I grew up in Southwest Michigan where for the most part, we have no Bears. I spent a few Summers as a young lad in Northern Ontario playing on a Summer hockey league where I heard a lot of talk about Bears, but never actually seen one. I know they are present in the Manistee National Forest in Northern Michigan where I have spent a huge amount of time in my life and have never seen one in person, although on one foggy morning on the lower Manistee River a few years ago I did see a beautiful Bobcat wander down to the river to drink while I sat in my boat watching. This Summer I saw my first Michigan Bear in person when it ran across the road in front of Sarah and I near Sleeping Bear Dunes as we returned home from a hike on the part of the park that would be considered "Mama Bear", fitting I'd say.
When I was 30 years old I had a long term relationship come to an end, I packed up all my belongings in my truck and boat and drove North where my Friend Mike who owns StealthCraft Boats had agreed to hook me up with a place to live for a while. Walking away from everything you have ever worked for and your home waters is never easy, but that's how life goes sometimes. Fortunately for me I have always been fortunate to have a little help from Friends when I need it, this wouldn't be the last time Brother Mike helped me out and the fact is, most of my travels have been a result of me needing some work, a break from life or just to sooth my undying feeling of wanderlust and Mike sending me out on the road to deliver a boat or do a trade show somewhere far away. There is never a shortage of boats to be delivered for Mike and thus a mutually beneficial relationship has existed in that regard.
I arrived in Baldwin, didn't even fully unpack and was told I was taking a single drift boat to Northern California to a guy that would become our West Coast Sales Representative. A cake delivery I now realize was basically a gift to help a troubled soul clear his mind. If you have ever drove West from Michigan, it's boring as can be until you reach the Rockies and even then I80 and I90 are not super scenic in comparison to some of the more "off the beaten path" highways out West. If you are looking for long periods of music blasting and just grinding out the miles as you head West in pursuit of something new, it can be great, if you are just looking to make some extra money to pay bills, it's one long stretch of road that can leave you longing for home and your own bed where you know you won't wake in the middle of the night to bed bugs chewing on you in some motel right off the interstate. That's only happened a couple times in my travels, but I am apparently highly allergic to them and those experiences have left me a little paranoid about the little bugs that leave me covered in welts.
Once you reach Susanville, California and continue West, that is in my opinion the most beautiful part of the drive to the Pacific there is, definitely the most diverse in terms of landscapes, a drive I have since done countless times. This was my first and I had no idea what I was about to experience, I just knew I needed to take this boat to some place called Redding and I had a couple spey rods with me and planned to fish for a couple days after on the coast. I reached Redding early in the afternoon right after Northern California had been hammered with rain following a long period of draught. Matt our customer and famed West Coast fly fisherman explained to me, everything on the coast was in flood stage except one river, a river that once encountered would change my life forever. Matt gave me a few pointers, said to watch out for the Elk on the 101 and handed me a handful of beautifully tied Intruders to up my game with where I was headed in pursuit of my first "real" Steelhead.
I left Redding and headed West on HWY 299, a windy road etching its way through the hills of Northern California, smack dab into the middle of Bigfoot country eventually reaching HWY 101 and the Pacific Coast. I turned North for Crescent City and after a while I entered into a stretch of road with giant Coastal Redwoods what seemed to be dangerously close to the white lines on the road, half asleep and eager to try my hand on the river the next day I kept on moving, albeit more alert as to not hit one of these giant trees or the Elk that were said to frequent this area. Something I can say is very possible having since lived in this area years later, although it might be the tourists parking half way in the road to take photos of these herds of Elk that you need to be more careful of, they seem to lose their mind and forget it's a busy highway they are stopping on.
I rolled into Crescent City in the middle of the night, grabbed a motel room and collapsed into the bed to sneak in a couple hours of sleep before I would be headed for the nearby river at first light in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream of catching an ocean run Steelhead on a swung fly. I still wasn't aware I would be fishing amongst the Coastal Redwoods in the most beautiful green water I have ever witnessed to this day. The rest of that story I will save for another time so I can give it the attention such a mythical place deserves.
