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I hustle the family to the car after Sunday services. Gray clouds hang low over the Tuscarora, and the breathless, moisture-laden atmosphere carries the promise of the first snowfall of the year. In the car amid the discussions of “what I learned in my class today”, I struggle to keep my mind from wandering ahead to the waiting mountains. Today we go to camp!

Shortly after lunch, the truck is loaded, and I collect the ration of hugs and kisses that is to tide me over until Tuesday night. After a quick stop to pick up Joe and his gear, we head north, catching up on the past year’s highlights, down times, and everything in between. An hour later, the first flakes brush the windshield as we pass through Williamsport. By the time we reach the forestry road, we’re entering a winter wonderland. The snow is not deep yet, but heavy fresh flakes continue to fall. We wind casually up the mountain grade, alert for slippery conditions, but comfortable thus far. When we reach the camp lane some 15 miles later, we pause to shift to four wheel drive for the last few hundred yards. The overhanging hemlock branches are heavily laden today, and each dumps its burden as the truck brushes by. The spartan camp is chilly, but after a smoky start, the big stove soon pushes back the cold. Joe sweeps the porch steps, we stock the wood box, assure there is toilet paper in the little house on Porcupine Hill, and fire up the gas refrigerator before the others arrive. Two at a time, the crew assembles, stamping snowy boots and talking about the early storm. Some we haven’t seen since last year, a few even longer. But we are at camp, where time has seemingly stood still, and neglected friendships renew easily. We bustle about, claiming bunks, stowing food and clothes, and checking tomorrow’s gear.

Finally only two are still missing, and we begin to wonder where they are. Just about the time we begin to be concerned, they come through the door, father and son, snowy from head to toe. They’ve been walking for a couple of miles, as the young driver has just learned a hard lesson about the effectiveness of his new “knobbies” in the freshly fallen snow. After a brief debate as to the wisdom of a recovery effort in the current conditions, the hardy among us pile into two pickups and navigate the now-treacherous road to the scene of the mishap. The truck has slid over the edge of a bank, and is lodged against a tree. After much discussion and maneuvering in the darkness, my pickup is chained to the front of the damaged vehicle, and Wendel’s Ford is tethered to the back. We pull a bit, then adjust chains, pull again, and readjust, but the road surface is extremely slippery, and progress is measured in inches, not feet. Before we’re finished, my truck has itself been in the ditch on the upper side of the road, with the road bank tight against my driver’s side door. Fortunately, the snow and the embankment beneath are soft and free of rocks, and my truck comes out without a scratch. We finally prevail, and find that although the young man’s truck is beaten, cracked, and crinkled, it is able to be driven.

It’s after 10 pm when we are finally all safely accounted for in camp. We eat, play a game, and re-tell the best of our oft-heard tales. The newcomers and youngsters listen eagerly, hanging on the details of past adventures and of the wild and rugged places where they unfolded. Finally our anticipation yields to our need for rest, and, one by one, we crawl into our bunks. The heavy snoring of a few sleeping men temporarily distracts the rest of us from sleep, but eventually we all slip off to restless sleep.

It seems we’ve just drifted off when Joe and Jerry begin rattling about in the kitchen, both too excited to oversleep. We climb sleepily from our places, rubbing bleary eyes, scratching what itches, and, in some cases, passing gas, to the chagrin of those in close proximity. Eggs are fried, oatmeal warmed, and toast buttered. Gear is rechecked, sandwiches tucked into day packs, and the layers of clothing go on. The talk is mostly business this morning, with discussion of who’s riding with whom, and where they will be dropped off to begin their hunt. Today will be ‘every man for himself’, as is our first day tradition. Those with the longest ride are first out the door, amid last minute friendly jabs and well wishes from the rest of us. Finally, silence returns to the cabin as the last of us slip out under the fading stars.

