Tom Kemmett’s bear post got me thinking of bear. I’ve had little contact with brown bear – though I did shoot one with an old 8 mm Mauser in the 1970s that had got in the chickens up in Alaska. I was better armed than my room mate who’d come armed with a broom. Thought it was a dog, in the dark – until it stood up – and up – and up. Figured there were more bear than chickens in our part of Alaska. I could have kept the bear if I’d paid for a license, but I was up there to make money. Kind of wish I’d done it now. The hide, far as I know, is still hanging at the local fish and game office.
Black bear are not uncommon where we live. My great aunt was mad for them, and got her photo in a couple of eastern rags in the 1950s as “The Bear Woman of Minnesota.” She used every part of the bear for something. She was especially fond of bear oil as it made for superior baking. Her pies and donuts were renowned.
She only ever used a .30-30, but was a dead shot. She once shot a bear at a 1/4 mile from the top of a fire tower. Figuring the drop on a shot like that is tough. In her later years, when I’d visit she’d say, “Brought me any bear yet, you lazy hunter?” I could always tell how many bear she’d shot since my last visit by the number of new bullet holes through the screen in her screen door.
My father had his own way of dealing with bear. He never liked them much, as they’d often get in our cabin and make a mess. Bear always seem to enter by a window and leave by a door – destroying both in the process. Upon entry, they find every food item you have, gather it in the middle of the floor, crush all the cans and scatter all the flour, sugar, syrup, and such and make a mess that takes a week to clean up. Then, there’s the toilet paper. They seem to love unrolling it.
On one such occasion, the second entry into the cabin of that particular summer, we shot seven bears. We used .22 rifles. The bullet enters one side of the skull and bounces around in the interior – making the .22 more dangerous than a larger round shot through and through.
My father had his own methods for dealing with bears and food packs as well. Most canoe people have had some occasion of bears after their food pack. Some folks say to tie the pack in a tree. Some say to tie the pack on a rope between two trees. Bears have little trouble solving the problem of getting a food pack out of a tree. I’ve watched a bear drop from above the rope – landing on the rope and breaking it. The food pack tumbles to the ground.
If I’m concerned, I place the pack in the woods, not on a trail, some distance from the campsite. Bears are like anyone else and will use the trail when approaching a campsite. It is important to keep your food items in containers which allow no escape of odor.
I’ve also used my father’s method a number of times and it seems to work just as well.
My father, The Clifford, had a different take on bear and food packs. He would lean the pack against the tent and put the camp kettles on top of the pack. When the bear would take the pack, the kettles would make noise, and my dad, The Clifford, would run out of the tent and grab the pack away from the bear. He was always fun to watch. You wouldn’t believe a human being could move that quick. That’s the nice thing about Black Bear. Startle them and they run off. Startle a Brown Bear, from all I’ve heard – and you end up being lunch.
Every year all the men of the extended family would go on a fishing trip. There were often bear episodes. Once, in northern Ontario, when I was about 13, we set up on campsite which turned out to be the territory of several bear. This was first discovered when one of the bears decided to enter the kid’s tent. We kids, in our sleeping bags, at first thought it was my Uncle John – who liked to creep around the campsite, growl, and scratch our tent to make us think it was a bear. We were yelling, “We know it’s you, Uncle John,” when the bear slit the side of the tent with its claws and entered. There was a mad dash for the tent door – in which one cousin, who tried to exit the tent before exiting his sleeping bag, got trampled and was left in the tent to scream bloody murder and get walked on by the bear.
We took turns feeding the fire, My Uncle Willie and I took the second watch. We talked a bit, then, very tired, went into a bit of a trance state. Then in the firelight we noticed a pile a gear seemed to be moving – as if by magic – from one side of the campsite to another. Finally roused, my uncle yelled, “It’s a bear!” and jumped up and grabbed the pile of gear from the bear.
The bears, continued to plague us throughout the night. Eventually everyone was up – as it was great fun. The most fun was watching my father, who is short, but in those days, extremely agile and strong – with “Popeye” forearms and hands like a vice. He got a big stick about 2 inch by three feet, and was chasing the bears around wacking them on the butt. I remember one sequence where he chased one bear out of the campsite, wacking it on the behind all the while and then chasing another into the campsite, still wacking away. The bear climbed a pine tree, and so did dad, wacking it on the butt all the way up the pine tree.
The bear balanced there precariously on the very top of the tree. Every time the bear would start down again, Dad would grab his stick and head for the tree. The bear would go back up in a hurry. My grandfather finally put some white gas on the end of a long pole, started it afire, and burned the bears butt until it jumped in the lake, narrowly missing one of our boats. It headed for shore, only to be confronted by my father and the stick. It turned around and headed for the far shore – over a mile away.
After more of this during the night with the remaining bears, my grandfather finally asked my dad, “Aren’t you afraid the bear will turn on you.” My father shrugged and said, “Bear sense fear – and I’m not afraid.”
I could go on with more stories of that night – and of many other nights camping with bears in the north woods, but I’ll finish with a couple stories of my own.
