A day in the Maine woods can be full of surprises, no matter how many years you’ve spent afield.

Wild critters abound, and even when a day of hunting doesn’t go exactly as planned, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t end in fabulous fashion.

Last week I received an e-mail from Ellen Tenan of Cherryfield, who told me that I simply had to talk to her husband, Neil.

Neil Tenan had called his wife on Tuesday night after spending the afternoon bear hunting.

“He was so excited and said he had just had the most fascinating experience of his life,” Ellen Tenan wrote. “Since he was into the family hunting camp in Township 18, supposedly alone, I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear.”

As it turns out, she heard a doozy.

And on Monday, I called Neil Tenan to hear it for myself.

“There were two little cubs that came to the bait,” Neil Tenan said. “The mother bear never did come to the bait. She stayed out and ate acorns. The cubs, like kids, wanted the sweet food. They didn’t want acorns.”

So as Momma Bear browsed on nuts about 35 yards from his stand, Neil Tenan was treated to a show as the cubs ate from a large bait barrel and a smaller pail.

“One of ’em got digging into the barrel, getting some bait,” Neil Tenan said. “The other one tackled the little pail I had there. Then they got into a tussle over who would get the pail. They were like a couple of puppies playing, rolling around on the ground.”

The cubs, which Neil Tenan said were small, teddy-bear-sized bruins, had a grand time with the smaller, more manageable pail.

“One of them had the pail lying down, and was about half in the pail,” Neil Tenan said. “The other one ran around the other side and grabbed the rim of the pail and tried to pull it upright with the other cub still in the pail.”

Momma Bear was always nearby, and every now and then she’d make a huffing sound that sent the cubs scurrying up nearby trees.

Most of the time, they just climbed six or eight feet up a trunk and waited for the all-clear.

One time, a cub got more ambitious … and Neil Tenan wound up with a guest.

“The first thing I knew, I felt something hit my tree stand,” Neil Tenan said.

One cub bumped the tree stand, then climbed up a nearby oak tree.

“From where [the stand] is, I can reach out and touch the other tree. I looked over and the cub was about six inches from my elbow,” Neil Tenan said.

Tenan was looking at the cub, but the cub wasn’t looking back … at first.

“He was partially back to me. He tipped his head back over his shoulder and looked me right in the eye,” Neil Tenan said. “We looked each other in the eye for 10 or 15 seconds. I thought he was going to get right in the stand with me, but he didn’t.”

The cub eventually scrambled back to the ground and resumed his picnic.

Tenan estimated that he spent 45 minutes or so watching the mother and her cubs before they all left.

“I told my wife if I never see another bear again this fall, I’ve had my fun right there,” he said. “That was something I’ll probably never see again.”

Tenan’s only regret: He didn’t have any way to properly document the event.

“I would have had my video camera with me, but the battery was dead,” he said. “I could have taken a poleax to it, because I would have had some great pictures.”

Tenan has been back to his tree stand since — with his video camera — but hasn’t seen the three bears again.

That hasn’t slowed him, or dampened his enthusiasm, however.

On Monday, he was preparing to head back to his stand, still hoping for a return visit.

“That was something to see that little fella that close,” he said.

For those who assume that hunters only have fun when they get to pull the trigger, here’s more proof of what outdoors enthusiasts have been trying to say for generations: There’s far more to the hunt than the kill.

Like the chance to spend time with old friends, or make new ones.

Like the chance to share good food over an evening of far-fetched tales.

And like the chance to see something you’d never witness if you’d never bothered to head out the door.

Canada jays perched on the branch inches from your head … a beardless tom turkey dancing back and forth, trying to figure out where the hen is … or baby bears, playing like children and getting a little close for comfort,

Those are the true treasures we find in the Maine woods, I figure.

And I imagine Neil Tenan would tend to agree.

Avatar photo

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...