I just returned from a trip to Colorado where I finally got to go elk hunting. It was an experience. We had some luck and got some meat in the freezer. There was a lot about the trip that was unexpected, or just plain shocking to my system.
My son, Hank, 16, got his first black bear. That was something I'll never forget. He drew a youth muzzleloader bear and a youth muzzleloader elk tag, I was armed with a muzzleloader cow elk tag and my husband, Ralph, had an archery either sex elk license.
It took a fairly arduous trek up the side of a mountain just to reach the general area. Now, if you haven't been to the Rocky Mountains, let me tell you something. They have no air up there. It is thin, there is no humidity and the land is like being caught on a stairstepper machine where you can't get off. For those of us used to the Louisiana air and who have practically developed gills to breathe here and think a 2 percent grade is a climb, the contrast is sudden, absolute and completely unforgiving. I've been to Colorado before and haven't had much trouble with breathing or getting around. Hunting shouldn't be much different, right? Wrong! The view of the mountains from within the constraints of a seat belt are breathtaking. Climbing that mountain takes your breath away, literally. I was not prepared for the ruggedness that faced me. I felt like one of those cartoons where the big guy reaches out and puts his hand on the forehead of the little guy. The little guy runs and flails and never gets anywhere. I was that little guy. Lots of work to only get a few feet forward. When people tell you to get in shape before a mountain hunt, they are only trying to save your life.
Loaded down with gun, cap, possibles bag and fanny pack, Hank and I branched off from Ralph, who would be in search of his own game nearby. I went with Hank on this hunt because having an extra muzzleloader would have been handy should a bear decide we looked less threatening as a meal and decided to charge us.
Bear are dangerous and unpredictable, especially should a proud mommy take offense at us admiring one of her precious little ones.
So off we go. We find the valley Ralph told us about and settled in on the log. Hank and I were sitting on opposite ends of a fallen aspen tree on a warm afternoon on opening day, Sept. 8. The sun was shining and a slight breeze was blowing up from an aspen valley. We were sitting near a water ditch, which is basically an irrigation ditch that weaves around the sides of mountains. The area is not exactly remote, but not exactly easy to get to either. We knew the area was a good one for bear, having heard sightings of them from other hunters and from my husband's past experiences hunting in the area.
We'd just about given up hope of seeing any game when, suddenly, a big, black, fierce looking bear came out of the woods. It looked like it was the size of a small elephant to me with shiny black fur and all I could imagine was foot long teeth and claws to match, much like the tiger on Ice Age. Of course, it was an average bear, but never having come into such close contact with one in such a remote place, it really looked menacing. It started to creep across valley through the aspens, weaving in and out and behind brush and among the aspens and spruce trees.
Hank realized it was out of range which forced us to go on the stalk. Now, I imagine we, especially me, looked a lot like Elmer Fudd when he is "hunting wabbits" but that is fine. It's not the finesse that matters, it's the timing. We eased around a large spruce tree and came out just in time to see the bear as it crossed the halfway point of the valley. It was angling toward us, moving from left to right as we were.
My heart was in my throat and for some reason the air got thicker and easier to breathe or else I just forgot to breathe altogether. This is where the thrill of the chase takes over. The forest fades away into nothingness. It doesn't matter if the birds are chirping, a thunderstorm is raging or you're standing on a fire ant hill. The world blurs away to nothing but you and the game you're after. Every instinct is fine honed, every safety rule ever known to man comes roaring through your brain in a nanosecond and the adrenaline rushes through your veins like water over Niagra Falls. It is you, the game, the firearm and the desire for a clean kill.
I fell back behind Hank. This was his show. I'm simply the backup. He slips into position, but with nothing to serve as a brace, he's forced to take the shot freehanded. The bear is now around 50 yards and is just milling around.
The time is now. He aims, shoots and as the smoke floats away on the wind, he is already reaching for powder and bullet. We both realize at about the same time that the bear isn't down, but it isn't charging either. It is looking around and standing its ground.
"Don't take your eyes off that bear," I say, so Hank thrusts his gun into my hands for me to reload. We decide to keep my gun handy and loaded in case of emergency. He keeps a keen eye on the bear while I reload. BANG!, then the clearing of smoke. Still, the shiny black bear isn't down and again I reload. For some reason, back at home when we were sighting in these babies I had all kinds of trouble ramrodding the bullet down, but here, in the heat of the moment, I would have sworn it was coated with axle grease.
Another load, but this time we have to creep a little further for a better shot. Then ready! Aim! Fire! Time is still. The air is still. My heartbeat is still. It is by instinct that we function- aim, shoot, reload. Watch the bear.
On the fourth shot, the mighty bear fell like it had been hit like a Mack truck head on. In our excitement we both stood there and time stood still. This is what it is all about. The basic elements of family, nature and what God has provided.
We watched as that mighty bear moved no more. Then we both erupted in shouts and I slapped him on back congratulating him on his trophy. During this time two things happened. One, we effectively scared any self-respecting game clean out of the county with our enthusiasm and two, Ralph appeared out the woods in time to share in the celebration. There was plenty more backslapping and congratulating before we made our way to check out the kill.
Cautiously Ralph led the way, followed by Hank and of course, with me dragging up the rear, which was where I found myself much of the trip. After making sure the bear was indeed down and wouldn't be getting back up, I dragged my ever-present camera from my pocket and began taking photos. Hank had made a clean shot to the bear's skull that effectively dropped the boar bear in his tracks.
Then, the obvious happens. The heart rate slows, the birds chirp again and the forest comes back into focus. Especially the part that shows us the climb we must make to get the bear back up to the water ditch. Of course it lay below the level of the water ditch and not above. Next into focus is the time. It was around 6:30 p.m., would be dark soon and we had a long, long way to go to get the bear out. Groaning, we face the task of getting the bear back to camp. A quick cell call to friends results in some much needed assistance and two hours later we're back in camp cleaning the bear and packing the meat for home.
Such is the way of hunting. It is a physically, emotionally and mentally demanding undertaking. You can go from peaceful to electrically charged in the span of a heartbeat when the elusive game appears. It changes from feeling like you can take on the world to the world is laughing at your predicament in that same heartbeat. Still, there is nothing else like hunting. Nothing that delivers the multitude or range of skills and emotions.
Sharing this hunt with my son and husband was one of the best experiences of my life. I have photos and come next summer we should have a nice bear rug on the floor to remind me of the hunt, but the movie-reel memories that play through my mind are the best. The second by second replaying, complete with sensations of sun and wind and the smell of the mountain air, is what I'll take with me forever.
For Hank, it was his hour of glory. For Ralph and me, it was an experience we wouldn't have traded for anything.