Here’s to Newfoundland and Labrador: A Black Bear Hunt in Nain
Bear hunting is complex for reasons that span the full spectrum of the personal and the political. These complexities entangle with each other until they become somewhat inseparable, with bear hunting coming to represent a potently symbolic place in the cultural imagination of the public and a tangible place in the diets and lives of many hunters. I think this sense of complexity is one of the reasons I love bear hunting; it asks me to engage with all the reasons hunting is important to me and, I believe, encapsulates why hunting as an idea and a practice remains a powerful part of our cultures and our humanity. For these reasons, when I have space to talk about bear hunting, I see it as a full package of the personal and political. Rather than shy away from this complexity or compartmentalize bear hunting to remove the sticky and unanswerable aspects of it, I am interested in representing it in a way that speaks to both hunters and non-hunters.
It is easy to find controversy about bear hunting. If you do a basic online search for news, articles, or essays about bear hunting, you will find that many of the immediate results concern various reiterations of political debates – debates over the removal or reinstatement of a spring season; strategies to manage human-bear conflicts; disagreements over the merits and ethics of using certain methods; and initiatives by organizations opposed to bear hunting. It is more difficult to find materials that communicate the reasons people feel passionate about hunting bears and articulate the personal meaning of bear hunting.
In recent years, there have been several initiatives to curtail or cancel bear hunting throughout Canada and the United States. Some of these efforts have highlighted potential conservation concerns, but certainly at the forefront of opposition is the expression of social values against bear hunting, often through invocations of a nebulous notion of “trophy hunting.” For example, the British Columbia government canceled the grizzly bear hunt in 2017, with government officials explaining that the decision was “mostly a social values issue. When it comes down to it, this species is seen as an iconic species for B.C., and people just weren’t willing to accept the hunting of grizzly bears anymore in this province.” In 2021, a decision by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife saw the spring black bear hunt canceled in that state. In 2022, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) submitted a petition to cancel the black bear hunt in California, citing concerns about climate change, the increasing severity of wildfires, and a lack of robust and reliable science on population assessments. In terms of their moral opposition to the black bear hunt, the HSUS was also vocal about its opposition to what they considered to be exclusively a “trophy hunt,” which they define as being when a hunter’s “primary motivation is not to get food, but simply to obtain animal parts (heads, hides or claws and even the whole animal) for display.”
Characterizations of bear hunting in political initiatives and the media demonstrate the highly emotive and politically charged nature of bear hunting, yet they fail to capture – and in some cases deliberately neglect to represent – its full complexity. It is no surprise to anyone involved in wildlife, conservation, and hunting communities that not all of society supports hunting. At the same time, bear hunting seems to inspire particular passion in people, demonstrated by the regularity with which efforts to curtail or restrict bear hunting opportunities arise. I am intrigued by the reasons bear hunting seems to repeatedly find itself at the center of political and legal challenges to hunting and social debates over the public acceptance of hunting among the wider non-hunting public. In addition to being a political advocate for bear hunting, I am drawn to understand what the social-political landscape around bear hunting teaches us about our collective and constantly shifting values around wildlife, wild places, and hunting.
One of the reasons I am so passionate about hunting overall is that it requires me to engage with my full self; it is not only a physical activity, but rather also asks me to think deeply about my ethics, emotions, and relationships. I’m not entirely sure what it is about bear hunting that brings all these elements of hunting and life crashing together, but I do suppose it is one of the reasons I’m drawn to bear hunting and likely responsible for why I sometimes have difficulty articulating why it has come to be so meaningful to me. As is the case with all species I hunt, my interest and love for bears cuts across all the possible levels of relationship with the species that I have been able to experience. I have also been able to interact with bears on a scientific level, being involved in both social and biological research on polar bears and examining their management context throughout Canada. My passion for bears certainly extends through the intellectual curiosity I find in them and the nutritious and delicious meals we make with their meat, but it starts and ends with the inherent value I feel in being able to closely interact with bears and the knowledge that they are thriving on the landscape.
Perhaps as a small contribution to the task of representing the complex personal and cultural significance of bear hunting, I’d like to share one of my bear hunting experiences and try to convey how that experience indelibly imprinted bear hunting on my life. The second black bear I shot in Nain, Nunatsiavut, Labrador in June 2020, will forever remain with me as one of my most enjoyable hunting memories.
