Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bear hunting with Alaska-Adventures

After spending Sunday night at the lodge and enjoying a couple of great meals prepared by Rocky, Sharon, Sunny (the youngest (19) of Rocky and Sharon's four daughters) and Nancy, Bill and I loaded my stuff back into the 206 and we headed for Aniak. Yes, it was still raining and windy. We had to fly around some of the mountains because the ceiling was so low. I am grateful that Bill delivered me safely every time we flew. I then flew back to Anchorage via PenAir, once again staying at the Puffin Inn overnight. As soon as I got checked in, I called Knight's Taxidermy in Anchorage and arranged for the owner, Russell Knight, to come pickup me and my bears. He arrived in short order and took me to his shop (more closely resembling a factory.) There were mounts and hides and skulls everywhere. His is a world-class taxidermy studio, proved by the works in progress of animals from all over the globe (he even had a giraffe in the showroom.) He took my bears and assured me that I would have two beautiful rugs in only eight to twelve months! He asked if I needed a ride back to the Inn. I did.

The atmosphere at Alaskan-Adventures on the Holitna River is very Christian oriented. Rocky is the son of a missionary who, although he admits to sowing some wild oats in his younger days, has spent most of his life trying to live for The Lord just as his father did. The slogan of his hunting and fishing guide business is "Restoration Through Recreation." According to his first book, "Wild Men, Wild Alaska", experiencing God's creation at its rawest and sometimes most dangerous level is one of the best ways to truly feel the power of our Creator. Rocky believes that by giving men an opportunity to be rid of the distractions of life while thrilling to the natural world of remote Alaska, they can renew their inner fire to live a better professional, personal and spiritual life. Did I feel closer to The Lord after my hunting experience? I did.

While at Alaskan-Adventures, I shared the lodge for one day with a group of fishermen from an organization called Stadia, a Christian Church planting organization. These men (about 15) had Bible study each morning before heading out on the river to fish. I really enjoyed their company. They are someway connected (although I am not sure how) to the Church Development Fund, a credit union type organization that only loans to build churches. One of their head guys was also fishing. I found it very comforting to know that even in remote Alaska, Christians were all around me. We prayed before meals, and we prayed and offered thanks after taking my bears. All in all, I had a great time in Alaska on my bear hunt. I really did!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I get my Black Bear

After harvesting a grizzly bear the previous morning, My guide Jeff and I floated the Holitna River for a day and a half looking for black bear. We didn't see any bears of any color. Because of all the unusually heavy rain that most of Alaska has been getting for the past month (it was still raining), the river was about 8 feet higher than normal, and it was adversely affecting both hunting and fishing. Because salmon naturally die after spawning, the river bank would normally be covered with dead fish drawing in the bears. However, the high water was washing everything away, evidently causing most bears to look elsewhere for the food they would need in order to pack on the fat needed to survive the winter. When Bill arrived in the 185 at about 4 pm, he told me to load up my gear and get ready to head to the hills. I did.

Bill and Jeff where in the front two seats of the Cessna, and I was behind them with the gear. We flew west from the river for about 20 minutes. Bill and Jeff looked to be discussing where to put us, as I was looking for a runway. As we were flying over rolling tundra, Bill decided to land. No runway lights. No runway. No nothing. He just landed on a flat spot on the side of a mountain. Jeff and I unloaded the plane and Bill took off, leaving me and my guide alone in the wilderness. We spent the next hour setting up our spike camp which consisted of two tents and a dining fly because it was still raining. In order to block as much wind as possible, we put our tents in a small group of scrub spruce trees about five feet tall. It helped, but not much. We ate a hot dinner of rice and breakfast sausage. Jeff asked if I wanted some raspberry-lemon mix for my water. I did.

