Sitting out a blizzard for a week or so, doesn't qualify as a stressful event and nor does a snow machine breaking down 100 miles away from the village, (even when the ambient temperature is 30 degrees below F). They just don't sweat the small things.
That's why I knew something was up when one of my Inuit guides started yelling just outside our canvas tent.
I'd been "on the ice", living in the tent and riding a dogsled for 12 days already and knew enough about the "Inook" language to know that my guide was yelling "Polar bear! Polar bear!". That in itself would have been enough to make me start grabbing gear and readying my muzzleloader, but the agitation in the Inuit guide's voice made it very clear that something was way out of the ordinary, stoicism be dammed, the situation was urgent.
By the time I organized myself and crawled through the tent flap, the situation wasn't urgent anymore, it was downright dangerous. The polar bear was only 40 yards away!
"Shoot!" My guide had his beat up, rusty old .243 trained on the bear. "Shoot!"
The bear stood on all fours, head swinging back and forth aggressively. The sled dogs, tethered off to the side, another 50 yards away were going berserk. The Arctic version of the sun, bright, but not warm, washed the world of what little contrast exists north of the 60th parallel. White on white on white on white...and time slowed. I aimed my Knight, but didn't shoot. The bear wasn't the giant mature boar I'd come to the Arctic to hunt for.
In those slowed seconds I fought a battle that I've come all too familiar with over the last decade, "send the Nosler bullet on its devastating way and go home?" or "let it go and keep hunting for a bigger one?" The Arctic winter was ageing but still in control, making the 12 days I'd already spent "on the ice" a brutal ordeal, both mentally and physically. Believe me, by that point in the hunt, going home to a hot tub, a real meal and real sunshine wouldn't have hurt my feelings. But even as I aimed, I knew I wouldn't pull the trigger unless the bear forced me to. The magnificent animal standing in front of me simply wasn't big enough.
"No, he's not 'ano-jou-ic'." I used the Inook word for "the big one".
My guide risked a look at me to see if I meant what I said and then in one motion, turned back, aimed and fired in snow at the bear's feet. POP! POP! The tiny .243 sounded like a toy, its muzzleblast frozen. Toy or not, the bear backed off a few yards. POP! This time the bullet hit ice and spattered the bear with shards. He turned and walked off into the jumbled, rough ice from whence he came.
That bear was the first male polar bear I'd seen on the hunt; during the 10, even more brutal days that followed, I never laid eyes on another. My hunt finally ended when the dogs, on half rations, couldn't pull the sled another mile; we were nearly as exhausted. I left the Arctic without squeezing the trigger; my quest for the Ultimate Slam with a muzzleloader would have to wait.
The Ultimate Slam
When a hunter has taken a "Grand Slam", they will have taken one of each of the four different species of wild sheep recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club. When a hunter has hunted for, and taken, one example of every big game animal that can be hunted in North America, they will have taken what is variously called the "North American Slam" or the "North American 30" (the number changes as species are listed or delisted). But when a hunter has taken one of each of the 30 species of big game, that can be hunted in North America, and has taken a trophy class animal of each species, one that qualifies for the appropriate "Record Book", that hunter will have completed the "Ultimate Slam".
The late Basil Bradbury, former editor of Petersen's Hunting, is the only hunter ever, who's managed to take the "Ultimate Slam" with a rifle. Likely his feat will never be matched; Basil took at least one animal of each species that was large enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett Record book. If I'm not mistaken, the last, his record book whitetail, was taken on his own ranch in Wyoming shortly before he passed away. Only one bow-hunter, Tom Hoffman, has accomplished this same feat for the Pope and Young archery record book.
Basil was a personal hero of mine, a great hunter and I suppose, in a sense, he was a mentor, his accomplishment became my own goal. Only I didn't want to do it with rifle, I wanted to do it with my own firearm of choice, a Knight muzzleloader. A decade ago, I made a choice to hunt the largest bucks, bulls, boars and rams and to try and take one (at least) of each of the North American species of big game. My criteria was that the animal had to be large enough to qualify at or near the top of the Longhunter Society muzzleloading record book.
During the last 10 years, since I made the choice to selectively hunt for those largest animals, I've gone home empty-handed from more hunts than I care to recount (three out of eight hunts last fall). And that's why I turned down the polar bear, a decision that meant paying for another hunt (no small expense) and returning to the God's most forsaken land later the same year to hunt polar bear again.
Second Time Lucky
Exactly 35 days after returning from my first polar bear hunt, I was back on the ice again, dreading the ordeal ahead. Unlike the earlier hunt, during the entire wintry month of March, the Arctic in May was positively welcoming. The sun never set and the snow was softer, more giving. Better still, the wind, harsh and bitter on the earlier hunt, was tolerable, seldom forcing the temperature below 0 degrees F. I could actually use my binoculars without freezing my eyeballs!
The first evening on the ice, I climbed to the top of an island and spotted four bears including two large boars. The next day, from the top of another island, 10 or so miles away, I spotted one the boars from the day before, making its way towards us. Where the first hunt had been plagued by bad and no luck, this one turned out to be too easy. Mile by mile, we watched the giant boar pad his way towards where we waited. In the end, when I touched the trigger, the 17-year-old boar was less than half-a-mile from our tent. He didn't take five steps after the big 300-grain Nosler sabotted bullet did its thing.
On October 18, 2001, on a snow-covered British Columbia mountainside in and open sheep hunting area, I aimed my Knight muzzleloader at a magnificent full curl Rocky Mountain Bighorn and touched the trigger. When I did, this author became the second person to complete the Grand Slam of wild sheep with a muzzleloader, and the first hunter to complete the Super Slam and Ultimate Slam with a muzzleloader.