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Alone in the Backcountry

Here’s Why Everyone Should Spend a Night Solo in the Wilderness

I spent four nights in bear country alone, and it changed me. That sounds corny, I know, but experiences like these do change a person. I believe that’s why we chase these adventures so tenaciously and sometimes quite blindly.

Now, this isn’t your average “Here’s How to Survive in the Backcountry” or “My Gear List” kind of article. No, I’m not that savvy. I’m still fairly new to this whole hunting thing, so my “How To” articles tend to read a lot more like “How NOT To.”

Experience is life’s greatest teacher, right?

What could go wrong?

I actually hadn’t planned to do this particular trip solo. (I’m just not that cool!) But a last-minute work call from my hunting partner forced me to make a tough decision. Scrap the hunt and plan it for another time or put on my big boy pants and head out on my own. I’ve always been an “all or nothing” kind of guy, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I picked the latter, even though

I’ve never:

a) Spent a night alone in the backcountry before

b) Chased around bears with a stick and a string

c) Been to this area before

What could go wrong?

I had been dreaming early-spring spot-and-stalk Northern Alberta black bear hunting for ages. We had dipped our toes in the season prior to this with some scouting, and “bow hikes” (as I like to call them), but 2022 was going to be the year we went for it.

I started planning almost as soon as the previous season closed. Maps, scouting, watching filmed hunts and studying bear behavior—all because I was new to this whole racket. Most of the info I could get my hands on revolved around hunting bear over bait. That’s a great hunt and a perfect way to target mature boars here in Alberta, where populations are so high (but the terrain is unfavorable) for hunting bears: thick, boreal forest. I had it in my head that spot-and-stalk was how I wanted to harvest my first black bear. Once I’m stuck on an idea, I can’t seem to shake it until I see it come to fruition. Some call it dedication. (I think the doctors call it something else.)

 

So, off I went as soon as the grass started to turn green. Bears coming out of hibernation love green grass. An Alberta black bear spot-and-stalk hunt basically looks like finding these bears feeding out into fresh green grass, situated on the side of oil and gas access roads. Rough forestry roads of years gone by create great access into the Alberta boreal forest, which would otherwise be untouchable.

A Remote Site

The spot I had chosen to hunt was as remote as they come. It was 100% public land (or crown, as we call it north of the border). I knew there were loads of bears in the area thanks to the inside scoop from some good ol’ boys who had hunted the area for a lifetime. So, on a whim and a prayer, I picked a lakeside spot via Google Earth to set up camp and call that my home base.

My first lesson of the trip was soon to come, as I left work and hopped in the truck to head north. As the boreal forest became thicker, the roads narrowed, and the sun began its descent. I couldn’t help but get the feeling best described as nervous excitement. As someone who hates to waste hunting light, I made a decision to find and set up camp after getting in the evening hunt.

The Alberta boreal forest

Flawless plan. (I’m sure some of you can already see where this is going, and yes, you are right.)

After an unsuccessful evening of seeing zero bears, and surprisingly little bear sign, shooting light ran out and it was time to begin my right of passage.

First night solo in the backcountry, here I come.

An Abandoned Camp

As I worked my way down rougher and sketchier roads toward the waypoint on maps, some small, decrepit buildings were starting to appear through the foggy glow of my headlights. What I found when I pulled in was an abandoned forestry camp. A few weathered buildings that struck an uncanny resemblance to the cabins of Crystal Lake (those that the character Jason wreaked havoc on in the acclaimed ‘80s horror flick, “Friday the 13th”) were still standing. This is just when the radio announcer in my truck nonchalantly mentions that today is—you guessed it—Friday, May 13th).

Well, here goes.

The once tough and rugged mountain man I had hyped myself up to be on the drive here began fading in the rearview mirror. I was now contemplating whether being murdered in my truck or in my one-man tent would be preferable.

So, I pulled down to the lake, found a perfect spot to pitch my tent and have a fire, and then promptly cleared a spot in the back seat of my pickup to sleep instead. Locked doors on night one. Baby steps, folks, Davy Crockett wasn’t built in a day!

As I lay cramped and uncomfortable in the back of my truck, I couldn’t help but start to laugh and realize the power of the human mind. Here I was, needing and craving solitude after a winter spent grinding it out at our restaurant. Yet, once I got that, I didn’t want it. Fear is a powerful sense, and after being owned by it on this trip, I had to learn more.

Science of Fear

Here’s the science: Fear is an emotional response induced by a perceived threat that causes a change in brain and organ function, as well as a change in behavior. Fear can lead us to hide, to run away, or to freeze in our boots (fight, flight, or freeze). It can arise from a confrontation or from avoiding a threat.

Here’s the math: At least 60% of adults admit to having at least one unreasonable fear. More so, 9% of adults admit a specific phobia, and females are twice as likely as males to develop a phobia.

No one really knows for sure why or how these fears manifest.

Trauma Connection?

One theory is that individuals fear certain things because of a previous traumatic experience. Example: my friend Crystal fell off a 12-foot deck when she was seven years old. She is now terrified of heights. Coincidentally, she’s also terrified of restaurant patios. (The poor girl has never enjoyed a good brunch at our restaurant!)

Another theory is that humans have a genetic predisposition to be fearful of things that were a threat to our ancestors (saber-tooth tigers, dinosaurs, fire, the dark). While this concept is difficult to verify, studies show that people who have a first-degree relative with a specific phobia appear more likely to have the same phobia themselves.

Animal Fears

Certain animals, such as snakes and spiders, have traditionally caused high numbers of deaths to humans historically, so have generated a kind of automatic response of fear. I personally am terrified of spiders, yet I grew up in Nova Scotia, where there are “zero” poisonous spiders. I have no previous traumatic experiences to reference, either. Yet, I still reach for my boot when I see spiders, (and those are East Coast spiders—literally, the nicest, most laid-back spiders you’d ever meet).

