The BAREBOW! Chronicles: The Swimming Bear Polka
Dennis Dunn 10.20.15
Before the venue of my ongoing wars with Mister Murphy moves further north to the State of Alaska, there is one more story that simply must be told about the last 24 hours of the same hunt that provided the basis for Chapter 56 of the BAREBOW! Chronicles. Same guide, different bear, different river, same totally frustrating outcome. In fact, I don’t know who ended up more frustrated in the end: my guide with me, me with my luck, or the young grizzly with his own, lackluster fishing skills! It might well have been a tossup.
On the thirteenth day of this 14-day hunt, we raised anchor and headed up another long, isolated fjord to the mouth of a river that the outfitter felt certain had not been hunted all fall. In August, he had had my two guides hike a mile-and-a-half upstream and hang a treestand about 20 feet up, right over a pool they knew would be holding plenty of silvers throughout the month of October. At the same time they had built a sleeping platform right next to the treestand.
By 1:00 p.m., Ellis put us ashore, and Clayton, the same guide who had been “caught with his make-up down” the day before, led the way as we backpacked upriver to the chosen location, prepared to spend all night high in the trees. The hole had at least 100 salmon schooled within its confines, and after pulling all our gear up behind us onto the platform, I eased into the treestand, bow in-hand. I placed an arrow on the string and prepared to wait and watch patiently till dark.
The first couple of hours went by very quickly. I observed with great amusement the frantic reactions of the fish every time the shadow of the resident bald eagle passed over them on his frequent flights up and down the river channel. Straight across from my elevated perch, the far bank was about 22 yards away; the near one, right underneath me, no more than eight. The middle of the pool was roughly 15 yards below, and I felt confident that any bear catching a fish in this hole would enjoy consumption of his prize only at great risk to his life. Once more—as things turned out—my smug confidence caused me to forget about Murphy’s Law.
About 5 p.m., the tranquility of the scene was abruptly shattered by heavy splashing about 60 yards upriver. At first, I couldn’t see the source of the commotion because of a long overhanging tree limb. Within seconds, however, the lanky legs of a nearly-seven-foot grizzly strode into view and almost immediately chased a salmon right into the hole below us. My guide signaled shortly that he thought the bear was a boar, so I quietly rose from my seat and readied myself to shoot.
It became clear before long that this bear had not yet mastered the art of fishing in deeper water. On lunge after lunge, he came up empty-pawed. It was really quite a dance to watch! Since the pool averaged four-to-five-feet deep, his vitals were almost constantly underwater—giving me precious little to shoot at. Even worse, he would not stay still for more than a second or two in any one position. I kept thinking he would eventually make a catch, and then haul his fresh meal out onto one bank or the other. Unfortunately, however, no such luck occurred—for him or for me.
Finally, following several minutes of this double frustration, he suddenly gave up the chase, planted his butt on the bottom of the hole with just his head and neck sticking out of the water, dredged up a dead fish carcass from under a boulder, and proceeded to munch on it like a hamburger held between his front paws.
At long last, for about 20 seconds, perhaps, he was stationary. Yet the only possible target I had was his jugular/windpipe area, and I knew that any motion on his part, or any miscalculation on my part (or anything other than a perfect three-fingered release off the bowstring) would likely only wound him—leaving him most probably unrecoverable, and me subject to a very expensive trophy fee, whether I recovered him or not. (For most outfitters, woundings are the same as kills.)
I was still praying that he would eventually get out of the water and offer me a broadside or quartering-away shot. But it was simply not to be. He finally left the pool the same way he had entered it: by swimming down the middle of the river. Some 75 yards downstream or so, he climbed out on the far gravel bank and vanished into the brush. As soon as we knew he was gone for good, Clayton exploded in anger and intense frustration with, “What the [bleep] are we doing up in this tree if you’re not gonna shoot?”
All I could do was to muster a sad, understanding smile and say, “Son, I know you wanted to see me shoot that bear as much as I did, but you’ve still got a lot to learn about hunting these big bears with a bow and arrow. Unless you absolutely know you can make a killing shot, you don’t even attempt it!”
Before long, darkness was upon us, and after a small, cold snack—consisting mostly of sardines, as I recall—we settled in for a long, rather restless night in the trees. As the night wore on, and the need to urinate arose, we periodically used Ziploc bags for containment, rather than allow any human scent to accumulate on the riverbank below. We had also decided beforehand not to try to cook any food while up on our tree-platform, so much of the night was spent trying to ignore our hunger pangs, and fantasizing about what further action the morning hours might bring.
