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A Spring to Remember

Over the course of years some of us hear a lot of stories about the pursuit of wild animals in wild places, and some of us are privileged to share in such experiences. The Alaska Peninsula is one of those wild places that impresses the mind with a certain magnificence that typically defies description. It is simply a land of windswept slopes and beaches too numerous to consider, a land wealthy in diversity of wild beast, both on land and sea. In such a place we had erected our little camp in the month of May; three small expedition tents, seven men and the usual supply of freeze dried meals and instant oats that typically keeps us alive during our jaunts into the wild.

Sometime close to 2:30 A.M. I heard voices coming toward the camp and I knew that my assistant guide Jesse Ryder and his hunter Silvio (Cy) Rossi were the only ones that had not returned by nightfall, so it seemed pretty obvious that they had made it back alive. In just a few minutes Jesse’s voice was speaking to me through the wall of the tent and the tale of a huge bear began to develop. God can only tell were such stories will eventually go, and I am persuaded that even He is amused at times by the life they seem to take, especially in this age of the internet. Jesse continued telling me details, and thing that stuck in my mind was of course the fact that they had a bear down, but it was not possible to skin it at such a late hour, so morning would mean a trip in with the skinning implements.

The details were a little more clear the next morning, and Jesse was convinced that the bears was huge, probably over 10 ft., so I decided to go into to the bear’s location, while Cy and Jesse would circumvent the mountain side to recover the packs they had dropped during the stalk, which wound up being far longer than what they had expected. The guys had marked the downed bear with the GPS so I put the coordinates into my unit and set out down the beach since it was much easier walking than the route along the hillside. Three miles down the beach the GPS told me that the bear was straight up the valley 1 1/4 miles, so I climbed a couple hundred feet up the slope along the beach and started weaving my way through the openings in the alders. It was pretty easy going in comparison to a lot of the country we had hunted bears in before, but of course it was spring and the vegetation had been pounded to the ground all winter long and this made a huge difference. Within the hour I found my way down onto the creek and within minutes the bear was in view. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this truly was a monster of sorts; the type of beast that causes one to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, gasping for air, and clutching one’s chest. It was simply huge, the type of bear that has made the Peninsula world famous. The big bear was piled up at the very edge of the creek bank, having collapsed in 2 to 3 feet of water and it was fairly clear that it would not be easy to move the beast out of the creek, if it could even be moved at all.

If it had only made it another 10 ft.!

The 2006 spring bear season had started with difficulty (my guides will laugh when they read this), and I suppose that might even be an understatment. Our 20 ft. skiff had been loaded on a barge weeks earlier in Anchorage and was supposed to be in Port Moller without a problem before we arrived for the season opener on the 10th of May. Not be fully persuaded that the shipping people were on top of the situation we called to make sure, and we were assured by the folks in the office that it was indeed sitting at our destination. Of course when my guides arrived in Port Moller the boat was not there and the reception they recieved was less than heart-warming. Fortunately the boat did arrive and the guys were able to make the trip to the property that had been purchased with a future lodge in mind. We won’t even go into that 22 mile story, except to say they did not get back so easily!

The skiff in Herendeen Bay during a lull in the weather.

I sat on the creek bank with the big bear thinking about the way things had worked out up to this point; the guides had been stuck for the first three days of season over on the property that had ben purchased and my hunters were stuck with me in Port Moller losing opportunity by the minute, and the only thing we knew for sure was the guides were okay. The 13th of May had been our break, for the tides settled enough for the guys to make the trip back to retrieve us and we made the decision to hunt an area that was a little safer for the boat to get to. We managed to get the hunters onshore in the hunt area, throw up the tents, and the guys all headed into the field before 5 PM that afternoon. At that stage I was both relieved and excited about the possibilities.

Several hours passed while I photographed Cy’s bear, and videotaped. A sow materialized on the slope above me with two new cubs, and rain drizzled in sideways while I waited for the guys to show up with their packs. It had been an eventful 24 hours at this stage, seeing as everyone actually saw bears that first evening and everyone actually had legitimate opportunity to take a bear. Of course all opportunities don’t result in success, but Cy’s bear was truly the opportunity of a lifetime come to fruition. The bear was immense and a quick run of a tape measure on the head of the bear told me that it should easily make Boone & Crockett, but what the hide would ultimately square was still unknown.

Jesse and Cy had spotted the bear very close to the top of a 3,000 ft. ridge-line and in spite of the considerable distance, Jesse conned Cy into going after the bruin. Cy later confessed that he had never been pushed so hard in his entire life in what ended up being a 5 hour stalk, up one slope and across another, through alders and rotting snow before the finally drew within range. The big boar was almost parallel across the valley when he began to get wind of the guys, and the decision was made to take him. Cy took his rest on Jesse’s shoulder and at roughly 300 yards he took the shot of a lifetime. The big boar dropped instantly and as is customary, got back up instantly! Cy missed a second shot, but nailed the bear again on the third with his .338 Ultra Mag and the bear rolled end over end, before regaining it’s feet and making it to the creek bottom where it would expire. Little did they know how much work they had gotten us all into!

After what seemed like eternity the guys rolled in and the skinning was able to commence. Over 5 hours later, around 1 A.M. it would be finished, but by then it was obvious that we would not be able to pack the hide out in the dark, at least not in a state of exhaustion, which is exactly where we were after 5 hours of skinning in the middle of the creek. The truth is the hide was soaked and weighed in excess of 250 pounds in that condition, so we loaded up the skull and proceeded to stumble back toward the beach. Things would have been halfway smooth if the tide had been low when we hit the beach, but we caught it just at high tide and this forced us to scramble over boulder piles by way of headlamps, and this left a lot to be desired. It would be 5:30 A.M. by the time we made it back to camp, and we all simply collapsed. Before my mind went numb I asked Derek (my tent mate and the only superhuman in the bunch) if he could go back in with the guys in the morning to get the hide out, and from there I went blank.

The plan was for me to guide Dr. Wong that morning, giving Derek the chance to go after Cy’s bear hide, but Derek rose early and took the good doctor up to a knob behind camp to glass the slope for an hour or two. I was awakened around 9 A.M. by Derek and Franklin’s arrival back in camp, and much to my surprise the doctor had nailed a bear. Things had simply moved at a rapid pace for sure! The doctor and Derek had just got settled in when the bear was spotted, and after missing out on the first opportunity to take a shot, Derek used the predator call to bring the bear back in and Franklin was able to put it down efficiently at 120 yards.

Dr. Franklin Wong’s Peninsula Brown Bear

Things had certainly turned on the proverbial dime! We had been the field less than 48 hours and two out of three hunters had bears down. Too many bears had been spotted to keep an accurate count (roughly 35-55 bears), and everyone had seen good bears, which isn’t always so simple. We made the run back across to the cannery, to send Franklin and Derek home and to get the hides shipped back to Foster’s Taxidermy for expediting, while Don and continued to hunt with assistant guide Jerry Starkey. Unfortunately the weather did not improve and Don’s opportunities were not coming like they had at the first, so he opted to get out a few days early, before the weather turned sour enough to flatten the North Face tent the guys were staying in.

Cy’s bear would ultimately square an honest 10′ 11″ with a net score of 28 13’16” B&C and represents the best of what the Alaska Peninsula has to offer those who desire adventure in real brown bear country. Dr. Wong’s bear was actually the first big game animal he had ever harvested and represented his first real attempt at such, and yeah I know, what a way to start!

Silvio Rossi and his 10′ 11″ Alaska Peninsula Brown Bear