Research suggests that men and women may have inherited an innate instinct to avoid these types of dangers as it would be in the best interest of their survival and evolution.

Day 2 of Being Alone

My eyes shot open. I cleared the snore steam from the truck window and was greeted by a new dawn. It was Saturday, the 14th. (I made it through Friday the 13th).

After a horrid sleep, I decided to hit the road early and get out and explore this new area. Long lease roads, logging ruts, clear cuts and abandoned oil wells were the scenery of the morning. I made sure to make my way back to camp mid-day and actually set up camp in daylight.

I’m not falling for that trick again! With my one-man tent set, firewood split, and food safely secured, I was off for the evening hunt. There were no bears to be seen, which seemed to put my fears of being bothered by bears that evening to rest.

After getting back to camp and having a quick swim to clean up, I started a fire and began to ponder just how nice this solitude thing was. I thought to myself: I could do this. I’m self-sufficient.

As I fumbled to light my portable grill, I realized I hadn’t packed enough fuel. As the blue flame fizzled, so did my dreams of properly grilling the elk steak I had packed. Onto the fire it went, along with every other meal packed for the trip. Alright, cooking over an open flame. That’s as backcountry as I could get, just as I had planned.

Day 3 of Being Alone

What a great sleep! With the fears previously mentioned now out of my mind, I fell asleep under the stars without a care in the world.

I woke up to fresh bear tracks in camp, which snapped me quickly from the romance of a starry night to the reality of being alone in bear country. Oddly enough, it wasn’t fear I felt but excitement. I wanted to go find said bear, not run from him.

Independence sure can be good for confidence. Day 3 was the true realization that should something happen to me out there, I am solely and utterly responsible for myself and for my safety. I’m accountable for every action I take and every decision I make.

There is some sort of euphoria when you come to this sort of realization, it’s a mix of “I can do anything, but I won’t, because I’m wise now. I’m self-reliant.” Maybe this is why some people crave self-reliance. Autonomy of actions and having no one to blame but yourself; it is a simple way of life if you ask me.

Finding Bears

Back to bears. I found some. A sow and her two weaned cubs. I could see through the spotting scope that the cubs made sure to graze far enough from mama not to annoy her, although they weren’t quite done following mom around. They seemed to be looking for one last tidbit of knowledge before she gives them the final boot and they are on their own.

Bear image taken during the stalk on the sow

These were the first bears I had seen on this trip, one where I was told I could expect 10-plus bear encounters per day. However, I could promptly see that I was about a week too early for that. The grass hadn’t greened, bears were few and far between, and a practice stalk was in order. Hell, I had bear spray and a bow. Plus, I survived Friday the 13th and basically fought a bear away from camp in my sleep. I could do this.

As an avid photographer, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to shoot some bears one way or another. My wind was perfect. I picked up the spotting scope, grabbed my pack and started down the cutline along with my newfound confidence.

First 300 yards, then 200 yards, then 100 yards. I hit a perfect dip in the terrain as she fed toward me. All I could see was the top of her ears and her rump waddling my way. This is perfect, I thought to myself Then, no sooner could I process what was happening than I felt a familiar cool tickle on the back of my neck.

The wind shifted. And with that shift came a shift in the sow’s attitude. She went from calmly grazing to startled and alert. Her teenage cubs stood on hind legs and promptly scurried into the tree line and up their respective poplar trees. Not mom…she was investigating what stinks. She came to 75 yards, blew her nose with a snort that could only be described as “You’re lucky,” and turned and waddled away.

Why Am I Doing?

Then it hit me: What am I doing hunting bears alone? I was three hours from help. I had zero cell reception. And as I told you, do as I say, not as I do.

Rattled and shaking from adrenaline, I made my way back down the cutline towards my truck only to hear branches breaking in the forest wall beside me. I’m sure I spooked a Whitetail…but in that moment, my mind sees this bear following me. And I was quite scared! Again!

Daytime Regroup

Back at camp, it was time for a mid-day regroup and game plan to calm myself.   I brought up a map of the area and put together a plan of attack for my final kick at the can. I found a lease road that I figured would give me some serious access to an open forestry cut block that should provide some glassing opportunities. If the bears weren’t coming to me, I was going to them. As I set out down the long and narrowing road, I started to realize this isn’t as much an access road as it is a quad trail. The ground was softening where the sun hadn’t reached it in months. I pushed on, hoping for a spot that widens so I could turn around, knowing it would be impossible to get back up some of those hills in reverse.

I soon realized that I was stuck.

No cell reception. No winch. 40 km off the beaten path down freshly thawed logging roads that run deep into the hills. Just unprepared Darren was stuck quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I hadn’t seen another human except for an RCMP officer who told me to watch out for grizzlies, who had seemed more active than black bears at the moment.

A shot of Crystal Lake

Everything is cool. With zero thanks to preparedness, and all credit given to the horseshoe lodged in my body, I was able to get unstuck. I had no shovel, no chains, no winch. Just some gardening gravel my wife forced me to haul around in the bed of my truck for the next time she “might need it.” (I will never question her again because that gravel saved my butt.) Three hours later and a few conversations with a higher being, I was on my way out. I was unstuck, from that situation, but that feeling of being alone and complete vulnerability has stuck with me.

I didn’t harvest a bear this trip, but I did come back with a newfound respect and understanding of the role fear plays in my hunting journey. A hindrance and a tool all wrapped up into one uncomfortable situation after another.

Even in the Whitetail woods close to home, I catch myself taking extra precautions now. I take care to be a little safer when I’m alone. It is knowledge garnered through fear. A true mountain man, I am not, but with some careful planning and this newfound confidence, I will be.

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