By the top of my first trip up the rock pile that Pennsylvanians call a mountain, I remember thinking what it would be like dragging a bear back down. My clothes were soaked through with my sweat, my calves were burning like a three-alarm fire, and I felt like I was sucking wind through a straw. I was carrying a tree stand, and my hunting partner’s pack (who will be referred to as “Mr. Gadget” from this point forward), with the center of gravity of a London double-decker bus. I actually had one of those bad Marine Corps flashbacks that have become fewer and farther between the longer I have been out of uniform (nearly 25 years). You know the one – where the 18 year old body fights the urge to quit under the weight of an 80-lb pack (with a PRC 77 radio to give it more ballast) towards the end of a 20 miler. That 18 year old body handled it a bit better. But I’m not about to quit. That would be akin to not loving mom….
We reached the summit and looked for obvious bear sign and game trails in order to pick our vantage points. There was lots of scat, which seemed rather promising. I picked a tree, set up my stand, cleared my shooting lanes, and went over to lend Mr. Gadget a hand with his stand. I carried my hunting partner’s pack up the mountain as his rather large and intricate stand didn’t really allow for carrying a pack, additionally (loaded to the top with MacGyver-like gadgetry I might add). Hey, the human body can only take so much. His stand, a climber, featured everything my stand did not, including arm rests, a back rest, an amply padded seat, seat belts, air bags, a roof, a flat-screen TV, climate control, and a portable microwave. Mr. G. even brought an intricate pulley system for each piece of gear that needed to be hoisted up to his Swiss Family Robinsonesque, tree-house like perch that he calls a tree stand. After the stands were deemed ready for hunting, we made the trek back down the mountain. The next morning was opening day.
Opening day was cold. Okay, that was to be expected this time of year, but at least the rain gods weren’t feeling vengeful and it was mostly dry. Cold weather means lots of layers of clothing. Lots of clothing layers coupled with a near vertical hour-long climb means perspiration. Perspiration leads to discomfort, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.
I got into my stand in the early morning darkness, excited by the prospect of bagging a large Pennsylvania black bear, and settled in for the wait. An hour went by and I didn’t even hear a bird chirp, but I think I heard one yawn. Nothing. Patience is definitely a virtue when stand hunting, especially on public land. Another hour went by, and even the insects hadn’t bothered getting out of bed. By then, I had developed a slight and uncontrollable tremor as the chill started to set in. But that’s okay, that’s par for the course. Another hour or two later and my tremor had developed into a tectonic plate shifting earthquake. It was cold – really cold. My toes started to numb at that point indicating that my boot warmers had abandoned me in my time of need as well.
Noon rolled around and I decided that I needed to eat something in order to fool my body into generating some heat by feeding it a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My limited space on the stand meant that my pack was tucked under my seat and a bit difficult to access. So, by brail I felt around and located the Ziploc housing my lunch. Unceremoniously, I lost my grip (numb fingers and the aforementioned tremor) and my sandwich tumbled to mother earth. So much for lunch. Would a bear eat my lunch, and could that be construed as baiting? I contemplated the legal ramifications of my clumsiness, as baiting bear in PA is verbotten.
More hours, more waiting, and not an animal stirred – save for one lone chipmunk. Its very presence annoyed me as it seemingly taunted me – probably attributable to the cold-induced delirium. I don’t think the chipmunk realized just how close it came to meeting its demise. Still no bears. Nothing. By mid-afternoon, still shaking, vision blurred, and fantasizing about fireplaces, down comforters, hot cocoa, and sunshine, it was obvious that the day’s hunt was finally and mercifully over. I stopped shaking long enough to safely make my way down the stand to terra firma and headed over to Mr. Gadget’s stand. I made lots of noise on my approach as getting shot by my hunting partner would not have improved my mood any.
Well, there he was, sitting contentedly with a sleepy smile, a camouflage blanket wrapped around the entire stand, creating a cozy cocoon. Mr. Gadget never felt an ounce of discomfort, which raised my blood pressure a bit. I swear I smelled coffee brewing right before he decided to climb down. I have got to get one of those stands — oh, and someone to carry it.
We were scheduled to head back down to Virginia the following afternoon, so we proceeded to break our stands down for the long trek back down the mountain. You know, something about having to work or some such inconvenience. Of course we were carrying too much gear for one trip down the mountain. Multiple trips were in order. Great.
On the way back up (after taking our packs down) to retrieve the stands, at the half-way point, the sky opened up. Just what we needed, wet, dead leaves covering sharp rocks. Needless to say, the climb back up wasn’t without pain and suffering, but we were determined to beat nightfall. Once we located our staged stands – we put them in a safe place that even we had difficulty finding, we again made the trip down the mountain. With legs in an even weaker state than the first trip down, we headed into dusk. Of course I twisted this and banged up that, but made it back to the vehicle with minimal damage – actually the damage was mostly psychological at that point……
The last painful steps down the mountain and I again questioned the sanity of subjecting my body to further abuse…….
You see, I have grunt’s (that’s infantryman in layman’s terms) knees that have the additional benefit of years of professional athleticism, mixed in with some surgery. Which is a fancy way of saying that I’m a mess and a poster child for glucosamine and anti-inflammatories like ibuprophen.
Back in the cabin, when the boots and wet gear were finally off, the fire was alas burning brightly on its own, the pain was subsiding to a dull throb, and that hot cup of coffee feeling great in my stomach and even better between my frozen fingers, an uncontrollable smile formed on my chapped lips. I have really never felt better. No bear, no trophy, no hunting-camp tall tale of heroism and precision marksmanship, nothing to show for – save for frostbite and a case of hypothermia, but no better time. Suffering on a hunt is somewhat poetic (if not karmic). This is why it’s called hunting and not shooting. Who appreciates it if it is too easy? Not me (well, not me all of the time). Will I do it again? Absolutely. Will I suffer again? Most definitely. Will I enjoy it again? You bet! I have this conversation with myself every year or so. But next year, we’re hunting over bait…….or with an outfitter…….or we’re getting someone else to carry the gear……or…….
Disclaimer: Since this is a hunting story, it falls under the category of “tall tale,” and I reserve the right to stretch the truth, exaggerate, perjure, fib, fabricate, misrepresent, omit, and lie to increase the entertainment value of the story.