Ursus of Arizona

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What are you up to?”, my mother questioned over the phone. I replied, “me and few of the guys are heading to bear hunt in Arizona.” She chuckled in response and then there were a few moments of silence followed by an excited “Wait, really!?”. It was at that moment I realized how absurd the statement must have sounded.

A few weeks back, in early May, we hatched our plan from a makeshift office in our rent house in southwestern Texas. The purpose of the impromptu hunting excursion was to provide a hiatus from the grind of our graduate degrees. We were clueless as to what this pursuit would entail. In fact, between the five of us, we knew next to nothing about Arizona black bears.

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Being research-oriented students of the natural world, we quickly began to compile information that could be beneficial to hunt success. After gaining a basic understanding of bear biology and determining what hunt unit we would target, I contacted the local Arizona Game and Fish biologist for additional pointers. He confirmed all the things we had learned online and explained that bears in the area should begin to surface from hibernation in the coming weeks.

In the coming weeks, we spent our time scouting aerial imagery and topographic maps, counting down the minutes until we headed West towards our next adventure. The evening before departing was spent arranging the gear and groceries needed for the coming voyage. Finally, the alarm rang and we were headed down the road, stopping only for fuel and gas station burritos.

When we arrived at camp that evening, we cooked up a hearty meal of hamburger helper in a Dutch oven nestled in smoldering mesquite coals. As dinner cooked, we again consulted our maps to become familiar with the surrounding mountains and canyons. It all seemed much more vast. The mountain peaks were higher, the canyons were steeper and deeper, and the footing was anything but accommodating. “What had we stumbled into?”, I questioned myself as I dozed off that night.

Everyone broke from camp, with packs fastened and rifles slung, before first light. And so, the adventure began. Each of us wandered alone through the desert mountains in search black bears and that evening we took turns elaborating on the day’s findings. Everything was new and exciting. “A Mearn’s quail flushed out from under my feet”, someone exclaimed. Another stated, “I glassed up a couple Coues deer.” Finally, Matt broke in with, “Guys, I found a cached javelina.” It seemed like that story had taken the cake.

For the next three days, we repeated the same ritual, only changing the canyons we roamed about. The stories piled up as the days went on and we began to see signs of bear. It seemed as if, at any moment, a black bruin would come lumbering along an adjacent hillside.

However, that moment never came. The biologists and locals of the area assured us that we put ourselves in the optimal position for success. Collectively, we hiked hundreds of miles and glassed tens of thousands of acres but never glimpsed a bear. Not one. From the outside looking in, I’m sure it seemed like we had been beaten, and physically it felt like it. But sore muscles and blistered feet would heal, and when they did, it would be time to start looking for a new adventure.

Now, when I reflect on this hunt, I notice something richer. There was something seeded deep within each of us, urging us onward. Something instinctual. José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, described hunting not as capturing or killing an animal, but rather the effort of trying to do so. Looking past the apparent shortcomings, I feel we achieved a myriad of less obvious successes. “What an incredible experience”, I thought to myself.

Trey Johnson

I was born and raised on a small ranch Northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. From a young age, nature always provided an outlet from reality. I have continued to cultivate this passion through formal education and creative writing. When I am not working as game bird research assistant, you can find my bird dog and I in the field chasing birds.

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