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
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine September 2009

Ron Leming Jr. and Ron Leming Sr.

Photographed by Tom Spitz

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.

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.

“Adult male grizzlies rarely attack humans,” says Mark Bruscino, the warden who would later investigate the incident for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “But they can be very predatory toward elk.” With Ron Jr. doing his best to sound and smell like an elk, the bear likely thought it was stalking a bull, says Bruscino. “When it saw the movement of the hunter standing up, it just acted on instinct.” And its instinct was to attack.

The bear—a dark-brown, 500-pound avalanche of teeth, claws, and muscle—reached Ron Jr. in seconds. With no firearm or bear spray, he had only his bow to protect himself. “I had an arrow ready, and my first thought was to shoot,” he says, “but there was no time.” He dodged the first charge, jumping behind a tree and gaining a few steps on the bear, then took off running downhill toward his father.

“I heard Ronnie yell, ‘Hey, get outta here!’ and from the tone of his voice, I knew instantly that it was a bear,” says Ron Sr. When he looked up, he saw his son running for his life, a few steps ahead of the attacking grizzly, and both of them coming his way. “My first thought was, That bear’s going to maul my son.”

There was no time to think or be scared; there was only a father’s instinct. “For just an instant, he was a baby back in my arms, and I just knew I couldn’t let this happen,” says Ron Sr. Forgetting the danger, the injury to his arm, and the frustration of missing so many easy shots earlier in the trip, Ron Leming Sr. stood his ground, pulled back on his bow, aimed, and took the shot.

“I saw an arrow zip right past my leg,” Ron Jr. says. But he didn’t have a chance to turn and see where it landed. In seconds, the bear was on top of him. Ron Jr. rolled on his back and tried using his arms to protect his face, the bear biting into his arm and crushing his elbow in the vise of its jaws. “The force of its bite was just tremendous,” Ron Jr. says, “and he was tossing me all around. But there was no pain at all.” In the fury of it, he was thrown back on his feet. He ran for a split in a tree, hoping to get between the trunks, but in seconds, the bear was on him again, biting his hand and back.

“I turned to get another arrow,” says Ron Sr., “but when I looked back, all I could see was the bear on top of Ronnie. I had to do something.” Using his compound bow like a club, Ron Sr. charged up to the marauding bear and pummeled its back and head with the flimsy weapon until the bear released his son. The bear turned and lurched down the hill, away from both men.

“Ronnie yelled for me to shoot him again, but I didn’t want to make him madder than he already was, so I just watched him,” the father says. “From the way he was stumbling, I knew I’d hit him pretty well with the first shot.”

In fact, the single arrow from Ron Sr.’s bow had severed a blood vessel near the animal’s heart. In a creature that even a high-powered rifle sometimes can’t stop with four or five shots, it was a one-in-a-million shot for an archer. The grizzly staggered a few more steps, fell over, and didn’t move again. The arrow had flown true.

“That’s when the trees and everything started getting blurry,” Ron Jr. recalls. He was going into shock. “There was so much blood,” Ron Sr. says, “but we couldn’t tell how much of it was the bear’s and how much was from Ronnie.” Checking for wounds, they found deep bites on Ron Jr.’s hand and arm, a few cuts and scratches, but miraculously no major injuries. Most of the blood was from the bear. Still, Ron Jr. was shaken. His father built a fire and began to think about getting his son to safety 15 miles down a rugged mountain trail and then to a hospital another 30 miles away.

Their cell phones were out of range. No one would come looking for them for days. The only option was to go out on horseback. But with his injuries, Ron Jr. couldn’t mount his horse. “It was ironic,” he says. “Since last year, I’ve had to help my dad get on his horse because of his arm injury, and here he was helping me get up on mine.”

They managed the mount and set off. Much of the six-hour journey is fuzzy in their memories, but the sight of the two men on horseback is something hunter Carl Sauerwein will never forget. Nearing Boulder Creek on his way up the mountain and into an elk-hunting camp of his own, Sauerwein recognized the two from their trips through the years. He shouted a greeting from a distance and noticed that the younger man was wrapped in a heavy coat even though the air was warm.

He didn’t think much of it until they got closer and Ron Jr. said, nonchalantly, that they were headed off the mountain because they’d just been mauled by a bear. “That’s when I saw the blood on his face and all the cuts,” says Sauerwein, who has spent 18 years in the Wyoming mountains and had his own share of run-ins with grizzlies. “Still, he seemed pretty well off, considering.” (In fact, he was: At the hospital, he was treated for puncture wounds and released after one day.) The two men just tipped their hats and kept on riding.

During the long ride out, Ron Jr. thought about his love for hunting: its risks and its rewards. “I don’t blame the bear,” he says. “Hunting is just something I’ve always wanted to do, and I know that someday we’ll go back, my dad and me, to see if we can get another shot at that elk he’s always wanted.”

He almost had that shot even as they rode off the mountain. “At one point along the ride, we heard a bugling elk,” Ron Jr. says. “We looked up, and there about a hundred yards off the trail was a pretty nice bull.”

With a smile, he told his father to get off his horse and go shoot it. “I probably couldn’t hit it anyway,” his father said.

To which his son replied, “If I got off and made it chase me, I’ll bet you could hit him.” They laughed, two men in the mountains, thinking about the shot of a lifetime—a father’s arrow that had saved the life of his son.

Photographed by Tom Spitz

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