After a long night of heavy rain and gusting wind, I awoke a little stiff from having only the tent floor, a tarp, and a sleeping bag under me. Jeff heard me moving around and told me that I might as well stay in the bag as the visibility was only about 10 feet. I peaked out and confirmed his assessment. Because of the rule prohibiting hunting the same day after flying, we had not hunted the previous evening (it stays light until about 11 pm.) Our plan was to move up to a high ridge this morning and start glassing (using binoculars) for black bear. Obviously, that was not going to happen, at least not right away. I spent the day dozing, snacking, reading, and enjoying the fact that I had my one man portable urinal with me. If I wanted to keep from having to go out in the wind and rain too often, I would have to use it. I did.

The weather lifted about 3 pm,  and we headed for the ridge line. When we got high enough to be able to see the valleys and hillsides around us, we set down in the wind and light rain and started glassing. My Steiner 10x40 C5 Predator binoculars enabled me to closely examine every nook and cranny for about 5 miles to the east, south and west. After only about 15 minutes, Jeff spotted a bear on a hillside to the east, about 2 miles away. We watched it, continuing to scan the area for others. About 15 minutes later, I spotted another one in the opposite direction. It was moving to the right on a hillside about 3 miles distant. It soon moved out of sight, but reappeared about 15 minutes later further down the slope. Jeff setup his spotting scope to get a closer look at these two bears. After several minutes of watching and discussing, we decided to move on the bear that I had spotted to the west, as Jeff said that it was an average bear for the area and worthy of our attention. We packed up our gear and headed out across the tundra. It was open and fairly easy walking, although walking on the mushy tundra was a lot like walking on a lumpy mattress. We walked for about 2 miles parallel with the bears direction of movement in order to insure that the wind did not carry our scent in its direction. We would occasionally see the bear, and once we got past it (in relation to the wind), we turned down the slope and entered the dreaded willow bog that would have to be crossed in order to reach the bear on the facing slope. It was now about 6 pm. Jeff chambered a round in his rifle in order to be ready for whatever might appear in the jungle we were about to enter. He told me to keep my rifle safe without a round in the chamber. I did.

I am not 100% sure if I was in willows or alders. I think they both grow in the area, but it doesn't matter. Whatever I was trudging through was getting the best of me. There was no trail, and no opening through which I could pass. Every foot of progress required stepping over, around or on a branch between one and four inches in diameter. I could no longer tell if it was raining, as the leaves were loaded with water that came cascading down with every touch. The closer we got to the bottom of the slope, the deeper the water on the ground. I had on my hip waders, and my rain suit, but it really didn't matter. I was soaked from the inside with sweat, and from the outside with rain. The stream at the bottom was almost crotch deep, and moving fast. I inched across, hoping that I would not slip and fall, possibly damaging my rifle. I made it across, but only to find more jungle. Jeff would occasionally disappear from sight, but thankfully he would wait on me (did I mention that this was Jeff's 8th year as a Alaskan guide, and that he was about 15 years younger than me and in much better shape?) Suddenly a view to the hillside opened up, and there was the bear. Jeff had already scoped it and determined it to be 230 yards distant. He asked me where my rifle was zeroed? I told him at 200 yards. He said that I should be able to hit the bear from here, even though it required a standing shot while leaning against a tree. Without much thought, I said OK. I sighted on the bear, trying to control my heavy breathing. After several seconds, the bear turned broadside and Jeff said, "Shoot." I did.

Twice. The bear rambled into the brush to the left untouched. I had missed. Twice. Between the distance and my exhaustion of having just spent 90 minutes busting through the willow bog, I was unable to close the deal. Jeff said, "No problem. Come on." I followed. After another 20 minutes or so, I caught up with Jeff (actually he stopped to wait on me) and told him that we should give the bear a chance to settle down by stopping where we were for a few minutes. Jeff agreed and I took a much needed 15 minute breather. After the break we continued up the slope looking for the bear. As we moved up, we left the worst of the willow bog behind us and began to move over fairly open tundra. Suddenly, the bear appeared at about 250 yards up the slope. It was feeding away from us, so we crept closer. At 150 yards, I put my backpack on the ground and took up a prone firing position using my pack as support. The bear continued to feed. I continued to keep my crosshairs on him. He turned broadside. I fired. He fell. Dead. Jeff told me to take a break. I did.

