feature By: Joel Linke | March, 18
steep hillside, gaining speed rapidly. Sensing imminent danger, I twisted my body to face the mountain, dug my toes into the earth and clawed at each piece of brush, desperately hoping to halt my slide before plummeting down one of the numerous granite cliffs on the slope. Just before I reached one such drop-off, I stopped with a sudden thud – my feet had struck a hidden 6-inch pine log that had fallen perpendicularly to the treacherous path. I looked up the slope at my buddy, Nate, with an expression that communicated more than any words could convey.
If it wasn’t for the large mountain boar that Nate and I were tracking, I wouldn’t have been on this slippery slope in one of Washington’s designated wilderness areas. We were in the high country on a do-it-yourself hunt with an over-the-counter tag on public land, and had put two bullets into the boar before it dashed up and over the ridge it was feeding on and back down the far side. Tracking was simple because of the two-foot-wide trampled path through the grass and shrubs. I should have realized sooner, however, that the claws on each of a bear’s paws allowed the animal to navigate steep, slick slopes that humans cannot venture down without risking serious injury.
As I stood on the log that saved me from a potentially disastrous fall, I could see that the bear had run down the entire hillside we were clinging to, and it seemed likely that it continued its escape into the trees on the opposite side of the valley. For us, continuing to follow the wounded bear’s trail would likely produce broken bones – or worse.
Nate and I had been on many high-country bear hunts before and had made this early fall bear hunt an annual event back when we were both bachelors. We have both since married and, in addition, I had a son earlier in the year – hopefully a future hunting buddy. We both had people depending on us to drive home from this hunt upright in our seats – not on a stretcher in the back of an emergency vehicle.
Since we left our car in the twilight that morning, we had already logged 12 exhausting hours consisting of a combination of biking and hiking with heavy packs full of hunting and overnight gear. There was no easy way out of this hunting spot. A twisted ankle or broken bone at this point would most likely require extraction, which we prepared for by carrying a GPS messenger; it was one piece of gear we were hoping not to have to use.
With hardly a word spoken, we simultaneously decided to carefully pick our way back up the hillside we had come down while tracking the bear. At the ridge, we didn’t have much time to decide our next plan of action because a distant thunderstorm had suddenly closed its gap and started dropping its first few raindrops on our heads and shoulders while bolts of lightning began hitting peaks in the near distance. Just after slipping on our rain jackets, a shockingly close lightning strike had us scrambling for shelter off of the exposed ridge. We immediately dropped our rifles that we thought would act like lightning rods, and ran for a nearby rock face. We took shelter in a cleft of the rock for the next hour and a half as a steady supply of wind, rain, lightning and thunder descended from the heavens.
Before the storm passed, lightning would strike every mountainside we could see around us, multiple times, sparking about a dozen short-lived fires. Additional entertainment came in the form of a small plane that was flying along the edge of the storm, most likely checking to see if any of the fires were spreading. The plane must have spotted us, because it performed a “wing wave” right in front of us by dipping its wing tips a couple of times.
Enduring storms is an integral part of hunting the high country. Sooner or later a storm will find you up there, and if you aren’t prepared, it can turn an enjoyable hunt into a survival situation. Nate and I experienced our first storm on our very first high-country adventure together. A rainstorm rolled in on our hike in and managed to soak nearly everything I was carrying, except for the canned food I had brought. By the time we reached camp, my 70-pound pack, full of many unnecessary items, would have easily tipped the scales at 80 pounds or more from the extra rainwater weight. That night the temperatures dropped well below freezing and froze all of our heavy, wet gear. We woke up the next morning, put on our “ice-block” boots and changed our mindset that day from hunting bears to surviving. In the years since, I’ve learned the value of quality, waterproof gear and lighter food options.
The large rock that was now providing us safety from the storm was just a stone’s throw away from where the bear was shot. After the strenuous trip in, we had initially spotted the bear 200 yards away, before we had even pulled out our binoculars. We were both comfortable shooting that distance, but the brush around the bear was too high to clearly see its vitals. The wind was perfectly in our faces, but without any useful cover between us and the bear, a stalk seemed impossible.
After observing the bear for a minute, we decided that we could slowly creep closer while the bear had its head down in the grass. Each time the bear would begin to lift its head, we would freeze. I realized that I had plenty of practice with this type of stalk, and before long we had stealthily snuck within 50 yards of the feeding boar, and I settled to take an unobstructed broadside shot. When I squeezed the trigger, all I heard was a resounding click of the firing pin. With dismay, I realized I had forgotten to chamber a round in the excitement of the stalk.
The bear heard the click, too, and started a slow gallop up toward the ridgeline, looking curiously over its shoulder at the maker of the sound. The boar’s gallop was too slow, however, and by the time it made it over the ridge, the bear had already soaked up two bullets through its black hide. We were both confident that the shots had been placed well and thought for sure the bear could not have gone far over the ridge. This would be our third bear in three straight years; we could hardly believe it. But the resilient beast had traversed much farther than expected, and the steep slope on the far side of the ridge changed our recovery plans. Doubt of recovery began creeping into our minds and subtly into our conversation.
The storm actually allowed us time to pull out maps and make a better plan for recovering the bear. From the topographical map, we were able to identify an indirect route that took us in the opposite direction of the bear and stayed up high, but gave us access to a hillside with a negotiable slope that would lead right down to the bear.
It was a relief when the rain and lightning finally moved on and we quickly picked our way around and down our planned route. We were now looking up the steep hill at the beaten-down path the bear had just made. Unfortunately, when we turned to continue tracking the bear, its tracks were obscured by hard ground and patches of ice. We scoured the area for a few unnerving minutes before Nate announced his discovery with simple but excited words, “Dead bear!” We had a short celebration after such a long and challenging day.
There are many parts of this hunt that I will always remember, including the hard work involved, beautiful alpine meadows and the extraordinary animals that make this landscape their home. But this hunt was also a humble reminder of the importance of returning safely from a successful hunt.