The Big Bear

Matt Caldwell from IL and me with his 10'1" brown bear taken in '92 at our Cold Bay area.

Matt Caldwell from IL and me with his 10'1" brown bear taken in '92 at our Cold Bay area.

I was sitting at my desk on a beautiful April day in Alaska when I heard the chime of a new Email coming in.  It was Brent.  He was at a sports show in Wisconsin.  Matt Caldwell from Illinois had dropped by Brent’s booth.  Matt is a good friend of ours who had hunted with AAA on eight different occasions.  Brent had told Matt about a really big brown bear that one of his guides had taken a photo of through his spotting scope during the spring season in 2016.  He also told him about a couple of openings he had for the late spring hunt at a discounted price and if Matt wanted to come on one of those he could hunt for that bear.  Matt had already taken three brown bears including a 10’1” that I had guided him on in 1992 in our Cold Bay area.  Matt asked, “Does Roger still have his guide license.” Brent wasn’t sure so that was why he had sent me the email.  I emailed Brent saying that I had let my license lapse after I turned 70.  The State has a special deal for retirees to keep their license in an “in-active status” for $200 a year but that was too expensive just to say you were a Master Guide but couldn’t guide.  I told him to tell Matt that I would love to come down just to hang out if he wanted.  Matt is just one of those guys that is fun to be around.  I told Brent to give me a call once they decided.

Later that week Brent called to tell me Matt was seriously thinking about coming and was going to give me a call.  I told Brent that I had previously made plans to go brown bear hunting on the peninsula with a friend of mine, Dwight Hill.  We were going for a week about mid-season if weather permitted us to fly down.  I told him I could be there around May 20th if that would work.  He said that was perfect as Matt’s hunt wouldn’t start until the 22nd

Matt called the following week telling me that he was changing his mind on the hour.  Questions like, why did he need another brown bear?  Because he can and he isn’t getting any younger.  The price was right but what would he do with it?  So many reasons for both sides.  He wanted to know what I thought the chances were of getting “that big bear.”  I said, “Probably not good but he sure could try plus that specific area is known for big bears."  I knew of at least four 10 footers that were taken out of that area and I was in on two of them.  He thanked me for being willing to join him.  I told him about my plan to hunt with Dwight but that I could get over to the Dog Salmon around the 20th or sooner if Dwight and I had to cancel for some reason.  With that he said he would let me know.  It was the last week of April and he had less than 30 days before the hunt started.  He had to make his decision soon.  

It is now the first week of May and Brent is in Anchorage buying food and supplies for the season.  He called me and said that he is pretty sure Matt is coming.  He told Matt he could come in three or four days early to sweeten the deal. 

Matt finally decided that he was coming on May 4th.  I bought my tickets for the return flight from Pilot Point to Anchorage.  If Dwight and I were to make it down in his plane, he would drop me off at the Dog Salmon River Lodge after our hunt was over. 

During the first two weeks of April the weather was fantastic but the last two weeks were back to back lows and it continued on through the first two weeks of May.  The weather pattern was more like fall than spring.  Dwight and I had to cancel our hunt.  I called Matt to find out the exact day he was coming into Anchorage to leave for Pilot Point.  He told me he was coming into Anchorage on the 17th heading to the camp on the 18th.  I got my departure tickets to match Matt’s.  Everything was set.

Matt arrived the afternoon of the 17th.  I picked him up at Anchorage International Airport.  We then headed over to Barney’s Sports Chalet for a last minute look at gear to see if he needed anything and then on to dinner and finally on to his hotel.  We decided to meet at the airport at 6:30 am the following morning.

Matt at Pilot Point getting our gear ready to load into Rick's Cessna 185.

Matt at Pilot Point getting our gear ready to load into Rick's Cessna 185.

