Lancaster, Pa. — Deer hunter Mike Shull, of Lititz, Lancaster County, was sitting quietly on the edge of a soybean field in Perry County recently when, only 30 feet away, a bear with three cubs glared at him.
Shull hoped the bear wouldn’t make a move that they might both regret.
Brushes with danger seem to follow Shull, 65, an amateur photographer. In the summer of 2013, he and three other Lancaster County companions were deep in a canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park when a storm-induced wall of water sent them fleeing for safety.
Shull made it, with only seconds to spare. This fall he had an adrenaline-filled encounter.
Patience is a necessity for the hunter, Shull noted. “But, for all of us who have spent many an hour with boots on the ground beyond the backyard, there is a shared warning – add a sack of vigilance to your daypack,” he said.
“The unexpected can, indeed, appear unexpectedly.”
On Oct. 23, he left home at 5 a.m. for a deer hunt in Perry County, his childhood stomping ground.
There he silently walked under the stars several hundred yards along the edge of soybean and corn fields to his hunting spot. He pulled out his three-legged camo stool and sat down behind a thin tree just thick enough to break up his outline to see the area where he hoped a big doe would appear.
After a slow left-to-right scan of the soybean field, something close and black to his right caught his eye.
“Noisy conditions caused by wind had allowed a 250- to 300-pound sow bear to bring her three second-year cubs within 10 yards of my hunting location,” he recalled.
“However, I was sure the sow had not detected me via scent or sight, but I saw one of the big cubs snap its head in my direction.”
One swirl of the wind and the female raised her nose and opened her mouth. That was the movement that motivated Shull to release the safety on his 30-06-caliber deer rifle.
The sow immediately identified him. “One instinctive, protective lunge from her close, slightly uphill position and it was a given that I would have gotten off a single shot at best to stop her or at least turn her away,” Shull said.
“Five seconds passed, then 10. I kept my eyes on her feet – not on her eyes – hoping to avoid something we both would regret.”
Luckily, the cubs were huddled just to the rear of the sow. Shull said his index finger was on the trigger as he mentally rehearsed over and over the head and neck angle of the shot he was hoping not to make.
Not a sound was made by the bears or Shull. The hunter remembers he could hear his heart beating.
One of the cubs finally broke the ice. Comically, it lifted a right leg and moved slightly toward the corn rows a few yards to its right. That motion drew a safety-first response from the sow and she slowly led the cubs into the standing corn.
Thirty seconds or so after they disappeared into the corn, Shull stood up on wobbly legs and kept reminding himself to breathe.
“I wasn’t willing to release my grip on the rifle,” he said. “For all I knew, the four bruins were standing in the corn within 50 yards of the encounter location.
“Maybe, the sow wanted to go down that narrow opening between the corn and the woods to get a drink from the small stream at the bottom of the hill.”
In just a minute or so, the encounter was over, but Shull didn’t want to risk gathering up his hunting gear and walk into the bears. Surprising a female with cubs a second time might produce a different ending, one where injury and/or death would be the fate of one or both of them.
He was still standing and had settled on a plan to stay put and hunt the rest of the morning when lightning struck in the same spot again.
A fourth cub stepped out of the brush to his right and into the space previously occupied by the other cubs.
Rifle in hand, Shull took a half step to keep the tree directly between him and the bear. He quietly released the safety again.
“The cub looked at me, then slowly turned its head in the direction the others had gone,” Shull said. “Its movement gave me the opportunity to get my smartphone out of my pocket and snap a quick photo.”
After all, how many people would believe I had encountered five bears inside 10 yards in less than a five-minute time span?
Without its mates visible, cub number four turned and trotted into the standing corn.