It was 8:20 pm. The stalk on the bear had taken four hours and twenty minutes. I was exhausted, and exhilarated. We moved up to the bear, took pictures, and started skinning. Jeff did most of the work, estimating the bear to be about five and half feet. It was still windy and rainy. I removed my hunting shirt (soaking wet) and replaced it with my super poly jacket. I was immediately warmed. We started for camp at 10:30 pm, arriving just before midnight. Jeff asked if I wanted him to cook dinner. I told him I was going to get in the bag. The rain and wind kept Bill and his plane away for the next two days. We just chilled in our tents most of the time. I shot the grizzly on Tuesday, the black on Thursday, and finally got back to the lodge on Sunday morning, after sleeping four nights on the ground. Bill had to use the Super Cub to ferry us off the mountain one at a time because of the weather. When we got the lodge, Nancy asked if I wanted breakfast. I did.

{Coming Soon: I will wrap up the bear hunt in my next blog.}

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Alaskan Bear Hunt

I departed Alabama on August 7, 2010. After about 12 hours of flying, I arrived in Anchorage. I spent two nights in Anchorage, giving myself plenty of time to make sure I had everything I needed, and to assure that if any of my baggage was delayed, I would be able to get it (it wasn't.) I departed Anchorage on PenAir Monday, August 9, heading for Aniak, a small village on the Kuskowim River in southwestern Alaska. It is amazing to me that a 30-passenger commercial flight would stop at such a small place. The weather was rainy and cool. As I entered the one-room airport terminal, an older gentlemen said, "You must be Bobby." I answered in the affirmative as he identified himself as Bill, my pilot from Alaskan-Adventures. I like old pilots. He told me to get my stuff and follow him. I did.

Bill and I walked across the tarmac to a Cessna 206, a single prop, wing-over, four-seater airplane that I later learned was the largest of three planes owned by Alaskan-Adventures. Bill loaded my gear, which consisted of a duffle bag containing my hip boots, clothes and sleeping bag, a daypack full of hunting optics and emergency and rain gear, and my rifle case, holding my Weatherby .300 magnum rifle with a Swarovski 2.5-10/56 scope. He then told me to get into the co-pilot's seat as he climbed into the pilot's and closed the door. As we were taxiing to the runway, Bill said I had better buckle up because it had been pretty windy on the way in. I did.

After a bumpy ride of about 45 minutes across what looked to me like deserted wilderness, we made an unscheduled stop at the village of Sleetmute so that Bill could check for mail. I stayed in the plane while Bill walked to the only post-office for about 100 miles in any direction (although we flew in and out of Sleetmute, I only saw five or six buildings, none of which looked like a post office to me.) The mail plane was delayed because of the weather, so there was no mail (which should tell you something about the flying conditions.) We then flew about 20 minutes south and landed at the Alaskan-Adventures Lodge at about 3 pm. We unloaded my gear as I was met by my guide Vern, his wife Nancy, the cook, and Rocky McElveen, the owner and Master Guide. I was told to remove my shoes as I entered the lodge. I did.

Opening day for Grizzly Bear in game management unit 19A, where I would be hunting, was the next day, August 10. Because of the Alaskan law that forbids hunting on the same day you have flown in an aircraft, I was going to be flying up the Holitna River about 100 miles to the main camp right away. After insuring that my licenses, tags and other paperwork were in order (and eating some very tasty salmon pate and moose stew provided by Rocky's wife Sharon), I took my gear to a cabin to change into my hunting clothes and separate out of my gear those items I would not be needing in the field (my wallet, i-Phone, money, gun case and travel clothes.) After about 90 minutes at the lodge, Bill, Vern and I loaded into the Cessna 185 and headed up river (the Cessna 185 is a single prop, wing-over, four-seater airplane that I was unable to tell from the 206, but is evidently a smaller plane.) After a nice ride up the river, we landed on a gravel bar beside two Civil War looking walled tents. I was told to move my gear into one of these tents and get ready to go fishing as Bill left to fly back to the lodge. I did.

