An Old Hunting Story – Part 2 – A Near Death Experience
“A Near Death Experience”
For an entire week, all I could think about was John and his amazing story. When I told my wife that I wasn’t hunting the following Saturday, but instead, would be going back to the Wheat Creek Golden Age facility, she chuckled out loud. She said, “The old guy must have made quite an impression on you!” In truth, he had. All I could think about was the snow piling up in the mountains, the downed elk, his buddy going back to get the horses, and most of all, what was going to happen next. Over and over, I kept thinking about John’s words, “Little did I know, that in a very short while, surviving the blizzard would be the least of my worries!” Saturday couldn’t get here quick enough for me.
When Saturday arrived, Jeanne and I headed back to the Wheat Creek Golden Age facility. On the way, we stopped at our local bakery and my wife bought a few dozen doughnuts for the residents and staff. I picked out a big cinnamon roll for John. When we arrived, I led myself down the hall to John’s room and knocked on the door. It was comforting to hear his strong voice say, “Come in!” When I opened the door, with a grin from ear to ear, John said, “Good morning Keith! I’m very glad to see you again!” I told him that the pleasure was mine and that I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of his elk hunting story. I gave John the pastry and made us two cups of coffee, from his “new-fangled coffee maker,” and sat down across from him.
After talking a bit about our week, I asked John to tell me the rest of his story. After washing a bite of the roll down with a drink of coffee, John began. “Let’s see, where was I? Oh, Jim had just left to pack up our camp and get our horses. The snow was falling harder than ever, so I threw a couple more pieces of wood on the fire. I next cut some fresh spruce branches to lay the meat on. Then, I pulled out my knife and started to go to work on the elk. We didn’t taxidermy our heads back then, so I just set out to skin the fallen elk. On big animals, like elk, moose, and buffalo, I don’t gut them, but just skin ‘em and take off the quarters. It’s much easier to pack the meat out like that.”
“After placing the first hind quarter on the spruce branches, I stood by the fire and honed the edge of my knife. I felt like I was making good progress and had hoped to have the elk half done before Jim got back.”
“I only stopped a few times to warm my hands and to put an edge on my knife. I had half of the elk done and the hind quarter off the other side when I heard a sound that made the hair stand straight up on my neck! It was the crack of a branch that only happens when it is stepped on by something big. As it came from the opposite direction from where Jim would be returning with the horses, I knew it wasn’t him. My brain told me that it was a bear. I stood up and looked in the direction of where the sound came from, but I couldn’t see anything. Even though I was in blizzard conditions, I convinced myself, that if it had been a bear, I would be able to see him with the white background the snow provided. Regardless, I threw more wood on the fire and chambered a round into my 30-30 that rested against my pack, only an arm’s length away.”
“After I finished the final quarter, I stood by the fire, and started to worry about Jim. I knew that breaking camp and getting three horses up the mountain in the deep snow would be a chore, but I thought that he should have been back by now. It was late afternoon, and the snow was nearing two feet in depth. As I hadn’t ate since before sunup, I knelt down to remove a candy bar from my pack. At that instant, I saw a flash of brown from the conner of my eye. Without a warning, and without a sound, the large grizzly bear attacked me. He hit me with such a force, it knocked the wind out of me. I guess when my eye had caught the initial movement, my right hand had instinctually reached out and grabbed my gun. It’s a good thing it did because the initial impact from the bear drove me twenty feet from my pack and the elk.”
“It took me a second to get my breath back. The bear had swiped my head and his powerful jaws were chomping on my left shoulder, when I was able to move again. I raised my gun up, one-handed, pressed the muzzle against the brown body, and pulled the trigger. The bear let go of my shoulder and retreated a few steps, as he let out a loud bawl. Even though I had some trouble using my left arm, I was able to chamber another round. From the hip, I fired a second round at the bear, as he charged me again from only ten feet. The second bullet struck the monster bruin in the left chest, near the shoulder, and it caused the bear to reel away from me. The bear had retreated about twenty-five yards when he rolled over in the snow. He immediately got back to his feet and turned to face me. He tried to charge again but was, obviously, wounded and slumped back into the deep snow, less than twenty yards from me. I immediately chambered, what I knew was the last bullet I had in my gun. Of course, I had a box of shells in my pack, but that wasn’t going to do me any good at this point. So, I kept my gun pointed at the bear, expecting him to charge at any time.”
