The ancient pathway cut a deep wound through muskeg and dwarf pine forest. It led along the shore of a crystal blue lake, brilliant in the rare, warm sunshine, and disappeared into a dark spruce and cedar jungle. Somewhere in that spooky twilight, bears lolled through the day, trooping up the trail night after night, year after year, trying to glean a living from this harsh land.
The trail emptied onto a sun-drenched meadow where bears came to feed in the evening. Here for a few lean weeks each spring, they found a bounty of the rank, raw protein they craved. But their feast involved a certain risk; the good life does not come easily on the Canadian Shield. Across the meadow, 10 feet up in a tree, I stood guard on a Quebec bear hunt over bait.
The scenery was stunning, the weather just right. A loon’s laughter wafted across Lac des Trembles, punctuating the wild beauty. And I was miserable.
The quaint setting was drowned by the drone of mosquitoes buzzing my headnet. Gnawing gnats had broken my bug barrier. I tried to ignore them as I concentrated on that black bear expressway 35 yards away. Maybe I dozed; maybe the loons diving and calling on the lake stole my attention. But I don’t think so. I think it was the magic of “Mukwa,” as Ojibwa Indians called the beast with supposed magical powers.
Because one moment the opening was empty, the next it was filled with a fluffy black bear, fur glistening in the sun’s slanting rays, gazing directly into my eyes. My heart leaped but I strained to keep perfectly still. “Mukwa” knew something was amiss in the tree, and at this angle he looked huge, wary, and ready to bolt if I reached for the .280 Remington at my side. Damn! I shouldn’t have set it down to kill that gnat. It wasn’t till the bear finally moved a few steps, jerking his brown muzzle back my way every few seconds, that I began to have doubts. The bear snatched a filleted walleye carcass from the pile and loped triumphantly into the bushes, giving me a chance to grab the gun.
Sure enough, five minutes later the bear hobbled awkwardly out of the underbrush, more confident now, and shuffled out of sight behind a windfall. The time was right to raise the rifle, and as I did, the bear raised on its back legs to peer at me. The crosshairs centered on the bear’s sternum, on an unusual double white patch strangely resembling an ancient Indian symbol for eternity. It was tempting. But the bear’s good luck charm must have worked, because it was then I realized my doubts were true: The slim torso, big ears, and long neck indicated a yearling bear. I snicked the safety back on as the bear lost its nerve and galloped into the woods for good.
Deep In The Bush
I was hunting near the huge lake St. Jean and the tiny town of St. Felicien, 300 miles north of the customs station. Another 40 miles into the bush was Roland Couture’s Camp Laurentides Outfitters. The resort sits in the center of 100 square miles of lake and forest, a melding of deep green and blue wilderness that Couture leases from the provincial government. The camp’s main concession is catering to fishermen seeking the big brook trout and lakers that inhabit the hundreds of nearby streams and lakes, and the walleye and pike 45 floatplane minutes north in sprawling Lac Poutrincourt.
I was back on stand at 4 that afternoon. I’d expected to see the young bear again, but five hours later my only company had been a pair of mergansers, a snowshoe hare, and the omnipresent bugs. After four days, my friends and I were getting concerned. What began as a couple hours each evening stretched out to an all-day affair. I spent one afternoon sneaking along deep bear trails surrounding a remote brook trout lake. I’d walked up whitetails before, I told Couture. A snoozing black bear should be a cinch.
“Yes, you can surprise a bear after maybe 20 years hunting like that,” Couture said. “Don’t miss.”
On day five we stumbled out the cabin door at 4 a.m., with four hours of sleep behind us, to scrape ice off the windshield with hunting knives and find our way through the dark forest. Six unproductive hours later, with one day left in the hunt, we were checking baits, desperately looking for clues, ready for radical action.
“We could sleep on our stands so we could be there at first light without disturbing the bear,” one of my friends suggested. The idea intrigued me and we conspired to trick the bear that had given us the slip for four days.
Builds A Groundblind
I decided to abandon the conspicuous treestand and build a ground blind 50 yards from the bait. There would be more danger — of the bear scenting me, I mean — but I would be undetectable with the right wind. At 3 p.m., I was at the stand with a sleeping bag, rain gear, rifle, and a large hunting knife. I cut small trees, set them around me, and settled into the soft moss to begin my 16-hour stay. This was a pleasant evening, with just enough chill to keep the bugs in hiding. I tried to absorb the wild beauty while rehearsing mentally what I would do in different situations. But when the woods came to life with the approach of dawn there had been no bears. Within an hour we rolled out of camp and down the highway.
It had been a bad year for bears. A frost-killed blueberry crop denied them the food they needed for hibernation. Twenty-some were shot as they roamed the streets and backyards of small, northern Quebec towns looking for a winter’s worth of food. It was apparent, however, that at least one bear had made it.
I was on the shore of Lac des Trembles, surrounded by a barrier of spring spruce, staring at a strange yet familiar pile of logs. I’d returned to Roland’s Laurentides out of longing to revisit this wild land, and to answer a nagging sense of business unfinished.
After two days hunting, Bob Davis, Rudy Mattern, and I had seen exactly nothing. I’d already abandoned the treestand. But this evening I found a bear had eaten all the fish, along with a large part of a rotten log. I dropped in another piece of bait, then walked back 50 yards across the strong, constant breeze to make my ground blind. It was from the other side of that wind that a bear would approach. Four, five, six, seven, eight o’clock … I was getting reacquainted with myself. No matter how stimulating the scenery, the sensory deprivation of hours on stand always turns a hunter’s mind in on itself. It can be anguishing, thinking about wasted time, self doubts. Or it can be fascinating, with the…
Bear Finally Appears
There! Crossing the trail! “This” is the “bear!” No doubt this time, it’s a big bear, and he’s heading to the bait. Put your rifle on the rest, store oxygen, and take your time. But wait! He isn’t stopping! He’ll be out of sight in three seconds — if you want him, “move!” The bear must have picked up scent I left when I checked the bait. He kept going, his rear end toward me. There was a small tree in the way, and I had to roll out of the blind for a clear shot. Just as he started over the crest of a rise, he angled slightly.
I thrust the sights up front of the bear’s left hip and sent the 180-grain soft point through him almost end to end. The bear did not take any more steps, though he tried to with his feet in the air. It lasted only seconds; then I rushed over. The bear was magnificent. The first thing I noticed in the fading light was the absence of a left hind foot. It was the type of injury, probably made by a wolf trap, that would have caused an animal to walk with a hobble.
Exhilarated but with a strange sense I was trespassing, I took one massive foreleg in my hand and pressed it away from the bear’s body. I didn’t expect it and I can’t explain it. But when I saw that unusual double white patch, like an ancient symbol for eternity, it somehow seemed like we’d each honored an old obligation.
For a wide selection of hunting gear, be sure to visit Sportsman’s Guide.