When I was a teenager, the orchards of abandoned coastal farmsteads almost always had in them a tree of Kings, an apple variety of distinction—and they had a resident black bear. There would be other apples varieties, summer varieties that ripened and fell before we annually sought out these orchards, usually all that remained of a generation that dreamed of prosperity they never enjoyed. There would be winter varieties that needed to be picked and stored but were usually too small to be worth the trouble. There found wood be a quince, winter pears and other fall apple varieties for which I competed with both deer and the resident bear … it was these resident bears that drew me to the orchards when Bandtail pigeon season opened in September, and both the Siletz and Salmon rivers were full of bright Chinook salmon that I should have been (and was most days) pursuing.
I wanted to kill a bear. I would often slip out of the house on Sabbath mornings, carrying Dad's singleshot 12 gauge, a Stevens Model 94-C, for the expressed reason of hunting pigeons, then feasting on chokecherries and chittim berries. My stepfather wouldn't hunt on the Sabbath, but then, he wouldn't hunt bears either. They weren't clean animals, and he wouldn't kill what he didn't intend to eat.
On my way to the abandoned orchards, I would pass up shots at pigeons as I slipped as quietly as possible through blackberries and salal. But I never was quiet enough. Most times I would hear, as I entered an orchard, the bear charge through thick underbrush as it hurriedly escaped youthful overeagerness. I would smell the bear, would chase it, would see water flowing back into footprints where it ran through mud puddles. But I never saw one; I never had a chance to see what a 12 gauge slug would do at close range.
The first live, in-the-woods bear I saw was the year after I married and returned to Lincoln County. It was midday, and I had just turned onto Little Euchre Mountain road, where I planned to shoot a newly purchased Colt Model 1917, .45 ACP. A mature boar ran across the road in front of me. I had, on the seat beside me, the loaded revolver. But in that thick brush of the Oregon Coast, I had no chance to kill the boar although I would have tried if I had been given that chance.
In the mill, I worked with Bob Young, who along with Ken Wildman, had trapped bears in the hills behind Agate Beach; they went in from the Siletz side. They had trapped together for several years, but only in the spring. They caught three, four, five bears each year. Boars in the creekbottoms. Sows on the ridges. And they had quit trapping the spring they caught only cubs, who squealed for mama as Bob and Ken approached their set. The first cub spooked them. The second cub convinced them to pull their sets. So one graveyard shift, I asked Bob what he wanted for his traps: he had two #15s, and one #5 (the jaw size is the same, ten and a half inches, but #15s have heavier springs). He named a figure. I gave him the money, and on my way home that morning, I picked up the traps.
Benefitting from Bob and Ken's experience, I never set a trap on a ridge. In fact, I only trapped one spring before I realized I had the same problem my stepfather had. Killing a bear isn't like killing a mink or a fox. I couldn't just take its hide and leave its carcass to rot (my cats wouldn't even eat a mink carcass). I had to salvage the meat even though bears weren't then game animals along the Coast. But I didn't want to eat that meat. It wasn't clean. So I butchered every bear I killed and traded the meat for beef, pound for pound. No animal went to waste. However, at some subconscious level, I felt guilt about killing a bear and not eating it. Perhaps what I felt was some of my stepfather's beliefs mingled in with my own.
The traps, though, were wonderful decoration for a muzzleloading gunshop. I wish I would have kept them when I moved to Alaska.
After that first spring, I only set one of those traps again. During fall 1970, we had a very large boar working the ridge between where we lived at Twin Bridges and Howard Wyscarver's farm at Logsdon. He would raid the orchards, one each night. He would climb into an apple, then climb out a limb until it broke. He was a large animal: his hide squared seven feet. He was destroying the orchards. But I wasn't enough of a farmer at the time to really care.
For a couple of years I had known that he was in the area. I almost fell in a hole he dug while after skunk cabbage roots—he left holes large enough to bury whole septic systems. Literally, most of his holes looked like they had been dug with a backhoe, but I found one that looked like a dug well.
But the night he came into our utility room and woofed at the cats, with my wife in bed on the other side of the wall, my wife said he had to go. She was very firm about that fact. She assured me that I would not have a happy home if I didn't promptly kill him.
Jim Miller had just harvested an elk. One side of its ribcage was bloodshot. I asked Jim if I could get those ribs from him. Jim delivered: he wanted to see the size of the bear's track, still visible the next morning on our utility room floor.
