The early morning snow did not provide much in the way of tracking material, but we made an effort anyway, wandering around the perimeter of the large marsh just south of our camp. A decent bear had presented my hunter with a shot opportunity on the second day of the hunt, howbeit a five-second opportunity, but my hunter thought the bear was too far away. I didn’t think the bear was any further than 275 yards, but it was irrelevant after the grizzly swirled into the bush and disappeared. Now it was day five and we had just spent half the day wading a knee-deep marsh to make our way back to camp.
A few slices of French-toast later I heard Derek (my faithful hunter) whistling and then I saw him motioning for me to come to his little vantage point about 200 yards downriver from the tents. I had the idea that he probably had spotted a big porcupine or something along that line, but he continued to motion to me, so I jogged to the 10’ hump of moss to get a look at what he was watching. Derek had been watching the big expanse of marsh across the river from our camp, but virtually no one expected to see much out in the middle of that watery mess. Certainly he saw something, but he didn’t act excited enough to get me too excited, at least not until I got to that vantage point. It really didn’t take a second look, but I stared through the glasses anyway, since it just so happened to be the first really huge bear I had ever seen in real life, and it was big. For that matter, I had little doubt that we were looking at a ten foot bear. It had that kind of Mafiosi look to it, the same kind of look you expect from drooling Cape buffalo, and it had that swagger that dislodged any notion of smallness. It was simply put, a fabulous site to behold; mid-afternoon and a spectacular thousand pound plus brown bear was waddling across the marsh directly across from our camp, en-route (apparently) to the river bank itself. My first response was to hit the river wading, and to try to catch it out in the open, since the only cover in that country basically consists of fifty yards of alders and willow along the banks of the river. I figured that the bear was around ½ mile from our location on the opposite bank, so I thought we had a chance of getting across the 200 yard expanse of river and through the alders in time to catch him exposed. Within a few moments reality set in, and it appeared that the bear was moving too fast for such a tactic, and we still didn’t know what crossing the river would entail. It was after all, October 16th, and the temperature had moderated to around 40 degrees, but the river temperature was probably below that, and we knew that the water was a bit too deep for the hip boots. We had expected to strip down to cross if necessary, and we planned on putting everything in waterproof bags if the need arose, but we knew we did not have time to do that now, at least not with this bear heading for the alder zone at a steady pace. We considered our options, and we decided to wait for his appearance. Derek ran back and got into position on the edge of a little bluff right in front of the tent, and I remained on the hump of moss, watching the lower portion of a small island on the far side of the river. Derek was in position to watch the upper side of the island, and we fully expected the bear to come out onto the river bank above, or below this small island. The island sat about 50 feet away from the far bank, so we thought the bear might come into view if he opted to cross that channel of water to access the island, and this was, after all, where we had seen two other bears, so we waited with quite a bit of confidence that this was the right place and the right time!
In my mind it seemed to be about 10 minutes or so, perhaps 15, then he appeared! The bear’s head was sticking out from the edge of the alders, not on the river’s edge, but on the front side of the island that faced our camp. The bruin had apparently crossed the channel on the backside, where we could not see, and now he was stepping out into the open in what had to be a picture perfect position. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the bear’s head was the thought that it did not appear as large as I thought it should be, but heck I had just had a great look at it out on that flat, so I ignored the thought about its’ head and I began to motion and whistle to Derek. The bear had stepped out of the alders and Derek had spotted it by this time, but his Model 700 Remington had failed to fire; fortunately Derek had the composure to chamber a second round and this time the rifle did fire, and the bear rolled into the alders after it snapped at the unexpected sting from the .338 Swift A Frame bullet. It had played out perfectly by most standards, but we still had to do a stripped down crossing of an Alaskan river in mid October. Preliminary congratulations were exchanged, as we were both confident that the bear had taken a fatal hit, but crossing the river was the first thing at hand, so we tempered our exuberance by contemplating the ordeal ahead; I simply hoped we could avoid a full fledged swim! Waist deep water is one thing, but swimming in 40 degree water is another story altogether, but as it turned out, we made the other side without even drenching our briefs.
The crossing was followed up with our stalking along the alder’s edge in muddy socks and bare legs, hoping to find the bear dead in the alders, and not on the far bank, across the last channel of the river. I spotted the bear, and after a quick look, and continued congratulations, we got dressed and returned to start the work of skinning. The first interesting thing we observed was the fact that the bear was not a 10’ bear, for that matter it appeared to be an 8’ bear, and this just did not seem possible! I thought this can’t be! The bear we saw crossing that marsh was certainly 9 ½’ to 10’ and the bear we were looking at was simply a big question mark. We walked to the back side of the island to see if his tracks were visible where he crossed the channel, but we found nothing, and to beat it all we determined that it was the main channel of the river sweeping in behind that island with water much deeper than what we had crossed, so this really caused us to reconsider the fact that the bear’s pelt was bone dry. Of course we were confused, but Derek was still very much elated so we got to work and skinned the bear at hand.
After the work was accomplished, we returned to the edge of the island and undressed again as the temperature dropped. I started out onto the sand bar and then I noticed the nice fresh prints from an 8’ bear, and they came from upstream, and on top of this they were on the front side of the island facing our camp. It took this to get it to really settle in, the facts pointed to the smaller bear having come onto the island earlier in the day, and from all appearances he simply wandered out at the exact wrong time. Whether he had been sleeping and just woke up, or whether he had caught the scent of the larger bear and decided to get out of the area, we will never know, nor did it matter. We certainly concluded that we had taken the wrong bear; nonetheless, it was the right time.