Graduation Bear

“Greg, break off some of those limbs and get set."  "My range finder is telling me it's 180 yards across the gully and 250 yards to where the small creek comes in." That was the elevation the big guy was traveling.  He will probably lie down before he gets here so it might be a long wait.  “There he is!!"

It was high school graduation time 2007 and our grandson Greg had just received his diploma.  My wife and I decided to give him the choice of money or applying the money to a fly-in brown bear hunt with me as his guide. Being an avid hunter taking a caribou when he was 9, a 7' black bear when he was 11 and a 375 B&C caribou when he was 15, he chose the brown bear hunt so the planning began.

The first thing we did was apply for a fall permit on Kodiak.  I wanted to combine a deer hunt with the brown bear hunt should Greg be successful.  No luck on the draw, so planning began for a 2008 spring hunt on the Alaska Peninsula.  We did however go on a deer hunt on Kodiak that fall where Greg took a 101 SCI Sitka Black tail.  He was awarded 6th place in Boondock's Big Buck contest.   He chose the Sako Tikka T3 Stainless 300 Winchester Magnum as his prize so he now had his bear gun.  We were one step closer.

I had hunted on the Alaska Peninsula for 24 years so I knew we would have an opportunity for a good bear.  Greg was excited.  I talked to my good friend and pilot about a drop off next to my old area and everything was set.  Since Greg’s younger sister Stephi was graduating in early May and I wanted to be in Anchorage for her graduation, we had to go mid-season.  I felt we would have plenty of time.  I cleared everything with my old partner Brent Jones.  He had no problem with the dates or area.

  Greg is really happy showing off that "Big Paw".

Greg is really happy showing off that "Big Paw".

As spring approached, it looked like everything was normal.  Then it got cold and stayed that way.  The season started really slow.  I stayed in contact with Brent and the day before we were to leave Anchorage they had only taken one bear.  That was the worst start of a season since May, 1988.  I was glad that we had decided on mid-season but now I was wondering if it was still too early.  We kept our original plan and boarded the Penair SAAB the morning of May 16 for King Salmon, Alaska.  We arrived on time with all of our bags!  I was sweating because many times over the years, the bags of my hunters were bumped which makes for a bad start to any hunt.  Once in the airport I was greeted by my old friend, Joe Klutsch, APHA President.  He looked like he was hunting polar bear, winter camo and all.  He said it had been winter and that they had only taken two bears so far; but, just the day before he had heard the one, two, three birds which we laughed about.  I call those birds bear birds.  It has been my experience that usually when you hear those little guys it is warming up and the bears are starting to move.

With all of our gear there, we were set to leave for Pilot Point early. I couldn’t wait to get going.  When we arrived at Pilot Point, the first person I saw was Gary Larose, a friend and fellow guide.  This was like old times.  Gary told me the same thing about it being winter.  His clients had only taken one bear, the same as Brent.  Hopefully, the weather was changing.  I called Brent about 11:30 a.m. to let him know that we had arrived and to see when they would be picking us up.  I was told they had bad cross winds at main camp so they were grounded.  I knew from experience that strip was bad for cross winds and over the years because of wash outs, it was worse.  As far as I was concerned, safety always comes first.

We hung around the airport in the truck that AAA Alaskan Outfitters was using waiting for the wind to change or let down.  I called Brent about 7:00 p.m. and no luck, the wind was still the same.  Since our tent was already in camp we were at the mercy of Pilot Point.  We headed to the Loon Lake B&B, Pilot Points' only B&B.  I had stayed there before when I had a plane problem and had our hunters stay there in bad weather times like these.  I personally would rather stay in a tent.  First thing the next morning I gave Brent a call.  He said the winds were down and they had a plan.  They were going to fly in two camps on the Pacific side and then would come for us about noon.  We were on again.  As noon rolled around I made another call and received more bad news.  The wind was up and had shifted cross again.  Call later.

