The best kept secret of brown bear hunting is that it’s not exactly an action sport. Outdoor writers like to focus on the “adrenaline” moments of hunting North America’s most dangerous game, but most hunting literature ignores the process needed to get there.
The drill is to try to stay as quiet and inconspicuous as possible when arriving and camping. Then you climb to a high point and work your binocular for hours and hours. Often you repeat this for days on end. The idea is that after you find a bear, you go after it. Presumably that’s when the action starts and historically that’s where hunting literature picks up and runs. It all keys on finding the bear.
But sometimes, the bear finds you.
I had climbed higher and hunkered down behind the rocks to get out of the cruel wind. After two days of watching the same scene I had to force myself to concentrate. The temptation was to zone out and just wait, but that doesn’t find bears. The upside was that there were a lot of bears. This was my third brown bear hunt and I never imagined I would see so many bruins that I would start to grow bored and let my attention drift while there were bears in sight. But this place was different.
Even when the bears played coy I could watch the wolves feed on a bear carcass half a mile downriver. I had a wolf tag and a strong desire to fill it, but they were so regular about showing up that I kept putting it off until after I found a bear. In the end it didn’t work out and I failed, once again, to fill my wolf tag. A few months after my hunt a pack of wolves attacked and killed a woman close to where we hunted. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the wolves I watched and didn’t shoot were among the predators.
When we set up the spike camp on the Alaska Peninsula two days earlier it was late in the day. We pitched our tent high up on a slippery hill to keep our scent above the river and away from the bears working the salmon run, which meant we had to pack everything we brought on our backs. As usual, I brought too much. After several trips up the hill with a heavy load, and always with a firearm to add to the weight, we finally found that the sandbar landing strip was free of the human debris we call “essential gear.” That sandbar was also an island, so each load had to be ferried across the river, which was high and swollen from rain and displayed a pushy attitude toward hunters in chest waders. This followed days of travel to get from Vermont to Alaska, so I was tired. What I really wanted was a bag of Mountain House protein and a few gulps of filtered water, and to stretch out in my sleeping bag. But when my guide, Luc McKinney, suggested I grab my binocular and we go have a look I could not resist. We couldn’t hunt as we had flown that day, but we could still read the menu.
It was maybe a half-mile hike to a lookout on a high rocky cliff overlooking several miles of riverbed before we settled in and started glassing. By the time darkness called the game, I had seen more bears than in both my previous brown bear hunts combined. To put that in perspective, in two hours I had seen more bears here than in 23 days of hunting in other Alaska locations. Coupled with the natural beauty that is unique to the Alaska Peninsula, I was really starting to like this place.
By the third day I lost count of how many hours we had spent on the rock, but I think my butt had worn the bedrock until it looked like a well-used couch cushion. I had also long since lost count of the bears I had seen. No doubt many were the same bears over and over, but it was undeniable that this place had plenty of bears. We could see perhaps 3 or 4 miles of this wide river valley and it looked like a bear convention. A couple were big males, but they were always in a bad place or it was always at a bad time so getting to them with enough light left to shoot was impossible. One young male worked the river right underneath us all morning. Any brown bear is big and this guy had potential, but I looked him over and decided he needed a few more years. It was exciting, but after he disappeared I found myself fighting to stay focused.
At least my spot was out of the wind. Luc was with the gear, about 8 feet below me in the wind and, like any young, tough Alaska bear guide, defiantly ignoring it. I had my eyes glued to my Nikon when I heard him say, “Don’t move!” When I looked at him my peripheral vision picked up a bear head just behind me—not just any bear head, but one as big as a truck, filled with foot-long fangs and glowing-red eyes, and breathing fire from nostrils that looked like road culverts. (Hey, I know what I saw, okay.)
“Not moving” was never an option. My instincts kicked in and I dove down the cliff and landed beside Luc. I mistakenly left my rifle down there with him when I climbed into my little hidey-hole to escape the wind. When I landed beside the Blaser I pulled it up and pointed it at the bear with a round cranked into the chamber simultaneously as Luc and his rifle did the same. He said later he was surprised how fast I could move, “you know, given your age and all.”
The bear was the missing boar, which could be trouble as they, like any testosterone-filled young male of any species, can be aggressive for no logical reason. But faced with two big-bores pointed at his head, this one simply woofed and slouched away insolently. I had visions of his pants pulled down past his hips with his underwear showing, his hat turned sideways and his hands flashing gang signs. Later we measured the distance between the rock where his front feet were to where I was sitting: 7 yards! That put his nose less than 20 feet from the back of my head. (It’s a wonder my hat didn’t get charred.)
The outfitter, Preston Cavner, decided to move us out of there later that afternoon and I didn’t argue. The big bears had dried up, as is often the case when you are hunting in a place too long. It’s impossible to keep your presence a total secret and the longer you are in a location the more scent and noise you produce. The bears notice, and the big males notice first. Luc told me he had seen this time and again, where an active bear location trickles down in just a few days until all you see are ladies and babies. It was time to move.
The next camp was in a much smaller valley, but no less occupied by bears. The first morning Luc and I hiked in the dark until we found a place where we could climb high up the hillside. After an hour of watching several bears, one came out of the alders and caught Luc’s eye, and we made a scramble to cut him off. After running, wading, ducking and crawling we found ourselves on an island in the river with the bear working the bank 150 yards from us. Luc kept telling me it was a good bear, but something about it just didn’t rev me up. I considered shooting, but in the end let him walk. Maybe he wasn’t the bear for me, or maybe subconsciously I just didn’t want it to end just yet. Whatever the reasons, he just didn’t get my heart rate up like I thought he should.
Late in the day we spotted what appeared to be a very good bear high up on the mountain across the river. This bear was above timber line, feeding and staying out of the wind near the top of the mountain in a glacial cirque. It was hard to be sure because the bear was so far away, but it looked big, with the massive shoulders and head of a mature male. We agreed that if it was there in the morning we would have a go at it.
The next morning we watched a few bears feeding on salmon, including one youngish male that seemed to be pretty good at catching fish and very good at devouring them. But I wondered if we were already burning out this small valley, as the bear activity was a fraction of the day before. It was also the final hunt of the year, so the bears were getting a little hunter-shy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was the last of Preston’s hunters still in the field.
The bear on the mountain was still there, but hell lay between it and us. Luc was too polite to say what I knew was on his mind: I was an overweight, 50-something desk jockey asking him to climb for a bear that was living in a place where few hunters would or could go.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I can’t go as fast as you can, but I can go just as far.”