My Quest For A Brown Bear

After two years of hunting in Alaska I had taken two sheep, two goats, two caribou, a moose and a black bear.  Not bad for a beginner.  All I needed now was a grizzly or a brown bear.  When I received my assignment to Alaska the only animal I knew I wanted to hunt was the grizzly.  I had read in various books and magazines that the grizzly was mean and caution was paramount while hunting in Alaska because those bad boys were out to get you.  However, after two years of hunting in numerous areas I hadn’t even seen one.  In talking to many hunters, taxidermists and biologists I decided that I would rather have a big 8’ to 10’ brown bear than a mean 6’ to 8’ grizzly.

  (L to R) Tex Sodergren, Gary Binkley and Denny Bush at the Little River cabin.

(L to R) Tex Sodergren, Gary Binkley and Denny Bush at the Little River cabin.

After doing some research I decided for my last spring hunt in Alaska I would go to Kodiak on my first brown bear hunt.  In February 1968, I called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Kodiak and talked to a biologist.  I found out they had just implemented a new policy on Kodiak requiring you to request an area and a time frame to hunt brown bear.  They were trying to spread the bear hunters out during the season.  He gave me a few ideas on some areas that were still open and told me I had to apply by mail.  The following day I applied and was given the Little River Lake area for the first ten days of May.  A few years later, that system became a first in line system where if you wanted a good area you had to fly to Kodiak at least the day before the permits were to be released and be in line before the office opened.  The guides would hire packers or other individuals to stand in line for them a few days before the permits were available.  My buddy Earl flew to Kodiak twice and got the Red Lake area both years.  Years later they went to a permit drawing system which is what Alaska has currently.  Your chances of drawing the most popular areas on Kodiak are 2% or less. 

I decided for this hunt I would go with my good friend Denny Bush and two other young Airmen, Gary Binkley and Tex Sodergren.  I made arrangements with Kodiak Airways to be flown into Little River Lake.  I had checked with the Coast Guard and they had a scheduled flight from Elmendorf AFB to Kodiak twice a week and we could fly stand-by.  They told me there were normally plenty of seats both ways.  A free flight sounded great to us.

Two weeks before we were to leave I broke my trigger finger playing volleyball at the missile shop.  One of the doctors at the base hospital put it in a metal splint for a month.  I went to the range and shot my rifle using my middle finger and decided it wouldn’t be a big deal.  I wasn’t going to cancel since this was my last chance to hunt brown bear before I left Alaska.

With my finger splinted and all taped up I got a lot of strange looks from both the Coast Guard personnel and the people at the flying service when we arrived in Kodiak.  Two or three people asked, “Are you really going brown bear hunting like that?” I told them it wasn’t a big deal just a minor inconvenience.

We loaded the Widgeon, which is a small amphibious aircraft that lands in water on its belly and on wheels on hard surface runways.  It is really a neat plane.  We took off from the harbor and on our way to Little River Lake the pilot said he wasn’t sure if the ice was off of the lake.  As we approached the cut in the mountains where the lake was situated there was lots of snow on the north side of the mountains and spotty snow on the valley floor.  Once through the cut we could see the lake was still frozen solid and covered with snow.  The pilot circled and went back through the cut and said he would land us next to a cannery in Uganik Bay. The cannery was four miles from Little River Lake.

We had packed our camp so all we had to do was get out of the plane and set up our tent.  We definitely weren’t ready for a four mile hike with 100 pounds of camp gear each on a G.I. pack board.  We decided to use the cabin once we made it in so we left the tent, shovel and some other items not very far up from shore.  To get into the valley we had to climb a 700’ hillside with alder, raspberry bushes and other vegetation.  It wasn’t really a bad hill but not what we wanted to do.  After about 200’ of climbing we decided to leave more of our gear under some spruce trees.  We figured we could come back later if we needed it.  We still had a Coleman stove, fuel, lantern and at least a case of C-Rations plus other food and our personal items.  Nowadays, we have freeze dried food and good packs so it wouldn’t be as bad.  It was not fun and took us all day.  As we were hiking in it began to snow making things worse.

  Not a great picture but this is the snow covered Little River Lake.

Not a great picture but this is the snow covered Little River Lake.

 The cabin at the lake was an 8x10 plywood cabin that belonged to Alf Madsen, an old time Alaskan guide.  It was set up for two people so it was tight for the four of us.  After we stored our gear and got our G.I. sleeping bags out, Gary, who was sitting on a cot, decided to wipe the moisture off of his Ruger “Super Blackhawk” .44 Magnum.  All of a sudden the silence was broken by a deafening roar from the .44 going off and Gary screaming and shaking his hand.  The air in the small 8x10 cabin was instantly filled with down and chicken feathers from the hole the bullet put through Brinkley’s sleeping bag.  Dennis and I were both standing  no more than three foot in front of Gary and Tex was sitting about three foot to our right on the other cot.  The only good thing about this accident was Gary had the pistol pointed to our left.  He was lucky the bullet didn’t hit his hand.  His hand just received powder burns from the fire shooting between the cylinder.  What a dumb mistake!  One of us could have been killed or at least wounded.  Thank you Lord.  The ringing in our ears lasted for hours.  Dennis and I stepped out of the cabin shaking our heads.  Not a good way to start a hunt.