“This is one of those times when minutes seemed like hours. At this point, I tried to determine my physical injuries. I knew there was a deep cut on my head as blood kept pouring down my face into my left eye. My left shoulder was bad, but it didn’t appear that the bear had bit an artery, as it wasn’t bleeding too bad. I didn’t know how it happened, but my right knee was throbbing, and I feared I may have broken my leg. I also tried to assess the bear’s injuries. From his labored breathing, I knew that at least one of the shots had hit his lungs. From the blood that was turning the snow red, near his mid-section, I surmised that my first shot had hit him in the stomach, somewhere.”
“I know this sounds odd, but as I laid there in the snow, I experience a kind of peace. At the time, I fancied myself as kind of a tough guy, so I looked at it as a battle between two warriors. Both of us had injured the other, but I knew I had gotten the best of him. As I got older and reflected on this situation, I came to realize that what happened was even bigger than that. God had made us both predators. I was on that mountain hunting to feed my family. The bear was on that mountain trying to feed himself. For whatever reason, the bear hadn’t denned up, and with the harsh conditions, had felt the desperate need to attack me and to obtain the elk for himself. As I laid there on that day, I realized that me, the bear, and the elk, were all living our lives just as God had created us to do.”
“I’m not sure how much time passed, but I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I remember is being startled by Jim shaking me. The fire had burnt to coals, and the bear was dead. Jim built the fire back up and tended to my wounds. Jim had gotten the horses situated in a natural shelter nearby and went to work taking the final backstrap off the elk and skinning the bear. The snow had finally stopped as Jim and I got our tent put up. Jim fixed us the best supper I think I ever ate, certainly the best one I ever had on the side of a mountain after a blizzard. It was fresh elk steaks with fried potatoes and can green beans that we had packed in.”
“Of course, Jim wanted to hear the story about my encounter with the bear. But I wanted to hear what had taken him so long to get back. Apparently, he had quite an adventure of his own. Somehow, our pack horse had worked himself free and was nowhere to be found when Jim got back to our camp. With the snow falling as hard as it was, he didn’t have any way of tracking the horse right off. He said it was just blind luck that led him to find the horse. He had walked to a ledge, just above camp, hoping to get a little better view. On that ledge, he saw fresh mountain lion tracks, which prompted Jim to immediately chamber a round into his 30-30. He followed those tracks, which led him across, and eventually, down the mountain a bit. He hadn’t gone far before finding that the lion tracks were intermingled with hoof prints. After a while, Jim could tell that at that point, both animals were running. The chase had led Jim maybe, a quarter of a mile when he heard a commotion ahead of him, but he couldn’t see the cat or the horse due to the thick trees and heavy snowfall. Jim fired a round up into the air and ran toward the sound. As he came over a small rise, he saw the horse backed up against a four-foot ledge kicking his front hooves at the lion for all he was worth. Jim didn’t have a clean shot at the cat, so he fired another shot into the air. The mountain lion heard that shot because he turned back, and when he saw Jim, ran off down the mountain and disappeared into the trees and the falling snow.”
“Other than a small scratch on his right hindquarter, the horse was fine. Jim said the horse had been as lucky as me! After finding the pack horse, Jim headed back up the mountain to camp. He explained that leading three horses through that deep snow was no small feat. Although he strongly denied it, I always claimed that there never was no mountain lion and that he had just got lost on his way back. Regardless, I was always grateful that my buddy had made it back to me, otherwise I probably would have died right there on the mountain next to that bear.”
“The next morning, we packed up and headed down the mountain. With the deep snow, a heavier load, and my injuries, it was slow going. We couldn’t make it all the way, so as evening approached, we stopped and made camp. After supper, I told the bear story and Jim retold his mountain lion story. I guess that’s one of the things I loved most about campfires – telling, and listing to, hunting adventures. I guess that’s kind of what we are doing here, except without the campfire.”
After that, John told me that he and Jim made it back to their truck the next afternoon. Other than twenty-two stitches in his head, several stitches and a sling for his shoulder, and a brace on his knee, he was as good as new in no time. He told me that the elk rack was on the wall at his farm and that the bear rug was still laying in front of his fireplace. I asked him if he still had the farm, and he said that he did. He said that he paid a neighbor to take care of it, and that maybe someday, he would get back there to live. As he finished that statement, John turned toward the window, and I saw a tear swell up in his eyes. I imagined that deep down, he realized that he would never move back to his farm.
After only a moment of silence, I asked John for his phone number and inquired if it would be okay if I called him every now and again. He said he’d really like that. I also asked if we could make Saturdays a regular thing and he said he’d like that, too. With that, we shook hands, and I left his room to go find Jeanne. As I walked down the hall, I told myself that I would get John back to see his farm again, no matter what.
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