I love writing. I always have. No matter if it was for business or for personal reasons, writing has served me well as an outlet for creativity and thought. It seems my mind is never as sharp or witty as when I have a keyboard clacking beneath my fingers! Or so I tell myself.
My goal today was originally to share with you one of my earliest fantasy-genre writings, which came actually out of a college creative writing course I took during my years at UC Davis. If I can ever find it (hopes are dwindling fast) I will certainly post it here. But for now, I’ll have to settle for a short little story about a bear.
[Fair warning, this is a story about big game hunting. If that's not your thing, I'll certainly pass no judgment. But reading on will now be what we call "an informed decision."]
Back in my younger adulthood days, I was a pretty avid hunter. My passion was upland game birds (quail, grouse, chukar, etc.) and waterfowl. But every year I’d put in for a local deer tag (the hunter's version of the lottery), and occasionally get lucky enough to draw one. Since I was hunting in areas where there was a significant black bear population, it was customary for a deer hunter to also grab a bear tag. They’re inexpensive and the bears benefit from the population control, so I always got one. And I never saw a bear. One might say I was fortunate, because black bear can be dangerous. But year after year of returning those unfilled bear tags to the Department of Fish and Game finally started to stack up in my mind.
Then I met Jim, a co-worker, who I came to learn had a passion for running coursing hounds. Jim and I developed a close acquaintanceship, and he offered to take me out after bear, bobcat, or whatever the dogs could find. And that’s where the story begins. But the story I’m about to share came after the hunt, of course; after many people had asked me how it went and heard my retelling of it. Now bear in mind (oh, that was a bad pun), these were folks of the variety as likely to encounter a bear in the wild as to launch the next independently-financed mission to the moon, much less intentionally pursue one on the hunt. Many of them said I should write it up as a short story for hunting and outdoors magazines. I never did send it in, and eventually I lost it altogether. Then, as moms around the world do, mine dug the story out of an email I’d sent her way back then and just sent it to me out of the blue. Well, before I knew it the creative energy was flowing! I gave it a once-over, and decided it was worth sharing at least to our group of loyal readers.
So, without further preamble, here it is. No matter what your stance may be on hunting wild game, I hope you can appreciate the story for what it is: a lesson in perseverance, luck, some adversity and a little misfortune, and a healthy dose of humility.
We headed out on a chilly Tuesday morning, well before sunup. It was Jim and me and about a half-dozen dogs in a modified half-ton pickup, and two other guys (Charles and John, I think) in a second truck coming along for the fun of it, and bringing a few more hounds besides. Jim’s truck itself was a testament to his passion for running hounds. He’d built it completely in with a wood-framed compartment, spanning the width and length of the truck bed and rising about six inches above its sidewalls. There were louvered vents along both sides for good airflow into that box, and for good reason. Those dogs’ value was in their incredible noses (which I’m told can pick up scent particles somewhere around 500 times better than humans are able), and Jim wanted to make sure every one of those particles had free access to those talented snoots. The top side of the compartment had been treated with all-weather carpeting and a strong hook-eye, where he would occasionally tie out his “lead” dog, ‘Champ’, to give him the best air possible when Jim felt we were in optimal bear territory. More about Champ later.
On the way up the hill on an old logging road, Jim let his dogs out in pairs for what he called “running them out.” This basically meant they all got few minutes to run alongside the truck, unload some of their excitement jitters (as well as their morning business), and settle down somewhat for the hunt. Doing this, Jim explained to me, helped to ensure they wouldn’t get over-eager and strike (start baying) out of blind excitement at a day-old scent trail.
Not a half hour after the last of them had been run out and returned to the box, we struck scent. The dogs lit up, and the sound of it jolted my bones. If you’ve never heard a baying hound up close, make sure you’ve done your morning business first! Especially if you decide your first experience should be a pack of them on an actual scent! It was still pre-dawn, just before it was light enough to see color, and Jim knew from long experience they weren’t just pining for relief from the box; this was for real. He quickly stopped and jumped out to put some dogs to work.
Now I’d been hunting with Jim a handful of times before, and his typical first response was to turn out only his lead hound, sometimes with a partner, and then follow for a while using their radio collars until he could confirm from their barks and yowls whether they were on a fresh trail or not. Jim not only knew his dogs by their individual voices, but what each one sounded like in a variety of circumstances. What to me was a pack of dogs yipping in the echoing wilderness was a detailed field report to Jim. So usually, he’d wait to receive that report first, then maybe send in a support team if it sounded promising. This time, however, Jim immediately turned out all six.
