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Sealing the Deal

by Marc Taylor

Nervous; he just can’t shake the jitters that accompany the moment before the shot. Adrenaline flows freely through his veins, although the large male black bear approaching through the spruce forest comes mostly expected. That doesn’t change the nervous excitement that causes his palms to sweat, and his bow to shake in his hands as he places the release on the loop to the rear of the string. He has been sitting this stand for each of the last three evenings, and is now hoping that fate will finally allow the bear who has been raiding the bait station just after dark to break his routine.

Well the bear’s routine has been broken, but the hunter’s anxious routine persists. He recalls the first time. In the oak-studded piney woods of Mississippi, when the whitetail deer buck cautiously approached the thirteen-year-old hunter’s tree stand at the edge of the soybean field. A tiny heart pounded with anticipation. A cold shiver reverberated through the young body. Anticipation of what… the shot? Anticipation of the kill? Maybe it was being in the presence of a game animal – and its absence of the knowledge of the young hunter’s lethal posture above that gave him the strange feeling that he experiences to this day, each time he is poised to send the target of his passions - his desires - to its final destination; the eternal memory of the hunter.
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Then, it was a .410 gauge shotgun with a lead slug. Now it is a compound bow and carbon arrows tipped with razor-sharp blades of steel. He has evolved through a series of tools of the trade, each providing a measure of lethality appropriate to the quarry and the conditions of the hunt. Through the changes, some things remain the same. Years and months of practice culminate in a single moment for those who participate in this deadly game, but for him, the nervous excitement that may sometimes accompany the shot is ever-present. And this time it is especially bad. 
If I miss, the bear may very well turn on me, he thinks. 

The large black mass stirs beneath the dense alder and willow cover. The source of heat and light hangs lower in the daylight sky, and a cool breeze awakens the bear from restful sleep. He lets out a long yawn and rolls up on his haunches, appearing much like a plump black ball of hair below beady, sleepy eyes.

Traveling mostly in the evening and night, he evades the mid-day warmth. It is a constant search for food to nourish his massive body, and he will eat nearly everything that presents itself. Tender shoots of greens are widely available, but flesh is what he craves; and he has found a plentiful supply of it nearby. It’s never been this easy, and the scent of the rotten flesh lingers on his jutting brown snout and large paws.

The smell first captured his attention three nights ago as he trailed the young calves of a moose. They were just ahead of him, but across a large bog, and the going would be difficult. In spite of his strong desire to taste the tender flesh of the newborns, they were now running headlong away from him across the spongy terrain, the long legs of the mother leading them to the safety that only distance from him can provide…

And there it was, the strong, fetid scent of rotten flesh. He turned directly and approached cautiously the source of the smell, checking the wind constantly for any contenders who may have already found the rather obvious feast.  Of course, there were none, and he gorged himself for nearly an hour before collapsing nearby for a long, deep, nap.

His belly was now rumbling for the taste, and he was beginning to salivate in anticipation of the now familiar meal. Rolling forward he launched himself onto all fours, instinctively oriented in the direction of the strange, cylindrical object of his immediate desire.

 

The previous fall he was in position to harvest a tremendous caribou bull. Having spotted three bulls as they bedded for the afternoon, but a full mile away, he planned a stalk that would take him to a stream drainage just downwind of their position. The closer he got the more adrenaline his heart received. It caused him to sweat in the fall coolness. As he closed to within shooting distance, and could see the antlers of the largest of the three bulls just over the horizon. He froze. The beat of his heart could be felt within his ears as if listening though a stethoscope. Creeping forward, he placed the crosshairs of the 6X scope on the horizon and walked forward. The back of the bull slowly filled the bottom of the scope from the distance that had been closed to a mere thirty yards. An ear flickered. The bull stood, exposing an entire right flank to the hunter with the full scope. But the crosshairs would not cease their fluttering. As the thin hairs of the reticle passed behind the shoulder, he jerked the trigger, causing the barrel of the rifle to lower. The last thing he saw in his scope was the daylight between the bull’s legs. And that is precisely where the bullet passed.

He recovered quickly, instinctively chambering another round into the rifle. The bull bounded forward, front legs leaving the ground in a high arc, then he was off running. The other bulls leapt up and followed. At seventy yards, the bulls paused and looked back. The hunter shot again, and finally closed the deal. Lucky breaks are dealt with random imprecision, but he was fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of at least this one.

