Loaded for Bear


By Tim E. Hovey

I propped the aluminum-framed pack against the tailgate and started loading it. Despite its capacity, I knew it was going to be close to empty for the hike into the canyon.

I loaded up four large game bags, a small butcher kit, some snacks, waters, a headlamp, a length of rope and some additional ammo. Before I closed it up, I shoved in a sweatshirt. I unzipped a side pocket and shoved my hunting license and a bright yellow bear tag into the pouch along with a pen and some zip ties. Since I was still three miles from the canyon I wanted to hunt, I strapped the 30-06 rifle to the outside of the pack and tightened it down.

The pack felt light and balanced as I made my way up the dry creek bed. The week before, I had been in the same canyon conducting some endangered species monitoring. During that work survey in the narrow canyon, I had kicked up a large bear moving through the creek. It had been the third time I had bumped into a black bear in that specific area and this time I was here to hunt.

WILD COUNTRY – A fall bear hunt turned into a dangerous encounter with illegal marijuana scouts in the back hills of Southern California. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO

An hour after leaving the truck, I made it to the confluence of the bear canyon. I took a break and grabbed some water from my pack. During the hike in I had noticed several sets of fresh footprints in the sandy areas. It wasn’t unusual to see footprints in the creek especially since the lower section was pretty popular with hikers. What I did find perplexing was that the fresh prints were made by individuals wearing regular shoes not hiking boots.

I began my hike into the confluence, traveling the same trail I had taken for the survey. I wanted to hike at least two miles in before I set up near the creek to hunt.

A little over a mile up the confluence, I stopped and listened. For a second, I thought heard voices coming from further up the drainage. The silence was calming. Then I heard people talking. I peered around a bend in the creek and spotted three men boulder hopping down the drainage towards me. How they were dressed sent a cold pulse through me.

The three were all dressed in street clothes with slip-on sneakers. They didn’t have any packs, waters or hiking gear of any sort with them. As soon as I saw them and how they were dressed, I knew what they were doing. They were a scouting party looking for remote places to start illegal marijuana crops. My one advantage was that I had spotted them first.

ABANDONED MARIJUANA CAMP – Illegal pot farmers look for remote areas to start their crop. Once harvested, they leave trash and chemicals in the wilderness behind. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO

I waited for them to get closer and then I stepped out. The lead guy stopped in his tracks and instantly looked back to the trailing hiker. I smiled slightly knowing that in two seconds, I had already determined who the leader of the expedition was.

The lead guy said something in Spanish to the guy in back and they instantly swapped positions. I had hoped that stepping out when I did would stop them where they were. It worked. The lead guy was about 25 feet from me standing on a boulder. He put on a fake smile and sized me up. I was obviously alone and my rifle was securely strapped to my pack and not a threat. I’m sure he quickly concluded to himself that it was three against one.

I spoke first. I asked them what they were doing in the creek. The lead guy stated that they were scouting for when the deer season opened up. That was lie number one. This particular zone had been open to deer hunting for several weeks.

The leader glanced at the out-of-play rifle on my pack and asked what I was doing. I told them I was bear hunting. He smiled excitedly and mentioned that they had kicked up a bear on the way in. Normally, that would have frustrated me, but I could feel that this little creek interaction had changed my focus.

We sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds. The two trailing hikers looked nervous and never met my eye. That didn’t put me at ease. I knew that if the situation shifted, they wouldn’t just sit back and watch.

Then the leader made a statement that changed everything. Dropping his fake smile, he said that it was dangerous to be hiking in this canyon alone. He stared at me coldly. I don’t think that he expected that the comment would make me angry, but it did. To me, it sounded more like a threat than a warning.

I could feel the demeanor of the conversation change. This was no longer a friendly encounter, and all that was left was to see who blinked first. I was done being nice. It was time to let them know that it really wasn’t three against one.

With my left hand I pointed up behind them and asked if they had come down the side canyon. As predicted, all three turned in unison to see what I was pointing at. Smoothly and with a practiced motion, I lifted my shirt on my right side and flipped the hammer strap off the .357 revolver holstered on my hip. I rested my hand on the weapon and turned so all could see that the odds had suddenly changed.

THE ODDS CHANGER – The .357 revolver hidden beneath the author’s shirt. He had to show the firearm to diffuse a tense backcountry encounter. TIM E. HOVEY PHOTO

The leader returned his glance to me and I saw his eyes drop to the shiny sidearm. His eyes widened and he seemed instantly nervous. I watched as the mood of defeat washed over them all. The revolver had been hidden under my shirt and was holstered on my off hip, away from the encounter.

I was done being polite. We stared at each other for several quiet seconds. My anger at the earlier threat was evident when I spoke. I told them they needed to leave now.

They sheepishly moved down the creek around me. I watched them hike down the drainage in silence. I hiked off the creek and watched them through my binoculars for several hundred yards. Seeing them leave didn’t bring me much comfort.

Thirty minutes after the trio disappeared down the creek, I hiked further up to start hunting. I sat on the elevated bank overlooking the creek bottom for over an hour, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew I was done. I gathered up my gear and decided to head back.

I stayed on alert as hiked back to the truck. I tracked the hikers all the way back to the trail head. When I got there, my truck was the only vehicle in the dirt lot. I quickly loaded my pack, secured the firearm and drove out of the canyon. I wasn’t completely stress-free until I was on the highway headed home.

I’ve spent most of my life exploring the wild world beyond the sidewalk. I’ve been charged by wild pigs, tracked by cougars, had gear completely destroyed by bears, and I’ve been lost enough times to make sure I keep my bearings every single time I step outside. In all that time, the only animals that have ever made me tense or nervous, have been the two legged kind.