Nov 28, 2016

Re-Loaded for Bear

By Brian Reisinger

There’s a quote by Thomas Jefferson that’s a favorite of Second Amendment advocates, veterans, and historians alike:

“Peace is that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading.”

I descend from a long line of workaholics and chose an around-the-clock, combative writing career in journalism and politics, so to me the meaning was simple – there aren’t many breaks in life, so keep shooting. It took thousands of miles across the country chasing my dreams, a hunting trip with my dad two decades in the making, and eight fateful shots with a new rifle for me to realize I’d misunderstood the quote – and life – for years.

In October of 2015, my dad and I were finally doing it. After two years of planning, 10 years of talking, and more than 20 years of dreaming – ever since I was a little kid toting my BB-gun around the farmyard – we were headed west.

We made the trip with a high school friend of mine, Scott Gauger, and his dad, Bill, driving overnight October 15th for the Midwest slope of the Rocky Mountains in northwest Colorado. Our goal was elk, but we were also hoping for mule deer and bear. As we spotted bison, pronghorn, and other game along the Great Plains, we were already learning that no matter how experienced of a hunter you are, for the uninitiated – like us – a hunting trip to Colorado is special. It’s part deer hunt, part Old West adventure, and part North American safari.

For me, it was also part vision quest. Two months earlier I had returned home to Wisconsin, after nearly six years in Nashville, Tenn. and Washington, D.C., to work on one of the most intense political campaigns in the country. Life at home was not all I’d hoped. There had been amazing moments that made me know I’d done the right thing – campaign stops across my home state, a helicopter ride over our family farm, reunions with old friends – but I wasn’t happy. I was taking on the biggest challenge of my career, trying to find time for family, rebuilding my personal life as a single 30-year-old, and feeling often like I was failing at all three.

So as the truck climbed into the Rockies, I shut off my phone and tried to forget.

We reached Craig, Colo. around noon on October 16th and struck out across the countryside, squinting to see the winding mountain path through the dust. Settling into our small but comfortable cabin, we rested, then joined our three guides, an old rancher named Ted, his son, Will, and his son-in-law, Jason, for dinner to discuss the game plan. Earlier in the day I had rung a metal target 200 yards away with my new rifle, a Browning .270 I’d bought from a gun shop my dad and I had visited my first day home. I was ready to conquer.

Little did I know this trip was about anything but hunting

The shooting

At 5:30 a.m., I left with Ted’s son, Will, for what they called the rock shelf, climbing over a ridge and down into a pocket where elk often passed. We got into our blind, one of several made out of well-heads painted a muted camouflage and hoisted 20 feet off the ground, and began to scan the countryside.

Within an hour I was scoping elk the size of Holstein cows materializing and disappearing without a trace. They were several hundred yards off until the wind changed, bringing them our way, including a 5X5 bull elk.

I brought my rifle up, finally found him there on the hillside, and settled my crosshairs behind his shoulder. Bang.

What came next was a pattern every hunter is familiar with, but that became a little surreal on this trip. We trailed the elk and found him in the brush 100 yards up from where I’d shot him. We took pictures, left for ATVs to haul him back, and I told and retold the story back at the ranch to my dad, friends, and the other guides.

Then that afternoon, I did it again, hunting mule deer on my own. A few minutes before shooting light was gone about a dozen deer appeared in the hayfield where I was stationed. I studied them as they grazed and settled on an 8-point buck. Bang. He took off, wounded but not down, then faltered on a hilltop 150 yards away. Bang.

Back at the ranch, the jokes came in full force. “We’ll have to take your gun away.” “Maybe you better stay back to clean the cabin and cook meals with the women.”

We spent the next day searching for elk, with the guides dumping me wherever they could for bear along the way. My friend Scott’s dad, Bill Gauger, shot a nice 5X5 a little bigger than mine, but my luck wasn’t over. That evening I set up on a hillside overlooking a valley, watching a sheer rock face on the other side that our guide Jason said a bear sometimes ran down full tilt to get water before nightfall.

Then what? “Take a kill shot behind the shoulders and keep shooting as long as you see fur.”

He didn’t come. But just before dark, I crept over the hillside and surveyed a small pond near a stand of cottonwoods. Within a few minutes, a black bear lumbered into the clearing as I watched in awe. At some moment unclear to me I raised my rifle, and as he got to the other side he turned, offering a perfect broadside. Bang. He went rolling, and I kept shooting, up on one knee now, working the bolt of my rifle. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

My dad and Jason found me after dark, shaking with my flashlight, and we crept through the brush with our guns up until we reached the spot where I’d last seen the bear. And there he was.

The Reloading

This is where the quote comes in.

It was day two of five, and my shooting was over. As we drove down out of the mountains toward the cabin, my bear in the back of the ATV, I had what Thomas Jefferson might have called that brief, glorious moment. I floated in the pitch black, breathing the cool mountain air, all the stresses of life unable to reach me. My dad had his arm around my shoulder, and we sat there in a silence broken only by the occasional spontaneous laughter at the thought of what had just happened.

Back at the ranch as everyone gathered around my bear, my dad explained my luck:

“God knew he needed a break.”

In other words, the reloading had begun. The next morning I awoke with a clear head for the first time in years – work was not the first thing on my mind, and my personal fears were for once not rushing in to take its place. I stepped out onto the porch of the cabin and stared at the mountains, seeing them not as something to climb or conquer, just a sight to behold.

After breakfast I hopped into the old man Ted’s truck, a 1970s flatbed pickup that somehow still ran, my bear strapped down in back. I discovered the radio didn’t work, so as I drove through the mountains with the windows down I sang country songs from memory at the top of my lungs. When I got to town the truck broke down. Stranded there in a parking lot I called the warden to come and register my bear, and then strolled through a nearby gun shop.

Except for hoping Ted’s truck was OK, you could not have paid me to care.

My brief, glorious moment continued for three days. I cleaned my guns. I sat on the porch and read. I wrote things that had nothing to do with politics. Thoughts on life. A letter to a girl I had loved and lost that I found no need to send. Notes on various writing projects, including this column. 

As we road-tripped back, I found that I had unwound my problems. They were still there, rising up in my chest from time to time, but I could manage them – tackle work, appreciate being close to family, and make use of the freedom in my personal life.

Back home I sat down with my six-year-old nephew, Steve. I’d saved him the shell casings from the eight shots I’d taken, and I told him the story of my Colorado hat trick – elk, mule deer, and bear, holding up a new shell and yelling Bang! with every shot. He laughed and listened, and grabbed hold of the shells one by one. I hope he remembers that – not just that his uncle fired those shots, but that he came back with a story, and a lesson.

Life is not about the fact that you’re always at war. It’s about how important it is to properly reload.