A Bear Named Hemlock

Right about now is the peak of the rut for elk. The still, crisp morning air is shattered by the soulful bugling of a bull elk. For people lucky enough to be out in elk country this time of year, there is little to match it.

In years past, I reserved this week for archery hunting in a high basin not far from the Bob Marshal with my pal Erwin. That single week provided enough thrills and enough yarns to keep us happy most of the winter.


The area we hunted was a magic place to us. We found it one summer while exploring. There were wallows and rubs and water, plenty of open country surrounded by thick cover and virgin timber laced with elk trails that looked like highways. That first September morning we looked down on the basin from a finger ridge and watched four bulls bugle back and forth in the first golden rays of sunlight. We were hooked.


I have many memories of that place. There were successes, failures, and near misses to numerous to mention. There were times when we laid awake in our tent all night, listening to elk bugle nearby. One time though, stands out above the rest.

Erwin and I were teaching that year, so we didn’t go in until Friday night. Another friend, Ron, had gone in early to scout and set up camp. Erwin and I hit the trail about suppertime and slogged our way into camp about midnight. The tent wasn’t up. Ron’s pack leaned against a nearby tree and he was standing next to a larger than usual campfire


“Am I glad to see you guys.”


Even by the light of the fire, Ron looked a bit ashen.


“Don’t see much point in looking for elk around here, how about we head right on down the trail?”


And Ron told us how he had been walking the basin that afternoon, and was surprised at the lack of fresh elk sign. Then he glimpsed something big, black and silver moving nearby.


“Figured it was a moose, you know how they look silvery along the edges sometimes in the right light.”


When the “moose” started down toward him though, Ron revised his opinion. It was a bear, a very big bear, the biggest he had ever seen. As the animal got within forty yards or so, Ron quickly took his leave. Only then did he notice how the whole basin seemed to have been torn up. He spotted overturned rocks and logs all along the way back to camp, and there was bear scat everywhere. In the soft mud along the creek near camp there were tracks, he said, bigger than any he had ever seen. Ron decided not to hike out alone in the dark. We would all leave together.


Well, we didn’t. The bear would be gone now that there were people around, we assured him wisely. The elk would move back in directly. He should consider himself lucky, we told him. We wished we could have seen that bear, we said.


Dawn broke the next morning as Ron and I slowly hunted down a ridge we called the “meat bench” high above the basin. Erwin meanwhile was working through the brushy bottom, more or less parallel to us.


There were no elk that morning, so Ron and I sat down on a rock to watch Erwin’s progress. As our eyes worked to pick him out in the tangled alders we spoke simultaneously.


“Is that Erwin?” It was Ron.


“Is that the bear?” I asked in return.


There was a pause. We looked at each other. It would be difficult, even at three hundred yards, to mistake a man for a bear or vice-versa. We both looked again.


Now down there on the basin floor we saw the huge dark shape moving directly towards the comparatively tiny form of Erwin on a collision course. They were perhaps fifteen yards apart now, and neither was aware of the other.


There was another pause. A neon sign flashed in my mind. “Wait! You will never see anything like this again.” Then a semblance of presence of mind returned and Ron and I both began to shout, though I can’t remember the words.


At our noise, the great bear stood up, swinging its head in apparent confusion, trying to pinpoint the source of the disturbance. And Erwin stopped in his tracks and nocked an arrow. Then the bear and Erwin each took off at a dead run in opposite directions.


The bear rolled toward safety on the far side of the basin in long, loping strides that sent muscle and fat rippling down its back, hair shining dark and silvery as it caught shafts of sunlight jabbing through the trees. The bear hit the edge of the timber like a garbage truck, trees parting in its path and wobbling in its wake until after it was gone. We watched in awe.


Eventually Erwin scrambled up, exhausted and gasping.


” The bear?” Erwin hadn’t seen it. He had heard the shouts, then the crashing as it fled.


“Yes, the bear. You should have seen it.”


The next spring a giant grizzly was killed in a trap not far from there. It weighed somewhere in the eight hundred pound range after a long winter denned up. Afterwards, we always wondered if it was the same bear Erwin had encountered , and always hoped it wasn’t.


Soon enough, that high, lonesome basin was discovered by others and it began to seem a little crowded in mid-September up there. We don’t go there anymore. But when this week rolls around every year, that place, that bear and that moment return. And, of course, we have reminded Erwin time and time again of just how puny he looked down among the alders, crouching there, bow in hand, arrow in place, with that great silver bear just a few yards away.

(This story was first published in the Missioulian on September 22, 1988)

Categories: Friendship, Hunting, Nature, Traditions