Some of my most enjoyable flying hours were during our spring brown bear hunts in Western Alaska. Flying on skis during those beautiful cool bluebird days with smooth air and with the spring snow conditions made the entire area our runway. Of course we had storms but they moved in and out pretty fast not like those three or four day storms we have in the fall. We had to deal with overflow on some of the larger lakes but only once did we have to deal with overflow on Otter Lake itself and only for a few days. Dan and I did most of the flying in AAA’s two “super cubs.” We hunted this area in the spring of the odd numbered years mainly because there wasn’t a brown bear season on the Alaska Peninsula during those springs. Business wise this allowed us to offer hunts at a lower price for clients that may not have been able to afford the price for the larger Peninsula brown bears. I have always felt it was a great choice for a brown bear hunt because of price and the quality of the bears we harvested. Those bears were generally smaller. We harvested a good number of 9 ½ footers in the spring but never a 10 footer. I personally never thought it was worth the extra 5K we charged on the Peninsula for maybe an opportunity at a bear six inches larger. But if you were looking for a 10 footer the Peninsula was where you needed to go.
We hunted a total of eight spring seasons over the seventeen years we had the area. Initially the season was May 10-25, the same time frame as the Peninsula spring season. During the first few seasons we took four to five hunters on 12-day hunts. Dan and I would each have a client so we hired John Clark as our pilot with his own cub so we would always have someone available to check on camps if we were tied up. In 1998, the Department of Fish & Game expanded our bear season to start in April which was much better hunting in this area because of the snow conditions. This allowed us to have two different hunts, an early 12-day hunt and a later 10-day hunt. Dan and I then would take one hunter between us and we would have three AAA guides for the other three hunters. Dan and I generally hunted out of base camp.
Our clients were flown in by different flying services over the years but we used Rick Grant’s, Tikchik Airventures, for the last five seasons. Rick brought the clients into Otter Lake if the ice conditions permitted or, if the ice was bad, we would pick them up in the cubs at Tikchik Narrows Fishing Lodge which was about ten miles from camp. Rick and his wife Denise bought our Otter Lake Camp when I retired.
One of the hardest things to do was getting the camp ready for the hunt. Dan and I would fly out a couple weeks ahead to check the snow conditions and shovel out some of the tents and the generator. The worst year, we had over eight feet of snow to dig out. That was a lot of work!! Most years we only had to deal with four to five feet which wasn’t all that bad, but still a lot of shoveling.
One problem we faced when the season started May 10th was that some years the ice on Lake Hood in Anchorage was either gone or rotten. We would then take off on wheels from the Lake Hood strip with my 2500 Landis skis sandwiched in my lumber rack and Dan would put his inside the cub. It was a tight fit inside and it didn’t leave Dan much room for gear or supplies. Once we arrived at Port Alsworth or in our area depending on the current snow conditions we had to find a flat place on top of a hill that was snow free where we could land and change from wheels to skis. At least one side of the hill couldn’t be too steep, 60% or less, so we could take off. We had a couple of hills like that that we used more than once during those spring seasons. The hill that I had landed Al on in the story “AAA’s Most Challenging Client” was one of the best. The way the changeover was accomplished was with physical strength. Our cubs only weighed between 1,100-1,200 pounds and it was possible for one of us to get under the struts where they connected to the wing and lift up the aircraft high enough to get a wheel off. You needed to be around six foot tall or taller to do this. The other guy took the wheel off and put the ski on. Then we traded places and repeated the procedure on the other side. We got pretty proficient at this over the years. My partner Dan was always up for the challenge. The wind was a big variable so we had to be quick. After we finished the changeover we just skied off the mountain. Some might ask why we didn’t use wheel/skis because it seems like they would work better. The problem with wheel/skis is they are marginal at best with snow building up around the wheel area and the tires are too small to land in rough tundra. We talked to many pilots and most shared the same opinion.
Once we landed on Otter Lake we had to decide where to tie the cubs down. The easiest was in the alder on the bank but some years the snow just wasn’t deep enough. Those years we drilled holes in the ice. A couple years the ice was too thick with the snow cover being over 48 inches. Most years it was around 30 inches or so. One year as Dan and I were shoveling the camp out John Clark was using our hand ice auger to drill holes to tie down the three planes. He wasn’t up there too long when he came down and said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is the planes are all tied down. The bad news is the ice is only 15 inches thick.” That year we moved the planes three times in five days and on the fifth day a storm blew in and the lake ice went completely out. We were tied down on a snow drift on the south side of the lake. We had to pump our boat up and take our wheels and load them into the planes. We then took off in a snow storm and landed on our hill and changed from skis to wheels. Our runway was dry enough to work off of the rest of the season. We were lucky because normally it was snow covered or too muddy to use. That year we had to change from wheels to skis more times than ever to service our hunters that we had in the snow covered mountains.
In the spring of ’87, the year that AAA bought the area from Tony Lee, Dan and I worked with Tony and he showed us how he conducted his spring hunts. He flew around looking for open dens on the north sides of the mountains and the creek bottoms looking for dead winter killed moose or even fresh killed moose. On the really bright sunny days we spent many flying hours looking for bear tracks that we would follow hoping they would lead us to a kill. Once we found a bear on a kill or a bear at his den site, we would locate a good place to land a mile or so away and then set up a spike camp. In Alaska it is illegal to hunt the same day you are airborne so we would set the camp up late that evening and snowshoe over early the next morning and hope the bear was still there. This worked about 25% of the time but many times they had moved on.
