“In a civilized and cultivated country wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen. the excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wild life, are ig-norant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping the larger and more valuable wild creatures from total extermination.” President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905
THE PILGRIMAGE NORTH
Our camo-clad Jeep was packed with gear, guns, a large white cooler and the hopes it wouldn’t come home empty. After a ﬁve hour ride ﬁlled with hilarious b-role stories from past hunts, discussions about the ongoing battle against the HSUS bear referendum, and a pre-hunt pep talk Steve Beckwith and I arrived at Fish River Lodge. I must admit I was shocked to ﬁnd that the drive from the densely populated city of Portland to a town of eight hundred, only a stones throw from the Canadian boarder, was only ﬁve hours and three major roads away. Eagle Lake did not disappoint. The lake mirrored clear skies while a warm breeze and three enthusiastic German Shorthaired Pointers greeted us as we made our way to Cabin #5. To say that everything about this place and this trip rede-ﬁned my past conceptions of what hunting was all about is an understatement. Let’s start with our introduction to Cabin #5. Cabin #5 looked like all of the others from the exterior in it’s rust red paint and asphalt roof but we quickly learn it had recently been renovated. Renovated; with granite counter tops, a fully applianced oak kitchen, ﬂat screen TV in the open concept living room, breath-taking views from the picture windows, and a gorgeous bathroom. I’ll move in now. The cabin could comfortably sleep up to eight between the loft, two bedrooms and living room couches. Hardly the creaky cot lit by oil lamp and decorated with cobwebs cabin I recall from my youth.
Heading down to the lodge for dinner we met Tenley and Wayne our guides and hosts. Tenley Bennet and her husband Wayne have run Fish River Lodge for the past ten years. They instantly welcome us as family with easy, genuine smiles, and a welcome-home hug. One other hunter joined our group for this weeks hunt, an all around fantastic guy, knowledgeable hunter, from Pennsylvania named Clayton. Our small group of ﬁve had the run of camp for the week and one on one attention with our rock star Maine Master Guides.
The lodge is exactly what you romanticize a hunting lodge would be. Log construction, few right angles, deer, bear and bird mounts on the walls. Antique photographs highlighting the heritage and history of the camp. Big leather couches, recliners, rocking chairs and a giant Eric Vogle custom wood stove ﬁll one side of the lodge. The Patriots game graced the big screen TV and the WIFI was at full strength. That Meme of the log cabin in the middle of nowhere with a great WIFI signal? Yeah. I found that place. Real people live there and they are living the dream.
After a dinner of lobster, corn, baked potato, Wayne’s home made bread (did I mention he is also a professional chef?) and Tenley’s famous blueberry upside down cake we had our hunters orientation. Over coﬀee Tenley discussed what we could expect on the hunt and some basic guidelines that she and Wayne re-quest we respect while under their guidance in the woods. What most folks don’t realize is that Maine Hunters, especially those who reside in “The Other Maine” live and hunt by a code that goes above and beyond written law. There is low to no tolerance of a hunter who takes a shot that isn’t perfect and only wounds a bear. While taking a sow who has cubs may technically be legal it is seriously frowned upon. Safety is of course a non-negotiable topic with the highest expectations for practice and conduct. We receive an anatomy lesson on bear and discuss shot placement and eﬀectiveness at diﬀerent angles. Ten-ley, Steve and I were to leave camp at 3pm tomorrow for our hunting site. I start feeling that pang of nervousness shaken, not stirred, with excitement.
THE HUNT BEGINS
Who can sleep before the night of their ﬁrst big game hunt? Certainly not, I. Fortunately for me, after a made to order breakfast, I had the morning to nap on the dock with the camp dogs. As though they felt obligated to babysit this novice from the city, these three pups were never far from my side. They joined me for a walk along the shale and quartz shore and we soaked in the sun that burned the early morning fog away. The stillness was broken by the sound of Clayton conﬁrming his zero up the hill at the camp range. Each blast was followed by a delay as the sound waves traversed the open water and crashed with magniﬁed percussion on the opposing shore.
Suiting up in Realtree after lunch and a scent-free-ing shower I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. The person I was a decade ago newly graduated from art school was in shock. The voice of my soon to be boss at my ﬁrst job interview echoed in my head: “What do you see yourself doing in ten years?” I smile to myself and the future me answers: “Strapping on a Nighthawk Custom 10mm Falcon, grabbing my Ruger Gunsite Scout in .308 and climbing a tree to hunt an apex predator.” Probably would have ﬂoored him with that response. The ride into the bait site was epic. Tenley and Steve shared Maine Guide stories while I white-knuckled the dash. The thirteen miles of logging road that lead to our site rose and fell, bobbed and wove, all at the pace of someone who could ﬂy across them in her sleep. I haven’t felt that seasick in years. The coastal girl that I am instinctively looked for the horizon and the towering pines swayed and laughed at me in return.