The main camp consisted of the two walled tents mentioned, as well as two smaller guide tents, two 20' jon boats with jet props, a lot of fishing and cooking gear, and a really nice "reading" chair around back behind some bushes. I could look across the river and see about 25 miles to some beautiful mountains while seated on this, for lack of a better description, ventilated throne. There were bunk beds in the walled tents, and that is where I slept for the next two nights. Vern and I picked up some fishing gear and got in one of the boats and headed up stream. We would motor a while, and then stop and drift or anchor to fish. We caught King and Red Salmon, Arctic Char, and Grayling. We kept the King and Char and cooked them for supper later that night, as it did not get dark until about 11 pm. We also saw a sow grizzly with two cubs on the bank of the river, as well as several eagles and an otter. After eating, we prepared for tomorrow's hunt and headed for bed. Vern told me to get him up at 5 am if he wasn't already up. I did.

After a breakfast of pancakes and sausage, I got my hunting gear together and Vern and I headed downstream in the boat. Our tactic today was to float without power down the river and see if we could find any bears (Grizzly or Black, as I had tags for both.) Although we could use power when needed, Alaskan law forbids firing a gun from a boat under power. We quietly drifted downstream, enjoying the peace of the morning in the light rain. After about an hour of drifting, we rounded a bend in the river and spotted another sow on the bank, this one with triplets. After drifting to within about 50 yards, the mother noticed us, stood up to take a better look, and then split with a snort, followed closely by her three cubs. They were gone in a flash. We continued to drift. After about another half-hour, around 8 am, I noticed a head with ears crossing the river about 150 yards in front of us. "Vern, is that a griz swimming across the river?" He answered by cranking the boat and racing to get to the bear before it got to the bank. As he cut power to the engine, Vern told me that if it was a taker to shoot as soon as the bear left the water. I readied myself for the shot, but as the bear reached the bank of the river the current swung Vern's end of the boat between me and the bear. As the grizzly disappeared into the thick brush, I said, "Vern, you were between me and the bear, so I thought you might not want me to fire." He said, "It was too small anyway. Pat yourself on the back for not shooting." I did.

We continued down the river for another fifteen minutes. As we entered a long, sweeping bend in the river, we spotted a grizzly moving slowly along the far bank at about 250 yards. As we continued to slowly drift down towards the bear, it continued walking along the bank and eventually disappeared from sight behind a big pile of washed up logs. Using a paddle, Vern positioned the boat so that I had a clear line of fire to where we had seen the bear. We quietly discussed the merits of taking this bear, and we both decided that I would try if the opportunity was presented. Suddenly, the bear appeared on top of the pile of logs. Being only about 70 yards distant at this time, we could clearly see the Red Salmon in its mouth. I brought my rifle to my shoulder as the bear stood up to get a better look at us. I put my crosshairs on its chest and Vern said, "Shoot!" I did.

"Did you hit it?", asked Vern. "I should have", I replied. Vern powered up the boat and raced to the bank. He cut off the motor, threw the anchor on the log pile, grabbed his rifle, and sprinted up the pile of logs. I followed behind (only because of where I was positioned in the boat, not out of fear or anything like that.) "There's the dead fish. There's blood on this log. And there is a dead bear", Vern said as he looked beyond the pile of logs. Vern congratulated me on my bear. I congratulated him on my bear. He told me that this may have been the quickest and easiest grizzly he had ever taken. I told him that was alright with me. Opening day, one hour and fifty minutes into our hunt, from a drifting boat, one shot at 70 yards, and I had my Toklat Grizzly. Evidently I was about an inch too close to the bear when I fired, as Vern alerted me to the fact that I had a scope creep scratch on my nose that was bleeding. He asked if I wanted a band-aide? I did.