They immediately took off up the hill from us, fading through the deadfall-tangled hillside like grey ghosts in the near darkness, their voices swelling and resonating like gods of war against the vast silence of the forested mountainsides. I was struck then and there with awe at not only how well they could detect the scent trail, but at how they instantly knew which way it went! I mean...how?
We spotted fresh bear sign on the road, and plenty of tracks, although the largest was only three to three-and-a-half inches across the front paw, indicating about a 250- to 300-pound bear. Decent, but not exactly what I'd been hoping for. But once you turn the dogs out, you just aren’t getting them back until they run out of scent and come looking for the truck, or you go in after them.
After a tense and nail-biting minute or two, they crossed the ridgeline above us at about seven thousand feet, and there was silence again. That eerie, too-quiet kind of silence, like the mountain had swallowed up everything but the soft breeze through the pine boughs and was brooding with upset at us for disturbing its slumber.
So now we moved into phase two. Each of the dogs had its own radio-transmitting collar, each with a unique frequency. So with windows rolled down in the chill, creeping along at a crawl so we could hear every sound the forest would allow, we drove around the ridge to the next valley, using the signal locator to bring us as close as possible to the dogs’ location. If you’re at all familiar with the wooded mountains of Plumas County in northern California (or any of several other wooded mountain ranges in the northern states), you’ll know the fire and logging roads won’t get you everywhere. They’ll probably get you within a half mile or so, which looks close on a map, but (pro tip) maps make things look a lot flatter than they actually are. In these particular mountains, you could bank on a good 30 to 45 minute climb on foot on a good day to move a quarter inch on that map.
After about two hours of driving, listening, fiddling with the radio collar receiver, and poring over the Bureau of Land Management topo maps to try and figure how we might get closer to where we guessed they’d headed, we finally heard the haunting echoes of their baying quite some ways down the mountain from us. Like two or three thousand feet below us! And what’s more, according to Jim, their baying was not indicative of being merely in pursuit of a scent, but of having treed (or brought to bay) a bear.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term “brought to bay,” it is worth a little explanation. Coursing hounds do three things exceptionally well: they pick up scent, they run tirelessly after it, and they let loose the most furiously intimidating, tumultuous barrage of throaty howls, barks, and other indescribable noises, that anything with any sense at all wants nothing to do with them. Bears, bobcats, and cougars will often climb a heavy tree for safety, but if no tree is available they may resort to backing themselves up against an outcropping of boulders and preparing to fight. This is what is meant by being brought to bay, and more than one of Jim’s hounds had worthy scars from just such encounters. In fact, one of Jim’s prize hounds had to be left out of this particular outing to get fully healed up.
But back to the story…
We were on the trail and we’d located the dogs. Now the task shifted to finding a road that would get us a little closer. A two-to-three-thousand-foot descent in terrain this steep and loose was a recipe for injury, fatigue, and a treacherous nightmare of a climb back out. But try as we might, after another hour of driving and map-scrying, the closest spot we could find was a tiny little scratched-out use-to-be-a-road-a-long-time-ago trail that dead-ended right in the crook of a steep draw falling away into a gorge about three to four thousand feet deep. And where were the dogs? Yeah, you guessed it. Any roads between there and here? Or maybe below them? You guessed it again. Gosh, you’re smart.
So, with Jim’s assurance that (a) we had to go get the dogs, because they wouldn’t quit until they were at the brink of death, and (b) this was probably a good-sized bear, down we went. Me with my Remington Model 700 chambered in .300 WinMag and loaded with 180-grain Winchester SuperXPs (for the interested reader, that’s a slippery little moly-coated bullet that’ll squirt out there at about 3200 feet per second; flat, accurate, and with enough punch to take down a bull moose), and Jim and John with the rest of the dogs. Charles agreed to stay with the trucks, keep looking for a way to get closer to us, and honk at us to lead us back for the climb out.