“I must learn to control these emotions.” He remembers saying aloud, to no one. Or maybe he was speaking to the two remaining bulls who were loping away only on the fortune of having lesser antlers than their traveling companion.  Of course the story of the hunt told at camp that night did not include the trajectory of the first misplaced bullet, or the cold sweat that the hunter broke out in before the shot. Yep, it was a secret condition; suffered in silence, and in his case, the diagnosis was “terminal”. 

As he studies the distant approach of the bear who has haunted his dreams for the past two nights, he strains to capture the reason for his anxiety once the fine line is crossed. When a creature is no longer being viewed, but is now being hunted. The deep thought is entered into as a diversion from the reality that his world is about to again be overtaken by adrenaline and its effect on his nerves.

Is it wrong for me to feel this way? What if this is nature’s way of telling me that I am not suited for the deadly task of pursuit and capture…? My desires are for the hunt, the hunting seasons, and the feeling of elation that I get when I am ultimately successful, but what of this state that acts as a barrier to my fulfillment? It has caused me to miss opportunities before, but surely the animal that I pursue is not subconsciously asking of me not to take the shot. I’ve got to learn to detach myself from the act of killing, even though I am about to quite possibly cause the heart of the beast to cease – draining his memories, desires, and instincts. That’s it. I’ll pretend that it is not a moving, breathing animal, but just a paper target. It’s just like the 3-D targets that I have shot thousands of times before…

 

Moist black nostrils taste the air, searching for the scent of another bear. His massive brown snout turns left and right, allowing his limited eyesight to aid in the location of any threat to his enjoying another bellyful of the rotten beaver carcass that has been strangely trapped within the large metal object. His belly grumbles, much like when he approaches a defenseless new moose calf. His eager anticipation of the first taste of blood makes his mouth lather with saliva, and he can hardly control the urge to rip forward, possibly alerting the prey. His front paws, with ebony claws protruding forward, claw the ground with each extended step. He woofs loudly with excitement, but also to alert all who may hear that the ruler of this bog, and this newfound food source, is near.

 

The hunter snaps out of his daydreaming state as the bark of the bear pierces the air. It is not a particularly terrifying sound, unless heard while alone in the wild, where there is no immediate escape or any appeasement that may be offered the maker of the sound that will remove the agitation or excitement – except to shoot or leave. The shooter slowly lowers his head to check that his arrow is properly knocked. He pulls back with his right elbow to test the caliper release against the string. He feels pressure there, so backs off. It’s not time yet. I’m going to watch this animal until I stop shaking and then I am never going to allow this to happen again.

The hunter examines the bear inch by inch from the mere twenty yards that separate him from the boar. It’s the largest black bear he has ever seen, in picture or in real life. His head is massive and round, giving his ears a very small, seemingly insignificant appearance. He is jet-black, with velvety, long hair characteristic of the bears known to frequent this large swamp to the north and west of Anchorage, Alaska. The short brown hairs of his muzzle are turning gray near the front of his snout, showing his advance age. 

With one paw, his left, he reaches through the hole in the barrel to remove a large wad of stinky, gooey, rotten beaver flesh and bone. It falls to the ground, and the bear wastes no time in devouring it. He plops back onto his haunches, providing the hunter a visual reference as to his size. His shoulders are higher than the top of the fifty-five gallon drum, and he is at least as big around. This bear must weigh in excess of four hundred pounds, he thinks. 

Those thoughts only add to the excitement, and now he is quivering with anticipation. Funny, the night before, a small sow with a cub visited the barrel just before dark, and as soon as the bear was identified as having a cub, making it illegal to shoot, he was able to watch it and the cub at this short distance without the nervous jitters that he feels now. It must be the shot that makes me nervous. The thought that this animal can be mine if I can just steady a sight pin over his vitals and control the release of the arrow. If I’m watching, there’s no problem, but if I am aware that a shot may present itself, I begin to fall apart... Okay, it’s just a 3-D target, remember.

 

Well, the 3-D target reaches in for another helping of the putrid slop that had been gathered in the previous winter trapping season. Each beaver was skinned, then cut into quarters and stored in five gallon buckets, with the addition of warm grease of the fryer of a restaurant run by a friend. The contents of the bucket decay through the winter and into spring, becoming the dream attractant and center-of-the-barrel entrée that will draw a bear for miles around. The neat, closed-lid pickle buckets, also supplied by the restaurant owner, contain the smell and make for easy transport to the bait site, one or two at a time, as needed, during nightly and weekly outings to the site before and during the season.

Without the use of a bait station, hunting black bears in this area, and in most of Alaska for that matter, would be by chance contact only. Many fewer bears would be taken, and their omnivorous nature would greatly reduce the numbers of moose calves that survive the first year, which is the most critical aspect supporting their ability to reach maturity. Yes, we are all predators, to some extent, but when some predators begin to tip the balance unfavorably, then that predator must be regulated. Hence, one hunter, perched seventeen feet above and twenty-three yards from a barrel of bait.

