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Home > Books > Hunting with the Bow and Arrow > Bear hunting
Chapter XII
Bear hunting
Part 1 of 2

Killing bears with the bow and arrow is a very old pastime, in fact, it ranks next in antiquity to killing them with a club. However, it has faded so far into the dim realms of the past that it seems almost mythical.

The bear has stood for all that is dangerous and horrible for ages. No doubt, our ancestral experiences with the cave bears of Europe stamped the dread of these mighty beasts indelibly in our hearts. The American Indians in times gone past killed them with their primitive weapons, but even they have not done it lately, so it can be considered a lost art.

The Yana's method of hunting bears has been described. Here they made an effort to shoot the beast in the open mouth. Ishi said that the blood thus choked and killed him. But after examining the bear skulls, it seems to me that a shot in the mouth is more likely to be fatal because the base of the brain is here covered with the thinnest layers of bone. Arrows can hardly penetrate the thick frontal bones of the skull, but up through the palate there would be no difficulty in entering the brain. At any rate, it is here that the Yana directed their shots. Apparently, from Ishi's description, it took quite a time to wear down and slay the animal.

All Indians seem to have had a wholesome respect for the grizzly, the mighty brother of the mountains, and they gave him the right of way.

The black bear is, of course, the same animal whether brown or cinnamon, these color variations are simply brunette, blonde and auburn complexions, the essential anatomical and habit characteristics are identical.

The American black bear at one time ranged all over the United States and Canada. He has recently become a rare inhabitant of the eastern and more thickly populated districts; yet it is astonishing to hear that even in the year of 1920 some four hundred and sixty-five bears were taken in the State of Pennsylvania.

In the western mountains he is to be met with quite frequently, but is not given to unprovoked attack, and with modern firearms an encounter with him is not fraught with great danger. He, or more properly, she will charge man with intent to kill upon certain rare occasions--when wounded, surprised, or when feeling that her young are in danger. But the bear, in company with all the other animals of the wilds, has learned to fear man since gunpowder was invented. Prior to this time, it felt the game was more equal, and seldom avoided a meeting, even courted it.

Bears are a mixture of the curious comedy traits with cunning and savage ferocity. In some of their lighter moods and pilfering habits, they add to the gayety of life.

While hunting in Wyoming one night, on coming to camp we discovered a young black bear robbing our larder. He had a ham bone in his jaws as we approached. Hastily nocking a blunt arrow on my bowstring, I let fly at sixty yards as he started to make his escape. I did not wish to kill, only admonish him. The arrow flew in a swift chiding stroke and smote him on his furry side with a dull thud. With a grunt and a bound, he dropped the bone and scampered off into the forest while the arrow rattled to the ground. His antics of surprise were most ludicrous. We sped him on his way with hilarious shouts; he never came again.

Upon a different occasion with another party, where the camp was bothered by the midnight foraging of a bear, our guide arranged to play a practical joke upon a certain "tenderfoot." Unknown to the victim, he tied a chunk of bacon to the corner of his sleeping bag with a piece of bale wire. In the middle of the night the camp was awakened by a pandemonium as the sleeping bag, man and all disappeared down the slope and landed in the creek bed below, where the determined bear, hanging on to the bacon, dragged the protesting tenderfoot. Here he abandoned his noisy burden and left the scene of excitement. No doubt, this goes down in the annals of both families as the most dramatic and stirring moment of life.

Bear stories of this sort tend to give one the idea that these beasts can be petted and made trustworthy companions. In fact, certain sentimental devotees of nature foster the sentiment that wild animals need naught but kindness and loving thoughts to become the bosom friend of man. Such sophists would find that they had made a fatal mistake if they could carry out their theories. The old feud between man and beast still exists and will exist until all wild life is exterminated or is semi-domesticated in game preserves and refuges.

Even domestic cattle allowed to run wild are extremely dangerous. Their fear of man breeds their desperate assault when cornered.

The black bear has killed and will kill men when brought to bay or wounded or even when he feels himself cornered.

Although largely vegetarian, bear also capture and devour prey. Young deer, marmots, ground squirrels, sheep, and cattle are their diet. In certain districts great damage is done to flocks by bears that have become killers. In our hunts we have come across dead sheep, slain and partially devoured by black bears. All ranchers can tell of the depredations of these animals.

In Oregon and the northern part of California, there are many men who make it their business to trap or run bears with dogs to secure their hides and to sell their meat to the city markets. It is a hardy sport and none but the most stalwart and experienced can hope to succeed at it. In the late autumn and early winter the bears are fat and in prime condition for capture.

Having graduated from ground squirrels, quail and rabbits, and having laid low the noble deer, we who shoot the bow became presumptuous and wanted to kill bear with our weapons. So, learning of a certain admirable hunter up in Humboldt County by the name of Tom Murphy, we wrote to him with our proposal. He was taken with the idea of the bow and arrow and invited us to join him in some of his winter excursions.

In November, 1918, we arrived in the little village of Blocksburg, on the outskirts of which was Murphy's ranch. In normal times, Tom cuts wood, and raises cattle and grain for the market. In the winter months he hunts bear for profit and recreation. In the spring after his planting is done he also runs coyotes with dogs and makes a good income on bounties.

We found Murphy a quiet-spoken, intelligent man of forty-five years, married, and having two daughters. I was surprised to see such a redoubtable bear-slayer so modest and kindly. We liked him immediately. It is an interesting observation that all the notable hunters that have guided us on our trips have been rather shy, soft-spoken men who neither smoked nor drank.

