The sense of smell possessed by a bear is legendary.
The Indians had a saying, “When a leaf falls in the forest, an eagle sees it; a deer hears it; but the bear smells it.” Scientists tell us that a bear can smell seven times better than a bloodhound. That makes a bear’s sense of smell something like two thousand times better than a human’s. A black bear can detect the scent of a human’s passing fourteen hours after the person has gone. Bears have been known to follow scents to a food source for many miles. There is no current data regarding how far a bear can smell the scent of human urine released within hunting clothing while in the process of dodging multiple lightning strikes, but I suspect it is also a considerable distance.
Taking advantage of the keen sense of smell possessed by bears is what makes the practice of hunting bears by using bait so attractive. Fortunately, it is legal to hunt bear “over bait” in Alberta, and the use of bait in hunting bears makes the hunt a very much easier task. By “very much easier”, I actually mean moving the pointer from the part of the scale of hunting difficulty which is labeled “impossible” and placing it well into the “you-actually-have-a-chance” zone.
Not only that, but hunting bear over a bait barrel has some very practical advantages. The bears come to the hunter, and the hunter can relax in a comfortable sitting position located at a good vantage point. When the bear shows up, the hunter can evaluate the bear, measure its size against the size of the barrel (it being otherwise very difficult to judge the size of a bear), and then take a shot from a stable platform located at a safe location well up from the forest floor.
The prospect having any degree of success by merely trudging through the deep woods of Canada hoping to just “happen upon” a nice black bear is dismal indeed. Not only will the bears smell your eyes opening as you get out of bed in the morning, but walking in those forests is difficult at best due to the poor footing provided by a very thick carpet of soft vegetation and the occasional marshy areas.
Don’t get me wrong. It could happen. One might actually encounter a large bear just rambling through the woods, and be presented with a reasonable chance at a shot before the bear either ran away – or as an alternative, ate the hunter (a documented frustration-response in bears who are regularly deprived of a well-stocked bait barrel).
But such a chance bear encounter would be made doubly tragic by the significant probability of discovering that the huge bear focused intently upon your poorly-camouflaged frame, and which is now galloping in a bee-line toward you, is doing so in response to the soft whimpering sounds of two wide-eyed bear cubs hugging a tree trunk just behind your left shoulder. All would not be lost, however. This event would supply an important data point for the “distance a bear smells human urine” study.
Loam’s outfitting service in Alberta takes advantage of the generous numbers of black bears in that part of Canada, and the fact that hunting over bait is still allowed.
Bears can smell the odors of fryer grease for more than ten to fifteen miles. So, bait barrels have a tendency to attract a number of bears, especially in the spring, before the berries and other naturally-occurring food items have made their appearance.
The common practice in Alberta is to place fifty-five gallon barrels at the location you wish to hunt, poke large holes in them, and then regularly fill them with bait during the hunting season. So, a bin of delightful-smelling bait at ground level, and a well-camouflaged tree stand hanging nearby at a height of between twenty and a hundred twenty-two feet above that bait is definitely the way to go.
The bait dribbles out holes in the side of the barrels, and when the hungry bears knock the barrels around, more bait comes out. These bait barrels are secured to a large tree with a strong chain, so that the bears don’t quickly detach them and use them as portable lunchboxes. The bear is thus somewhat distracted by trying to find the proper combination of swats, pulls, and shoves to get the most bait out in the shortest time. That now allows the hunter to have a shot opportunity.
As all bear hunting outfitters know, preparing the proper mixture of bait is as much of an art as it is a science. Each outfitter seems to have a favorite bait formula of his own concoction, and each keeps it a well-guarded secret.
Jay and I are accustomed to the ingredients of bait mixtures, though. In our experience, all bear outfitters resort mixtures primarily composed of a couple of common ingredients – those being unprocessed oats soaked in used fryer grease. The smell of the buckets of this mixture is actually pleasant, and serves to remind you of your favorite fried chicken diner, down the street. All in all, it is a pleasant smell which quickly triggered in our minds memories of happy times of bear hunting.
Loam began the day by introducing us to our guides. One of the guides is called “J-bear”. I think the letter “J” stands for the first letter in his first name… but the “bear” part is obvious. J-bear is a tall, powerful man, with dark hair, a full dark beard, and a quick smile which is driven by a great sense of humor. He has been hanging out with bears so much of his life, he is even beginning to look and think like one. That’s probably what makes him such an accomplished guide. That, and the fact that he has opposable thumbs and can work a cell phone. We were told in whispers that J-bear has even begun sleeping indoors lately, beginning after the third snowfall this last winter.
The other guide was a younger guy named Slim. Slim was a thin, wiry lad of maybe twenty whose broad smile was interrupted with a lower mid-lip bulge which concealed what Jay and I were desperately hoping was smokeless tobacco. Whatever it was, it made Slim spit a lot, and that fact was somewhat comforting to Jay and I. At least Slim was regularly trying to get rid of whatever it was.
J-Bear and Slim hooked a twenty-foot flatbed trailer to the back of the pickup, and used ramps to load two four-wheel drive ATVs, together with attached short trailers, side-by-side into position. After securing the ATVs with wide straps, it was time to load the bait into the small trailers and head out to the hunting area for the afternoon hunt.
