The Bears of the Old Wood

by Ruadhan

Late September morning was chilly with the temperature down near 45F. It was still dark when I had awakened at 4:30 am and I was in the kitchen sipping a mug of Russian Earl Grey tea and finishing a hearty breakfast of poached eggs and pork shoulder. On the couch in the living room was the gear I would need for the day: my faithful recurve bow with a 60-pound draw, a deep back quiver with four broadhead arrows in it, and a large fanny pack containing rations, a tiny long-range radio, compass, emergency matches and a few other oddments. I was dressed in a complex pattern of camouflage from cap to boots.

I finished breakfast and slipped the gear on. All in all it weighed only about 10 pounds, pretty light compared to the 70-pound packs I sometimes take to trek into the bush. But I would only be gone the day, no further than five miles from our cottage in the deep Highland forests, and if worse came to worse I could radio the cottage for assistance. I kissed my wife, Daphne, goodbye and headed out at half past 5:00 a.m. I wanted to be deep in the woods long before the sun rose.

The archers' deer season had arrived; a special season set aside for those few of us who like to do things the hard way--we of the bent stick. And among archers, I probably do things hardest of all. No ATVs to scoot to my hunting grounds, no compound bows with their mounted pulleys to make the bow's draw weight lighter. Sometimes I used a horse to chase game and track, but not today. I feel that hunting in this most traditional way honors the game, and the spirit of the Green Man, whom I follow. Today I was going into the Old Forest, a vast forest of virgin timber that grows north and east of our hollow.

I hiked east, following a barely used dirt road up the shallow mountainside. Our homestead is already near the top of the mountain and I needed only ascend the height of the hollow. About two miles up the road I took a left and crossed a meadow of wild blueberry. There I stopped at a thicket of birch and slipped into the shadow, checking the surrounding meadow for deer that might cross my path. In the dim light every young white spruce and old stump looked like game but nothing moved and I determined after half an hour, in dawn's first light, that the meadow was well and truly empty.

I dropped to my right knee. "Green Man, the deer and bears are yours. You know I only hunt for meat and use hide and hair and sinew and nothing goes to waste. And the forest this year holds too many deer and bear. They will starve a slow death if their numbers are not culled. Grant me a deer or send bear my way, as you wish. So mote it be." I rose and left the birch thicket, taking hidden trails north to the foot of the ancient maples and birches that are the staple trees of the Old Wood.

The sun had barely risen and the forest rose rapidly to my left, blocking any view of it over the horizon. The canopy was thick and except for the whitening sky overhead, I had re-entered the night.

I honor the Green Man with the deeply nature-oriented way I live, and I have found he is often quick to answer me. But he has a sense of humor and often his answers, while beneficial, come in ways I don't anticipate, and so it was to be this day.

I was yet two hundred yards from where the little used trail entered the dark forest, watching the ground for tracks as I had already come across coyote and fox spoor and the odd deer track, when I glanced upward as I was rounding a thicket of raspberry canes. About 150 yards off was a black bear beating up the path fast in my direction. I was being charged by a bear again, entirely unprovoked, for the fourth time in my life. But this time, unlike my years in the Alaskan wilderness, I had no gun. In the face of situations I find I become strangely cool. The first thought that passed through my head as I prepared to fight off the bear was, "Hmm, this will be different."

I am a big guy. I'm tall and built somewhat like a barrel, and living most of my life in the wilderness and on a farm has made me far stronger than the average person. I'm no weightlifter or superman, but I am fast and capable, a lot more so than most. And I've spent my whole life with animals--so I am pretty confident around them. Thus, encountering a charging bear was enough to alarm me but nothing like panic. I stepped aside into the thicket to do what had to be done.

A bear can move fast--up to thirty miles per hour. I knew I had only seconds till it was at my position. I drew an arrow from my back quiver and knocked it to the string. Then I pushed back the flap of my jacket so I could get fast at the 17" Bowie knife I always carry into the deep woods. I knew it would come down to a hands-to-claw fight even if I could put an arrow into the black.