A quarter of a mile up the canyon above our house, I hung those ribs in a fir tree, set the trap at the base of the fir, and the next morning, I asked Dennis Briley to help me load the boar into the back of my Bronco. Dennis and I together couldn't lift him without help from Dennis' son.
Again, I butchered this bear and traded his meat pound for pound for beef—
John Schirmer told me he made five dollars, a terrific amount of money at the time (1928), when he sold a big, fat boar to the meat market in Newport. He was fourteen, and had a singleshot .22 rifle. Not knowing how he would kill it, he had followed the boar along a logging road for more than a mile. Eventually the boar meandered off the road and down a hillside where an old-growth spruce blocked its route. The boar couldn't get over the spruce; so it turned around and started back up the hillside to the road. When John saw the boar start back uphill, he ran back down the road about thirty yards, sat down, rested his .22 over his knees and waited for the boar to emerge. When the boar returned to the roadway, it looked uphill, then downhill right at John who fired, his bullet entering the boar's eye and brain. He then had to get his dad's wagon and team to haul the boar to Newport.
Several of the older fishermen with whom I plunked for salmon under Red Bridge would tell of killing bears with a .22 rifle during the Depression. Actually, they usually told about the ones that weren't clean kills as they stole cubs that they sold to roadside zoos.
To supply cubs, a fellow would find a den. Along the Coast, dens were usually in hollow cedars. He would then probe the den with a long, green stick with a small, sharpened fork at its end. When he encountered something that might be flesh, he would give that stick a twist, then pull it out to see if there were hairs on it. If there were, he knew he had awakened the bear, and he would get above and to the side of the den's entrance and wait, with his rifle cocked and aimed. After a while, the bear would slowly poke its head out to see what disturbed it. The miscues were when the fellow became impatient and fired too early, shooting through the bear's snout rather than its brain.
I heard this technique told to me by enough different fellows over enough years that this was either a common practice or one helleva good story to tell. Regardless, killing a sow to sell her cubs to a roadside zoo seems horribly immoral. But then, my morality now isn't that of the Depression.
I killed one more bear before I left Oregon, a little boar a couple of weeks after Kori was born. I broke its neck with a .58 round ball. And again, I butchered it and traded it for beef, but many of the folks I traded with before were on restricted diets. They still wanted roast bear, but their doctors wanted them to eat bean sprouts, and their grandkids were only interested in pizza. A bear roast for Sunday dinner lacked the sex appeal of hotdogs or hamburgers or barbecued chicken. But then, I never had been interested in eating a bear. It was those Kings hanging on the topmost branches of trees only found in abandoned orchards that I sought to eat.
That little boar—the last bear I killed in Oregon—had already begun to rub so its hide wasn't in prime shape. Nevertheless, I tanned its hide with a salt-alum solution, and made him into a rug that was at the foot of our bed for a year. I don't think there was one day of that year when my wife didn't complain about having that rug in the bedroom.
We didn't have wall-to-wall carpeting in our bedroom; so I thought climbing out of bed and putting my feet on that bearskin was all right. My wife thought building muzzleloading rifles had finally begun to affect my head. She became convinced that I was no longer civilized. I have on numerous occasions introduced myself as marginally civilized so I never denied her accusations about how civilized I am. However, when I realized that the bearskin was really effecting her allergies I took it to the shop where Don Lynch saw it. He wanted to take it to a gunshow in Corvallis; he was sure he could sell it. I needed money so I let him. He sold it for much more than I would have given for it.
While black bears along the Oregon Coast are fairly elusive, when I moved onto the Kenai Peninsula I had to add brown bears to that list of pests I should be wary of … it isn't true that Alaskan mosquitoes are larger than brown bears. Not true at all. I saw my first brown at Happy Valley. It looked like two Hereford bulls standing side by side in a pasture, such was its aura. I have never seen a mosquito in either Alaska or in the Yukon larger than that advertising Chihuahua.
Every so often, I am asked about bears on Kodiak, or if I want to go on a spring hunt for blacks, or any of a half dozen other questions about hunting bears that will end up with me killing another bear. I'm just not interested. My stepfather was correct: I don't want to kill and then not eat the life that I have taken. Plus, big bears are near kin.