It’s been two years since my first bear hunting experience in New Brunswick. My husband and I committed to my second bear hunt in beautiful British Columbia (and this trip proved to be successful - in more ways than one).
Not considered a first-time hunter any more, I was more aware of how to prepare for the trip and what to expect. The first order of business, I needed to brush up on my shooting skills. I had not shot my Winchester 3006 rifle since the last hunt and it was time to blow the dust off the gun case. Barry and I visited the shooting range - a successful hunter needs to be confident in her shooting skills.
My first shot at 100 yards and … it totally missed the target! I was a fairly good shooter a couple of years ago - at least able to hit the target - so what’s going on here now? My anticipations of a perfect shot on a trophy bear dissolved immediately. Then I remembered, two years ago I hunted from a tree stand and only sighted my rifle for close range. After some fine tuning, up/down/left/right – (patience) and a little more left/down/right/up - I was shooting groupings near the bull’s eye and back in business. The dreams of the perfect shot on a trophy bear returned!
Packing for our adventure is always an adventure in itself. Where is that Cabela’s catalog? An order for a few necessities needed to be placed. We were hunting during the last week of May so the weather and temperatures were expected to be mild. Closer to departure day, the excitement building, and checking the weather via the Internet, we find that B.C. is weeks behind in their spring – cold and snow. So that meant squeezing more wool and fleece into my poor duffel bag, which was already bursting at the seams. I had my sleeping bag, pillow, towel, hunting clothes, long underwear, miscellaneous clothes, brand new Cabela’s lady Bruin hunting boots, hiking boots, toiletries, fishing gear (just in case), binoculars, Gerber multi-tool, camera, etc. Every day for an item I would take out of the bag, two more items were squeezed in!
Departure day was nearing. We left for the Pittsburgh airport the evening before for an early morning flight. And, of course, we stopped at the newly built Gander Mountain store on the way. They happened to have a spiffy ladies camouflage outfit that was purchased and squeezed into the duffel. Couldn’t pass it up!
Up bright and early the next morning for a full day of traveling - flights to Toronto to Van Couver to Cranbrook, British Columbia. I can still picture it – landing in Cranbrook – what a truly beautiful, beautiful place! Pine trees everywhere … the town surrounded by snowcapped mountains – breathtaking.
The next morning, a rep from Toby Creek Outfitters met us to take us to base camp. The camp is located in the Purcell Wilderness. The set-up was very rustic which I was happily expecting. ‘Home’ comprised of a one-room cabin with a table, bunk bed, wood stove – and was equipped with a nightly visitor – a tiny mouse who made a big racket. The creek was located conveniently behind the cabin. A corral for the horses and of course the cook’s cabin stocked with food were located nearby. All the people we met were so pleasant and accommodating – and had great senses of humor!
The first plan of action was to unpack and ensure our rifles were still shooting correctly after their long journey. Barry, Dan, a grizzly bear hunter, Lyle, our guide, Les, another guide, and I drove out to an open area. The scenery was so beautiful – the blue sky, the rocks, the mountains, the snow in the higher elevations, puffy clouds, … just gorgeous.
Ladies first. I shot (I’ve never shot with an audience before). Looking for the bullet hole on the target through my scope and not seeing it, I assumed I missed the target and was disappointed. Les walked down to check the target and returned with the report … it was a bull’s eye! The others had to shoot a few times to sight their rifles in – even the guides. Boy did I feel like hot stuff.
All the next day Barry, Lyle and I spot and stocked throughout the wilderness looking for black bears. We saw lots and lots of mule deer and elk but didn’t see a bear. The locals and other guides were telling us about the black bears they were seeing. The bears were coming down the mountains and into town making nuisances of themselves in people’s garbage. The next day was the same story. Others were seeing bears – but not us. Maybe we should just go into town and bag our bears!
The following day we saddled up the horses, secured our rifles in the scabbards, and headed out into the wilderness. We rode all morning. As we ascended the mountain, the snow became deeper and deeper …. and deeper, until the horses could no longer maneuver through it. There was no choice but to turn around and back-track down the mountain.
We decided to split up and go spotting that evening. Les and I went one direction while Barry and Lyle went another. We saw a skunk, mountain goats, elk, and mule deer. Then Les spotted a black bear. We parked the truck and hiked up the hillside. We watched the bear. Les said I could take it and I was in position to shoot. Watching the bear through my scope, I realized he was only as big as one of the stumps next to him. There was no reason to shoot that little bugger. He wasn’t finished growing up. Although I debated, the decision was to let this bear be. We enjoyed watching him for a while. Then Les hooted and hollered. The bear slowly looked down at us, and continued doing his thing, ignoring the crazy humans. If I didn’t get a bear this trip, I was proud to know I had the willpower to pass on one that had more living to do.
I was excited to return to camp and tell Barry about seeing a bear.
The next day, John, our cowboy cook, said he felt today would be my day. How did he know?
Barry, Lyle, and I hiked through an area with a lot of bear sign – and I mean A LOT of sign! How thrilling to silently walk through this area knowing a big bear was just there – and probably still there with us. After hours of hiking and no luck of seeing a bear, we headed to another area. During one of our walks to glass a slide, I reached for a stone from a stream to save as a souvenir. I glanced to my left and downstream there were standing a mother moose with recently born twin calves. What a bonus sight!