We checked in with PenAir for our King Salmon flight and upon arriving in King Salmon, carried our gear over to Grant Air, two hangers over.  Grant Air flew us to Pilot Point around 2 pm.  There we were met by Rick Reynolds.  Rick owns Bigfoot Air Flying Service and flies for AAA, flying their clients, gas and supplies into base camp.  He also runs a B&B where the clients and pilots stay when the weather is bad.  Guess what?  The winds were too strong at base camp to take us in so Matt and I stayed at Rick’s.  That meant losing at least one hunting day to weather because State law doesn’t allow you to hunt the same day you fly.

The following morning the winds were down a little so Rick flew us into camp around 9 am.  It is still not a good weather day.  Brent and his crew welcomed us to camp.  Chris Moore is still working as the camp manager.  I hired Chris back in ’96 as a packer.  He has been a great employee and friend.  Dee is now the head pilot for AAA.  He started working for us as a sheep guide in the Wrangell’s back in ‘90.  Then he started guiding for us in all three of our areas.  Dee has always been a super guide and now has the additional responsibility of head pilot.  Missing was my friend and AAA’s previous head pilot, Gary Bishop who passed away in February of this year.  It sure wasn’t the same without him.

Brent had a spike camp set up for us about three and a half miles up valley.  Normally back in the day when I hunted this area my hunter and I would walk or hunt our way up the river and then return to base camp later in the evening. 

Brent assigned Riley Pitts as Matt’s guide.  I had never met Riley but had heard some good stories.  That afternoon Riley sat down with us and gave Matt a couple options.  Option one was to walk up valley, not hunt up the valley, since we flew that morning.  Option two was to stay in base camp until tomorrow morning and then hunt as we hiked to spike camp.  It was raining up the valley, the base camp has a chef and since we can’t hunt until tomorrow anyway it was a no brainer.  Of course, option two!!

After a great night in camp and a super breakfast we load up and head up valley.  It was still raining at the head of the valley but we had good visibility.  The location of the river channels was constantly changing from day to day and year to year.  My normal walk up valley was to take the path of least resistance which included crossing the river numerous times.  This year the channel is on the right side of the valley so we are trying to walk along the side of the channel without crossing it.  Sometimes that means going through the brush along the side of the river.  It was fairly easy walking and we made it to the first spotting hill, which is about a mile and a half from base camp.  We glassed for about forty-five minutes.  We saw one moose and a good number of bear tracks in the high snow but no bears.  We moved on up river to the spike camp.

The spike camp consisted of a Hurricane Hut for the cook tent and a Bomb Shelter for Matt and me to sleep in.  They are high quality tents and are sold by Barney’s Sports Chalet in Anchorage.  Riley had a small tent for himself.  The camp was set up in a great alder patch which in Alaska is a must to protect it from the high winds.  An open area by the river bank provided for a great 360 degree view of the surrounding mountainsides to use for glassing.  Overall a great camp set-up.  The only negative was the valley floor was about a mile wide and full of alder which allows the bears to move under cover, but is not normally a problem in the spring since most bear activity takes place in the high snow areas and on the mountainsides.   We were also welcomed by the rain.

The first evening we spotted a sow with one two year old cub and one small bear.  Next morning, we were greeted with more rain and a fairly strong wind.  We set up a small tarp to keep most of the rain off of us.  It started to clear up during the middle of the day making it better for spotting, but generally the middle of the day isn’t the best time for spotting bears.

The two tracks together beside my size 11 Lacrosse insulated hip boot.

The two tracks together beside my size 11 Lacrosse insulated hip boot.

Around 2 pm with the wind blowing out of the valley, I decided to move up the valley 500 yards or so to get a better view of a small drainage coming into the main valley.  As I moved along the riverbed by the alder line I looked for tracks.  We had already found a set of tracks of a 9 ½'+ bear that had passed by the spike camp.  About 400 yards up the river I found a giant set of tracks of a bear whose rear pad was wider than it was long.  That was a first for me.  Another peculiarity about the tracks was when he walked his back paw stepped into his front track so it looks like he is walking standing up.  I have never seen that before either but my thought at the time was this bear has an extra-long stride.  It was definitely a 10 + footer and could possibility be the big bear we were looking for.  I sat and spotted for an hour or so and not seeing anything I headed back to our spotting area at spike camp.  Later that afternoon the rain showed up again.  As we were sitting in the blowing wind and rain I said to Matt, “I’d forgotten how much fun this is.”  He chuckled.  We only spotted four bears that day, the same sow with her two-year-old cub and two different eight-foot single bears.  Not a great bear hunting day.  We called it a day and had dinner around 10:30 pm. 

