September 29, 2023
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Bears can materialize in an instant. One moment the land is empty, the next a big grizzly is standing there, 200 yards away. And when the bear does appear, you can almost feel the landscape tilt a bit, and each footstep that brings it closer seems to rattle the earth and the hunter’s nerves. It’s these moments when the odds can shift at any moment—and not always in the hunter’s favor.
The funny thing is, the odds of me even hunting grizzly bear on this trip to Alaska weren’t in my favor. I was tagging along with my friend Jason Morton, marketing director for CZ-USA, and playing second fiddle on his fourth attempt to kill an interior grizzly. In fact, I figured my chances of hunting bears were so slim, I hadn’t even bought a tag just a week before I was supposed to make the long haul from my home in Nebraska to our jumping off point in Kotzebue, on the edge of Alaska’s formidable Brooks Range. But then a fateful phone call came through from our outfitter, Brad Saalsaa of Alaska Wilderness Charters. Saalsaa is a veteran guide and outfitter. Many of my friends had hunted with him, but this would be my first trip. We talked about Morton’s bad luck in previous years and my hesitation of spending extra money on a bear tag of my own. Saalsaa had heard enough.
“Just buy the damn bear tag,” he said. “There are getting to be so many bears up here, Jason will surely kill one, and you better have a bear tag in your pocket when he does, because you’ll likely kill yours at the same time.”
Two mature grizzly bears at the same time? No way would that happen, but I bought my bear tag anyway, adding it to the caribou and wolf tags already in my pocket. I threw in a fishing license, too, because it could be a long nine days in the Alaskan bush if past hunts were any indication.
As the tundra tires on the Super Cub bounced to a stop on the gravelly banks of a wide, unnamed creek, Saalsaa’s voice crackled over the headset: “Welcome to bear camp.” It had been a short but scenic hop over from Kotzebue. We’d seen a couple of bull moose from the air, though Saalsaa assured me those were an anomaly. It seems the grizzly bear population had exploded so far out of control that moose populations in the unit were spiraling downward. Numbers were perilous, and the non-resident season for moose had recently been closed.
I’d flown this same country a few times before, and I’m always amazed at the landscape. If there is more beautiful—and imposing—country on earth, I’ve yet to see it. The pair of tents that we’d booked as our accommodations for the week were pressed tight into the treeline, providing much needed cover from the high winds and thundering rain that so often sweep across the Chukchi Sea and down out of the Brooks Range. Morton and videographer Bill Owens, who’d be filming our hunts for an episode of Petersen’s Hunting Adventures TV, had gone in ahead of me. Along with our guide Jeff Tart, they were waiting to help ferry the rest of the gear from the makeshift runway up to camp. Tart had the serious, hard-working demeanor of a man who spends a month or more every year living in the Alaskan wilderness, guiding hunters on their dream hunts, and making sure they all get home safe and, hopefully, successful. His Army career was evident when he punctuated each sentence with “sir,” a habit Morton and I would have a hard time breaking him of in the days ahead.
After I stowed my gear in one of the tents, Tart went over the safety briefing and general plans for the hunt. Bear hunting is serious business, and he wanted us to know what we were in for. He pointed out where he had stashed first aid kits and trauma gear; passed around the revolver he carried on his chest pack, along with the emergency responder; and let us know how and when to summon help.
With that in order, he then gave us a tour of the makeshift kitchen he had thrown together, showed us the oversized tubs of freeze-dried meals that would make up our week’s rations, and told us to consider this our home for the trip. From here on out, we’d be on Tundra Time, those long days of late summer in the North that allowed plenty of daylight for hunting. And with a couple days of good weather before a forecasted storm blew in, we’d better make the best of it.
The next day, our plan was to hike a few miles downstream to the confluence of the Squirrel River, where we’d find a place to sit and watch as much of the riverbank as we could. Pods of salmon were still coursing up the Squirrel, and the area’s big grizzlies should be concentrated along its banks, feasting on the fish’s fatty skin as they bulked up before a long winter in hibernation.
The problem with this plan was the landscape. The river valley here was pancake flat, and willows lined the banks. Every spot we found offered limited glassing opportunities. Any little bit of elevation could have helped, and I joked we should have packed along a stepladder. Tart sounded like he would consider it for future trips. As it was, we staked out a sandbar in the middle of the Squirrel, tucking ourselves into some brush, each facing a different direction. Downstream, we could see a few hundred yards of river, but it was winding and brush-choked, leaving plenty of blind spots that could hide the biggest of grizzlies and we’d never know it. Upstream, the river took a hard curve, but the high bank was flat and open. Also, there was a lot of bird activity as gulls and ravens picked at dead salmon along the shore. Over the course of the morning hours, we saw several chum salmon breach the surface of the Squirrel, creating loud splashes we secretly hoped would attract hungry bears.
