This is the exciting part of a brown bear hunt -preparation. Most hunters are not in shape physically, mentally or financially to undertake a project like this on just a whim. For me it takes several months of organization to get ready. However, my bags were packed and sitting by the door one full week prior to departure.
My travel to base camp went without a hitch. The charter flight, in from King Salmon, was a tight fit with other hunters and our gear. I was proud to have the smallest amount of equipment having adhered strictly to the outfitter's recommended list. There was quite a bit of snow and the temperatures were unseasonably cold. Prior to landing I had seen several bear-tracks crossing from one drainage to the next. I was surprised at how rough the terrain was where the tracks were spotted, but it didn't register that the hunt would take place in sheep country. Nonetheless the bears were out.
I would be hunting with a renowned outfitter, Joe Klutsch, and his complement of veteran guides. To say the least the stage was set for a great hunt. That night I couldn't get the big bears out of my mind. Several of my friends had taken huge bears out of this same camp in the past three years. The photos of these giants kept appearing in my head as I rolled myself to sleep.
The next day I was introduced to my guide, Scott Deslaures, and was instantly impressed with his matter-of-fact personality. His knowledge of all the animals indigenous to the Peninsula was fantastic, and I recognized his face from photos of friends with their big bears. He was pleased to have a young client that seemed somewhat in shape. He changed his plans from a fairly easy hunt to a rugged backpack hunt. The plan was to be dropped off by Super Cub and hunt several different mountains during the week. It all sounded exciting to me.
We hiked a couple of miles from base camp the day before season opened to look for bears or bear sign. The wind was blowing a full gale as we spotted into the wind. My eyes were watering, and I remarked that it was difficult to spot in these conditions. He looked at me, smiled and said, "You'll harden to it." This line became a standard joke as the hunt progressed.
The first evening at spike camp was great, with caribou all around us. Of course we were not hunting caribou, but whenever you get two guys together with wild animals around, you just have to sneak up on the herd. Scott was very familiar with the habits of caribou in the Spring. He was explaining why some cows kept their antlers and why others did not, how the cows all dropped their calves at nearly the same time, and how he could tell which bulls had trophy potential while others did not.
These conversations all took place while watching the animals just a few yards away. It was fascinating to me, I had never been around caribou in the Spring.
Scott and I were seeing bears every day and venturing further and further away from our food cache at our main spike camp. The bears we saw were either too far away for a stalk that day, too small, or sows with cubs. I was learning a lot about layering clothes that would enable long, steep hikes without heating up. This would allow long hours of comfortable glassing from our observation knobs. Once we found our pace and the right combination of outerwear, it was amazing how much country we could thoroughly hunt each day.
Midway through my eight-day hunt Scott decided to switch areas. We left a note for our pilot to pick us up on a landing strip that had been used years earlier. Scott figured that we would end up near that area.
The next day, we packed up the entire camp: food, fuel, tent, sleeping bags -the works- and headed out to uncharted bear country. Scott was pleased that I insisted on packing my share of the camp. However, he was ready to pack the entire load by himself. We arrived into our new area late in the afternoon. We dropped the camp at a lower elevation and hiked up higher into the mountains than we had been glassing from earlier. The scenery was spectacular. We watched a sow and three cubs for quite a while and noticed a lot of fresh bear activity in this new area.
Upon returning to the tent that night, our regular freeze dried supper was not going to be enough to replace the calories we had burned moving our camp ten miles. Scott added a package of Ramen noodles to our regular double dose of freeze-dried rations and it was just right. As Scott put it, "I'm plugged." The next morning Scott decided to try yet another observation knob. I literally tightened my belt and we were off. I couldn't believe that I was losing weight while consuming mass quantities of carbohydrates and chugging gallons of water sweetened with Tang.
When we reached the knob, we were on top of the world. The wind was right, and it looked extremely good. Scott matter-of-factly said, "We're gonna see a big bear from here." This comment had me fired up, and I missed my daily one-hour afternoon nap. We were also high enough in elevation this day to be visited by rock ptarmigan. The lower elevations were loaded with willow ptarmigan and their constant mating chuckle.
However, at this elevation, they were replaced by their magnificent, pure-white cousins. Scott was again well schooled on the characteristics and habits of these birds. I could tell that he had a special respect for all of the critters we encountered.
In the afternoon, we split up by 100 feet or so, to gain access to different portions of the drainage through our binoculars. We had just seen a wolverine when I noticed Scott motioning to me again. This time he was a little more frantic, and as I looked in the direction he was pointing, without the aid of binoculars I easily saw what caused his excitement. A lone bear had appeared over a ridge nearly a mile away. I told Scott that I had not been looking for something that large, and that we really didn't need binoculars for locating an animal of this size.
