A Day in the Bush

by Craig Larson

For the past couple of weeks now, we have awakened to frost on our lawn. A small fire in the stove takes the chill out of the air inside. A week ago I arose before dawn, made a few sandwiches, loaded my gear, and drove to the edge of the Duck Mountain Provincial Park, 15 miles southeast of where we live. The “Ducks” are one of the northern escarpments located along the Manitoba—Saskatchewan border. The 1,600 square kilometers of largely untouched upland boreal forest, marsh, ponds, and creeks is home to a host of wildlife and a vast network of trails and game paths.

I’d been making trips to various, seldom-used access sites into the Ducks. Taking my Global Positioning System (GPS), I plotted out day-trips for future use with retreat guests. After slipping on a set of fleece coveralls, I set off quietly down the trail just as first light allowed me to distinguish the texture of the bush around me. Elk rut had swung into full stride only a few days earlier and I could already hear calls coming from deep within the forest.

After a quarter-mile, it occurred to me that it had been quite some time since I had surprised a wild animal at close range in the predawn. The thought was a simple observation with no emotions, expectation or dread. As an adolescent, I would have wondered if the occurrence of an idea like this was an omen. The analysis of these thoughts seems mostly a waste of time these days. What a surprise then, when I came around a bend in the trail only a few minutes later and a black bear’s large head arose from the hazel brush. He was about 15 feet to my right and his eyes were large with surprise—I’m sure mine were as well. He had been digging for roots and grubs under an old stump in the mulched forest soil. He being busy about his business and I being quiet about mine, we stood looking at each other wondering what was next? I felt no apprehension—I remember thinking, “Now, this is interesting.” Then quite without thinking I softly said: “Well, what do we do now?” With a soft grunt he turned and dove into the thick undergrowth. As I listened to him making off, he stepped on a fallen tree, apparently propped up against another in such a way that a three-foot section of it broke off and it catapulted in an arch, end-over-end, 10 feet into the air. Bear biologist Dr. Steven Herrerohe gave the best description of a black bear I have heard—“…one of the most tolerant of wild animals.” And so it was.

A quarter-mile later I saw a ghostly shape walking down the trail toward me, perhaps 300 yards away. A deer, I thought at first. But it was difficult to tell under the dark-canopy black spruce I had entered. I continued on my course. Finally at 200 yards, I realized it was an elk. At 150 yards his antlers materialized. At 75 yards I stopped. He grazed briefly and walked—strolled is more like it. Being rut time, I was cautious, but he did not seem to be on much of a mission. At 60 paces he stopped. He had not identified me yet, but he recognized that things ahead of him weren’t quite right. We looked at one another for quite a long time—several minutes. I picked out a spruce to climb if the need presented itself. But, he was a young bull—plenty big, but not big enough to breed that year. After some time passed, I slowly raised my arms and put them down again. He still did not know what I was. Not wanting to press his luck, he slowly turned off the trail and quietly walked away through the trees.

The sun was still 15 minutes from rising when I turned into an area that had been logged the previous year. A half-mile down that trail two deer jumped up from a small island of immature poplars 30 feet away from me. I was truly startled. They crossed the trail I was on. The doe and young buck stopped 50 feet away, exposed from the knees up amidst the stumps, old branches, and plants, and looked back at me. Curious, the doe edged toward me after a minute of standoff. She snorted loudly and stamped her foot, trying to get me to move. I giggled. Fully alert, tails up, they bounded off.

Meanwhile, elk bulls had taken up their bugling which increased as the sky lightened. One was quite close, calling from the direction in which I was heading. Topping a small, sharp ridge a few hundred yards from my encounter with the deer, I found myself looking east directly into the sun as it crested the horizon. It was blinding. Standing there for a moment surveying the area which had been logged the previous winter, I realized that I was intensely close to the bull that had been calling. About 10 yards directly in front of me the ground dropped off sharply. I could see nearly a quarter-mile to the north, south, and east but because of the sun, not what was between 10 and 50 yards directly in front of me—just over the crest of the hill.

Then he called: “Eeeuuuuugh - uh - uh - uh.” It was positively painful to my ears; it was one of the most beautiful and exhilarating sounds I have ever heard. I had been close to bull elk in rut before, but never, never like this. I edged my way down the trail another 100 yards until the elk was directly below me. I awaited each call with dread for the pain it caused—and I could not wait to hear the next one. Then I noticed something peculiar. Each time he barked: “uh - uh - uh,” I felt a concussion on my body. It was phenomenal. It was as if a Brontosaurus might walk into sight at any moment.

I wanted to sneak past him, but I had reached the end of the forest on my left. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable walking across open ground. I was cautious, fearing if I made a noise he might consider it another bull challenging him and come rushing at me head down. I had heard him tearing up the earth from time to time, but now it sounded as if he was coming up the hill in my direction! I quickly, but quietly retreated a few yards to the west and took shelter among some trees. When I realized that he was only tearing up more ground, I relaxed and sat down on a stump. Then another bull began challenging him from a patch of bush 200 yards to the south. This incited him more. His heavy breathing and maniacal raging permeated everything. For nearly a half-hour I sat there. It was beyond words.

I did not want it to end, but I needed to move on so I decided to make him aware of my presence. In a voice spoken just above a whisper I said: “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get going now.” Silence. One to two minutes passed. Then from 200 yards to my right he called again, and I knew he had moved off. I cautiously went my way.

A mile later I surprised a large buck and then spent the rest of the morning walking quietly. On the way home, I visited with some friends over coffee, entered my GPS readings on a map at the kitchen table, took a nap, and putzed around the farm in the afternoon—in my heart never far away from the morning’s events.