Hunting > Big Game

Dreaming of Brown Bear

There's no better place to be than floating down an Alaskan river over the backs of dying salmon with a brown bear tag and a new Remington rifle.

4/19/2010

People ask how was hunting brown bear in Alaska. But then adjectives struggle to draw fresh claw marks in the sand. The place was too large for words, at least for sober people, and anyway killing big game is always too personal to truly explain. But then, even as you try, a cell phone interrupts.

They hold up their hand as if to say “hold that thought” as they take the call and turn away.

Then you remember, really remember in that rude modern moment about the silence you found in Alaska, about the quiet you’re sure all hunters seek in the wild, about that unexplainable primal connection that helps replenish us. It was the special something Saint Francis of Assisi used to revitalize a decadent church. The spiritual something Henry David Thoreau tried to capture in prose, and so nearly did. The something Teddy Roosevelt used to bolster a weak body so he could do more than most would ever dare dream.

But all that is too metaphysical for small talk, so when they detach themselves from their electronic leash you just smile and tell them floating down a wild Alaska river was grand.

Which is how it almost was drifting, paddling down the Aniak River in late August and early September, floating on ice-melt water over the red backs of dying sockeye. Though to be clear, when Master Guide Bob Adams loaded Linda Powell, head marketer for Remington Arms, and me in his Cessna 385 he did so with boisterous cheer that was hardly silent. He then fired up his plane and motored us, blue smoke billowing, airborne with one loud snarl of a four-stroke engine spinning a prop. There certainly wasn’t silence then, but there was, as sound isn’t what the silence is. The silence is rather a void created by a sudden lack of technological interference, a time when iPods no longer sing in our ears, TVs no longer scream for attention and cell phones have no service. The silence comes when our sensory awareness is left undistracted, allowing the sublime to flood in unmolested. And all that certainly happened as we flew over the wild countryside.

As Bob soared over a state the U.S. Senate purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867 for 2 cents an acre, we looked down on miles of wide, peaceful-looking stretches of moss-colored tundra. We saw that the tundra extended from white-capped mountains and ended at balsam poplar and mountain alder that wended along a freestone stream.

Bob roared over the Cessna’s headsets, “See the silvers? They’re holed up, thousands of ’em, in the slack water gathering the courage to swim upstream. Here, I’ll dive closer.”

As we buzzed treetops we saw that, sure enough, the river was alive.

“Sockeyes have been in a while. Bears are feasting. The moose and black bears are up higher, in those foothills of the Kilbuck Mountains where they’ll be rutting and we’ll be hunting them soon. They steer clear of the brown bears. The wolves are spread out now. Caribou are coming down, but not so many yet.”

Some 60 miles of Alaska later Bob put us down on a dirt strip near a half dozen buildings built over decades from supplies carried upriver in small planes. We saw cabins with metal sheeting around their bottoms to keep the wolverines out in winter and fully knew where we were.

The camp bustled with guides and cooks. Now, when you travel here and there to the world’s hinterlands you learn to read the mood when you arrive. Some camps drip testosterone, others reek of overworked men, bitter, tired people who see you as a chore personified, still more make you feel like you’re a loved, but seldom-seen relative. This one fit the last category. You could sense that all the people there to make bear and moose hunts happen didn’t want to be anywhere else in all the world. Bob’s boisterous manner had much to do with this. His sassy wife, Charlie, perhaps had more. She ruled the camp with a loud, uplifting work ethic that was happily infectious as they all drank the silence in great gulps and slaved like pioneers. 

Drifting for Brown Bear

We unpacked our gear in small cabins knowing that very day we’d be floating down a river and camping on gravel bars hunting brown bear. The gear we’d carry was critical, as the weather is fickle at 69 degrees latitude. I was toting Remington’s Model 700 XCR II, which has clean, smart, simple lines and is strong as an oar, yet elegant and as functional as we know the Model 700 to be. Okay, talk like this makes you realize why gun writers have long insisted firearms have female names. But this simple, accurate, hard-hitting rifle did fit the hunt.

We then made sure airline-baggage jokers hadn’t knocked off our scopes. Before the trip the rifle, which was chambered in .300 Remington Ultra Mag. (RUM), put three-shot groups of 200-grain Premier A-Frame bullets in just under an inch at 100 yards for me. It’s adjustable X-Mark Pro trigger broke cleanly at 3.5 pounds. Its proprietary rubber butt pad ate recoil. I shot boxes of ammo in every shooting position to prepare for this dangerous-game quest and the rifle’s recoil didn’t leave a mark on my shoulder.

I was at first reticent about toting a .300 RUM, as I wanted a .375 or a .416. Then I compared ballistics and bullets and came to my senses. The 200-grain A-Frame has a ballistic coefficient of .395. It left the muzzle at 3032 fps and was still going 2138 fps at 400 yards. In fact, at 400 yards it still packed 2,030 ft.-lbs. of energy. Compared to the .375 H&H Mag., the .300 RUM wins the race. Though a 300-grain A-Frame bullet from the .375 has more muzzle energy (179 more ft.-lbs.), the 200-grain bullet from the .300 RUM passes it at 200 yards by about 100 ft.-lbs. and never looks back. The .300 RUM is also a much flatter shooter at long range. Comparisons against renowned brown bear slayers like the .375 eased my unfounded concerns. Then Bob assured me that many of his hunters tote the .300 RUM and that it has earned his respect as a brown bear killer.

We loaded into a Super Cub, a plane Bob could land on short stretches of gravel bars, and were airborne again zooming a dozen or so miles downriver. We landed on an improvised runway as suddenly as a mallard into a stiff wind. Those little planes are astounding.

As we waited for Bob to return with our guides, Dino and Aaron, we cast spoons into pools in a slough and were soon fighting huge rainbow trout and laughing and feeling so much a part of this wild place. Then the guides landed and we inflated the rafts. We floated downstream and a few miles along we passed within 20 feet of a brown bear. The bear stood on its hind legs and woofed, then bounded off slapping its jaws.

We marveled and paddled on and miles later pulled onto a gravel bar where we literally pounded tent stakes into brown bear tracks.

As you can’t hunt the same day you fly in Alaska, we cast silver spoons again and this time hauled in sockeye, grayling and char until our arms hurt and fingers bled from sharp salmon teeth.

Into the Sloughs
Morning found us stalking into sloughs, as the bears like to fish where the salmon are trapped and where they aren’t likely to bump into people. Dino and I still-hunted down a slough on the east side without much success. Linda and Aaron went up a feeder stream on the west side and had a sow and cubs fish within feet of them. Linda was bubbling with enthusiasm back at camp. They’d seen a lot of bear sign.

The luck stayed with her in the afternoon. Bears lay up in dense alder thickets in the warm hours of late-summer days, then come out again to fish as the sun sets. Linda and Aaron took a stand in a logjam on a section where the river flooded and deforested the shoreline the spring before. It was the kind of place bears use as byways to fishing holes. They’d just settled in when a lone, large brown bear popped out and strode toward them.

At 60 yards Aaron said she’d better shoot, early in the hunt or not. And she shot marvelously and was done so quickly.
She’d killed an old, dry sow. Its head was blocky and its shoulders muscled. Linda said she couldn’t wait for a taxidermist to do a full-body mount so it could be immortalized in her den.

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