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In mid-July 2005, I received a call from Eric Pawlak of Cabela's T.A.G.S., informing me I'd drawn a brown bear tag in Alaska. I couldn't believe it! Odds were better to win the state lottery than to draw this incredible tag. I immediately started my extensive research. You can imagine my excitement in realizing I would be hunting North America's largest trophy! I've hunted a lot of big game, but this would be the pinnacle.
Eric recommended a guide service and shortly thereafter, Rod Schu, one of the owners, called me and it was on! Once again, I was on the phone with Cabela's, this time to order necessary clothing items for the intense Alaska weather. Unfortunately, with two young daughters at home, my wife, Wendy, couldn't accompany me on this hunt. However, one of her brothers, Moriah, agreed to go with me to film the action.
We also arranged to hunt the areas giant caribou a week before bear season opened. So, we said goodbye to our families and were off to Alaska for three full weeks. It seemed like forever by the time we finally lay in our little tent on the island, anxiously awaiting daybreak so we could hunt caribou. Just to get there, we had to fly on four different planes and travel for almost two entire days.
When we finally landed it was absolutely beautiful! We had been warned about the extreme weather the island can have, with average winds of 40+ mph and rain that never seems to quit. It was actually very pleasant that first evening. Moriah and I were in one little tent and our guide, Justin Dubay, was in a tent next to us. Sometime in the night, the weather changed quickly, as it does in Alaska. It was raining so heavily with wind gusts up to 70 mph that we literally could not see 50 feet outside of our tent. We ended up being stranded in our tents for two long, wet, miserable days. We had lots of time to think, not nearly enough reading material and ran completely out of words to say. We were both getting very depressed with only two days left of caribou season and we couldn't even get out of our tent.
Finally, we awoke Thursday morning to some huntable weather, eagerly put on our packs, grabbed our rifles and headed out. It is said that the area may hold the record caribou, but is very different to hunt than anywhere else in Alaska. The caribou are stuck on the island and do not migrate, making them much more difficult to hunt. In addition, this was the second or third year the caribou on this island were allowed to be hunted after being closed for 20+ years; what a privilege!
Justin, Moriah and I ended up hiking about 15 miles that day before the season closed, and after spotting and stalking several big bulls, finally decided to pursue one in particular. That evening, Moriah ended up tagging a nice 380 B&C class bull caribou. We were completely exhausted trying to get the bull back to camp that night, but we finally made it!
The next day, I knew it was do or die time for me. I knew that the outfitter would be coming back to pick us up in his Super Cub that evening so we could go back to his lodge. We desperately needed a hot shower, a warm meal and laundry services, having no dry clothes left at that point. We hunted hard and fast that last day, spotting caribou and nearly running to see if we could find a shooter bull. I finally harvested a 350 B&C bull at the last possible hour. If there would have been more time, I probably would have had the opportunity at a much bigger bull, seeing several 400 B&C class bulls during the hunt. Don't get me wrong, I was extremely happy!
We arrived back at the awesome lodge that night, where we stayed to recuperate from the harsh conditions of the island for a couple of days before heading back out for the brown bear. During our time at the lodge, we got to fish for silver salmon and shoot several geese. I also was able to shoot a red fox and ptarmigan. It was amazing! The terrain is a trip! In some areas I felt like I was in Kansas, at other times I was trudging around in the unfriendly tundra, and sometimes I was trying to figure out the best way to navigate through the fingers and crevices of lava flow. There are several active volcanoes in the vicinity, with lots of black lava flow beds; not the easiest thing to walk around in.
Due to intense management and regulaiton in the hunting of its bears, this unit has the largest concentration of brown bears and the biggest brown bears in the world. There are only 16 tags drawn each year (including residents), eight for spring bear and eight for fall. We hunted for six days, glassing and watching 30-40 different bears, sometimes seeing as many as 10-12 any given day, until we found the one my guide thought we should pursue. We also saw several wolves on the trip, but never got the opportunity to harvest one.
