Continuing the story of the sheep hunt from Down to a Can of Spam (A Thanksgiving Story).
It was down to the last possible day of the hunt before we had to pack up and ride our hunters out to the road to catch transportation into town. After four days of being socked in and stuck in camp, our hope was waning thin for an animal to be put down. The kid’s caribou was a highlight that gave us hope, yet we were still despairing of finding a goat or sheep for the kid’s dad.
Guide Joel made a decision to head out despite the dense fog still covering the mountains. We weren’t going to find any animals while sitting in camp. So I ran the horses in that morning and we saddled up. I remember I was riding a green colt named William, that had been used mainly for packing up until this point. He was nearly black, tall and very quiet. The opposite of most colts who don’t have many miles on him. When he was nervous or uncertain, he froze up and didn’t budge and it took a lot of convincing to get him to move after the other horses. By convincing I mean, banging his sides with my rubber-booted feet, which wasn’t very effective on this non-ticklish colt.
We rode out. Guide Joel in the lead with hunter W. and myself bringing up the lead. We were close to the border of the NWT. On the other side was Nahanni National Park and we were only a few miles from the Rabbit Kettle Hot springs, which made me dream of quitting this hunting-animals-thing and go off on a mission for some hot water. (I hadn’t had a shower in over two weeks by this point and was desperately cold all the time).
The land we traversed was scenic despite the weather. Wild. Beautiful. Untamed wilderness. We wandered up the valley in a drizzling rain and came to a narrow gorge, where we tied up the horses and then climbed up a steep bank into another high valley covered in a thousand hues of green.
We toured along, Joel keeping a sharp eye out for a goat that had decided to drop beneath the heavy veil of fog that was shrouding the mountains around us. Eventually we ended up on a pile of rocks that overlooked the valley. It was sheltered and gave us a good view, which Joel took advantage of by scouting with his binoculars. The rain left off and the fog lifted some.
Can’t say I was the best help in scouting for a goat. I was just hunkered down in my jacket trying to stay warm, which is a difficult thing for me to do when I’m sitting still. I was probably dreaming of that hot spring while I snacked on a chocolate bar, as I casually perused the valley before me.
Suddenly, Joel spotted a billy goat across the valley on a mountainside, just under the fog. He got busy plotting with W. on how to pull a stalk on the goat.
I was not even really paying attention, just ready to do whatever they wanted me to do, but then my eyes caught something moving below us in the valley.
“Hey look! A bear!” I pointed out. A midnight-black bear was galloping along beneath us. He looked pretty small—but then bears in the wild always do to me—however Joel corrected my thinking. It was a massive grizzly that he figured would measure close to nine feet nose to tail.
W. had a grizzly tag and Joel had to make a quick decision. Go after the grizzly and risk alerting the goat to our presence—which meant losing the goat possibly for good. Or leave the grizz alone and proceed on the goat stalk as previously planned? Though there was a good chance the goat would spot the grizzly and take off anyway leaving us with neither.
W. was vibrating in excitement, not really sure what to do. Joel lost sight of the goat and the grizzly was only a hundred yards away moving at a steady lope away from us. The decision was made to go after the bear. Joel grabbed his video camera and W. grabbed the gun, and we ran at an angle to the bear hoping to get within shooting distance.
Let me back up here. W. had originally come on this hunt as a bow hunter. It was his strong intention to get his trophies with a bow, but with the weather and the lack of animals within close range he had decided on this last day of hunting to take Joel’s gun, a Browning .300 Win. Mag. (If I remember correctly) with lever action and open sights. It was the only gun we had between the three of us.
We lost sight of the bear as he loped over a rise. However Joel had guessed correctly and the bear reappeared in front of us still moving at an angle. Joel called out and got his attention. The bear stopped and then started towards us.
Joel ordered W. to get the gun up. We didn’t foresee what would happen next.
W. unraveled in pure terror and panic, shoving the gun at Joel and yelling “Shoot him! Shoot him!” as he wheeled around and grabbed me by my backpack. He held me in front of him like a shield, with a death-grip on my shoulder straps, as both me and Joel stuttered in disbelief. All the while, the bear was still heading toward us. “Put another bullet in!!! Shoot him! Shoot him”
Gotta hand it to Joel, who in milliseconds, managed to negotiate with his hunter, and then process that his hunter wasn’t going to shoot the grizzly, and then figure out what to do instead—all while watching a BIG bear coming at us.
