremey's bear was lying). I guess he noticed my look of, "Ya, right Dad! You had to kill the bear to save your life", so he added, "No really! that bear was going to kill me!". "OK, whatever Dad. Now what do we do?". My dad was in the early stages of asbestosis and emphezema, so he was done for the day, but said he would hike back up there in the morning to skin the bear, and pack it out himself. He didn't want to bother with the meat, which kind of eerked me, but I wanted to get back to elk hunting, so I didn't argue with him. Without going into details, a quick trip was made to the nearest town that night to buy a bear tag.

I went out hunting the next morning with no luck, so once again came back to camp at noon for some vittles. I found my dad, lying on his back trying to catch his breath. He had gone up to skin the bear, but had run out of air (at this point, he didn't realize how badly his lungs were damaged), so he crawled back to camp. He also said his little pocket knife was too dull to do any good. I looked at the knife and really couldn't tell which edge was supposed to be sharp, it was that dull (that's my Pop). I told him after lunch I would go up there, skin out the bear, bring back the hide, head, and paws, and there would be no more shooting at bears!

I was carrying my .54 rifle and a nearly empty backpack when I reached the far end of the second crack. The ungutted bear was right in the bottom of the canyon where the crack starts opening up. This is where things get weird. I was staring at the dead bear, and even said out loud, "I sure hope you're really dead", and didn't even notice that two other bears were standing right over the bear's butt end. I could've touched them and didn't even see them until they spun around and waddled up the canyon about thirty yards. It was a big bear with a smaller yearling, in the exact same area where Jeremy killed the little bear, so I was convinced it was the same bears. They just stared at me and wouldn't leave.

Now I have a dilema. Since these are the same bears that were bold enough to chase Jeremy, how could I work on skinning the dead bear with these guys only thirty yards away. What if they decide they've had enough of me and go on the attack? I couldn't run up the canyon because they had that blocked. I certainly couldn't run down the canyon, since that would put me back in the narrow crack, and I couldn't outrun a bear in there. And I couldn't go up the sides of the canyon, as it was nothing but steep rock slides on both sides. So I concocted a plan. Near me was a skinny oak tree, but maybe strong enough for me to climb up and out of a bear's reach. I would put a shot from my muzzleloader right near the big sow's ear, and hopefully it would scare them off. If they did decide to come after me, I would throw off my backpack and go up that tree. In my mind, I practiced all the steps it would take to get up that tree, before I got brave enough to make the shot. I put the sights about three inches to the left of the sow's head, and fired. They both stayed right there, not moving away, but the sow started bouncing on her front feet like she was getting a little perturbed. Ok, I didn't plan on this, now what should I do? As I stood there trying to conceive a plan B, I thought I should at least reload my rifle while I still had a chance.

All of a sudden, I hear a rumbling from the rock slide on the south side of the canyon. I can't see the source of the commotion, as the view is partially blocked by bushes and boulders. I was standing there with an empty rifle, so I quickly convinced myself that the noise was an elk running up hill when it heard the shot. Ya, that's it! I heard the rumbling again, and this time I was sure it was coming downhill toward me. At this point I'm thinking I should turn around and run down the crack, regardless of what the other two bears thought of it. Then IT, appeared! Barreling down the side of the canyon, straight toward me, was the biggest, blackest, most really upset bear you could imagine. He looked like a huge bag of muscles, plowing a swath through the rock slide, and making loud angry moaning sounds. He covered a hundred yards in what seemed like four or five seconds.

I don't remember climbing the tree, just throwing off the backpack and then being up the tree as far as I could go. I tried to go higher, but the limb holding me up was already sagging under my weight. I was clinging on with my knees, and wondering what happened to my rifle, when I suddenly realized it was still in my hands. During my climb, the bear had stopped it's charge, and was hidden somewhere in the surrounding bushes. All I could think to do was to yell at the top of my lungs to scare it off. When I yelled, "GET OUT OF HERE! GET THE HE-- OUT OF HERE", it came out of it's hiding place, just a little higher than my head on the side of the canyon, and ran back and forth, making loud, ominous, grunting and moaning sounds. His head was nearly touching the ground, and the way his front legs swung made them look like they were made out of rubber, with no joints. He was no more than 50 feet from me. After this show of force, he went back into hiding, so I thought I'd try yelling again, only louder this time. "GET THE HE-- OUT OF HERE!!! AAAAAAWWWWWWWWW!!!!! AAAAWWWWWW!!!!". Oh, this really pi$$ed him off. He paced back and forth, grunting much louder than before, his rubber-like front legs flinging rocks in front of him. After about thirty seconds (or hours, I don't know) of this behavior, he again quieted down and was hidden somewhere in the bushes. I looked up the canyon and those other two bears were still just staring at me, as if they were enjoying the show and were hoping for a gory end.

So there I was, hanging in a tree, holding on to a sagging limb with my knees, grasping an empty muzzleloader, two bears under me only thirty yards away, and one totally ticked off boar a few quick jumps from me. My only escape route was down the tree and back down the crack, but if the big bore wanted to give chase, I might make it 20 or 30 feet down the narrow corridor before he had me. My new plan was to just wait in the tree, all day and night if I had to, until one of the other guys showed up with their repeating .270's. I looked under me and realized that the bear could reach my foot if it stood up, so I did my best to bring it up higher. "Ok, I could wait here forever if I have to". Unfortuneatly, it was then that I remembered black bears can climb trees, so there went that idea.

My next plan. I would reload my .54 while up in the tree, climb down, walk backwards down the crack, and then run like a madman. I carefully started grabbing balls, patches, powder, caps, from my pockets, but found if I moved wrong, I would nearly loose my balance and fall. I nearly threw the ammo out of my hands a couple of times, trying to grab onto the limb when I felt like I was falling. I don't remember just how I did it, or how long it took, but I do remember the feeling of relief when my totally scratched up rifle was loaded. My only fear now was that more than one bear would come after me while I was trying to skidattle. I checked the bushes where I last saw the big bear on the side of the canyon, and sure enough, they were swaying back and forth. I looked at the two bears in the canyon bottom, and they were still staring blankly at me. I slid down the tree and grabbed my backpack, looking one more time at the shaking bushes above me, and one more time at the "audience" bears, a stone's throw away, walked backwards a few feet, and ran down the crack like bears were chasing me (best way to describe it).

I got back to camp and told my dad what happened. He smiled and exclaimed, "See, you thought I was a big coward when I told you that bear was gonna get me, ha ha ha. Now you know I wasn't kidding, ha ha ha". I was thinking he could have been a little more concerned about my safety and whatnot, but I guess vindicating himself was more important (That's my Pop).

My dad and jeremy did finally skin that bear the next day, without seeing another anywhere nearby. And even though my elk hunt was pretty much screwed up by my hunting partners, I did end up with a ten year supply of bear oil.

I've been known to stretch the truth a bit, but not this time. I swear on everything that's holy that this story is completely true. And to top it off, this incident did leave me claim-to-fame worth bragging about. I'll bet I'm one of a few, if not the only, person in this century, who has reloaded a muzzleloader up a tree after being chased by a bear. Real mountain man stuff there. Bill
 

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