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Sunday, August 8, 2010

More Hunting

In 1996, my good friend Randy and his Uncle Jeff invited me to hunt bear in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The lodgings were taken care of as Jeff lived up there year round, and Randy was providing the transportation. Having grown up in a city like Detroit, the only experience I had with hunting and shooting was at one point in my misguided youth, I was hunted by police, and later in life I was shot at during a holdup (I was the victim not the robber), but those are stories for another time. I applied for and, miracle of miracles, got a bear tag on my first attempt ever.

Since I knew little about hunting and even less about bears, I decided that some research was in order. To that end, I read everything I could about bears and bear hunting, but two works stand out in my memory; “American Mankillers” by Don Zaidle, and “Some Bears Kill” by Larry Kaniut. Combined with various other books and magazines, I was convinced that I was in for an adventure.

Since “everyone” knew that the UP was a howling wilderness where the winters were cold enough to make trees explode, I packed every bit of long underwear and winter clothing I had. I also discovered that I had nothing in the way of firearms that was adequate for bear hunting. This was resolved by the purchase of a like-new Remington 700 in .30-06 with, “Huff Creek Mine Safety Award. One Year, No Accidents-1995” laser etched on the stock. I topped this off with a Burris 1.75-5X scope and since I didn’t handload at the time, I bought Federal 180 grain Trophy Bonded factory ammo. As an after thought, I also decided to bring my S&W 4-inch Model 29 stoked with 240 grain solids. If I had a close encounter with a hungry bear, I wanted to be sure that I was ready to make a good account of myself.

When the happy day came I said my good-byes and Randy and I headed to the North Country. The trip took about 4 hours, with stops for coffee and snacks. Upon our arrival, Jeff greeted us with a cold beer and a warm fire.

Some explanation is in order.

When people in the Upper Peninsula say that they are building a fire, they don’t mean a picturesque blaze in a fireplace, they mean a barely contained conflagration that will blister the paint on your car and singe the hair in your nostrils unless you keep far enough (about 20 yards) away.

We exchanged greetings, unpacked the car, and began the time-honored tradition of telling tales around the fire. The tale telling lasted into the night, while the beer flowed freely and the BS even more so. Food consisted of unidentified chunks of dead animal held over the flames until it was brown on the outside and hot enough to qualify as “cooked”. Being something of a lightweight, I turned in first.

The next morning, I woke up eager for some action. I was told that the bear hunting would get underway later that afternoon. I carefully inventoried my things and got ready. Several hours later, I was told that it was time to load and go. Jeff took us out to his barn where he had a huge box of snack food, potato chips, corn chips, snack cakes, and donuts, all with expired due dates on them. Apparently, he had worked out a deal with the local snack food distributor where he would buy this stuff for pennies, and then use it for bear bait (or parties, and occasionally for lunch).

We each grabbed an armful of bags and began tearing the bags open and dumping the contents into a bucket. Once the bucket was full, we gathered our things and headed for bear country.

Bear country turned out to be about twelve miles away “near the slanty road”. Slanty Road wasn’t the name of the road, it was called that because it slanted away from the main road. I was to learn that “slanty road was a generic term and that there were about thirteen thousand slanty roads in the Upper Peninsula.

Anyhow, when we came to the appropriate slanty road, we stopped, got out, and hauled the bucket of stuff to the blind. It was a warm September day, approximately 65 degrees out and I, dressed like a homesick Eskimo, was sweating buckets. Fortunately, it was only a short walk to the blind. We walked to a place that Jeff had selected earlier, poured our bait onto the ground and piled several hefty logs on top of it.

That was when I learned another thing about “Yoopers” as those people in the UP are called; they are serious blind builders. This one looked more like an ice-fishing shanty (it was) with an upholstered chair inside and a small window that looked out to the bait pile. All in all, it was very cozy and comfortable. Randy and Jeff made absolutely sure that I could find the trail out to the road. They agreed to pick me up at dark. If I got a bear, I was to wait for them before tracking it. They also made sure that they pointed out the orange ribbons hanging from the trees that marked the trail out.

I climbed into the “blind” set my rifle up for easy shooting, and began the process of waiting for a bear to show up. Time flew, mainly because of my excitement, but also because I had the foresight to bring a good book along. I made sure to look at the bait pile every time I turned the page, thus insuring that no bears would slip in and out unnoticed.

It wasn’t more than ten or eleven chapters before it grew too dark to read. I waited another thirty minutes and decided that it was timed to head back to the road. I unloaded my rifle, clambered out of the blind, and began walking. I’m not sure how much time had passed before I noticed that not only was it too dark to read, it was too dark to see any orange ribbons in the trees. Still, I continued walking in what I thought was the right direction until I became tangled in the underbrush.

Now certain that I had gone the wrong way, I turned around with the intention of heading back to the blind. The problem was that it was dark. Not the sort of dim artificial light that meant ‘dark’ in the city, but the inky, almost physical presence of darkness that means ‘dark’ to people that live in a place where the nearest streetlight is twenty miles away. Somewhere within whatever remained of my primordial instincts, I became connected with the reality of my situation. The word LOST emerged into my consciousness. I wasn’t really all that worried, I had my rifle, my handgun (for bears, remember?) and I was wearing more warm clothes than I would need in a month in the current weather. So, I decided that instead of running around in the dark, I would sit where I was and try to think of something clever to say to the searchers when they found me in a couple of weeks.

