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ARMSTRONG, Ontario - Logging crews haven't used this narrow road in years. Now it is lined by birch and poplar trees that in early October create an archway aflame with brilliant yellow leaves.
Look closely and you'll spot a path from the road that leads into the forest. Follow it for about 40 yards and you'll run into a crib - a V-shaped stack of logs to which a mixture of grain, cooking oil and other goodies is brought daily in order to attract hungry black bears.
About 200 yards away, down a fork in the logging road, is Crombie Lake, which is teaming with northern pike. If fully loaded, pilots of the Cessna 185 float plane owned by Bear Creek Outfitters like to have about a mile-long strip of water, and Crombie Lake can handle those landings and takeoffs quite nicely.
The entire area, so wilderness quiet and scenic, is called Ted's Stand. It is named for Thomas "Ted" Hirtes of Bellevue, who hunted here a year ago and forged a special bond of friendship with everyone connected with the hunting camp -guides as well as other bowhunters.
Hirtes said that his stomach hurt the entire week that he was in camp. But it didn't dampen his enthusiasm for the hunt. His wit and good humor continued to bubble up through the pain.
A bear plagued him for much of the week. It knew he was in that tree stand. The bear would creep in like a black ghost and tantalize him by remaining just out of bow range. At supper that night, he would tell the other hunters how the bear had outsmarted him once again.
Shortly after Hirtes returned home, he visited a doctor and learned that he had pancreatic cancer. He established a goal - to live long enough for one more bear hunt, one more tangle with that elusive black ghost.
When Rob Brodhagen, who owns and operates Bear Creek Outfitters, spoke last January at the River City Hunting and Fishing Expo in Council Bluffs, Hirtes was there to book another hunt. In tow was stepson Paul Black, 30, of Bellevue, who planned to accompany Ted on his return trip to the North Woods.
But those plans evaporated. Hirtes, 56, died June 4, and sportsmen throughout the Midlands mourned his death. He was among the original members of the Nebraska Walleye Association and was a past president of the organization. He qualified for the 1994 North American Walleye Anglers championship tournament. He and Charlie Schneider of Creighton, Neb., won the 1997 Nebraska Governor's Cup at Harlan County Reservoir. He was a Missouri River catfish guide, an avid bowhunter and an accomplished trapper.
Despite his stepfather's death, Black was determined to make the trip to Ontario. He was in camp last week. So was his older brother, Todd, 35, who was on his very first hunt of any kind.
The Blacks kept everyone in the bunkhouse awake one night by giggling like a couple of young boys on their first campout. Dusty Brodhagen, a son of the outfitter, wounded a bear that had broken into the bait shed. The Blacks asked if they could follow Dusty and his brother, Jeremy, as they tracked the bear.
The bear traveled only 100 yards or so. When the Brodhagens approached, the bear stood up. Dusty killed it with a second arrow, but Todd Black didn't stick around to watch the finishing shot.
"When that bear stood up and snorted," Paul Black said between giggles, "I saw Todd take off. He about ran right over me. He looked like a little boy chasing an ice cream truck."
Unlike his younger brother, Todd Black never hunted or fished with his stepfather.
"Ted never pushed me," Todd said. "There were times I was going turkey hunting with him, but, of course, I always had excuses for not going. Paul showed more of an interest than I did."
But after Hirtes died, Todd wanted to hunt with his brother. In August, he met Russ Most, one of his stepfather's best friends, at Full Draw Archery, and received his first shooting lesson. By the time Todd arrived in bear camp, he was a proficient shooter.
"Ted loved it up here," Todd Black said. "I wanted to come up here because I knew it was the last place he hunted. I wanted to see what he saw, meet the guys he met and to hear stories about him."
Paul Black nodded.
"Ted loved everybody up here," Paul said. "They treated him like family. This trip has been great. I got to meet his friends - his family away from home."
Among the hunters was Bill Spry of Columbia, Mo., who met Hirtes last year and served as a pallbearer at his funeral. A bear came into Spry's stand each of the first two nights, but he declined to shoot it because it was too early in the week.
Spry let Paul Black sit in his stand the third night. Paul shot the bear but didn't kill it. The Brodhagens, who are excellent trackers, spent parts of two days looking for the bear and concluded its wound wasn't fatal.
Todd Black also got a shot at a bear but shook so violently that his arrow missed by several feet. His first hunting experience left a hunger for more.
"I can't believe the adrenaline dump," Todd said. "I'm going to take up hunting. I love it. This is such a challenge. I wish everyone could experience it.
"It took awhile. But hunting is Ted's gift to me. All my hunting gear belonged to Ted, even my boots. Everything fits me. I even used his arrows."
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