BY BEARS GESMITTEN - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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With the dollar a bargain, a new breed of hunter is on the loose in America. Come out to Colorado and meet Felix, Franz & Co.

Standing about in the lobby of a motel on the perimeter of Stapleton Airport, Denver, the six men in stiff green loden-cloth hunting jackets had many questions to be answered.

Such as: "These bears, please, also these elks, how many kilos?"

And: "Colorado keeps a rodeo? We may see this?"

And: "Tell me about this city. They have the night places, with the girls? Also, in this camp we go, this ranch, there is beers? This is important."

Their baggage and rifle cases were still stacked high in a corner of the lobby because this particular People Pleasin' Holiday Inn was steadfastly denying it ever got their reservations or their money. That was not their problem; the clerks could iron it out. They had been traveling for 14 hours, but Franz and Hans, Ernst and Felix, Josef and Karl from the Austrian Tyrol were eager-eyed and effervescing over what was to come.

Leaving a tour agent to straighten out the desk clerk, they moved purposefully into the bar. Leaving the plane, they had already glimpsed the dramatic uprearing of the eastern Rockies, visible across miles of scrubland. Now they encountered another piece of Americana, a man in a cowboy hat morosely playing TV-screen tennis against himself, a mixed drink at his side.

Felix Mager, an electrician, of Mehrnbach, small, plump, apoplectically complexioned, observed this: "American men," he informed the company, "they don't want the beers. I take a gin tonic." Conforming to the subculture, his cohorts ordered the same. And reordered dutifully each time the waitress came by.

"Is, in Colorado, mustang?" inquired Franz Dornhofer, innkeeper, eldest of the group and plainly the most romantic-minded. But already snapshots of the hunts of other years were being displayed with pride, some dead wild boar in Yugoslavia, well-shot red deer in Romania, the corpse of a delicate chamois in the snow of the Alps. "Every year," said Ernst Autzinger, another innkeeper, a small, neat man, leader of the group, "we go to some new place to hunt."

And now, with the dollar a bargain on the Continent, they had come to Colorado as part of the first wave of a European invasion of U.S. hunting grounds that might be said to have been trail-blazed last May when Reinhold Rosiepen from Witten, West Germany shot a black bear in Maine. In the past, individuals from Europe, usually rich men, had come a-hunting in North America. But 1980 is the year in which the package-tour groups started to arrive, no more than 40 hunters in all, but undoubtedly only the outriders. Next year systematic exploitation of this tourist resource is planned: one tour operator expects three times this year's total, and in 1982, he says, who can tell? Roughly $3,000 is the tab for a 10-day trip to the North American wilderness from such jumping-off points as Frankfurt and Munich and, with the exchange rate as it is, for middle-class West Europeans the price is right.

Even on a package tour, though, optional extras are available to the more adventuresome. "We now go to the city," announced Karl Stand-Hartinger, in Austria a house builder but in Colorado a would-be pirate on the loose. He is short, pear-shaped, red-faced also—Tweedledum to Felix' Tweedledee—and indeed only Felix took him up on the plan. The others, Franz and Ernst, Josef Maier, a sad, poetic-looking man, an installer of heating systems, and Hans Holzmann, a butcher with the sharp, predatory features of Niki Lauda, Austria's world-champion driver in 1974, '75 and '77, decided to call it a day, should the Holiday Inn now be permitting them to go to their beds.

Such must have been the case, because next morning all were present and accounted for in the lobby, even Karl and Felix—"We go some kilometers, then we come back," was the sole, thin communiquè the pair issued on their explorations of the previous evening. Time to head to the airport again, buy cowboy hats, take the short flight to Pueblo, where, unseasonably, 85° of sunshine was beating down.

"In this region is prairie dogs?" Franz asked eagerly, surveying the scrubby environs of the airport, but the question was lost as the group was greeted by the hunting outfitter, Art Cooper, and his wife. Cooper, a tall man with big, worried eyes and a defeated-looking mustache, had spent three years in Germany as a sergeant in the 4th Infantry, but his language skills had eroded in the 25 years that had passed since then.