Wendel eases the truck to a stop along the snow covered road, and I step out into 5” of creaky softness. Even in the grayness of dawn, the woods are breathtakingly beautiful with the new fallen snow clinging to every twig. Wendell wishes me luck, then the diesel growls away along the road. I ease 30 yards down hill away from the road, then pause to lean against a thick oak as I wait for shooting light. The silence is upon me at last; that deep awe-inspiring silence that I’ve been missing for some time, without even realizing it. Light is gathering, and I can see across the steep hollow now. It is almost with regret that I realize shooting light has arrived, and it is time to go deeper. I load the gun carefully, the inevitable metal clicks crisp against the quiet morning air. I hesitate another minute, planning my route across the bench below me. Then I begin the still hunt.

I’ve been moving slowly for more than an hour when I encounter the track, minutes old, perhaps half an hour at most. The bear is an adult, and he is alone. He is not in a hurry, but is generally headed for the steep cliffs above the hollow. Even though the snow is soft, it squeaks faintly with every step, and the dead calm of the morning is not my ally. Nevertheless, I love to follow a fresh track. I am aware that my odds of taking this bear by tracking him are very slim, but today I will follow him. He does not know it, but today he will be my instructor, and I intend to absorb all I can. He is not a deer, but for now, I will treat him as one, following slowly and as quietly as possible, until I find him, or until he knows he is followed.

The tracks angle across the bench, and as I crest a small rise, there is movement ahead. I raise the binoculars, and immediately spot a black shape and movement beyond a screen of young beech.

“Bear!” The thought is intensely compelling, urgently demanding, but something is not quite right, and I hold the glasses another second to confirm what I’ve seen. Suddenly, there are three dark shapes, hurrying away, but the longbeards are safe from me. I step aside and lean against another oak while the effects of the brief adrenaline surge subside. I draw an icy sip from my water bottle, and return it to my pack. Once again, it is time to go. I cross the bench, pausing only briefly to examine the freshly scratched snow and long-toed tracks.

Below the next break in grade, the tracks begin to line out for the cliffs. He is still in no hurry, but he’s moving with a purpose now. Soon we cross fresh boot tracks, and I recognize Wendel’s print. He has already moved out above the cliffs, and will continue to follow the rim of the hollow, if he goes on as planned. The bear has noticed the tracks, too, as he follows them briefly, then doubles back and meanders about before continuing towards the steep side. Given Wendel’s starting point and the time it would have taken him to reach this area, I realize that he has unknowingly had a close brush with his quarry.

The bear seems unconcerned, though, as he approaches the edge of the steep ravine, and circles twice before finally going over the edge. He is gone to his haven, safe from pursuit for now. Or is he?
 

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I scan the steep side below, following the tracks visually as far as I can, which is but a few yards. He seems to be following a game trail, however slight it may be. There is no conscious decision, no reckoning or weighing of the odds; I just know that I will follow as long as I can. The bear is in his refuge, and I doubt he is far. I ease over the edge, and the going is rather easy for twenty vertical feet. I’m taking my time, trying to see into the shadowy, stunted hemlocks below, and to sort out shapes in the dense briars covering the slides. He must be stationary by this point, likely in a position where he will easily detect my approach. Even though I know the advantage is his, I pick my way along his trail, placing my foot here on a bit of protruding root, there behind a sapling, then on a bit of rock below. Twice I come to places where I must lower my torso over a rock outcropping until my feet catch a ledge some five feet below. There are few toe holds, and I hope I don’t need to return this way.

Finally I pause on the root mass of an upended tree as I realize the bear is no longer descending and has moved laterally along the bluff. His tracks skirt an extremely narrow, barely discernible game trail along the steep slope. The footing looks treacherous, and below is a nearly vertical drop that I’d rather not think about. I know that he must be close, but I can’t see him in the rocks and hemlocks beyond. There is that one shadow . . .

In my binoculars, that spot is dark, very dark. Black?? It seems too dark to be merely a shadow, but no shape is distinguishable, and the heavy hemlock canopy is preventing me from seeing detail across this 50 yards. I watch and wait for long minutes, but the dark spot does not change. The bear must be close, but this is not he.


