THE BEAR THAT DRANK MY
by Stephen H. Foreman
Telling outdoor tales is often called yarn spinning. In the following story, the author spins with the best of them, evoking the voice of Faulkner, even. Foreman says: “My fascination with bears grew when I spent five years in western Montana. My alcoholic bear (below) was a true story, but I did have a grizzly encounter in Alaska as well, so here it is. I was hunting and camping up the Yukon about 50 miles below the town of Circle.
THE BEAR THAT DRANK MY NEIGHBOR’S BEER
by Stephen H. Foreman
Telling outdoor tales is often called yarn spinning. In the following story, the author spins with the best of them, evoking the voice of Faulkner, even. Foreman says: “My fascination with bears grew when I spent five years in western Montana. My alcoholic bear (below) was a true story, but I did have a grizzly encounter in Alaska as well, so here it is. I was hunting and camping up the Yukon about 50 miles below the town of Circle. The night I’m talking about came quickly and very dark—I could not see a damn thing—so I decided to camp where I was and get moving again in the morning. I lay down on a caribou skin, crawled into my sleeping bag, and stared up at the stars. Sometime during the night I heard a snuffling and a puffing so knew there was a bear out there somewhere. When it was dawn and light enough to see, I discovered that I had slept in the midst of a thicket of blueberry bushes, and that the bear had been hosing up berries all around me. The fact that I wasn’t a blueberry no doubt saved me from severe bodily harm.”
Some years ago, my wife and I lived on a small place in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, on a rise at the base of Ward Mountain. We had sixty acres, six chickens, two horses, a garden that yielded radishes the size of peas, one outhouse, and no telephone. A skunk got the chickens, people in Hollywood forgot who we were, and the house we lived in was so tiny we bumped our heads on the bedroom ceiling. But we were newly in love and learning to live together. Other people had hardships. We had adventures.
Our place backed onto two million acres of the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness, and every animal that lived on the continent lived in our backyard. We rode the same trails as the elk herd, knew where the old whitetail buck hid in the swamp, watched grouse drum in the springtime, and coyote pups pogo along behind their mothers. At night, we’d soak in the hot springs and see every star in the Western sky. We even had our own bear.
Judging by the weathered condition of the wood he had clawed on the trunks of trees, he (I always thought of this bear as “he”) had lived on the place a lot longer than the two of us; and, judging by the height of the claw marks (a bear stands up on his hind legs to claw a tree), he was a pretty good size for a black bear. My guess was six feet standing straight up. I had no quarrel with him. In fact, I was happy to have him as a neighbor. He kept to himself, which is what bears do, and for years I never even saw him. Oh, I’d see his sign all the time: large rocks flipped over to get to the ants and grubs underneath, fresh claw marks on the trees, pieces of hair pulled off when he crawled under the barbed-wire fence, scat the size of softballs. I even heard him once in awhile on the ridge north of the house. He sounded like he had a fierce stomachache, and I imagined he must be getting old to make such a noise, more like a groan than a growl. I always kept a lookout for him, though, especially when I was hunting deer. Sometimes I’d come close. He’d be around or had been around, but he was too sly to be seen. Very few creatures possess the extraordinary sense of hearing and smell that a bear does. The closest I came that I know of was one afternoon when I decided to deliberately look for him. An Athapaskan Indian once told me that if you’re hunting a bear the bear knows it, and that evening at dusk I came to believe that the statement was true.
I cut through the willow swamp that bordered the property because I knew the bear used it from time to time. It was always wet, and on a couple of occasions I actually saw tracks in the mud. They would be fresh, but not fresh enough. A truly fresh track in a swamp would have the water trickling back into it. That day, right there, right then, water was trickling into a print of his right front paw. He had been there seconds earlier, and I was right behind him. Another track was just a few feet ahead. More mud lay beyond that, but the tracks stopped there. It looked like he veered off over a carpet of broken willow branches. That would leave no sign. Smart bear. He had his radar switched on.
I crossed the willow carpet as carefully as I could to avoid snapping a stick, each twig being a potential firecracker of sound. What helped to smother the noise I made was a fifteen-foot waterfall, which ran off the top of our back pasture. The falls tumbled down wildly over two uprooted trees, and I exited the willow swamp at the base of it. This was a place I visited often. It was a place of peace for me, one where I could sit upwind for great stretches of time and, cloaked by the unruly water, simply watch what came by. Once a whitetail faun passed so close to me I could have touched it, and once I watched a mink hop across the stream.
