An Aspiring Hunter’s Spiritual Journey in the Bear Woods
By Jiliian Garrett
My accelerated path into hunting began on the worst night of my life. Up until that point, the timeline had been gradual, fueled by many questions and a desire to understand my food source from start to finish. It’s ironic that it took a negative interaction with a black bear to eventually inspire a love of conserving them.
The bear attack which occurred on that terrible night left me with a dead llama, a dead black bear sow, a new terror of the dark, and a tendency toward extreme panic attacks fueled by the sound of gunfire. It was such a senseless waste on all counts, as even the bear meat and hide couldn’t be salvaged due to the previous injuries and starvation that had caused the sow to attack. To say that it was a night I will never forget is a serious understatement. I still deal with the psychological aftereffects. Yet what also came out of that night was an intense desire to never again feel that sense of helplessness. While it was difficult for nearly everyone around me to understand, I wasn’t seeking vengeance. I was trying to overcome the traumas of what I had experienced by gaining a better understanding of healthy bear behaviors, and in the process helping to feed myself and my family. Before that night, I had never owned or fired a gun, still possessing a bit of that residual “guns are evil” mindset from my liberal urban upbringing. I had been curious about hunting, though not yet ready to engage in it. I was still mired in that gray space between raising livestock for meat and hunting wild game, unsure about taking the next step. That was about to change dramatically; I had finally found the motivation to make that final leap.
Picking up a rifle for the first time wasn’t the difficult part. The stress came from pulling the trigger (or, to clarify, from hearing others pull the trigger). Our property at the time was not large enough to safely hold a shooting range. Instead, my husband had a membership at a local range in town and took me there to learn how to fire a rifle. The problem was that hearing those gunshots going off from other sections of the range inspired an immediate post traumatic response in me—full blown panic. We tried going there at different times of the day, off times when fewer people would be around, but it was still incredibly stressful for me. I doggedly kept on trying to learn, even during the times when I was so overcome with terror that I didn’t think I could breathe, and my husband held me while I sobbed in the truck at the shooting range. When I could finally calm myself down and stop shaking, I would take a very deep breath and force myself to persist. Eventually over time, the familiarity of constant practice helped ease the threat of trauma rearing its ugly head, and though my panic attacks never fully went away, I was better able to control them. As a result of this style of training, I became a very cool and methodical shooter and even began to understand the enjoyment of shooting as a pastime.
Learning how to handle a weapon was only half the battle of becoming a successful hunter, but it at least got me into the field. My initial forays into the bear woods centered around an area of public land in Southern Oregon. This large section of land was not too far away from the suburban sprawl, though in terms of ruggedness and isolation it may as well have been a world apart. Hiking into it was like entering a breathtakingly beautiful new world, one that challenged my body and soothed my soul. This landscape supported an enormous variety of wildlife contained within a multitude of ecosystems, from hot and dry manzanita hellholes to steeply timbered mountainsides to verdant meadows frequented by elk. In short, it was an absolute paradise. The best section of all was an abandoned logging road nicknamed “Predator Alley” due to its high population of mountain lions and black bears. During my time exploring there, it was not uncommon to unknowingly walk past an enormous black bear drinking from the creek below the road, or to be followed by the specter of an impressively large and frighteningly interested mountain lion. Walking this stretch of old logging road was always such a mixed emotional bag for me; on the one hand, I was completely on edge and terrified, and on the other, I was absolutely exhilarated. Leaving the parked truck and entering the forest during the blurry gray of first light, forcing myself to walk—step by painful step—down that road was one of the most difficult things I have ever pushed myself to do. It scared me more than any of my days spent at the shooting range. I wanted to find a bear, a normal bear, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle the experience of that interaction when the time finally arrived.
Those first few steps into the tall grass of that overgrown road were like walking into a nightmare. Yet over time, the nightmare eventually morphed into something far less frightening and far more spiritual. One of the aspects that I came to appreciate about Predator Alley was that it made me engage in the natural world on a level I had never previously been able to achieve. Each time I walked that road, I learned to coexist in a place where I was no longer the top predator. Suddenly, “bear” was not a theoretical concept. Bears were a fact of life, and pretty much a constant (if invisible) presence in any ambles. Though I never managed to have that face-to-face encounter with a bear, my experiences in Predator Alley were what helped to create a love for the animals that called it home. It made me vow to always live in a place where the wild things roamed freely.