Down, down, down…
When I look back on this part of the hunt, I can still remember about five or six separate and distinct moments where I paused and had a look back up the gorge, thinking we’d easily dropped 500 or 1,000 feet and must be getting close by now. But each time, the dogs sounded no closer, and the gorge kept on falling away with not even a playful hint of shallowing out. I had no idea then, and I still don’t know for sure, how far down we went. For the sake of the story, we’ll say it was around 2000 feet, though at the time it felt more like four. The average slope was at least 50%, if not steeper in some stretches. And to make matters worse, the ground didn’t even have the decency to be stable, but was comprised of loose shale, gravel, and (in the timbered areas) plenty of dry leaves and pine needles on top of the shale and gravel! I’m not ashamed to admit my thoughts at this point were not on the bear, nor the dogs, nor all the time, planning, effort, and expense it had taken to get here. They were circling around a single question: “How in the world do you expect to get your big fat out-of-shape white boy ass out of here?”
But all that ended when I saw the bear.
The sun was high enough to light up the forest floor by then, and I could just make out the tiny black and grey shapes of Jim’s hounds swarming about the base of a huge Jeffrey pine a hundred paces or more down the hill. Jim, in his typical manner, sidled up beside me—not the least bit out of breath, mind you—and directed my attention to a shadowy spot in the tree about forty feet above the dogs, just below my line of sight. My eyes did that thing eyes do when they’ve been looking at the same thing over and over for hours upon end, and rejected what I was seeing. Because the huge shape in the arm-thick boughs of that pine tree was not just a cluster of boughs or a big patch of mistletoe, but literally the largest cinnamon black bear I’ve ever seen.
He was standing upright, rear paws on one branch, front paws clutching the limb about five feet above the first, and his head hanging over the next limb up. He was looking down with the patience and calm of a king surveying his domain, while a literal storm of fur and teeth raged just below him.
I’m a hunter, and I have no qualms about legally and ethically taking the life of a game animal, especially when solid evidence exists for a conservation benefit to the species. But likewise, I would never do so casually, nor ever risk a fouled shot that would result in an animal’s unnecessary suffering. Add to that Jim’s assurance that no matter what kind of shot I made, good or poor, this bear was a boar (a mature male), and if there was a single sliver of life left in him afterward, he would come down angry and fighting. I had all the time in the world to set up perfectly, so there was no way could I excuse myself from making the best shot.
“Get in a good spot, get a solid rest, and get calm,” Jim said. “Take the shot when you’re ready. Just know the dogs are gonna swarm that bear when it hits the ground, so make sure it’s good and dead by the time it gets there.”
“Headshot, then,” I said, knowing this was the best for any dangerous animal, but looking for his confirmation all the same.
Jim nodded, gave me a knowing smile, and headed down the hill to where the action was going to be, all the while the dogs continued their verbal assault on their hated adversary.
SIDE NOTE: Earlier, I mentioned Jim’s lead dog, named “Champ.” What’s critical for you to understand about Champ, is that Champ absolutely hates him some bears. A couple of days prior to joining me on this hunt, Champ actually got chomped by a bear on his right shoulder, during the same hunt the other hound was injured. Looking Champ over when we first loaded up that morning, I was amazed at the scab-crusted gouges and patches of missing hair, and I had a hard time believing this scrawny fella was in any kind of shape to hunt. But whatever he might have been lacking in constitution that morning, Champ more than made up for it with an epic abundance of heart. Champ was the first dog out of the box, the first up the hill, and the first over the ridge. When we got to the bear’s location some three to four hours later, Champ was the one literally trying to climb that tree and get that son-of-a-bleeping bear. Later, when we had the bear on the ground, Champ was the first dog to get to it and get himself a slavering mouthful (this does nothing to damage the bear, but it sure makes the dogs feel better about themselves). And then, throughout the hours-long process of dressing the bear out, despite all ten dogs being tied up well out of the way to keep them clear of knives, bear guts, etc., Champ and Champ alone never once quit telling that bear off. Champ. Hates. Bears. It’s just that simple. He was the most hardcore, driven, obsessed, and intestinal-fortitude-possessing animal I have ever met. God bless that dog.
Alright, back to the story. Again.
Jim and John did their best to get all the dogs tied back, but ten of them are more than a handful, and they weren’t going to keep them back for long. Heart still pounding with excitement, head swimming with the responsibility to take this magnificently dangerous animal down humanely and quickly to save the dogs from the hazards of a pain-maddened bear in his prime, I settled into a standing barricade position against a smaller Jeffrey pine, and found the bear in my scope. God, he was huge. His head nearly filled the scope. The rifle, I knew, would do the job if I could manage the shot placement. So I took a moment to figure my shot’s best path through his skull, and when Jim said he was ready, I took the shot.
