I wanted to start this with "once upon a time", but unfortunately, it's no fairy tale. I will try to keep it as condensed as possible while still hitting the highlights...or lows. You see, my best friend, Marc, and I hatched this plan to go bear hunting in the heart of West Virginia. And when I say "hatched" I mean the plan, when executed, was still in the infancy stage and should have been allowed to grow a little more. But hey, when two tough guys decide to hunt bears, having a detailed plan is immaterial and irrelevant, frankly.
We decided to hunt an area in the mountains where Marc and his father had trout fished many times. This particular area was known for having a good number of black bears so we figured it was as good a place as any.
On the appointed day, we made the drive and arrived at our destination fairly early. The only drawback so far was that it looked liked it was going to rain. No matter. We weren't going to let a little rain stop us from bagging a big ol' bruin.
We parked along the river where Marc and his father had fished in the past. While the parking was easy, we actually intended to hunt on the other side of the river. However, there were no bridges in sight. No big deal. The new addition to our "master plan" was to simply wade across the river. How hard could it be?
We gathered our weapons and packs, locked the vehicle, and began looking for an easy avenue across the river. We would have preferred one with large rocks we could walk on, but due to the rather high water, those were in short supply. After a few minutes of looking, Marc finally decided to take the plunge and just cross, using a few visible rocks along the way. I don't recall if he used a stick to help himself across, but the current was a bit swift. When I stepped in, I do recall thinking perhaps this wasn't the best way to start the hunt. Now we were getting wet and it was a chilly, overcast day. After several minutes, we finally made it to the other side. I needed to remove my boots to wring out my socks. Evidently, if the water gets over the top of your boots, they are no longer waterproof. Who knew. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "Hold up a minute. I need to take my boots off and wring the water out of my socks."
Marc: "Say what?"
Me: "My feet are soaking wet. I need to get the water out."
Marc: "Your feet got wet?"
Me: (No reply. Just a look.)
Now that the river crossing was complete and I had dumped a couple of gallons of water, it was time to execute the hunting phase of our plan. What was the hunting phase of our plan? I'm glad you asked! Our carefully thought out plan for shooting a bear was to "still" hunt our way through the forest until we stumbled...er, quietly stalked, up on one - and then shoot it. Easy. In fact, as my daughter would say, "easy peazy, lemon sqeezey"!
Did I mention neither one of us had ever been in these woods before? First time. I'm sure I mentioned that neither one of us had ever hunted bears before. No? First time. Minor details. So, anyway, off into the woods we went. With any luck we'd find a bear soon enough and be back at the vehicle before dark. Master plan.
Fast forward a couple of hours and I was sitting against a tree in a fairly open area of the woods as was Marc some distance from me. I was beginning to get a little disappointed that we hadn't come upon a bear yet. Not a single sign even. No tracks. No bear crap. Nada. Puzzling. Not to mention I was getting hungry. And a bit cold. Especially my feet. On top of that, it had lightly rained on and off throughout the day. I decided it was time to break out my lunch - a.k.a. Ding Dongs. Yes, the Hostess snack cake. Don't judge.
At this point in our quest for a Mountain State black bear, the only critters we had seen were fairy-diddles. In fact, while I was sitting there munching on Ding Dongs and Marc was eating who knows what, there had been several fairy-diddles scampering around the forest floor. It was then we amended our master plan with plan B. What was plan B? Why, shoot fairy-diddles, of course!
Marc was armed with a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 magnum. If Dirty Harry said it was good enough for shooting bad guys, it was good enough for shooting a bear. I elected to bring a rifle in the off chance we ran into an especially angry bear and we needed extra firepower. That is why I wisely chose my Marlin 336 in bear-stopping .30-30 caliber! Master plan.
Now, granted, these weapons were probably a bit much for fairy-diddles, but it was all we had. And we were bored. Hence, we commenced Operation Fairy-diddle! For several minutes the woods came alive with loud booms as we tested our skills on the small and very fast critters. When it was all said and done and the last fairy-diddle with half a brain had gone into a hole somewhere, I can honestly say I don't recall us hitting a single one. More importantly, if there had been any bears around, they were easily in the next county by now. So much for sneaking up on one.
Marc and I were now growing weary of our quest. I know, this surprises you, right? We had walked a lot, we were wet, we were cold, and the bears were obviously not cooperating. Not to mention we had sent some lead downrange and had nothing to show for it. After a careful discussion that lasted about three seconds, we decided to make our way back to the vehicle. All we had to do was cross the river again and we would be home free.