Tart had warned us bear hunting was mostly boring, punctuated by moments of excitement. With that still fresh in our minds, we busied ourselves as best we could. I had some books loaded on my e-reader and planned to spend the day reading in between glassing sessions. The snacks in our packs beckoned all of us, and we were soon lamenting our rations wouldn’t last the day. Owens realized he’d forgotten to pack a spoon and set about whittling one from a piece of driftwood. He’d barely gotten the shape roughed out when Tart whispered an alert. “Bear.”
THE CURSE IS LIFTED
That single word threw the group into action. Owens stashed his half-finished spoon and spun the camera upstream, where a mature grizzly stood pawing salmon from the outer edge of the river’s bend. Morton grabbed his rifle, and I gripped mine tightly. Tart ranged the bear at 618 yards, a doable shot for Morton’s CZ 550 Magnum Badlands Rifle in .338 Lapua—if there was a place to get prone. A short stalk to the edge of the willows put us a bit closer, but still too far for a safe and ethical shot. No one wanted to deal with a wounded grizzly, so we’d have to close the distance even more.
There was just one obstacle. We’d run out of cover. There was just a wide, sandy channel between our group of four humans and one large interior grizzly bear. Luckily for us, the bear was distracted, splashing in the Squirrel for another salmon to strip. We circled back and then sprinted across the open gap to the same side of the bank where the bear was fishing. The sow had lifted her head once, but I couldn’t tell if she’d seen our approaching mob.
As we resumed a more careful stalk, through the short willows, the bear had disappeared. I lifted my binoculars and caught the furry, brown rear-end of a bear fade in the far treeline. The grizzly must have caught our movement and spooked out of the territory. Likely we’d never see it again. I caught up with Tart and Morton and relayed the news. “Can’t be it, sir,” Tart responded. “The bear has to still be here. Somewhere.”
Just as they took a few steps forward, I caught movement to our right. The oversized head of a grizzly bear appeared from below the steep riverbank, less than 100 yards away. The bear pulled itself up the bank, looming large at such close range. “Right there!”
We all froze as the bear swung its gaze our way. Seemingly unconcerned by our presence, it walked back up the riverbank. Finally, the big grizzly turned, giving Morton enough of its shoulder for a shot. At the crack of the rifle, the bear collapsed and rolled down the embankment, splashing into the Squirrel. The curse was broken. And suddenly I realized I would be hunting a grizzly bear after all.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
It took a bit of work, but the four of us managed to wrestle Morton’s now soaking-wet grizzly from the Squirrel and up the bank to some level ground. After a few pictures, we went to work skinning out the bear. It was barely past the noon hour on the first day of the hunt. I now had eight more days to fill my tag. If the weather held.
I reminded Tart of the bear I’d seen walking into the nearby woods, but he doubted it would reappear. With our enthusiastic celebration on killing Morton’s bear, and all the scent we were spreading getting it skinned, certainly the second bear knew we were there and had lit out. Still, we still had six or seven hours of sunlight, so Tart suggested we retreat a few hundred yards and stake out the spot for the rest of the day. Tart could work on caping out the skull, I could read my book, Morton could relax with his success, and Owens could go back to work whittling out a spoon.
It was a beautiful afternoon on the tundra, warm with just a light breeze in our favor. We shucked layers and stretched out in the sunshine, enjoying the good weather that’s so rare in that part of the world. It was a lucky day indeed. We were all pretty comfortable when I heard Tart whisper the magic word for the second time that day. "Bear."
I had just glassed the spot a moment before, but it was now filled with a big, beautiful boar. He had the classic grizzled hump that gave the bear its name, but all four legs were a dark chocolate shade of brown. He stood broadside, just a couple hundred yards away, watching for salmon in the river. When he splashed into the water, we made our move. Though 200 yards was a doable shot for my CZ 550 in .375 H&H, getting closer is always better. Until you get too close. I set up on my sticks behind a lone, tall pine along the riverbank. The rest of the group was to my left, hidden in the sparse willows. The bear climbed the bank, stripped the salmon of its skin, and then walked directly at us, swinging his big pumpkin-sized head toward the water as he searched for more fish.
Closer and closer, the bear came—100 yards, then 90. At 80 yards, brown fur filled my vision. I reached up and dialed the scope’s magnification to its lowest setting. The crosshairs quivered on the bear’s chest. I held just below its chin, but I wasn’t comfortable with the front-on shot. Done right, it would put the bear down in its tracks. A slight miss either way could cause the bear to run, likely coming right over the top of us. I hesitated as my finger pressured the trigger.
Just then, the bear lifted its giant head. It had spotted the carcass of Morton’s bear and gotten nervous. As the big grizzly turned broadside, I centered the crosshairs a bit high on the shoulder and pulled the trigger. The bear collapsed in my scope as I shucked in a second round and followed up with an insurance shot.
In the months leading up to this trip, I’d prepared for an adventure. Grizzly tales are fraught with extreme danger and difficult conditions. Now, with two bears down in just a single day, this hunt seemed almost too easy, anti-climactic even. Of course, we still had eight days left to fill our remaining caribou tags, and as we’d soon find out, good luck can turn bad rather quickly.