I would like to share a story about my wife and I and an angry black bear. This incident took place around 1983. We have all heard stories about black bear attacks and they have actually become more frequent in past years. Whenever I heard about a bear encounter with a human I always thought that the bear must have been wounded or had cubs near by. Having spent many years in the bush with countless encounters with bears I had never felt threatened. I have never hunted for bears, but I have had to shoot several nuisance ones over the years. I never carried a gun with me as I figured it would be too much trouble and was totally unnecessary. In the back of my mind, I thought I could always “wack” one on the head with my axe if I was ever attacked.
These were the days when I hadn’t been in the bait business for very long. Karla and I weren’t married yet, but we were together and starting to build our business. At this time my Dad had given me ½ of a minnow block to fish. A full block is 10x10 miles. The block was located Northwest of Canyon Lake and was not that easy to access. I could access it by driving to Kenora and heading North on James Road to get in behind Canyon and Big Cannon Lake. This would take a full day and was expensive on gas, however I did what ever I had to do to make it work. I soon discovered that an old logging road actually touched Canyon on the West end, so then we started going across Canyon Lake. At first we took a Jeep across on the ice and left it on the logging road for the summer; later we took a Volkswagen Buggy, and then finally three-wheeler all-terrain bikes were getting popular so we bought a couple of those. We could load them in the boat and leave them across the lake for the summer.
We would keep our boat at a tourist camp on Canyon Lake. We would boat across the lake about 10 miles and then get on the three-wheelers pulling a trailer for another 8-10 miles to where we would make trails into smaller lakes and fish minnows. One thing I always remember was arriving at the tourist camp to dock my boat and load my minnows onto the truck, I would always be greeted by the owner’s daughter, who was about 6 or 7 years old. I remember she used to always scrunch up her little face and say, “Mister, you got any “bleeping” pollywogs?” I always saved some for her as she was a very serious little kid, and if I couldn’t come up with any tadpoles I thought she might push me in the lake or worse! After a while it became simply a cost of doing business, so I always made sure I had at least 2 pollywogs to safely get past the kid.
In total we only had about 10 lakes on this block to try and build a business from. At the time, my Dad and Mom would let us keep our minnows at their place since they had a lot of good spring water.
It made for a long trip from home to our work area and some days our catch wasn’t very good. I had the big idea to set up a campsite by one of the lakes. The lake we picked was centrally located and we called this lake Dace Lake since there was mainly Pearl Dace minnows in it. I think the local bush pilots that flew over every day called it Honeymoon Lake since they knew I was staying there with my girlfriend. We didn’t have much for camping equipment so my Dad gave us an old canvas 2-person pup tent, which was about 4’ wide and 6’ long. It wasn’t much but it was water-proof and had a zipper screen on the front. We also set up a kitchen tent made out of a tarp with a little wooden table that I had made. The whole set up was about 50’ from the lake. It didn’t look like much, but we were proud of it. Just down the road was a good Walleye lake. In those days life was very simple. We had fish, beer, and cigarettes, and we were happy. Life was good.
At that time, it was not unusual to see bears almost daily. While Karla wasn’t necessarily afraid of them, she was somewhat leery as to what they would do in certain situations. She had grown up camping as a kid with her family, and had never had any negative encounters with bears, but she knew that they could be “unpredictable” at times. I always told her that while we would see bears in our travels, they would always run from us and would never bother us, and if they came close I had my axe.
Everything was going well, and every second day either one or both of us would make the trip back to my Dad’s to bring our catch back.
One night at about 2:00 a.m., I got an elbow in the ribs. I woke up and Karla said that she thought she heard a bear outside. We had left a small bag of garbage with a couple of tin cans in it and something was rattling it around. I told her that it was nothing and that it was very common for bears to come around campsites and they will not bother us. She finally settled down and went back to sleep.
That morning we woke up to find our garbage ripped up. It was definitely a bear, but still no big deal as far as I was concerned. I loaded up our bait to take home. We decided that I would go back alone as it would be quicker and she could clean up the campsite and read her book. As I was leaving she said to bring back a gun. I said that I’ve got my axe and a gun was not necessary and repeated that these bears are not interested in us. After about 2 ½ hours of travel, I arrived at my parents place, unloaded my bait, grabbed a few supplies, and had a little visit. Dad and I compared notes on how the bait fishing was going and talked about the nice weather. Mom asked how Karla was making out camping in the bush. I said “great”, but then I made the mistake of telling her that Karla wasn’t happy about the bear coming around the campsite the previous night…
Well, after I mentioned the bear visit my Mother got pretty excited and said, “You are not going back there without a gun.” I told her that I had an axe to defend us against the bear. She said that the axe was not good enough and that I was taking a gun back and that was all there was to it. I did not want to take a gun back as it is extra baggage for a long trip, however, I knew by the tone in her voice and my Dad’s nod that I wasn’t going to win this one. To calm her nerves I took a 30-30 lever action and I put 3 shells in my pocket. I then headed back to camp with the gun and my supplies. When I arrived back at the campsite around 3:00 p.m., Karla was happy to see me as she had been thinking about the bear visit from the previous night; she was REALLY happy to see the gun that Mother had sent. I went to the tent, which was full of blankets and pillows, and set the gun on the side of the tent. When I walked away I realized that I still had the shells in my pocket so I turned back and tossed them into the tent right into the mess of blankets, not thinking that I might need them sometime.
