Alive, the grizzly is a symbol of freedom and understanding—a sign that man can learn to conserve what is left of the earth. Extinct, it will be another fading testimony to things man should have learned more about but was too preoccupied with himself to notice.
I worried about the heat; 80 and rising and four dogs in fur coats out in it. I worried about the back end of the old setter—the old man—breaking down now after nine hard years of sweeping before my guns. There were springs in the draws and shaded patches of cool mud and sweet water, but still I fretted about the old dog and his weak hind legs and his stamina. I thought of my lady and wondered how her day was going and I thought about work. Anything but the activity before me, anything but the hunt. That’s not an easy admission. But I was distracted, off my feed. Fuzzy. Unfocused. Not a good way to be when walking wild country in pursuit of game.
At the toe of the mountain, up against the wilderness boundary, we followed, my thoughts and I, and we climbed through hip-deep grass and pushed through alder and chokecherry and aspen.
I knew this place, and had hunted it many times. I always hunt it on the first day of the best month of the year, the too-short month we call September. In these patches, young blue grouse dined on berries and hoppers and followed their mothers. Between places of cool seep and ripe fruit, Hungarian partridge burst and scattered before my gun. Today, I had seen nothing, but I walked with a confidence of knowing past days of abundance and good dog work. Yet, I walked with my head elsewhere, in some kind of foggy cloud of preoccupation.
Then it happened. He was there. Five hundred pounds, I’m guessing. I’ve been close to grizzlies before, but never this close. Twenty yards. He burst from a chokecherry patch and bounded down the hill, stotting like a flushed mule deer in fresh alfalfa. But this was a bear. And there was no doubt: the hump, the roll of silver on his shoulders, the head, the small ears, and the claws. The claws looked like they were eight inches long, but probably were half that.
The dogs were out in front, beyond the bear, sniffing out grouse, and the griz ran a perpendicular path to them faster than I can write this sentence and you can read it. I had enough time to yell: “Hey bear!” and I had enough time to think about firing off a shot into the air, those meager seven and a halfs. And I had enough time to think: “No, if I fire a shot, the dogs will get excited, see the bear and then it will be on. Or over.” All of this quicker than the recounting. So I yelled. I may have hit a high note. And then he was gone. Once he stopped and looked over his shoulder and then he was off and running again, the big coat rippling with his lope, heading up the mountain to thick timber and high country.
All four dogs at heel now and heading to the truck. I thought about wild country and animals that can snap you out of your mundane bag of thoughts and re-energize, invigorate, and excite. May there always be a wild place of the hunt where something is bigger and meaner and has better judgment than I. Now, at last, I was back to being a hunter; next time would be a time of alertness and stepping light, of open eyes and focused energy. I would be fired up and ready. Charged.
I went back to that place a few more times last fall. I swept the bird dogs up through the timber patches, through the aspens. Blue grouse burst from deep coulees and folded before the gun. I found some huns on the climb to the aspens and once, I bagged a half limit of those little beauties and a full limit of blues. The dogs worked as they always do, in a measured, careful, thorough sweep that I’ve come to read as easily as a master musician reads sheet music. We jumped a young bull moose once and my heart fluttered in my chest and threatened an explosion, my nerves shot with a sudden heavy dose of adrenaline. But these times, I went armed with a canister of bear spray on my hip: better ammo than bird shot, warmer security than a puny 20-gauge. I walked with open eyes and ears and heart and I thought about what it means to be a hunter in a place where there are others, bigger others.
They have always added to my hunt, these great bears. I worry about my dogs, my pals. But still I go. I go in deep country with an elk rifle, and I go in low berry country with my shotgun. We have them now in places where no living human memory has them—the far-flung prairies on the Front, the low country off the toe of the Absarokas. We have them in places where they haven’t been seen since the late 1800s. I think about this sometimes, about an animal that puts me on edge—that makes me walk alive and alert and full of life. And I think about our tamed-out places where caution is putting on a seat belt and making sure to cut yourself off at one beer if you’re driving.
I know that there are other opinions out there, those who would rather have an absolute security in the wild, would rather not have even the ghost of a grizzly in the territory. I am different. I would rather feel that shock of a hammering heart, would rather hit the soprano note in my “Hey BEAR!” and would rather be alive in a country where we have learned to tolerate and respect. This is the difference between the wild and the deep wild. Or, perhaps this is the difference between just another piece of country, and one that holds a mystery and an adventure, a feeling of what it once was when it was all this way. I like that. I like having that charge of fast-twitch electricity in my neurons and blood. I like the charge.
Among Tom Reed’s books is Great Wyoming Bear Stories, published by Riverbend Publishing in 2003. Tom lives outside Pony with a string of saddle and packhorses, a pack of bird dogs, and a trout stream within casting distance. For more information, visit tomreedbooks.com or email him at [email protected]