If what you know of archery you learned from watching Legolas in The Lord of the Rings, it would seem that you shoot something and it goes "Ooomph!" and drops. In reality, arrows kill by bleeding out your target and even a well-placed shot can take half a minute to drop anything substantial. That's a long time to duke it out with a bear. I am a good shot with a bow, and I figured I'd have time for one good shot then it would be down to holding it off with the Bowie.

I waited. Seconds passed. No bear. This made me more concerned because I've been hunted by a bear before--a grizzly in the Alaskan wilderness. But I'd never heard of such clever hunting behavior among black bears. I listened. A black bear is a big animal and it could not just sneak up on me. I would have heard it crashing through the thicket, but there was nothing. Finally, I stepped from the cover of the thicket and looked up the trail. There was the black bear, standing on his hind legs--a posture a bear does when it knows something is amiss. It was sniffing for me. Then it burst left and took off into the forest.

"What is going on?" I wondered. First it's charging me then it turns tail and runs? That would be really weird behavior for a black bear. They are far less inclined to charge than grizzlies, but if they do they are far less inclined to stop until something is dead. But this one had senses me, stopped, then lit out.

Cautiously, arrow still knocked, I continued up the trail. A gentle breeze wafted through the air, bearing scents of summer life, of deep living forest and of autumn all at once. I eyed the raspberry thicket carefully but there was no sign of the bear. It had bolted deep into the forest. Stranger and stranger. Another hundred yards and I was satisfied the bear was gone. I dropped the arrow back in the quiver--it's dangerous to walk with a razor sharp broadhead on your bow--and continued on up the trail. I had not gone another hundred yards and just entered the woods when surprise number two met me as, once again, I was eying the trail for tracks.

Another black bear was on the trail, bent over and eating something. It was so invested in its meal that it had not even noticed me, though I was only about fifty yards from it. But the ground was moist, the breeze from out of the north, so my steps were ghost silent and my scent did not waft over to the bear which was east of me. Now I knew what had happened--the first bear had not really been charging me at all. The first one had been a smallish black, one hundred fifty, maybe two hundred pounds. The bear in front of me now was about twice that. Bears don't tolerate each other well and the first bear had probably been run off from the food by the bear now in front of me. It had been running up the very trail I was approaching the forest on, saw me, probably thought some dung-related expletive, and beat it northeast into the Old Wood.

But now there was this second, much bigger bear in front of me. I was really after deer but I had a bear license in case luck brought me across one, and luck--or the Green Man's pranks--had just done exactly that--twice! Out from my quiver came the arrow and I knocked it to the string. Then began a slow cat-and-mouse game in which, over the space of a half an hour I covered twenty yards, moving so slowly the movement could not be perceived, going silently over the forest duff. Bears have poor eyesight and if it did not see or scent me, I figured I could get within twenty-five yards of it. At twenty-five yards I am deadly with a traditional bow.

At thirty-five yards I espied fresh bear droppings on the ground. I walked intentionally through them in order to increase my bear scent, making me more invisible to the creature. At thirty yards I began to ponder taking the shot, but thirty is a big difference with traditional bows. They don't have sights--you shoot by instinct, and I go from deadly to hitting my target about 50% of the time in just that five yards difference. So I decided to do the ethical thing and wait. I respect the game by not taking a shot unless I know there will be a quick, nearly painless kill. So, the long minutes passed as I ever-so-slowly closed the distance.

Thirty yards came. I was nearly there. Then the black stood up from where it had been eating fallen apples and scented me. A random shift in the wind had betrayed me. It darted right and lit out south into a raspberry-thick glade that led into the Old Wood beyond. I pondered taking the shot as it ran. My bow is traditional, no sights. Such bows can be aimed fast, and I'm good with it and could have put two arrows in the air in a moment. But I might just have easily only injured the bear. Not today, I decided and lowered the bow.

With a deep sigh, I placed the arrow back in the quiver, leaned against the trunk of a massive maple probably a century old. I had asked the Green Man to show me bear and within ten minutes of that request he had showed me two, and with the first one he made me think we'd be locked in mortal combat, with the second one he let me stumble almost on top of it then have it slip away.

"Another time, brother bear,” I whispered into the forest in the direction the bear had gone, deciding not to track it through the thorny thicket of raspberry. It had earned its escape. Then to the Green Man, I whispered, "Ha, ha, very funny. Now, let's go find a deer, you prankster."