The fulfillment of that promise came when we purchased a large piece of land in a remote corner of northeast Washington state. Suddenly, we were living in an entirely different ecosystem filled with a puzzling new array of food sources. Instead of having to travel to find wildlife, we merely had to step out the front door. Bears, cougars, bobcats, and wolves were regular visitors to our place, along with the whitetails and elk that called our land home. Yet the vegetation had changed dramatically from what we were used to back in Oregon, switching from oak trees and acorns to evergreens and chokecherries. I was honestly perplexed with how to proceed. Were there any hard mast crops here? What did the bears eat and at what times of the year? These were questions that kept me up at night, and I was determined to find the answers. Yet where to begin? I needed more than a pin on a GPS map. I wanted to understand bear behavior and what seasonal foods motivated their movements across the landscape. Being a successful bear hunter meant learning to think like one, yet the road to success seemed ever further away with no mentor to guide me as I bumbled my way around the woods.
The first time I ever laid eyes on the bear that would consume my hunting journey also happened to be my first face-to-face encounter with a normal bear. The irony of this chance meeting was that it took place three long years and a move of several hundred miles from the time I first began my search. The interaction occurred on a warm afternoon in late spring, in a little grove of cedars surrounding our tributary creek. Peering through the tree trunks, I could only make out the white of a bear snout looking back at me. I let out an authoritative “Hey, bear!” and watched the most beautiful, glossy-coated black sow run off and into the adjoining property in a jumble of galloping paws and bear butt. I realized that I had an enormous grin on my face. I had never been that close to a regular bear before and I was absolutely enthralled. It made me stop and appreciate how far down the path of healing I had come. My interaction with that bear had only elicited joy, not the terror I had battled for so long. In a strange way, she represented to me far more than just a normal bear encounter: she was the embodiment of everything that I had worked so hard to achieve.
The sow spent most of the late summer and early autumn feasting on the ripe wild cherries and assorted berries that grew profusely along our creek. Despite the busy farming season, I devoted as much time as possible to hunting those areas. But whether it was due to fate or inexperience or just plain bad luck, I could never seem to be in the right place at the right time. It was maddening. As the berries dried up and September phased in October, her visits grew less frequent, eventually stopping altogether. There was now a strange and sad emptiness to the woods. Clearly, she—and the other bears in the area—had gone elsewhere in preparation for denning up through the winter. My sense of loss could not be described. I felt like such a failure, heartsick and oddly angry at myself for not being experienced enough to have put the pieces together in time. Yet how was I to know? As a self-taught hunter, my successes and failures rested solely on the results of my own trials and errors in the woods. Despite the books I had read, which often didn’t translate to this unique ecosystem anyway, nothing could have compared with the level of boots-on-the-ground experience that a local hunter might have provided me. Yet I remained on my own, and now the animal that had turned into the embodiment of my spiritual awakening had abandoned me. Even if she somehow returned next year, the odds were high that she would have a cub in tow, making her prohibited in my own moral book as well as in local game regulations. I felt a deep sense of loss that made me question myself and my hunting abilities. What was I doing out here anymore?
Upon deeper reflection, I realized that my journey wasn’t just about killing a bear (though I am determined to accomplish that someday!). Instead, I needed to walk that long and painful path to healing, filled with both fear and failure, to develop an admiration for the animals that I so determinedly pursued. The sow had simply been an embodiment of that journey.
A point that I often make to my fellow hunters, and one that I think of every time I am stonewalled in my requests for guidance, is this: it is so important to inspire that same passion in others, especially those who have not had the benefit of growing up in a household that hunted. Today’s mentee is tomorrow’s hunting advocate. I think of this last statement often when I sit in on WDFW Special Commission meetings, or write letters and emails to the commissioners, or listen to my husband give public commentary. By withholding guidance, we are doing the next generation of would-be hunters a disservice. When the old hunting guard finally stands down, where will that leave us? At the last WDFW Special Commission meeting in my hometown of Colville, you could count the number of 30-something-and-under pro-bear-hunting attendees on one hand. The lack of young hunters in that meeting reflects a larger problem nationwide: hunter numbers have continued to decrease over the years while the rate of urbanization has rapidly increased. As a hunting community, we need all of the help we can get in order to protect a mode of cultural existence that we cherish, as well as the wildlife entwined within it.
So I will say it one more time: mentor an aspiring hunter. Help to inspire that same passion in someone new, and—regardless of whether or not they are successful at obtaining their chosen quarry—they will fight passionately to protect it. I certainly did, and I will continue to do so.