By Lee Walls
I cupped my freezing hands around my mouth, and blew. My breath was a warm fog that dissipated in the morning mist. Turning my wrist, I glanced at my watch – 7:10, another 15 minutes until sunrise. The wind rustled the few solitary brown leaves that were still clinging to the branches, and I wished the sun would hurry. I had only been in this tree stand since 6:00, but already I was shivering. Soon, Pine Hill would be filled with snow instead of cornstalks.
Suddenly, I heard the leaves shuffle, and I knew something big was coming my way. I watched the trail to my right and finally, I saw it. Not quite 50 feet away, the buck moseyed through the brush with his head down, sniffing the ground.
I held my breath, not daring to make a noise.
Stop shivering, you fool, I told myself. I didn’t need binoculars to see the rack on that bad boy, but I lifted them to my eyes, anyway. I rolled the focus wheel with a forefinger, and those 10 points loomed in the lenses bigger than life. Oh man, I wish it were buck season. He’ll be nowhere to be seen by next week.
He was so close that I could hear him crunching the kernels as he ate his way past my tree stand and on across the cornfield. Darn, my camera is in the truck. Nice going, Walzie — a trophy buck and no way to prove it even exists. I watched him until he dropped over a rise and was out of sight. Finally, my heart quit pounding, and I relaxed against the tree.
I have no idea what made me look over my left shoulder. Perhaps it was the train whistle echoing up from below the nearby cliff, or maybe it was just the wind, but from the corner of my eye, I noticed something black. It was close behind me. I turned my head and realized it was a bear.
It sat with its back to me as if it were watching the train 300 feet below. I slowly reached for my .30-06, clicked off the safety, and pulled up.
My heart hammered. Get the full vision in the scope. Steady now. Hold your breath … squeeze … BAAABOOOOOOOOOOOOMM … thwmp! The bear jumped and ran into the brush.
I felt sure it was hit. Don’t rush him. Sit tight. You know he’s there. Wow. Hunting for 40 years and you finally did it, your first Pennsylvania bear!
I had to calm myself. I wanted to literally jump out of that tree stand like Superman and wrestle that ol’ boy down. But I sat still. It took me 10 minutes just to catch my breath. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I shouldered my rifle sling and climbed down from the stand.
Quietly, I milled through the brush to where I last saw the bear. I know he’s right over this log. Yep, he’s right… uh … gotta be right … uh … maybe over this way. Oh, darn! I was sure I’d hit him; he has to be nearby. I took a few steps, made a circle, and then I spotted its trail — a 5-gallon bucket of red trail. It led right to the edge of the cliff and disappeared. My heart sank.
Gingerly, I inched my way to the edge. I grabbed a sapling to steady myself. I leaned over and looked all the way to the bottom. It wasn’t exactly straight down, but it just might as well have been. Nearly 300 feet of craggy rocks embedded in loose dirt with a few straggly trees and roots growing sparsely along its near 90-degree drop.
Far below me, I could see the rushing Little Juniata River as it flowed beside railroad tracks that looked like they were on the HO scale. There was no bear in sight.
Suddenly, the dirt gave away, and I was on the slide for my life. As if I were on a toboggan, I slid on my side, holding my rifle above my head. Watch it. Don’t bump that scope! I grabbed for passing trees and rocks, anything to stop my fall. The leg zippers on my pants opened and acted like a parachute; my pant legs gathered dirt and slowed my decent. I felt my fingernails snap and split as I grasped for rocks, and then I was finally able to catch hold of a strong tree root and stop myself.
I was nearly a third of the way down the hill. I lay on the side of that cliff for several minutes trying to regain my composure. The only sound was the rushing of the water below me, and my short, choppy gasps.
I hugged my rifle safely to my chest. If there had been any bear down here, he’s surely gone now what with the racket I made hurdling down this doggone cliff.
Carefully, I scooped all the leaves and dirt out of my pants and boots and stood up. Perhaps I can shuffle sideways down over this. There’s no going back up! I gingerly took a step. Steady… okay, I can do this. I stepped over a downed tree and ducked under a branch. I looked up, and suddenly I was eyeball to eyeball with a wounded bear.
The bruin was less than 10 feet away, sitting upright, ears alert … staring me in the face. He looked to be 10 feet tall and bulletproof.
I swallowed hard, and then the rifleman in me went into action: point and shoot from the hip! The bullet hit its chest. The bear did a tuck and roll. Bouncing like a tractor tire, it rolled all the way to the bottom. No, no! Don’t you dare roll into the river! Too darned cold for a swim in the Little Juniata.
Slowly, I picked my way down the side of the cliff carefully guarding my scope from any bumps and picking only the sturdiest-looking trees to lean against or grab. Finally, I could see the bear. Stopping just short of the river, it laid spread-eagle on its stomach.
Now I have another problem. At the bottom of the cliff, there’s a 12-foot straight-down drop to the roadway. I hunkered at the top contemplating how to get my now-hurting body down there. Jump? Out of the question. Too steep for a slide. Hmmm. Let me think. I ‘m 6 feet tall. If I ease myself out over the edge, then I’ll only have about 6 more feet to drop. How many bones can break in that short of a distance?
I was beginning to hurt badly, but I still was reluctant to take the chance. Then I noticed a tree root protruding from the bank. Thank you, God! I grabbed onto that root and, old mountain goat that I’ve become, I rappelled to the roadway.
It was a beautiful bear, it’s coat thick and shiny. I admired it for a time. I wanted to do a victory dance, but the possibility of a passing train passenger seeing a crazy man dance with a bear drove all those dancing thoughts right out of my head.
I unpinned my license and dug out my bear tag. This is so cool! First one of these I’ve ever had to fill in. I was beaming with pride. I reached in my shirt pocket for my reading glasses – yeah, you guessed it – gone. I looked up. They had to be somewhere up there 300 feet above me. Well, they can just stay up there! Darn, I couldn’t even see where to sign. I pinned my whole license packet to the bear’s ear and began gutting it.
I looped my drag rope around the neck and heaved; the rope cut into my now-throbbing shoulder. Need to get this bugger back up over this cliff. The bear wouldn’t budge, and I was reluctant to climb. I decided to cover it with leaves (as if anyone else was going to hoist it out of there) and hike the road back to my truck.
It was probably about three-mile trek. My shoulder throbbed, my hip hurt, and my boots rubbed blisters on my feet. But I had taken a bear. Was it all worth it? Absolutely! Finally, staved-up, limping, and breathless, I reached my truck. What a beautiful sight it was! A plushy seat, a cell phone, spare glasses, and a cold soda. Whew! I called my friend Adam to come help me load it, and off to the bear check station we went.
When I attempted to drag the bruin, I could have sworn it weighed 500 pounds, but it checked in at 144. This bear even had a history. SIt had been captured and tagged by the Game Commission for research and released the previous year nearly 10 miles away.