"Meet mein Frau, Jeannie!" he invited the hunters exuberantly. "I was in Deutschland für drei years with the military!" His confusion as to Deutschland and Austria was politely overlooked by the group, which wished only to know its chances of bagging einen grossen schwarzen B‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ür, a big black bear.

"Uh, 50%," Cooper had to concede. "We can't use der Hunds, the dogs, this time of year. But we baited up the bears for you already. We put out der cantaloupe, der apples, der honey und der bacon, uh, the Schweinflesch!" he triumphed, dragging a word from the misty past. It was merciful, maybe, that the Austrians understood very little of all that. Not for some time would they learn what lay ahead—the long, cramping hours in tree stands sitting over reeking bear baits. They crammed happily into the vehicles, while Cooper, alone for a moment, confided, "Next year, I'm told, I got the Saudis coming. How do I handle them?"

"Ho, to the prairie," Franz exulted as he was driven through an outer suburb of Pueblo. "The rattlesnakes!"

Cooper looked at him, concerned. "No," he said, "we're heading for the K-Mart." The Americanization of the Austrians was proceeding apace.

Sadly, an aisle or so over from stacks of Pampers, the Austrians learned that their beautiful feathered hunting caps would be verboten in Colorado, where the Wildlife Division regulations insist that at least 500 square inches of daylight fluorescent-orange material—which must include a hat—be worn above the waist. "In Austria always in the green coats like the forest," Ernst said wonderingly. "We try to hide from the animals." But, disciplined as always, he lined up with the others at the K-Mart checkout with his flame-orange baseball cap, his flame-orange plastic vest.

Then, at last, they headed west, first through arid country ("Where are cows? Where go the children to school?" asked Franz), then, climbing steadily, into the foothills of the Rockies until the altimeter, yes the altimeter, on Cooper's dash showed a bit over 9,000 feet. "Quakin' trees only just turned," Cooper said, indicating the bright gold aspens with a tilt of his head. "Three weeks late this year." It was oppressively hot, with no fresh snow on the mountains to force bear and elk down to the accessible lower forests. But he pointed to the crest of a ridge.

"Men!" he said in a declamatory tone that would become familiar, "last season I kill six, uh, six..."—he held up one hand and then flashed an additional digit—"grosse bears from that place." He stopped the pickup, and six pairs of binoculars scanned the ridge for the bears of' 80, to murmurs of appreciation. "And the first two days of the elk season will be"—Cooper searched for a word from a quarter-century back—"prima!"

"Prima!" the Austrians echoed. Now the forest road had brought them to the town of Westcliffe, where, at the courthouse, they would buy their licenses.

They don't keep records of that kind of thing, but the visitation of the Austrians must have been the biggest day in a long while for the wildlife office in Westcliffe. And if Karl and Felix turned out to be as dedicated in the pursuit of elk and bear as they were of Miss Dawna Hobby, the personable young lady on duty behind, fortunately, the counter, then they would surely head home with all the trophies they could carry. Bearlike grunts and unequivocal gestures, as Karl made his play, showed that the mores of Peterskirchen, Austria were not those of Westcliffe, Colorado. Miss Hobby yielded ground, squealing, but it was Westcliffe 1, Peterskirchen zero.

By evening at the C5 ranch the gaiety had subsided a little on the discovery by the Austrians that the hunting season did not start until Saturday, this being Thursday. "So we kill nothing today or tomorrow?" Ernst asked disconsolately, and Cooper had to allow that this was correct. But there were things to do the next day. Zero in the rifles, freshen up the baits, catch some trout from the half-acre pond Cooper had dug out in the meadow. Also there would be entertainment.

