Every now and then I will post a story written by one of my clients or grand kids. This story was written by Tom Wells and it was published in the Alaska Professional Hunter Magazine in 2002. I guided Tom on two more hunts where he harvested a 40" ram and a 60" moose. We had a wonderful time and I am proud to call him my friend.
In January of 1999, a good friend, Harry, our wives, and I attended a Safari Club International Convention in Reno. As in the past, we would each do our own thing while on the convention floor, then join up in the evening to enjoy each other and discuss our experiences of the day. This day, we happened to meet on the convention floor. Harry told of just leaving Brent Jones of AAA Alaskan Outfitters and the conversation he had just had with him. Harry knew I was going to book a brown bear hunt during the convention, and Brent had just told Harry of a cancellation he had during the May 2000 hunt, which Harry was already booked on. Harry told Brent to hold that spot for me and I/we would meet him later to confirm that I would take that opening. Harry told me that I was under no obligation, but I should try to meet Brent and decide that evening if I wanted to take that slot. (Harry said that he had already arranged to have Brent guide him, which says a lot for Brent.)
That afternoon I tried several times to see Brent, but, each time I went past his booth, he was tied up with prospective or past clients. I made up my mind that, if AAA was good enough for Harry, they would be able to provide me with the hunt that my father and I had dreamed out loud to each other almost thirty years ago. My father began to loose his eyesight and then died. To my regret, we never had a chance or, to be honest, took the time to live out our dreams. (If you are a father or a son reading this, please, please, don’t make that mistake.) I met Brent at 6:00 that evening and signed the contract without any questions and without knowing many details. After all Harry would have asked the right questions and studied the information and, as always, that was more than good enough for me.
For the next 16 months, Harry did most of the hunt planning with Brent; I took care of the travel arrangements and sourcing special gear, like lace up boots on hip waders. I never took the time to read about brown bear hunting, watch the AAA video completely (if I even had one), or anything else to prepare for the hunt.
May 2000 came and all I had done to prepare for the hunt was sight in my new Jarrett 375 Rifle. We were off to Anchorage. Of course, not knowing what to bring (my fault, not AAA’s), I took way too much gear. To make matters worse, I convinced Harry to do the same. I had shipped ahead two large Rubbermaid containers, plus took a duffle bag that would carry enough gear for two people. AAA must have thought that the President and all his men were coming to hunt. To their credit, they never let us see them laugh at what had to be the most gear that they had ever seen on a hunt.
Harry and I were met in Anchorage, by Dick Koskovich. Harry has known Dick for some time; Dick had also guided for AAA in an earlier life, so Harry asked him to go on the hunt with him. We arrived in Anchorage a day early (more of my just in case planning), and Dick knew the town well, so the three of us visited several sporting goods shops and taxidermists . . . A really fun, unstructured, no rush, no pressure day . . . the type we all should have more of.
The next morning, as the three of us left the hotel for the airport, I knew I was in trouble after it took two people to load my gear into the airport shuttle and Dick was carrying his gear and gun with one hand. Two flights and five hours later, we were in Pilot Point, Alaska. Pilot Point once had an active canning operation, which I guess is why it’s there. For those of you who may not know where that is, let me describe its location this way: Pilot Point is the most remote place on the Earth that UPS ships to. I know this because I paid to get all that extra just-in-case gear (like I might have to live there for two years) shipped there and back.
Harold, who I believe was the airport manager, met us at the plane. We loaded our gear in his truck and went to his house to wait for AAA to pick us up. We waited for about two hours, during which time, I remembered I had not brought my spotting scope. Harold to the rescue; he had one just like mine that I rented for the hunt. With all I shipped and carried for this hunt, can you believe I forgot one of the essentials of a bear hunt?
Harold said our planes were coming and we should go over to the other airport. I couldn’t believe that a village of less than 150 people would have two airports, but it did . . . one with a gravel runway and the other mostly dirt. As we arrived, I saw my first Super Cub Airplane. I have been riding around in planes for 35 years and thought I’d been in everything with wings. I watched in amazement as the planes landed into a 35-knot wind, on what seemed to be less than 150 feet of runway. I was even more amazed as I watched Harry and his pilot take off, using even less runway. It was then that I met Roger.
As he walked toward me, he extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Roger Morris. We’re going to hunt together.” I tried to take my gear to the plane, but Roger insisted on doing all the work; it was to be that way all week. Roger loaded my way too big duffle and said, “Hop in.” Now if you have ever been in a Super Cub, you’ll know that a 6’5”, 235 pound, 56 year old, does not “hop in”. Roger was very kind and patient as he helped (more like pried) me into his plane. Roger then “hopped in”, started the engine, and headed into the wind. In less than 200 feet, we were flying. What an amazing machine.
