Published in Cirque, Vol. 7, No. 2; 2016
Jerry Dale McDonnell
Above the routine of the rasping, cutting sound of the crosscut saw the noise and demeanor of the late-September afternoon woods changed. We didn't immediately quantify the change. We just knew it changed. The odor of standing pine and fir, of sawdust and fresh cut wood, the light dampness of the air, the gurgling water in the creek dancing around rocks all remained, but something had changed. Even the camp robbing Gray jays in the trees were on alert.
Living in the woods, paying attention is just the way of things. Sounds, smells, clouds, the wind, changes in plants and trees, migration and habits of animals are like news on the radio. In the timber-pole corral our lead and riding horses were agitated, which is a blip on the radar. Joker, the smallest, but oldest and wisest horse of the herd snorted, laid its ears back briefly then spun and jumped to the other side of the corral. The seven other stock we were holding followed Joker’s lead and did the mill dance, bunching up in one corner, spinning and bunching up in another. From the way the stock was acting, we knew it wasn't a lion. Our horses and mules go berserk when a mountain lion comes around. This was just the mill dance.
Gary released his end of the two-man crosscut saw. Erv stopped stacking wood and watched the horses. I walked warily toward the 10 x 12 canvas wall-cook-tent, scanning the thick forest of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area of Idaho. It was a fair blue-sky day. The flaps of the tent were open, the smell of fresh baked bread oozing out. I looked inside at Annie, my wife, our hunting camp cook. The small dog, Mitty, another part of our radar system, about half the size of a skinny marmot, was hunkered down in the corner shivering. A small but wise camp dog, it hadn't barked. Annie looked at me and then at the dog. I pointed to Annie's .44 Magnum pistol hanging in its shoulder holster from the axe-manufactured pole-rack that we kept in the cook tent; she brought it to me.
Erv Malnarich, the outfitter, a man who was born and raised in Idaho, a living legend in this part of the country, saw it first. I stepped away from the tent, looking to the horses for their ear pointing radar signals. They and Erv were all staring across the creek slightly up the slope at the same spot. I triangulated and zeroed in just as a young black bear, maybe weighing in at about 200 pounds, emerged from a willow thicket.
I looked for Erv’s lead. We didn't need any dead animals hanging under the shoeing fly just now. Fire danger had kept us out of the woods for a couple of weeks. We were behind schedule setting up or fall hunting camp. In two days our first hunters of the season would be arriving in Missoula, Montana where Eve would pick them up.
The bear, his nose in the air, continued coming down the hill toward camp. Gary and I were the guides working for Erv. Trophy elk—six points or better—was our main business, mountain goat and bear if you had a tag. Erv glanced over at Gary, who now had his .44 in hand, and motioned him not to shoot. Just then, Rex, Erv’s 45 pound, long-haired, trail dog woke up from his radar-break nap and came out from behind the tack tent 30 yards behind us moving alertly, his ears perked up and his nose taking in the situation. Erv pointed to his side, and Rex obeyed without barking. Erv had a way with his dogs. He never petted them . . . never, never put a hand on them, but they would die for him.
The bear kept coming down the hill toward camp. At the bottom of the slope the bear came out into the clearing across Battle Creek, a creek so small that one quick step and a hop and you wouldn't even get a chance to test the waterproofing on your boots. It was a beautiful black bear, with a light cinnamon color that shined in the sun.
Like bears usually do, they don’t look right at you, but they know exactly where you are. The horses were the only ones that moved, still huddled in the back of the corral. A pause in time—about the time it takes for a heavy leaf to fall to the ground from a short tree—and the bear sat down.
"Let's get back to work boys," Erv said. We went back to work, keeping an eye on the bear 40 yards across the creek. Seeming to be interested in our labors the bear then lay down but never came closer. A half hour later, Erv, looking at the bear, didn't like what he saw. The bear was getting too comfortable, which can be a problem with any bear, but black bears are the worst at being pesky. A grizzly bear has more smarts and uses more caution. Odds are a grizzly bear would have watched us from a place where we wouldn’t know it was even there.
