by Ann Sherman
Reprinted from “A Fish Out of Water”: Reeling in Stories from Wine Lake Camp
I always appreciated the outdoorsmen who treated fishing in the Patricia Region or hunting in Ontario as an art, and less of a science, who kept only what they would quickly consume and not ample amounts which would collect freezer burn months later, who made the attempt to fish and hunt in a kinder, gentler way instead of holding a pike by the eyes for a picture, beating a flopping fish till it submitted, or merely seeking a rug, or a mount, to feed their own ego. Living in the back woods is not a “sport” to me. It is a way of life, a way of being, and we sought out guests who could willingly accept that notion.
The “fish hogs” and “trophy hunters” gradually lessened (and eventually were dying off) over the twenty years we were caretakers of Wine Lake. They didn’t completely disappear, but neither did the mosquitoes. We tried to educate our guests about quick release, gentler catching techniques, and the sacredness of the hunt. Most of them saw the almost immediate benefits to themselves of releasing all trophy fish. The lake then replenished and sustained itself, and in turn fed the anglers.
But I still held back and couldn’t fully embrace the hunt. Over the years, I cooked and feasted on moose meat until my eyes rolled back in my head. But I was uncomfortable whenever a mighty bear was taken. I tried to understand the fascination. I watched and observed the hunters. And then one September night, I was allowed into the male fraternity, if only for a few hours. Otherwise, I always skirted around it and gazed through it from the sidelines. I always wondered how the hunter and his friends found the downed animal in the dark, how they all reacted to the expired life of a great beast, what men say and do when women are not around.
Rick had shot his first bear. We were sitting inside the Trout cabin, joking and snacking when he pulled up in his boat. He indicated to his buddies (Doug, Dave, Herb, Frank, and Darren) that the night had gone well. Then we sat down to eat a meal before retrieving the kill. After a plate of fried potatoes, mixed veggies, and walleye had been consumed by all, the guys started suiting up in Carhart coveralls and headlamps. In a gesture of politeness, someone asked me if I wanted to join them. Somewhat hesitantly, because I really believed this man’s world is too hard to comprehend, I decided to enter at my own risk.
Boots, tuke, borrowed headlamp in place, I squatted down in the large Plate boat with six men – all seasoned hunters. The boat sped off in the dark because flashlights shining on the water just cast a shadow in the driver’s eyes. It was easier to plow ahead at 11 p.m. at night, by the moon’s glow, and guess the distance to shore.
When we arrived near the trail leading into the woods, we all piled out. No one knew for sure if the bear was dead or just wounded. Head lamps blazing, we each stumbled into the thick woods looking for the blood trail as it exited the bait pile. “Looking for blood, looking for a possible wounded bear, looking in the pitch dark?” I thought to myself, “Was I crazy, or what?” The meager light from each person’s flashlight lit up the quiet forest like an evening game on a football field. Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so vulnerable. But I still felt crazy in pursuit.
Dave jumped on ahead, quickly finding cues and instinctively sensing the path the bear would have taken. Then, one by one, we each came upon the large, black animal in the bushes. There lie the once breathing, thinking, feeling being – a fuzzy giant, a predator in the woods.
If we hadn’t found the bear, we would have looked again in the morning, re-stepping our tracks to uncover any missed clues. Sometimes the blood trail just abruptly ends. The shot merely scrapes the surface of the skin and the wound quickly dries up. The bear escapes a near-miss, like a cat with nine lives. Other times, the animal miraculously disappears behind the wood’s curtain, never to be found. But nothing is ever wasted in nature, unlike in the human world. Other animals feast and are filled by the loss of life.
As I watched, sharp knife blades quickly disemboweled the bear. Congratulatory remarks were directed to Rick about the size of the animal and the cleanness of the direct hit. I bowed my head. I reached out to touch its mammoth ear, and I respectfully bid farewell to this ancient spirit.
The limp body was placed on a sturdy tarp. All six of us grabbed sections of the cloth and held the still warm paws up with our other hands. As a team, we pulled through thicket and brush, over fallen logs and muddy terrain. The king of the forest was being triumphantly carried out for all to see.
The next day would bring still sharper knives, scraping flesh from silvery lining. The men rolled the hide in salt and then cooled down the meat, finally butchering loins and steaks. A meal of garlic and onion –seasoned bear roast, cooked over an open campfire, would hail the end of the hunt. The greasy red wiiyaas (“meat” in Ojibway), digested by virile males, would strengthen them for another day. The spirit of the bear lived on, in subtle ways, in everyone who partook.
I remained still an outsider, unable to bring the animal’s warm flesh to my lips.
The hunters always seemed like such a tough, confident group of guys to me. Who else would go traipsing through the boreal forest in hopes of getting up close and personal with a bear or moose? But time and again, the animals intimidated the camo-clad soldiers. They let them know to back down or revere them – casting off any pretense of human superiority.
For instance, Donny was bear hunting near camp. There was a big bear working the bait, but it was intelligent enough to show up only when Donny wasn’t there. Herb helped Donny try several different tactics to outsmart the Harvard grad of the woods. They set up a second tree stand for the bear to investigate. Herb also tried walking into the bait with Donny, and then walking back out, leaving Donny in a tree stand. Finally, they created a dummy to sit in the second stand as a decoy. Nothing worked. The bear was smarter than all those human tricks.
This wise animal would show up and show off, but never give Donny the satisfaction of a clear shot. On the last night, Donny built a ground blind by a brush pile. He got behind it and was listening to the leaves rustle in the wind. He sat on his honches with his bow securely across his knees. He sat for nearly thirty minutes in this awkward position, motionless.
Then Donny heard a stick barely break behind him. Over his left shoulder, he saw the bear. It was one foot away from his elbow, with his neck stretched out to smell him! Then the confident bear angled around the perimeter of the bait. When, in relief, Donny swallowed with a loud gulp, the bear turned, made all-knowing eye contact, and ran away.
Donny’s eyes were as big as saucers when Herb picked him up later that night. “Did you see him?” Herb asked. “I saw him alright,” Donny stammered. “I didn’t get a shot at him, but I got more than my money’s worth!”
Another time, Brad, who was hunting bear near Mud Lake, learned to be brave and mindful in the woods at dusk. A curious bear came into the bait where he sat in the stand. A bear always knows that a human is there; their presence doesn’t seem to scare them off. But this one came over to the tree to investigate his company. Surprisingly, it climbed up to the base of the hanging tree stand, about 16 feet off the ground.
Brad was really anxious. He nervously knocked an arrow and began to draw. In case the bear was going to lick him in the face, he would be ready. But the arrow bounced so much on his rest that he couldn’t have shot if he wanted to. The next night, as he visualized a return of the frisky bear, he looked at the scrawled writing above his riser. “Remember to breathe. Stay calm,” it said. This was Brad’s new mantra.