The next three days we hunted the creek drainage below the mouth of the lake, but saw nothing but a few deer.  There was less snow so we thought that was where the bears would be.  I know better now but then I didn’t realize that on spring hunts you needed to watch the south side of the mountains not the low drainage's.  On day four I caught a glimpse of a bear coming off the mountain and going into the drainage.  He disappeared and the next thing I knew he had passed by me, got my scent and stood for a brief second.  It was long enough for me to fire off two quick shots, missing both times.  That was the one and only bear we saw in that area. 

  Here I'm glassing the south side of the mountain.  On this hunt I didn't do enough of that.

Here I'm glassing the south side of the mountain.  On this hunt I didn't do enough of that.

The next day we decided to give up hunting in that area and hiked back to the cannery.  After eating most of our food the walk out was much easier than the hike in.  I don’t remember where we slept but I think it was in one of the cannery buildings.  We talked to some locals and they told us that a native named Daniel “Boone” Creed lived close by and knew a lot about hunting brown bear.  We dropped by his house and his wife invited us in for an evening meal of barbecued beaver and fresh made warm bread.  What a treat!  Daniel who was in his early 60’s told us he would take us hunting the next day up the coast to the next small valley for a small fee.  It wasn’t much, so Gary and I decided to go with him.

  Daniel "Boone" Creed building a small fire as Gary looks my way.

Daniel "Boone" Creed building a small fire as Gary looks my way.

The next morning he picked us up in his skiff and we motored slowly up the coast.  We got out, climbed the hill and spotted the south side of the mountain.  We spotted one bear in the afternoon but the wind was wrong and he spooked.  We made it back to the cannery for the night and the next morning we were picked up by Kodiak Airways.  That was my first of many brown bear hunts.  I learned so much on that unsuccessful hunt.  I left Alaska in June without a brown bear, but I would return.

Fast forward to October 1970.  I’m back in Alaska and headed to the Alaska Peninsula for another brown bear hunt.  This time I’m hunting with Russ Ludke, Doug Simmons, and Buddy Hagwood all Air Force buddies.  We had decided to go to Lee’s cabin in Wide Bay.  Peninsula Airways used their Widgeon to fly us in.  As we approached Lee’s cabin the pilot, Orin Seybert, told me the waves were too high to land in the water so he would have to land us on the airstrip at Wide Bay.  The airstrip is 5 miles from Lee’s cabin.  I couldn’t believe this was happening again.  After we unloaded the plane we talked to an assistant guide and a packer who were camped by the strip waiting for Ken Oldham to bring in their client.  Little did I know then that in seventeen years AAA Alaskan Outfitters would buy the Wide Bay area from Ken Oldham.

  Russ with his 8'10" brown bear taken in Wide Bay.

Russ with his 8'10" brown bear taken in Wide Bay.

We moved our gear to the north end of the strip and decided we would try to hike down the beach a few miles to get us away from the guide operation and closer to Lee’s cabin.  We made it about a mile and a half down the beach before we decided that carrying a seventy pound tent and all the rest of our gear was just too much work, so we set up camp in the alder.  We hunted the area hard and on day three Russ harvested a beautiful 8’10” brown bear walking down the creek.  I made another critical mistake hunting brown bear by trying to cover ground by walking instead of finding a good spotting hill and spending 90% of my time glassing the creeks and lower hillsides.  We only spotted four bears on this 8 day hunt because of not glassing enough and not glassing the proper areas.  In the spring you find a good knoll and glass the hillsides.  In the fall you glass the creeks and lower hillsides.  This hunt was another great learning experience for someone who in later years would become a brown bear guide. 

After Russ took his bear, I was fired up to get a big bear.  After doing more research I decided to go further down the Peninsula to hunt.  It was the spring of 1971 and we choose Chignik Lake.  We made arrangements with Peninsula Airways to fly us in.  I was hunting with Doug Simmons and another Air Force buddy, Dan King.  When we arrived at King Salmon we were told that Chignik Lake was still frozen but they could land us down stream at Chignik Lagoon.  From there we were told we could get one of the local natives to boat us up the river.  Sounded like a plan since we were already in King Salmon.  We loaded up the Cherokee 6 and were on our way.  Chignik Lagoon was a very small fishing village with about 25 families.  Most of the families had large fishing boats with commercial fishing permits.  The residents at Chignik Lake village worked for the permit holders at the Lagoon.  We hired a local to take us up river in his skiff.  It was a little cool but a good trip.  Because of the melted ice around the shore he was able to get us a mile or so passed the lake village to a small old cabin.  The windows were broken out and the cabin was half full of snow.  There was an old shovel inside so we were able to shovel the snow out.  We used a piece of visqueen that I had to put over the windows.  Once we cranked up the Coleman stove and lantern it got pretty toasty in that little 8x8 cabin.

