I saw the expected doubt in his eyes, but I made the decision, not him. If I failed to keep up it was not his problem. So we lightened our packs, leaving behind anything we didn’t think we would need. That included my water filter, something I would regret before the day was over. Then we waded across the river and started up the mountain.
We debated long and hard about our approach. At first look it seemed best to head to the west, hiding behind the ridge and then climbing to the top of the mountain where we would peek over the top and down at the bear. But I worried the shot would be too far. Also, we had a strong and constant west-to-east wind. I doubted we could make our way up the mountain to the west of the bear without our scent spooking him. So we settled, instead, on a straight-on approach.
We spent the first several hours fighting up the steep mountain through an alder jungle like nothing I have ever experienced. The place was as steep as any sheep or goat slope I have climbed, but it was much more difficult to ascend. The boulder-strewn surface was covered with plants, moss and lichens that conspired to hide what lay below. It was wet, slippery and muddy, so it wasn’t long before we were both soaked to the skin and covered with the detritus of Alaska. You never knew if your foot would land in a hidden hole or on an unstable spot filled with slippery goo, as if a giant with a bad cold had hocked a loogie on the mountain, creating a nasty slip-and-slide for hunters.
The alders were so thick my Southern buddies would say, “a dog would have to back up just to bark.” Fighting through them with a pack and a rifle was sheer energy-robbing hell. The tangled mess looked like the same giant picked up massive handfuls of springy alder trees, mixed them up and dumped them in a confused, snarled pile. Getting through them was like digging through a lumberyard after a hurricane. Just when you thought you had it figured out, the twisted trees grabbed at your boots like hidden ghosts reaching out to trip you. Every few hundred yards we would find a bear bed, some dry and still warm. Clearly, we were not seeing even a fraction of the bears that populated the area. I wondered how I would maneuver a rifle in this jungle if we found a grumpy boar that took exception to having its nap interrupted. This occupied my mind and kept it away from the less appealing thoughts, like how we were going to get back down through this mess after it was over.
When we finally broke out of the tree line the bear was still there, sleeping. Using the terrain to hide our approach, we continued the climb, but the next time we could see the bruin it was up and feeding. We worked out a way where one guy went ahead 50 yards and then watched the bear through his binocular while the other guy covered the distance. At the first hint of the bear raising its head, we waved our hands and the guy moving would freeze.
We were close to the place I wanted to shoot from when the wind shifted and the bear went on instant alert. I knew that after a week in bear camp I didn’t smell much like a rose, but the reaction was so fast and so deliberate it startled us both.
The bear took off up and across the open hillside. I sprinted to my shooting place, but the bear had also opened the distance and it was farther than I would have liked. Still, I had put in a lot of practice time and I was confident I could make the shot.
My first shot caught the bear a little too far back, but it caused him to stop for a second and I hit him again. Then he was up and running while I continued shooting. At first, Luc called my shots high as he could see the bullets hitting the hill behind the bear, but I could see the impacts on the bear in my scope. I was shooting some early samples of the new 350-grain .375 Barnes Triple-Shock X bullets in my Blaser R-93 .375 H&H Mag., and I knew they would probably penetrate a truck. I figured he was seeing the impact after the bullets passed through the bear. I have read for years about how an adrenaline-fueled bear can soak up a lot of lead, but to actually witness it was amazing. We would find later that the Barnes bullets were doing an incredible amount of damage, but the bear stayed on his feet and kept moving.
I believe that if they are up you keep shooting, so I did. I managed to put several shots into the bear in a very short time. Most brown bears are shot close to cover, so the hunter will get one or, if he is lucky, two shots before the bear is out of sight. This situation was unique, as we caught this bear in the open and I could see him and keep shooting. I knew my first shot was probably fatal and I am certain the next one penetrated both lungs. But I have never been one to admire any shot on game. I keep shooting until they are down.
Finally, the bear fell and started to roll down the mountain right at us. Luc was yelling to shoot, but that’s a tough target and I was low on ammo, so I held off. The bear stopped close enough to make us a bit uncomfortable and got up on his feet. I hit him again and he went down. Then I put one more in for insurance, and it was over.
As I predicted, the climb down was worse. Luc had the bear skin and skull in his backpack while I had everything else, except his rifle. We slipped and skidded our way down the mountain faster than we came up, but the trip took an even greater toll on our bodies and on Luc’s rifle. I had kidded him earlier about how his rifle couldn’t be any uglier, but I was wrong. He fell while crossing a steep, rock-filled ravine and dropped the rifle. It clattered, rolled, banged and bumped for 25 yards down the rock-filled slide. It took quite a while just to retrieve it, and when we did it still worked, but was a lot less pretty. I told him to ship the gun to me and I would do a beauty makeover on it during the winter. He said he figured the scars were earned and he liked it just fine the way it was.
Hours later, I found myself staggering along the riverbank, further burdened by the abandoned gear I had picked up on the way. We were way past talking and were in “just get to camp” mode, just putting one foot in front of the other. Still, I smiled as I remembered how when we stopped for some water an hour before Luc told me he was impressed. “My young clients could not have done what you did today,” he said, in what I guessed was a youth-filtered compliment. I was staggering and about at the end of my endurance. I focused on the camp, which was close, and thought back to the moment it became real.