Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sometimes Life does all your planning without telling you.

I left town Sunday to go deer hunting in zone D5, off Highway 4, near Bear Valley.  Saturday was opening day for that zone.  I was not going to partake in opening day nonsense.  I don't wear orange.  I don't believe in it.  I believe that if you're not a halfwit, orange is irrelevant.  Sadly, the halfwits are out in force on opening day.  Hence, I was not. 

I made a decent little camp on Sunday, noting that there were plenty of hunters in the area.  

I poked around a bit Sunday afternoon, and saw that the area was very slim on deer sign.  A few tracks here and there, many of them old, but not much else to whet the appetite.  Bear sign was around, but nothing spectacular near camp.  I had a bear tag.  For some reason, I always see bears when I deer hunt.  Every year, without fail, at least one bear.  And I don't mean "Look at that little black dot over on the next ridge."  I mean "Oh crap, there's a bear 40 yards from me!"  X zone, D zone, B zone, whatever.  I sneak up on them pretty well.  No idea why. 

Monday morning, I took a hike up an ATV trail, starting at 7200 feet and cresting a ridge about 8100 feet high.  Nice hike, and the weather warmed up quick.  Good for the body, not good for the deer hunting.  I did not see a single deer Monday.  On my hike up the trail, I found some fresh (hours old) bear prints.  Toenail to heel on the rear foot, a good 7-8 inches.  A full grown boar bear was in the area, moving down into a valley.  Probably towards one of the creeks I crossed, looking for a drink of water.  Or something. 

Monday afternoon was more of the same.  No deer, some bear sign.  A little buck walked into my camp around 8:30PM, but he was a spike (one point on both sides), and not legal to take.  Besides that, it would have been a dicey shot, even at the close (20 yard) range and highly illegal, being after regulation shooting hours.  I think some of the rules are stupid, but until changed, I play by them.

Tuesday, I took a walk down to a lower area with some small running creeks.  Down that way there was some active logging/clearing going on (nobody present, but lots of piled logs) and a nice road to walk along.  Amongst all the blowdown timber were lots of torn open logs.  Some tears were small, others were damn big.  Bear sign.  About 7:30AM a cub, maybe 100lbs, comes running at me out of the timber like a bat out of hell.  It sees me, turns tail and hauls ass away from me.  WTF?  Oh well. Why was that cub running?  No one was hunting by this time, except me.  And he was coming towards me, not away, like cubs are apt to do.  "Huh" was about all I could muster.  I never gave much thought to what spooked him.  I guess I wrote it off to "stupid kids".  If you have kids, you get it.
From there, I hiked around the toe of a ridge over into a hollow.   I roamed back over the ridge that afternoon and stalked down a dry creek for a look-see.  Not a thing.  Jumped a couple of does early on, but that was it.

Earlier in the day while I was nosing around up on that ridge, I had heard equipment down in the low parts where I ran into that cub, but figured it was trucks hauling out logs and paid no heed.  This would come to bite my white ass in ways you cannot imagine.

I set up around 5PM to watch the road and the bottoms.  Every hour or so I would walk 100 yards and then sit and watch for another 30-45 minutes.  Basically, an extended stillhunt.  About 6:15PM I started to move again, aware that I hadn't eaten much that day and I had maybe an hour and a quarter of usable daylight and an uphill walk back to camp.  Food and Fire sounded good.  Five minutes into my walk, there he was.

Big.  Dark, dark brown, almost black, with a tan muzzle.  Broadside to me, he had no idea I was there. Padding along on a dusty road, clean of twigs and branches is an advantage I rarely have.  Light was fading.  It was 6:28PM (I looked as I flipped up the scope caps.  It was too dark to find contrast between the body of the bear and my crosshairs.  But I was no more than 80 yards from this bruiser of a bear.  Easily 350 pounds, probably more, I estimated my aim and pulled the trigger.  As he took an unanticipated step.

I shot too far back, into the liver.  DAMN!  This bear made like a dog scratching a flea, glanced at me, and took off.  I knew he was hit and I knew that now I had to chase him down, on foot, loaded rifle and full pack in tow, and end it.  If I didn't, he was in for a long, painful demise.  I didn't want that  on my conscience.  No sportsman does, but I was rushed now.  Light was dim and I was tired from hiking all day.  Adrenaline took over.  I followed the crashing footfalls of the beast, first east, then north.