It was then that I began hearing voices. Happily, they weren’t inside my head, it was Randy and Jeff yelling for me. I pulled out my handgun and fired two shots in the air. Randy’s voice yelled again, “Ed! If that’s you, shoot again!”

I fired two more shots and braced myself for the merciless teasing that was to follow. Thirty minutes and a lot of yelling later, I emerged onto a small side road, approximately a mile away from where I was supposed to be, exhausted, embarrassed, and both my rifle and I were scratched and dinged on every exposed surface. I got into the truck and we began the journey home. Oddly, both men were silent. Unable to take it anymore, I spoke up, “Okay guys, let me have it. I know I deserve it.”

Neither man looked at me, but Randy spoke first, “Nope, won’t do it.”

I was astonished, “Why not?”

This time Jeff spoke, “Because it ain’t anything that we haven’t done ourselves.”

With that, I was treated to a list of people that had gotten lost for hours (and in one instance, days), for whatever reason, almost always with the lesson that “…from then on, they always took a compass and a cell phone with them.” I wasn’t sure which stories were true and which were just BS but I was grateful for the grace shown me.

The next day was the last day we’d be able to hunt. I wanted an early start, but there were errands to run. It wasn’t until 9am that I would be able to head out. Time passed quickly though, so after a quick breakfast, we went back to the slanty road and I once again went into the blind. I did notice that somewhere along the line, the number of ribbons marking the trail had somehow tripled.

I got into the blind, loaded my rifle, and pulled out my book. The “turn page-look-read” method seemed to work yesterday so I thought I’d try it again today. The day was pleasant, the temperature was warm, and the scenery was beautiful. I chuckled when a squirrel climbed up the front of the blind and looked in the window. Once he saw me sitting there, he changed his mind about entering. A couple of times I heard something walk by behind me, but didn't want to spoil my chances at a bear by getting out to look.

Along about sunset, I finished my book and decided that since I didn’t want a repeat of yesterday’s performance, I’d leave at dusk rather than at dark. I sat back to watch the forest when things changed. To this day, I can’t put my finger on it. The best I can describe it is that the attitude of the forest changed. I kept scanning the area when out of the woods stepped a black bear. Its jet-black fur contrasted so starkly with the forest that I wondered how they managed to stay unseen. It walked over to the bait pile and flicked away the logs that were piled on top of it as if they were Styrofoam.

Like I said earlier, I don’t know much about hunting, but I DO know a little about shooting thanks to several years of Highpower Rifle Matches. I had mentally promised myself that if I didn’t get a picture perfect shot, I’d let the bear go. I didn’t want to have to go chasing a wounded bear all over Michigan’s UP. That not only wouldn’t be proper respect for the bear it would definitely insure that I’d never be invited back.

The bear enjoyed what was to be its last meal, carefully looking around between bites. It moved to some particularly tasty morsel and while eating it, gave me a perfect broadside shot. I lined up the crosshairs, squeezed the trigger and made what I knew was a perfect shot. The bear roared, did a complete somersault, roared again and ran into the woods. The last roar sounded like it was gargling, so I knew that the lungs were filling with blood. I jumped out of the blind and ran over to where I saw the bear run into the woods. As I approached the spot, I remembered all of the stories I had read about going after wounded bears and also recalled Jeff’s admonition not to go after it until he and Randy were with me. I checked my watch, an hour until I was supposed to meet them. I stashed my rifle in the blind, made my way to the road (successfully this time) and started walking in the direction of Jeff’s place. I figured that when they came to get me, meeting me on the road would save some time.

Luck was on my side for once. A passerby offered me a ride. By coincidence, she happened to live across the road from Jeff. Fifteen minutes later, I was walking up the drive towards the group of men gathered around the nightly inferno. Upon seeing me, the questions came fast and furious, “Ed! We’re not s’posed to pick you up for half an hour! What’re ya doin’ here?”

“You’re not lost are ya?” (Grace is such a fleeting thing)

“Didja get a bear?”

I smiled, “Yeah I got one and I was hoping that you’d help me find it.”

With that, everyone kind of froze for a second, and then the place erupted into activity. Tools were loaded, shotguns were put into rear-window gun racks, ropes were tossed into pickup beds, and everyone climbed into a vehicle and we headed out to find the bear.

When we arrived at the appropriate place, I pointed to where the bear had gone into the woods. Jeff, shining a flashlight onto the ground, began weaving a pattern back and forth. I thought it was the effects of too much beer until he said, “Ed! Come here and stand on this spot.” I looked at what he was pointing at, a splotch of bright red blood mixed with some lung tissue. From there he began working in concentric half circles towards the direction the bear had gone. A few minutes later, I heard Randy’s voice out of the darkness,”Here it is!” He had apparently followed a trail of broken branches to the carcass about twenty yards into the trees After making certain that it was dead, we cut down a sapling, tied the bear’s feet together and hauled it out of the woods, back to Jeff’s place for skinning and butchering. I felt like I was ten feet tall.

Upon seeing the bear up close, I realized it was, well, kind of small. It was definitely an adult, but it just barely tipped the scale at one hundred pounds. If I saw that bear now, I’d probably give it a pass. But at the time, it looked huge to me. In any case, the meat was great, and the skin makes a nice doily for my easy chair.

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