With the wind in my face and my footsteps muffled by the grass, I climbed the hill next to the falls. At the top of the hill was a copse of pine and aspen. On the other side of the trees was a small clearing; and, on the other side of that, a trail used by elk to take them through the forest and back up the mountain. I crossed the clearing and stopped by the trail. The day was well into dusk by then, time to turn around and head back. In a minute, I said to myself, in a minute. It was so quiet. I listened carefully. I wished my ears were as powerful as those radio receivers deployed to pick up transmissions from deep space.
I knew he was there. By this time it was too dark to see anything except the gray and black shapes of the bushes and trees. And, of course, he was black. He could have been any one of these. He was out there, and all his senses were trained on me. It made me uneasy. You don’t want to get too close to a bear, and you don’t want one to get too close to you. I didn’t move. I thought, “I’ll give him time to get away.” It wouldn’t take him more than a few seconds to clear out, and then I could head back to the house. I waited, didn’t move, waited some more.
“He must be beyond me by now,” I thought. Bears just don’t hang around when a human’s in the vicinity. So I took a step back toward the house, back in the direction from which I had just come. That step triggered a roar so loud it sounded as if it had been slammed into my ears from stereo headphones turned to full volume. The sound was everywhere, followed by a noise such as the chomping of jaws would make, a sure sign of aggression in a bear. This time I located the sound in front of me. What this meant was that all the while I thought I was tracking him, he had circled around behind and was tracking me. He didn’t need to let me know he was there. I swear I think he did it on purpose. He was warning me to back off. I did what he wanted. I retreated backward a few steps and then circled widely to my right as far as possible away from where he was.
The next day a neighbor drove over in his ancient pickup and asked me if I’d had any trouble with bears lately. Frank was an old curmudgeon who herded sheep and lived alone in a trailer about a mile away. One had taken a sheep a couple of days ago, and last night the bear actually came up to his front steps.
“Want to see somethin’ crazy?” he asked.
He took a beer can from the cab of his truck.
“Lookit this,” he said.
The beer can had a large hole poked in the top.
“It was that goddamn bear,” he continued. “I left a six pack on the front steps when I went out to check the sheep, and that goddamn bear poked holes in the cans and drank up all the beer.”
Of course, I didn’t believe him—but he had five more empty cans with claw punctures on them that he swore was proof. I told him about my encounter with a bear that same night, and Frank was certain it had to be the same one. This bear was dangerous, he said. It had lost its fear of men and somebody’d better shoot it before something serious happened.
The next morning there was a fresh pile of bear scat outside our living-room window as if a bear had stood there watching us. My wife said she didn’t think there was anything to worry about because we were inside and he wasn’t; but I said to her to imagine that, to a bear on the other side of the glass, we looked to him the way meat wrapped up in cellophane looks to us. I didn’t really believe this and neither did she, not really. It was still spooky, though.
A couple of days later Frank came by again and reported that this time the goddamn bear took his trailer door off its hinges, broke into his refrigerator, and drank another six-pack. Frank was in town playing poker at the time. He wanted me to come over and see the damage for myself. Damn if there wasn’t a broken front door, claw scratches on the refrigerator, and a mess inside. Frank was going to start sleeping with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with double-ought buckshot. I began to wonder whether, in fact, we did have a problem on our hands.
The next couple of days were uneventful—that is, if any day spent in country as exhilarating as Montana can be called uneventful. What I mean is there’d been no sign of bear, and there were no calls from Frank of any more trouble. That evening I took my wife to Missoula to catch a flight to New York, but when I got back it was another story. As my headlights swept by the porch, they spooked a bear at the front door. When the lights hit him, he ran and disappeared behind the house. I barely got a glimpse, but there was no doubting what it was. He hadn’t broken into the house, but he was about to. The top screen on the screen door was clawed to shreds. When I went around the back of the house I saw that he had broken into the garbage bin, had literally torn off the lid and scattered garbage everywhere. I spoke to Frank the next day, and he reported that the bear had broken into his storage shed and eaten a bag of oats.
