to the wild country - experiences and thoughts in God's wilderness
It was meant to be a deer hunt.
There were a few rules: between the power lines and the highway, no deer stands, no does, shotgun only, 00 buck.
I knew the area well from running my dogs. Lots of brush and trees, saskatoons and huckleberries growing in patches, old logging roads, rocks and boulders, not much open country.
The shotgun I picked out was nothing special but it was sturdy – a single shot 12 gauge built like a tank with a 28 inch barrel. The full choke would keep the pattern of the 9 pellets tight. I put it in the back of my jeep with a box of shotgun shells, threw on my olive drab fly fishing vest with all its pockets and headed for the hills.
The weather was a tossup – some cloud, some sun, a hint of rain, no wind. I parked to the side of a logging road well below the power lines and their towers. Put some 2 and 3/4 shells in one of my vest pockets and a bag of trail mix. Loaded the shotgun. And set out.
I moved slowly and silently along overgrown roadways and paths. I never saw anyone else. Crept a half-mile one way and crept a half-mile back another way and never saw any deer either. Then I decided to hide myself behind a boulder at a spot in the bush where several deer trails converged. There were fresh tracks so I was hopeful.
Hunting whitetail with a shotgun is a very different challenge from hunting them with a rifle and a scope or crouching all morning in a stand – you have to get in very close. Even a traditional blackpowder rifle will give you more range than a shotgun with 00 buck. The chances of getting within 30 to 50 yards of a stag without him picking up your scent or movement are slim but it can be done. Sometimes you are just plain lucky to surprise one. Or blessed.
After an hour and a half cramped up behind the boulder I decided to try for higher ground. I was basically in a kind of foothills environment, with white-capped mountains to the west, and I knew there were several rocky outcrops in the hunting zone that might offer some success with a buck. I began to move along the trails again, stepping slowly and quietly, until I reached the first knoll. I scanned it carefully and began to climb, stopping every few moments to look and listen. But I saw nothing in the way of deer. So I ate some trail mix, climbed down, walked a couple of hundred yards, and tried another knoll. Nothing.
On the third a whitetail lifted its large tail and bounded from a thicket. I aimed my shotgun. The distance was less than 50 yards. But it was a doe. I lowered my weapon and watched the whitetail disappear in the thick brush of the slope. I decided to finish my climb to the top anyway.
One of the beauties of hunting is the fact I don’t have to bag game to feel the time spent was worthwhile. The forest, the hills, the weather, glimpses of various birds or other wildlife all combine to give me a sense of God’s craftsmanship and diversity and his own very real presence. It’s like an ultimate worship experience, where I’m praising God for what I see and hear, while all around me animals and insects and reptiles are making music to heaven: I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is them, singing. (Revelation 5:13, NIV)
I ascended a final ridge. I didn’t think it was going to be my day to harvest a buck but I stepped carefully up a trail of gravel and scree just in case. At the top was a thick bush and I came around it softly. I expected to see more bare rock. A grizzly bear, startled, gave a snort and lifted its head from where it was feeding on a patch of clover. There was no more than 20 feet between us.
My mouth went dry. Instantly. The hairs on the back of my neck rose just as quickly and I could feel them poking against the collar of my fishing vest. Everything suddenly became walled in and the grizzly was at one end of a short corridor and I was at another.
Saliva evaporating from your mouth. Hair standing up at the back of your neck. Tunnel vision. These were all things I’d read and heard about but considered exaggerations. Now I was experiencing the truth of those sensations first-hand on a remote hill where I faced an 800 pound bear.
I didn’t move. Neither did the grizzly. In one second, with one or two bounds, it could be on top of me. The law did not permit me to hunt a grizzly without a special tag however it did permit me to shoot in self-defense. But I was not holding a Holland and Holland .700 Nitro Express in my hands and had no illusions about a charge of 00 buck stopping a grizzly. It would have the same effect, Kit Carson once wrote, as grains of sand.
The bear did not take its small eyes off me. I knew that grizzlies were believed to be notoriously nearsighted. That only if I ran would I be in trouble because it would see the movement, consider me prey and attack. But I’d been told as a child they couldn’t climb trees either and one had recently gone 60 feet up a tree in Alberta, hauled a woman down who had scaled it to save herself, and killed her.
I remained motionless. I felt that if I moved backwards it would lunge. That if I dropped and rolled into a ball it would still lunge. There was no sign of cubs in the vicinity but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. They could be in the brush and frozen into immobility just like their mother.
I had never felt so trapped or confused in my life. I couldn’t think of a single solution to my dilemma. It’s one thing to scope a grizzly from half a mile away or watch it from your pickup. It’s another to be so close you can smell the reek of its fur.