  The big guy in the creek.  Not what you want to see.

The big guy in the creek.  Not what you want to see.

I decided we would take in the sights of Pilot Point.  That took less than 30 minutes so we were now back to sitting by the runway.  I have never been good at waiting and in Alaska the weather keeps you doing just that.  As nightfall approached it was evident that we would spend another night in Pilot Point.  The very first thing the morning of the third day, I gave Brent a call.  Good news, we were back on the schedule this time around lunch.  We moved to the airport and as 12:00 noon arrived there were no planes.  Two Alaska Fish and Game Protection Officers had landed and said it looked bad up by camp so they didn't attempt to land.  It seemed like more bad news but around 2:00 p.m. the planes showed up.  At last we were on our way to camp.

It was a great day to set up camp and everyone was excited.  The first day of the hunt brought great weather.  About mid-day we spotted a big guy.  He was way over 10 foot but rubbed way beyond belief.  I had never seen a bear rubbed that bad.  He stayed between 250-500 yards away from us all day and was in sight for at least three more days.  The next day we spotted a few more bears, all were rubbed.  This was the most rubbed bears I had ever seen on the peninsula in the spring.  I think what happened was that some bears came out early as normal and when the cold snap happened they just held up in the alder.  I saw this happen when my old partner Dan Schwarzer and I hunted Kodiak early one year.  We had a 9' bear that was out and only moved 200 yards in 8 days and spent most of the time rolled up in a ball.  The lakes were still frozen and it snowed a little every day so he just held up.

On day three we were on the spotting hill early.  It wasn't long until we spotted two different bears traveling across the valley floor.  One looked like a good one but they both made it to the hillside to the alder.  We continued to glass and about 9:00 a.m. or so I spotted a cow moose with a new calf in an opening around the snow line.  It looked like she had left the bottom of the valley to get away so she could drop her calf.  I commented that we had a bear bait and we continued to glass looking back at the moose ever so often.  Then a bear appeared on the ridge by the moose.  As we looked on, the cow turned and ran by herself at an angle toward the bear trying to get him to chase her.  Instead of going after her he made a beeline for the calf.  About the same time he made it to the calf, the cow had turned and now ran over the bear.  As she turned the bear was up and after her.  He had her at one point but she was able to escape.  Every time he went for the calf, she made a charge or false charge.  He disregarded her and killed the calf and began to eat the calf.  She continued to circle, charge, stomp and just go crazy.  This lasted for about 45 minutes.  I have never seen a mother spend so much time trying to save her young.  I could feel her anguish knowing she could hear the bones crushing watching this bear consume her calf. 

  He looks like a giant after we got him out of the creek.  Squared 10'1" with 28 3/16" skull. 

He looks like a giant after we got him out of the creek.  Squared 10'1" with 28 3/16" skull. 

We knew the bear was a good one but not sure how big.  He was now lying on the kill and I was ready for a stalk.  He was a little over a mile away at about 1500 feet in elevation.  I studied the area and made a plan.  I knew I could find his tracks in the snow about 400 yards from where he was laying and this would tell me if we needed to move in.  As we made it up the mountain the cow moose came across above us.  The winds were good and as we got to the tracks I could see he was at least a 9 1/2' and more than likely a 10 footer.  At this time Greg and I put a round in our chambers.  We made it to the ridge and there the wind started to swirl.  As we were looking in the alders, which were thicker than I thought, Greg spotted him moving up the ridge.  He stopped, all 10 foot of him looking back at us.  My Leica 800 range finder showed him at 450 yards, which was too far for a shot.  He moved deeper into the alder.  We went another 25 yards and we could see the kill site.  We knew then we had only been 150 yards from him when he moved out.  I'm sure he got a little whiff and since he had eaten the little guy it wasn't worth hanging around.  The only thing we found were the little legs broken at the knees.  We commented on what a way to die.  That was the only cow we spotted in the valley with four or five bulls.  So the only calf in the valley was taken by the ultimate predator.  Nature at work.