The next couple of days were more of the same with rain off and on and only one new bear spotted.  After another rainy morning we decided to hunt back down to main camp late that afternoon to pick-up more food and some additional gear for Matt.  Since the water level had gone down a couple inches we stayed on the river bottom crossing it numerous times.  This made the trip down a little easier.

We had a great night at camp enjoying Chef Jack’s fine dining.  Brent and I talked about the fact that we weren’t seeing many bears and the big bear tracks that I had seen.  He agreed that the bear must have a giant stride.  The next morning we packed supplies including a deer blind, which we could use to stay out of the weather while glassing, to be flown up valley.  We found Matt some ankle fit hip boots to replace the marsh hip boots that he had brought, plus he picked up a change of clothes and we headed back up stream.

At our first break Matt lifted his Swarovski binoculars to his eyes and said, “I have two bears!”  Both Riley and I laughed at how quickly he spotted the bears.  It was a sow and a boar high on the hillside right under the snowline.  It was a nice bear but not the big one we were looking for.  We continued moving up valley crossing the river often.  Matt’s newly acquired hip boots were sure making walking and crossing the river much better for him.  We arrived at spike camp around 8:30 pm, just perfect for evening glassing.

While Riley was putting away the airplane load of supplies Matt and I decided we would cross the river and climb up the opposite hillside for an evening of glassing.  Riley said he would join us as soon as he was finished.  Since we hadn’t had much of a problem crossing the river before I just decided to cross right by camp.  As I slowly moved across the river’s slick rock bottom the pressure of the water against my hip boots pushed-up the water into them.  I immediately turned and told Matt to go back.  I made it back with only a small amount of water in both of them.  In all of my years of hunting back in this valley I had never allowed that to happen.  It must have been a senior moment because I had crossed above and below that stretch without even a problem.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  Riley had finished putting away the supplies and came over to the river.   He yelled, “We crossed above this area.”  I said, “I know.”  We then went above the area that I attempted to cross and crossed with no problem.  Since Matt had gotten water in his old boots walking to base camp he decided he didn’t want to risk getting water in his new ones so he stayed and glassed from camp.  Around 10:30 pm Riley spotted a big bear crossing a creek drainage that dumps into the river.  The bear was working his way along the base of the hillside and disappeared into the alder.  He was about 1500 yards away.  We waited until dark but he never reappeared.  With the low light we headed back to camp for the night. 

Early the following morning we were out glassing.  Around 10:00 am Riley spotted a big bear moving high on the hillside in the snow.  We got the two spotting scopes on him and could tell it wasn’t the same big bear that he had spotted late the previous evening but he was traveling pretty fast so there wasn’t a chance of catching him.  He disappeared behind one of the front mountains.  The fact that we were seeing bears now and even big bears was a change.  This was more like a normal spring.

Right after lunch Matt decided to head to the tent for a quick nap.  Riley and I continued glassing and enjoying the better weather as we sat in the lawn chairs.  As I was glassing the river bottom in the area where I had seen the big tracks all of a sudden a bear appeared at the far point along the alder line.  I said, “Bear, Big Bear,” jumped up and ran to the tent to get Matt.  The bear was only 500 yards from us coming our way.

Matt's massive bear.

Matt's massive bear.

