Summer Bear Hunt

Here is a story I wrote for a magazine back in 1980.

SUMMER BEAR HUNT

It was 4:30 in the morning when I rolled out of bed to turn off the alarm clock.  I walked through the house in my bare feet, closing windows that had been left open all night.  The house had cooled off comfortably from the 100 degree temperature of the day before.

It was July 26, 1980, and the bear dog training season was open here in northern California.  Called the pursuit season by some, the training season gives bear hunters a chance to work their dogs under actual hunting conditions, with the exception that no bear may be killed.  Young dogs can be trained and old dogs put back in condition, in preparation for the regular bear season in the fall.

The training season is held in July and August, the hot time of the year in the northern California mountains.  Daytime temperatures in the 100’s are common, to hot for running dogs.  A fresh track must be found in the first couple of hours after daylight, or a hunter is just wasting his time.  After that, it is to hot for the dogs to work effectively, and scent dissipates quickly in the dry heat.

I washed the sleep out of my eyes, got dressed, and set about making breakfast.  I filled a thermos with tea and a canteen with cold water, and put them in my truck.  Then I went out back for my hounds.

Shadow and Little Bob are full brothers, litter mates from a strain of hounds I have been following for close to 20 years.  They have a lot of Black & Tan ‘coon hound in them, and are of that color, but they also have a strong strain of blood hound and July fox hound running through them.  At three years old, they are good cold trailers with plenty of speed when they jump their game.

I let the dogs frisk about for a few minutes, while I pitched hay to Rosy, my saddle mare, and Pete, my combination saddle and pack mule; then threw some grain to the chickens.

I loaded the dogs into the truck and drove up the road about a quarter of a mile to Alder Creek Road, then up the logging road another mile.  I stopped and let Shadow out of the truck.  He would hunt the road in front of the truck, as I worked my way up Red Mountain.

I expected to have to go high on the mountain this morning, as I had seen very little bear sign down low in the last few days.  Most of the bear were still feeding on grass in the high mountain meadows, even though the manzanita berries were beginning to ripen lower down.  There were several good bear crossings on the way up the mountain that I didn’t want to pass up.

The morning was still fairly cool and Shadow covered the road ahead of me in an easy lope for a couple of miles.  Suddenly he threw his head in the air and bounded up the bank and into the timber.  I stopped the truck and sat with my head out the window for a minute, listening.  Then I heard Shadow’s high bawling trail bark as he struck farther up the road ahead of me.

I gunned the truck around the next curve and stopped again.  Little Bob jumped out of the pickup box and took off up the road at a dead run.  He had heard Shadow too, and didn’t want to be left out of the race.

I heard Shadow open again, and a few seconds later Bob opened with him.   This was no cold track.  It was the main event; a jumped track right off the bat!  The two dogs came back by me, below the road, driving for all they were worth; and went out of hearing back the way I had come.

I had to drive up the road a ways to find a place to turn the pickup around, then came back and parked out on a point to listen.  The dogs had already crossed Alder Creek and were climbing the opposite side of the canyon when they treed their game.

I was already about as close to the tree as I could get with the truck, so I shouldered my camera pack, took a long drink of water from the canteen, and started walking in to the dogs.  Going down the hill to the creek was easy, but going up the other side was something else again.  I had to dig in with my feet and grab a hold of anything available to work my way up.

I got close enough to see the bear in the tree.  It was a small black bear, about 125 pounds.  It had climbed a big sugar pine and was sitting on a limb next to the trunk, in a good place for me to photograph it.  Before I could get a camera ready, the bear swung its head around and saw me much closer than it liked, and started going places.  It slid down the tree truck, jumped out over the dogs, and hit the ground running.

I stood where I was and listened to the race go around the side of the hill away from me.  The dogs had it treed again in less than 50 yards.  I worked my way up and around the side of the steep slope and came out on an old deserted logging road.  Bob and Shadow had their bear treed in another big pine right on the side of the old road.  However, this time the bear was in the thickest part of the tree it could find, and was trying to hide.  It would have been easy to kill this bear if the season had been open, but there was no chance at all for photography.

I petted the dogs real good, and then began thinking of ways to make the bear come down for another race.  He was to high up for my rock throwing to bother him much, so I leashed the dogs and walked down the logging road about 30 yards and sat down on a stump behind a bush.  I must have sat there for about 15 or 20 minutes.  The dogs had caught their breath and cooled off pretty well, and I was having a smoke when I heard a slight sound below the road, back toward the creek.  I looked over the bank, and my eyes must have just about bugged out of my head.  A second bear was walking around the side of the hill and heading down to the creek.  He was stealing along as silent as a ghost except for the one slight sound which had attracted my attention.  He obviously meant to slip away from there with no one the wiser.  Where he had been all this time I have no idea, as my dogs had really been making a racket while treed on the first bear.