I study that narrow, hint of a trail crossing the twenty-five feet to the wider ledge beyond, and decide that I can make it. I’ve lingered here a full ten minutes. I don’t want to turn back now. I summon my courage, take a deep breath, and hot foot it across the slope, slipping and sliding a bit, but safely reaching the ledge. I pause and bring the binoculars up to study the way ahead, and the shadow is gone. I have heard nothing. I ease ahead a few feet, and am standing in the bear’s bed. Tucked here under an overhanging rock, with a commanding view of the slope below and across the hollow, he had apparently heard my approach and moved out a bit to watch his back trail.

I move forward to where the shadow had been, and find a pile of fresh bear dung. I poke it with a stick, and it steams from within the pile. From here, he has scrambled up over the rocks. Fortunately, he’s chosen a route with lots of cover, and the stunted hemlocks provide enough handholds to allow me to pull myself up the same route, in spite of the nearly vertical face. I clamber up and over the brink, and pause to catch my breath. I scan ahead, but deep down, I know that a bear is not a deer, and he will not be standing somewhere at the edge of my vision, looking back. He is headed across the bench, farther up the mountain, and he is covering ground. I draw another sip from my water bottle. My education is about to begin in earnest.

The bear is moving quickly, so I must do the same. He’s not running full speed, it’s just that ground-eating, shuffling lope that covers hundreds of yards quickly. My lack of experience leaves me uncertain as to how far he will go before slowing down, but for now, I’ll do my best to read the sign and react accordingly. I take up the trail at a fast walk. Three hundred yards later, I crest the edge of a bench, and pause to glass before showing myself to anything that might be watching from above. The tracks I can see ahead of me still show haste, so I quickly continue with the trail. The dirt road is less than two hundred yards ahead, and I guess that he may stop momentarily if a truck happens by at the right time. I slow a bit and watch carefully ahead, but I reach the road without any indication that the bear has slowed his pace.

We are perhaps 4/10 of a mile from his bed now, as we cross the road and head into an old cutover that has filled in with young beech saplings. The clinging leaves make it difficult to see more than twenty yards in some places, and he has slowed to a walk. He has not so much as paused to look over his shoulder, but the fact that he’s walking calls for vigilance.

He has turned nearly 180 degrees before I recognize his trick: he has button-hooked to the left and is paralleling his back trail, about 35 yards from it. I am on instant, full alert, and the dense pocket of beech just ahead is obviously his chosen hideout . . . . But I am too late.
The compacted snow has not melted in that little depression where he had tucked in behind the small log, and it’s not hard to visualize him lying there, with only eyes and ears above the log, watching and listening for my approach. Once again he has sensed my presence and is gone before I know it. He is running easily again, and I take off again at a fast walk.

Another quarter mile is quickly behind us, and he is walking already. We cross the boot tracks of two more hunters, but neither of us pays them any mind. As the spacing of his footfalls becomes more measured, I slow again, and watch for likely cover where he may have chosen to hole up again. There are so many options, though. The trail begins to turn left and I whirl to face where he must be, but there is only empty silence on the snowy bench. He has beaten me again. I waste no time and begin to move quickly again. I realize we have rounded the end of the mountain top, and I am near the edge of the bench, where the terrain falls steeply some 200 yards to the dirt road in the narrow valley below. I pause for a few seconds. Then I hear it: a muffled snap, so soft as to easily be missed, just out of my range of vision on the bench west of me. I instantly sense that he’s making a break for it, and I scramble as fast as I can to the brink of the steep slope, drop to the snow, and scan the open hardwoods below, knowing he must be there, running, somewhere. This is the moment, the best opportunity I will likely have to see my quarry as he crosses the expanse below me.
 

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But somehow he has beaten me again, and I do not see him. I head west to cut his track, to be certain I haven’t guessed wrong. I have not. He has dashed straight down across the steep slope, crossed the road, and hurried up the far side. I’ll wager the fact that he managed to stay out of my sight while doing so was more good fortune on his part than it was good planning. I am far from my starting point, but he has begun to circle, and is headed up the long ridge towards camp. It is well after noon, but I would rather follow than turn back now, and the snow has soaked my clothes, so there will be no stump sitting for me the rest of this day anyway. Besides, if he continues very far on this line of travel, I’ll be close enough to camp to just hike back to it instead of to the truck. So down I go, and up the opposite side.

