Emily Hohenwarter is a girl who knows her limitations.
The 12-year-old hunter from Lancaster knows how to handle a crossbow, but she didn’t know what it would be like to shoot at a black bear.
So last winter, she had her dad, Chad Hohenwarter, buy her a lifelike, 3-dimensional, foam bear target for practice.
And on June 16, the rising eighth-grader at Centerville Middle School saw her months of diligent practice with that target pay off when she shot her first bear ever in Quebec, Canada.
“Bear hunting is so much fun,’’ Emily said. “When I walked up to it, I was speechless. I just kept thinking, ‘I just shot my own bear!’ ’’
Emily is the daughter of Chad and his wife, Nicole.
And although she’s only 12 now, she’s been tagging along with Dad on his hunts for several years.
“She loves it,’’ Chad said. “And I love having her with me out there — whatever we’re hunting.’’
Last fall, Emily finally got the chance to be the hunter, rather than the spectator.
She practiced with her crossbow for months leading up to Pennsylvania’s archery deer season.
But her practice sessions were limited to paper targets.
And when Emily finally had a buck in front of her crossbow, she hesitated.
“She said, ‘Dad, do I have to shoot it?’ ’’ Chad said. “I told her she didn’t. She didn’t feel comfortable with the shot, and I’m glad she made the decision she made.’’
Emily made the same decision about a month later during the state’s firearms deer season.
She explained that the live deer looked different to her than the paper targets she was used to shooting.
“I knew where to shoot a real deer, but I didn’t really know what it looked like, and I didn’t want to make a bad shot,’’ Emily said.
Chad was fine with Emily’s decisions, but he also wondered in the back of his mind if his daughter really wanted to be a hunter.
So when she told him last winter that she wanted to go spring bear hunting in Canada, he pressed the issue.
“This was going to be a lot of time and a lot of money, and I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ’’ Chad said.
“I told him I was sure,’’ Emily said. “Bears are so cool. You hear about people shooting deer all the time, but you don’t hear about girls shooting bears.’’
When she assured her dad that she really wanted to hunt a bear, Emily also made a request.
“I asked him to get me a 3-D target,’’ she said.
That left Chad with two easy decisions.
First, he booked a hunt with Senneterre Outfitters in the remote forest of northern Quebec.
Then he bought the 3-D bear target.
“What’s another $200 if it’s going to help her feel comfortable,’’ he said.
Chad moved the target all over their yard, so Emily could practice shooting at a bear from a variety of angles.
“I think that’s what I needed to feel comfortable,’’ Emily said.
(Chad will be getting a 3-D deer target before next fall.)
On June 13, Chad and Emily loaded up their truck and started the 17-hour trek to northern Quebec.
They stopped for the night at a motel near the spot where they’d leave the pavement the next morning and drive the final 90 miles on dirt and gravel roads to Senneterre’s camp.
“This place is really out there,” Chad said. “It’s in the wilderness.”
One of the first things Emily discovered about the northern Quebec wilderness in mid-June is the bugs.
“There were lots of mosquitoes, but they didn’t bother us anywhere near as bad as the black flies,” she said. “They’d get trapped in my hair and just bite my neck.
“My neck was so gross. It looked like I had about 1,000 warts.”
Fortunately, when Emily and her dad climbed into their ground blind the first night of their hunt, they had a ThermaCELL, which kept their hideout free of most of the biting insects.
(If you’ve never heard of ThermaCELL, it’s a device that heats a small pad infused with a natural insect repellent. It’s a spring bear hunter’s best friend.)
The pair sat in their blind from 4 p.m. until dark, which arrived around 10 p.m.
They had one big bear circle their blind many times, but it never offered Emily a clean shot.
“I was shaking a lot,” Emily said. “I’m glad I didn’t get a shot because that showed me what it would feel like to have a bear in close. I knew what I would have to do to control myself.”
On the second night, no bears showed.
It was the third night, around 8:15 p.m., when Emily stomped her foot on Chad’s.
That was their signal that a bear had been spotted.
“At first, all I saw was a black blob out in front of me,” Emily said. “When it moved its ears, I knew it was a bear.”
The bear was heading toward the bait station positioned 20 yards in front of the Hohenwarters’ blind.
But it didn’t want to go straight in.
It circled cautiously, which, at one point, brought it to within 10 yards of Emily.
But she didn’t have a shot.
“I was a little bit scared when it was that close,” Emily said. “I mean — it’s a bear.”
Eventually, the bear felt secure enough to attack the bait.
And when it was standing on its two back legs, with its front legs stretched out, it offered Emily the perfect shot.
“I leaned over and I started to tell her to take the shot, but before I could get the words out of my mouth, she pulled the trigger,” Chad said.
Although she didn’t see the bolt hit the bear, Emily said the shot felt good.
“I was pretty sure I hit it right where I wanted,” she said.
Chad did see the bolt.
“She hit it perfectly,” he said. “She kept asking me over and over, ‘Did I get him? Did I get him?’
“I told her, ‘You got him.’ ’’
The bear ran off only about 30 yards before it collapsed.
The Hohenwarters tracked it themselves a few minutes later.
The guides at Senneterre kept Emily’s bear cool overnight, so that they could take photos the next morning.
Before they did that, though, Emily wanted to tell her mom the whole story.
Since there’s no cell service or landlines in the Quebec wilderness, the guides allowed Emily to use the satellite phone that’s kept for emergencies.
“They could see how excited she was to get her first bear,” Chad said.
Emily’s bear weighed about 150 pounds, Chad said.
That’s spring weight, which is the leanest time of year for black bears that recently emerged from hibernation.
During the fall, that bear likely would have weighed about 225 pounds — which is a good bear for Quebec.
Emily will have a half-mount of the bear done by a local taxidermist, meaning the top half of the bear in a realistic pose will be hung on the wall.
And if Emily has any sway over her dad, Chad had better clear more space on the walls of the family’s house.
“I really want to go bear hunting again,’’ Emily said.