And so there was that evening, but not before, from the hunters' rooms in the lodge, the clink of schnapps glasses and the sound of creamy-sweet Austrian music on tape. Then, downstairs came the promised entertainment: another tape, one made by Cooper on a previous hunting trip. Twenty minutes and more of the hysterical, high-pitched yelping of his hound pack, amid which could also be detected hysterical human screeching. "They got that ol' bear treed right enough," said Cooper, serving as voice-over, savoring the recollection of the recorded hunt. "Golden bear that was, one of them cinnamon types. Hounds think they got him killed already," he said over a chorus of yelps and growls. "But they was just keeping him up the tree till the hunter got there. Called him up on the CB, because not everybody can keep up with the hounds. Takes an hour sometimes till he gets up, so if the bear looks like comin' down we use sticks to poke him back up." Then, ending the tape, came the crack of a rifle and silence. "Get fired up every time I hear that," Cooper said. "Sells a lot of bear hunts too!"

"Weidmannsheil!" exclaimed Ernst, fired up too, raising his glass in a toast, an Austrian hunter's toast, he explained, and you had to be careful to raise your glass with the left hand "or one liter wine you pay!" Because, of course, you needed your right for girl-grabbing, something well known to Karl, whose plump arm had snaked out the minute Art's married daughter, Iris, appeared. Until Karl got worn out with hunting, it was clear he was going to be a one-man fleet coming to port in Westcliffe and the Wet Mountain Valley after years at sea, though now, elegantly suspendered, he led the retreat to bed. Jet lag, at last, was getting to the group. "Schweinflesch for breakfast in the morning," Cooper called after them, adding, sotto voce, that they'd better appreciate it. When the hunting started it would be 3:30 a.m. reveille and no time to sit over sausage.

Next morning, Wet Mountain Valley rang to shots as the Austrians zeroed in their weapons, and by midday they were in the vehicles, heading out to renew the bear baits. The dusty roads were deserted. Looking across the valley, Franz had one of his questions. "In this place there are skunks?" he wished to know. A wistful, plaintive note was creeping into his questions. So far there had been no rodeos, no mustangs, no rattlesnakes, no prairie dogs, no skunks to match up to the colorful Wild West reading he had plainly been indulging in for years. The first tree he'd seen, a stunted pine outside Pueblo, had elicited a "Ponderosa, nicht?"—and now there was not even a skunk around.

But the grudging fates had to give Franz a break sometime, and now, as the pickup he was riding in sped past some sere yellow ranchland, where, 300 yards from the road, a windmill powered the workings of a deep well, there came a shout from Cooper as he slammed the brakes on. There were a dozen small, tawny patches close to a trough fed by the well. Antelope. Rifle in hand, Franz was halfway out of the truck before he could be restrained and be told that antelope were verboten. But the sight had stirred him. He sat straighter. Something was coming true, after all.

A further reward awaited him when the convoy left the road, after an hour of jouncing and climbing had brought them to 11,000 feet, and a green silence as the forest closed in. The gray, ragged pulpits of rock could have hidden any beast in Franz' wildest dreams. "Bear country!" Cooper announced proprietorially, indicating blackened claw marks on aspen boles. "Old ones," he said, "but come look over here." The hunters followed him into the gloom. A rotten-ripe sweetness filled the air, drifting from dead boughs piled at the foot of a tree.

Closer up, they could see ancient, decaying melons, rank pieces of meat under the boughs of a sturdy aspen, and on the tree trunk itself, fresh white claw marks. "You men gonna kill grosse schwarze bear, hey?" Cooper exulted. "From right up there!" He pointed 25 feet up the tree trunk where, spiked and chained to the trunk, was a seat of sorts. "Afternoons," Cooper said, "every one of you gonna sit in a chair like that. Ain't gonna move, not even to scratch. Four, five hours you gonna sit, then maybe the grosse schwarze is gonna come rumbling out of the woods, and pow! you got a beautiful rug to take home."

Who could tell how much of this the hunters took in? Plainly, though, they caught the spirit, grinning eagerly, exclaiming in rapid German. The convoy moved on through the forest, checking other baits, other tree stands. Twice Cooper hammered in pitons as climbing aids on fresh trees, setting up new perches for his charges. Laboriously puffing and laughing, Felix and Karl checked them out, clambering up, posing for snapshots with rifles in hand. It was almost dark before they got back to the C5 ranch, not too dark, though, to prevent them from hauling some rainbow trout from Cooper's pond, to shouts and heavy Weidmannsheil-ing. Easy sport. The reality would come at dawn.