The valley is deep, and I am certain that he is on the bench above the steep slope, probably in a blow down, waiting and watching. As I near the edge of the bench, I allow myself to regain my breath, before easing to the crest. I slowly inch my head up, and glass the bench a little at a time. My heart stops as snow erupts from a dead fall, but I quickly recognize the rocketing grouse, and draw a deep breath in an effort to slow my racing pulse.

He is not here, in spite of my stealthy approach. I finally begin to follow him across the bench. Here is where he sat on a snowy log for a minute, but I know it’s probably already too late again. Sure enough, here is another fresh dung pile, and tracks lining out across the top.

His line of travel has shifted again, and he’s made a 180 degree arc, and is beginning to circle towards the place where we first met this morning. This ridge top is covered with more beech saplings and thriving green briars, along with mixed hemlock and hardwood overstory, all of which translates to limited visibility. He’s moving quickly, angling across the ridge top. Halfway to the next dirt road, we cross another set of human tracks, and a hundred yards further, yet another. The hunters appear to have been paralleling each other, and I’ll learn later that Clee and Steve made these tracks, perhaps 30 minutes ahead of the bear.

We’re heading downhill again, and I guess that he’s headed to the pine thicket just east of the road; that dense thicket has been the scene of more than its share of bear encounters over the years, and it’s a logical place for the bear to at least pause. Unfortunately, the thicket will offer virtually zero chance of a sighting for a trailing hunter. Visibility is less than 15 yards, and the low dead branches will announce my presence the minute I enter the thicket. Not surprisingly, he has already safely crossed the road by the time I reach the place where he has entered the thicket.

I check my watch. It is nearly four o’clock, and I’ve got a decision to make. Every step from here will take me further from camp. If the bear breaks from this thicket and continues his circle through the open hardwoods beyond, the odds are high that he will not stop again until he is back in the steep ravine where I first disturbed him. That’s nearly a mile from where I stand right now. I’m beginning to suspect that he is well ahead of me, as it has been quite some distance since he has changed his pace. He and I have covered several miles. It’s been educational, and I am weary. As I contemplate my decision, I suddenly shiver, as I realize it’s getting colder, and I’ve been soaked for some time. Camp is a mere quarter mile south along the dirt road, and I decide I’ve seen enough for the day. “Thank you for the chase, my friend,” I say aloud, and turn my steps towards the warm stove.



In camp, Joe has a story to tell. Late in the afternoon, he found himself standing for an hour or so to watch along the east side of the pine thicket. As he stood watching alertly, he suddenly sensed something behind him. In a brief lapse in predatory instinct, he turned quickly to face that direction, and found himself face to face with a bear at less than 25 yards. Of course, Joe’s hasty movement had not been lost on the bear, who simultaneously changed directions ninety degrees and was gone in a shower of snow before Joe had any opportunity for a shot. We compared notes, and deduced that Joe’s encounter occurred thirty minutes before I reached the road along the west edge of the thicket.

Although I would have been happy for Joe had he harvested the bear, a part of me is pleased that my quarry has escaped to see another day in this wild and rugged place. In spite of close encounters with five hunters from our camp alone, he has survived. The legend of his cunning and elusive nature lives on. I’ll soon return to my own insulated world, but days like this shape who I am, and remind me that in spite of the fact that I’m a predator at heart, I have so much to learn from the creatures I pursue.
 

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Ditto
 

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Glad to see you on the HPA "writing" staff again ng270...


You have not missed a beat. Good luck in 2008-9 my friend!


Thank you for the chase, my friend,” I say aloud, and turn my steps towards the warm stove.
This is why I hunt the boundryless big woods every year, although I never tracked a bear there but deer...and that quote still works and I have said it more than once , and then with tag still hanging on and a Smile on my face i know i will sleep good that night and get to do it all over again the next day.

You guys are hitting on all cylinders in here right now...
 

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That is what it is all about man. I felt like I was right there with you in the big woods chasing him. I love it... it is so hard but I love it.

That story just gets the heart pounding brother!!! Thanks so much for sharing that... I loved every word.
 
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