Two years ago this week my friend Bob Scott and I came back from our first, and so far only, black bear hunt.
We hunted with Jeff Helms of Agawa Canyon Outfitters. Jeff lives most of the year in Grand Rapids – MI, but from July through September he exiles himself in Ontario, or more precisely the Algoma Sustainable Forest, about one hundred miles East of Wawa.
Some place deep inside the Algoma Forest is Half-Way Heaven, a lodge known for the price of their gas that caters for snowmobilers during the winter and hunters in the fall.
Half-Way Heaven is Jeff’s headquarters during bear season, and the owners Gail and Steve, along with Billie, the god, and John, the “nefu”, took excellent care of us, which included a long trip to the nearest town to buy chocolate milk and Oreos for my breakfast.
During fall black bears eat up to twenty thousand calories per day in order to prepare for the winter hibernation, and in order to keep the bears around Jeff keeps between twenty and thirty active bear bates, each with a tree-stand or other suitable shooting “platform”.
The carefully prepared bate is a mix of marshmallow, chocolate fudge and cherry pie filling, and every other day or so a half gallon is deposited in the bottom of a 55-gallon drum. A cover is placed on top with a heavy rock over it to prevent smaller animals from getting to the bait. Caramel is poured over the rock, and “liquid smoke” generously spread all around.
In order to estimate the size of the bear a piece of frozen beaver (courtesy of Steve’s winter trapping) hangs from a tree, and if a bear can reach it then it should be a shooter.
We got to the lodge on a Monday morning, and after proving to Jeff that we could hit a stationary target at twenty yards or so we had a light lunch and got ready to go to the stands by mid-afternoon.
Besides minimum shooting proficiency, Jeff’s require two basic pieces of equipment from all hunters; rubber boots in order not to leave human scent on the trail and “cut in contact” fixed broad heads for bow hunters.
Jeff placed me on my tree-stand around 3:30 PM, baited the barrel making plenty of noise (sort of ringing the dinner bell), and told me that someone would be back around 10:30 or 11:00 PM to get me.
Then the game of waiting began. I started counting minutes (I was advised against bringing a book as Jim, a fellow hunter, dropped his book and scared a bear away the previous year), observing squirrels and birds, and dedicating time to “philosophy”. I would look at the bate barrel frequently, but all was calm. Then some ruffed grouse came to a log not thirty feet away, opposite the bait, and I was admiring these wonderful birds.
Then, when I looked at towards the bait one more time there it was, a bear standing on its hind feet and snatching the beaver from the tree. The bear had not made any noise at all and I was not even sure for how long it had been there.
I could not take my eyes from the bear anymore. It came down on its hour paws and started licking the caramel from the rock. Suddenly it slapped the barrel and tumbled it. Then the bear walked away into the bush and my heart began to sink. But soon it returned.
The bear started to feed on the bait and as it got inside the barrel for the first time I was able to get my bow ready.
The angle that the barrel had fallen prevented the optimum “quartering away” shot, and I had to press my back against the tree to get a better angle, almost broadside. As the bear got inside the barrel once again, I pulled the bow to full draw and released the arrow.
I was so focused that I actually could see the fletching disappear into the bear coat.
The bear turned back and growled at the same time, and then ran towards the woods, but I could see it go down not ten yards away. The final below came in seconds, and there was a great silent in the northern woods.
I came down from the tree-stand, walked to the bear and snapped some pictures. Then I looked at my watch and it was 5:32 PM, and I had decision to make, I could either wait for another five hours or walk the ten kilometers to the lodge. I choose the walk.
Two hours later I faced a group of happy people having cold beers around the bonfire and asking me why I was back so soon. Had I given up?