The Black and Blue of My First Bear Hunt

It has taken me some time to prepare this story, not only because of the exciting adventure and memories in it, but because there is only so much one can tell with written and spoken words.

There is a place in every adventurer’s heart, a place that seems almost magical like it spawned from your very own dreams. I’ll tell you about the particular place I speak of; it is wild, unpredictable, cold, desolate, and even a little bit scary. But despite its savage nature, it is some of the most beautiful country mine eyes have ever scoured. It is scattered with the most beautiful clear blue lakes you have ever seen, the sound of rivers roar through the towering forest mile after mile. It goes on and on, filled at times with herds of life, while at others completely void. This continental crown lies in the western mountains of Montana, the exact location is almost too sacred to speak lest it loose its magic.

For many years a dear friend of mine had spoken to me of Black Bear hunting in Montana, and I finally gave in to his invitation earlier this year. It certainly wasn’t a lack of desire that had kept me from going, but more of the right situation here at home.
Being my first bear hunt, and surely to be a hunt of a lifetime, I couldn’t go with out bringing my Father along. He too had never ventured after bear, but had enough interest in doing it that he decided to come along, rifle and all.

When the time came, we had everything loaded into Dad’s camper, and made the long and beautiful drive north along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. We truly were loaded for bear, we had enough food to last a fortnight, fuel, ammo, and enough anticipation to stay awake late into the night drive.
I am no stranger to western Montana, but as the sun came up that first morning I was once again smitten with its beauty. Clouds hung low as we made the last leg of our trip into coniferous forest’s covered with wolf moss. The mountains were all dissected by thousands of logging roads, most of which were closed off and gated. But the still many of them gave us untold space to cover, glass, and pursue.
We set camp next to a good sized river, rolling over rocks that hid big Brown and Bull Trout. I could hardly wait to get our gear out and explore, the river pulled at me, and even though I could almost think of nothing better than the beautiful fish beneath, we were here to hunt bears.

I pulled my hunting kit from the truck, it was all my best equipment carefully selected and tuned days before leaving. The basic stuff, survival gear, a days worth of snacks, knives, flashlights, and my choice of rifle. I had decided to bring along my Desert Tech MDR, perhaps a little unorthodox for bear hunting but I found it to be a perfect fit. The MDR is a multicaliber bullpup rifle, this makes it much shorter and compact than a conventional rifle. A piston operated semi-auto would allow for quick follow-up shots should they be necessary, and my MDR shot accurately enough to put first round hits on a paper plate at six-hundred yards. I have several different caliber barrels for the rifle, but for this hunt I chose to go with the good ol’ 308 Winchester. The 308 is a familiar and potent cartridge, and with plenty of energy for black bear sized game. I had recently re configured my rifle with a Minox Optics 1-6 scope, and I had become quite comfortable shooting minute of bear lung targets at distances inside half a mile. So with that formidable firepower under my arm, we set off into the mountains in search of a bear, or two.

After only an hour or so of scouting the huge area we had to hunt, mother nature decided to remind us of her temper. The gray clouds brought us rain, and a stiff breeze that would make sure that the rain gotcha everywhere. It was not what I had hoped for, but we dealt with it as best we could. And that first night we spent much time drying out our socks and other clothes, but we were still ripe with excitement for this adventure. Especially after seeing so much beautiful country in such a short time.

The next morning brought sausage and eggs, and more wind and rain. To my discouragement, it continued like that for four days, it only ever stopped raining long enough to get your hopes up, then it would start again. We had many close encounters though, fresh bear scat was everywhere. We could almost trace their movements by observing the neatly trimmed grass, followed by more piles of bear breakfast. We would hike for hours through dripping forest, and cloudy ridges that were so wild that you whispered. Much like the deer and elk I frequently hunt, I gained a quick understanding that in this wild place I am just one of thousands of animals and we are all made of meat. That understanding and the majesty of the surrounding mountains just demanded a softer tone when you spoke. The huge expanse of country just kept opening up over and over, just when you’d thought you’d covered everything, another draw would open up. And every hill was covered with bear shaped stumps that had been blackened like soot by fires in the past.

After several days of hunting, we had only put eyes on one bear, from a good mile or two away. And unfortunately my friend and his Father had to go back home, leaving me and Dad alone in this untamed country that we had just barely become familiar with. It was a little daunting, we hadn’t seen the sun in days, so much of the time you didn’t even know what direction you were headed. But Dad and I felt up to the challenge, at least we were going to keep after it anyways, despite being complete rookie’s.

The next day we returned to the area we had seen the one bear, roughly sixteen miles away from our camp. We had a plan for Dad to sit and watch a meadow and a small lake that was frequented by bears, many of whom had left many wild berry deposits scattered about. Meanwhile I would make a slow and quiet stalk around a nearby area in hopes of spotting one.

After leaving Dad at the spot we had decided upon, I worked back around the valley anticipating a large circular stalk that would put me opposite him after a mile or so. My hike would take me through damp mossy swamp, and grassy thickets and all the while buried in deep timber. Nothing but the song of birds, and the occasional stream of runoff could be heard. During the entire trip we had only seen a dozen or so other vehicles, and at no time did we ever run into any people. Earlier I said the place was a little bit scary, what made this place scary was the isolation. I knew that there was nobody around, I knew that should something happen to us, it could be days before someone passed by close enough to hear. There was no phone service but for the highest peaks, and even that was sketchy.

