The dream hunt

Posted 9/22/20

After hours of silence in a blind deep in the northern Bighorns, Jayden Lewis finally had an opportunity to harvest a bear.

The boar was new to the bait near Porcupine Falls, having not been seen …

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The dream hunt


After hours of silence in a blind deep in the northern Bighorns, Jayden Lewis finally had an opportunity to harvest a bear.

The boar was new to the bait near Porcupine Falls, having not been seen on scout cameras prior to the hunt. And it was huge, Lewis said — maybe 350 pounds.

They had been in the blind since 6 a.m.; the bear came in 12 hours later.

Lewis’ heart was beating fast as he took aim.

“It seemed like a long time,” he said, “but it was actually only a minute.”

His hunting mentor and friend, Josh Lancaster, was next to him. The two had exchanged “quiet words” during the slow moments of the hunt. But now there was an opportunity to harvest a trophy, and they remained silent.

The jet black bear knew something was up and kept looking in their direction. Finally, the smell of maple syrup and donuts was too much to resist and the boar offered his side. From 87 yards, the 16-year-old Lewis squeezed the trigger, sending the 6.5-284 Norma through the custom-made Best of the West rifle. It was a shot taken under great pressure.

Across from his blind, a Best of the West videographer trained his lens on Lewis. It was a pretty tough situation for a kid to be in on his first bear hunt — everyone watching and waiting back at camp wanted him to get a great bear. He could feel their eyes on him.

This was Lewis’ dream hunt. Well, sort of. His actual dream hunt was to be an October elk hunt. The bear hunt was an earlier option, “just in case,” Lancaster said.

The bullet went over the bruin’s back and he quickly escaped. Lewis’ heart sunk.

The disappointment of a misplaced shot often defines a season, if not longer. Most hunters have been there — the one that got away has haunted every outdoors enthusiast since sharpened stones were the only available ammo.

But Lewis knows far greater disappointment. Long before squeezing the trigger he’d seen more hard times than most.


The diagnosis

Last year, Lewis went out for football. He’s a pretty good-sized kid and smart enough to memorize a thick playbook. But soon after starting the sport he had some pain in his lower back and legs. He got pills. They didn’t help. He went in for X-rays. They weren’t conclusive. Then he got an MRI.

The diagnosis was osteosarcoma — bone cancer.

Osteosarcoma begins in the cells that form bones. It is most often found in the long bones, more often the legs and sometimes the arms, but it can start in any bone, according to the Mayo Clinic. The cancer tends to occur in teenagers and young adults.

Each year in the U.S. there are about 16,000 children aged 19 or younger who are diagnosed with cancer, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, which says, “approximately 1 in 285 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday.”

Only a small portion of federal research dollars go to children’s cancer research. The National Pediatric Cancer Foundation reports less than 5% of the billions of dollars the government spends annually on cancer research is directed towards treating childhood cancer.

If osteosarcoma is caught before it spreads, those fighting the disease have about a 70-75% chance of long-term survival. If it spreads, the chances of surviving drop precipitously.

Lewis has it in his pelvis and back and the tumor continues to grow. He went through more than a dozen rounds of chemotherapy — so many he has lost track. He also went through 13 radiation treatments.

“In August, we went back and got some scans that show that the tumor has relapsed,” said Jessi Bourgeois, Jayden’s mom.

Lancaster, his hunting mentor, explained that, “we arranged the bear hunt because we didn’t know if Jayden would be here to go elk hunting in October.”


A successful hunt

After missing the first bear, Lancaster and Lewis refused to give up and were back in the blind before sun-up the next day. The camera crew had to leave so they were out there alone. They sat quietly through the entire day. Occasionally they talked softly.

“He’s like my brother,” Lancaster said.

The sun was about to disappear and Lewis wanted to see if there was enough light to see a bear should one come to the bait. He picked up his rifle, looked downrange and, to his surprise, a black bear with a white patch on its chest was already on the sugary enticement. “I kind of zoomed in on the bait and I saw the bear’s head pop out,” he recalled.

Lewis didn’t hesitate. He found his target and placed a perfect, double-lung shot. The bear ran about 50 yards and succumbed. Ron Vining and Justin Henderson, Lancaster’s co-workers at the Christian organization Polestar Outdoors, heard the shot back at camp and came to investigate. After a short wait, they all tracked the bear together, celebrating when they found it.

They took pictures of Lewis holding his bear. The smile on his face was honest; he was ecstatic.

“It brought me to tears,” Lancaster said, choking up a little while reliving the memory.

The dream hunt, arranged by Lancaster through Polestar Outdoors, was an effort to give Lewis a chance to do what he loves before it’s too late. Thanks to the quick work of Dawayne Dewey at Dewey Wildlife Studio in Cody, Lewis already has the skull of his bear in hand.

Founded in Powell, Polestar uses hunting and fishing as venues to bring adult mentors and young people together. The Christian organization strives for long-term relationships that have both spiritual and outdoor recreational benefits through greater appreciation of nature, the development of hunting and fishing skills, sportsmen’s ethics, and conservation practices.

“We call them our Polestar family,” Jessi said.

It’s hard to separate the brief moments of joy like the hunt from the dire reality Lewis is facing. On Tuesday, Jessi and Jayden headed to Houston, hoping to enroll in a clinical trial at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center. It’s the top osteosarcoma facility in the country, Jessi said. Without an answer to prayers, doctors have given Jayden less than a year before the cancer takes him. “We are hoping to do as many fun things as we can while he is able,” Jessi said.

Jayden splits time between his mother, who lives in Texas, and father in Billings. He also lives with his grandparents, Scott and Janice Hecht of Powell, and calls Powell his home. “During his chemo treatment, we would fight over who gets him — mom, grandma or dad,” Jessi said in jest.

Jessi and Jayden have spent long days, weeks and months together while going through treatments. UNO was their game while in Shriner’s Hospital for Children, in Salt Lake City. There was always excess time to be together while there.

“We played all the games,” Jessi said. “We’ve always been close. But there’s a different kind of close when you’re stuck in a small hospital room.”

Lewis now goes back to memories of the hunt to help pass the time before his next medical regimen.

Daydreaming, he said, “helps take your mind off it for a while.”

To help: Jayden Strong bracelets are available at