A little woozy but far too excited to care, we quietly got out of the truck and crept into the wood line on the nar-row trail to our site. While Tenley serviced the bait site with a fresh batch of trail mix Steve and I climbed up and into the buddy blind thirty-seven yards away. Having nev-er been in a tree stand before I was very thankful for the Cetacea Rabbit Sling on my riﬂe that allowed me to climb the tree with both hands and the security of the Hunters Safety Systems harness that kept me there.
Not more than ﬁve minutes after Tenley left us did the forest come alive out of the silence. Red squirrels er-rupted around the bait site and raced up the trees to inspect us. At ﬁrst their cartoon-cute little faces and an-tics were sweet and amusing. There would be no commercial break from their incessant high pitched barking or their thunderous assault on the forrest ﬂoor. The only species in the area that seemed to tolerate them were the Norther Jays whom had a devil-may-care attitude about their company at the bait site buﬀet.
On the ride back to camp both Tenley and Steve tried to explain why I shouldn’t be disappointed about not seeing bear on the ﬁrst sit. How could I be disappointed? I was elated. Addicted. I didn’t even notice the roller coaster ride out of the woods to paved ground. All I could think of was how centered, calm, relaxed, and happy I was. Five hours without cell phones. Without the buzz of push noti-ﬁcations from Facebook and Gmail. Five hours without the need to speak. Just a block of time wherein your only obligation is to watch and listen. To be completely still. To breath the rich delicious air and be rocked by the sway of the birch that held us. Only by swimming in the sea have I felt the comforting, primal, sensation of being enveloped by nature. I had no idea that kind of peace could be found in the ritual of the hunt. That night I slept like a baby.
A WAINING MOON
Day two was much like day one at the bait site. With great anticipation we took in every moving shadow in the moments when the forest went quiet. But, we saw no bear. From the condition of the site upon our arrival it was clear bear had dined there the night prior. On day three we also found that the bear visiting our location was a member of the Clean Plate Club. The good news, they hadn’t made us. The bad news, we were hunting during a full moon when bear are typically more leery and lean more towards nocturnal feeding habits for greater concealment in the dark. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to see bear during a full moon. Clayton tagged out on day two with a beautiful average size dry sow that weighed in at one hundred ﬁfty ﬁve pounds and while the sun was still high. According to the undocumented lore of huntsmen, hunting on a waining moon was far better than when it’s on the rise. We began short baiting the site to see if with less food our bear would believe he had competition and arrive earlier to get his snack. It worked.
Three hours into sit number three Steve nudged me and in a low slow whisper said, “We’ve got a bear.” From his line of sight he caught a glimpse of black feet coming towards us under the thick brush of the woods. Though we couldn’t hear the boar approach apparently the Jays and pesky Red Squirrels did and they vanished leaving the forest silent. He made no sound as he cautiously swaggered into the site. Sniﬃng the air he looked right at us. I could feel my heart race.
Wait, make sure it really isn’t a female with babies. Wait, for the per-fect shot. Wait, for him to turn… His attention shifted and he started for the trail mix turning broad side to me. It would have been a perfect shot right then and there but the sun was shining directly into my Trijicon RMR optic and I all I could see was the milky haze the shaft of light created. He wasn’t convinced we weren’t just shadows in the tree he was so familiar with and slowly turned to go back the way he came. Steadying my aim I caught a break in the sun and enough shadow for the red dot to align perfectly as he quartered away on that magic spot a third down from his back and centerline of his foreleg. The shot broke, he humped his shoulders and took oﬀ at full gate crashing through the woods. I clicked the safety on, did the mental instant replay and Steve and I waited for the tell tale death moan. There was nothing. The longer we waited the sicker I became. Had I missed? Had I wounded him? The idea of my possible ineptness resulting in a suﬀering animal was overwhelming. The instant replay in my mind of exactly where I placed that dot was con-ﬁrmed by replaying the shot on Steves HD camera. “It was a good shot. He can’t be far.” I was ill and wouldn’t believe it until I saw it.
RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY
The sound of the shot meant Tenley wasn’t far behind. She greeted us with a huge smile at the base of our tree and listened as we recount-ed what happened minutes before. “Well, let’s see what we’ve got.” There was no blood to mark where the shot had impacted my bear. Only the long sweeping scrape in the ground where he had propelled forward and ﬂed into the woods. Our gaze rose as it followed the tracks that led into the thicket. There he was not 30 yards away.