The bear was in a small creek and under water. Together we were able to pull the bear out of the water and onto the bank ready for skinning. However, first we took pictures. Lots of pictures. We then began skinning. Vern did most of the work, especially the fine and tedious work around the claws, ears, eyes and lips. I helped on the body and the legs. The entire skinning process took us about two hours. Vern estimated the bear to be about seven foot, weighing about 500 pounds. He said that it looked about average for the area. I thought it looked great. We loaded the pelt and skull (both are required to be removed from the field by Alaska law), and headed back up the river to camp.  When we arrived, I was surprised to see Bill and his plane, as well as a father-son hunting duo and two guides. Bill had just ferried them off a mountain one at a time for a couple of days of fishing after hunting black bear for four days up in the hills (they had shot a black bear the day prior.) After introductions and a little bragging by those who had killed a grizzly (me), I was introduced to my Black Bear guide, Jeff. Vern took my pelt and skull and left with Bill for the lodge in the Super Cub, a two-seater, wing-over, single prop bush plane used for "no runway" insertions. Jeff and I hunted for black bear on the river the rest of that day and the next until about 3 pm. We did not see any bear, of any kind. Jeff asked if I wanted to go to the hills to look for a bear? I did.

[Coming Soon: My next blog will tell the story of the Black Bear Hunt]

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dreaming of a Bear Hunt

Well, I finally did. After about 30 years of wishing, and about 10 years of actual planning, I went to Alaska and hunted bear. Here is the beginning of the story. I hope you enjoy it. I did.

One of my childhood memories was of the big brown bear rug at grandma Bailey's house. I heard it was a Kodiak Brown Bear shot by my uncle Urshel Bailey in the late '40s or early '50s. I do not know what happened to that rug, but I can still see those big teeth and claws that fascinated me as a young boy. I remember talking about bear hunting with my cousins as we played on the rug. Although I wasn't sure where Alaska was at the time, I knew I wanted to go there. So finally, I did.

Well, courtesy of the US Army, Kim and I got to actually live in Alaska from 1977 to 1980. Our third son, Matthew, was born there. I found time to do some fishing while we lived there, but I never hunted. I guess it had something to do with work, three small kids, and no money! After leaving Alaska, I became an Alaska "hobbiest." I read about Alaska. I dreamed about Alaska. Eventually, we traveled back to Alaska. We took an Alaska cruise. I went to fish. I went to snowmachine (that's snowmobiling for you Outsiders.) I went to see the sights. I kept dreaming about hunting in the Great Land. I was told to talk to people who had hunted in Alaska. I did.

For Christmas 2008, my wife gave me the book, "Wild Men, Wild Alaska", written by Rocky McElween, a Christian speaker and Alaskan big-game guide. Early in the book, he tells of an adventure he shared with a man named Ralph Meloon, Jr. Oh my goodness! What a surprise. I had attended church for more than ten years with Ralph Jr.'s father, Mr. Ralph Meloon. He is a grand old champion of the faith and a great business man. I am sure that everyone who meets Mr. Ralph feels just like I did; honored and humbled to have been able to speak with such a fine man. {You should google Ralph Meloon and Correct Craft to read the story of this man and his Christian witness in life and business.} Anyway, I immediately went online, found the website for Alaskan-Adventures, and contacted Rocky. I told him I was hoping to hunt, and he gave me some good pointers on how to make it happen. Did I get excited after reading his book? I did.

I sold my business in early 2009. One of the first things I did after that was to make the decision that I was going bear hunting in Alaska. I immediately started making plans. In order to hunt brown or grizzly bears in Alaska, you are required to use the services of a registered big-game guide. I called Rocky. The fall hunt of 2009 was out. How about spring 2010? Nope. How about opening week in August 2010? Right on. The hunt was on! I began the planning and training process. After all, the dream hunt was only sixteen months away. Do you think I bought any new gear? I did.

[Coming Soon: My next blog will tell the story of the Hunt]