“He’s a menace,” said Frank, and I had to agree. “We gotta stop him before it’s too late,” Frank added. Yeah, yeah. I agreed again, but this was not something I really wanted to do.
Reluctantly, the next day, I set an ambush. I thawed out a lake salmon I caught earlier in the spring, wrapped it in bacon, put it in a bucket, and poured molasses over it. This was Godiva chocolate to a bear. I chambered my Ruger, 30-.06, single-shot rifle with a two-hundred-and-twenty-grain hand load. It was a deadly accurate piece, and a bullet like that in the right place would pretty much stop anything around.
I took the bucket out to the swamp and set it down where I’d have a clear lane of fire; then I climbed a hill opposite the target area and sat down with my back against a tree. That way my outline would be broken up, and my scent would be over the bear’s head. I put the rifle on my knees and waited. It was early afternoon, an unusually sunny and hot day for October. I knew I’d probably have a long wait ahead of me, but my idea was to get into position way before anything knew I was there. I was comfortable, too comfortable, and warm, too warm, and I proceeded to fall asleep. My eyes grew heavy, my head dropped to my chest, and I was out of there. When I woke up about an hour later, the bucket was overturned, and the bait was gone. Did this bear have enough sense to wait until I actually fell asleep, or was this just some kind of uncanny coincidence? The truth was I was dealing with a very sly critter. You have to admire a bear like that.
The next day I mixed another concoction of raw salmon, bacon, and molasses, put it in the same spot, and climbed back up to my tree. The day was a little cooler, and I purposely underdressed to keep myself alert. I sat and waited, and waited, and waited, an hour, two hours, going on three, and suddenly there he was. One second the clearing was empty, and the next he was in it. He simply materialized with his nose in the food bucket. He was an awesome animal, bigger than I had imagined, three hundred pounds or more, and his thick, black hide seemed to flow as if it were underwater. It glistened in the sunlight like an oil slick. The bulk of him was staggering, so much strength, so much mass. I saw no reason to kill such an extraordinary animal except that he had trespassed into the human sphere and so, according to the accumulated wisdom of men in the woods, he had become dangerous and therefore had to die.
I did not like having been chosen the executioner. It was like getting an order to be on a firing squad. Even as I lifted the rifle slowly to my shoulder, I wished I were somewhere else. Even more, I wished the bear were somewhere else, somewhere way back up in the mountains where he could mosey around without a bounty on his massive head. But, at that moment, I didn’t think I had a choice, so I centered the crosshairs just back of his shoulder and eased off the safety. He was sideways to me, an easy shot, two pounds of trigger pressure away from instant mortality. His snout was still in the bucket. What would he know? One minute his mouth would be full of something delicious, and the next one would be oblivion. Chances were he’d die happier than I would. Just squeeze the trigger, bucko, and save your neighbors a lot of aggravation.
But, I didn’t want to, and I could not. He took his snout from the bucket and looked up in my direction. I’m sure he didn’t see me because bears don’t see very well. It was simply a reflex reaction, a quick check of the territory before he finished his meal. He put his snout back in the bucket, snuffled around, and ambled off through the thicket. I snicked the safety back on, retrieved my bucket, and returned to my house. Frank would have had a major heart attack. I made myself some supper, and went to bed early. About three o’clock in the morning somebody pounded on the front door. It was Frank, and he was whirling.
“I got him, goddamnit, I got him,” he hollered. “Y’gotta come up to my place and see this!”
I climbed into my truck and followed him. All the way to Frank’s place I wavered between relief and sorrow. His lights were on and, sure enough, there was the body of a bear sprawled across his front steps. Frank had baited him with cans of beer, and he had taken the bait.
“Got him right in the middle of a can of Bud,” Frank crowed.
And he had. Except that this bear was smaller than the one I had seen that afternoon, and this one was cinnamon colored. Also his teeth were worn down, and he was kind of skinny, an older bear and none too healthy, the sort of bear that would trespass for any kind of a meal. He was not the one I had baited into the swamp. I stayed up the rest of the night helping Frank skin out the bear. Frank offered me a roast as soon as he had the butchering done. I just didn’t want to disappoint him. I said yeah, great, but I really didn’t want one.