We flew into Edmonton on Saturday June 7th high with anticipation and raring to reach bear camp, some seven and a half hour drive on the following day. My brothers, Don and Joe, and I had made the same run in 2006 resulting in two bear with one making the record book.
Our Bear camp is an outpost cabin on the eastern shore of Dore Lake, owned and operated by our outfitter, Jim Williamson, and his charming wife Dar. Access to the cabin is either by boat or by quad from the end of a lumber road some miles distant.
We were up at 2:00 am and on the road before three. Thunder and lighting rolled across the vast expanses of Alberta as we drove due East on Yellow Head Highway (16) encountering downpours and a stretch of road buried in three inches of marble sized hail. As dawn approached the skies cleared and the temperature warmed. The remainder of our stay in Saskatchewan would be favored by Bluebird skies for the most part, and temperatures in the high seventies with lows near forty at night.
We reached the end of the lumber road at Jim’s staging area just as Jim came rolling in from the bush on his quad with another hunter. They had just recovered the hunter’s bear that had been arrowed late the night before. It’s always good to see Jim. I’ve hunted with him for the last nine years on twelve different hunts for both Deer and Bear. Every time I hunt with Jim I learn more about the game we pursue and an invaluable knowledge of the Boreal Forest and the creatures that it holds. He is without doubt one of the best and knowledgeable outfitters I’ve had the pleasure to hunt with.
Typically hunters leave camp on Saturday and new hunters move in on Sunday. Jim had a camp full of bow hunters that hunted right through to the end of Saturday this week. They eventually were all transported back to the line and were gracious enough to help us gather up all of our gear and get it back to the cabin for us. They had done well with nearly every hunter taking a bear. The hunters that had not scored, had all seen bear, but held out to the end hoping for the big one. Unfortunately, Dar was leaving as well. She had been in camp for the prior two weeks using up her vacation time from her regular job and now had to head home. She’s delightful and has a great sense of humor. We always have a great time in camp together.
We were also joined in camp by Todd Shoup. Todd originally from Michigan had become a resident of Lloydminster, Alberta after a job transfer and had become a good friend and neighbor of Jim. This was his first bear hunt but is a highly experienced hunter and fisherman with years of quading experience under his belt. A true gentleman with a great sense of humor as well.
We settled into camp and prepared our equipment for the next days hunt. It was decided that we would all hunt up through the North line. The toughest and farthest set of stands within Jim’s hunting area. The quading is extreme in that it necessitates negotiating rough trails, floating bridges, mud holes and the ever present muskeg. The farthest stand would be about 15 miles for Todd, my relatively close by at approximately 14 miles and Don and Joe’s stands at 8 and ten miles.
My stand was the same as the one I had used two seasons prior where I took my Boone & Crockett Bear. I was excited to be back at the scene of one of the best hunting experiences of my life.
We made the arduous trek north negotiating all of its pitfalls. It’s a tiring experience to say the least. Joe’s stand had been hit, the barrel was knocked over and the attached chain twisted as the bear attempted to carry it off. Jim has had a few barrels disappear over the years, never to be found. No fresh sign at Don’s stand but bear tracks were everywhere.
I settled into my climbing stand as Jim and Todd roared off to Todd’s spot. I heard Jim heading back to camp some time later. He and Todd had made a stop to repair one of Jim’s bridges that had loosened after repeated crossings by the quads.
It was 6:30 pm and still quite warm but I decided it would be best to put on my extra clothing before the temperature dropped so as to avoid unnecessary movement later on when bear activity would be at its highest. I fired up my Thermacel, probably the greatest invention for the outdoor enthusiast since the invention of the GPS. The hordes of mosquitoes backed off almost immediately. I didn’t need to use any netting while in my stand.
At 7:15 I heard the sharp report of Todd’s rifle. I was so happy for him. I knew his first Bear was down.
