It was early, pre-dawn as I trudged across what remained of the old alfalfa field toward the deer stand in the cottonwood tree along Spring Creek.
The morning was frosty, caused by air currents rolling over and down the flanks of Blue Mountain to the west.
The bitter draft kept finding its way down my coat collar, past the canvas, fleece and flannel I had laboriously layered myself in to keep warm before the sun rose two hours from now.
The heavens above were clear and bright, the crystalline stars twinkling with ancient light. The airport beacon, behind me to the east, flashed on my backside every few seconds or so as if pushing me toward the twisted and bent tree where the boxy wooden stand rested some 20' up.
I was hunting with my friend Tommy and his two young family members. They were lodged in another stand 300 yards to the north on the perimeter of the upper field.
Son Spenser and brother-in-law Wade, my regular hunting companions, were unable to attend this years outing because of more pressing obligations.
I had invited my sweetheart along to act as a spotter and hot spot, but Laurie is not a fan of simply sitting around on a cold bench or hunting, period. Daughter McKale and her friend Sean had arrived late the night before and were more interested in getting some much needed rest than becoming a frostcicle.
I was moving slow because the field was peppered with seemingly bottomless booby traps a colony of prairie dogs had laid.
My flashlight kept fading in and out because of a bad connection. I kept slapping the darn thing on my thigh in an attempt to bring it back to life when it dimmed.
My concern was the very real possibility of breaking a leg or ankle in the many pitfalls. I made it safely across the field though, climbed over a barbed wire fence without becoming high centered, and made my way through a patch of Gamble Oak toward the tree.
While wading through the long grass and stepping over downed timber, I passed under one of the massive branches of the cottonwood. I came to the trunk of the tree and reached for the aluminum ladder braced against the crosshatched trunk.
As I gripped a rung, I stepped on a dead limb which snapped and reverberated like a gun shot in the night.
Something above me exploded off the overhanging limb, scratching and clawing its way up the tree, bumping the ladder several times as it went.
All I could see was a large, black mass of movement. I instinctively ducked and backed away from the tree while cranking a cartridge into my rifle.
Then, grabbing my pistol with the other hand and cocking it, I scrambled to get away. Locked and loaded, I hustled back through the debris field breathing hard and running scared!
At any moment I expected whatever was up there to drop in and have me for breakfast.
When the fence impeded my reverse motion, I stopped and tried to regain my composure. I am unashamed to say that the experience had put the fear in me.
Feeling lucky to be alive, I cautiously made my way through the brush toward an archery stand some 50 yards away, thinking that getting up and off the ground might provide sanctuary from land based predators.
The story of the Tsavo Lions crept into my mind. Still loaded for bear, I texted Tommy telling him that something wild and wooly had taken up residence in my tree stand.
“Cool” he texted back.
“No,” I thought, “it was not cool at all. It was… a hair raising experience!”
I also texted Laurie, venting my fear and frustration, but there was no reply. She was either still sleeping or, more likely, up and focused on making breakfast.
Sitting and shaking in the tiny metal tree stand, completely exposed to the bite of the southwestern wind, I began to fume and fuss. Being ousted from my personal space by an unknown creature was maddening.
That stand is a sacred place for me. Laurie, Alyssa, McKale, and I pre-built it in sections, hauled and hoisted it up into the trees sturdy embrace some fifteen years ago.
It was meant to provide son Spenser with a safe, secure place to hunt and nature watch while recuperating from a bad accident. Spense and I have spent almost every hunting season protected by those wooden walls since it was built.
I imagined the beastie up our tree might be a bear or a mountain lion. It could also be something less fearsome like a raccoon or big bird.
I have even heard that badgers can climb trees if they are so inclined. Whatever it was, I decided I would go back at dawn and expose my new nemesis.
When the sun broke the horizon, I dropped from my metal perch and stalked in the direction of the stand. The light and warmth of that golden globe, along with the artillery I carried, cleansed me of fear and gave me courage to approach this unknown adversary.
Marching up to the giant cottonwood, I scanned the branches looking for a mighty beast of prey, an alpha predator which I would drive off with the bang and flash of my weaponry.
And there it was, lodged high up amongst the branches rested a baby bear.
“Well,” I said to the small fuzzball, “this is anticlimactic.”
The cub just gazed down upon me and blinked, first one eye and then the other.
“Humph!” it snorted.
“Humph!” I snorted back, then asked, “Where’s your mother?”
Earlier, as I sat in the archery stand with the wind swirling all about, I had gotten a whiff of something dead and wondered if this little fella might have lost it’s mother.
Whatever the case, here it was. I was relieved and a tad embarrassed that it wasn’t something more… frightening but knew a photo-op when I saw one.
I got back on my cell phone and dialed up my wife and daughter. McKale loves photography, and here was a wild and wooly beastie backlit by a brilliant blue sky, the gnarled texture of the tree bark and the golden leaves twinkling in the brilliant morning light.
Laurie opted out, claiming that she had curlers in her hair and would not be seen out and about in such a state. I assured her the bear wouldn’t mind but could not convince her to come.
McKale and Sean were there in short order though, taking snappies while oohing and aahing at how cute the cub was.
Although I had missed opening morning of the hunt and as Tommy told me later, “Several nice bucks had passed through,” I was alright with it because it is uncommon to see a wild bear cub so near and dear.
I was also able to share the experience with McKale, which makes the nature of the place even more special to me.
As far as putting venison on the table this deer season—it was a bust. I was, though, able to observe a magnificent herd of elk for a good 30 minutes, watched a young and powerful badger digging for prairie dogs, and a big dog coyote sneaking around the fringes of the property.
There was a Golden Eagle that flew by along with a Red Tail Hawk that rested in an adjoining tree for awhile.
As far as I am concerned, except for the fact that my boy was absent, the hunt was a bonafide success.