By Angie Kokes
I could taste the anger in the words escaping my mouth. A bitterness I had been trying to not gag up for 18 months, caged like a wild beast, and it had just been unleashed by zombies on my husband Adam. Silence fell upon us like a pack of ravenous wolves closing in, the only sound was the pounding of my heart, sending blood coursing through my veins. Harder, now by the shock of what I had said. Wait, what? What the hell are you thinking? Spear a bear? Adam turned, walked away, with a lone word, “Shit.”
He had merely suggested I use a crossbow for deer season, to let an arm with heavy reconstruction and the possibility of never being able to shoot a bow again heal. How dare he! The rage over my injury and consequently handicapped arm had finally broken me, and Adam absorbed the full blast of my wrath…he also handed me a homemade spear the next day.
I had never thrown a spear; had never been a javelin thrower, and I had no clue where the idea came from. It just sounded hard, dangerous and almost impossible, three things that used to drive me daily, but had been missing since the arm surgery, and something I desperately needed back.
Spring 2018, five years down the road, thousands of practice throws, two successful deer seasons hunting with a spear in Nebraska, two unsuccessful attempts at harvesting black bear in Ontario Canada. Then Alberta where the spear was banned as a legal weapon right before I got the opportunity to hunt, both provinces. So, I found myself flying into a remote camp in the interior of Alaska, the last place left where the spear is a legal weapon to hunt bears with.
Through the static of the headphones, I struggled to hear the pilot talking with the construction crew flying in with me about the below normal temps, the above normal rainfall and the high level of the lake. Figures I thought to myself.
I had never been a lucky hunter. I have had to work for every animal I have ever taken. I have had moments where I have been jealous of lucky hunters, but they are brief, because as the first whiff of glacial air reached my nose, I also realized I wouldn’t be landing on this lake, watching the water spray from the skis of the plane about to finish a five-year dream, if I had been a lucky hunter. My unluckiness had shaped me into an exceptionally skilled hunter. One that Adam knew I had the prowess to hunt with, when he handed me that first spear five-years earlier.
As we taxied to shore and began to unload the gear, a light rain pattered gently against my cheeks. It was odd to feel the chill of early spring temperatures again. Mid-June now, my body had adjusted to Nebraska’s summer temperatures already and I shivered as if trying to shake off lingering calving weather from back home. The rain, as insistent as my shivers, drummed even heavier.
With the thought of Adam reminding me, I had hunted an almost two weeks stretch in wet, freezing conditions before, I was not relishing doing it again. I retreated to my cabin to get my gear ready, before the doubt-devil sank his vicious teeth into me, and tried reminding me, like others, that the conditions were not great, and I may not even see any bears. I shuddered as I reached into the case for my spears. As my fingers grazed the first piece, the intense cold of the steel snatched me from the grip of doubt. Everything about them was familiar and comfortable, I was ready.
In a small jon boat, the guide and I made our way across the muddy, choppy waters, dodging debris from the raging river and creek, both swollen from the rains, happily depositing their heavy loads into the lake. We docked at the bait site we had planned on scouting that evening and as he was tying the boat off, the guide turned and said, “Gear up!” I grabbed my spear and was ready to go. It was to be a short scout to give me a feel for the bait site, stand location and maybe even try a couple practice throws. In the next second, I had cameras strapped to every place available on my body, with the guide insisting I would want this filmed. While not a fan of filming hunts, I conceded that he was probably right.
There were bears everywhere around the bait location as we walked in, a welcome and relieving sight. What wasn’t welcome was the fact the stands were 12 yards away. I had been very insistent that my max throw was 8 yards with the guide for months. I raised my concern about the stand and was met with, “Well I thought we’d try it from the ground first.” Not my strongest throw, nor my favorite either, another thing I had been undeniably frank about.
After several practice throws, it was clear this was nothing short of a disaster. With the first throw, (as I thought would happen), I decapitated the camera protruding from my chest. I had tried to explain to the guide as he strapped the camera on,” I throw across my body, like you would a baseball.” He continued rigging me up with the camera. I’m going to hit this camera, I thought grimly. The second throw, forward momentum from my body, on a wet, slimy incline faceplanted me into ferns and fresh bear scat and took out another camera. The third throw was the final straw, at the last moment, the most crucial, with the most thrust coming from me, as my arm reached full extension for the release and follow through, the camera mounted to my head slid down over my eyes. I was done! I had not spent 5 years preparing for this kind of frustration.
A familiar, bitter taste coated my tongue and I unleashed it on the unsuspecting and chuckling guide. I never did any of this to become a celebrity, this is my dream! I did this for me and no one else! From now on, I make the calls, this is my hunt, we do it my way! We silently moved the bait closer to the tree stands and took a quiet boat ride back to camp.
The following day back on stand, the thick brush began to sway and come alive. I knew a bear was coming. He stopped 4 yards from my stand. I was calm, my heart rate steady, I was ready. Muscle memory took over as I started my throw, first back and then forward as I thrust the spear across my body. I watched it spiral perfectly to my target, just like practice at home, but instead of my spear sinking into a round bale, it sank through the flesh of a black bear. A clean pass through. As the bear stumbled away with the spear, the blood spray left no doubt he would not go far. Elation filled me. I did it!
I had no words, although the guide asked over and over, how I felt. There was an ache in my arm, and an appreciation of it for the first time since the arm had started to work after the surgery. Memories of the struggle to get to where I was standing at that very second, flooded my mind, like the lake bursting from its shore only a few yards away. The journey had been long and rot with pain, struggle and amazing joy. I was dizzy with raw emotion as the words I did it, played over and over in my head.
Twenty yards into the track I found the shed spear. Another 8 and just shy of thirty yards from my stand, I buried my face into cold, wet fur. Some may think this makes me a dreams come true example. If you think that, you sell me short and yourself in the process. Dreams don’t just come true and trophies should never be handed out for free. While I may have an inkling for just one lucky hunt, as I said earlier, I’m blessed I’m not a lucky hunter. Had I been lucky I likely would have never picked up the most amazingly effective and challenging weapon in my arsenal and gained the skill and tenacity to use it. And so on day 2 of and 8 day hunt I had reached my goal…well one of them. We would spend the next 2 days scouting and the last 4 on stand, never leaving trying for a big brown! One that never showed, but I’m okay with waiting that one out. I’ll be back in Alaska again to get my brown, because failure is only an option if you quit.