Not twenty minutes later I caught movement back in the bush behind the barrel. Were my eyes deceiving me or did I just see one very large bear? No one had taken any very large Bear the previous three weeks. A few were spotted but never came close enough for a shot. My heart began to pound, the adrenaline was pumping hard. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. He slowly meandered toward the barrel. He was lean for a Bear his size. His back was clearly well above the fifty five gallon drum and his coat was perfect, not a rub to be seen. I hesitated. It’s the first day. Should I wait to see if there is something even bigger? The big boar walked to the barrel and took something off the top. He didn’t even have to lift his head up to reach it. He turned his tail toward me and I judged the space between his ears. It was broad. Maybe not a B&C but it was damn close. A Pope & Young Bear for sure if I were bow hunting.
I decided to take him. I was still a little unnerved to suddenly see the bear this early in my hunt but I raised my rifle as he stood up placing both front paws on the top of the barrel. I aimed for the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. I knew at that instant that I pulled the shot. He was knocked over by the blast and ran hell bent back into the bush. He ran straight back at lightning speed then verged slightly to the left. I listened intently for a death moan or breaking brush but the woods grew silent.
My mind raced. I relived the shot over and over again. What was the matter with me? If I had just taken a deep breath, waited one more moment then I wouldn’t be feeling the way I did. I can’t describe the sickening feeling that came over me. Maybe I would be lucky and find him down but I didn’t have a good feeling about the shot at all.
I heard Todd’s quad working his way in my direction after hearing my shot. I lowered my rifle and pack and descended the tree. I reloaded and headed for the barrel. No blood. I began walking a short distance along the trail where he had run. There was still no sign of blood to be found. I thought better than to pursue a wounded Bear on my own.
I heard Todd’s quad reach the top of the trail some hundred yards distant and I walked out to meet him. His Bear was down at the bait having been dropped in his tracks. I congratulated him on his first Bear and I relayed the story of my situation. We decided to wait till past shooting time and then head back to pick up Joe and Don. He would then meet Jim near Don’s stand.
Once we were all together Jim decided that we should head back up the trail, recover Todd’s Bear and then go looking for mine. I thought Jim was nuts to go looking for a wounded animal in the pitch black but he, at least, wanted to see if we could find blood sign.
After securing Todd’s Bear in the trailer we headed to my stand.
I have to tell you that there is nothing scarier than trying to follow after a wounded predator in the dark of the night in the middle of the wilderness. Todd and I armed with flashlights and Jim, at the ready, sporting a slug loaded shotgun. We had gone but a few yards past where I had stopped on my initial search and we found the first telltale sign of blood. My hopes soared. More sign in ever increasing amounts. The sound of the quad began fading in the distance as we weaved our way through the thick and ever increasingly difficult brush. After one hundred yards or so my hopes again began to fade. If he’s not down within the first hundred yards the odds begin stacking against you.
We decided to abandon our search, return to camp with the others and renew it again in the morning.
I couldn’t eat nor sleep once back at the cabin. The whole scene kept gnawing through my mind. With all of my hunting experience, how could I have blown what should have been an easy shot? I had let the adrenaline overflow take over.
We returned the next morning and picked up the trial where we had left off. The blood sign was clear at first. We tracked further and further into the bush as the bear began to wander, no longer running in a straight line. It was a bad sign for sure. Eventually nearly two miles back into the bush the blood simply stopped. I was literally on my hands and knees looking for even a drop of blood to no avail. There were no signs of broken bone, the blood had stopped and we concluded that the Bear had only been flesh wounded. We returned to camp.
I gave myself a time out. I just couldn’t bring myself to go back and hunt after having wounded such a great Bear. Everyone encouraged me to try again but I figured I’d give it a day or so and see how I felt about it.
Don at seventy two was tuckered out. He pulled me to the side and confided in me. “John, I think I’m just getting too old for this intense quading!” I told him to rest while I discussed the situation with Jim. There’s a new area that Jim’s been exploring due east of the cabin. I had hunted it the previous fall. It’s only a six mile run at the furthest stand and, with the exception of one relatively small bog, was a lot easier ride. I would take the day off as Jim and Todd headed east placing Don on a platform constructed on a big blow down overlooking an intensely overgrown clearing. Joe would go the full six miles to a climbing stand that I had hunted during deer season. There is a beautiful view from there overlooking a timber trail with potential shots out to 200 yards.