I must confess, however, that I also had trouble sleeping this last night of the hunt because I kept second-guessing myself over the shot I had refused to take with the grizzly directly below me. I had, in fact, been under enormous pressure. I knew that if I released an arrow at that bear, it was going to cost me $20,000—no more, no less. I know that sounds crazy, so let me explain how the unusual situation came about.
When I called Leonard Ellis in June of 2002 to book my October hunt, he had just raised his prices. The base fee for a grizzly hunt had risen to $15,000, and his harvest fee for a bear, once killed, had jumped to an additional $10,000. That total of $25,000 for a successful hunt clearly made Ellis the most expensive outfitter for grizzly bear anywhere in Canada or Alaska, but—since I’ve always tended to believe that you “get what you pay for” in this world—I decided to take the financial risk and sign up for the hunt. I do, however, try to “manage my risk” when I contract for one of the more expensive hunts (like for bears or sheep), and I have found that quite a few outfitters are willing to “negotiate” the various parts of their total hunt package.
This hunt with Ellis was to be my fourth try for grizzly. I figured it was worth paying the $25,000 for a successful hunt, and for finally putting the species behind me, but I certainly didn’t want to pay even $15,000 if I was going to come home empty-handed again, and have to book yet another grizzly hunt. Consequently, I had made Ellis a proposition—one which he eventually agreed to. I told him that, if he would drop his basic hunt fee from $15,000 to $10,000 for me, I would sweeten the pot for him at the other end by paying a harvest fee (once successful) of $20,000, rather than $10,000. I really wanted to give him an extra incentive to make this grizzly hunt the last one I would ever have to book. Thus, I guess I had only myself to blame for the pressure I found myself under at the end of the hunt—$20,000 was a lot of money riding on just one arrow.
There was, though, another factor that made the pressure far worse. I had not realized till the hunt was already underway that the fine print in the contract stipulated full payment of the harvest fee for any “wounded animal not recovered.” That was the thought that was haunting my subconscious during the entirety of the bear’s underwater polka performance beneath my treestand. Had I had a clear shot above water at any vital area remaining stationary for more than a second or two, I’d have released my arrow without hesitation. As things were, however, the chances of merely wounding seemed pretty high, and the very last outcome I wanted to see for the hunt was to have to return home unsuccessful again—and still be out $30,000, instead of just $10,000.
The next morning, Clayton and I stayed the course up in our trees until 11 a.m., but no other bruin showed hide nor hair of himself, so we headed dejectedly back down-river, knowing we had to arrive in Bella Coola by dark. My long drive back to Seattle was made even longer when—late that night, 90 miles west of Williams Lake—I hit a deer at 70 miles per hour and virtually totaled my Subaru Outback. The collision occurred just after I had passed a dawdling pickup truck. In attempting to miss the deer, I lost control of my Subaru Outback and went careening backwards down a rocky embankment—coming to rest, upright, against a big patch of vine maples. I was truly lucky to escape unharmed. Not so lucky was the deer. The driver of the truck stopped to see if I was OK and proceeded to tell me that I had hit the doe with such force that, when I knocked her high into the air, he had passed right underneath her, and she had avoided coming back down to earth by landing in the bed of his still-speeding pickup!
Many hours later, a CAA tow-truck arrived on the scene to rescue me from what otherwise would have been a very dismal night. Once the operator had winched me back up onto the roadway, put one tire back on its wheel-rim, and inflated same, I gave him my AAA card, signed some papers, and then began the long, limping, dangerous drive back to Seattle. My vehicle was almost undriveable. At any speed over 35 mph, the steering column began to shake uncontrollably. Making matters worse, the entire left-hand half of the windshield was completely “honeycombed” from the deer’s initial impact before it went airborne. Never, before or since, have I had to make a drive anywhere that was so difficult and miserably unpleasant.
Had I had a big bear in the back end, the loss of my car and $30,000 would have been worth it, but I’d have to say that my fall grizzly hunt of 2002 was one of the very few hunts I’d ever taken that I really wanted to forget. What I didn’t know at the time was that an old grizzly bear of world-record size was waiting for me to come and find him up in Alaska.
Editor’s note: This article is the fifty-seventh of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work, and the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here:http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.
Top illustration by Dallen Lambson