My one and only Black Bear hunt is with Wayne and Carl. It takes eight hours to drive to Mendocino National Forest, five hours of them on fire roads. Wayne leads the way in his restored Willys Jeep. Carl and I follow in a Mazda RX-7, dodging rocks and pebbles kicked up by the Jeep ahead.
When we get to the hook-up spot, we meet Wayne’s cousins. These guys are real hunters: that means they hunt black bear on foot – well, okay, moccasins – and horseback, no dogs. In the 80’s, that’s unusual, since most hunters – especially the lazy ones – hunt with dogs. We spend most of Saturday stalking and looking for scat.
We find some. Wayne’s cousins stop, kneel down, and press the bear shit between their fingers. Then they sniff it and determine it’s only four or five hours old. Okay, ladies, time to spread out. You guys go this direction, we’ll go this direction, see you at camp.
Carl and I set out on foot. He has a Belgian-made Browning 7mm Mag. I’m sporting a Marlin 1976 Commemorative 30-30 with Nosler Partition ammo. We climb roughly 3000 feet up from the base camp.
After an hour or so, we see an antler move about 80 yards to the left of us. Before I could tell Carl whoa, he’s off running through the forest like a goddamn linebacker. Fuck it… Yo Carl, I’m gonna go this way. Okay, cool. If you get lost, fire three shots in the air, but space ‘em a few seconds apart. Okay, got it, see ya.
I’m walking, stalking, climbing and looking. This is before cell phones and GPS, which means navigation is by sight and a compass, the time of day determined by the cast of shadows.
I hear Wayne’s 300 Winchester Magnum go off. Boom, pause, boom. Then quiet. Bam pause, bam, pause. That’s Wayne’s Ruger Security Six with hot hand loads going off. He’s got something. Fan-fucking-tastic. I don’t see nothing to shoot at.
My feet are beginning to hurt. New boots, always break your boot in prior to a hunt or strenuous hike. Blisters are a bad thing to get on a hunt such as this. I endure it, though. I figure, since the boots are soft – meaning nylon and some space age material soft – I could bypass the break-in period. Bullshit, nada, do not proceed any further. I could tell these blisters were different, but there’s nothing I can do about it right then. Oh, and don’t forget. Do not take off your boots until you’re back at base camp. Once your feet come out of those boots, they swell. Getting the boot back on may not be impossible, but it ain’t easy and it hurts. I decide to leave the boots on and trudge ahead.
I hear Carl’s 7 mm go off, then nothing. He missed. At least he got a shot off. But now it’s time to backtrack and start the descent. An hour or so later we all meet up, thanks to the three-shot rule.
Sure enough, Wayne has smacked a nice black bear. This is really cool. Shoot the bear, gut it, and skin it. That’s all you gotta do on a bear hunt, and Wayne’s one-third the way there.
Wayne starts to prepare the bear for transport. Wayne makes the gut cut very precise, then reaches in the cavity and makes an additional cut inside. Okay, Gene, check this out. See how I made that cut? Yeah, I see it. See where my hand is? Yeah, I see it. Okay, good. Now I’m cutting all of the vitals and holding on to it all. When I make this lower cut, all of the gut and entrails will drop out here on the ground, then we gotta bury it. Got it? Yep, got it. Okay, here we go …
It all drops out, for the most part. Then we start to skin it, but suddenly, we have company – wasps – so I stop long enough to bury the entrails before returning to skinning. We get the pelt – no damage – and the head, which will make a nice trophy. We then quarter it and partially process it, wrapping the meat in cheesecloth to keep the bugs off and allow it to stay cool. Then we hang it higher on a limb to keep the critters away. Then back down to the base camp, a couple of hours away. I carry the pelt. We all take pictures on the way. I’m jazzed…
It’s dark by the time we get settled in at camp. My first priority is to take my boots off, then my socks. My feet don’t look good, with blisters on my soles, between my toes, and on top of my toes. There’s only one thing to do: pop the blisters and wash my feet so they won’t get infected. Ouch!!! that hurts. And we gotta climb back up in the morning to get the bear. Ahhhhhhhh, my feet feel much better. A little bit of sting, but no pain or pressure from the blisters. Two pairs of socks the next morning, lace the boots tight real tight, and off we go.
We hike back up and I can hear Wayne’s cousins’ rifles going off. Great… We retrieve the bear and climb back down. Success!!!! Wayne’s cousins show up a couple of hours later. Their bear is smaller but still very nice. We break camp and head for the ranger station. The ranger verifies the tag and removes a molar to judge the age of the bear.
Eight hours later, we’re at Wayne’s house in Petaluma, where Lena is waiting. Wayne immediately puts the bear pelt in the freezer to be tanned at a later date. Lena and Wayne proceed to butcher the bear and make some bear stew later on. The stew is delicious. Wayne’s mom shows up for dinner, which is great, since the bear stew is her recipe. Wayne’s mom as well as Lena can cook their asses off. Why he doesn’t get fat, I will never understand.
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Hey, Wayne Pietila, I truly miss you. Going up to Thiesens/the property and living off the land from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. I loved that as well as the wild goats and quail. Man …those were the days. Carl and I would drive from the Bay Area, meet at your place and head for the property. We would bring a case of beer, salt, pepper, hot sauce and lots of ammo. If it was edible and shoot-able, we shot it, and we ate it. And it was good.
(Eugene Smith was in Georgetown on November 18 clearing items from customs. Numerous members of his family – including his mother, wife, and infant son – died in Jonestown. His other articles for this edition of the jonestown report are Time Is a Funny Thing and Johnny Brown: The Passion and the Revolution. His previous articles may be found here. He can be reached at email@example.com.)