I got to my stand at I2:3O on a Saturday afternoon. The weather was hot and humid, and I was exhausted from a football game the night before. But I wasn’t about to go home. The sky was a pleasant blue, the sunlight glittered on a clear little stream nearby, and I had my first-ever bear tag. It was September, my senior year of high school, and this was my only chance at a bear for what was likely my last hunting season in northern Wisconsin for a long time.
I’d been sitting in my tree stand for four hours without seeing or hearing a thing. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I saw two small cubs in front of me. A second later the mother was on the scene as well, and although she turned perfectly broadside to me, I did not want to shoot her and leave the cubs alone for their first winter.
The sow was acting nervous and didn’t touch the bait that I’d set out weeks before. She paced and stared off to my left for a while until she finally ushered the cubs away into the brush. Something was coming. What that was I didn’t know, but few creatures frighten a large sow. I gripped my rifle and waited.
His massive head was the first thing to pierce the wall of branches. He strode right in front of me, as formidable and strong as an animal could ever be. I aimed just behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. He dropped instantly. Before I could react, he was back up and disappearing into the brush.
I shook all over as adrenaline surged through my body. When I checked my watch I realized that what had felt like 45 minutes since I’d first seen the sow was actually only five in the real world. After calming myself, I climbed down from the tree stand.
Within 25 yards I found blood, but there wasn’t much of it. I tracked the sign through a berry patch, saw something black in the brush, and crouched down to look. As it began to walk directly toward me, I realized that it was a cub. My mind raced-had I shot the mother by mistake? No, the one I’d shot at had definitely been bigger than the sow. I suddenly realized that somewhere in the woods with me were a mother and two cubs, along with a wounded boar. This was the first moment that I felt like I could be in trouble.
By screaming and waving my rifle around I managed to scare the cub off. I was a bit rattled at that point, so I went back to the road where I could use my cellphone to call for some help. It wasn’t long before my dad and two football buddies showed up.
Complete darkness was still an hour off, but the dim light made tracking increasingly difficult because the blood trail was almost nonexistent. Just as it got too dark to see without a light, two of the flashlights’ batteries went out, so my friends left to get more.
It was a moonless night, and with the only remaining flashlight my dad and I made slow progress. At one point, the bear had turned a full 180 degrees, and we came close to giving up the trail. It was starting to seem hopeless until we crept a little farther into the woods and found a spot where the bear had lain down. I began to think we might get it after all.
I stood up straight to catch my breath, and then I heard something to my left. It started as a whisper, then grew steadily into a deep wheezing. My dad had the light; I had my grandfather’s old Winchester .30/06 bolt.
“Can you hear that?” I asked.
“Hear what?” he answered.
“That,” I almost screamed. I snatched the light and flashed it into the brush. Barely 6 feet away the bear was lifting himself in the light’s beam. With one paw up he let out a slow growl, looking right at me. In a rush of fear and adrenaline, my mind flashed up an image from a Jack London novel I had read, in which a frontiersman encounters a bear and pumps “round after round into the furiously charging black mass.” But it was clear that the bear could no longer charge, and he died seconds later.
After that it was hard to get down next to him for the field dressing. Besides the difficulty of convincing myself he could no longer hurt me, I did not want to change him. He looked old and scarred and regal. He was perfect, in every way.
The Department of Natural Resources wardens told me later that he had been aged at 17 years. I had not even realized that bears got that old. The strength shown to me by the bear has served as a continual inspiration since. When I die, I hope to do so with even just a fraction of the poise and dignity that the old bear had.