Arthur Young and I constituted the archery brigade. We brought with us in the line of artillery two bows and some two dozen arrows apiece. We also brought our musical instruments. Not only do we shoot, but in camp we sit by the fire at night and play sweet harmonies till bedtime. Young is a finished violinist, and he has an instrument so cut down and abbreviated that with a short violin bow he can pack it in his bed roll. Its sound is very much like that of a violin played with a mute.

My own instrument was an Italian mandolin with its body reduced to a box less than three inches square. It also is carried in a blanket roll and is known as the camp mosquito.

Young is a master at improvising second parts, double stopping, and obbligato accompaniments. So together we call all the sweet melodies out of the past and play on indefinitely by ear. In the glow of the camp-fire, out in the woods, this music has a peculiar plaintive appeal dear to our hearts.

With these charms we soon won the Murphy family and Tom was eager to see us shoot. He had heard that we shot deer, but he was rather skeptical that our arrows could do much damage to bear. So one of the first things he did after our arrival was to drag out an old dried hide and hang it on a fence in the corral and asked me to shoot an arrow through it. It was surely a test, for the old bear had been a tough customer and his hide was half an inch thick and as hard as sole leather.

But I drew up at thirty yards and let drive at the neck, the thickest portion. My arrow went through half its length and transfixed a paw that dangled behind. Tom opened his eyes and smiled. "That will do," he said, "if you can get into them that far, that's all you need. I'll take you out tomorrow morning, but I'll pack the old Winchester rifle just for the sake of the dogs."

The dogs were Tom's real asset, and his hobby. There were five of them. The two best, Baldy and Button, were Kentucky coon hounds in their prime, probably being descendants of the English fox hound with the admixture of harrier and bloodhound strains. Their breed has been in the family for thirty years. Tom took great pride in his pack, trained them to run nothing but bear and mountain lions, and never let anybody else touch them. When not hunting they are kept fastened by a sliding leash to a long heavy wire. Their diet was boiled cracked wheat and cracklings, raw apples, and bear meat. They never tasted deer meat or beef. I never saw more intelligent nor better conditioned hounds.

With the same stock he has hunted ever since he was a boy, and their lineage is more important than that of the Murphys. He has taken from ten to twenty bears every winter with these dogs for the past thirty years.

We were to stay right in Tom's house, and go by horseback to the bear grounds next morning. We had a supper which included bear steaks from a previous hunt, and doughnuts fried in bear grease, which they say is the best possible material for this culinary process, and later we greased our bows with bear grease, and our shoes with a mixture of bear fat and rosin. So we felt ready for bear.

Then we spent a delightful evening with the family before the big fireplace, played our soft music, and all turned in for an early start in the morning.

At four o'clock Tom began stirring around, building the fire and feeding the horses. An hour later we breakfasted and were ready to start. Light snow had fallen in the hills and the air was chill; the moon was sinking in the valley mist. These early morning hours in the country are strange to us who live so far from nature.

We mount and are off. As we go the horses see the trail that we cannot discern, vague forms slip past, a skunk steals off before us, an owl flaps noiselessly past, overhanging brush sweeps our faces, the dogs leashed in couples trot ahead of us like spectres in procession.

Thus we journey for nearly ten miles in the darkness, going up out of the valley, on to the foothills, through Windy Gap, past Sheep Corral, over the divide, heading toward the Little Van Duzen River.

Tom Murphy with his two best dogs, Button and Baldy, Indispensable in getting bears
Tom Murphy with his two best dogs, Button and Baldy, Indispensable in getting bears

All the while the dogs amble along, sniffing here and there at obscure scents, now loitering to investigate a moment, now standing and looking off into the dark. Tom knows by their actions what they think. "That's a coyote's trail," he says, "they've just crossed a deer scent, but they won't pay much attention to that." Their demeanor is self-possessed and un-excited.

At last, just before dawn, we arrive on a pine-covered hillside and the dogs become more eager. This is the bear country. They cross the canyon here to get to the forest of young oak trees, beyond where the autumn crop of acorns lies ready to fatten them for their long winter sleep.

Here is a bear tree, a small pine or fir, stripped of limbs and bark, against which countless bears have scratched themselves.

Tom looses the dogs and sends them ranging to pick up a scent. They take to it with eagerness, and soon we hear the boom of the hounds on a cold track. Tom gets interested, but shakes his head. Last night's snowfall and later drizzle have spoiled the ground for good tracking. We dismount, tie our horses and follow the general direction of the pack. They must be kept within earshot so that when they strike a hot track we can keep up with them. If there is much wind and the forest noises are loud, Tom will not run his dogs for fear of losing them. Once on the trail of a bear, they never quit, but will leave the country rather than give him up.

Expectation, stimulated by the distant baying of the running hounds, the cold gray shadows of the woods, and the knowledge that any moment a bear may come crashing through the undergrowth right where we stand, tends to hold one in a state of exquisite suspense--not fear, just chilly suspense. In fact, I was rather glad to see the sun rise.

But nothing came of this hunt. We worked over the creek bottom below, rode over adjacent hills and canyons, struck cold trails here and there to assure us that bear really existed, then at about ten o'clock Murphy decided that weather conditions of the night before, combined with the dissipating effect of sunshine and the lateness of the hour, all dictated that we had best give up the game for that day.

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