We were driving up Jumbo Mountain when Barry spotted two black bears on another mountainside. Lyle, being an energetic young 22-year-old guide, maneuvered his truck on the narrow mountain roads and had us over to the other mountain swiftly. Quick as lightning, Lyle parked, jumped out of the truck and disappeared into the trees. Barry and I were left loading our rifles and then trying to track down our guide. We found Lyle in a small opening watching the bears on a slide. We ran from opening to opening trying to find the better view. One bear seemed to be chasing (or bothering) the other one. The bears disappeared into a thicket. I thought how nice – two bears frolicking in the sunshine! Barry helped position me with my rifle on a nearby stump (as I had practiced back in Pennsylvania) – and we waited. I asked Barry to get ready and back me up with his gun – just in case (I didn’t want to witness a wounded bear). We waited some more. Then one of the bears came into the opening again. A beautiful bear! He was slowly headed down the slide. I wanted Lyle’s approval to go ahead and shoot. He said whenever I felt comfortable - go ahead. We were 286 yards away (according to our handy Nikon Rangefinder). I have never shot at this distance before so I asked Barry how high to place the crosshairs. Barry gave what turned out to be the perfect answer – place the crosshair on the top of the bear’s back. I waited patiently until the bear hesitated … and steadily pulled the trigger. Lyle commented most hunters would not have been as patient or asked for his approval to shoot (a hunting compliment - made me feel good that I acted appropriately). The bear dove into some brush and we could not see him any more.
While Lyle and Barry scouted for a way to cross the river that, by the way, happened to separate us from the slide, I continued to glass the mountainside ensuring no black objects were struggling to get away. I watched, as what seemed to be happening in slow motion, a small black creature crawl out of the brush where the bear I shot had dove. He had big ears that his little face still needed to grow into. He had a tiny body, lanky arms and he held his hind end high in the air as he crawled like a monkey from the dry brush into the green dark forest. I was speechless and couldn’t believe my eyes – which were now welling up with tears. Had I shot the mother?
With a broken voice and dripping eyes, I relayed to Barry what I had seen. Barry and Lyle said it couldn’t have been the mother I shot. They reminded me we had watched for almost a half an hour before I shot and no one saw a cub. There is no guarantee in hunting that everything will work out as one prefers.
Barry and Lyle tried to cross the raging river, but couldn’t make it. We’d have to wait until tomorrow morning to plan our recovery. Back at camp, I was greeted with enthusiasm and congratulations. Needless to say, I sobbed all night long thinking of the lonely cub.
The next morning I woke with puffy eyes and not much get-up-and-go. Barry, Les and Lyle were at breakfast working out a plan to retrieve my bear. No one had a canoe or boat to use; they would have to cross the river some other way.
We arrived at the river, where it looked calmest, which actually wasn’t too calm. Les cut down a pine tree on the river’s edge and it fell across almost to the other side. Barry and Lyle used the tree to help them cross. It was iffy and slow going as the water raged over the tree and tried to take the guys downstream in the current. But they successfully made it to the other side – although soggy and cold. Barry and Lyle had their guns – as there was a mother grizzly and two cubs we watched earlier in the week nearby. (We watched the cubs through a scope play on snow patches. They were beautiful, fat, furry critters sliding down snow patches! Mother was impressively huge and kept her eye on those babies.)
Barry and Lyle kept in contact with Les and me via radios. Their hiking up the mountain and to the location where the bear lay in the brush seemed to take forever. But there was no hurry to hear the news that it was a mother bear.
The news came …. they found the bear. Well? Les handed me the radio because Barry wanted to break the news. IT WAS A MALE! Hallelujah! This bear may have been after the cub to kill it, and I may have saved that little critter. AND Barry said the bear didn’t suffer; there was no sign of his thrashing about. The shot I made was almost perfect (thanks to Barry’s recommendation of where to aim). Could life be any better!
It took Barry and Lyle quite some time to field dress the bear, rig him up on a branch to carry, and descend the mountainside down to the river. When they were finally in sight across the river, huffing and puffing from their hike and the large passenger on the branch, I caught the first glimpse of my bear. He was big … and I was ecstatic.
Now to get Mr. Bear across the water – I wasn’t sure how this was going to work. Les tied pieces of rope together with a rock at the end to throw to Barry and Lyle. Several tries but no luck; the rope wasn’t long enough. Les had to run over to a nearby camp to borrow more rope.
After patience and persistence, the one end of the rope ended up in Lyle’s hands. Yeah! They tied the rope around the bear’s shoulders and sent him swimming. The current took him downstream and I imagined my bear floating away, but Les held on. He navigated the bear over to us and we pulled him out of the stream. He was so heavy. I was finally holding my bear. We eventually got the bear up the hillside and onto the back of the truck. Now back to retrieve Barry and Lyle where we fell the tree.
Back at camp came the work of skinning the bear. Everyone kept saying he had such a pumpkin head (rough estimates of 19 inches). His teeth were worn proving he was an older bear. The hole in his fur - right above and a little behind the shoulder - amazed me. I was grateful and proud of that shot.
On the last day of our hunt, we hiked throughout the morning. We climbed over huge avalanche areas where the snow had wiped out trees and carried them down the mountainsides (amazing and powerful scenes). Since I had my bear, we were scouting for Barry’s bear. We were enjoying British Columbia’s beauty and our hike when Barry spotted a very large bear on a slide across a ravine. He was headed up the mountain in a hurry. We saw a moose in a snow patch nearby looking agitated. Possibly a grizzly bear was in the ravine below making everyone nervous? This bear would be a grand trophy for Barry … but it never came to be. The bear went into the trees and never came out into the opening as long as we watched. Not meant to be.
All I can say …. what a great trip!