The instruction sheet they send you in the mail says to bring an alarm clock, but you don't really need one. By 3 o'clock in the morning the frosty air is filled with the barking, yipping and hollering of the hounds as the guides move among them, getting ready for the business to come.
There are nearly 30 dogs in camp, including trainees and retirees, and they all try and outdo each other in the sheer volume of their ferocity, piercing and dissonant like some macabre chorus. They train and wait most of their lives for these short weeks of autumn, and a good bear hound can be worth as much as $5,000 to the men who know how to use them. Redbones or Blue Ticks mostly, or mixtures thereof, with each dog valued less for its pedigree than for its nose and heart and stamina. None of them wants to be left behind.
Spruce Mountain Lodge, the famous hunting camp owned and operated by Steve and Brenda Cole, is located in Forest City, Maine, a little more than 110 miles north of Bangor, hard on the New Brunswick border with Canada. By the third week in September, the mountains for miles around are ablaze with the spectacular fall foliage, and from certain high vantage points you can look across the unbroken forest and the crystal blue waters of more lakes and big rivers than you can count on your fingers. On a clear day, you can see almost to Montreal.
You couldn't see it at 3 o'clock in the morning, though, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee from paper cups on the gravel driveway in front of the lodge. Instead there was the waning moon, still hanging fairly high over the Big Dipper, which by then had partly fallen behind the tree line to the north. The Milky Way, like you only see it in pictures if you don't get out of the city once in a while, and the sparkling thin ice that crunches translucent under your boots.
By first light you're in a truck, bouncing along some long-abandoned logging trail through some of the thickest, most tangled forest you've ever seen, stopping occasionally and listening for the sounds of the dogs now on the trail of the bear you've come all this way to kill. The radio crackles as the guides call back and forth, attempting to establish each other's whereabouts, and you tear along the overgrown trail at breakneck speed to get ahead of the chase. It's no small feat, as the bear can run over long distances at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
And that morning, that bear ran. The dogs ran right behind, sometimes 30 seconds, sometimes a couple of minutes, across paved roads and through the low soaking bogs. When one would tire, or simply get lost in the wilderness, a replacement would be sent in, the guides selecting dogs to match the situation like coaches opting for particular players late in the game.
When they ran so far you could no longer hear them, the guides brought out directional antennae, hoping to pick up a signal from a radio device each dog wears on its collar. It all sounds very high tech but it's not, as the antennae are only effective along the line of sight, and when the dogs drop down below the road grade and into the tangled marshland that seems to be everywhere they don't work at all. On the hunt that morning, there was one stretch of almost two hours when only the faintest signal could be detected, or none at all, and figuring out where the dogs were was largely a matter of guesswork.
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, there is a stable population of around 23,000 black bears in the state, mostly spread out across the vast northern forest district. They are apex predators, and like man himself, omnivorous, with a diet that can include salmon, young whitetail deer, barnyard animals and, rarely, human beings. About 3,000 animals are culled each year during the fall hunts.
I'd fretted about everything, naturally, about whether I'd brought warm enough clothing and whether the 6.5x50mm Arisaka round fired by the ancient Beretta rifle I carried would be up to the task. The one thing I didn't worry about was my own physical ability to do what was required, whether my legs and lungs would carry me to the point where a shot could be made. The fact that the next oldest guy in my party was 27 should have tipped me off, and it turned out I should have worried about that more.
By noon we had chased the bear for six hours, over a distance of some 80 miles. We were standing by the side of a paved road, smoking cigarettes as the guides Trevor and Lee debated our course of action, when suddenly the bear appeared, scooting across the blacktop in front of us, the hounds now in hot pursuit. We pulled the trucks up as far as they would go, and from the howling in the thicket before us we knew that the chase was nearing its conclusion, one way or the other.
The boreal forest was so thick you couldn't see five yards in front of your face, much less the half-mile or so the bear had run in before being bayed by the hounds. No pathway or trail led up the hill, no evidence in fact that any human being had ever walked into that particular patch of woods before. The earth below was sodden and sinking, broken only by granite boulders the size of basketballs that turned your ankles whenever you stepped on them. Crisscrossing this about a foot off the ground was a lattice work of broken and fallen branches, placed almost as if by design to trip up the careless.
Up we went until my legs felt like rubber and no matter how I tried I couldn't get enough air. It was still chilly, but my shirt was soaked with sweat and my heart was pounding. I think Trevor and Lee were worried they were going to have to carry me out instead of the bear.
At the crest of the hill there were the dogs, all confusion and cacophony, and the bear moving up into a big maple tree there and Trevor pulling his .44 Magnum and shouting for me to shoot. Then it all seemed very far away for a second, unreal almost, and I shouldered the rifle and fired and the bear fell dead like a 150-pound stone to the ground about 10 feet in front of me.
There were congratulations and handshakes and I sat down hard on the ground and dropped the unfired shells from the rifle. These had been the bear's woods and I had come there to kill it and the killing went well.
Of course I felt bad about it. And fabulous at the same time. The bear stared back at me with dark, unseeing eyes until Lee, caping knife in hand, rolled it over and got to work. It would make a fine rug, he said.
I lit a cigarette and the good dog Abby came over and licked my face before laying her head on my lap and falling fast asleep. My breathing and heart rate returned to normal as I petted her. I noticed then that I was bleeding, from the wrist and both knees, having tripped more than once in our dash up the hill.
An ancient drama had played itself out, a tragedy as old as mankind. Like Lee and Trevor, like the dogs and the bear itself, I played my role as every hunter has since time immemorial.
The next morning, the Redhead and I stopped for breakfast at Daggett's, the small general store and lunch counter where we'd registered the bear the day before for record keeping purposes.
"Was it worth it?" the old guy behind the counter asked.
"Yes. Absolutely," I told him.
He didn't ask whether I'd try it again.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||October 7 2008|