More precisely, in the predawn next morning, as the hunters moved blearily around the kitchen until the shout came, "Everybody into the ve-hicles!" Rifles upright at their sides, like motorized infantry, the Austrians moved out into the darkness of the Wet Mountain Valley. This first morning of the hunting season, elk was the target, and the party would split, three hunters heading north with Guy Cooper and Tony Supan, Art's son and son-in-law, respectively. The others would drive into the woods to the south as far as they could, then climb to rock ambush points that commanded meadowlike clearings at around 10,000 feet.

Even before the first light defined the pines on the next ridge, Franz was lying out on one of the rock escarpments. "I must shoot only the man elk," he had confirmed with Cooper when he was left on station. The cold little wind that comes before dawn, noted by hunters and soldiers since Homer's time, passed over him, and then, as the sun came up, came big blasts of wind that howled like subway trains through the trees. Through the long morning, until the sun was high and hot, Franz covered the patch of grass below him, across which, had things gone right, a bull elk would have passed.

But nothing came. At about 9 a.m., from the north there was the noise of a small battle, 40 or 50 rifle shots, and later in the morning other, lesser fusillades. "There are other hunters?" Franz inquired, puzzled. Like the rest of his party, it emerged later, he had believed he was shooting on a private tract, as would be the case in Europe. Nobody had thought to tell the Austrians of the frenzy that typifies Opening Day in America.

At midday, Felix and Karl, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, hiked wearily onto the scene, lay on the sun-warmed rocks and started snoring gently, but not before saying, "We see no game, only many, many hunters." Heading downhill later, they saw enough pickups on the forest trails to call for traffic cops, two full and festive campsites and a game warden quietly going out of his mind checking licenses; and when they rendezvoused with the horsemen for lunch, they discovered that they, too, had seen no elk. The only bonus of the morning had been the sight of the high woods and the blazing gold of the turning aspens bordering the dark pines. "Mother Nature," Cooper said creamily, "sure knew how to put a beautiful frame on that picture, didn't she?" On this hunt there were moments when not knowing English could be a pure plus.

After lunch it was bear time, and that, too, for each of the hunters, turned out to be a long, wearisome, blank vigil. Except, in a small way, for Franz. "A skunk comes!" he said. "I ask him, go, go, go, because I wait for the bear." But you could detect a certain pleasure.

Back at C5 that night, the hunters were subdued, headed early to bed against another 3:45 a.m. call, and in the morning Cooper had them change style, walking them downhill through the dark timber in hope of a chance encounter with an elk scared by other hunters into movement. Once again, though, no morning elk. Instead, a bad tactical error by Cooper.

The previous day the hunters had carried lunch with them so that they could switch from bear to elk without loss of time, without returning home. On Day 2, though, Cooper allowed them to head back to the ranch for lunch, and as Jeannie Cooper cut sandwiches in the kitchen, there was time for schnapps to be poured upstairs, first consoling, then giving rise to Austrian thoughts of mutiny.

When they came downstairs, late and flushed, Felix seemed to have been nominated spokesman. More imminently explosive-looking than ever, he announced without preamble, "Austrian men do not climb up the trees. We wait at the bottom for the bear to come." The mutineers had other points: it was dangerous climbing down trees in the dark. Grunts of assent; also, Cooper himself had told them that the bears usually came at sundown, around 7 p.m., so why did they have to get in the ve-hicles at 2:30 p.m.? "We stand behind the tree at five o'clock," Felix said stubbornly. "Then we shoot the bear, easy." In the meantime, they all wanted a nap. Assenting grunts again.

At this classic guide's dilemma, Cooper's mustache drooped even lower. Do you make the clients happy by letting them do as they like, or do you discipline them for their own good? Weakly, he conceded and chose the former course. O.K., he agreed, they could nap.