I continued my quiet stalk through the woods, and came into a clearing that sort of looked like where I wanted to be. A pair of ducks jumped from a puddle, startling me in the near silence. I was beginning to feel a bit worried, because I didn’t appear to be where I thought I was. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure where I am. As I trod on, it became flat and muddy, so I figured I was getting close to the lake. But things just kept getting different, and after another half hour or so I was seriously worried, considering that I was indeed lost. Not just lost, but lost in unfamiliar bear country, and even worse, I didn’t know if my Dad had any idea where I was, or which way to get back to camp since I had done all the driving. All these worries intensified as the sun got closer and closer to going down, but sheer panic was about to set in on me.
Just as I had about gotten to where I was sure the road was, I found myself again in a grassy clearing. The panic set in when I realized that it was the exact same clearing I had been startled by the ducks in nearly an hour before, it was like a bad dream.

I am not one to get lost, I am usually pretty good at keeping track of my direction and location. But the low hanging clouds and huge towering trees made it very difficult to keep track of where you were.
So I found myself nearing hysteria, not sure where I was, only that I was alone, far far away from anything like civilization, and my Father who relied on me to get back to camp. No amount of yelling could be heard, even shots from my rifle couldn’t reach with any discernible direction.
The fear that gripped me took me right to my knees, where I sought calm, and direction. Lucky for me, there was someone looking out for both of us. And humble as I have ever been, I emerged on a road. It turned out to be the same road I went in on, I had somehow completely turned around, and but for the quiet guidance I felt kneeling in that grassy duck meadow, I might still be up there walking in circles, or worse yet, stacked up with a bunch of grass and berry seeds. I had never felt so grateful to feel my butt in the seat of that Can-Am.

The very next day we were back at it, I was a bit more humble, and quite a bit more aware of my directions. So we continued scouting around the canyons and hills, looking for a black stump that would move. As it turns out, it wasn’t black at all. Dad spotted the first real chance at a bear, standing off in the trees. It was a big cinnamon colored bear, and it was eating away at the lush grass. Dad and I both hunkered over and made our way to a clear spot where we could get a shot. I saw the bear for just a second, and as I raised my rifle to engage him, he must have seen or smelled us. Before I could get a shot off, he bolted through the thick trees. Bear:1 Us:0.

The next day, in another area several miles away, we continued our search. This time we were a bit more successful.
The late afternoon had brought some slightly better weather, the rain had mostly stopped, and the breeze had slowed to where the mosquitoes could dig into you and carry you off. We were coming down a trail for the first time that day, and as always my eyes were in scan mode. Looking right through the trees, at all the shapes behind them.
It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think. My eyes were scanning the millionth patch of trees when I locked eyes with a small black bear, she stood there on all fours and simply watched as we passed her bye. I know better than to slam on the brakes in front of an animal I intend on taking, so I rolled right on, around the bend. As I lost sight of her, she slowly turned and walked off into the forest.
Wasting no time at all, I quickly halted the Can-Am, and grabbed my MDR off the back seat. I charged the rifle, and hoofed into the trees as fast and as quiet as I could. I was so hyped up on adrenaline, I’m not sure I was actually breathing, so much as maybe my heart pounding was enough to draw air in and out. I snuck through the trees, avoiding anything but the soft green grass, with my eyes going a hundred miles an hour as I searched the trees ahead of me. Despite all my effort to keep quiet, she must have either heard me, or smelled me. Because when I did catch up to her, she was looking right at me.
We locked eyes, time slowed as I recalled everything I had told myself beforehand. No cubs, nothing behind her, no hesitation. I drew my rifle up, knowing that any movement either to the ground or otherwise would likely spook her into running, so the only movement I made was to direct fire. As the reticle came to rest on the dark black fur of the bear, I was glad I had the forethought to turn on the reticle in my little scope. I centered it on the middle of the bear, and pulled the trigger.
The first shot hit her, and she immediately rolled over backwards, but almost in fluid motion she rolled back to her feet as she crossed behind a tree. As soon as she came out the other side of the tree, I was very glad to have brought my MDR, because those quick followup shots were exactly what I needed. Three shots (two of them critical) and she went silently to the ground.
I stood there in the silence, all I could hear was the steps of my Dad who came hurriedly towards the sound of the shots. I shouted out to him that she was down, and the excitement caught up to me. I began to shake, and my heart continued to pound as I walked up to the downed bear. My first shot was not a good one, it hit her in the shoulder which from the front is not a good angle of attack. The second and third hits went through the shoulder (broadside) and neck, which obviously put her straight down.

Dad caught up to me, and the two of us marveled at the first bear either of us had ever laid hands on. Soft black fur, that was much longer than I had expected. And she was such a beautiful animal, with brown patches on the side of her nose. Her feet and claws were fascinating to me, her soft ears, and stubby tail.

We took a bunch of pictures, and then cleaned her up. We happily made our way back to camp, where we hung her up and I skinned my first bear, which I thought I did a pretty good job of. The feelings had gone from a desperate panic, to complete triumph in the course of one day, I had never felt so grateful.
We built a huge victory fire that night, and the sky cleared for a spectacular show of stars.

Dad didn’t get a shot, and we never got another chance after that. But we were still satisfied with our first bear hunt. Not only did we get to see some of the most beautiful country there is, but we got beat down and humbled by it, only to make a great comeback and finish our very first bear hunt with bloody hands, and cut tag.

It will be hard to out-do this hunt, as I said in the beginning, it was hard to decide what parts of this story to tell. Almost like a birthday wish as you blow out the candle, I didn’t want to spill it all, for fear of it loosing it’s magic. I believe I will go back someday, with new dreams, and remembering my humility, to that special place where beauty abounds and calamity could be right around the next duck meadow, and bears of all colors wander through the most hallowed and cloudy timber that is.

-CBM

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