After a lot more walking, we finally reached the river late in the afternoon. The problem was it did not look like the same river we had crossed initially. It really was the same river, but since our first crossing, it had risen considerably and now there were chunks of ice in the fast-moving current!
We stared at the river for quite some time shocked at how much it had changed - or perhaps trying to make the water level go back down through the use of Jedi mind tricks. Even though neither of us said anything at first, it was apparent we were not going to be able to cross the river again. It had truly reached a dangerous stage. We were now separated from our vehicle with no way to get across. We had no cell phones, no GPS, no extra food or water, no dry clothing, and no plan for dealing with our situation.
In fact, we had done no research on the area prior to the hunt. Marc had fished the river before so that was good enough for us. We had done no research on bears or proper bear hunting techniques. We had not planned to get wet at the get-go by crossing the river. We had no communication capability other than our guns. Now reality hit us that we could be stuck in the woods, possibly overnight. We were not at the panic stage yet, but things had quickly become serious. Or at least semi-serious.
After several minutes of attempting to find a way back across the river, we decided the best course of action was to follow it downriver. We had no idea how far we would have to walk until we found a way to cross, but it was better than standing there looking like Dumb and Dumber. Although, we had already managed to pull that off quite well.
It wasn't long before we noticed someone on the other side of the river and it appeared they were trying to get our attention. I mean, if you consider yelling and waving your arms wildly as trying to get someone's attention, then okay. We couldn't hear because of the distance and the noise of the water, but there was no mistake they were signaling us. I even turned around just to make sure there were no other hunters standing behind us. Everyone has done that awkward wave only to realize the person was waving at someone near them. I just didn't want to feel awkward. That produced a conversation that went something like this:
Me: "I think they're waving at us."
Marc: "Don't acknowledge them. Just keep walking."
Me: "What if they need something? I wonder why they're hollering at us?"
Marc: "It doesn't matter. Let's just keep walking. We'll be fine. Pretend you don't see them."
You see, there's a certain pride among hunters (and men, in particular) and very few people like to admit when they're lost or in some kind of trouble. We were fairly certain these people, whoever they were, were trying to assist us in some way. But we decided to play it off and make a show of knowing exactly what we were doing.
We continued walking downriver for a while still not knowing where we were going. Then, suddenly, we met a group of what I presumed to be locals walking upriver toward us. As we got within speaking range, I couldn't help but have thoughts of Deliverance. It turns out those thoughts were completely unfounded as this group of locals was our rescue party! I mean, you could tell they considered themselves our rescue party. We considered them a thorn in our pride.
Long story short, they asked if we were stranded and needed help getting back to our vehicle. It's difficult to describe how you go about acknowledging that fact while still appearing to be competent and in control. Actually, there isn't a way. We needed help and we looked like pure virgin amateurs! And to have mentioned that we were bear hunting would have invoked outright laughter. They guessed we had crossed the river earlier in the day and had not anticipated the rise in the water level. We sheepishly followed our rescuers downriver where we finally came to a small bridge and a waiting vehicle. Apparently, the person we saw earlier waving and yelling was trying to inform us of said bridge and waiting vehicle. It was a quiet ride from the bridge back to our car.
It was now late in the day and we had absolutely nothing to show for our hunting effort. We were wet, tired, hungry, and humiliated. Marc and I decided to spend the night in a local motel and head home the next morning. The motel was nothing to write home about. It was pretty much a dump. We spent the evening eating take-out pizza and watching videos on MTV. It turns out the highlight of the trip took place while we were watching television. Because of the crappy day we'd had, Marc decided to inform me early that he had scored tickets for us to see Cheap Trick and House of Lords in concert in Columbus, Ohio!
Man, a bear hunt doesn't end much better than that.
The Back Story
If you've made it this far, you're probably thinking, "Gee, Brian, I thought you were something of an outdoorsman. I'm beginning to wonder." Well, this story took place over 20 years ago while we were in college. Even though Marc and I had both been hunting deer and other game for many years, we had never been bear hunting (obviously). We didn't have cell phones, GPS units or home computers back then. Researching a hunting area at that time was a completely different ballgame. Marc and I literally did not speak of this hunt to anyone for a long time. We only discussed it between us. And even then, we spoke of it rarely. It wasn't exactly a masterpiece of planning.
Some of you may have caught on to the time period at the end of the story. I mean, after all, how long has it been since MTV actually played music videos?