TRUE STORIES OF THE MAINE WARDEN SERVICE
The Deer Hunter and the Three Bears
By Daren Worcester
[Editorial note: This isn't a warden story, it's a true hunting story I simply had to share.]
The mid-morning sun had melted away the frost, leaving a path of soggy leaves that gave with each step as if I was walking on a kitchen sponge. My body temperature was also feeling the effects, and so I raised my hunter-orange fleece hat to the top of my shaved head, not wanting to take it off altogether to avoid being on the wrong side of Maine’s two-articles-of-orange law. Consider it a recreational hazard of having a father-in-law as a game warden.
I can’t—I mean, I won’t—say where I was because I subscribe to the notion that a fisherman never discloses his secret spot, and then I apply this age-old rationale to hunting. Given the infrequency with which I cut the deer tag out of my hunting license, this discretion is a public service.
Having spent a fruitless morning scouring a lowland swamp, the current plan was to rendezvous with my father for lunch at a designated point on a remote mountain in western Maine. Here, we’d gobble peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and swap riveting tales of seeing nothing.
It’s practically a family tradition.
And so I slowly inched my way up the mountain on a long-retired skidder road, taking care to avoid the dried-out burdock stocks and the deep, muddy grooves caused by runoff water. The hardwood forest around me looked like an apocalyptic graveyard of trees, the long, thin branches resembling frail fingertips against the partly-cloudy sky. There wasn’t much wind save for the occasional breeze that did little to combat overheating.
Lunchtime was fast approaching when I came to a split in the road on a shoulder of the mountain. Amidst deciding which way to go, there was a scuffling of leaves in the divide before me. The thought of it being a deer stole my breath and set my heart off to the races. Drawing the butt of my .35 Remington rifle against my shoulder, I slid my thumb over the hammer. The barrel remained pointed at the ground in case I’d come upon another person.
The rustling of leaves continued across a bank no more than twenty yards away, but the thick stand of saplings, many with stubborn, rust-colored beech leaves still hanging on, made it difficult to see the source. One thing was clear—the continuous racket was too much commotion for a deer. Convinced it was a squirrel or two, I relaxed the rifle.
A black ball of fur the size of a full-grown dog scampered through the whips, followed by a second. If my heart was beating fast before, it was now jet propelled. The furballs circled back to a much larger mass I couldn’t really see, but I knew wasn’t a rock. The good news was that the animals didn’t seem aware of my presence.
I called my father on a walkie-talkie. “I’ve come across a bear and her two cubs.”
“Don’t shoot ’em,” he said, echoing my train of thought. While it was also bear season, venison was our meal of choice. Besides, we were on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Dragging a deer out of there would have been difficult. A bear would have been back-breaking. Perhaps being a parent has also softened my outlook. I didn’t love the idea of shooting mama bear in front of her cubs. Of course, the alternative wasn’t exactly appetizing, either. At least not for me.
“Might be easier said than done,” I replied.
“Be careful,” were my father’s parting words of wisdom.
All rational thought told me to get out of there, but for some unknown reason, I was stuck in place. On their current path, the bears were about to cross the lower road, which would give me an unobstructed view. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I actually considered getting out my phone to take a picture.
Fortunately, I'm not that stupid. The idea of being the feature story on the eleven o’clock news—another byproduct of the game warden father-in-law—prevented me from making that mistake. Even still, my feet remained rooted to the ground. All I wanted was a glimpse. The saying, curiosity killed the cat, ran through my head, followed by the realization that it probably wasn’t a hunter safety best-practice to be foreshadowing my own demise.
And then it happened. A gentle breeze tickled the back of my neck and blew directly into the bears. My heart nearly exploded. There was no doubt what was going to happen next, and, sure enough, mama bear raised her snout into the air.
She came to the road and stopped no more than ten yards from me, which I promise you, isn’t an exaggeration. In the moment, it's possible my eyes were overstating her stature, but she looked massive. Her coat was pure black, thick, and glistening with oil. Hunched before me on all fours, she was both magnificent and utterly terrifying.
And she wasn’t alone. While she studied me, the cubs flanked her on each side like football players coming to the line of scrimmage. Seeing them up close dispelled my earlier notion of furballs. The cubs were easily over a hundred pounds each, their teeth and claws no less sharp. They glanced from me to mama and back again, waiting for her cue.
Mama bear and I were locked in a staredown. Oh, sure, I had a rifle, but it might as well have been a Nerf gun. Any sudden movement was likely to unleash 300 pounds of maternal fury. At this distance, I would have been lucky to get a shot off. Even if I did, the odds of immobilizing her before she crushed my skull in her jaws weren’t what I’d consider a good bet.
I recalled watching one of those nature shows where a man encountered African lions in the wild. His advice, should the audience ever find themselves in a similar situation (a notion I scoffed at while safely planted on my couch), was to avoid eye contact and slowly back away.
Since I couldn't Google “how to avoid getting mauled by a black bear,” I took the show’s advice and averted my gaze. Looking at the ground, I kept the bears in my peripheral vision as I slowly took a step backward.
The bears didn't react to my first step. So far, so good.
On the second step, my right heel knocked against a log. All of a sudden I was falling backward.
Mama bear started to charge.
Arms flailing, I somehow regained my footing.
As quick as she'd hit the throttle, mama bear slammed on the brakes. She’d taken three steps toward me and in doing so had cut our distance in half. For a split second everything seemed to stop as she looked me over, and then she turned and hightailed it down the mountain, her cubs in close pursuit. The strength and speed of their acceleration was awesome.
A few seconds later the walkie-talkie crackled in my breast pocket. “Just saw your bears run past,” my father said. “She was big.”
I thought so.
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