Rarely have mutineers had their comeuppance so swiftly. That afternoon, as Guy Cooper led the first man to his tree stand well after the recognized time, they disturbed a bear licking out a can of bacon grease, a sure kill had a hunter been in position. And in another part of the woods, Josef had arrived to find a bear at the bait. But the biggest fiasco of all had come at Felix' stand, and after dark that night, as the pickup arrived to collect him, he raved out the tale. "Six o'clock comes the bear!" he yelled, "Ein grosser schwarzer bear! He comes from behind to the meat and there is trees, trees, trees! I cannot shoot," he ended tragically. Wafting from him on the evening air came the delicate odor of schnapps, the pear-flavored kind. Under grave and general suspicion of having brought a little something along to ease his vigil, Felix subsided into the truck, a mutineer no longer.

Only Josef turned out to have a small piece of luck. He'd gotten a coyote on the way home, leaping smartly from the ve-hicle for his shot. "This is a very young coyote," he had said dubiously, holding up the small beast by its tail, but the others, glad of anything, made a Fest of his success. Three bottles of California champagne were bought at the Westcliffe liquor shop and Josef soon shed his doubts. "Now you must cook the head for me," he told Cooper authoritatively, "so I may carry home the skull!"

"If this little bitty coyote gets three bottles of champagne," Guy Cooper asked nobody in particular, "then what would an elephant get?" Next evening he would have an approximate answer.

In the morning all the Austrians wanted to talk about was bear. They had written off the elk hunting, though they dutifully went out and scored another blank, but a bear, experience had shown, was more than a possibility.

Now there would be discipline. Lunch was chaste, schnapps-less. By 2 p.m. all six men were lined up, liveried in orange and ready for the ve-hicles, accepting the banter they had to take with resignation. "Karl," Guy said, "you gonna stay on the ground or go right up the tree where you belong?"

"Franz," Tony said, "ain't climbin' no tree, I swear!"

But Franz solemnly nodded his head. "Ja, I climb," he said. On the truck radio, as they rolled off, Willie Nelson was giving out with Midnight Cowboy. "Der Rock und Roll," Felix said. "I like. Please put me where I was last night. My bear will come back."

But it was to Franz the bear came that evening, five minutes before quitting time, at 6:55 p.m., the single shot echoing around the rocks of the hardscrabble country southwest of Canon City and the CB coming alive with Guy's voice crackling excitedly. "Franz got him a big black bear!"

And there he was, although diminished in death, undeniably a big black bear, 425 pounds of him, bloody-muzzled, shot through the lungs, lying in a small rivulet not 20 yards from the tree stand. If anyone had to kill him, maybe Franz, the oldest, the mildest man of the group, the Wild West romantic, was the just choice. Hans picked up some glory also. Paired with Franz on the stand, he had deliberately not fired, judging that Franz was in the better position for a clean shot, even though Hans had been the first to see the bear.

One day, when the taxidermist finishes with it, the great fur pelt will hang on the wall of an Austrian Gasthaus, but the first part of that last long journey was in the pickup, bouncing through the woods to retrieve Felix. "By the time we get to Felix, he'll be frozen," sang Guy in euphoric parody. In fact, Felix was sitting in the game warden's truck.

"I am asking him," Felix said later. " 'How many of these policemen like you are in this country?' " He was speaking back at the ranch as the company fought its way through the 10 bottles of champagne that Franz thought worthy of his bear. ("You sure you want 10?" the woman in the liquor store had asked. "I don't think I got 10." But she did.)

And so to a long, late night of Weidmannsheil-ing, linked-arm dancing and singing, first Austrian yodeling songs, but in the end, with nightcaps of schnapps and elk hunting canceled for next morning, the six, tutored by the guides, giving their all to She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain.

Something that Cooper, next year, might not find so easy to manage with the arrival, presumably without schnapps and champagne, of the Saudis.



Final outfitting for the expedition introduced the Austrians to a bit of contemporary Americana: a discount house.



Targets of opportunity loomed temptingly in the hunters' sights.



Some varieties of wildlife were not appreciated.



Schnapps gave way to champagne for the killed schwarzen Bär.