Guest Author – Jim Pennington
“Us.” What a simple word, just two letters. But recently, I became keenly aware again of just how meaningful it really is.
On April 17, 2012, our son Jeremy, and his wonderful wife Kara (a third generation Alaskan with an amazing family) had their first child…Caleb. My wife, Patty and I immediately finalized our plans to make the trip from Navarre, FL (along the Gulf Coast on the southeast side of Pensacola) to welcome him into the family. What an incredible joy it was to see our brand new grandson. I could already tell that he is going to be someone special.
Patty and I have flown to Alaska several times. And about two years ago, when Jeremy and Kara moved to Palmer from Jacksonville, FL, Jeremy, his brother-in-law Derek, and I (along with his black lab, Remi) pulled a 32-foot trailer full of their household belongings from Navarre to Palmer. It was a trip of a lifetime. But each time we have come I find myself in awe all over again at the beauty of Alaska’s mountains, rivers, seacoast, wildlife, and people.
Since we knew that we were going to be here for almost two weeks we had previously decided to take 4 to 5 days and do a little bear hunting. Now, you have to know my son. He is a meticulous planner. He had every detail in place. Every piece of camping equipment, hunting gear, boating tackle, clothing, food, everything. I teased him just a little bit that the real reason that he had planned everything so diligently was because his mother was on the trip…and believe me, he takes good care of his Mom. But the truth is that he knows that the success and enjoyment of a trip like ours often depends on the work done before you ever leave the house. So, he had gone on the internet and checked out satellite photos of the coastline, he’d talked with local people about areas to hunt, he’d even already located the perfect place for us to set up camp. You might say that I’m just a little proud of him. Yep, and he’d learned it all from his dear old Dad. Well, some of it, anyway.
I’ve already mentioned Patty. Most people who meet her realize immediately that she likes to dress attractively and look nice. And there is a good reason. If I say so myself, she’s a beautiful lady. I sometimes joke with her about the “frou-frou” she wears. You know, the necklaces, earrings, shoes, scarves, etc…”frou-frou”. But don’t be fooled. For others who have known her they have seen her driving the boat when we dive for lobster in the Florida keys, flying by on a zip-line in the mountains of Guatemala, or baiting a hook with squid and then jerking the jaws out of a grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. She’s quite a woman. And now here she is…decked out in camo fleece, mountain boots, a blue and orange stocking cap (Gator Nation!), and with a pair of binoculars hanging around her neck. She looks gorgeous…and she’s ready to hunt.
Kara’s cousin Kyle, and his wife Nicole, were also on the trip. They are both skilled campers and hunters who understand how to set up camp, prepare delicious food over a wood fire, and enjoy the benefits of being away from the noise of civilization while in the tranquility of the wilderness. They are a great couple who share in my sense of humor, and as my southern Grandma’ used to say, they are “Just plain-ole’ good folks.”
Now, being a native Floridian (even though I have hunted and fished in a few other places…Georgia, N. Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Guatemala, Belize) most of my outdoor adventures had taken place between Key West to the south and the Ocala National Forest to the north…generally sandy flatlands with palmetto bushes, stands of pine trees, and palms…and hot, very hot and very humid. Suddenly, here I am along the coast of Alaska, literally crawling my way up a mountainside on my stomach (and sliding my way down on my…well, you get the picture) that seemed to be at about a 75 degree angle…“sneaking up” on a bear (I heard you snicker), crashing through underbrush (and what about that Devil’s Club? Ouch, another thorn!) and crunching over snow patches the size of a football field (that would occasionally cave in under you…leaving you chest deep in snow, trying to find the bottom of the hole with your frozen boots).
The best you could hope for was that the bear would be so interested in what was causing all of the commotion that it would just stay put in one place waiting to catch sight of you…and maybe, just maybe you’d see the bear before it casually sauntered into the thicket. Did I mention that where I come from it is flat, and hot, and humid? And, that when you are on your hands and knees struggling to find a foothold as you crawl through snow, and slush, and brush, and boulders, and landslides (did I leave out the Devil’s Club?)…well, to put it bluntly, you are acutely aware that you’re not in Florida, anymore. But, oh, I was savoring every moment…and every drop of sweat (yeah, it surprised me too). It was incredible, and I was loving it!