As I zipped open the tent, I said, “Matt, Matt there is a big bear walking down the river towards us!  Let’s go, let’s go!”  Matt was still trying to wake-up but he was ready to go.  Riley picked-up Matt’s .460 Weatherby Magnum by his lawn chair and was moving slowly toward the bear.  Matt and I caught up and Riley took control.  There was a slight breeze in our face and we had some scattered alder for cover.  The bear continued to come our way.  Riley was trying to get his spotting scope tripod set-up for Matt to use.  At 124 yards the giant bear stopped and looked straight at us.  Riley told Matt to take him.  Matt’s rifle was now resting on the tripod and with a slow squeeze of the trigger the Swift A Frame 500 grain soft point bullet found its mark and the bear hit the dirt.  That was it.  One shot and it was over.  We slowly walked over to the bear and only then did we realize just how massive he was.  He was one of the heaviest bears that I had ever been around.  One of my first comments was, “He’s a “booner!”  We congratulated Matt and then we looked at his back pads.  It was “the big bear” that had the big feet and the bear that they had taken the pictures of two years before.  What luck and he was taken 50 yards from our strip so no big long hard pack.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

Matt and me with his 10'3" giant.  You can see one of the gashes on his back pad.

Matt and me with his 10'3" giant.  You can see one of the gashes on his back pad.

Riley and I went back to get our knives and cameras while Matt sat humbly by the bear.  It was over and he had taken the bear that he had come for.  When Riley and I returned we got everything ready for photos and Riley said, “Let’s call Brent on the Sat phone and have him fly up for pictures.”  I said, “That’s a great idea!”  Brent was in main camp without a hunter so Riley thought it would be great since we were so close to the strip.  That way we could get pictures of Brent, Matt and I.  It was like a thirty three year reunion.  Matt gave him a call and about a half hour later Robert Wing, one of AAA’s pilots, flew Brent up.  The sun came out and we ended up having a great photo shoot.

Brent and me with Robert's "Super Cub."  The cub is equipped with the 34" Alaskan Bushwheels.

Brent and me with Robert's "Super Cub."  The cub is equipped with the 34" Alaskan Bushwheels.

(L to R) Matt, me, Brent, Rob Wing and Riley Pitts gathered around Matt's bear.

(L to R) Matt, me, Brent, Rob Wing and Riley Pitts gathered around Matt's bear.

As we were looking the bear over we found open wounds on both sides of his body along with lots of old scars.  Half of his right ear was gone.  Either he was a real “bad ass” or everyone just picked on him.  I would think it was the first.  He was so heavy that his foot pads had open gashes on them from walking on the rocks.  The other thing we noticed was he was a very short bear and that’s why his back foot was stepping into the front foot tracks, not because he had a long stride, it was just the opposite.

This guy had some big feet..

This guy had some big feet..

It took a little over 2 hours to skin the bear out.  I got to thinking man, this would have been a monumental task for my buddy Dwight and me.  Two old timers trying to move 1,200 to 1,400 pounds of bear.  That is what we estimated this giant’s weight to be.  Robert had brought a scale up and we tried to weigh it in pieces.  That is how we came up with the 1,200 to 1,400 pounds.

That evening we broke camp and were flown back to the lodge.  Chris got busy fleshing the bear hide.  We knew it was in good hands.  This would be the third 10’+ bear that he had fleshed this season.  Also, Brent had just received a call from another spike camp that they also had a 10 footer down.  This was going to be a great year for AAA.

After the bear was fleshed it squared 10’3” a great bear but being short kept him from squaring larger.  His skull was 27 8/16 which was not as large as I had guessed but still a great bear.  AAA ended up taking four 10’+, three over 9’ all boars and one smaller bear.  Two did score over 28 points to make the B&C record book.  Best season for big bears since ’92.

Matt back at main camp holding his 27 8/16 B&C skull.

Matt back at main camp holding his 27 8/16 B&C skull.

Matt and I flew out two days later.  We had a wonderful trip thanks to Brent, Riley, and the AAA team.  It was a pleasure hunting with Riley and I’m so glad Brent assigned him to guide Matt.  A great fit.  Thanks Matt for inviting me to come along.  It brought back so many  memories not all good but way more good than bad.  If you haven’t hunted brown bear before I suggest you find yourself a good APHA guide and have a hunt of a lifetime and if you have, just do it again because we aren’t getting any younger.