Father Kills Bear to Save Son

Deep in the wilderness, all that stands between an attacking grizzly and a hunter's life is a father's courage.

By Jeff Rennicke from Reader's Digest | September 2009

Just a few more steps, a few … more … steps. Crouched in a thick stand of pines above the Shoshone River in Wyoming’s Absaroka mountain range, Ron Leming Jr. gave another blow on his elk call, willing the big bull elk to move closer to his father. Ron Sr. was hidden below in the brush, an arrow in place, his bow ready. A former hunting guide who had moved to these mountains simply for the love of hunting and fishing, Ron Jr. had waited years to get his father this close to a trophy elk. Now the moment seemed within reach. Just a few more steps.

Suddenly, the big elk spooked, jolting as though it had been hit with an electric current; it veered off into the timber and was gone. That’s weird, Ron Jr. thought, disappointed. There’s no way that elk caught our scent. What could make a bull spook like that? He stood up to get a better view, turned around, and found himself staring straight into the eyes of the answer.

Father-son bondPhotographed by Tom SpitzFather-son bond: Ron Leming Jr. and his dad, Ron Sr., near their home in Cody, Wyoming.
Both father and son love the land that rises above the riverbanks in this corner of Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest: pine-robed peaks reaching 12,000 feet, thick woods punctuated with lush meadows, rocky basins dotted with mountain lakes, and all of it stitched together with heart-shaped elk tracks, wolf howls, and the sudden flash in the rocks that might be a cougar. Accessible only by packhorse—a rough, 15-mile ride up Boulder Basin—it’s true wilderness, some of the wildest land in America. It’s also grizzly country.

Once nearly driven to extinction, the grizzly has rebounded here; the region’s population is now estimated at 600. But it wasn’t bears that the Lemings were looking for on their weeklong hunting trip last September. It was elk. “My father and I do a bow-hunting trip for elk just about every year,” says Ron Jr. It’s a special time for a son who grew up hunting with his father, who also grew up hunting with his father—the hunt a thread that binds the men together. They camp in the same spot each year and sit around the fire until long after dark, sharing coffee, laughs, and stories of the mountains they cherish. “We’re very close,” says Ron Sr. “These trips mean everything to me.”

Perhaps this trip meant even more. On the last day of their hunt the year before, Ron Sr. was tossing his saddle on a horse when he heard something pop in his elbow. A tendon had snapped, leaving the elder Leming barely able to move his right arm, much less shoot a bow accurately. Arm surgery followed by a lengthy rehab and a lot of target practice had him feeling confident again, but this trip was the real test. “My dad has never had the experience of getting a big bull elk with a bow,” says Ron Jr., who has taken several trophy elk himself. “I really wanted him to have that.” Twice on this trip, he’d been within range, but both times, his arrow missed the mark.

“It was frustrating,” Ron Sr. says. “I got to wondering if maybe I was too old.” This time, this day, he hoped, would be different. As he rode out of camp that morning, he said a silent prayer in the half-light of a mountain sunrise: “God, guide my arrow today.” It was a hunter’s prayer, whispered in humility. “I would never pray to kill something,” the father says. “I just wanted to know I could still shoot well if I got the chance.” Within hours, that prayer would be answered in a way he never could have imagined.

The two men were hunting in a place they call the Rock. “It’s one of our favorite areas,” Ron Jr. says—a long rim of cliffs with scattered stands of trees. “We always see elk in there, and this time we had a plan.” Dressed in full camouflage and wearing elk scent to help cover his human scent, Ron Jr. stood about 40 yards uphill from his father and began mimicking a bugling elk with his handheld elk call—a wavering, high-pitched note that echoed through the mountains. For 30 minutes he called. Then a response: A big elk appeared from the timber below and moved toward Ron Sr.

The bull came within 60 or 70 yards, just out of bow range but then stopped and turned to rake a tree with its antlers. Ron Jr. kept calling, waiting, not moving, hoping it would turn and come within range. That’s when he heard something rustling behind him in the bushes: another elk, a small bull that had smelled him and run away. But the big bull stayed, moving even closer to the 30 to 40 yards Ron Sr. needed for a clean shot.

“Everything looked good: The wind was right in our faces. The elk had no idea we were there,” Ron Jr. says. “I was sure Dad was going to get a shot.” But that shot never came. The bull elk ran. Ron Jr. stood up, turned around, and locked eyes with a bear.

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