  Doug with his 7'8" brown bear taken at Chignik Lake.  It was traveling in the snow.

Doug with his 7'8" brown bear taken at Chignik Lake.  It was traveling in the snow.

The problem was the cabin was about four miles from the mountain sides.  This meant we had to walk at least two miles to get to where we could spot the southern exposed hillsides.  The weather only allowed us to hunt four of our seven hunting days.  We spotted a total of three bears.  A sow and a boar together getting ready to mate so we tried to take both of them at the same time.  We could have shot one of them anytime.  We ended up not getting either one.  Another learning experience.  On day five Doug shot a nice 7’8” in the snow on the north side of the valley about 5 miles from the cabin.  That was our only bear.  I decided this area was better for fall hunting especially if you are staying at the cabin.  I decided then to come back in the fall.

  (L to R) Bobby Butler, Jon Moulet, myself and Dick Roberts in our home away from home.

(L to R) Bobby Butler, Jon Moulet, myself and Dick Roberts in our home away from home.

In October 1971, Dick Roberts, Bobby Butler, Jon Moulet and I flew in the Peninsula Airways Widgeon to Chignik Lake for the fall brown bear season.   It was pretty windy so Orin, the owner and pilot, told me he hopes the waves aren’t too big for him to land the plane.  I told him this was the fourth time a pilot had told me that and this time I really wanted him to land where we had paid to go.  As we flew over the white capped lake he said, he thought he would be able to do it.  We landed and as the waves came over the windshield I was wondering if this was a mistake.  The plane did fine and we taxied to the beach in front of the cabin.  As we were unloading the plane, silver salmon were swimming all around us.  I felt like this was going to be the trip where I would get my brown bear. 

  Peninsula Airway's Widgeon at Chignik Lake right after Orin dropped us off.

Peninsula Airway's Widgeon at Chignik Lake right after Orin dropped us off.

After putting everything away in the cabin we came out to do a little salmon fishing.  We had brought a four piece breakdown Eagle Claw rod and a Mitchell 300 reel with a few Pixies.  Fishing was great and we kept one of the better ones for supper.

  Bob with his 7'6" brown bear.  Bob was doing a Marlboro commercial.

Bob with his 7'6" brown bear.  Bob was doing a Marlboro commercial.

The next morning we had a little misty rain but still good visibility.  About 10 AM we spotted our first bear and Bob was our first shooter.  The wind was right and at about 100 yards he took his first brown bear, a 7’6”.  This was everyone’s first brown bear hunt except for me so they all had decided to shoot the first legal bear that they saw.  Two days later Dick took an 8’3” and two days after that Jon killed the largest, an 8’9” boar which was the largest bear that we had spotted.  My plan was to hold out for at least a 9 footer.  With three more days to hunt I was still optimistic.  We were seeing three or four bears per day but some of them were sows with cubs.

  Dick with his 8'3" brownie.

Dick with his 8'3" brownie.

  Jon with his 8'9" brown bear.

Jon with his 8'9" brown bear.

It was the last hunting day and the light was fading quickly.  We were spotting the creek bottom from a 50’ high grass knoll.  It was just Jon and I and I started putting my stuff in my pack to leave.  I told Jon to do the same.  I took one last look and there he was.  The bear had just jumped into the stream after a fish about 500 yards to our left.  He was larger than anything we had seen.  I told Jon, “Let’s go!!” As we crashed off the knoll I felt the wind in my face, which was perfect.  I had watched this creek for four days from that point so I knew the best way to get to the bear.  Once down in the alder we lost a little more light so we had to hurry.  At about 50 yards from where we had last seen the bear we could hear him splashing as he was chasing fish.  We had both chambered a round and were moving slowly, one step at a time.  There he was at about 35 yards slowly walking in the stream.  We stopped and I raised my .300 Winchester to my shoulder.  My crosshairs were resting on his shoulder.  Boom!!  As the bullet hit its mark he roared and crashed into the alder on the other side of the creek.  I quickly reloaded and fired a second shoot before he disappeared.  We heard noises and then things got real quite.  I made sure my magazine was full and I had one in the chamber.  I told Jon we are going in.  We crossed the creek and as soon as we stepped up on the small creek bank we saw him trying to get up.  We both fired simultaneously.  It’s over, I have my brown bear.  We are both pretty excited but we must get a couple pictures and start skinning before it gets too dark.  After a quick skin job we had to use flashlights to get back to the cabin.  I used the lantern for light back in the cabin to skin the head and paws out.  The next morning before the plane arrived we measured the bear at 9’2".  After four hunts I had a brown bear.  After I started guiding I always told the clients to hang in there because, “it ain’t over until it's over.”  I can’t count the number of bears that we have taken right at dark.  My next challenge, take a 10 footer with my bow. 

  Finally, after four hunts I have my 9'2" brown bear.

Finally, after four hunts I have my 9'2" brown bear.