by Brian McCombie - Tuesday, August 19, 2014
The last day of my Alberta black bear hunt found me perched 30 feet off the ground on a stand of weathered boards, the lumber nailed between a cluster of four trees in the boreal forest. Rows and rows of poplar and birch stretched out forever toward every point of the compass, the pale white-and-gray trunks seemingly lined up as if planted on purpose.
I was hunting near the town of High Level, in the very northern reaches of the province. It’s a land of endless trees and numerous streams, and treacherous bogs that appear solid to the eye but will suck down your leg to the knee and snap a bone in the process. At seemingly every other turn in the trail appeared 6-foot-tall beaver dams of branches and tree trunks and smoothed-over mud, most of them still ice-capped despite daytime highs in the low 50s.
My guide, Shawn, had driven us 40 minutes from our hunting camp, then parked the truck, unloaded a quad and drove us another 45 minutes deep into the forest. The logging track we followed was muddy and dangerous, our kidneys getting a good slam as the quad wheels bounced off fallen trees and pounded over deep ruts. We nearly tipped over more than once.
I’d been dropped off at my stand at 4 that afternoon and would be hunting there until dark, which for northern Alberta in May was around 10:30 p.m. It was sunny and 50 degrees when I climbed into my stand. I hooked my safety harness to a stout tree trunk, loaded my rifle and set out my things—binocular, cell phone, water bottle, snacks.
An hour later, the clouds rolled in and the thunder rumbled. A cold rain began falling on cue. I covered up the end of my riflescope with a glove and hunkered back against the tree trunk. My hooded jacket and pants were waterproof, but I could still feel the chilly rain trickling over my arms and down my back.
It was a perfect way to end a bear hunt, I figured, a hunt that was tough and frustrating. Yes, I’d gotten a bear already (our tags allowed us two), but he was a lot smaller than I had thought when I pulled the trigger—not a cub, but well shy of adulthood. I was still kicking myself for that mistake.
The rain poured down hard for 20 minutes, the cold seeping into my joints; I wished I’d put on another layer back at camp. The downpour became a drizzle. As I examined my rain-spattered Mossberg bolt-action rifle leaning against the corner of the stand—I’d just slid a hand around the receiver—I heard a muted crunch in the forest behind me.
I slowly turned my head. A good-sized black bear was moving along the edge of a fallen tree, his eyes wide, nose to the air as he smelled the bait at the site ahead of me.
I shifted back into my tree, laid the rifle in my lap and told myself, “Not another move! Don’t. Breathe slow, man, breathe slow … ”
The black bear hunt was at the invitation of Mossberg, optics maker Swarovski and Hornady Ammunition. Six of us were hunting with longtime bear guide Wally Mack. We’d gotten to Mack’s camp outside High Level five days before, slept on cots in wall tents, ate our meals in a cozy little cookhouse and cleaned up in the small shower shack—once the ice in the PVC piping had melted!
I was using Mossberg’s new MVP Flex rifle, a .308 bolt-action with a semi-bull barrel and black synthetic stock topped with a Swarovski Z6i 1X-6X scope with a lighted reticle. The rig was loaded with Hornady’s Superformace ammo topped with 150-grain InterBond bullets.
As we ate a quick meal before heading to our first hunt, Mack told us we’d each be set up on stands over bait. His advice: Wait for a broadside shot. Never shoot a bear standing upright on his hind legs. Once bears stand, he said, their organs drop down and away; you could easily send a bullet through-and-through that doesn’t touch heart or lungs. Sure, the bear would likely die—after it ran 2 miles into the wilderness of swamps and trees and rolling hills, never to be found.
“How do we know if the bear’s big enough?” we asked.
Each bait site had a blue, 55-gallon plastic barrel, Mack said, filled with popcorn and sweets to draw bears. The animals were hungry after their long winter’s sleep and were happy to visit the bait.
“When the bear walks by the barrel on all fours, look at the top of his back,” Mack said. “If it’s at the third ring or higher, shoot that bear, eh.”
The area around High Level got 6 to 7 feet of snow over the winter—yes, feet!—and there was still a couple feet of the white stuff on shaded stretches of the logging trails. Shawn drove the lead four-wheeler, with me hanging on, while Neal Emery of Hornady followed us on a separate four-wheeler. We came upon a long section of snowy trail, and Emery’s quad went down to the axle in snow, slush and mud.
