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Original Issue


Archery enthusiasts now number about three million worldwide, and within that group the growing popularity of hunting with bow and arrow is in large part the result of the activities of an archer from Grayling. Mich. named Fred Bear. It was Bear who developed the wood-and-Fiberglas-laminated bow back in the '40s, a breakthrough allowing mass production of bows formerly painstakingly constructed by hand (SI, Sept. 27,1976).

Bear, who is in his mid-70s, has written an autobiography of sorts, Fred Bear's Field Notes (Doubleday, $8.95), a day-to-day record recalling 15 of his more memorable hunting trips. The book covers the years 1955 to 1967, though Bear's career as a bow hunter has spanned half a century and encompassed four continents. In that time more than 125 big-game animals have fallen to his arrows. Obviously, this is not a book for implacably conservation-minded types, for the endangered Bengal tiger dropped by Bear's arrow is just as dead as if he were shot with a rifle. But a book must be taken more or less on its own terms, and Bear makes something of a case for his chosen life-style, which has to do with being an archer and the cat-and-mouse style of hunting that archery imposes.

To assure clean kills, says Bear, you must of necessity be a whites-of-the-eyes hunter. Where a modern, scope-sighted rifleman is in the chips at ranges in excess of 100 yards, a bow hunter's effective range is often mere feet. Bow hunting, the author says, has reintroduced the art of stalking game, which is what hunting should be all about. By choosing to hunt with the bow and arrow, the man enters the animal's world. He must match his skills more directly to the animal's instinct; the hunt becomes a more equal contest—a sort of one-on-one confrontation between man and animal.

If the game happens to be dangerous, the hunter by choice puts his own life in jeopardy. To Bear, this fair-chase ethic is the hunter's ultimate concession to the dignity of the animal he is trying to kill. But, he says, the kill itself is secondary. He writes, "A downed animal is most certainly the object of a hunting trip, but it becomes an anticlimax when compared to the many other pleasures of the hunt. A period of remorse is in order. Perhaps a few words asking forgiveness for having taken a life. After this, there is a self-satisfaction for having accomplished a successful stalk and a good shot."

For the archer, naturally, the odds of taking game are greatly reduced by the very nature of the primitive method of hunting, and Bear has pushed the art of stalking game, especially dangerous game, to the point of brinksmanship. He has taken Alaskan brown bears and African lions at such close quarters that one wonders if he didn't smell their breaths. In 1962 on the Alaskan Peninsula. Bear shot an 810-pound Kodiak bear on an open beach at a distance of 20 feet. His subject wasn't killed on the spot, running 90 yards—fortunately, not in Bear's direction—before succumbing. Two years later, in Mozambique, Bear bagged a large bull elephant with one arrow. The number of times this particular feat has been accomplished in recent history can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The late Howard Hill did it in 1950. Bob Swinehart, a protégé of Hill's, accomplished it the same year Bear got his elephant. The author thinks there may have been one or two others.

Bear has been charged twice by enraged polar bears. About polar bear hunting, he observes, " will never know whether he is the hunter or the hunted."

Throughout his journal, Bear is attentive to the many rewards hunting brings: the opportunity for solitude and self-examination and for observing wildlife in its natural habitat, the comradeship of friends, the enjoyment of campfires, sunsets, good horses.

As happens when a collection of letters or a journal is published without extensive editing, the going can sometimes become tedious. But in recognizing this, the reader is made more fully aware of the restrictive and often frustrating nature of hunting with the bow. One spends day upon day with Bear in stormbound cabins and tents, accompanies him on countless unsuccessful stalks.

And as if the limitations of the bow were not enough. Bear assumes the additional burden of filming his hunts. Long, uneventful hours drag on in cramped camera blinds. Potentially marvelous photos are lost because the camera is not properly set up or an uncooperative cloud covers the sun, or the moment the camera whirs the alert quarry bolts to safety. Then another animal must be located, another stalk executed. The book becomes at times an exotic travelog, and here the author's observations are perceptive and often charming. We learn that during a successful 1966 polar bear hunt, Bear and his guide landed their plane undetected at a DEW-line outpost, to the consternation of the radar operators. "How did you get here?" asked the technicians. Bear writes, "We wondered how efficient our Distant Early Warning system is. We had flown straight in front of their screen coming in and had, for five weeks, been flying 25 miles north of their site." But the most effective passages of the book are Bear's accounts of close encounters and narrow escapes. The Field Notes are a welcome addition to outdoor lore.