The wave of relief that hit me was more like a tsunami. It had been a good shot and he hadn’t had time to suﬀer. I held his massive head in my hands and relief turned to reverence. His fur was thick and warm and smelled softly like the forest after a rain. Most bear appear to shrink in size from what you perceive them to be in your stand to
what they actually are on the ground. Not this bear. He looked every bit as magniﬁcent in person as he did thirty-seven yards away. I didn’t let him down with my shot and I wasn’t going to let him down now. He was my responsibility and I wasn’t going to disrespect him by standing back and letting others handle him from here.
Tenley and I drug all two-hundred-eighty-three pounds of him out of the woods ourselves. Thankfully our truck had an electric winch on it and we were able to hoist him the ﬁnal hundred feet and up a ramp into the back of the pick-up. This was the transition between two worlds where my bear went from being a creature I referred to as a living thing to a way to feed my family. Before we closed the rear gate Tenley gave a ﬁnal prayer of thanks over him. The gratitude and respect we all felt towards this animal was astounding. On the ride out of the woods to the tagging station I asked how involved Tenley and Wayne allowed their guests to be in the processing of the animals. “As involved as you’d like to be. What did you have in mind?” “All of it.”
Growing up we had a family rule when it came to interacting with nature: “If you kill it, you clean it, and you’d better eat it!” After dinner that night I got my ﬁrst lesson in gutting something bigger than a turkey. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if, when, or where in the process I would ﬁnd myself dry heaving on the sidelines. But, I ﬁgured I’d just keep going until that happened. To my surprise, I made it through the entire process without a ﬂinch. Holding the lungs and heart in my hands I could see the path my round had traveled. The shot had, in fact, been perfect and penetrated both lungs and the heart.
The next morning Tenley and Steve walked me through the process of skinning my bear. The slow process would probably have gone faster in more skilled hands but I was committed to making sure I didn’t cut through the hide and make sure the only two holes in it were where the bullet went in and went out. For me, being careful, being meticulous was more about honoring the animal than wanting a perfect bear blanket. With the hide removed and wrapped for tanning we moved on to cutting and bagging the meat which was then frozen. In the ﬁnal stages I had the help of Clayton and Steve whose experience ensured the meat was cut properly by kind and nothing went to waste. Steve and I would process it into sealed packages for cooking later.
THE REAL TROPHY
The mood at camp the next day was relaxed and upbeat. Both hunters at had tagged out, the camp had a no-tracking-necessary season which meant all the bear taken were taken with good shots. No hunter that came through camp this year had wounded a bear either and Tenley, Wayne, Shannon the cook and Brandon the camps adopted son couldn’t have been more proud of the 100% track record.
That night we were joined by a family of musicians whom had arrived to bring their 94 year old father to camp for what hopefully won’t be the last time. The three graced us with their wit and ﬁlled the lodge with music and an after dinner concert. With the pressure and anticipation of the hunt and the hard work behind us everyone at camp could unwind. The evening was ﬁlled with laughter, peach cobbler and everything from covers of Johnny Cash to original pieces by one of the two brothers. We had many more adventures in the week we spent at Fish River Lodge and the lessons learned and experiences had could easily ﬁll a book. With the current political debate raging in Maine regarding the truths, misconceptions and stereotypes associated the bear hunt the timing of my hunt couldn’t be more impeccable.
At the dining table many discussions were had about ﬁrearms, hunting ethics, conservation and wildlife management. Tenley, Wayne, Steve and a host of other Maine Guides we met during the trip could speak passionately and at length about Maines bear. Almost professorial in their breadth and depth of knowledge any one of them could tell you the science behind bear behavior, their habitat, and their history from a being an unregulated nuisance and safety concern to a managed, respected and healthy population. How could these men and women not be the masters of their profession? They live in and survive in The County as a direct result of the deep love they have for the stewardship of their environment. The delicate connection between the hunt and the harvest is often misconstrued by pop culture as being simply about the trophy kill.
A week with exceptional people like those who choose a life in Maine’s Great North Woods will certainly re-deﬁne that notion. When describing Wayne’s recent moose hunt, Tenley wrote; “Wayne enjoyed an amazing week in the woods with friends, creating memories to last a lifetime. That is the “trophy” Wayne takes with him…the experience and memories. We are blessed for the little bull who will ﬁll our freezer and nourish our body and spirit…” Thank you to everyone whom made my hunt, the harvest and the memories possible!