The flight took about 45 minutes. Roger took this time to answer all my questions, along with pointing out those things that a first time Alaskan hunter wouldn’t know. When we landed, Roger put all my gear in our cabin. During our afternoon meal, he introduced me to everyone. The rest of the afternoon was spent talking, sighting in rifles, getting ready for our hunt, and relaxing. Roger was always there for everyone, but always doing something. I felt this was a man I could really like.
After a great dinner, we were given some pointers on brown bear hunting. I asked Roger what time we would start our hunt in the morning. I was surprised to hear that we’d meet for breakfast about 7:30. I didn’t ask why so late, even though I always want to know the details so “I” can figure out if there is a better plan. Anyway, there had to be a reason, and I’d find out what it was in the morning.
After a great breakfast, which started at 4:00 am (yes, I was excited about my first hunt, but I also get up about that time every day), Roger and I set off at 8:00 up river on the Dog Salmon. As we crossed the river for the first time, Roger explained that the water continually shifts courses across the riverbed. Last year, it washed out the gravel bar they had used for years as a runway. We walked up stream, crossing the meandering river 10 to 15 times, until we were about three miles from camp. Roger said we would sit on the other side of a mound he pointed to and use our spotting scoops to glass the mountains that were on both sides and ahead of us. It was so windy and cold, we sat on the downhill side of the mound. It took us about two hours to get there and set up. As the fog that covered the mountains lifted (the reason we started at 8:00) and the sun began to light up the snow-covered mountain sides, we began one of the best hunting days of my life, especially when you consider I never chambered a bullet that day.
For the next three hours, we watched six to eight bears, one of which was a sow, with two cubs. She and her yearlings were sliding down the mountainside as if they were on sleds. They would slide down 200 to 300 yards, then run back up the mountain for another go. Sometimes the mother would slide down with them, but most of the time she just watched them like a proud mother watching her children play. Roger explained how and why she would have to protect them from the big males for most of the summer.
Roger and I began talking almost as soon as we sat down. There was no need to keep our voices down; the bears were more than a mile away. The wind was wrong for us and blowing harder by the hour, so we had to speak up to hear each other. Our conversations started out on safe, feel-each-other-out basis. The more we talked, the more I liked Roger. There was never any question in my mind that he was a man. It became even more evident as he spoke . . . never a foul word or a boastful story.
After a cheese, sausage, and cracker lunch, I got up to stretch. As I stood up, I saw a blonde bear walking toward us. For those of you that have hunted brown bear, you know what was going through my head and heart as I saw up close my first bear in the wild. If you haven’t hunted them, I don’t have the words or the skill to describe how I felt, as I reached for my rifle. I said, “Roger there’s a bear heading right for us. Should I shoot him?” Roger stood up to see over the top of our hill and said that he was just a young 8-½ foot bear and too small to shoot. Meanwhile, the bear keeps coming toward us; I laid my rifle down and grabbed the video camera. The bear is now 50 yards from us and has no idea we are ahead of him. The video is going. The bear keeps walking. Roger starts to do jumping jacks with his rifle in one hand, yelling to get the bear’s attention. The bear keeps coming. Roger loads a shell. I continue to video, not knowing if Roger will shoot at or over. When the bear is 20 yards from us, he finally sees us standing in plain sight and decides to stand up for a better look and smell. Roger said they don’t see well . . . what an understatement . . . and with a very strong wind quartering him, he couldn’t hear or smell us.
What a picture that would have made . . . us standing there watching him and him looking at us, Roger with his gun ready and me shooting him with my video camera, while the bear stood almost straight up, with his nose in the air. He finally, through one of his senses, knew we were there and decided to turn and run. As he did, I kept my camera on him for 600 to 700 yards. As, he ran through thick swamp grass and alders, my heart tried it’s best to jump out of my chest. This was proof that a bear could catch any man or animal. I knew a man couldn’t out run one, but I had no idea just how fast and agile they really are.
When he was out of sight, we sat down and started to glass the mountainsides again. For a while, we didn’t say anything. Roger acted as if nothing happened, and I kept reliving the last 10 to15 minutes over and over in my head and heart. I finally asked Roger if he would have shot him. He replied that the first shot would have been fired over him and the next one at him. If the hunt had ended there, I would have considered it a successful one. We glassed and talked for the next three hours. Our conversations got more personal and, for a while that day, I believe the discussions were far more important to the both of us than the hunt. That mother bear continued to watch her cubs play. We watched two or three bigger bears in the distance and talked. We moved another mile or so up river and finished the day glassing and talking. At 10:30 PM, we headed back to camp. After a great dinner, we went to bed. I could hardly sleep for thinking of that blonde bear and the way he ran through the alders.