A charge could come at any second. I wouldn’t survive it. Even I turned to run, it would be on me, clamping its powerful jaws on my head or neck. If I dropped down to feign death it would swat me with its paw before I was halfway to the ground. The six inch claws, let alone the force of the blow, would open me up.
I felt like a man who has only a fraction of time left to live unless he can come up with something fast. But every plan that sprang to mind I rejected as useless or too risky. This was not a TV show with a prearranged script. I really could die.
I prayed but my prayer was very basic Sunday School stuff: Lord, help me. I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing I can do. God!
Maybe a minute went by. It could have been two. Our eyes remained locked on each other. I was not about to so much as twitch a finger, blink an eye or move a foot in any direction. The grizzly did not shift its weight or shake its head or attempt to take a step either but that didn’t mean it couldn’t change its mind in a flash, roar like a mountain wind, rush forward and tear me apart.
Suddenly it put its head down. Turned away. And moved slowly and heavily into the thicket behind it. I listened to the snapping of branches for a few moments. Then all was quiet.
I had read about bears pretending to do one thing, with an eye on their quarry, and then, when an opportunity presented itself, move against their target with blinding speed. So I waited and watched and listened. Just because I couldn’t see the bear didn’t mean it couldn’t see me. My turning and half-running down the slope might be just the sort of activity it was hoping for.
I’m certain I remained there at least another five minutes. Then I took one step backwards. The brush did not explode and a brown bear did not come hurtling out at me, jaws wide and spewing saliva. I took another step, not daring to avert my eyes from where the grizzly had gone into the thicket, trying to feel with my boot for a safe place to bring my foot down. One more step. Then I was behind the large bush that I had rounded when I first made my way to the top.
I hesitated for several seconds, straining to hear the sounds of a big body moving fast over rock and clover. Finally I made my way down the trail of loose stones as swiftly and safely as I could, trying not to turn my ankle or fall and crack my head against a boulder or the trunk of a tree. Once I reached the bottom I got away from the ridge as quickly as I could and out of sight into a tangle of aspen and bushes. I headed in the direction of my jeep.
I never felt it was over. I never relaxed and the saliva never returned to my mouth for the longest time. Every now and then I stopped to listen – was I being pursued? When I reached the jeep the after effects of adrenaline made my hands tremble and I dropped my keys in the dirt twice. Finally I got inside and locked the doors, staring through the windshield to see if a bear was thundering through the trees and down the logging road at 35 or 40 miles per hour. After a few moments I leaned my head back and closed my eyes and whispered, Thanks.
When Jesus was born there were animals present and when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness the animals were there for him too. Except at his birth they were domestic animals and in the desert they were wild. What sort of relationship did he have with the wild ones?
At that time in Israel and the Middle East there were still lions and bears as well as deer, gazelle, ibex, wild boar and leopards. Considering that he was the Son of God does that mean they might have been tame with him? Would they have lain at his feet? Let him touch them?
Or could it have been more like my experience? They went about their business all around him and let him be. He watched them, they watched him, but no harm was done. He could see their beauty and strength and be part of their world without fear, just as they had no reason to fear him. It seems like a glimpse of the world to come, of heaven on earth, of Eden before man’s fall into sin, where animals and humans roamed about freely without threat.
Of course I did fear the bear though I have no idea if the bear feared me. Still, in the wilderness, it watched me, saw that I meant it no harm and permitted me to live. At the time I could not savor the experience. Now, because I was not hurt, I do. I saw a magnificent creature up close, close enough to touch, and it let me be. It was an extraordinary moment of God’s grace.
There are, I suppose, all kinds of reasons the grizzly left me alone. I will never know them all and neither will anyone else. Nor will I ever understand how much of a part God played in it, not on this side of life. Perhaps there was an angel. It sounds far-fetched but who knows? When Jesus was among the wild ones the angels were there too. He was with the wild animals and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13, NIV)
It could not have been a coincidence that the Son of God had the wilderness animals with him. Jesus’ life was not a life of coincidences. And I doubt my experience with the grizzly was a coincidence either. Do the children of God live out lives that are strings of coincidences any more than their Lord and Master did? The Bible says God knew me before I was born and that he was well aware of all the days of my life before one of them came to be. So my day of the grizzly is there too.
But what does it mean? I have thought about it many times and I really can’t say. Except there is one thing – the encounter did not make me value God’s creation less, I came to value it more. I did not love it less, I loved it more. I did not return to it in fear and anxiety but in anticipation of something greater because I had been so near to one of the most powerful creatures in North America and allowed to walk away unscathed.
The experience did not take from me. It gave to me and, in those minutes of my greatest fear and vulnerability, made me much more a son of God.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139:16, NIV)