Big Bores Leave Scars
Thunder pealed from the end of the .458 Lott that my client had borrowed from me while I tried to keep my binocs focused on the bear that had been bedded around 2oo yards above us. A long second, perhaps two elapsed before the bear plunged downhill on a dead run, and I was yelling “Shoot it again!” even though I wasn’t for sure at all that the first shot had connected. It was a fast moment and the bear was long gone from sight when I took the glasses down and looked at Dolph (my hunter) only to see he was slightly dazed, turned my way, with blood streaming down his face to the binoculars on his chest. A lot of things usually transpire at a moment like this among men who are hunting, but as you can imagine there is usually some laughter, so we didn’t disappoint, though Josh (Dolph’s friend and guest) and I tried to act reasonably concerned about the injury, but it was hard to do with a straight face. Dolph had not fired a second round of course because the first shot did not go well at all, which was obvious from the blood being on the man and not on the bear. He was hoping to connect with the bow, but the opportunity just wasn’t there to get any closer so he had opted to take the shot with my “stopping” rifle, but when it was all said and done the bear had not been hit and after some time looking at the tracks in the snow patches among the alders we concluded that the bear had one the first round.
It was mid-May, the weather was gorgeous (always a fragile balance) on the Alaska Peninsula as we flew threw this gorgeous valley for the second time in 30 minutes, eyes scouring the landscape to see what we could see before the final decision was made concerning our potential camp. I had already made up my mind concerning where I wanted to be, but being in a Super Cub often changes a man’s mind, so we had been looking along the coast, but this second round through the valley revealed a decent 8 ft. bear on the beach right on the only stretch we could land on. It was kind of one of those optimistic beacons, but we did have to do quite a few circles before the bear finally opted to get out of our way and allow us to land on the black sandy shoreline. I felt good, of course you can never read too much into this kind of an event, but it always make an old guide feel better when you have to run what you come into the country to hunt, off the end of the Cub strip!
Dolph’s hunt was starting 5 days into the spring season because of scheduling conflicts, but I could not complain at all on this day as I was running around in a T-shirt on the beach looking at potential places to set up the primitive camp, which I finally concluded it was best to actually put it right above the high tide mark in the driftwood piles and so I went to work while our pilot flew back to pick up Dolph.
The super Cub had put me down on a gravel bar at 1,500′ where my apprentice Sergey was waiting after our plans to land up high had fallen through, due to excessive winds. 20 minutes later our first client arrived, who I had not met, nor spoken to, since it was a father/son team and all of my communication had been with the son, Nick. It just so happens that Konstantin “Stan” climbs out of the Cub and within minutes we discover that he is originally from the Ukraine, having emigrated more than 30 years ago, and Sergey was born in Russia, and emigrated to the US when he was 16, shortly after the end of the communist era. The conversation goes back and forth quickly from English (still with accents mind you) to Russian, and it seems pretty obvious to me that the Ukraine, Russian crisis is viewed differently by these guys than what it may have been viewed by the average American who feeds a little too heavily on supposed media truths.
It would take quite awhile before the Cub would make it back with Dolph, then the pilot took back off for the final trip to bring Josh in, but within minutes of his departure I had spotted a nice blonde brown bear about 1/2 mile down the beach from our new home. I convinced myself it was a sow, and of course it wasn’t relevant anyway as far as hunting goes since Alaska doesn’t permit same day airborne hunting, but Dolph and I spent a considerable amount of time watching her scouring the beach-line and flipping over sizable boulders in search of an easy meal. even at a distance it was easy to tell she was a beautiful bear, and it was also becoming pretty obvious to me that there were only a limited number of locations that these bears could get down to the beach and she had just came down one of those few areas. Most of the shoreline collided with a bluff in this area that reached anywhere from 100′ high to 1,000′ high on the extreme, and often it would stretch for a mile or more with no place for bear or human to get up or down, so this was a good thing in mind, for it meant there would be some real productive spots to keep our eyes on.
