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.}

1 comment: