Wally Mack said it would rain, and it did. By late afternoon a ceiling of low clouds had blotted out the sun and a mist rode the breeze through the poplars like a creeping fog. As the Canadian evening waned the wind picked up, and then came in uneven breaths that made the trees bow in a discordant clatter of limbs and branches.
The first pattering drops began to fall while I was watching the black bear feeding 20 yards away. If the rain bothered him, he didn’t show it. Such squalls came and went in his world. It was just another small ripple in the waves of fronts that swept down from the Northwest Territories across Alberta in early May. I didn’t take much notice of him, and the muzzleloader that spanned the ladder stand’s wooden railing in front of me never moved.
On the first evening, a fellow hunter, Steve Comus, had a young bear climb up his stand tree. After trying without success to shoo the bear away, Comus had to fire his rifle beside its head to make it leave. The same evening, a bowhunter in our party, Tim Herald, had a larger bear come up his stand tree. Herald and a videographer were shooting the hunt for a future television series episode.
Herald looked down at the bear, thought a moment, looked at the videographer and then said: “Let me see your binocular a minute.” His companion handed Herald the binocular and the latter promptly threw it down at the approaching bear. Conked on the head, the bear retreated.
“Hey, why don’t you use your own binocular?” asked the videographer.
“You crazy? It’s a Swarovski,” answered Herald. In any event, the bear went on its way. Each encounter probably could be assigned to innocent curiosity on the part of an animal notorious for its nearsightedness. Still, having a bear shinnying up a tree toward him, with its claws raking against slick bark, tends to make a hunter suspicious of its motives.
My attention shifted back to the young bear when he jerked his head up and stared toward the dense forest. Vertical streaks of black were moving behind the screen of white trunks and angling toward us. An instant later, the young boar swapped ends and bounced off in the opposite direction. Then I saw what it had seen.
A huge boar was angling down the hill and headed toward the bait. Arriving on the scene, it bounded several yards in the direction that the young interloper had retreated, though apparently only for show. His bluster capped by a woof of feigned outrage, the old soldier spun on his heels and walked back and he stopped suddenly and looked directly at me as if to say “I’ll deal with YOU later.” And then I remembered how vulnerable I was.
Alberta Bear Hunters
Kristen Mack thought the stand where I hunted that last evening was a sure thing for a big bear and I hoped it was for his sake as well as mine. The 22-year-old, Wally’s son, was the youngest guide in camp and the two more experienced guides, Brad Mickalyck and Kristen’s brother-in-law, Trevor Wosminpy, teased him about his hunting prowess in the time-honored fashion that yeomen ride a newbie. In fact, all three of the tall, strapping young Canadians were about the same age, but Kristen was the dilettante, and he was obliged to take their verbal licks. He weathered such sessions well, and I noticed that Wally always seemed to watch and listen with a bemused look on his face, perhaps understanding that such a rite of passage helped temper his son’s mettle.
Wally was one of those solidly built Canuck outfitters who are often encountered in the North Country: good-natured, soft-spoken and as tough as a Plott hound. Though the Macks lived in a suburb of Edmonton, it didn’t take many days in camp to determine that Wally was more at home in the forests at the far north corner of the province.
Kristen had taken me to the stand on the first afternoon, but I hadn’t spotted anything except three small bears, a couple of fishers that weren’t particular about what they ate, and a weasel that was just passing through. The woods were still, owing no doubt in part to the local citizenry’s predisposition to go toward any noise to see if what made it might be something good to eat. There were no squirrels, hares or deer — just lots of animals with lots of sharp teeth. When the guide quizzed me later, he frowned.
“I know there’s a big bear; I’ve seen his tracks,” said Kristen. “If you stay on this stand, you’ll see him.”
I knew better, at least with regard to the surety of Kristen’s optimism. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time — it’s all about luck meeting at an intersection with preparation. Still, I hoped that Kristen was right; I wanted a big bear, and one killed at Kristen’s stand would stop his daily razzings back in camp.
A Week in Camp
The weeklong hunt was the first of the year for W & L Guide Services (www.wlguides.com), whose bear season runs the month of May. Our group of six hunters had met in Edmonton, Alberta, and then taken a Central Mountain Air commuter to High Level, a logging town of about 3,500 permanent residents, but that breaths loggers in and out depending on the vagaries of the timbering season. Mack’s camp is approximately 10 miles from the airport off the Mackenzie Highway, and consists of two-man wall tents with wood stoves, a hot-water shower house, skinning station and a cook tent. Connie Foisy presides over the latter … now. Previously, Faye LePage, a retired logging camp cook, held the post at Mack’s tent town. Happy-go-lucky and forever hopeful of better times to come, Faye bought a national lottery ticket after we left and won the Canadian equivalent of $25 million. Having purchased a huge house in Edmonton with part of her winnings, Faye now lives the life of a dowager empress.