I paused every few feet of running to listen for a moment, homing in on the bear crashing through brush.  At the 3rd stop, I heard nothing.  He had to be close.  Before I could lay eyes on him, I smelled him.  He smelled of pine and something sweet I cannot place.  And he smelled like an animal smells.  Musky, with a twinge of blood in the air.  Quite the mix.  My eyes came upon him, on the far side of a little gully, leaning up against the far side a rock, breathing heavily.  He was no more than 10 or 15 yards away.  I flicked the safety off like I've done so many times before.  With no side shot, I walked around to face him, not 30 feet away, aware that he was wounded, scared and angry.  He growled at me one last time, and I put a shot square into his chest.  He slumped, but stared at me with an icy, but fiery, resolve.   His dying eyes looked at me.  Maybe in wonder, maybe in fading curiosity, knowing his time had come.  He was not going to die easy.  By now a pig would have been bleeding out and a deer would just be nervous twitches.  The bear just looked at me.  I was shocked.  I was also woefully aware that he did not want to die, and by this point, some small part of me didn't want him to die anymore, either.  The deed was done, if not complete.  This massive creature began to do what I can only describe as half plaintive baying and half moaning.  This had to stop, now.  I don't know if it was for my sake or his, but it had to end.  I chambered a fresh round.  The 3rd shot found both his lungs and he gurgled his last moan, kicked his legs a few times, and was still.  I stood there, jaw on the ground.  I could only marvel at this glorious, massive, gargantuan animal. 

I waited for what seemed an eternity.  Finally, I crept over and tapped his hind foot with my boot. Warm blood from the liver ran all over my foot and his passing was complete.  From start to finish, he took 5 or 6 minutes to die.  Some say a head shot would have been the best 2nd shot.  People who say that have never killed a bear, more often than not.  Bears are thick.  Everywhere.  Headshots don't always work and sometimes they backfire.  No, this was the best I could do.  Probably not the best any hunter could do, but the best I could do.

By now, it was almost dark. I fired up the GPS to mark the kill.  Then I got back to the road (a mere 60 yards to my west, and started walking back to camp.  This animal would require more than the buck knife in my pack.  A hatchet, a saw, a large game bag, water (for me to drink), flashlights and headlamps would all be needed.  So, I took off on foot, a mile mostly uphill, to camp.  I'd be right back with the truck and all my tools.  Idiot.

A hundred yards into my walk, it appeared.  A berm across the road.  30 feet beyond that, another.  And so on and so forth.  All said, 11 runoff berms had been put up during the day, blocking access to anything but perhaps an offroad motorcycle.  "Oh.  Fuck.  Me.  Now what do I do?"  "How do I get 350 pounds of animal back to camp, let alone to my truck?"  A million similar thoughts raced through my head as I hoofed it to camp.  In camp, I gathered my tools, repacked my bag, left the rifle, grabbed the pistol (we are in mountain lion territory up there, after all, and fresh blood was all over me and the bear), and said "I'll figure it out later."  I got in the truck and drove down that road to the first berm in my way.  There I noticed the skidder/scraper mechanized horror that had made my life so much more complicated.  I wanted to hate it, but whose fault was it?  Not its.  Not the operator's.  Not even mine. I couldn't have known.

I found my way back to the Giant as the last light faded to black.  I dragged him 10 or 15 feet to a flatter spot with a rope.  It left permanent burns.  Through leather gloves. Rolled onto his back, I began to open him up.  I'd never killed or dressed out  anything larger than a deer or pig before this, but the principles are the same for any animal - rabbit, pig, deer, bear, whatever.  Right?

I forgot about the extra 2 to 5 inches of body fat and the super-thick skin.  Glad I had 3 knives and a hatchet.  By 10:45PM or so, I had the bear skinned and gutted.  Rib cage split, I sliced through his neck, leaving the pelt attached to the head, rolled it up into a heavy duty (not cheap-o Home Depot) plastic debris bag and then doubled it.  Then I somehow wrestled the carcass into an oversized canvas game bag.  Right now, I'm not sure how I got 200 pounds of dead animal into that sack, alone.  I did, though.  I'm just not sure how.  I hauled the bag with the head and pelt, all 65 pounds of it, to the truck.  Half a mile.  Uphill.  Over 11 berms.  Into the back of the truck it went, along with a chunk of block ice from the ice chest. Bear pelts go bad quickly - the hair slips, I wanted to not waste it.  Now my overarching concern was getting that bear out.  But how?  It was 11:30 at night.  It was getting cold.  I was tired and I knew an adrenaline crash was coming.  I eventually drove back to camp, but covered in blood and dirt, opted to sleep in the truck.  I set an alarm for 6AM, just before first light.