Nain is the northernmost community in Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region established with the signing of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement (LILCA) in 2005. All five coastal communities of Nunatsiavut are fly-in communities situated directly next to the ocean. Nain is nestled within a small bay at the end of a valley formed by a string of lakes and brooks. As a coastal town, most hunters set out by boat during the open water season or by snowmobile during the months when the ocean is frozen and the sea ice extends along the entire coast, connecting both communities to each other and out to the hundreds of islands along the coast. While living in Nain, I devoted the bulk of my hunting time and energy to black bear hunting. I also had opportunities to hunt seals, ptarmigan, rabbits and hares, and ducks and geese. But black bear hunting was one of my main goals. Labrador is home to both polar bears and black bears, and I am fortunate to have been able to spend time watching both species over the years. I learned to hunt in the mixed forests and agricultural fields of central Ontario, where pursuing white-tailed deer and wild turkey is commonly done sitting in tree stands or ground blinds, often in forested settings where the line of sight might only be 75 meters of half-obstructed views through trees.
In the expansive subarctic landscapes of northern Labrador where a short elevation gain brings you out of the trees, my line of sight extended to many kilometers. Instead of ambush hunting, I was learning spot and stalk hunting, which often involved looking for animals from a boat on the ocean and then going to shore to move in for a closer shot by foot. Black bears are fairly easily spotted from a boat on the ocean as they tend to stand out quite visibly against the rocks and sloping hillsides covered in Labrador tea and partridge berry, crowberry, and blueberry bushes. As a non-beneficiary of LILCA, black bears were the only big game species I was eligible to hunt. I had been interested in putting more time into hunting black bears when we moved to Nain in 2017, and it was a perfect time to learn about hunting the species in a new landscape and with methods that were also largely new to me.
On this hunt, three friends, and my partner Kristeen and I, left Nain for a hunt by boat. Our plan was to make our way to one of the friend’s cabins a little way up TikKoatokak Bay, a fjord north of Nain that stretches some 60 kilometers inland from the scattered islands of the coast. Along the way, we would look for bears on the hillsides, stopping to glass from the boat when we spotted one to see if it looked like a bear I wanted to go after and if it was in a location I could get to from shore. While the mountains around Nain might only rise a few hundred meters in elevation, they are steep and alternate between hillsides of golden, green, and red vegetation and vertical rock cliffs. We spotted a couple of bears way up on hillsides, in locations that were too steep or rocky to get to from the shore. We found one feeding its way along a hillside on the south side of the bay, heading towards a thick band of spruce trees that ran vertically up the hill along a small stream bed. It would be a long shot to get up the hill to cut off the bear’s path before it got into the trees. We got the boat to shore, and I climbed out and made my way along the rocks to the base of the hill and started to head up. Unfortunately, the bear did exactly what we predicted and disappeared into the band of trees. I followed it in, stopping to look every few meters, moving through the trees and slowly up and down the hillside until I came out the other side of the strip of forest with the bear nowhere to be seen. I made my way back down to the boat to continue along. With one unsuccessful stalk and a lesson in bears’ ability to defy their appearance of bulk and brawn and seemingly vanish in a forest right in front of your eyes, we moved on further up the fjord.
On the north side of the fjord, we wrapped around a short peninsula of land that curled out from shore to look into a small circular bay shaped like the inside of a question mark. There was a bear feeding on the long beach exposed by the falling tide and I decided to see if I could get close enough for a shot. We got the boat as close to land as we could, and I hopped out in the shin-deep water to make my way to the shore for a stalk. While there were some small rocks exposed by the receding tide, there was nothing else to provide any kind of cover between the bear and me. The stalk would need to be slow and careful, waiting to move until the bear put its head down to feed or turned away from me.
Bears do not have exceptional eyesight, but they have decent hearing and an incredible sense of smell. In this case, unfortunately, the bear was standing on the edge of the thinnest stretch of the peninsula so there was little I could do to approach from a different direction in consideration of the wind. I just needed to give it a try and hope for the best. At the end of the day, I knew that I would be thrilled if all I got to do was spend a few minutes watching this bear eating in the mudflats. I slowly made my way towards the bear, stopping to glass along the way to make sure there were no cubs nearby. I had already decided that I would take a shot from a maximum of 100 yards because even when hunting with a rifle, I enjoy being a little closer and having those moments to see the animal more clearly. There was a rock a little way ahead of me that looked to be a good distance from the bear and that I thought would give me some cover and make a good shooting rest. As I made my way closer, the bear stopped feeding a couple of times to look around, which meant I also stopped and waited for it to lower its head or turn its body again. Eventually, I made my way to the rock I wanted to use, stopped, knelt, and ranged the bear at a little less than 100 yards. I crouched down and brought my .300 Winchester Magnum rifle into position, and then I just sat and watched the bear for a few moments.