We continued using Tony’s methods and would also set up a couple of spike camps in known denning and travel areas. We found that the spike camps worked about 50% of the time.
During the early years of our Western Alaska operation, Brent guided out of base camp a few times and at a couple of our winter kill sites. He, in fact, videoed the kill of one of the bears he guided on and included it in “The Brown Bear Men” video that AAA produced. Brent still sells the video which is still popular at the hunting shows and conventions.
Brent was dropped off on a fresh moose that had been killed by a ten footer. It was the only ten footer that we had ever spotted from the air. The bear was rubbed really bad and it took the hunter a couple days to decide if she wanted to shoot a rubbed bear. I told her that a 10’ bear was rare in this area and if I were her I would go after him. On the third day we set up camp about a mile from the bear. The next morning as Brent and the client were getting ready for the stalk the wind changed and the bear got a whiff and spooked. Brent said he watched the bear run for five miles. We never saw that bear again.
One of the most amazing things that I saw in this area was a large number of caribou giving birth. One year according to Larry Van Daele, the area Fish and Game biologist, we had over 90,000 caribou in our area dropping calves. It all happens in about a week’s time frame. I watched three or four caribou deliver in one day. It was truly amazing! The cow laid down, gave birth, stood up and started walking. Some would still have the afterbirth still dangling out. The little calf attempted to get up three or four times, in the uneven ground or snow, and then with very wobbly legs would get up and start walking after its mother. The sad thing was during this time all the bears in the area were killing and eating the calves. The smell was in the air. The bear that Brent videoed had just killed and eaten a calf. They just eat the head and body and leave the little boney legs. After about 15 to 20 minutes of lying around the bear would get up and started chasing another calf. I always cut the bear’s stomach open and show the client what the bear had been eating. I found three little skull caps from the calves in the stomach of one of the bears that my client had killed. The circle of life!
During this time period the wolves are everywhere chasing and killing caribou. One of our guides, Dee, related a funny story about these little calves. He said there were thousands of caribou around his spike camp and he saw a pack of wolves chasing a band of caribou toward him. He was kneeling down and as they came over the hill a big white wolf was leading the pack and had blood on both sides of his face from his recent meal. After the wolf went by he said he dropped over the hill and saw more caribou crossing the creek. He could see a calf struggling to get up on the ice by the shore. He walked down to the creek and picked up the calf by its front feet that were holding onto the ice. He set him down and the little calf tried to kick him two or three times. He said he couldn’t believe the calf was doing that. That’s gratitude!
Everything about these hunts was snow related. When we had good ice and good snow conditions the hunts were very successful. When we were losing the snow around base camp the bear hunting was great. We harvested three 9 ½ footers out of base camp with Dan and I guiding those hunters. Pictures of two of those bears were posted in the story “What Guides Never Want To See.” Many other hunters took their bears out of base camp also. We always had great snow cover in the mountains around the Wood/Tikchik Lakes and as long as the ice stayed good on Otter Lake we could access those areas. When we lost the snow and ice around base camp we would have to go to our ski changing hill and sometimes change two or three times a day per plane. That was a lot of work but it allowed us to keep hunting the den areas where we had different bears coming out daily.
In 2003, the last year that we hunted our Western Alaska Area I had a client from near my home town in WV. His name was Mack Hylton. We were hunting out of base camp and the snow conditions were great. We spent most of our days watching the hillsides northwest of camp. It was the last couple of days of Mack’s hunt and his hunting buddy Ron Lilly, who had already taken his bear and John Koldeway, one of our guides, joined us. It was around 10:00 PM and I spotted a big bear coming off the mountain toward us. We had to cover about a mile and a half and cross the same creek a couple times just to get to the base of the mountain. The mountain was covered in snow almost to the bottom but there was no snow between us and the base of the mountain so we made good time. The bear however was making better time coming off the mountain than we were getting to the mountain. We were losing light as we got into the shade of the mountain. We climbed a 40 foot bank to get to a flat opening that was about 150 yards from the base of the mountain. We popped up looking ahead where the bear should be but he was nowhere in sight. I turned to my left about 180 degrees and the bear had already passed us and was about 200 yards in the open and moving away. We all got set up and Mack took the first shot hitting the bear. The bear didn’t go down and started to run so we all open fire and the bear went down. Five more minutes and he would have made it another year. It was a beautiful 9’6” boar that still had all of his hair covering his toe pads. That was the first time the bear’s paws has touched the dirt since he went into hibernation back in late October. After celebrating our success we took some pictures before it got too dark. We positioned him so we could take more pictures in the morning and then hiked back to camp. The next morning we hiked over, took more pictures and skinned him. I flew the plane over and picked up the hide and then flew up to see where he had come from. It was the same bear that I had spotted at his den site two springs before. That year I had set up a camp on the opposite side of the valley and during the night he slipped off the mountain on the back side making a clean escape. He had used the same den or had denned up within a few yards of the same den from two years ago. I have read many reports that say most bears den in the same den or at least close to the same den every year. This time it worked great for us but not good for him.
What a way for AAA to end our last spring season with my client taking the largest bear that I had guided on in that area. We took seven bears for eight hunters and had a 9’ average. We also had a hunter take a wolf. It just doesn’t get any better than that! I truly miss that spring bear hunting and flying!