"Get your pistols boys," Erv said . . . and then added, "But heed, we don't need any dead bears in camp, especially since we don't have a bear tag."
There is a fine point in the law that you can kill a bear without a tag if your life or property is in danger, but in this case it was hard to tell if it was a friendly visit or more like the armies of yore camped across the creek from one another waiting for orders. Besides the property was the bears, not ours. We were just seasonal tenets. Regardless, we didn’t want the bear to force the event into an undesirable situation. We were probably the first humans it had ever seen and if fortune was in this young bear’s favor a long life was a viable option.
The bear stood up when we all lined up directly across the creek from it. First we shouted, threw some rocks, Annie banged on some pans, Rex barked until Erv scowled at him. Rex obeyed, went quiet. Barking dogs and bears aren't always predictable. One way of thinking is that around bears quiet dogs are best. In that same line of thought some say no dogs are best. Opinions vary. There aren't many certified wilderness dogs (not to be confused with pets that take hikes with their caretakers), but Rex had years of experience as a wilderness dog that had been in and out of scrapes with an assortment of animals and to date had come out in fair shape.
The bear was confused by our sudden attack but held its ground. When the second rock came bouncing up near its paws the bear took the hint, jumped back a little, swung around and the last we saw of the bear was a brief glimpse through the brush as it sauntered up the slope, once, it seemed, looking back at us with regret that it wasn’t wanted. Mitty wasn't shaking in the cook tent anymore and the stock in the corral looked at us like it was time to eat. The radar screen being empty, we felt good that we had scared it off without a scratch on human, dog or bear and hopefully left the message that we weren't setting another place at the supper table and that we were the kind of animals that weren’t too nice.
The next afternoon the bear came back at about the same time. All the tents were up, stoves in, but all the woodcutting and stacking needed attention. We had finished using Arkie, our pulling mule, to skid more logs down into camp and had turned him and some of the the other mules and our six extra riding horses out into the woods with our bell mare. Tomorrow Erv and Gary, pulling four of our fifteen pack mules, were going to ride out and go into Missoula to pick up our first clients of the year—a one way 6 to 7 hour horse back ride to the end of the road on the Idaho, Montana state line. Then it was into the truck for 30 miles of dirt road driving down off the mountain, followed by 60 miles of highway, including a brief stop at the ranch in Hamilton, Montana. It wasn't like that old Ponderosa television show where you ride into town for the dance and barbecue and ride home after. They would be back in two days if all went well on the trail.
The Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area that laps over the Idaho Montana border is the largest in the lower forty-eight of the United States. Abutting two other uninhabited areas it covers over 2.5 million acres. It is a designated area where all motorized equipment: airplanes, four wheelers, motorboats, even chain saws are illegal. Deep canyons and densely treed and brush covered ridges, that possibly no one has ever been into except on rare occasions, us, offer a land that doesn’t lay well but stands steep and tall and thick. It is an unfounded speculation that before we settler folks came not even the Indians came into the deepest, thickest canyons of this territory, as the game was plentiful in lower elevations offering a more forgiving geography. Stalking close to animals is often done on hands and knees . . . if you find them. You hitch your horse to a tree on a ridge and search on foot. The first sight of an elk is usually at 75 yards or less, even if you’ve heard them or have been tracking them all day. If we have a hunter who is in top physical condition and wants to find an imperial bull elk, seven points or better, a Moby Elk size, there are areas willing to test one’s muscle and resolution. Best go in on foot in these areas as on horseback progress is stilted. In this geography the shot is taken with a camera, not a rifle. If one is foolish enough to kill that mystical 1,000 pound bull elk in one of those areas, packing it out is not a desirable option. The right thing to do would be to sit down and eat it.
On many a north slope the downfall is so deeply stacked it is like a giant emptied out his box of pickup-sticks. I have foolishly, alone, walked on top of logs crazily cross-stacked ten feet high because it was impossible to crawl though the maze. If a man fell and broke a leg in such timber it would be a long crawl or an unattended funeral. The trails offer quagmires and cross fast moving streams without bridges. Creek drainages feeding into the main rivers have a tendency to go straight up or down. Switchbacks are common. Part of Erv's history at high water recounts his building a raft to haul the loads of his fifteen head of pack mules across a river and then swim the stock over. One of our routine crossings still required our smaller pack animals to swim a few yards in fast water anytime of the year.
