Saskatchewan Bear Hunt - The Last Hunt
The following story is based on a hunt in June 2006 at Dore Lake Saskatchewan Canada. The bear has since been officially scored by a Boone & Crockett official and scored at 20 inches.
My brothers and I have hunted deer in Saskatchewan six years in a row. We took some beautiful bucks during our hunts but I was the only brother of the three to ever hunt for bear with our outfitter, Jim Williamson of Tower Lodge at Dore Lake. On that hunt in 2002 I took a nice boar with a beautiful pelt that squared just under six feet.
My brothers, Don and Joe, have encountered bear on numerous occasions over the years in both New York and New Jersey when hunting other game but never had been on an actual bear hunt. We often talked of doing a bear hunt together before we just got too old to do it.
Jim called me this past winter to let me know that he had decided to sell the Lodge. Increased competition, the drop in the exchange rate between US and Canadian dollars and his frustration in finding reliable guides left him little choice. He had decided that he would do one last big hunt for bear this Spring. He called his oldest clients to ask if they'd join him on this Last Hunt. I contacted Don and Joe. We all signed on.
Two weeks before our departure Jim called to tell me that he had discovered incredible sign on the North End of Dore Lake. One set of front prints measured seven and a half inches. That track had Boone & Crockett written all over it. In order to hunt the area however would necessitate traveling eight and a half miles across the Lake from the Lodge and set up camp in Jim's outpost cabin. The cabin is located just off a sandy beach smack dab in the middle of pristine wilderness. We would have solar power and a generator plus running water pumped from the Lake. The shower would be outside, a tarp wrapped around a couple of trees. The closet bait to the cabin would be a rough eight mile journey through the bush by Quad, the furthest seventeen miles. This was going to be an exciting wilderness hunt.
Our 8:00 am flight from Newark New Jersey on June 3rd was canceled due to poor weather conditions just hours before we were to leave. After a quick scramble, we managed to catch an earlier flight just making it aboard as the plane doors closed. We stayed overnight in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan then drove the four hours to Dore Lake the following morning arriving at Tower Lodge on Dons' 70th birthday.
We'd planned a full week of Pike and Walleye fishing during the day then setting up in our stands late each afternoon.
We arrived in camp, sighted in our rifles and made the long trip across the Lake with all our gear. Little did we know that this was going to be one rugged expedition back into the wilderness with no time for fishing.
Two other hunters joined us at the cabin. Jason Boling, of Louisville, Kentucky is an ex 82nd airborne paratrooper and avid bear hunter. Jason had hunted bear with Jim for the last four years and had just come back from a bear hunt in British Columbia. We were also joined by Keith Graham of Graham Outdoor Adventures. Keith is an outfitter as well with a, bow only, hunt camp in Illinois. He is an outdoor writer and television personality here in the States. Keith has hunted all around the world including Africa, Mongolia, New Zealand and all across North America. He holds the Sheep Grand-Slam. Both gentlemen were a pleasure to hunt with.
I awoke early the next day. It was 4:00 am and the sun was shinning. There's only about four hours of darkness this far north in early June. There was a chill in the air so I threw some logs on the outdoor fireplace where embers still glowed from the night before. I gazed out across the calm waters of Dore Lake watching the hordes of ducks, geese, cormorants and pelicans as they fed. A magnificent Golden Eagle glided just above the cabin roof and a beaver swam purposely along the lake shore. Fresh Moose tracks meandered along the beach. What a beautiful and peaceful morning.
Slowly everyone else in camp awoke and we began preparing our gear for the hunt. We'd be taking two quads, one pulling a wagon through the boreal forest. This was going to be a rough ride. Besides our guns, bows and back-backs we needed to load extra gas, chainsaws, axes, a portable steel ramp, a first aid kit, water and fresh bait consisting of beaver, fish, venison and table scraps from diner. Each stand had previously been baited with 55 gallon drums loaded with grain mixed with used cooking oil and fruit preserves.
Jason and Keith boarded one quad while Jim & I saddled the other. Joe and Don rode in the wagon pulled by Jim's quad.
We left camp just before 1:00 p.m. The first half mile was probably the roughest. A tight trail winding through a thick pine forest with stumps, tree roots, flooded trail and mud filled pot holes. The quad with the trailer barely made the turns through the dense brush. I thought we were in the clear as the trail opened into a large burn over from a forest fire a few years back but the break was short lived. It turned hot and sunny, the dust kicked up by the quads was stifling. Moose, wolf, deer and bear tracks were everywhere. It seemed all the local denizens used the trail for a highway. A Ruffed Grouse with her chicks ambled across the trail and Jim barely managed to avoid hitting the tiny chicks. Another grouse, feigning a broken wing, attempted to lead us away from her nest when we apparently came too close.
