Alberta Black Bears Up Close

The black bears of Alberta's northern forest entertain a hunter for days with their lively antics, but soon their curious advances become unsettling.

posted on May 23, 2019

The young boar stood on its hind legs, and in what looked like one swift movement, climbed about 7 feet up the tree and walked toward the middle of the thin log hung between two aspens. Balancing itself better than any tightrope walker I’d ever seen, the bear put on an impressive performance in an attempt to enjoy the beaver dinner that was dangling below, including hanging upside down, balancing on three legs and at one point, swinging completely around the log. This is exactly what I need, I thought.

Only a couple of days earlier, I was feeling a bit down while packing for this trip. My uncle, who was an avid hunter and more excited than anyone about my upcoming hunt in Alberta, had passed just a week prior. And while I still wish I could have told him about my trip upon my return, I imagine that from his front-row seat up above he got a real kick out of the many adrenaline-inducing events that transpired throughout the six-day hunt.

I had hunted bears a few times with my father in my home state of Virginia but had yet to tag one during our attempts (or lay eyes on one), so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect while hunting in Alberta. I certainly didn’t anticipate that it would be a full-on bear circus, and I never could have imagined that the bears would incessantly attempt to make me part of the show.

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Our group of seven arrived at camp around noon, settled in and put a few rounds through each of our rifles before gathering in the main cabin for a briefing from Wally Mack, owner and chief guide of W&L Guide Services. Wally offered a few tips on bear behavior, judging size and proper shot placement. He told us we would be hunting in the evenings, leaving camp around 3 o’clock and sitting in our stands until dark, which came around 11 in late May.

Wait, we get to sleep in? That’s a beautiful thing, I thought to myself. Little did I know I wouldn’t get more than four or five hours of sleep before I had to be in the stand each day, thanks to late-night entertainment brought to us by Neal Emery from Hornady on the guitar and American Hunter Field Editor Jeff Johnston on the harmonica.

On the first afternoon, about 10 minutes after settling into the treestand, I heard what sounded like leaves shuffling from behind me. Is that a bear? My heart started beating a million miles a minute. I could hardly contain my excitement as not one, but two bears walked directly under my stand, straight toward the bait site about 40 yards in front of me.

I considered the advice my guide, Kristen, had given me on the ride to the stand: If a bear doesn’t come up to the middle ring on the barrel, it’s typically safe to pass on the shot. Good to know—I passed.

Within 30 minutes, there were four bears center-stage at the bait site, each behaving as if auditioning for a spot in the Alberta Big-Top Circus. While one of the bears was busy shoveling the mixture of oats and M&Ms out of the barrel it had just tipped over, the two largest boars of the group were engaged in a “feats of strength” battle, which began at the bait site and ended when they crashed into the ladder of my treestand.

Several other smaller bears attempted to approach throughout the evening, but they were typically scared off by the larger bear woofing at them. This was an intriguing sound I was not at all familiar with, but as the days went on, I felt I could distinguish some of the various vocalizations between bears.

After receiving word that Linda Powell from Mossberg had taken a bear a few miles away that evening, my eight-hour sit ended with having to resort to firing a round in order to scare off the bear looming directly under my stand. I had made several unsuccessful attempts to shoo it away, and only at the crack of my rifle did it get the point. While none of the bears I saw were large enough to take, I felt like I had won the lottery riding out on the four-wheeler that evening.

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The show continued over the next few days. I would sit down in my stand each afternoon and jokingly say to myself, “Act III, Scene I,” the act corresponding with the number of days I’d been hunting. I’m fairly certain that at some point the bears had a meeting and made a unanimous decision that, since I was new to the game, they would give me the “new girl” treatment. This could have simply been my perception, but I’ll let you be the judge.

On most occasions, a bear or two would make a few circles around my stand, lift their heads and sniff as I remained extremely still, praying they would move on. A few times, one would stand up with its front paws on the ladder of my treestand. Quite honestly this made me a bit nervous, but shuffling or stomping my feet would typically scare it off—albeit surprisingly slowly. An eerie feeling comes over you when engaged in a staring contest with a bear just 15 feet below you.

On the fourth day of my hunt, I sat in what was known by the guides as “B**** Stand.” It’s a rough, 45-minute four-wheeler ride into the woods, and there is no cell phone service—hence its name. As my guide, Kory, was leaving, he said, “I might not be back until about 30 minutes or more after dark, depending on whether or not someone tags a bear.” I didn’t mind; I was looking forward to a peaceful afternoon totally disconnected from society. Turns out, the afternoon was anything but peaceful.

After an unusually uneventful couple of hours, I was thrilled to see a bear approaching. It spent some time strolling through the bait site, and I decided that, while large, it was not a bear I wanted to shoot. However, the bear took an abrupt interest in me and quickly strode toward my stand. It sniffed around a bit then put its front paws on the stand’s ladder. Having gone through this routine I don’t know how many times over the last few days, I was starting to feel like a pro at discouraging bears from further curiosity.

When stomping my feet didn’t work, I grabbed the open water bottle on the seat next to me and poured a significant amount directly on the bear’s head—right into its eyes—hoping the water would shock the bear enough to move on. It did—for the moment.

After about 15 minutes, however, the boar decided to investigate further, this time with a bit more haste. Oh come on, I thought as I stood up and pointed my rifle down toward the bear. I went through the same routine I had employed during his first advance but to no avail. Remembering my encounter from the first evening, I decided to fire a warning shot, hoping that would do the trick again.

Not only did it not do the trick, but the shot immediately sent the bear barreling up my tree. Before I could think twice, his left front paw was on the back of the seat I had been sitting in and his head was just inches from the bottom of my boot. So I kicked him in the face. As hard as I could. I’m assuming I did so out of instinct because I don’t remember much of my thought process. Apparently, that was just barely enough to deter him, and he slowly—and I mean slowly—backed down the tree.

I collapsed into the seat, let out a huge breath and wondered how I let that happen to me. How could I let that bear get that close? Based on conversations I had with the group back at camp, I now know I should have shot the bear the moment its back legs left the ground. I suppose that’s why they say hindsight is 20/20.

Despite my being a bit shaken up, the evening ended on a high note. Jeff performed the “Bear Camp” song, which he wrote while sitting on stand, to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” The lyrics included hilarious references to various occurrences over the duration of our hunt, and it was much-needed comic relief.

■ ■ ■

Interestingly, the biggest bears I saw throughout my six days of hunting were always the quietest when approaching the bait site. I could typically hear the ground crunching for a solid two or three minutes before seeing most bears. On one oddly quiet afternoon, I decided to read a book to pass the time, sure that if the circus came to town I would have plenty of time to ready myself before the performers showed. Not the case.

Just as I was settling into my novel, I looked up to see what I was sure was the biggest bear I’d seen yet. I quickly put down my book, picked up my rifle and quietly placed it on the two-by-four rest hung in front of me. As I watched him come in, I ran through all the things I’d been told to do when deciding whether to take a bear. This is one of the benefits of hunting over bait: You have time to ensure the bear isn’t a sow with cubs, and to observe it long enough to properly judge age and size. Once I was sure the bear was a shooter, I waited for him to turn broadside at about 50 yards, lined up my reticle, took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. The bear took two small steps and dropped. The 165-grain Hornady GMX did its job perfectly.

That night, as a tribute to my uncle, the whole group sang “Amazing Grace”—the song he requested I sing at his funeral. Just as we finished, we saw a bright shooting star soar across the sky. This hunt truly was exactly what I needed.


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