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Tony Vagneur: Bearable adventure for a couple of tough teenagers

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur

There’s a black-and-white photo making the rounds of a grizzled old guy trying to cook over a campfire, a hollowed-out log in the background for a shelter, a deer hanging from a nearby tripod, and a lever-action rifle leaned up against the log. Most likely staged. The caption asks, “How tough are you?”

Reminded of my hunting days with Roy Holloway, camped high on the mountain behind the ranch. We were that tough, no joke. The only exception was we had a canvas tent, not a hollow log to sleep in.

The beauty of autumn, the gold and red leaves giving it up, making way for the starkness that signals the end of one year, the coming cold, dark days of winter, and the anticipated beginning of the next year. The sweet smoke of a campfire, the crispness of the air, the exhilaration of youth. We were hunting elk, but it was more than that; it was the chest-pounding excitement of being out in the wilderness in the fall.

We were living pretty high on the hog — my uncle Victor had given us the hindquarter of a deer for camp meat; we had potatoes, onions, eggs, homemade sausage, and probably a few candy bars. We cooked dinner over an open campfire, using an iron skillet and tenacity.

I’d set up the camp a week or two before, it being used by paying hunters, so all we had to do once school was out on a Friday afternoon was saddle up some horses, pack horse included, and head up the mountain. For a couple of teenagers, it was looking to be a great weekend.

We got there a little before dark, got a good fire going, laid up enough wood for the evening and morning, cut off some steaks from the hindquarter of the deer, and cooked up our dinner. We sat around the campfire afterwards talking about a million subjects under the sun. We’d been on many hunting trips together, so we fairly well felt proficient at our pursuit. The morning plan was laid out.

As the coals began to flicker and the smoke died down, we hung the deer meat high in a tree close to camp, made sure the horses were tied securely, and prepared for a good night’s sleep.

We’d been in the tent about 10 minutes maybe, when the horses began to snort and stomp the ground. That was a tad unusual, but not unheard of, so I reckoned we’d wait a bit and see if it was a passing thing or a real problem.

About then, I heard loud sniffing alongside the wall of the tent, very close to where my head was resting. It sniffed a little, stopped, and then started in again. “Bear,” both Roy and I whispered at about the same time, adrenalin beginning to pump.

“We don’t want him in the tent with us,” a totally unsatisfactory event, so we laid out our very western, fool-proof plan. Now keep in mind, Roy and I were quite experienced in the use of firearms and safety had been instilled in us by our families since we were very young.

The plan was for Roy to hit the door of the tent hard, popping the zipper open and then to immediately crouch down low, strafing the black night air with our powerful flashlight, starting on the right, the bear’s last known location, and panning around to the left, catching the bear somewhere in that arc. I would be directly behind Roy, standing up, my knees touching his back, following the beam with my 30.06 rifle. We didn’t know what to expect, but we felt ready for anything.

The plan worked exceedingly well, better than we thought it would. As Roy panned right to left, we caught sight of the bear, just about where our campfire had been, as close as 10 yards from us. He was running roughly as fast as a frightened bear could run. We had scared the hell out of him, busting out of the tent like that. There was a chance to get a hurried shot off, but the bear deserved better than that.

The rest of the night was uneventful and we were up, looking for elk by dawn. Unsuccessfully. That night, Uncle Vic came up and joined us. We had a great dinner of venison steaks and tales of bear and elk adventures.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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