Jim had constructed bridges, from logs he had cut, over deep crevices along the trail. We cut through the edges of beaver ponds and crossed creeks teeming with Buffalo Suckers on their spawning runs from Dore Lake to ponds way back in the forest. As we approached one large pond a dozen Bald Eagles and a single Golden Eagle flushed from the shoreline. They were feasting on the Suckers in their spawning beds. Jim claimed that the spawning runs were nearing their end which was a good thing as the bears had been feasting as well. We needed the bears coming to the bait sites.
We came to another wide creek where Jim had constructed a floating bridge. We first had to drive 20 feet or so through a couple of feet of water, ease the front wheels of the quad onto the edge of the logs and carefully ease our way up onto the bridge that was connected to the opposite bank. It was precarious at best and I thought that we all might be going for a swim. Jim knows his business though and we made it across without a hitch. Still more flooded trails with knee high mud. We found ourselves stuck in the quagmire on several occasions and used the winches to pull ourselves out. We all wore goggles thankfully, protecting our eyes from the wiping branches as we made our way along the ever narrowing trail. We encountered many more Grouse, Owls and game tracks of every kind. This area is so remote that few hunters had been here over the years. The Wolf and Moose tracks seemed predominate but large Deer and Bear tracks could be seen in the mix.
After eight miles of exhausting jousting and eating dust and mud we came near to the first stand. We dropped the trailer and Jim took Joe the mile back into the stand along a side trail. Jim was back in fifteen minutes or so and reported that the bait had been hit. He got Joe set up in his climbing tree stand and re-baited with fresh Beaver and Fish. We re-hooked the trailer and drove another three miles to the next stand. As Jason and Keith waited on the main trail, Jim and I drove Don down a side trail about three quarters of a mile or so and set Don up in his stand. That bait had not been touched. Back on the trail we drove another three miles through heavy brush and flooded trail to my stand. As Jim and I approached we stopped along the trail to study all of the Bear tracks. There were tracks of every size and one set was enormous. My bait had been hit. Jim re-baited as I inched up the tree in my climber and pulled up my gear. He wished me luck before taking off to set up Jason and Keith whose stands were another two and three miles away.
I settled in, mounting my camera and covering myself with netting as the mosquitoes zeroed in. The insects couldn't reach me through it all but they were relentless in their endeavor. I was hot and sweaty after the long journey. It was after 4:00 pm.
Nothing moved in the woods except for an occasional squirrel, some song birds and the never ending onslaught of the Mosquitoes. By 10:30 it was too dark to clearly judge any bear that might come in. By 11:00 it was pitch black in the thick woods. Jim picked me up first and we rode off to pick up Jason and Keith. Neither one had seen any bears even though both their baits had been hit when they arrived. We made our way out to the main trail and drove back to recover Don and Joe. No luck at their baits as well. As we made the arduous trek back to the cabin the reason for the bears not moving became very clear. The wind picked up suddenly and increased to close to 40 miles an hour. It was blowing like crazy as the front moved in. We could hear the crashing surf on Dore Lake through the darkness. It's amazing how animals can sense a change in weather long before humans can. The bears had denned up in anticipation of the approaching front. We arrived in camp around 3:00 am. Jim's wife Dar had our dinner waiting for us. As we readied for bed the sun was coming up.
We left camp earlier the second day, before noon. I was surprised I wasn't more tired than I was. We had only gotten about four hours sleep. We set up in the same stands. Just around 10:00 pm I heard the distinctive moan of a bear directly down wind of my bait site. Twigs snapped and the bear came closer. My adrenaline began to flow as the mid sized bear cut to my right and began testing the air intently. He scented me somehow and approached the base of my tree. He ran off after getting a nose full and circled back from where he had come. Much to my surprise he came back into the bait site and approached my tree from the other direction. After reassuring himself that it was safe he helped himself to the beaver meat and fish. I could have taken this bear at any time but he wasn't the Bear I was after.
Day three was cooler with a light breeze. It was quiet all day till around 9:30. Suddenly a bear cub popped up right behind the bait pile. He was cute as can be. He first scratched himself repeatedly and began licking grain from the ground as he lied there without a worry in the world. He managed to grab a fish from atop the bait barrel and ran off with it. He returned awhile later and grabbed another fish but suddenly became very alert and took off through the woods with fish in tow.
