Vagneur: Close encounters of the wild kind |

Vagneur: Close encounters of the wild kind

Tony Vagneur
Tony Vagneur

The far horizon was beginning to show tinges of pink, just a hue before the sun would eventually begin its creep over the ridge. The early November ground underneath our feet was frozen. Tux and I moved along at a good clip, free and easy, down the trail toward what would soon be a beautiful, sunlit morning. 

If you’re a part of the animal kingdom, death can be around any corner, and challenges must be faced — one way or the other — for survival. This reality waited for us around the upcoming bend.   

And, without warning, there she was. She had thrown the gauntlet down and was standing her ground. My dog came in close — he caught on before I did, and then I saw her youngster move off the bank behind her and down the hill, at perhaps a signal. But, still, she stood there, defending her off-spring, not bounding off. Her eyes were bright and the look unmistakable: “Come closer and feel my wrath!”

We didn’t waste any time — and, as her head lowered, had we taken another step her direction, she’d likely have come at us, sharp front hooves flying. I’ve been there with a cow elk I was trying to shoo out of the hay storage. We quickly cut to the left, giving her as much room as we could, only about six feet, but it was enough. She didn’t move — kept herself between us and her fawn and carefully watched us move off.

To us, it’s an adventure, a story to talk about with someone, but it’s not so casual to those in the wild kingdom. Does an elk moving along the hill in the half-light before sunup trust the far-away, camouflaged hunter to not be a danger until suddenly he hears the crack of a rifle and then, for reasons he can’t comprehend, helplessly lies there, watching his own blood stain the snow as he dies?

My good horse Willie and I traveled toward the ravens circling in the sky, curious as to what they were celebrating. Then, there it was, a bear feasting on the carcass of a domestic cow that had died, head buried deep. It’s not polite to interrupt someone’s lunch, as most of us know, so Willie and I turned away and headed down the ridge the opposite direction. 

After going about 50 yards, we stopped and turned, curious to see if maybe our presence had disturbed or changed the lunchtime behavior. Here came the bear, jogging down the trail behind us, his head moving side to side. He saw we weren’t moving and immediately did the same. Only as he stopped, about 100 feet away and uphill, he reared up on his hind legs, showing the full-length majesty of his body. He was a big bear.  

I fingered the handle of my pistol, secure in its holster, not with the intention of shooting the beast but with the idea that if he seriously came for us, for whatever reason, a shot or two might scare him off the charge. Curiously, my horse wasn’t spooked by the bear, a good sign, which likely meant we were in friendly territory. And, as we watched, the bear seemed to be assessing the situation, getting a precise fix on us, the wind at his back.

After a brief few seconds, he dropped down on all four and headed into the dense timber away from the ridge. Trotting off, he displayed a slight limp and showed a bit of gray in his haunches. The old man of the mountain, still carrying his dignity.

“The animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” — Henry Beston, writer and naturalist.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at