HAINES -- It is the time of year when some folks hunt black bear for meat. Black bears are the pork of rural Alaska. (The butcher will turn ours into sausage and brats.) But there is more to this first hunt of the year than food.
There is something that calls male hunters, especially, to the woods after those long winter evenings at home where they are expected to speak at the dinner table, watch "Masterpiece Theater", or learn a few yoga stretches. ("Trust me, your back will feel better when you are in that tree stand.")
So much joy is found sitting in a tree in the middle of nowhere, eating cookies and spitting tobacco juice. Even after he has already gotten a bear, a light summer night upriver is all the excuse some men need to watch for more bears. The best part of bear hunting is the watching. For three or four hours after work, two men friends can sit in the adult version of a tree house in mandatory silence, where they are not required to share a thought -- or even have one -- and observe the bears amble down the trails below them. Or not.
If there are no bears to be seen, then they just sit and watch the pollen blow through the spruce trees in green clouds, or listen to the wild sounds of the swollen river, a distant landslide in the mountains, and the honking traffic of the trumpeter swans. Or they hear nothing at all if, like the hunter I will call Hank, you don't wear your hearing aids.
Hank's friend, whom I will call Jack, dropped him off near the bear tree and Hank hobbled off to his perch while Jack tied up the boat. Jack walked up to the tree to meet the old man (Hank is in his 70s, and he sounds like an extra in Duck Dynasty, being of Louisiana descent. Jack is a grandpa himself, but at 65 he's the kid of the duo.) Jack felt mist on his face as he stood beneath the tree, and wondered where it came from on a blue-sky night, but maybe it was Hank's reaction to the pollen. He may have suppressed a sneeze. Then, as Jack tiptoed up the ladder to the sturdy new platform they built this spring, there was a shower of spruce needles. Jack figured Hank must be moving around up there to get comfortable.
Sure enough, when Jack reached Hank, he was trying to scrape bear scat off the deck and mouthing swear words. It seemed fresher than it ought it be.
Jack sat down in a clean spot. That's when the second calling card landed on Hank's hat. "I looked up, and about 10 feet above our heads there was a bear laying on a branch looking down at us," Jack said. The bear was young enough to be scared of two old hunters who had already gotten their meat bears and had no intention of harming him. "That's when I said we better get the hell out of there," Jack said. He was old enough to be respectful of even a very young bear, and they all -- men and bear -- were smart enough to see that three was a crowd.
After the men were safely down the river, Jack told Hank to clean his hat off. If you were Hank, wouldn't you save that hat? What are the odds of that happening again? Think the museum would want it?
Haines writer Heather Lende just finished her third book of essays, "Finding the Good." This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.