The next day would of course dawn with the usual excitement that is routine for day one of a hunt in such a grandiose country, and we began the day by glassing of course, and eventually we began the climb up the 800′ high knob right next to camp so we could get a better look at some of the surrounding landscape, in particular we wanted to get a glimpse of the valley that this beautiful creek flowed through.
It wasn’t the most difficult of climbs but we did have to posthole our way through several patches of rotten snow as we continued upward, but we got some incredible views along the way. Lots of moose were showing up in the valley, and the patches of brown fur kept our attention but no bears were sighted as we made our way to the top of the knob. We spent a fair amount of time up on top, but eventually I was curious about the front of the slope that dropped down toward the beach and we decided to work our way around and back down toward camp systematically glassing, and it was halfway down the steep front slope that our first day opportunity appeared. I can’t recall who spotted it first but the very light brownie was not much more than 150 yards down below us, if that far, and the terrain was semi-open so we were pretty excited about our possibilities.
Everything always hinges upon the wind in brown bear country of course and if the wind is perfect then you can very often get up close and personal with a bear, but on the flip side of the coin, if it turns the wrong direction, that same wind will bust you every time. It was hard to tell for sure, but it seemed that the thermals were moving up the sunny slope so we decided to continue on a path straight down toward the bear, thinking that we had a pretty good opportunity to get close enough for Dolph to use the bow.
How much time elapsed I am not for sure, but it could not have been much more than 10-20 minutes, but it was difficult to avoid some noise as the extremely dry and brittle vegetation snapped under our feet. We slowed our descent to avoid too much noise, but I had visually marked in my mind the last place I saw the bear and it was not much more than 75 yards when I saw its back drop below the horizon line between us and the further edge of the actual bluff’s edge itself. We knew we were close and we shed our packs and let Josh follow at a distance behind us as we began what we expected would be the final 50 yards or so before the bear would appear before us. The air had that certain aroma of tension as we crossed through a couple of the last openings before the spot I had marked in my mind. I was thoroughly convinced we were in the 30 yard range and I moved deliberately with caution expecting to see the top of the brownie’s back at any moment, then it happened! Nothing! We were looking at the spot where I knew it should have been and it simply wasn’t there. We scoured the slope in front of us down to the edge of the bluff, which was less than 30 yards away and there was no sign of a bear. We scoured more of the terrain in every direction as we scratched our heads, but the big alder patch back towards our camp was beginning to look suspiciously like the route of the exodus.
There is always a sigh when adrenaline ebbs out of the central nervous system and so it was with us when we finally realized that something happened, whether it was a shift of the wind, a little too much crunching of the brush underfoot, or the bear had simply made a fateful move into the alders that would preserve its life. We didn’t know, it was just obvious that this one wasn’t where we wanted it to be and the only place it really had to disappear into was a 1/2 mile stretch of alders that could have hid 20 bears!
That first day stands out quite well in my memory, but over the next several days things would kind of become blurred because the activity was pretty relentless. We spotted the big bear down the beach to our east in the same area that the blonde was working on the day of our arrival and we thought we were in business again with the bow as we set up in a pile of driftwood awaiting the bear as it seemed to head in our direction, but after less than 30 minutes the bear had decided to simply head back up the access point which it had came down and it vanished into the labyrinth of alders. Then we spotted the bear that would result in Dolph getting his forehead cut open with my .458 Lott at the end of a great stalk further up the creek from our camp, and what really transpired there I can’t say for sure, but I can say Dolph’s decision to use an upright dead timber the size of my arm as a rest didn’t work out to well when the trigger was pulled
It didn’t let up much after the miss, for the same bear materialized again as we sat on the big slope watching the meadow below and at 300 yards we watched the bear have a stare down with a young bull moose at 25 yards, but right when we thought the bear was working toward our position it opted out and did what seemed to be the norm, vanish into the labyrinth. Another morning would have us on the beach watching a big bear that I was certain would be near the 10 ft. mark sit on top of our main slope and announce to the world that he was king of the valley. The same bear came off the slope in ten minutes, then began working its way in the wrong direction away from us as moose began to pop out of the alders in front of it and two more bears showed up on the same slope, but we were still a good half mile or more away. It was tough watching the big boar move out of sight, but I knew there was no chance to catch up with it so we continued to watch the mountain to see what kind of opportunity we might have, and ultimately nothing would work out at that moment but the adrenaline was continuing to rise.