The next morning started just like our first, but we walked even further up stream. Roger was patient with me, as I struggled to keep up with him, always knowing just when to stop without making me feel like I was holding us up. After walking about 4-1/2 miles, we picked a spot that was out of the wind and set up for the day. We picked up our conversation as if we hadn’t stopped the night before. From where we were, we could see all the way to the back of the canyon. In a short time we were watching two big bears and another mother with her cubs. For the next four hours, we watched seven or eight bears. They stood out against the pure white snow like large pieces of coal on a white sheet.
When it was time for our lunch (cheese and crackers, with a candy bar for desert), Roger offered to pray before we ate. I was happy to hold his hands and pray with him. I had asked the guys at dinner the night before to join hands around the table and pray before we ate. This time Roger asked. This was a very special lunch.
About 2:00, Roger spotted a den opening on the mountainside about two miles from us. We could follow tracks from this opening to a rock about a mile from us.
We kept glassing and watching the bears play. Ever so often Roger would turn his spotting scope to that den opening and those tracks and wonder why they ended at that rock. His question was soon answered when the “rock” put a front paw into the air and moved it’s head. For the next hour we watched this bear, lying on his back, soaking up the sun, every once in a while stretching one leg or the other. We decided to move closer by walking up a stream that flowed into the main river. Forty five minutes later we were within 400 yards of him, but the wind wasn’t right for us to get any closer, so we laid up against the bank of the stream and watched him with our eyes, our binoculars, and our spotting scopes. Two hours went by like five minutes. I guess the bear decided he’d had enough sun, so he got up and headed up the mountain. Once he got up and Roger could see how big he was and the condition of his fur (not a rub on him), he got more excited than I did. Unfortunately, the bear headed up the mountain away from us and too far to take a good shot at. Roger knew that when the bear topped out, we’d never see him again and said so. I, being the bear hunting expert that I’d become in a day and a half, said, “He’ll turn and come back to us”. Well, just as the expert had predicted, he turned, came down to within 350 yards of us, and laid down. The wind was such that we couldn’t get into a position for a decent shot, so, to Roger’s credit, we waited for him to move again. He didn’t and at 9:30 PM, we headed back to camp. All the way back, Roger discussed our options to get him the next day. He really wanted me to shoot that bear and, the more he wanted it, the more I wanted it.
Once again, I couldn’t sleep, thinking of each option Roger had outlined during the two-hour walk back to camp. The next day, we walked to the stream. We had to wait two hours for the fog to lift before we were able to cross. Finally, we could see to the top of the mountain, and we headed up the stream to the point we last saw our bear. He had moved during the night. As I looked through my binoculars at the spot he laid the night before, I was thinking we’d lost him, that he did top out, and was gone. Roger wasn’t wasting time looking at where he was; he was trying to find out where he’d gone. He picked up his tracks and was following them, when he said to me. “I think I’ve found him”.
The bear was laying down about 600 yards from us, and the wind was perfect for us to get a lot closer. We worked our way to within 250 yards of him. I couldn’t shoot because of the alders between the bear and us. Roger decided we should set up there on the bank of the stream, and get ready to shoot. We had a great spot to shoot from; no matter which way he would move . . . up, down, or sideways . . . we had good openings in the alders and a clear shot. That didn’t happen. What we couldn’t see was the drop off right behind where he was laying. After waiting for almost five hours on that stream bank, the bear finally got up, dropped into that draw, and slid down to the stream bed. As he dropped over the edge of the draw, Roger knew what would happen and told me to load my gun and to follow him. We tried to walk to where Roger figured the bear would come out of the draw. We were breaking through the crust of snow up to our knees. I couldn’t get to the one spot where we could see him come out of that draw. Each step seemed like it took forever. Sometimes I’d have to put my rifle down and pull a leg out of the snow so I could take the next step. Roger was encouraging me to stay up with him and looking for the bear at the end of the draw. All he could see were tracks; the bear had come out of the draw and was walking the stream bed toward us, but on the other side of the alders . . . we couldn’t see him.
I’m up to my knees in snow, in the wide open, with a 10’ bear about to be down wind from us, and only 50 yards behind me. When he gets down wind and smells us, I’ve decided (after all I’m an expert now) he’ll either run or come after us, depending how hungry he is . . . and I think he’s hungry . . . he hasn’t eaten in eight months. I also realize that I’m closer to the bear and slower than Roger and, by the time the bear finishes eating me, he’ll be too full and tired to go after Roger. I believe for the next minute or so I was able to turn my head 360 degrees on my neck, as I looked for that bear. Roger and I were only 20 feet apart, but it seemed like 200 yards, when Roger hollered, “There he is! Shoot! Shoot now!”
