Montana hunter Dan Mock has been a hunter education instructor for three years. He shares these stories of how to be prepared when hunting or hiking in bear country.
I love bears, especially when they are in their comfort zone—either paralleling me or heading the other way.
But having one sniffing at my head through a backpacking tent does not engender the most secure feelings!
To my way of thinking, the best places to canoe, backpack or hunt must have bears and no roads. Bears symbolize the wild with a touch of risk. To enjoy these areas, you must always control or at the least minimize the risk factors for the bear’s safety and your own. Killing a bear is seldom the answer. For one thing, it may not be open season or you may not have a bear tag. Besides, I don’t want to eat another bear.
But I’m not afraid of doing what needs to be done when the situation calls for it. For example, while hunting moose in British Columbia, Canada, the guide asked if I minded cropping an aggressive black bear that had twice chased his mother into her log house. (That is a big no-no.) The bear brought the following action upon itself: shot with a 180 gr. 300 WIN Mag, death was almost instant at 75 yards.
One time I took my brother-in-law hunting in an area halfway between easy hunting and the farms below, assuring him his first buck. Leaving him well-situated 300 yards away, I thought I’d take a nap when some instinct said, WAKE UP NOW.
A fast-moving black boar was making tracks down the trail that I had my legs across. Not wanting to share the trail or pet him, I shot him twice, very fast. The Remington .308, 150 gr. did in the 450-pound black bear at 35 yards.
Thinking back over the years, I am sure that big brute had no idea my legs were blocking his trail. However, he was inside my comfort zone, and I’m not that comfortable with danger.
A Surefire Wake Up Call
Another black bear decided to investigate a new smell—my cowboy coffee. Four of us were on a nine-day canoe trip down the John River out of the Alaska’s Brooks Range when one evening we decided to camp on an island. The river had 3 channels on the left and one on the right. What a magnificent spot.
At 5 a.m. my buddy was 150 yards from our tents, sipping coffee and admiring the hilltop caribou and hill-side sheep, when a black bear stepped out of the forest 250 yards away. Nose in the air, it crossed the first river channel. My pal’s admiration suddenly stopped when the coffee hit my friend’s sleepy brain and he realized what was coming: that bear was on the way for breakfast.
Being awakened with “bear in camp!” definitely brings you out of the sleeping bag eyes wide.
Two of the defenders, armed with bear spray, ran to the kitchen to save the coffee. Shotgun in hand, I found the bear in the nearest channel, 6 feet down the bank and five yards out from shore, nonchalantly swimming the fast current. I turned him three times by shouting nicely to please remove himself from the camp area. He’d started to leave but kept swimming back. Not GOOD!
Just as I was about to pull the shotgun trigger for a warning shot in the water, the bear decided there was no sugar in the coffee and left down river.
My friend and hunting buddy said “boy, that was a big bear!”
I said, “they all look big.”
He replied, “But that one was soaking wet!” He was dead on.
The One I Let Get Away
With 63 years of hunting and playing explorer in the woods, there are many times I’ve needed fast, clear thinking. Being able to make the correct decisions fast comes either through experience or good training, and it can and will save lives, human or otherwise. Plan ahead, prepare mentally and physically. Do not run! Walking backwards is fun unless you trip.
While archery hunting the other day I had to walk–with the wind–to pick up a long shelf leading to a great hunting area. As a hunter I know walking with the wind is the best way to guarantee yourself you will not have to clean or pack game animals—they’ll smell you coming way too far in advance!
I knew that, but through habit I stayed off the gravel game trails and walked quietly on the leaves and bark on the side. As I topped a small rise, God gave me a gift. There, 12 yards away, was a 300-pound black bear eating stunted blueberry leaves. We were thrust into each others’ discomfort zone. I froze, eyeing every movement. Defense-driven, I reached for an arrow, then realized, No, I do not want to kill another bear. I had no tag and right now I’m a little chicken. Although the thought occurred to me to take a cell phone picture, the noise and risk was too high. Instead I got out my bear spray, clicked off the safety and aimed it forward.
All this thinking and action was noodled over a very long time—2 to 3 seconds that felt like forever!
Blackie took one step forward and stopped eating. He had caught my smell and out of the corner of his eye could see me standing stock still. The bear never looked at me, but kept his head low in a submissive way, slowly turning around broadside, trying to show nonaggression.
He knew he made a mistake, but all he wanted was to get out of the dangerous situation. He should have smelled me long before I saw him. This concerned me until he showed the submissive stance. Still, why didn’t he run long before our encounter? The only possible answer is that he was intent on putting on fat just before hibernation come snow or me.
Once again I experienced the predator zone. Everything was matter of fact and under control.
Before the encounter I was prepared mentally and physically (I had my bear spray handy). Because of that awareness, both me and the bear made it out safely that day.
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