A slight eddy or air current must have brought the bear’s scent up the hill, because Shadow suddenly swung his head around and saw the bear.  Shadow lunged against his leash, and I reached down and unsnapped both dogs.  They went over the side of the road and down the bank in a shower of rocks and loose dirt, bawling every breath.  The bear knew he had been discovered and went into high gear.

It was a short race!  The bear went right up the middle of Alder Creek, and within 200 yards had the choice of climbing or being caught on the ground.  He chose to climb.

This time I could take it easy.  I walked along the logging road, and it took me around the side of the hill and down to an old log landing by the creek; right where my hounds had their bear up a tree.

This was a smaller bear than the first one, and I estimated it was a two year old.  It might have weighed 75 pounds soaking wet, but I doubt it.  The little bear was obviously very nervous, and climbed up and down the tree trunk several times, giving me chances to take pictures.

It was getting quite hot by this time, and since I thought the dogs had had enough for one day I leashed them and started back toward the truck.  I followed the creek for a couple of hundred yards and let the dogs cool off in the water; then started the climb back to the main road and the truck.  I was dripping with sweat and my clothes were damp and sticky as I loaded Shadow and Bob into the pickup and headed for home.  I got there just before 9:00 AM.
*******
Sunday morning, and the alarm jarred me awake at 4:30 again.  As I made the rounds of the house, closing windows, I couldn’t help but notice how much warmer it was than on the previous morning.  It had been a still night, and the curtains had hung limp all night.

I ate a light breakfast and went out to the dogs.  Old Buddy woke up and came out of his dog house, and I stopped to pet the old dog.  Buddy had been a good combination dog in his day, and has looked up many a tree at bear, bobcats, lion, and ‘coon.  He begged to go along this morning, but the grey muzzle and clouded eyes showed that he really wasn’t up to it.  This is a young dog’s game.  I loaded Shadow and Little Bob and went back to Alder Creek again.

I stopped at the same place as the morning before and let both hounds out of the truck.  I stood by the side of the road and rolled a smoke while the dogs frisked around and trotted up the hillside and into the timber.  They were gone a little longer than usual, and I was ready to move on.  I was just about to call them when both hounds opened up!  Immediately a pack of coyotes began their yap-yap-yapping farther up the hill.  I cursed!  Had the hounds broken training and started off on a coyote chase?

I jumped in the pickup and drove up the road a little way to see if I could head off the dogs and possibly stop them.  I stopped the truck and got out to listen, and all but stepped on a fresh bear track in the dusty road.  Suddenly I felt better.

Bob and Shadow swung to the left and crossed Alder Creek, climbed the ridge on the opposite side, and went out of hearing over the top.  I got the truck turned around and went back across the creek, and up a logging road to the crest of the ridge.
At first I couldn’t hear a thing.  I stood in the road listening, and was about to move on, when the dogs came back into hearing.  They came back across the ridge again, running wide open, turned left and went screaming up Alder Creek.  I knew there was an old skid road that followed the top of the ridge I was on, so I put the truck in four wheel drive and drove up it about a half mile; then stopped to listen.  Bob was barking treed with his steady ringing chop, while Shadow joined in with a high clear bawl.

I drove up the ridge a little farther to where another skid trail, impassible to the truck, joined the road I was on.  I parked the truck there, took my camera pack, and walked around the side of the ridge on the old trail until I was directly above the dogs; then slipped and slid down to them.  They were right in the bottom, treed on a pine tree right next to the creek.  About 40 feet up the tree sat a dark chocolate colored bear, still puffing hard from his run.  Again, it was not a large bear; but bigger than either of the bear I had treed the day before.  It would probably weigh between 175 and 200 pounds.

The bear was in a poor place for pictures, but I took a few anyway, plus some of the dogs as they barked treed.  Finally I leashed the dogs and backed away from the tree.

This bear needed no encouragement!  I no more than started away from the tree when he was on his way down.  He hit the ground and bounded up the hill like a big bouncing rubber ball.  I gave him a good head start, then turned the hounds loose.  I just stood there and listened to some good old mountain music as my dogs drove the track several hundred yards up the side of the canyon, then locked up solid on another tree.

I was huffin’ and puffin’ by the time I got to this last tree.  The bear had picked a big cedar tree and was sitting on a broken snag of a limb, no more than 20 feet above the dogs.  His tongue was hanging out and saliva dripped from his open, panting mouth.  The hounds were beside themselves with the bear so near, yet so far.  I leashed them and pulled them back away from the tree.  I rubbed their heaving sides and told them what good dogs they were.

When the dogs had caught their breath and cooled down some, I started back toward the creek.  Instantly the bear was down and running again!  This time I held the dogs back.  The bear had had enough too.  I had a long hot climb to make back to the truck, and Shadow and Little Bob had earned a couple of days rest.  Three bear in two days is no record, but it would do for now.

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