Four of us watched the black bear amble through the valley below us. We talked quietly but never took our eyes off the bear when at last its back was toward us. In silence, we watched it continue between the hills before it disappeared.
"What was going through your mind when you didn't take the shot?" my new friend, also a reporter covering a story on hunting, asked.
My heart was still beating fast from the side-hill pursuit we had made to get a better view of the bear. My mind also raced to find the perfect answer to a different question.
"How did I get here?" I wondered.
How did any of us arrive at this moment — an environmental correspondent, a professional cameraman and my hunting partner who had passed on a shot at a black bear in this same valley many years ago?
Our conversation as we climbed that morning and stopped for interviews attempted to cover the subject of hunting as well as game and land management, climate change and other matters of worldwide importance. The switch from macro to micro thought processes made for invigorating and exhausting mental gymnastics.
I looked in the reporter's eyes; she had a gift for demanding the truth. It didn't matter if I was physically, emotionally and intellectually wiped out. Now was the best moment to answer the question that had us all on the top of a mountain and not at the dining room table where everything is distant.
No excuses, I thought. Don't even clear your throat. Just tell this smart woman who you just met the day before what's in your heart.
"It's a mixture," I said, as I struggled to find the exact blend of one-part what's in my heart and one-part what might make sense to someone else.
What might make sense is I didn't shoot because the bear appeared young to me. My confidence in gauging the size or age of a bear comes from reading about the subject along with less than a dozen encounters with black bear — not enough to make me sure on this one.
When we first spotted the bear, it was 1,500 yards away in the creek bottom. It wasn't until we intersected the bear's path at 500 yards that I could make out its shape — a black silhouette against crisp white lichen. The ears pointed up like dog's ears, and its belly hung high above the ground. These were both clues it was a young bear.
Reflecting back, I never looked at the bear through my rifle scope. We were about 300 yards away when I suggested we get closer. The bear was still below us, and the wind was in our favor.
"Wait," Steve said. "Are you going to shoot that bear?"
If I wasn't, there was no point in getting closer.
I looked through the binoculars again. Then I closed my eyes. "No," I said.
Sometimes not taking the shot is the right thing even if it doesn't also make logical sense. Even if it was an older bear I was comfortable harvesting and I needed the meat to survive or just for high-quality breakfast sausage, perhaps it's more important to live with yourself than for yourself.
One of my first lessons in firearms was, "Every bullet has your name on it." You cannot call back a shot. While I'm comfortable making mistakes in life to learn, it's never been OK to make a mistake on purpose. Shooting this bear would have been that kind of mistake for me, not necessarily for someone else.
What was going through my mind? So many things.
First, the story of the avid hunter who planned a black bear hunt for a year and purchased an expensive gun, outfit and ammunition.
When he watched a bear for hours in the mountains, he grew ashamed of himself for not wanting to shoot it. He didn't know how he would explain it to his wife — how he'd spent all this money and effort not to shoot a bear. So he shot it. And when he got home, he hung up his gun. He never went hunting again.
Second, research I'd read on wolves revealed there are unexplainable times they do not kill a prey animal — and this surprises people. They may surround a single herd animal, and if that animal makes a stand, for instance, they may let it go. I remember pondering this conversation between predator and prey and acknowledging not so much a human intelligence in animals as much as another world of language more connected to the land than ours.
Third, I thought about the woman now looking into my eyes and asking the tough questions. We had a shared love of the environment that shifted my focus from hunting to observing the hunt through her eyes. Could I bear the weight of killing this animal she admired if she wasn't prepared for that reality, if I wasn't sure it was the right thing for everyone involved?
No matter what went through my mind, the decision was much simpler. My gut said no. I wish guts had a more extensive vocabulary sometimes. They only have two words — yes or no. If your gut says yes, it may only be because it's urging you to do what you want at the moment, but if it says no, I have to listen.
She asked other questions. What would people say? I think about that often enough. They might say, she is a lousy hunter. She may not have been able to make the shot. She should have been more confident before being out there. But, the only way to let people into a personal decision is to do what's right and answer the questions as they come.
This inexplicable judgment call goes to the spiritual aspect of hunting. Hunters make judgment decisions on individual animals not just based on the law but on the law plus whatever personal values we bring to the hunt. Not the law minus those values.
Hunters are on the ground, often looking a game animal in the eye.
What people may say in response to the act of hunting is often based on a stadium-level view — and even that is a close estimate. More likely, spectators form an opinion without knowing the context or the individual humans and animals involved.
When we crawled into our tents later that night, one of us mentioned that if I had shot a black bear, we'd still be in the field cleaning and packing. We were exhausted from hiking uphill with heavy packs most the day so we could all laugh that the real reason I didn't take the shot was simple laziness.
No matter the questions or the doubts, I have a memory that will stay with me forever of the bear walking between two hills to lead us to a conversation that may never reconcile the differences between hunters and nonhunters.
It was a good conversation.
Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter. On alternate weeks, she writes about Alaska hunting and fishing. Contact her at email@example.com.