As we left the kill site I decided that since we already had the elevation we would just spot from this side.  After lunch the winds started to pick up along with passing showers.  It was about 4:00 p.m. and I spotted a big bear coming off the mountain, feeding slowly.  I could see he had a small rub on his rump but other than that I could see the hair blowing in the wind.  He was moving into thick alder so we continued to watch.  The winds were getting intense as the rain was also picking up.  It looked like a stalk wasn't going to happen.  We decided to work our way back to camp keeping the bear up wind in case he continued to come our way.  Now it looked like we were in for a major storm so we moved quickly for the camp.  The night was one to remember.  The tent was in a great location in thick alder under a bluff, but still the 80 mph winds ripped out numerous tent stakes, breaking two stakes and ripping out a few gourmets in the tarp I had for the entry area. It sounded like a hurricane inside the tent but the tent held and we stayed dry.  The next morning we called Brent on the satellite phone to see how they weathered the storm.  They had one tent explode so two guides and two clients were in one tent but everyone else made it okay.  The winds were clocked at over 80 mph a few times at main camp; Alaska weather at its best.  No Alaska hunt is complete without a good weather story.

  Greg and I showing off the big head.

Greg and I showing off the big head.

The storm finally let down late in the afternoon so we spotted from around camp.  We saw our big rubbed bear along with two other bears, a sow and a boar, both rubbed.  So there was nothing worth going after.

Day five arrived with great bear hunting weather.  Back on the old spotting hill, I spotted a bear.  He was feeding and moving along the hillside.  After a close inspection with my 45 power spotting scope I concluded it was the big bear that I had seen before the storm.  Studying the bear and the mountain closely I came up with a plan and we were off.  Keeping the bear in sight until we made it to the hillside let me know we had a good chance at this big guy.

  "Dee" picking Greg up and flying him out.  Dee is a good friend and a guide and pilot for AAA Alaskan Outfitters.

"Dee" picking Greg up and flying him out.  Dee is a good friend and a guide and pilot for AAA Alaskan Outfitters.

We are now in place at the start of the story.  I couldn't believe it, we were set and the bear was coming down the mountain where the creek hit the gully at 250 yards.  He continued moving down actually getting closer all the time.  I then noticed he did something I had never seen a bear do before.  He actually drug his back legs as he came down the steep hill.  I thought something must be wrong but he got back up and continued getting closer.  He was now 156 yards and I told Greg anytime he was ready to take him!  The sound of the Sako 300 Winchester Magnum made its mark.  The bear went down but now was back up.  We continued with follow up shots.  The bear was no longer moving but I didn't have a good view.  He had gone into the alders by the creek.  We had our bear and it was all captured on video.  High 5's and congratulations were in order.  The excitement was high.  We had done it.  We grabbed everything and stuck it in our packs.  As we moved down I thought the bear might be in the creek but I hoped it wasn’t. As I looked down through the alder to the creek I knew we had a great bear, but he was lodged in the creek between both sides.  He was creating a dam that was going to be hard to unstop.  All I knew was it was going to be next to impossible to get that 1000 pound giant out of the creek. With the three of us on the front shoulder and two legs roped to the alder we did the impossible. If there had been only two of us, we could have never gotten him out and would have had to skin him in the creek.  After a lot more work and lots of pictures he was skinned and placed in the pack for a hard trip to camp.  The wet skin weighed well in excess of 125 pounds.  We took turns carrying the heavy pack while rotating the lighter ones.  It was only a 1 1/2 mile pack, but that's was enough for me.  I know now, again, I’m really getting to be an old man.  After fleshing the bear it squared 10'2" and we rough scored the skull at around 28.  At sealing, the Department of Fish and Game measured the skull at 28 3/16th.  Not a bad graduation present for a 19 year old young man.  Add another lifetime memory for my grandson and an old grandpa.  God is good.