Four hours of fitful sleep, punctuated by a distant AM talk radio station, is not really sleep at all.  It's not a nightmare, and it's not purgatory.  My mind was on the task to come, but my heart was contemplating what I'd done.  I have never seen an animal fight so hard for its life.  In the face of the inevitable, Old Mr. Bear had decided "No, not yet.  Not now."  I cut off his internal dialogue but I was sorry to have done it in the end.  I resolved right there and then that I would never hunt bears again. Period.  It has nothing to do with the work involved. The challenge kept me going.  The long-lost connection to a way of life that assumed such efforts as part and parcel of daily life rang strong.  "So this is how it used to be, more or less.  This was survival.  This was what life once was.  Sure, the whole village would help, but it was this.  The hunt.  The stalk.  The kill.  The butchering.  The processing.  The eventual feast and joy for another meal."  I never experienced that train of thought over a dead deer or a dead pig.  Maybe because I don't associate such strength and power with deer and pigs.  Certainly the sense of thanks and gratitude was there.  The twinge of remorse at ending another life was there, as always.  But the deeper connection to races of people, long ancient and mostly forgotten, was never there before last night.  So that's what it was and that's what it is.  The rest of my thoughts were matters of "How...how...how?", with answers of "Long, painful, time consuming, but doable.  Tough shit.  Suck it up and deal, shithead."  "OK."

Morning came and I drove back to that first blockade.  On a hunch I stopped at the skidder/scraper and left a note saying, in effect, "Hey, I'm down there.  If you plan to fuck me MORE, sound your horn or something so I know and I can scoot out of the way.  Thanks."  Just as I was about to leave the truck, I heard a diesel pickup coming up the road from camp.  "No fucking way.  No one is going to be hauling ass down here in a truck at 7AM to hunt."  Sure enough, two guys pull up, friendly as all hell.  I asked them about the road.  Turns out no one was supposed to be back until next week.  They got a call late Tuesday night about 10:30PM (about the time I started hauling bear parts to the truck!) saying "Open the road, the logging crew needs more brush removed before they want to log the stands out and salvage the culls."  So yes, those guys were going to smash down those berms and open the road. They even offered to pull the bear out with the skidder if they could get it in there (they couldn't).  In the span of 15 minutes they turned what would have been at least 4, and maybe 6, hikes with bear parts in tow, into a single drag of 60 yards to the road and getting this animal into the truck.

"I love it when a plan comes together" was more like "My lucky day, no questions asked, no reason sought.  Thanks!"

I got to the bear and dragged it to the road.  60 yards. 45 minutes.  200 pounds.  Me and a pair of leather gloves.  You figure it out.  Because I've done it, but someone forgot the get the t-shirts made. From the ground to the tailgate and into the bed was another 30 minute trick.  I would like to say physics and intelligence and wit played their roles in that job, but they didn't.  No handy trees, winch on the wrong end of the truck, no come-along, levers or ramps.  Just brute strength, determination and a constant, cussing hatred of gravity.  I wish I lifted heavier weights.  But whatever I lift, it was heavy enough.

Once in the truck, I made for camp.  Broke camp and made for a Fish and Game official.  See, in California, most anyone can countersign a deer tag.  One or two of my friends legally could do it.  But bear tags, they're special.  This is California and we have more bureaucracy than we know what to do with.  Only a F&G employee can countersign those. Fucking shit.  It's getting warm, and I need ice and a meat house.

First stop, USFS fire station.  "Seen any DFG folks around?"  "Nope, but we can sig..."  "It's a bear tag."  "Oh."  "Can we see the bear?!"

Five or six guys, none older than 25 or 26, adventure hound wildland firefighters.  Posing with the head, taking pictures, congratulating me, admiring me in vocal astonishment - I had killed and bagged the king of the forest.  A real massive testament to non-stop eating and evolutionary adaptive genetics. My hairless ape-form, tools in tow, had defeated the biggest the forest had to offer.  And at their age I remember feeling the same way about a big buck.  A resounding urge to unleash my primal scream and paint my face in bear blood quickly gave way to the situation at hand.  The sense of remorse I'd never felt that way before came rushing back.  The need to comply with bureaucratic mandates.  The imperative to get this bear on ice and do so legally. 

