My body was stuck in the Winnipeg, Manitoba, airport, but my mind refused to vacate the bear stand back in Waterhen. Same country. Same province. But emotionally, the two were worlds apart.
Tick… tick… tick. Stupid clock. I checked my cell phone once more. Nothing. Stupid cell phone.
Tick… tick… tick. C’mon, Rick. Pick up the phone and call!
I stalled until there was no one else left to board the plane before cutting the juice to my cell and tossing it into my carry-on pack. Uncomfortably seated in the “crying infant” section of the aircraft, I was desperately trying to memorize the upholstery pattern of the seat in front of me, trying to drag my thoughts away from the previous night’s events. Then it hit me: I was now “two-for-two” on having to wait for an over night recovery during a Canadian big game hunt. But this time there wasn’t a recovery—yet.
So I had no choice but to swallow my emotions and play the waiting game—again. Stupid waiting game.
Begging For A Bruin
My legs involuntarily shook with excitement as Bob Kaleta and I rounded the final bend in the twisted gravel road and saw the Agassiz sign. I cracked the window and took in as much Manitoba spring air as the capacity of my lungs would allow, and held it. I’d never been so far from home where I instantly felt like I was home.
I flipped through the photo album in the Agassiz Outfitters lodge, shaking my head in disbelief at the countless photos of big bears—only drooling occasionally—as Rick and Colleen Liske tapped the unlimited resources of their black bear knowledge to answer the questions of my eternal ramblings.
“I want this one,” I whimpered, pointing to a chocolate-colored bear that easily weighed more than 400 pounds.
“Pretty, eh?” Rick smiled. “About 30 percent of the bears we harvest are colored. I think you’re going to have an enjoyable week, Luke—if you can control your bear fever.”
Gotta Beat Bob
The week-long hunt was waning quickly, and the pressure was beginning to build. I stopped briefly at the base of my stand—as I usually do—to put some thoughts to paper and clear my mind.
Bear hunt journal: Beginning of day No. 5. Final day. Forty-one hours on stand. My butt hurts. Getting fat from too much great chow; eating habits not unlike bears. Weather is perfect. Seeing lots and lots of big bears. Bob killed his bear 2 days ago. Gotta beat Bob. Holding out for Mr.Huge. Being too picky?
I climbed the steps of the ladder stand and snuggled in amongst the decaying pine needles. Ten hours left, and then I go home. And there’s no lonelier feeling than watching the sun set on the final evening of a kill-less hunt. It was now or never—and I knew it.
Wiggling into position, I looked at the bait. Geeze! I rummaged through my over-packed daypack and finally found my rangefinder. Ninety-three yards between me and the bait barrel. That’s an eternity for this archery-minded hunter, especially after sitting over baits all week that were a mere stone’s throw away.
After shouldering my rifle, examining the bait through the riflescope, checking the shooting rail, and placing the gun at rest—and then cycling through the entire process once more—I finally felt comfortable about making the shot … should an opportunity present itself.
Allowing the sun to warm my face, I closed my eyes and thought about distinct features on a bear I’d never seen, but wanted desperately to add to the Agassiz photo album.
On our way to the stand that afternoon, my guide, Alan, pulled the quad to the side of the trail and pointed to the ground at a freshly imprinted bear track in some soft mud.
“Not bad,” I said. “That belongs to what, about a 5- or 6-footer?”
Alan looked at me and smiled, never withdrawing his extended index finger that stuck to the track like honey-coated oats stick to a bear’s muzzle.
“Nope,” Alan said. “That’s the front track. You take the width of the front track and add an inch, and that roughly equals the length of the bear in feet. That track looks about 7 inches wide.” My legs started to involuntarily shake again. What a beast!
Subduing The Shakes
The sun was blazing through the tips of the pines and directly into my eyes when I first saw it. Squinting through my riflescope, I could see it wasn’t a record-breaking bear, but it was a big bruin I wanted.
Hour No. 48, Luke. Don’t screw this up.
Resting my gun on the front shooting rail, my right elbow on the other shooting rail and my left elbow on my knee, I was as stable as I could be—which wasn’t very stable. There was little I could do but watch the rifle scope’s crosshairs tango across the entire body of the bear as I waited. Time would subdue my restless nerves.
And time was the one thing I had on my side. I knew that if I could relax, the bear would feed for awhile—even most likely lay down as it snacked—and eventually present me with a perfect shot opportunity for a perfect kill—when I was perfectly calm.
But I was tired of waiting. Without taking my eye from the eyepiece, I reached up and activated the illuminated reticle. Placing the “little red dot” directly behind the shoulder of the bear, I swallowed my emotions, waited for the bear to reach for the bait with its near front leg—and cut the bullet loose.
I’ll be the first one to admit I’m not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but I had enough common sense to wait for Alan and avoid tracking a bear in the dark, alone. More waiting.
But the quickly consuming darkness couldn’t conceal the fact that things didn’t look good. What little sign we were able to find at the bear-trampled bait site came in the form of blood-tainted oats. All I could think was we were dealing with a paunch-shot bear, and a paunch-shot bear is an ornery bear.
“We’re not going to go any farther tonight,” Alan said, poking the bloodied oats with his boot. “Too dark.”
I did the quick math in my head: There wouldn’t be good tracking light until 6 a.m., and we were an hour’s quad ride deep into the wilderness—plus another half-hour truck ride from the lodge. And to completely deflate my morale, Bob and I had to leave by 5:30 a.m. to catch our flights home. Suddenly I was feeling paunch-shot.
The flight attendant had barely began her “You may now use your mobile electronic devices …” speech and I was ripping into my carry-on pack. On button: wait… wait. Searching for service: wait … wait. Stupid cell phones!
No missed calls. C’mon Rick … PICK UP THE PHONE AND CALL!
I was deciding between putting the phone in my pocket and throwing it under the Park’N Fly bus, when it beeped—one new message:
“Hi, Luke. It’s Rick Liske calling from Agassiz Outfitters, and I’m just phoning to let you know the guys found your bear. It’s a black boar, around 225 pounds. They’re skinning it out now for a rug or a full body mount. It’s prime, just like Bob’s bear. It’s a nice bear and we got good pictures. I just wanted to let you know. It ran about 150 yards … and we’ll get those pictures to you. Thank you for hunting with us.”
My legs began to involuntarily shake again as I piled onto a bench outside the airport. The bear ran only 150 yards; I hit it better than I thought. Just too dark.
I stared blindly into the fluttering traffic outside the terminal and laughed out loud, receiving a sanity questioning look from an on looker on the adjacent bench.
Grabbing up my bags, I looked at the man and smiled.
Two for two isn’t bad at all, I said to myself, and took a deep breath.