Face-to-Face with a Black Bear
By Gary Lewis
Sometimes a boy wants to do his own laundry. There is probably a good explanation for coming home with bear excrement all over one's clothes. But it probably wouldn't explain the presence of certain other kinds of - ahem - evidence inside of one's garments.
I met a fellow, we'll call him Pete, and we naturally started talking about hunting and I showed him a picture of my daughter's first bear. Pete asked where we’d hunted and when I told him the name of the unit in northeast Oregon, he had a story to tell. "That's steep country," he said. "I hunted elk there one year and got run over by a bear."
Naturally, I wanted to hear more. "Did you get his license plate?"
When Pete says the country is steep, he isn't just a-woofin’. Those mountains that drain into the Minam, the Imnaha and the Snake are as steep as a cow’s face and as rough as 80-grit sandpaper to a flea on roller skates.
It slopes deceptively easy up from the river bottoms then shoots for the sky all at once. And every step has a rock to roll under it and so many snakes you want to walk around on stilts.
Pete moved slow, side-hill, with his gun carried easy in his right hand. Not only did he have an elk tag, he also had a bear tag. And if there’s one place in Oregon that has more bears than this northeast corner of the state, Pete hadn’t heard about it.
Three-quarters of the way up the hogback, he worked along a game trail, watching the country ahead. Ahead, an old pine tree was down and Pete walked around the root wad.
At the base of the root wad, dug out of the soft dirt that the tree had left, was a big, deep hole with fresh tracks going in and out. So many tracks, it looked like the road to church on Easter Sunday. Now if you've ever come upon a cave or a hole in the ground, you know that you don’t pass such places by. You stop and look inside.
And if there are fresh tracks, your heart beats faster, because something big and hairy with sharp teeth might be waiting. Mostly, the tracks date back to the Pleistocene and the hole is empty. If you’re lucky, you might find some hair or a quill or a fossil to tell you what kind of animal once made its home there.
Pete eased up to the hole and looked down inside. Right into the startled yellow eyes of a black bear. "I think he thought I was going to eat him," Pete said.
For a moment, the two predators faced off. The omnivore with his beady eyes and long, pearly fangs and the human with his big, round peepers and meat-chewing eyeteeth.
The bear made the first move. "He swung his head and looked behind him, back inside the cave, as if he was looking for another way out. And I thought to myself, he doesn't have another way out."
That’s when Pete stepped way back. "I had to give him some space," he said.
Stepping backwards off the mountain is a little like stepping off a cliff, except you don’t fall quite as far. Pete lost four feet of elevation and dropped to eye level with the hole.
From the bear’s point of view, where a moment before there’d been a hunter, now there was nothing but blue sky and freedom. And that bear came out of his hole as fast as a cat with his tail on fire doing what a bear does in the woods, leaving fresh steaming piles at 30 miles per hour. Right on top of the startled hunter.
When the bear cleared him, Pete let go of his rifle and rolled down the hill. For all he knew, he was being eaten. Getting that rifle back was priority number one. He scrambled uphill, clawing handfuls of dirt to get to his gun.
The bear stopped to take a look back, but now he’d seen enough.
Pete grabbed his rifle, spun, rolled his shoulder into the dirt and found the bear in his scope, just as the animal disappeared around the corner of the hill. Gone.
When he stood up again and brushed himself off, Pete found the freshest sign he'd ever seen. The bear had been saving it up for some time too. "I had bear scat all the way from my feet up to my chest."
I didn't ask, but I'm thinking the bear wasn’t the only one with a case of loose bowels.
Pete didn't get the bear's license plate, but he did get something even better. GPS coordinates. He says when he draws a spring bear tag for that unit, he’s going back to find that cave. We hope he doesn’t get taken to the cleaners again.