As always has been the case when I’ve taken large game, I never heard the shot, never felt the recoil. But the bear fell immediately, and I knew from the impact (and all the wrist-thick branches he snapped clean off on the way down) he was bigger than I’d originally thought. When he hit the ground, what I suspected might happen actually did happen. One of the dogs tore loose from Jim and ran up to get a piece of that bear. If you guessed it was Champ, you win the prize. Alarmed, I hurried down, chambering another round on the run. But I was beyond happy to see the bear was quite dead, and no threat to Champ or anyone else. Edging up for a closer look, I noted a rather unimpressive 30-caliber hole through the cheekbone where it curved out toward the nose, just under his right eye. Exactly where I’d wanted it to be. The shot had passed clean through the thinnest bone of his skull and right through the brain, killing him instantly.
I was startled back to reality by hands clapping me on the shoulders, and realized I’d been flanked by Jim and John, marveling at the huge black bear I’d just taken, complimenting my shot, commenting their envy of the trophy that would come of it, and reveling in the gleeful flurry of ten dogs literally frothing at the mouth with excitement of the successful hunt. All of them were too busy trying to decide whether to bark or bite to do any real damage. I could do nothing but stand there and grin like I’d just been kissed by the prettiest girl in school.
After the dogs had chewed on the bear a while, and the three of us briefly lamented our sore lack of cold beer, we got to work skinning, gutting, boning, and quartering. Looking at the bear’s front paw as a gauge of his size, we estimated he was pushing 500 pounds. The pad of one front paw was every bit of 5" across, and his claws were easily 2” long apiece. Later we came to learn from examination of his teeth, he was a 6-year old boar.
Of course, it was at this moment, elbow deep in fur and blood and guts, that my brain finally decided to sputter back to life, and I remembered all the stuff I forgot to bring down from the truck: backpack, rope, GPS…you know, trivial stuff. To the partial relief of my ego, Jim and John had forgotten their fair share of equipment too, or at the very least had assumed I’d brought it all with me. A mixed blessing, which you’ll come to see.
With the bear cleaned and quartered, and with not a single pack among the three of us for the hike out, we hung the meat in some half-fallen snags to keep them off the ground for the night. I grabbed the head, hide, and paws (skinned out in one piece to have made into the bearskin rug I’d always dreamed of), slung that greasy, hairy, bloody mess over my neck and shoulders, and began the hike back to the trucks. I say “hike,” when what I really mean is “scrabbled, clambered, staggered, cussed, cried a little, crawled, etc.,” with plenty of five-to-ten-minute breaks in there just to catch my wind. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a grueling climb. That hide must have weighed nearly a hundred pounds, and draped over my shoulders it nearly touched the ground on both sides. I am proud to say that although it took me quite some time to wrestle that thing back up to the truck, I managed to keep it in great condition, and it has since been fashioned into a magnificent wall- or hearth-worthy rug.
The remains of the story are rather humbling, to put it mildly, but must be told. Since we didn’t have the proper gear to pack the meat out that day, and it was nearly dark when we finally reached the truck, we decided I would return the next day with packs and some helping hands to go back down and get it. When I did go back in the following morning, though, despite a half day of searching, my friend and I could find no trace of the meat. I wasn’t even positive we found the location of the kill. Nothing looked familiar and my friend had not come with me the day before, so he wasn’t really able to help. But despite learning that lesson the hard way, it was a great trip overall, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. And whenever I look at that trophy on my wall, I will remember that lesson in preparedness, and maybe hang onto a little piece of valuable humility along the way.
Life's journeys certainly take us to some interesting places, and teach us something no matter what, so long as we are open to learning. Though it has been some time since I last set foot in the forests of Plumas County, I treasure the memories of the adventure. For with any good adventure comes the opportunity to share that treasure with others. If there was even one moment in which you forgot you were reading the words, and felt like you were there, I've done what I set out to do.
Thanks for reading, and safe adventures, traveler.
Legends of Cyrradon
Jason is not only a prolific writer of fantasy-genre stories, but an aspiring narrator and voice actor, currently recording the audiobook version of "The Call" among other more commercial projects. Listen to free samples from his recording sessions on the "Previews" page of their website. Also, be sure to join Jason as he presents live readings through the Storm's Rising series on Sundays via Facebook Live. Event details can be found on the LOC Facebook fan page.
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Jason and Rose Bishop are the founders of Legends of Cyrradon, and authors of the Storm's Rising epic fantasy series. Together, they craft original stories with unique and complex characters and epic plotlines. They write the stories they would enjoy reading, and delight in sharing them with you.