On day seven of our bear hunt we had 30-40 mph winds and it was raining sideways, once again cold and wet with low visibility. The weather on this island was unbelievable! Finally, the weather broke, allowing the sun to peek out for just awhile. We again spotted the big boar we'd seen previously. He was about three miles away. It was still extremely windy, but blowing in our faces so the bear didn't smell us. Bears don't have the best eyesight, but it is said they won't venture into an area with human scent for up to three weeks. We watched the bear for a long time trying to size him up, which was difficult, as he was napping near the edge of a large pond.
My guide, Scott Ruttum, and I decided to put the sneak on and walk around the pond, leaving Kyle, the packer, and Moriah behind and directly across the pond from the bear to film. We finally stalked to within 150 yards of the big old bear sleeping in the tundra. I was well within rifle range, but needed to get much closer to close the deal with my bow. All fellow brown bear hunters know the mental challenge of bear hunting, with the bow factor making it nearly impossible.
Scott and I started to belly crawl... 70, 60, 50, 40, 30, 20. Twenty yards! I'd dreamed all summer of this and couldn't believe I lay 20 yards from a 10-ft. brown bear! I'm not sure why, but he stood up on all fours very nonchalantly, not spooked at all. I made what now seems like a fatal mistake by taking the few precious seconds needed to range him to be sure to use the right pin on such a large animal. I mentally knew he was at 20 yards, but wanted to be absolutely certain. I then drew my bow with the bear broadside for only a split second. Then he slowly turned and started walking straight away from me, leaving no shot with a bow. My heart sank; I thought I had blown it. I let him walk out of bow range, then made the decision to follow at a fast pace. My heart was pounding and I could barely hold my composure as I ran after the bear. My guide had his .375 ready to back me up if needed. In the process of closing the distance, I hit a sinkhole and fell down hard, face first into the soggy tundra. Water splashed up all around me. To make matters worse, the bear stopped several times to look back at me, each time allowing me to draw my bow, but always walking off before I could settle down enough for a shot. I closed the distance to within 35 yards, shocked that this bear is not running from or charging, but just slowly walking along, away from me. Then the bear turned broadside, I came to full draw and let the arrow fly, making what I thought to be a good shot. The bear immediately ran to a nearby lake, not sure what had just stung him. He entered the lake about 150 yards away.
Scott, Kyle and Moriah finally joined me at the edge of the pond where we discussed what to do next. With nightfall quickly approaching, I made the decision to finish the bear with my rifle, not wanting to leave a possibly wounded bear overnight. Bummer for a Pope & Young record, but good for the bear! We watched the bear draw his last breath and then despairingly headed back to camp to try to sleep and get out of the weather for awhile. I didn't get much sleep, anxious to recover my bear the next morning. But how?
The next day the outfitter flew over in his Super Cub and dropped an inflatable raft to us at the small lake's edge. Scott and Kyle then went out onto the water and eventually pulled the bear back to shore. It was all the four of us grown men could do to get the estimated 1,000-pound brown bear up onto the bank! We spent a lot of time trying to position the bear for pictures, quite a chore as the bear was very stiff after spending the night in a freezing pond. We finally got him skinned out and packed back to camp. We spent yet another night on the island until we could pack out to the beach and await the super cub in the morning.
My bear officially squared 9'10", had a 27" skull and was over 25 years old! The guides estimated he weighed at least 500 pounds more in his prime. It was a privilege to take this old boar. He had absolutely no food in his stomach, all his teeth were rotted out or hanging, and he was on his last leg, undoubtedly suffering the effects of a long, hard life.
I am extremely happy with Cabela's T.A.G.S. for setting up this dream hunt of a lifetime!
Just a glimpse into my 2005 hunting season in Alaska. I still can't believe it all happened! Wow, what a year! Take care, God bless and happy hunting!
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