A Cup of Courage

This was recently published in Boot Life Magazine. Buy a subscription and get your stories sooner!

August means the start of the hunting seasons, and bear hunting is one of my favorite, both for anticipation and actual hunt. It’s hard to believe that just seven years ago, I started baiting bear sites with my husband, John. I was along for the ride then. This was the guys’ hunt; my husband, son and son-in-law set baits in hopes on getting a big bruin, so there really wasn’t any room for me. I was always mindful to not crowd in on guys-time as I think it’s as important as the girl-time I spend with my daughter. Even though I didn’t tell anyone, I really wanted to try this bear hunting.

I remember helping John bait those first sites. Since the guys worked later than he did, I got to tag along and help schlep the barrels of bait and grease.  We got our first game cameras just for bear hunting, and checking our memory cards was always the highlight of the trip, especially when the bear would try to destroy or rip the camera off the tree.  Seeing bear photos for the first time was a definite WOW moment for me. The excitement of seeing bear while having the fear of them, was real. The whole time I helped bait the sites, I was constantly looking over my shoulder, leery of what may be lurking in the woods. I was never outright scared because John always had the .44 magnum on his hip.

Fast forward a couple years, and boys decided they didn’t have time to bear hunt north. There was my opportunity knocking! By then, I had grown more accustom to seeing bear photos and instead of feeling that fear, there was more taking the time to see which one was left or right handed into the bucket, and seeing how big the bear were. I was then, and still am amazed at the number of different bear we have coming to bait.

I was so excited to finally get to bear hunt; however I also knew this would be a challenge for me with my fear of the dark. John helped me prepare my site, but I ultimately picked the spot. For years we had driven by one side of the hill and I was just dying to check it out. Turns out it was loaded with beech trees, clawed up from bear climbing them in previous years. It was also shaded and would get dark earlier than an open spot.

We set my tree stand and barrel, then baited it up, and in no time, I had bear coming to MY bait. Once bear hunting finally arrived, I was faced with my first challenge. I had to walk into my bait site alone. John would have taken me, but if I was going to hunt, I was going to not have him have to hold my hand.

When I first hunted deer, John was right by my side, taking the lead and walking me into my tree stand and sitting with me the entire time, but over time, I learned to face my fear and walk into my stand on my own. This was different. It was daylight. How could I possibly be afraid?! I can’t say I was completely comfortable because there’s always a chance of encountering a bear on my way in, so I’d take a deep breath, taking in my cup of courage, and off I’d go.

I was always relaxed once I got in my stand, but until then, even encountering a snake in the trail would scare the hell out of me. Walking in was not one of my favorite things to do.  I would sit until legal shooting hours ended, but then I’d have to stay in my tree stand until John retrieved me. As dark approached, I would go from hoping a bear would come in, to hoping one wouldn’t decide to show up because what would I do then?! I would always be relieved to hear the truck coming down the road, and would watch for John’s light in the trail. He’d let out a whistle in the dark, and I knew it was safe to get down.

One night, I decided to face my fears by getting out of my tree stand and walking out to John. I knew he was on his way in to get me, so down the ladder I went. When I reached the bottom, I realized I had left my flashlight in my backpack. As I rummaged through the pack, I heard a noise on the trail. I gave a whistle. No whistle back. I gave another whistle. Again nothing. Then the sound of an animal running off in the brush with a good bristled huff. It was a bear, and there I was on the ground with nothing but a flashlight! In an instant, John gave a yell. The bear had run right at him on his way in.  I was glad he didn’t hang around me. I was pretty proud that I maintained my calm and didn’t panic when I realized it was a bear. Call me naïve or dumb, but that event actually helped me gain more courage when I bear hunt.

I moved my stand higher on the hill the following year. It was the very first time I had daytime bear. One night we went to our stands later than normal. I had been having a sow and cubs on my bait, so I was a bit nervous about the possibility of running into an angry Mama bear. I took a deep breath and my cup of courage, and headed in. I brought my trusty bacon scented spray to help cover my scent as I ascended the trail to my tree stand. I sprayed a small squirt of scent on the trees every few yards. As I made my way to my stand, I was going to spray up my bait site, but instead, jumped a small bear, that took off in flash of black. So much for my cup of courage. I decided I didn’t want to go any further so I put the bottle of spray at the base of my tree stand ladder. I climbed into my stand which I had equipped with a handy dandy hanging tree blind, so that I could go undetected if a bear came in. I thought I was sitting pretty.

As night closed in, I was pretty excited that I had actually seen a bear in the wild, since that was a first for me.  Then came the unmistakable sound of something coming up behind me, walking ever so slow and deliberate. I could hear minute pieces of sticks breaking almost silently under the steps…then came the sniff. The sniff of a bear directly under my tree stand, smelling my bacon spray. I didn’t dare move. I swallowed another cup of courage and tried to get my eyes on this bear, but the inside of the blind was small and unforgiving and I couldn’t move…or I didn’t dare move. As it went to my right, dark was closing in fast and I still could not see the bear because he was directly under me. When he finally made his way out in front of me, I could just make him out, and I only had five minutes left of legal hunting. It was now or never. As I pulled my gun up, the bear stopped. I slowly moved my gun so that the barrel came outside of the blind so I could aim. In an instant, the bear bolted. He had seen my gun. In a flash, my bear was gone, and he’s never returned.

My heart raced, and as bummed as I was that I didn’t get a chance to shoot my dream bear, Scrapper, I was overjoyed by the whole experience. It still remains one of the most memorable moments in my hunting adventures.

Bear season will begin the end of August, and hopefully by the time you read this, I will have harvested a nice bear for the freezer. I will still have to drink my cup of courage when I head into my stand, and when I leave, which I now do alone as I make my way back down the mountain to my waiting four-wheeler. I’ll drive through the trails in the dark, sometimes jumping a moose or two and make my way out in the dark to where I’ll leave my four-wheeler and get picked up by John.  And yes, I’ll probably swallow a cup or two of courage every time I do it. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. That cup of courage has made me more confident as a hunter and person, and any time I think I can’t do something, I just drink another cup of courage and say, “yes, I can.”

My advice to anyone who wants to hunt, but has fears. Find a mentor, and face them head on. Drink that cup of courage. You won’t regret it.

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