The daily routine at Wally Mack’s bear camp generally involves sleeping late, taking a hot shower, eating a huge breakfast, talking or sleeping some more, eating a humongous lunch at about 2 o’clock, changing into hunting clothes, riding to a stand on the back of an ATV, slathering on insect repellent or stoking the ThermaCell, loading a gun and then hunting until about 9:30 p.m. After that, it’s back to the camp for a summing up of the evening’s events; this always accompanied by hot stew or soup and homemade breads, cakes and pies.
Though because we hunted so early we probably saw more bears than hunting parties that came later, the opportunity to take at least one spring bear out of Mack’s High Level camp is seldom in question. Of 60 tags that he got for the previous season, Mack’s customers had used 56, and the only reason the other four weren’t filled is because the hunters hadn’t seen bears they wanted.
The bear I saw, I wanted.
The boar I was looking at was huge. His size and his surly disposition convinced me that he was the bear I needed to redeem Kristen’s reputation and also to provide the makings for a king-size bearskin rug. When the boar dropped back down, I leveled the crosshairs of the riflescope on a spot low behind his front shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger of the Remington Genesis .50 caliber rifle.
At the shot, the boar ran about 20 yards and then dropped down into the ferns as if he had fallen into a well. It never made a sound. Just to be on the safe side, I reloaded the gun and waited. Nothing moved; the woods were quiet as a graveyard. A younger bear appeared about 30 minutes later and fed into the night, unaware or undisturbed by the dead monarch nearby. Life is cheap in the bush.
Now, The Hard Part
Kristen showed up soon afterward. He reckoned that the bear I shot would have pushed 600 pounds in the fall, but as it was the boar was still too heavy for us. More than 450 pounds of dead weight is never easy to lift and, try as we might, Kristen and I couldn’t get the boar loaded on the ATV’s rear rack. Finally, in exasperation, I exclaimed that the only practical option was to drive back to camp for help. High Level was 20 miles away and our wall-tent camp was 10 miles beyond that.
“Let’s try something first,” said Kristen. He pulled the four-wheeler up to a mature tree, stood on the front rack and then, reaching as high as he could, took a couple of wraps around the trunk with the winch cable as I fed him slack. Then he jumped down and literally pulled the ATV up the tree by taking in the winch cable. When the vehicle was standing on its rear end, we tugged the bear over, rolled it onto the rear rack, strapped it down with cordage and then slowly lowered the ATV. I steadied and pushed the bear as Kristen operated the control, and within minutes we were ready to go. No doubt we had violated several ATV safety standards during the process, but it seemed the right thing to do in the dark, empty expanse of the Alberta night. As Kristen noted: “Up here, the only help you can count on is yourself.”
While Kristen drove the overloaded ATV slowly down the dim trail toward our pickup a couple of miles away, I alternately walked and loped alongside as the four-wheeler chugged through muddy ruts and across shallow streams. After a particularly bad creek crossing, we stopped to check the straps. It was then that I noticed how big the bear was in relation to the ATV.
“I don’t guess anybody will have much bad to say about him,” said Kristen as he cinched down a strap and also looked at the boar again. They didn’t have much bad to say — about the bear, or Kristen Mack’s choice of stands.
Quiver of Dreams in Quebec
A hunter can find a plethora of outstanding black bear hunting opportunities in Canada, but Quebec may be the most accessible and affordable for a hunter driving up from the eastern United States. “Quebec probably has the most economical opportunities for outstanding black bear hunting in Canada,” says Ralph Cianciarulo with Archer’s Choice Media. “If you’re bear hunting on a budget, Quebec is fantastic in the springtime. There are so many qualified outfitters up there, and you can access them all through the Quebec Outfitters Federation (quebecoutfitters.com).
“We’ve spent a lot of time hunting spring bears in Quebec, and we’ve had some fantastic hunts there,” Cianciarulo continues. “Most of the bears in Quebec are black so you won’t find many different color phases, but you can be in the middle of some prime trophy bear hunting at a very affordable price.”