The bear, just like the day before as he was heading up the mountain, turned around and was walking back in his own tracks across the stream and about 100 yards from me. I thanked God for the chance to kill this bear and asked Him to guide my bullet for a clean kill. 100 yards from a 10-foot bear, a Jarrett Rifle with a Swarovski Scope . . . how could I miss? I put the cross hairs on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. As I looked through the scope, expecting the bear to drop, the only thing I saw drop was a large limb out of an alder that was between the bear and me. As I chambered another shell, I was surprised that the bear was not running from the sound of the shot. (Roger would explain later that bears don’t know to be afraid of gun fire; they may think it’s the sound of another avalanche.)
By the time I got the cross hairs back on him, he was 130 yards from me, but still walking slowly. I was shooting off hand and in such a hurry to shoot again that I didn’t pay any attention to the alders that were still between us. My next shot either missed him completely or it struck another limb, I’ll choose the limb theory. I mean, wouldn’t you? Who could miss a 10-foot bear walking broadside to you from 130 yards, even if you are shooting off handed?
I was now loading my next to last shell, thinking why wasn’t Roger shooting too, (Roger had told me several times that he could not shoot unless he was retrieving a cripple or we were threatened). The bear continued to walk away. I knew this next shot had to count. This time, as I shouldered the gun, I looked ahead to see where I might get a clear shot before I found him in my scope. Just ahead of him was a 20-yard opening in the alders 150 yards from me. I waited. He walked into the opening. I found his shoulder with the cross hairs again and squeezed. We had been told before the hunt began not to expect to kill a bear with one shot. We should aim for the front shoulder and, when we hit a bear there, the bullet would shatter the shoulder and break the bear down. Then we could get closer for a kill shot.
I heard the shot. I saw him fall. The bullet had missed the shoulder bones, went through the leg, the heart and lungs, and came to rest just underneath the hide on the exit side. The bullet was 97% intact, and had mushroomed perfectly, loosing all it’s energy, as it exited the animal. By the time Roger and I got to him, he was dead. My prayer for a clean kill was answered.
The next two hours were spent taking photos and skinning that beautiful animal. I held his front paw next to my face for a picture and was in awe of its size; it was bigger then my head. As I held a front leg to help Roger, I couldn’t help but wonder as I held those massive bi and triceps, what it would have been like to have arms like this when I used to lift weights.
What a blessing, not only to have killed cleanly, but more so to have done it with Roger. I know the hunt and my memories of it would not be the same without Roger’s way of getting me to do that which I never thought I could. I knew I could walk a long way, but not across rocks and through streams, mile after mile, in hip waders. I’ve shot many animals, but never one that could kill me.
I’ve prayed, laughed, cried, and hugged before, but never with a guide, turned brother and friend.
We were losing daylight and didn’t have time to remove the skull from the hide. After loading the hide into Roger’s pack and putting this 135 pounds on his back, he realized, after two steps, that the snow crust was too soft to support him and the pack. We had to drag that pack, each of us breaking through the crust, through alders (I really hate them), for about ¾ of a mile until we reached the main riverbed. Once again, Roger was considerate of my strengths (or lack of) and set the pace accordingly. Once at the river, Roger, decided that we would leave the pack and hide on a log jam, and we would fly out the next morning to pick it up. Why carry 135 pounds on your back, for two and a half hours, when you can land your Super Cub, after a five-minute flight, on the riverbed next to it. I was worried that animals might get at the hide during the night, but I knew we would have quite a time packing it back that night. Roger assured me that it would be all right. We left the pack and walked back to camp, reliving the hunt, enjoying the stars and clear skies, and just talking.
They say that things are never that simple in Alaska. The next morning, as I left my cabin for the main cabin and breakfast, the wind just about ripped the door out of my hands. The wind was blowing 40 to 50 miles an hour and there was no way Roger could fly that day. The only good thing was that the wind was blowing down stream, which meant that the wind would be at our backs as we packed the hide back. Luckily, Brent found two pair of grinding goggles for us to wear over our sunglasses, and off we went. The walk back to the pack took almost three times longer. On the way back, I carried the pack less than 20% of the way . . . enough to know what it was like and how little that tail wind helped.
There are many elements that make up a perfect hunt that are far more important than killing or the size of the trophy . . . and they are different to each of us. I thank God for this perfect hunt, made perfect in large part because of the type of man that Roger is. The only regret I have is that it ended after five days. I would wish for anyone who loves the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt to take a walk with Roger.