I love watching bears: the glistening movement of their bodies; the way they raise and lower their heads as they feed; the gentle power as they lift and place their paws; and their sometimes-ghostlike presence on the landscape are all captivating to me. I have spent time watching bears in different hunting settings and I never grow tired of the opportunity to just enjoy my proximity to these animals and watch how they interact with their habitats. Like all animals, bears are a part of their habitat, but they also seem to command their surroundings in ways that are different from other species. Eventually, I settled on the decision that this was the bear I wanted to shoot. Crouching behind the rock and settling my rifle into position, I waited until the bear turned broadside to me offering up a perfect shot. It ran only about a dozen meters and then lay down just out of sight behind a small hill. I waited until the rest of the group came to shore and we all walked up to the bear together.
We lit a small fire on the beach and took our time while we cleaned, skinned, and quartered the bear, enjoying every minute of being next to the ocean with the sounds of both waves and the crackling fire. The long days of early summer with sunlight that extended into the night allowed us to enjoy the evening with one another and the work with no need to rush. When the bear was quartered and packaged for the ride home, we hiked to a nearby creek to wash our hands and knives in freshwater. We enjoyed the rest of the long evening cooking food by the fire and catching Arctic char as the tide rose and the sun lowered. We delivered cuts of meat to friends around town and cooked the best meat pies and hearty stews the world has to offer with that bear meat. In fact, the many meals made from that bear solidified black bears as our household’s favourite wild meat. In my office, I have a picture of the bear as it walked along the shoreline a few moments before I shot it, and I enjoy looking at it every day.
Looking ahead, perhaps one of the most important questions is: what should we do as hunters when we want to represent bear hunting with the meaning it deserves and maintain a place for bear hunting as a valued and accepted hunting practice in the future?
I think we need to engage more reflectively with the layered symbolism and issues that bear hunting represents. We will need to engage in these issues with humility and patience, avoiding the temptation to use metaphors of defensiveness and divisiveness and casting all those who disagree with it as enemies and attackers. That antagonistic strategy might have short-term benefits, but I do not think it is a socially sustainable long-term approach to ensuring bear hunting retains a place in our culture. Let’s remember that just as hunters talk about some inarticulable reason we are drawn to bears, so too are non-hunters passionate about the species. Each of our passions expresses in different ways – some to hunt and some to oppose hunting. The lineage of bears that eventually gave rise to the three North American bear species emerged somewhere around five to seven million years ago, so humans have been sharing the North American landscape with bears for our entire history as hunters. Though current cultural differences lead to differing opinions about bears, it is undeniable that bears mean something to us on a level that is imprinted deep within our genetic identity and has been formed through a long history of interactions between our species.
I know that many hunters passionately enjoy bear hunting and care deeply about bears. And yet, our personal stories are too often either deprioritized or lost in the whirlwind of bear hunting politics. Political initiatives to cancel bear hunting almost always disregard the personal meaning of the activity and the deep passion that I, and many others, have for bears. It is critical that we engage in political advocacy and activities to maintain bear hunting opportunities; however, bear hunting cannot only be the symbolic ground zero of political strife around hunting. There are some wonderfully poignant essays and books that take deep philosophical explorations of hunting. I think bear hunters should make a stronger effort to engage in these personal expressions of hunting, specifically situating bear hunting within the broader narrative of the reasons hunting is meaningful and important to us. We need to ensure the expressions of passion and love for bear hunting are not lost amid all the hunting politics. As I hope my experience and story of bear hunting begin to show, there is a great depth to the significance that bear hunting represents to many of us.
I often mark my time living in Labrador by the bear hunt I described here. It was our last summer living in Nain, and it was a wonderful day spent with close friends, smelling the ocean air, hunting and fishing. To me, that was one of the most beautiful black bears I have ever seen. I have photographs of the bear, of myself as I stalked close enough for a shot, of my partner catching a stunning Arctic char that we brought home and cooked, of everyone’s smiles throughout the day, and a set of loving and rich memories of a time of my life spent in a place that will always have its own piece of my heart. Forever.
This post was originally published under the title “Black Bear Hunt in Nain was Truly Special: Embracing the Complexity of It All” as a chapter in the book Tales of the Great Outdoors, edited by Gord Follett.
Photography by Kristeen McTavish.