Technically our fifth stalk would begin with Dolph and me going it alone into the meadow to glass, wrestling in mind whether to get on the slope, or to remain in the meadow below hoping to be in striking distance of whatever may pop out on the mountain. As I meandered along the edge of the meadow looking for the optimal spot to glass from it happened, and a first for me at that; after 17 years of Alaska guiding without having seen one, suddenly two white wolves appeared at less than 50 yards, Headed straight toward us on the old bear trail, their heads were down low and Dolph instinctively readied the bow, but at roughly 25-30 yards they simply veered off into the alders without having ever made eye contact with us, and we were left dumbfounded, but amazed. It was simply one of those moments for me that is etched in color on the mind, but we had other matters to attend to, so we retreated a short distance, sat down and began glassing the slope.
It wasn’t very long before the brushy hillside became productive again as we spotted the dark bear for the third time. Dolph and I were both convinced this was the bear he had missed, and had confronted the moose and eluded us, and now we decided, as a matter of principle that we were going to go all out to close the gap and get on this bear.
We watched the bear work a small section of hillside around the base of a prominent cliff and when it disappeared among some bluffs we decided our best bet was to go straight up the 1,000′ slope to get above and hopefully maneuver into position from the top. Of course the slope didn’t look all that difficult in comparison to climbing after sheep, but there were quite a few places that we literally found ourselves climbing up through alders without our feet even touching the ground. There was a lot of sweating, huffing and puffing, but I didn’t want to waste much time and I knew when we got to the top we would be able to move without too much trouble. Unfortunately there was a pretty good cut in the slope once we got the first ridgeline so we had to go all the way to the top and circle back around the cut to get on the main ridge leading toward the bear. All in all we had probably spent close to an hour which always makes me nervous, especially considering we could not see the bear during this time.
After getting our wind we began moving quickly across the top back toward the last place we had spotted the bear, and within 10-15 minutes we were in the ballpark, but the world looked totally different from up on top, as it always does, and trying to spot the bear below us was not as easy as we had hoped. We glassed everything, moving cautiously, glassing the slope below us and the terrain rolling all the way back to that certain lazy creek that dissected the valley below, but we saw nothing, then it happened. A moose was spotted near the base of the slope and it was looking uphill. The brush was noisy, and we were concerned that the bear would hear us as we worked slowly down to get a better vantage point, but now I was sure the moose had heard us and appeared to be watching us so I hoped it would not do anything that would give us away. We watched it for a moment, before I finally concluded it was not watching us at all but it either smelled the bear, or was watching the bear so we maneuvered to the next little rise directly in front of us and there was the back of our bear rising above the grasses and devil’s club. The moose had pin pointed the location for us and we quickly decided it was not going to be viable for Dolph to get on this bear with the bow due to the noisy brush, so he opted to take my Brno 602 once again and he got into position, waiting for the bear to give us a better view. It was only a moment or two before we could see everything from the bottom of the belly up and Dolph let the big 450 gr. Barnes TSX loose from the Lott and the bear responded as if a train had hit it. Fortunately for Dolph there was no blood coming from his end this time.
The bear was down on a patch of snow in the midst of the alders and devil’s club and after some admiration and congratulations we returned to camp to return later with Josh to help us get the work done, and as we worked our way back off the slope down to that gorgeous clear water creek the wind picked up to 40-50 mph. with sleet and black sand peppering our faces as we made our way back out to the beach, but we hardly gave it thought, knowing that any storm approaching would be just a little too late to keep us from our prey.