Our excitement grew as Jay and I spotted a few white plastic five-gallon buckets caked with old fryer grease lying around base camp near the load-up area. We exchanged happy glances as we picked up a couple of empty buckets each, and brought them over to the shed to scoop up some bait. Jay and I are always ready to help.
With the faint smell of chicken dinners wafting through our memories. Jay and I were still in good spirits, and standing right at his shoulder when J-bear briskly slid open the doors to the bait shed. What we didn’t know was that Loam doesn’t consider oats soaked in old fryer grease potent enough. Nope, not even close. Loam resorts to rotting scraps of meat and bones he gets from the local cattle processing plant. And he stores them for a week at a time in that very 12 X 12 metal bait shed, where they get lots of mid-day sunshine and become what he describes as “ready” to use. Unknown to us, these items had now become – how shall I put it – more than a little bit “ready”.
The corrosion evident in the metal bordering the crack between the double sliding doors to the shed should have given us fair warning. It didn’t. They screeched in protest as J-Bear threw the doors aside and. Immediately, a sentient iridescent green fog which had been trapped inside with the rotting meat, billowed past J-Bear into the stiffening breeze, enveloping him as if embracing a long-lost brother.
Then, noticing Jay and I, the nearly-opaque, moist cloud quickly enveloped us as well in an enthusiastic “welcome hug”. Immediately our eyes popped wide open, and we gasped in shock. In a nanosecond, we each realized that both of these reactions were severe misjudgments in this toxic atmosphere.
Unable to hold my breath any longer, and with my eyesight rapidly beginning to fail, I had to act quickly. I used my advanced problem-solving skills to determine that clear, breathable air, lay just about a foot over our heads. Jay was selfishly focused on his own burning eyes and lungs, and completely forgot about me, standing right behind him. So, I had no pangs of conscience at all as I quickly grasped his shoulders and began to scamper like a monkey upwards. I carefully positioned each of my feet on either side of his waist, atop his belt, giving me secure footing as I grasped the back of his collar with both hands and rose to a half-standing position.
My head and shoulders popped into gloriously clear air, and just as a swimmer might, I drew in the clean, cool air. Just so you know, I was on the verge of graciously volunteering to switch places, to selflessly become the lower story in the human pyramid, when everything changed.
Jay, ever the two-dimensional thinker, apparently believed his best option was to run out of the plume of greenish gas. Jay determined (by sense of taste, I suspect), that the edge of the plume was merely a hundred yards away, out in a thirty-acre horse pasture just this side of a far treeline.
Looking back, I can now see there were several new bits of interesting information I gleaned throughout this entire episode. Not only did I learn not to casually approach any bait barn without asking a few important preliminary questions, but I now also discovered that a three-foot tall barbed-wire pasture fence is not all that much of an obstacle, when Jay is supplied with the right motivation.
Thinking back now, I wonder if the sound of my two jettisoned bait buckets hitting the ground behind him was what spooked him. Regardless, Jay easily cleared not only that fence, but also a couple of horses lying along his line of travel which had just collapsed inside the toxic green fog. In only a few seconds Jay had cleared the edge of the cloud, and broke into glorious clear, breathable air. As he slowed, and took his last couple of jogging steps I deftly hopped down to the ground behind him. Jay was focused his efforts on getting his lips to unlock so he could take his first refreshing breath of clean air.
My hunting hat had departed about halfway through the whole thing, but I wasn’t about to head back into the dead zone to retrieve it. A couple of melted white plastic blobs hung from the ends of what was left of the drooping corroded wire bucket handles, still in Jay’s hands.
I gave him a hearty slap on the back, saying “That was a great run you made!” “Thanks”, Jay responded, still gasping-in the fresh air, “You were (gasp) able to (gasp) keep up (gasp) pretty well (gasp) with me, too.” I nodded a response, as I selflessly used my handkerchief to wipe out his eyes. [Hunting buddies will do that kind of thing for one another, you know]. Jay haltingly continued, “And you (gasp) aren’t even (gasp) out of breath (gasp) either (gasp)”. “Yep”, I volunteered. “I stay in pretty good shape.”
The toxic cloud eventually responded to the breeze, and went off to the forest to wreak havoc on the trees and other life forms which are unable to flee.
Jay and I were able to trudge back to where we first crossed the fence. We easily traced our way back by following the dual trail of sprayed white plastic droplets from the disintegrating plastic buckets, which now marked either side of the pathway of Jay’s earlier record-shattering run.
As we approached the truck, J-bear looked at us and said, “Bob, thanks for putting that horse back into the pasture. But we are all loaded up now, and ready to go, eh.”
I helped pry the corroded bucket bail wires out of Jay’s hands so he could work the door handle, and (as a true huntin’ buddy would do), I helped him up into the back seat of the double-cab pickup. His eyes hadn’t yet been able to properly focus yet.
I settled-in on the other side, and slammed the door briskly as the truck lurched forward. He turned to me and said, “I don’t think I can smell anymore.” He still had a lingering patina of green in his beard, but I didn’t want to say anything to him about it. “I think you smell quite a bit right now,” I responded, “all things considered”. I threw my rapidly-disintegrating handkerchief out the open truck window, as the pickup turned onto the main road.
We sat in silence as the truck drove for a couple of miles, then Jay turned once again to me and said, “Horse? I didn’t see you… hey! Where’s your hat? You lost your hat!”
“I have others” I said, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s go hunting.”
Good huntin’ and good huntin’ buddies.