In the house of the grizzly

 

We have begun to think of this place as ours. Every year, we cross the creek, ride up the long slope to the timbered bench, then drop into the meadow, as we have for a decade. It's a coming home; a flood of memories of previous hunts, good times, hard work; a shared experience of man and horse and elk.

It's not a big meadow that we call home. Just enough space to picket the mountain mare and turn the others loose where they can scatter out and get feed and not hammer the meadow to oblivion. Camp is tucked back against a patch of green timber, and we can listen to the elk talking on the mountain above. We arrive early, a day or two before the season opens, happy and content in the warmth of the late September sun. This place is ours.

But this evening, as dusk rolls across the meadow, and the horses feed and move, relaxed, we are reminded that we are only short-term tenants. We have packed in a cold meal, knowing that the work of setting up the tent and the kitchen area, of packing and unpacking, saddling and unsaddling, will leave us too tired to cook. We watch the meadow and our beloved horses for awhile, then turn our attention to the dinner.

That's when the meadow's true owner arrives.

He walks with a powerful confidence, a ripple of muscle and fur and bone that is liquid and quiet. We stand now, forgetting the meal, and watch him move across the meadow, through the feeding horses. Amazingly, they just look at him as he swings his massive head back and forth, grace and might in one package. For a fleeting second as I watch this bear, I am reminded of stories of a 19th-century Colorado grizzly named Old Mose, a moniker resulting from his carefree "moseying" style of movement. This bear has that quality: rambling, relaxed, at home.

Then, quicker than it takes for the sight of him to sweep across my brain, he is gone. We turn to each other. Holy hell, can you believe that? And we realize that both of us are holding dinner - drumsticks - in our hands, and our faces are covered with chicken grease. We joke a bit, with false bravado, about being perfectly spiced for a grizzly bear meal.

That night, we store all the food in the bear panniers - metal containers designed to withstand a bear's curiosity and determination - and strap them to a tree. We move cautiously around camp, making sure that there is nothing there to tempt him in case he comes back. And then we turn in for an uneasy sleep.

Sometime between four and dawn, Al wakes me. He's in camp. I hear him out there.

I listen. The panniers rattle. We rise and shout out into the dark: Hey, bear, beat it! We pull on our boots and ease out into the night, wearing our headlamps and carrying bear spray in one hand, a gun in the other. I will use the bear spray first, I tell myself. We head toward camp, yelling and shining our lights everywhere, sticking close together.

He has gone. But he slapped the panniers about a bit and knocked over the tack pile, taking a bite out of the seat of Al's saddle. We can see the mark of canines, top and bottom, digging into the leather. Damn, I joke, wish that was my saddle. That's cool.

We camp here for a week, and nightly he travels the trail behind our camp, leaving his mark deep in the mud, but never again - to our knowledge - slipping into our camp. This is his place. As we hunt the hills around our camp, we run into other bears, a sow and a cub, a younger bear, and even a couple of black bears that are perilously treading grizz country. We take elk and pack them out as quickly as we can and hang them high from the meat pole, well downstream from camp. The bear tolerates us, and we thank him.

I've never felt as alive as I do when I'm walking in bear country, especially when I'm moving through thick timber in the middle of the day. This is where grizz sleeps during the day, shading up and resting before moving into the dusk in search of food. Here, I walk quietly and intensely alert, ever open to movement, noise, smell.

A kind of sixth sense kicks in, a weird "feeling" that one gets only after years of hunting, of walking the woods. Those who have grizzly bear encounters and live to tell about it talk about this sixth sense. I was feeling really weird right before she charged, they say.

A few Septembers past, I shot an elk late one evening and hung it high in a tree, for it was too late to come off the mountain with packhorses. To leave an elk atop a mountain overnight in grizz country can be a fatal error. Sometimes it must be done. So I left that nice bull up there and moved off through the timber. As I worked down off that hill in the dark, stumbling and falling, slipping and cursing, I suddenly felt edgy. Is something watching me? And then, there, in thin new snow on the trail, was a fresh track of a big grizz, going the way I was headed. I made noise, lots of it, and I never saw him, but he was there. The next morning, I rode safely to the elk and packed it off the mountain.

After years of hunting in this country, we have come to adopt rules of camp, guidelines for moving and living in a country occupied by something that wears two-inch canines and can easily outrun the fastest human in the world: Finish hunting by early afternoon, leaving enough time to pack meat off the hill before dark. Hunt in pairs at a minimum. Threes if you can. Hang meat much farther away from camp than the guidelines call for. Forget 100 yards. Try four or even five hundred. Walk with a plan in your mind, a rehearsal that would be played out if a grizz suddenly appeared and charged. Carry bear spray handy. Use it first. Leave camp clean. Never wipe your hands on your pants. Sleep far away from the kitchen and upwind if possible. Everything, even toothpaste, goes into the bear panniers.

We keep coming back, for there is a call to this place. It is a call of wildness, of big country, of a last piece of vastness that stretches into timbered mountains, vast meadows, wide rivers. It speaks about game, about moose and elk and the occasional monster buck mule deer. And it whispers of good horses ridden far into wild country, of good times shared by the like-minded, of quiet respect for everything.

But it is the great bear that turns this flowing conversation into an eloquent mystery. There are places with more and bigger elk; places where we can hunt without the presence of the great bear. But they are not truly wild.

He needs room, this great bear of ours, this last remnant of another era, this dinosaur in fur. I hope we leave enough. I hope that he will live longer than I do and longer than those who follow into the wild place we like to call home.

Writer and elk hunter Tom Reed keeps his horses in Lander, Wyoming.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tom Reed