Although I’ve done it, the country is not kind to backpackers. Our seasonal camp is on a trail below a lake; no one ever camps here. That is the kind of country this young bear first saw when it first emerged from his den with its mother. We held opinion that this was the bear's first summer on its own after leaving its mother, making this possibly his third summer leading us to our speculation that we were this bear’s first acquaintance with homo sapiens. Most bears hightail it when they see you or smell you. I’ve always thought that more bears have seen us than we have seen them.. It was the bear’s second day of visitation to our camp and this beautiful cinnamon colored black bear sat down in neighborly fashion to satisfy its curiosity . . . just come to visit.
At Erv’s signal, we got out our pistols at the ready. But first we shouted and threw rocks. The bear didn’t move requiring the use of the pistols. It immediately jumped back when projectile dirt kicked up close to it and a few .44 Magnum activated splinters off a downfall flew in its face. With all three of us shooting near it, not at it, it sounded like a "B" Western movie shootout; that bear had probably never guessed there was that much noise in the whole world. The bear didn't saunter away this time; he took off at full gallop up the hill, bullets kicking up at his heels and disappeared. Satisfied, we went to supper.
The next two days, while Erv and Gary rode in to pick up the hunters, Annie and I fine tuned our fall housing development, including the shower tent, and split and stacked all the wood. Our friend the bear hadn’t showed for over 48 hours.
Late the second day, a trail weary crew of two hunters from the east coast and a local man from town led by Erv and Gary rode into camp. After a belly stuffing supper of Annie's great stew with oven fresh bread followed by fresh baked pie we headed for our respective tents. Annie remained in the cook tent cleaning up. Tomorrow was to be the first day of the hunt. Breakfast was to be served at 5 A.M. The camp cook quits last and rises first.
Darkness set in and I thought I was asleep when I heard my name sung, "Jerrrrrry." It was a bit off key, and the voice wasn't sustaining, but it was definitely Annie, all five-foot-two of her. Annie's first alert was when Mitty started shaking in a corner of the lantern lit cook tent warning Annie that something was out there. Flashlight in one hand and the pistol in the other, she peered into the darkness through the open flap of the tent. Scanning the light in a perimeter around the tent, the light found the bear not more than 10 feet away walking slowly toward her. That is when she sung out my name.
Barefoot, shorts on and pistol in hand, I reached her side the same time that Rex the wilderness dog showed up an instant after the gunshots were fired. The bear took off into the night, making a horrific scream that sounded like someone being tortured. I can't mimic the sound, but it rendered a deep fearful pain inside of me. It sounded so human, like a child in agony.
"He wouldn't go away, kept coming closer." Annie said, "He stood there and looked right at me. I thought he was going to come into the cook tent," She said shaking.
"Did you hit him?" I asked.
"I didn't shoot," Annie said.
It was the local man from town. He had a bear tag. His hunt was over. We found the young bear across the creek, barely breathing, mortally wounded. The man fired a last fatal shot from 2 feet away. We hung the bear under the rainfly and skinned him by lantern light. I felt like I was undressing a friend, preparing him for burial. Gary had to say it because someone always does: "Did you notice how human-like he looks without his hide?" I didn’t respond and Gary looked ashamed. The man who shot the bear took the clue and honored our silence.
Dusk, about a week later, my hunter and I were riding back to camp after a long day of tracking on foot, when a black bear and two cubs crossed trail not more than 20 yards in front of us. The last little cub was round and pudgy, about one fourth the size of momma. As he ran across the trail his whole body rolled back and forth like jello on a rocking horse. It had to make you smile. They did what bears usually do: hightailed it. I was glad they saw us and ran. I yelled at them and urged my reluctant horse in close pursuit chasing the bear family into the thick pine and fir forest to let them know how mean we are.