Scott was surprised at how lightly colored the bear was for its size, and without taking his binoculars from his eyes, he announced, "We should call him Ike no, Big Ike." I agreed, and we started making a plan to get closer. Our only chance was for him to lay down. We started cramming gear back into our backpacks and took off immediately to try and cut him off. Our goal was to intercept Big Ike nearly three miles away. He was traveling a ridge and could easily outdistance us over the top and be gone forever.
As he neared the top, we stopped our forced march in full battle gear, and got ready to wave good-bye when he lay down. We knew we might have a chance, and Scott turned up the pitch on our plans and the pace. We hustled up a creek bottom nearly a mile, stopping only to plunge our faces into the creek for a drink.
Periodical checks proved that Big Ike was still there. Our last portion of the stalk would be out of sight from the bear. We checked on him one more time, and he was gone. There were tracks heading down in our direction, and things got intense for a few minutes. However, further observation showed the tracks leading back up the mountain and Big Ike going over the top at 1,000 yards.
We had come so close and worked so hard. These things weren't supposed to happen. If only he had slept for another 30 minutes. If only he had picked a different route. If only a lot of things. As Big Ike disappeared, Scott whispered, "Now that is a Bear." Scott later confessed that this was the largest bear that he had seen on the Peninsula, and that it was definitely in the 11-foot class.
Our long hike back to the spike camp was quiet but eventful. We bumped into two unsuspecting moose. It always amazes me just how big these animals really are.
We made it back to the tent after dark. It was disappointing to come so close to a trophy like that and have him slip away. Then we thought, how many people in the world would be tickled just to see an animal like Big Ike? We were sure it was a far greater number than those that actually have had the experience we had just lived.
My hunt was winding down, and I was ready (mentally), to accept the fact that getting a bear wasn't in the cards and that was hunting. The bears were there, my guide was superb -it just didn't work out.
My flight back to base camp was great. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we flew over hundreds of caribou with calves. It was springtime in Alaska. For a moment it didn't seem important that I hadn't gotten a bear.
I arrived in base camp to hear the success stories of the other hunters I had met on the way in. I was envious of their success. The pilot was off again on his daily check flights and re-supply route. I enjoyed a terrific meal that had never been freeze-dried.
When the pilot returned, he had news for me. One of the other hunters had filled his tag, and our outfitter wanted me in another camp if I could stay. Scott had to be back in King Salmon because of a prior commitment, and our outfitter would be my guide. I re-packed in a matter of minutes, handed the pilot a note for back home, and was off for another stint in the mountains.
Upon my arrival into the new area by Super Cub, I was greeted by Joe, and we had a great visit about Big Ike and the bears they had been seeing. The next morning we were up early and packed for another pack-in spike camp. We kept our weight down, since we had to cross a miserable swamp, a river and then into some of the steepest, roughest brown bear country imaginable. On the way in, Joe pointed to an unusually large bear track left in the mud with his ever-present pick ax. He merely stated, "Sluggo." He went on to explain this track kept showing up, and the bear must be traveling during the night. After seeing this track, our conversations at rest stops always ended up with Sluggo. It seemed as though we had both decided to hunt this one mysterious bear that Joe had named Sluggo.
Our rest stops were interesting in themselves. Crossing the hummock swamps, one notices that Mother Nature has formed all different size chairs. Some are shaped perfectly for resting without having to take off your pack. When it was agreed that one of us needed a rest, Joe would chuckle and say, "Time to shop for furniture." Sometimes we would find such comfortable "furniture" that our rest stops would turn into long visits about all sorts of topics. My favorites were bear hunting stories of yesteryear. Then I realized that here I was in one of the most remote areas in the world -surely one of the most picturesque- hunting giant brown bear with a nearly famous guide in some hunting fraternities, and that these are the "good ol' days."
The next three days' hunting produced five different bears. Two of these sightings were shooters, and one of them could have been Sluggo. However, with the distance between us, and the time of day we made the sightings, a stalk was impossible. It was decision hour, as we contemplated our situation. We were extremely low on grub and there were only two days of season remaining. We could hike out and re-supply, losing one of the two remaining days, or, tough it out with little or no grub and hunt until the bitter end. Joe explained that this was not his typical hunt, but if I was game he was too. We opted for the latter and started rationing our remaining food supplies.
We had two military ready-to-eat packages. They had gone unused because of their unappetizing container. Despite their appearance, they were all that was left. What a surprise, they were outstanding! They contained several courses including dessert and a stick of gum. We really got a kick out of one package called the "bean component". The warning on the package read, "Not to be used at high altitude."