 

The hunter stands on the tiny platform, which is affixed to the large spruce tree with a nylon strap and self-locking buckle. His left foot is forward, toward the barrel, and his bow is held in his left hand. Evening light is fading, and it is necessary to get on with the business of sending a carbon, razor-tipped arrow toward the chest of this magnificent animal. Excuse me... 3-D target of a large black bear.
The bear is fixated on the slop that lies before him, so the hunter raises the bow until the sight bracket and forward stabilizer are near level with his eyes. This is the point of no return. Once the muscles are contracted and leverage is utilized drawing the string to the rear, there will be no turning back. To let off would be to immediately frighten the bear from the area with the excessive movement that it would cause. He crosses the demarcation line by flexing the muscles of his upper back, and the string, held by the mechanical release, creeps rearward, rolling the large cams holding it until the bow buckles toward him in a carefully tuned series of angles, limbs, and cables that scream with kinetic energy. The pencil-thin carbon arrow slid to the rear effortlessly, and now stands cocked on its rest. Once released, it will explode forward with minimal vibration or flexation, piercing the air at nearly three hundred fifty feet per second. It will reach the target, at this distance, in one-fifth of a second.

The hunter stands as described, muscles taut, as the formed-foam 3-D target of a black bear reaches toward the barrel with his right hand this time, exposing the area behind his shoulder to the chiseled tip of the broadhead that is directed toward it. A fluorescent green dot hovers over the area, viewed by the archer through a plastic ring entwined into the string. Dead bear, flashes through the mind of the hunter as the air is pierced by the razor blades as they are launched toward the large dark shape with its arm outstretched toward the barrel.

 

The bear feels nothing more than a stinging as the razor blades pass through its chest. First on the right, then instantaneously on the left as the arrow passes completely through his body. His reflexes react more to the crash of the arrow into the brush on his left than to its passing through his lungs. He wheels to his right, springing away from the barrel, snapping with his teeth at the bees that sting him from both sides of his chest. He runs for little more than three seconds, but has covered nearly thirty yards in that time before barreling into the lower limbs of a large spruce tree. He has no breath, and strangely, cannot inhale, although his lungs burn for air. He collapses, as the blood ceases its travel to his brain, instead pooling within his chest as it spurts from his pierced lungs. He attempts to moan, but only gurgles as blood spews forth from his mouth and nose. The forest floor is visible before his eyes, but it is at an odd angle that he is not familiar with. He attempts to right his head, but cannot lift it. A cold chill washes over him, and the forest floor is now black as he drifts, tingling, weightlessly, toward the limbs above.

 

It was over in mere seconds, and the last thing the archer saw was the fletch of his arrow, bright pink, against the black of the bear’s chest. Then the bear bolted to the right and crashed, out of sight. The hunter can hear him gurgling, attempting a moan, as if to notify all that might hear that the forest is now safe from his menacing. He had heard it before, and is thankful that he is spared from its horrible, spooky sound. 

He begins to shake in earnest, and needs to steady himself against the tree that holds him to keep from falling out of the stand. A tremendous wave of happiness washes over him, as if he has completed a long journey and can finally rest. He collapses into the seat of the stand and relives the shot over and over.

It is dark now, just twenty minutes later, so he digs a headlamp from his daypack and illuminates the area in front of his face. He has heard no movement on the part of the bear since it crashed into the tree, so he decides that it is okay to climb down the stand’s ladder toward the ground.
Just fifteen yards away lay the large black bear, appearing to be a shadow against the spongy floor of the stand of spruce. He walks over to it, and again begins to shake violently. He has once more “closed the deal”, and is overcome by the feeling of something being given to him, and yet having a sense of tremendous loss at the same time.

The moment finally passes, and he now digs for his skinning knife that is at the bottom of his pack.
I think I’ll skin this one for a life-sized mount
, was his first thought as he made his first incision near the tail of the bear. 

-- “The deal” is this; you are offered the opportunity to end the life of one of nature’s more beautiful creatures. In return, you promise to hold his living memory sacred among your most valuable possessions, passing the details of his taking down throughout the generations, speaking of him as if he were the most incredible creature that ever existed. – Marc

Marc Taylor is the author of Hunting Hard in Alaska.  This story is an excerpt from an upcoming book in the Hunting Hard series which is scheduled to hit the shelves by spring/summer 2005.

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