Off to another USFS station down the road.  On the way, I passed an oblivious F&G Warden.  I couldn't flag him down.  Goddamnit.  Is this a joke?  USFS ranger station couldn't raise anyone.  A nice lady made a couple of calls.  The verdict - you're driving your ass to the Region II HQ in Rancho Cordova. Great.  I hate Highway 49.  People are idiots behind the wheel.  The number '49' turns them into blind, drooling idiots.  Before they would let me leave, the lady asked to see the bear.  She wanted to see if he was bigger than one her husband had killed some years ago.  In her estimation, mine was bigger.  One guy cared not for the bear.  That's OK. The other USFS guy, who looked like my friend Rex, more or less acted like I was a criminal for killing such a grand animal. I hated him for it in an instant.  Do what I did, then tell me about your hate.  But in a way, he was also right.  Still, to Hell with him.  He can go play grabass in the office.  I have things to do.

Off to Rancho Cordova.  Eventually a very nice wildlife biologist came out to the truck to sign the tag and extract a premolar (they cut them and use them to age the bear, like tree rings).  In her estimate, based on tooth wear and gum condition, this guy was about 6-7 years old.  Old for a bear in these parts.  Details would be forthcoming in Winter 2012, but that was good enough.  She asked for a hair sample from the bear.  Nevada is doing DNA analysis to figure out how many bears cross the border.  I guess it's part of how they plan or discuss future Nevada bear hunts.  "Sure, take all you want", I said.  She did, and I scooted down Highway 50 in Central Valley Heat.  By rights, it wasn't one of those furnace-like 110 degree Sacramento days.  But with 80 lbs of melting ice between you and spoiled meat, anything above 45 is your enemy. 

Then the long drive to the meat house.  Uneventful, save being cut off by a Prius on the Carquinez Bridge (surprised? Not me.)  Mr. Bear hangs in a cooler now, waiting to be turned into jerky, sausage and salami.  His head and pelt are in my freezer until I figure out how I'm going to foot the taxidermy bill and what I want done.  Next to that, a bag contains all 4 of his massive paws.  Those are special. The claws , especially.  I have plans for those.  But first, research, so I don't screw up.   

Everyone I met the last couple of days - I told them the same thing.  He is a majestic animal.  He'll feed me and my family and my friends for a long time to come.  Eventually his head will grace my home, his pelt will be used on future hunting trips.  Hanging a great skin on a wall is decorative.  It's also criminal, in my opinion.  That fur will keep me warm on cold October nights waxing towards November, when the trout are sluggish and scarce, but also big and hungry.  Mr. Bear will give me fodder to contemplate the next day of hunting during future deer seasons when my feet hurt and my shoulders ache.  Unlike every other animal I've killed in my life to date, that bear is going to integrate with me in a way I never thought possible.  Also, I will never, ever, ever ever EVER hunt bears again. They die too hard.  Killing the strong is itself a sign of strength.  Refusal to take that life again is not fear of strength.  It is a manifestation of respect.  No, the bears can go live on and do what they do.

Certainly there is no nobility in a midnight garbage raider. Bears, like me, are opportunistic.  Don't blame the sunlight for the colors on the painting.  Blame the idiot that picked the colors.  I want no part in making nature that much poorer for the price of a few bullets in my rifle.

Wednesday I took the heart (I saved it from among the organs) off ice. My 2nd shot turned the heart inside out.  And still adrenaline, will, whatever, kept that bear fighting to live.  Three quarters of the heart was nothing but traumatized tissue.  What little was left, I sliced up, fried and ate.  It was the best meat I've ever had.  You could literally make a gourmet dish out of wild bear heart.  The rest was a loss  One-hundred-fifty grains of .30 inch lead at 2900 feet per second will dump an awful lot of energy in a big hurry.  Those grains will damage and they will ultimately kill.  But on something the size of Mr. Bear, they won't do it quickly.  

Here is the thing about bears versus any other animal I will continue to gladly hunt.  Deer know they're on everyone's menu.  Pigs know they're just a step away from being bacon. Bears?  Who the fuck do bears fear?  They don't.  They're as close to an apex predator as you can get in those mountains.  Documented histories tell of bears fighting, and sometimes killing, mountain lions.  Bears don't care because they don't have to care.  I didn't outwit a bear.  I read some sign and took a chance.  It's not bear "hunting", it's bear "finding".  I like hunting.  I don't like finding.  Not this kind, anyway.

This was an interesting lesson, one I never saw coming.  Hunting has been in my life since dad first took me for deer when I was 14.  Animals are food and the cycle goes on.  I never knew why I wanted to kill a bear.  I still don't.  Thing is, it doesn't matter.  "Why" is meaningless.  I was supposed to learn a lesson.  Something about life, something about death and something about me.

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