That evening we cooked up some fish, had a couple of beer and cigarettes, while we planned our strategy for the next day. We crawled into the small pup tent around 10:00 p.m. as the air was cooling off and we zipped up the screen to keep the bugs out.
We were having a good sleep until about 3:30 a.m. Once again I got the old elbow in the ribs and I opened up my eyes. Karla was sitting up with the flashlight on. I asked “Now what?”. She said “I hear something. I think the bear is back.” I said once again, “No problem, he is just looking for garbage and he will go away.” I sat up with her to calm her down. If you can picture how small this tent was, we were sitting up shoulder to shoulder with our feet at the door. As we were sitting up I could hear the bear very close to the tent and he would shake the tent when he stepped on the support ropes. He then started to snort like a pig. A sound I had heard before when they become aggressive. I probably started to get a little nervous, but was still thinking that it was no big deal.
As I’m reassuring Karla that we will be fine, a very large paw comes ripping through the tent and almost gets Karla in the shoulder. I’ll never forget that paw and claws. It looked to be about 10 inches wide. All of a sudden my heart started pounding, and I thought it was coming out of my chest. I had never been this scared before and I was actually worried about having a heart attack. Then it struck me what was so different about this incident; I had someone else to protect and it wasn’t just myself I had to get out of this jam.
I grabbed Karla out of instinct and pulled her more to the middle of the tent as much as I could. She was petrified like me and hollered, “THE GUN! THE GUN!” I quickly got my hands on the gun and then realized like an idiot I had thrown the three shells in the blankets. You talk about two people scrambling to find the bullets. We were fumbling around scared and it seemed impossible to find a bullet.
Finally, I found a shell and put it in the chamber of the 30-30. I pulled the lever back and was ready. I remember shaking so badly that I hoped I didn’t pull the trigger before I could see the bear. Then his claws came through the tent on my side and Karla was saying, “Shoot! Shoot!” I knew I only had one shot and I couldn’t shoot through the tent and wound him or we’d both be dead for sure. I was thinking we could run to the lake, but then only one of us would probably make it. The bear kept going around the tent tantalizing us, as we hoped our yelling would scare him away… no such luck! I unzipped the screen by our feet and told Karla to turn off the flashlight. It was getting to the point of dawn where you could make out a silhouette. I said we have to wait until the bear comes around to the front before I could get a clear shot at his head.
Here we are side by side with our feet at the screen. I was using my left hand to hold up the canvas and the other hand to hold the rifle with the butt of the gun against my stomach. I was waiting for the right opportunity to shoot. It got a little quiet, and we thought maybe he had taken off… again, no such luck! It seemed like forever, but finally the bear was right in front of the tent about 10’ away, and he was coming straight in. I told Karla not to move. He got to be very close, I was shaking badly and knew I only had one chance. I’ll never forget that sight; the head had to be about a foot and a half wide and it was swaying side to side, snorting, and coming right at us. I realized at that time if I only had my axe that I might as well hit myself in the head and save the misery. I remember that I kept saying, “he’s coming, he’s coming”. I don’t think Karla could even speak at this point. I remember moving the gun from side to side to get in sync with his motions.
I didn’t say anything to Karla, but I knew that as badly as I was shaking, I would have to pretty well touch the bear with the gun to make sure I didn’t miss. I did just that as his large head came through the unzipped screen. He steadied his head perfectly for me to put the tip of the rifle to his forehead and I pulled the trigger. The shot went off and the bear’s head fell at our feet and blood flew through the inside of the tent. I laid the gun down, our hearts were pounding, and neither one of us could speak. We found ourselves both trying to light a cigarette. Karla was looking at me funny and then I realized that I had two cigarettes in my mouth at one time. After we gathered our composure, we both crawled over the bear and got out. My first words were, “Holy shit, this is one big bear.”
After it was good and daylight, I could see right away that there was something wrong with this bear. It was a large bear with the head and front shoulders of a 500 lb bear, but when you looked at the hind quarters, he was wasting away with the spine sticking out about 4 inches in a 14-inch section. This bear was either deformed or had been wounded at some point in time. It took both of our 3-wheelers to drag him away. To this day, Karla is still petrified of bears and I definitely don’t take any bear for granted. Once again, thanks to my Mother I had the tools I needed to survive. You would think I would start learning on my own soon.
I still have nightmares from that summer. I have dreams that my gun doesn’t fire or that I didn’t have enough tadpoles to get past that little girl at the dock.