I’ve seldom shot a bear hunting. I’ve never cared for the taste of bear, unless canned. Several of the older women in our family used to can bear, but I fear that’s a thing of the past. I’ve shot quite a few nuisance bears. My neighbors still call me to shoot nuisance bear, but I decline. The law has become a bit stricter on the subject.
One year, while I was still working – a bad berry year – the jurisdiction where I worked was plagued by bear. At one point, we were getting an average of ten bear calls per shift. Most bear fear humans – so within their brain is the war between that fear – and their need for food – which they know humans have. Most bear could be scared off by yelling, but for some, the need for the food was too strong. Bear will bluff. They give a “woof,” kind of a cough, which means, “You are too close.” They will even make a mock charge. Most often, yelling and advancing will drive them off. A shot planted between their legs will usually do the trick if they are too recalcitrant. It is necessary to watch their ears however. If the ears lay flat back against the skull, they are no longer bluffing, and it is time to make a head shot.
PETA people are a pain. I came on one car-hit bear where the driver was a PETA type from Minneapolis. The bear was in the ditch, knocked out and injured. The PETA guy was carrying on, crying and blubbering. I headed down to shoot the bear, and the PETA guy came unglued. He wanted the bear taken to the vet. I’m sure the local vet would have been enjoyed that. After trying to reason with the PETA guy, I finally got exasperated and said, “Fine, you pick him up, put him in your trunk, and drive him to the vet.” Bad move. The PETA guy headed for the bear with every intention of putting the bear in the trunk of his car. I finally had to cuff the idiot and put him in the rear of the squad. He was out of his mind.
The bear, in the mean time, had come to and taken off into a pine barren. I had to track him for a 1/4 mile before I found him. I don’t really enjoy tracking wounded bear when the visible line of sight is 15 to 25 feet.
We had one bear in town that year, possibly the largest black bear I’ve ever seen, about 600 pounds. He got hit by a car. The car was totalled, but the bear wasn’t doing so well either, suffering a broken pelvis. He was in a lot of pain, but he continued to hang around town for about a month. The game wardens asked us to shoot him if we saw him as they’d been unable to locate him.
One night, someone called about a bear in their apple tree. The statement was a little skewed as, when I arrived, the bear was on the apple tree – which was on the ground. A second squad arrived just after me. Seeing us, the bear ran off, broken bones clacking.
We ran after the bear, which couldn’t move with his normal speed. We should have brought a shotgun, but we didn’t. We followed the bear, in the dark, about half a mile through the woods. Eventually, I ran beside the running bear, probably about six feet away, shooting when I thought I had a good shot. It’s my thought that the bear had been living for over a month with such intense pain, the shots we fired did not have their usual shock value. My partner, not a good shot at the best of times, let off five rounds with a .357 at some point. I don’t believe he hit the bear at all. I shot eight shots from a Colt .45, the last one in the head. He was a big big bear.
That was not the only bear with an broken pelvis that I ran into. One night we received a call of an car-injured bear on the road near Lake Superior. I told the dispatcher to call the game warden. The warden didn’t want to get out of bed and told me I could take the bear if I wanted. Normally, they wouldn’t allow this, and if they did release the bear, they would take the claws and gall bladder. I was told the average bear was worth $5000 on the black market. Aphrodisiacs and such for folks from the far east.
Just about dark, I got to the area where the bear had been hit, found the driver gone, and the bear in the ditch, no steam rising from his mouth in the cold night air. The bear wasn’t too large, maybe 150 to 200 pounds. I decided I could get him in the trunk of my car and decided to take him. As the bear seemed to have given up the ghost, I took out my knife, pinched the fur below the sternum and began sawing on it with my knife. The bear came to with a yelp, and only a quick movement of my head kept it away from the snap of his teeth. I’ll probably always remember that snap and click of teeth next to my ear. Talk about jump!
The bear made his way into the wooded hillside between the road and the lake. I could hear the bone of his broken pelvis grinding as he ran. I kicked myself for not making a head shot when it would have been easy. There was no way I could leave the bear in that condition.
I followed the bear into the brush. He’d left a blood and debris trail. It led over deadfalls, under dead falls, and though some very thick stuff. All the while the bear is making his injured bear moan. I looked online for this sound, but while I found some interesting audios, I could not find this particular sound. It almost sounds like a cat with a deep bass, mewyow-wyow-wyow, and seems to come from everywhere. Very unnerving to hear while chasing an injured bear through the brush in the dark. I’ve heard this a number of times – usually when a bear’s been shot or seriously injured.
At length, in the full dark, the sound seemed to be very close, though I still couldn’t figure out the direction. I went under one last deadfall and my flashlight quit. Then the bear went “Woof!” This means “You are too close.”
I often end this story by saying, “Then the bear ate me.” But, the truth is, I just stood still until my night vision recovered from the falshlight’s glare, and I could see the outline of the bear’s head. The silhouette stands out in my memory. When the ears flattened down against the skull – I knew I had to shoot. I couldn’t see the sights on my 9 mm, but he was only about ten feet away. The bullet entered the cranium on the left lobe and ended his misery. The skull hangs in the gable over the fireplace in the screen house. I just went out and took a look at it.