I have failed to mention that on this hunt we were also accompanied by a gal on her first big game hunting trip. Her name is Molly, Joe's black lab puppy. She proved herself as a great hunting partner and a joy to have around. As one of my hunting buddies at home says, "Labs are some of the nicest people I have ever met."
The next morning we were up early for the long hike through waist-deep snow to gain elevation on the bear I had spotted, which could possibly be Sluggo. The trek took from just after sunup until two o'clock in the afternoon. Minutes after arriving at the observation knob, selected the day before, we spotted a big bear just 400 yards away. The bear appeared to be over nine feet, but it wasn't Sluggo. After another few minutes of glassing we didn't have to make any decisions, as three little cubs squirted out from under their mama.
A few hours later, with the sow and cubs still close by, I was burning my eyes through the alders where I spotted the big bear the day before. I was sure I had seen movement; however, I didn't want to announce anything until I was 100% sure it was a bear. I lay on my side and propped my binoculars on a rock, to eliminate any motion when I detected definite movement. I announced my discovery to Joe, and then neither of us could make out a bear. Suddenly the bear stood up. Joe never dropped his binoculars, and he said, "It's Sluggo." He was across a drainage and on top of a knob that was choked with alders. As Joe put it, "He is impenetrable." We discussed a route of approach from an adjacent knob, and despite the thickly gnarled alders, we realized it was our only chance.
We were off in hot pursuit. When we were closing to the area and starting our quiet stalk, Molly aspirated a weed and gave out a loud hack trying to dislodge the debris in her throat. This really had us coming apart as we were both startled and trying not to laugh out loud at each other's reaction to the event.
We reached the adjacent knob and had to relocate Sluggo. Joe found the bear lying with just his head out of the snow among a thick tangle of alders. I chambered a round into my .375 and eased it over my pack for a rest. It was still a 300 yard shot, but a different angle. There was a chance we could cut the distance in half if we could slip down undetected and shoot up at the bear.
We left the knob and my rock-solid rifle rest for a closer shot. We had not traveled 10 yards when the bear got up. I sat down and steadied my elbows on my knees. I asked Joe if I should shoot. He shook his head no. To my amazement the bear lay back down. We waited a few minutes before resuming the stalk. We had not gone two steps when the big bear got up again and started to walk. I took my rifle off safe and asked if I should shoot. As the bear crossed an opening in the alders Joe said very seriously, "Hose him down." I held high on his shoulder and squeezed off a shot. I heard the unmistakable thwap as the bullet connected. The bear was obviously hit hard, and we later discovered that he was dead on his feet. But, with an animal this size, they don't just fold up like a duck. I followed up with another shot as the bear went down and another for insurance. The bear was down and not moving.
It all happened so fast. I looked at Joe and he said, "You got him, You got Sluggo." We waited for about 10 minutes before approaching. I had not been excited or nervous during the shooting; however, now I was a bundle of blabbering, shaking nerves. My thoughts looking back on it are that if these types of experiences don't get you excited, you don't have any business being there.
Walking to the bear was like a dream until the reality of survival was unveiled. Ten yards from where Sluggo came to rest were the remains of a day-old moose calf. Joe explained how some bears develop a special ability to locate cow moose with new calves. Calf mortality from bears in this area is very high. There is not much a cow can do, and the calf is instantly groceries for the bears.
After a great photo session, I decided that I might never again have the opportunity to pack out an Alaskan brown bear hide that I had taken. Joe was pleased at my request, and I didn't realize how far we were from the landing strip.
I loaded Sluggo into my oversized pack, and when I stood up it felt like two bags of cement. I made it to the strip, but I didn't break any speed records. We embarked at about 11:00 PM and arrived at the strip the next day at 7:00 PM.
After returning to Joe's main camp, I enjoyed a fantastic steam bath and sauna, followed by a first class meal with all the amenities. We shared stories about our adventures and then spent the rest of the evening listening to Joe's cook, Wendy Lee, play the guitar and sing. What a way to end a hunt!
I had participated in a classic Alaskan brown bear hunt and done it the old fashioned way . . . I earned it. This hunt was the complete package running out of food, sleeping in the mountains without a sleeping bag or tent, packing unbearable loads for unreasonable distances and several other insignificant little hardships. To date, this was the most impressionable experience of my hunting career. The total event from beginning to end was almost unbelievable.
When I got back home my brother called and asked if I got a bear. My reply was, "As Teddy Roosevelt said, 'I have reached the hunters highest round of fame; I have gotten my grizzly.' His next question was, "WAS IT FUN?"
I answered, "It was an EXPERIENCE."
Author, Gregg Severinson, is the manager of Cabela's Outdoor Adventures. If Alaskan brown bears are on your list of future hunts, give him a call at 800-346-8747, or check out Cabela's Outdoor Adventures
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