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Hanging the bear in the huge oak tree overnight after the hunt was as much practical as tradition. The carcass has to drain and the meat needs to "season." And, the clients welcome the "Kodak moment" after awaking late on the morning after the hunt. And there's something primeval in a hunter that finds satisfaction in displaying the body - "hung from the highest tree" using the old west terminology.
But there we were in Minitonas, Manitoba - some 300 miles north of Winipeg - in the Swan River Valley north of the Duck Mountains on a spring black bear hunt. Pedro and I had traveled two days by air and rent-a-wreck to reach this outpost called Northern Outfitters run by John Eisner - father of seven daughters, no sons.
While the accommodations were spartan, we would soon learn the bear - indeed, record bears - were plentiful. "Don't shoot the first bear you see. Learn to size them up", John preached. "They're all a little lean coming out of hibernation. So look for breadth in their skull and fullness of neck and limbs." A juvenile bear has many of the same characteristics of a human juvenile: gangly, awkward, and impulsive. "On the other hand," John relented, "if you want to stay in camp the rest of the week, play cards, fish or drink a bit, shoot the first one you see." John had only one rule if you stay in camp: "leave the girls alone!"
Unlike a normal early morning departure, hunting within a fifty-mile radius of camp didn't start until late afternoon and ended around 11pm. I figured out the first evening why Eisner calls his organization "Northern Outfitters." That far north, it never gets dark in May. Supper takes place at about midnight. There are two desserts: one you eat. The other you see - the northern lights that is - the aurora borealis.
We hunted out of tree stands placed near the edge of openings in the thick Manitoba forests. A fifty gallon metal barrel was tethered to a substantial tree at each site. The barrel was filled with oats that had been soaked in grease from local restaurants pleased to dispose of accumulations from their grease pits. A half dozen one inch diameter holes had been drilled in the sides of the barrels. Hungry bears would slap the barrels around for their meal presenting the clients with opportunity for a trophy.
Excellent vision is not a bear virtue. Excellent smell is a bear virtue. So the process of getting to the bear's dining grounds was a bit convoluted. Leaving in mid-afternoon, each hunter and his individual guide would take a lunch to be eaten before the hike to the tree stand, two rifles, and one of the outfitter's Yamaha four-wheelers. The drive would take us past many mile-square sections before reaching the end of the alleged road - several miles from our ultimate destination. Doubling on the four-wheeler, we would ride to within a few miles of the hunting venue. The guide would then escort you part of the way to the site. How close depended on his read on whether or not you could find the stand. The guide then retreated to a distance within hearing range of a rifle shot.
It was snowing on our first hunting day. Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" ran through my head over and over. I've never before or since experienced such quiet. There was no wind. The leaves hadn't come out yet so there was no noise from the forest. There were no small animals moving about. There were no bugs humming. There were no civilization noises in the far distance. There was nothing. Literally, if you sit still long enough under those conditions you actually hear yourself breathe. When the sound of silence was finally broken by a big hungry black bear, his noises seemed far more menacing to me.
I followed John's directions and let the first bear walk. Over the next two days, each bear I saw was smaller than the first. I saw no bear on the fourth day. My obedience to the outfitter's admonition was going to bite me. Finally, in the last hour of the last day of the hunt I did take a bear on the small side. At camp, Pedro inspected my bear. Even though he had no bear, what he did say was most critical: "What'd ya name him: 'BooBoo'?" At least I wasn't going home empty-handed and I had followed directions.
Pedro had not followed directions. He evaluates hunting success by dividing his harvest by the effort put into taking the animal to arrive at his satisfaction quotient. He wasn't interested in hiking the last few miles to the tree stand. He ordered his guide to drive him up to the tree and leave the four-wheeler. The guide could walk back to the truck. If Pedro did kill a bear, he would field dress it, get it on the four-wheeler, and pack it out, "thank you very much."
Using the Pedro method, his guide, Vic, age 78, drove him to the base of the tree and shut down the engine. As the two were unloading gear, Vic noticed an approaching bear and ordered Pedro to "get down." The startled pair hunkered down - Pedro behind the four-wheeler and Vic behind the tree.
Pedro quietly chambered a round into the Ruger 7mm and removed the scope cover. He was too far behind the machine and too far from the tree to rest the rifle on anything stable. Kneeling on one knee he carefully raised the weapon, released the safety, fixed the cross hairs, and took the mandatory deep breath. In his peripheral vision he noticed Vic signaling him with a "stop sign." As he cast his attention toward Vic, the signal changed. The guide was telling him to move back.
This made no sense to Pedro. There was a huge record-sized bear in range. It had not yet spotted them. Movement would surely ruin this shot. So, in his best "I'll show you, old Vic" attitude, Pedro re-sighted, held his breathe and fired.
Pedro had a clear shot on the bear - or at least that's the way it looked through his scope. He did not, however, take into consideration this rather crucial fact: he was so close to the four-wheeler that the scope view was clear but the rifle muzzle was pointed directed at the seat of the now deceased Yamaha Big Bear. Usually an exit wound is larger than the entry wound; but that's not true when the muzzle blast begins less than a foot from the ultimate victim. You should have heard the adjectives and expletives used by Vic that night. There are so very many words to describe "explosion" and "stupid."
In a way, I dreaded the trip home. Pedro was going to be in a foul mood since his secret kill was out. He always takes the approach that the best defense is a good offense. I knew I would hear about "BooBoo" for the next two days. I even decided against having my picture made the next morning with the bear hanging from that oak tree for fear that it would look so small.
Following directions has its rewards. Not following directions has its consequences, too. The photo session went so much better than I could ever have imagined. There were three bears in the oak tree the next morning. BooBoo and a much larger bear killed by one of the other hunters hung on the outside. And there, hanging in the middle was the biggest bear ever hung in that old oak tree - the Yamaha Big Bear four-wheeler killed by Pedro.
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