Don didn’t have to wait very long. A bear’s head suddenly popped out of the brush and after some hesitation worked its way to the bait. The bear was very close as Don gave the bear a good look over. The pelt was in perfect condition. As he raised his rifle the bear caught the movement and started to run to the left but Don was on him and fired. The bear put on the afterburners and disappeared into the dense tangle. Don was confident in his shot and heard crashing around back in the bush. Around the same time Joe had a visitor as well. The big sow worked her way to the bait. It was another perfect pelt. Joe dropped the bear in its tracks.
Jim and Todd retrieved Joe’s Bear from the bait and they decided to come back to search for Don’s bear first thing in the morning as it was pitch black by the time they were back at Don’s stand.
Early Wednesday morning we all headed out together and found the bear in short order not sixty yards from the stand.
Back in camp Jim got to the business of skinning the two bears. Todd’s had been skinned the day before and was already in the freezer. Jim suggested that all four of us take the boat for a run to East Bay and try our luck fishing. It’s a good run from the cabin but Jim’s forty five horses got us there in a flash. We began drifting the edges of reed beds and were into the Pike almost immediately. We caught five in about an hour up to twelve pounds and lost even more. A few were huge. I was tossing a big red and white spinner with a buck tail on it with an eight inch leader. My pole doubled over but the fish engulfed the entire bait including the leader and bit right through my line. Another fish
took a swipe at Don’s lure right by the boat. I couldn’t believe the size of that fish. His body was thicker than my thigh and more than three feet long.
When we returned to camp Jim was finished with his skinning chores and we had an early dinner for a change. After encouragement from everyone I decided that I would get back into a stand on Thursday. We awoke to very windy conditions. I prepared my equipment in the hope that the wind would die down by the early evening. The wind was variable and whenever it blew from the north intense smoke from a forest fire that was over one hundred miles away would blow through the camp. I never like hunting or fishing in intense wind. My success under those conditions has always been limited.
As the day progressed the wind began to die down with just the occasional gust. Jim and I headed out to the same bait that Joe had hunted on Tuesday. We brought the racks from the fish we had caught along with a lot of fresh bait.
I set up in the climber and settled in. Within an hour the wind began to blow worse than it had all day, gusting to at least 35 miles per hour. It shifted and the North wind brought so much smoke from the forest fire that I was choking from the fumes. The inside of my nose was burning from the acrid smell as I was wiped around by the gusts some thirty feet up the tree. It was a dangerous situation and I decided to climb down and slowly still hunt my way back toward camp some six miles away.
The smoke subsided as I crept along but the gusting continued. A cow moose crashed through the bush when I came around a turn as I worked my way to Don’s platform stand. Once there I attempted to sit but the wind was whipping so hard that the camouflage cloth around it was blowing right into my face.
I decided to continue still hunting toward camp. Darkness came on fast as I trekked along. A bear woofed as it caught my scent and it scrambled through the forest breaking branches as it ran. The sky turned pitch black. It was then that I heard the first howl from a wolf a good distance away. The rest of the pack joined in. It’s a little disconcerting to be alone in the wilderness while being serenaded by a pack of wolves. I had covered some five miles when I heard the distant drone of Jim’s quad. He wasn’t too happy that I had walked out on my own as technically, as a non-resident, I’m supposed to be accompanied by a guide. He understood under the circumstance though.
When I got back to camp I found out that Don was not feeling very well. Despite his protests I insisted that we leave camp on Friday, a day early. My hunting was done. I wanted to make sure that he would be OK. I figured that the change in weather was simply payback for my screwing up on my bear anyway. I’ll be kicking myself in the butt for some time I’m sure. You wish that you had missed completely.
Thanks Jim & Dar. It’s always a pleasure.