My guide broke a tow rope trying to dislodge Emery’s quad. So to gain traction, we kicked snow and mud from under the quad’s tires and pushed in dead tree branches. Shawn got on the quad and gunned the engine for dear life. Somehow, it worked. Though once the machine broke free, it shot off the trail like a rocket, barely missing a large pine.
Emery’s stand was right before a set of train tracks. We dropped him off then Shawn drove up the railroad grade and right onto the tracks; my stand was 8 miles away, and the train tracks were the only route.
“Do me a favor, eh,” Shawn said as the quad’s fat tires bounced over the railroad ties.
“Take a look behind for a train when you get a chance. Train damn near ran up on me the other day. Pretty funny, eh?”
“It’s a scream,” I muttered.
My neck was soon sore from craning back and looking for Death by Locomotive. At one point, while I was looking backwards, a huge plastic bag full of popcorn and other baits that was strapped to the front rack of the quad slid off and fell right between the left front tire and the train track. The quad titled crazily. It seemed about ready to flip, so I jumped off onto the rail siding.
“Damn straps broke!” Shawn said after he’d righted the quad, a big grin on his face.
“Always something, eh?”
I didn’t see a bear on that first stand, though on the next evening’s hunt, what looked like a small sow came to the bait right at dark. She wasn’t a shooter but she gave me hope.
Meantime, my hunting partners were knocking down bears—big ones. Fellow outdoor writer Josh Dahlke hit two 7-footers, and another guy in our hunting party took a similar-sized bruin.
Midway through my third day’s hunt, I was trying not to doze off in my stand when I saw a black blob well off in the trees. The blob moved. I sat up, raised my rifle and peered through the Swarovski: “Bear!”
He weaved his way through the trees to the bait; he was definitely bigger than the sow from the other night. By the time he got to the bait, I was sure he was a shooter. He stood up and ripped down a beaver carcass hanging from a tree branch, began feeding and presented a perfect broadside shot at 35 yards. I placed the Swarovski’s lighted reticle right on his lungs and pulled the trigger. The black bear rolled over backwards, let out a couple of moans and died.
When I got to the bear, I realized I’d screwed up. He was legal, but small—too small. In my excitement, I’d completely forgotten Mack’s advice. I hadn’t waited for the bear to line up alongside the blue barrel.
Everyone at camp tried to make me feel better about the smallish bear. It didn’t work. Next day, I didn’t see a bear. As I climbed up into the stand on that last day of the hunt, I was resigned—me and my little bear were heading back to the States the next day by ourselves.
Later that rain-soaked afternoon, the bear that had come in behind me knew food was just ahead, but he wasn’t about to rush in. He stopped every few steps and looked around, unsure, passing right beneath my stand. I froze, sure that even the slightest noise would send him sprinting through the trees.
When his back was fully to me, I slid my finger over the small switch at the top rear of the Swarovski to flip on the illuminated reticle.
It seemed easy enough: The bear was 30 to 40 yards away: How could a guy miss? But two of us had already missed. I watched the bear until I saw that the line of his back just edged over that third ring on the blue plastic drum—a shooter in the 6-foot category, according to Mack. My heartbeat quickened and a quiver went through my limbs.
The bear was under the skinned beaver hanging from a pole, on all fours and broadside. I raised my rifle—and the bear stood up on his hind legs. He grabbed the beaver in his jaws and pulled, dropping back down on all fours, but with his back to me.
I set the rifle back on my knees, tried to slow my breathing and waited. Waited.
The bear lifted his head, ears cocked as if he’d heard something. He shifted around, scanning the trees, and eventually went back to the beaver.But he’d made the mistake of turning broadside to me.
I put the Swarovski’s lighted, red reticle on his lungs, slipped off the safety, let out my breath and squeezed the trigger. The bear fell over backwards then immediately jumped up and ran in a crazed slalom, bouncing off a tree trunk and barreling through thick brush as I worked the bolt and chambered another round.
But he only sprinted 40 yards or so before he toppled over into downed branches and called out three times. It was suddenly eerie and calm, the bear’s death moan gently echoing through the forest. A chill went through my body head-to-toe, like a low-voltage shock.
I’d done it—a nice bear (he later measured out right at 6 feet), one shot and done. The sun broke free from the clouds, and I felt its warmth against my damp clothing. I sat back, sent off a text with my cell phone and enjoyed big, happy thoughts.
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