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It Can Be Easy

2014 Spring Hunts Going Smoothly as One Can Ever Hope

There is little doubt that a man can put in a lot of time in pursuit of big game and never get a really big break, or an easy hunt as we would say. As a master guide, having pursued big game in Alaska for nearly 20 years now, I can assure you that easy hunts are not the norm, and in my experience they are a rarity, but occasionally all of the elements do come together for a given hunter and this was pretty much the case for us this spring on the Alaska Peninsula.

My hunter Mark had paid his dues hunting with us a couple of years earlier for sheep, when the ram we were pursuing just would not cooperate and remained just out of range, and mostly out of sight for 6 hard days on a ridiculously nasty slope in the Alaska Range West. On top of this he had to cut the hunt short by three days when his work demanded his presence, so we suffered a truckload of miles, many frustrating routes on a slope that just would not cut us a break, and repeated appearances by the rams we were not interested in, all in the course of that hunt, and now we were pursuing brown bear on the Peninsula, and things had not started out perfect.

Discussions about the hunt had revolved around the drainage that I had hunted during the last spring season on the Peninsula which was 2012, and honestly I had fallen for that particular valley like a wino falls for a fifth of Mad Dog 20/20, but we know that seldom works out in the long run. This particular drainage had been good to us in 2012, but we couldn’t get back into it during the October 2013 season due to high winds on the coast so we opted to hunt further inland with great success on that hunt, but I still had plans of returning to this beautiful valley in the spring of 2014. The Peninsula however, has a mind of its own!

a great brown bear valley
The beautiful valley we would not get to see!

After talking with our Cub pilot for a while, we decided to fly onto the coast to see exactly what everything was looking like. We knew we had considerable wind (probably 30-40 mph) over the water, and we knew that we had some competition trying to play hardball in some of the areas as well, so we flew without a lot to look forward to. There was a couple of other potential areas that were of interest as a “Plan B” but as we approached the head of one potential drainage my head smashed into the top of the Super Cub as the thermals became totally erratic. The Cub probably dropped 10′ to 20′ in a 1/2 second and after 15 minutes flying around in this area we knew it wasn’t going to provide us with an opportunity to find a new place to land.

Coming out of this bay we encountered the winds whipping over the open water as we circled back west along the coastline and it seemed like deja vu all over again from the previous October. Fuel being burned with little chance of getting down where I wanted to, and when we finally came by the mouth of the creek on that lovely little valley we spotted some of our competitors standing next to a tent that they had foolishly placed right next to the mouth of the creek. It mattered little for that day, because we could not have put down if we wanted to with wind doing its thing, thus we continued onward.

I was back and forth with the pilot about potential hot spots, and I still had the hankering to remain on the coast, and as we entered the last big bay before turning back inland we landed for a few minutes, so I could get out and stretch my legs, and shake some of the effects of the turbulence off. 15 to 20 minutes later we got back into the air and circled around one side of the bay that I had considered before with just enough beach to land, and as we circled a second time I spotted a bear standing in the water about a mile from the stretch of beach that I was interested in. Of course seeing a bear from the plane in Alaska doesn’t mean a whole lot, for bears appear and disappear on a whim in this country, and they don’t readily hold to patterns like moose, or sheep, unless of course there is a food source they are focused on, but it seemed like a positive sign for me, and the winds were not as viscous in the somewhat protected bay so I opted to have our pilot put me down on the new stretch of beach.

Peninsula brown bear habitat
Looking southwest from the landing strip

Apart from the wind, the weather had been picture perfect so far, and for the most part we never complain on the Peninsula if it isn’t raining, so a little wind may have diverted our original path, but it wasn’t going to dampen my mood. I quickly began setting up our new Hilleberg Altai tent, which is basically a yurt that only weighs in at 9 pounds, and I was preparing for the most comfortable camp I had been in for the past 19 years. It would be my first time in a camp with cots, and seeing that my partner Cole had prepared all of the meals before hand, and vacuum sealed them, it would be my first time in more than 15 years eating anything other than Mountain House freeze dried meals. We had enough pork chops, chicken breast and steaks to feast on like kings for 10 days, so I was feeling somewhat comfortable. Mark would be into the camp in roughly an hour or so, and I managed to get everything set up and ready to roll without a hitch.

Hilleberg Altai on the Peninsula
The Hilleberg Altai nestled against the alders.

It’s never pleasant when things don’t go perfectly according to a given plan, and I knew that Mark would likely be disappointed by the fact that we didn’t make it into the planned drainage, but I have been around on the Alaska Peninsula long enough to know that all of the bears don’t live in just one magical valley, and the bear would end up appearing on the coastline just north of our camp before we retired for the evening, so I knew Mark’s doubts were at least eased a little, and my optimism was running pretty high.

Daylight starts early in the spring, and Mark stepped out of the tent somewhere right around 6:30. He may have been outside for a minute, maybe long enough to heed the call of nature, I’m not sure, but it was just a moment before I heard him say “Bear!” and I rolled off the cot and into the hunting clothes and out the door! One thing I do know about bears is you very often have a limited window to make your move, so we didn’t waste time with this opportunity. I got the spotting scope out and glassed the old boy as he made his way along the beach, right toward our camp and from a half mile out he looked like a great bear, certainly a bigger bear than the one we had seen the day before.

The bear was not moving slowly, so we hustled along the edge of the bluff straight toward him, hanging in the edge of the alders, and thankfully the wind was directly in our favor. I could see one access point that I was concerned with along the bluffs and cliffs that met the beach, and my concern was that the bear would get to that one place and make a move off the beach and up onto the top, where he could easily give us the slip in all of the alders, so we hustled a little faster, hoping to get to the access point before he could disappear. We had roughly 750 yards to go from the tent to the access point and by the time we got it down to 300 yards or so the bear had vanished behind the grassy dunes and was working his way along the very spot we were concerned about.

As we eased our way along the edge leading into the access area I had expectations of one of two things; either the bear would be working his way up the 200′ high bluff, or we were going to encounter him somewhere very close. We eased cautiously along the grassy rise, around 5′ to 10′ above the high tide mark on the sand, Mark on my left, as I scanned everywhere for a glimpse of moving fur, then boom! Mark spots the bear at roughly 15 yards, right on the beach and just beneath the grassy lip we were standing on. At this stage I am sure I muttered something about shooting whenever he was ready, seeing that the thing was in close bow range, and Mark didn’t hesitate. The shot was made, and the bear never made it off the beach.

Big Peninsula brown bear
Mark and Tony with an “Easy” 9’+ brownie on opening morning

When it was all said and done, I looked at my watch and it was only 6:58 AM, and I had not had time for my morning coffee, and we had a gorgeous 9′ plus brown bear down. It had been the easiest bear of my career, and Mark wasn’t complaining either!