I heard the popping of teeth from well behind me followed by a second popping from behind and to my right. Fierce growls ensued and more popping sounds. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I could hear heavy footsteps and growling coming closer. Suddenly a huge bear walked directly below my stand from behind. He walked to the base of my tree and inhaled deeply. He snorted and trotted off to my right and stopped, popping his teeth and growling. More footsteps and another huge boar walked right below my tree on my left. He also growled and popped his teeth as the two boars apparently disputed territory. It was mating season. Both bears were the biggest I've ever seen.
The second bear approached the bait and turned broadside. I aimed the cross hairs just behind his shoulder and fired. The bear jumped and staggered, he caught himself, spun and began running to the right. I swung on him and fired again, he collapsed not thirty feet from the bait pile. His death moan pierced the now quiet woods for what seemed like minutes. It is the eeriest sound imaginable.
The first bear had run off but I feared he may return and attack his former rival. Darkness was rapidly approaching as I climbed down from my stand and approached my bear. He was huge. His paws and head were enormous, I could hardly move him. I reloaded my rifle and put my head lamp on as I stood guard over the bear lest the other return. It was pitch black when I heard the quad approaching. I breathed a sigh of relief as Jims headlights beamed over the top of the ridge.
There was a surprised look on Jims face as he saw me standing right on the edge of the bait site in the pitch blackness. I said “wait till you see what I got”! Jim broke out in a broad smile as he stated, “what a hog”! “That's the biggest bear we've taken out of this camp in years”! He hugged me, slapped me on the back and congratulated me to no end. “I do believe you have yourself a B&C here, eh?” he said.
Jim had left the trailer on the other quad with Jason and Keith. The only way to get this bear out was to somehow get him on the quad seat. We placed a strap around his two hind legs and power lifted his back legs onto the seat. I grabbed the strap from the other side of the quad and pulled with all I had as Jim pushed with all he could. Somehow the bear slid onto the seat and we strapped him down. I jumped into the gear box on the rear of the quad as Jim stood upright squeezed between the bear and the handle bars. We slowly inched our way up the ridge. It was already after midnight.
We drove down the main trail to the cut where we were to meet Jason and Keith. We were surprised that they weren't there waiting for us. We unloaded my bear, turned off the quad and listened for sounds of the other quad. It was total silence except for an owl hooting intently. One of two things had happened. They had either taken another bear or were broken down somewhere along the trail. We waited another 10 minutes and were about to head in their direction when we heard the distant strain of the quad. Keith had connected as well with a 200 pound cinnamon boar. We congratulated each other and Jason and Keith got a good look at my 315 pound Bear. Jason had missed a shot at another big bear with his bow. Keith originally was bow hunting but had his string broken during one of our rides and switched over to rifle.
We had over 500 pounds of bear in the trailer and we still had to pick up Don and Joe. We slowly made our way to pick up the other hunters. We recovered Don and met Joe on the main trail. He had walked the mile out from his stand. It was a brave move, in wolf and bear country, in the middle of the night. Neither Don nor Joe had seen any bear.
Joe and I straddled the bears in the trailer. Don rode behind Jim on the quad. It was an incredibly rough ride with little to hold onto as we again ran the gauntlet back to the cabin.
We finally made it back at sunrise. We unloaded the bears, had a celebration drink, ate dinner and collapsed into bed.
Don would take my spot the next day and Joe moved to Don's old stand. Don scored early that day on a 175 pound sow. His first bear ever. Joe again had no luck and Jason hung in there passing on smaller bears.
Jim and I remained in camp that day busy skinning the two bears after taking tons of pictures. Keith is an official Pope & Young scorer and measured my bear's skull at 20 & 2/8ths. That's 2/8ths of an inch over the B&C minimum score to make book. I hope that after the sixty day drying period the bear will qualify.
Jason & Joe returned to the woods on Friday for another try. Joe went to my stand and had an entertaining day with two cubs, one of which climbed up his tree to pay him a visit. Again Jason passed on a number of bears.
That was the end of our hunt. Don, Joe and I had an early Sunday morning flight back home, so Jim ferried us back to the main lodge Saturday morning for the long drive back to Saskatoon. We had to be up by 3:00 Sunday morning. Jason had a late Sunday flight so he gave it one more try in my stand on Saturday and passed on four different bears we were to find out after we got home.
It's a shame that Jim is closing Tower Lodge. We certainly hope that somehow he'll be able to turn it around. We'd certainly be back there again if he does. As far as a Last Hunt was concerned there were no complaints. Three bear for five hunters and one was a B&C. We had the opportunity to see true wilderness and experience it up close. It was without a doubt the most rugged and rewarding hunt I've ever had the pleasure to enjoy.