Fast forward several years, I have long since left Northern Michigan after getting past my breakup and went back to my hometown in Southwest Michigan. Spending years fishing like mad and continuing to guide as much as I can, periodically delivering a boat here or there to keep the wanderlust at bay, when one day I get an itch to leave and as luck would have it, an offer for a place to crash while I get my feet on the ground in no other place than smack dab in the middle of Bigfoot country, nestled in the hills of Northern California. By this time, I had since adopted my hound Jessie and we hit the road with most of what I owned stuffed in my GMC. West, we went with all the excitement such an adventure is sure to bring.
Now this was the first in my life I could say I did not fully experience the struggle of being a so called "Modern Day Explorer", although admittedly this journey was very modern considering I was driving my GMC truck, wasn't gathering my own food and enjoyed the luxuries of paved roads for all but the last few miles of my journey. Fresh water was limited though and any electricity I had came from a generator. I was to spend the next few months living in a Yurt nestled atop a hill overlooking the Trinity River Valley with a backdrop of the Trinity Alps off in the distance, not to brag, but it doesn't get any more beautiful than this place was and I quickly fell in love with the hills of Northern California even more than I already was from prior treks through the area. The area was full of wildlife and among that wildlife was a whole lot of Deer, Hippies and Bears. All of which smelled about the same.
My first encounter with a Bear here was one evening as we drove the single lane road up the hill where you frequently had no guardrails and a several hundred foot drop straight down, not the place you wanted to lose your bearings or you would pay with your life. Often you would see freshly paved areas of the road where it had been "patched" because the road itself literally slid down the hill. They would bring in more dirt and roll some asphalt over it and call it a road. I never did quite get used to that, always wondering if the next slide would occur as I drove over those patched sections of road. We were more than halfway up the hill when a small cinnamon colored Bear appeared in the middle of the road and seemingly escorted us for a very long while up the road, refusing to leave the center of the single lane road as he trotted along. It was a really cool experience for someone who hadn't spent much time around these creatures. Eventually he disappeared over the edge of the road and we continued home to our hilltop abode to rest our weary eyes.
My hound means more to me than just about anything I have ever had and it was for this reason I decided one day that being in such a desolate area, I would let her roam free, surely she would find her way home when she got hungry if she did indeed decide to roam off. This new life was all about freedom, wide open spaces and exploring what the World had to offer, she should be allowed the same luxury so off the leash she went and for weeks, she stayed close by. One day an hour went by, then two and finally three when my phone rang, oddly enough I did get cell phone signal most days up there and on the other end of the phone was an older Gentleman who began to tell me he had my hound. I would later figure out with Google Maps his cabin was about 6 miles as the crow flies from me, which was roughly a 45 minute drive in this terrain to reach in my truck. I arrived to see Jessie tied up on the old timers porch next to his dog, he had given them both Butchers bones, and began to explain to me she came running through his back yard hot on the trail of a Bear that ran through just before her. He hollered and she immediately ran over in typical Jessie fashion, dropping on to the ground to reveal her belly to be rubbed. I handed him the biggest bottle of Whiskey I could find in the small town we lived near and off Jessie and I went.
The experiment was over, and we went back to leash life and several hikes a day to ensure she got her exercise. One evening I returned from town after a run for supplies including dog food and filled the giant cooler, I used to store her dog food in. I forgot to put the cooler inside afterwards and the next morning during that period where the sun isn't up yet, but you can sort of see outside, I heard the cooler being dragged into the brush nearby. Without thinking I ran outside in nothing but my underwear, grabbed the cooler away from the fortunately for me small Bear and after a very short bit of tug of war, the Bear ran off. Sure wish it would have been caught on film, it would have been titled "Dumb Stuff You Do When You're Too Broke to Buy More Dog Food Anytime Soon". A few weeks later I would leave this yurt in the hills in favor of a much more modern place on the coast with a fenced in back yard for the hound to roam somewhat free in right off the 101 I had travelled upon years before one rainy night. A journey that would spark my desire to explore this great land even more and a chance to experience some of the most iconic Steelhead rivers in the World. That highway in the land of Bigfoot that treks along the Pacific from the hills of Northern California all the way to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Bear Country...