Now, here was our game plan. Being the guest…I was awarded the first shot at a bear. So, we would cruise along the shoreline until we spotted a bear on the mountainside. Jeremy and I would then start our climb up the mountain and try to locate the bear. Along the way, we would periodically find a clearing and wave to the rest of our intrepid crew who were slightly offshore in one of the Zodiacs. They would use a red flotation device to direct us toward the bear by waving it to their right, or left, or up, or down. They said that if they started just waving it around frantically, that meant that the bear had found us before we had found him. I thought, “That would probably be a cause for concern, wouldn’t it?!”
On the first morning, Jeremy and I had already made one trip up the mountain…but never located the bear. Late into the afternoon, in fact about 6:00pm (doesn’t the sun ever go down up here!), we had spotted another bear and started our trek upwards. We were probably about 1,200 feet up the mountainside…and my tank was on empty, I was just about out of gas. We had stopped to catch our breath and decide whether to keep going or head back down the mountain. Suddenly, Jeremy whispered rather loudly, “Dad, look behind you. There’s a bear!” I turned and looked, and sure enough, about 50 yards behind us and a little bit further up the mountain, a black bear was standing behind a thick clump of bushes…staring at us with this curious expression like he was thinking, “What in the world are they doing up here?” Jeremy handed me the shooting sticks (don’t leave home without them) and I quickly got the 300 short mag into position…settling the scope in on the bear…and realized that the bushes were too thick to take a shot. Just to the right of the bear there was a clear hole in the bushes about the size of a softball. I decided that if he turned and took a step across that hole I would have a clean shoulder shot. At that moment, the bear turned to its left and stepped forward…bam! And it was all over…except the shouting. Jeremy yelled, “You did it Dad! You shot us a black bear!” Did you hear it? “Us.” “You shot us a black bear!” That’s what it’s all about. It’s not so much about where you are, or what you’re doing. It’s about the fact that you’ve done it together…with people you love…with the “us” in your life.
I can’t begin to tell you the emotions that flooded through me at that moment. This young man who was hooping and hollering, hugging me around the neck, and slapping me on the back at the same time…was the same boy that I had watched shoot his first deer, catch his first tarpon, shown him how to clean an alligator, and dove with in the Atlantic to pull lobster out of holes in a coral reef. And now, he was the man. He was the one who had set it all up, planned it all out…so that Dad could shoot his first bear. And he was feeling for me…what I had felt for him so many times before. Thank you, my son. Ain’t life good!
God meant it to be that way from the very beginning, you know…the “us” factor. The truth is, God and Adam shared in a kind of “us” relationship. We don’t know how long Adam had been wandering around in the Garden of Eden…but before too long God made an important observation, “It’s not good for man to be alone.” God knew that Adam needed a human companion, as well. So God made Eve…and before long they had children of their own. “Us.” It was true in the beginning…and it’s still true, today. You’ll never do life any better than when you do it with “us”.
That brings me back to our reason for coming to Alaska this time…our grandson. Welcome to the world, Caleb. Welcome to the family. Right now you have no idea what you’re in for…but take Granddaddy’s word for it…it’s going to be an awesome ride. I’m confident your Dad will make sure of that. You know how? Because you’re going to do it with “us”.
Thank you Alaska…for giving a Floridian the bear hunt of a lifetime. I hope to see you again, soon.
Footnote: Just in case you were wondering…Jeremy and Nicole both got a bear on the trip, also. And, Patty, she is bound and determined that next time we come it’s going to be her turn to take the shot.
Oh, and one more thing…have I told you about my daughter, her husband, and her three sons? “Us.”
Click Here to read part 3 of our spring black bear hunt!