Obviously W. was deathly afraid and in no shape to shoot the bear, and Joel couldn’t without serious repercussions to his guide license and the outfit. He was in a difficult predicament. Hopefully he would be able to scare off the bear without having to shoot it. He threw up his hands and yelled at the bear.
The big grizzly stopped and stood up looking at us and then with W. shrieking something about chasing him off. Joel yelled again, and the bear after one more curious sniff in our direction took off, barreling back over the hill away from us at full speed. In the time it took to inhale and exhale he was gone!
Only then was I released from my “shield” position. We all took a big breath—actually I’m not sure W. ever took a breath for all the babbling that was still coming out of his mouth. Joel and I were still a little shocked and disappointed over what had just transpired. I can’t say I even felt afraid—mostly excited and a little thrilled at seeing a grizzly in the wild.
Joel turned around with his binoculars, hoping the goat he’d spotted prior the bear kerfuffle hadn’t been scared up the mountain, and miraculously spotted him still on the mountain beneath the fog and still accessible. With barely a chance to recover from the adrenaline rush of the moment before we were off, running down the valley towards a rocky gorge that a narrow creek tumbled down. We climbed up beside the creek, as stealthily (as three people with full packs can be) and as quickly as possibly—working at staying out of the goats line of vision.
Joel got W. into the place and position he wanted him in, and we waited for the goat to present himself. All I saw was two horns and two ears poking up over a rock, two hundred yards above us. Joel and W. in a slightly different position could see more of him, but not enough for him to risk taking a shot.
So we waited. Huffing and puffing from the exertion of our run. I could see the gun wavering as W. fought to keep it still. Joel cautioned him to wait until the goat turned sideways. I think at one point W. was going to ask Joel to shoot the goat, but Joel kept him calm and focused, doing a masterful job of coaching his agitated hunter. Ever hear of Buck Fever? Well I think W. had Goat Fever.
The goat was very aware of us and, whether curious or scared, he popped out from behind a boulder and moved up the wall broadside to us.
We had a goat down! And did he ever roll! I thought he’d never stop.
It was the first kill I’ve ever witnessed. It was at once sad and exhilarating at the same time.
I didn’t have much time to process all that was happening as I was immediately sent back down to the creek below us to fill all our water bottles to help clean up the goat for pictures.
Joel skinned out the goat and eventually I helped as much as I could. It was the only way to keep my hands warm as it started raining and then sleeting again. I did have time to marvel at the goats hooves, with the soft squishy interiors—like suction cups, and the really sprung ribs—like a barrel. (Could explain why goats roll so well down hills).
Joel filled my pack with as much meat as I could stand to carry, and then carried the rest of the meat and the cape and horns in his. We set off on an hour and a half “jaunt” back to our horses. At this point in my life, it was the heaviest weight I had ever carried on my back for the longest period of time. Joel guesstimated around 45-50 lbs. Not much for most guys, but a lot for my poor knees, hips and back to take after hours of navigating slippery, rocky terrain in gumboots. It rained and sleeted the whole time.
I was pretty much bushed by the time I got back to the horses and then discovered that riding with a 50 pound backpack of meat could really keep my seat in the saddle—even if poor William had turned out to be a bucker! On the hour a bit ride back to camp I eventually discovered the art of loosening my shoulder straps and letting the weight of the backpack rest on the back of my saddle and my rolled up slicker, instead of carrying the whole of the burden myself like I had been for all the weeks prior of packing and riding. We arrived in camp elated with the success of our hunt and full of stories.
It was a day full of new experiences and lessons.
Lesson 1: You have more chance of accomplishing what you’ve set out for, if you get off your butt and get out of camp.
Lesson 2: People do really strange things when they are afraid, and faced directly with what they fear.
Lesson 3: A person stays warmer if they keep busy.
Lesson 4: Letting something/someone bigger and stronger than you carry the burden is far easier on your own back and much more enjoyable.
Lesson 5: Most importantly NEVER let someone use you as a shield when a grizzly bear is coming at you! Instead, try to be the one with the gun!Note: I know a video was taken during the grizzly incident. It probably tells the true story. I tried to remember as accurately as I could how things went down, but in my defense there was a lot happening in a few seconds of time and mainly the forceful images in my mind were of being used as a human shield by a very scared hunter, and of the biggest grizzly bear I’ve ever seen go boot-scooting out of sight in an incredible display of speed after Joel scared him off. Some memories remain indelibly etched on one’s mind and those are two of them, for me.