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]