Bear Beyond Reason

Bears aren’t the only danger on a mountain hunt.

From Horned Moons and Savage Santas, available in the Sporting Classics store.

 

David Anderson of Montrose, Minnesota, flew into my main camp near the south end of Kodiak Island in mid-April of 2003. We had fifteen days ahead of us to connect on a big Kodiak bear. David arrived in excellent physical condition and he was looking forward to our backpacking expedition, but as he would tell me later, “I got more than my wildest dreams.”

The first three days of our hunt flew by, mixed with rain, snow, low clouds, and cool temperatures. We saw a few bears, but nothing to get excited over. I was waiting for a favorable wind that would allow us to pack into a valley hemmed by tall, snow-covered peaks. Finally, on the fourth day an easterly wind developed, perfect for hunting the long, narrow valley. We loaded our packs with enough food, fuel, and gear to stay the duration and headed back in.

Our campsite was one of those magical places, framed by majestic mountains and blessed with an abundance of game. Sitka blacktails watched our every move as we followed the receding snowline up the surrounding slopes. Mountain goats hung from cliffs above camp and often moved within several hundred yards of our tents to dine on the first green shoots of spring. But more than anything, this was big bear country.

The first full day dawned clear and 20 degrees. Dave and I rubbed on sunscreen and climbed up a nearby ridge. Within a few hours the sun heated the land and it was a pleasure to be sitting out there, and especially to be seeing bears. Over the course of the day we spotted fourteen, including one sow with three cubs. Most of the animals were passing through immense snowfields that loomed above the valley. One bear appeared to be in the ten-foot class, but it disappeared into a convoluted maze of meandering ridges and high basins. We also counted at least a dozen blacktails and forty-one mountain goats before the evening clouds tumbled over the mountains to the east, bringing change for tomorrow.

The next three days were dominated by intermittent rain, wind, and fog. Low visibility kept us from seeing much—just six bears—but we did glimpse a huge boar backing down off a snowy peak. On steep, snow-covered slopes, brown bears back down in much the same way a man would, or should, first looking over one shoulder and then the other until they reach a safer angle. This bear left a wide trail, which was soon swept over by clouds into a gray oblivion.

In the days to come Dave proved to be not only a diligent glasser, but an effective one as well, spotting his share of bears. Many clients struggle with boredom, as there are always long dry spells when nothing seems to be happening; but bear hunting is all about perseverance and patience, and Dave has plenty of both.

 

The ninth day dawned with clear skies and warmer temperatures, and we headed up to our glassing ridge with renewed enthusiasm. Despite the day’s promise, spotting was slow. We observed two sows , each with two cubs, and a couple of medium-sized singles. Then, just before dark we spotted a bear in the ten-foot class. We watched him until it was too dark to see, leaving him bedded on an exposed patch of muskeg at the snowline.

Rain and wind returned in force the next day, and despite our best efforts we were unable to locate the big boy from the night before. While I continued to glass for the bear, Dave scanned the mountains around us and soon spotted a big boar digging a hole in the snow just below a cliff on Pelletier Peak.

The mountain fell away hard just below the bear, and he kept sliding downward as he dug his snow den. He completely disappeared into the hole six or eight times , only to reemerge and start digging again. The snow flew off his paws like it was blasting out of a big mechanical snow blower. When he disappeared for the last time, his hole resembled a twenty-foot trench that angled downslope from right to left. The den was soon shrouded in fog.

That afternoon, Dave asked, “You ever go into a place like that after one of these guys?”

As I studied the mountain, I determined that the only possible approach was from a high, snow-filled basin southwest of the den. The last part would be extremely steep. I caught Dave’s eye and cautiously said, “It’s doable with the right wind … which isn’t what we have right now, judging by the direction the clouds are moving. It would take a while.”

The next day rain, clouds, and fog persisted, along with the same wind direction. We glassed all around us, but continued to keep an eye on the snow den. Most of the time we couldn’t see that high up and even our brief glimpses failed to reveal anything.

On day twelve we started early and headed up-valley to French Meadows, right below Pelletier Mountain. Through occasional breaks in the clouds and fog, we were able to observe the den site, but we couldn’t detect any tracks leaving the area. Despite the murky conditions, change was in the air. The clouds no longer raced across the sky, but draped the mountains like blankets, and there was a glow up high that promised better weather ahead.

“Well,” I told Dave, “I figure there’s a 90 percent chance he’s still in that hole. I don’t really see how he could have left after the warm, rainy days and nights we’ve been having without leaving tracks.”

“I’m game,” Dave volunteered. “If you think we have a chance.”

 

We started up at 9:15. A little over two hours of hard climbing brought us to the edge of the second and highest bowl, where we confronted a solid curtain of fog. We hunkered down to wait. I could feel the sun’s warmth as we watched rock ptarmigan clucking and buzzing and parading around us. They reminded me of fashion models strutting down a runway.  Finally, about 1 p.m. the clouds raised up enough for us to see our destination, a rock outcrop that hopefully would be within good shooting distance of the den.

The sun broke out and we began dripping sweat as we post-holed up the sheer slope. After fifty minutes of slow, difficult climbing we reached the rock outcrop, only 170 yards from the den. Even though it had been two days since we last saw the bear, I knew that the absence of tracks meant he was still there.

“Dave, get into as good a shooting position as you can,” I instructed. “Use your pack for a rest. This wind isn’t perfect … if he gets a whiff of us he’ll be smoking tracks.

“Another thing to be thinking about: Don’t shoot until he’s free of that hole. I don’t want any part of him hanging over the den, ‘cause if he were to die in there we’d probably lose him. He’d spoil before we could dig him out—if we could dig him out.”

We weren’t there fifteen minutes when the bear appeared about halfway out if his den.

“Ooooh man,” I hissed. “He looks big.”

Slowly the bear swung his keg-sized head to survey the country below.

“He looks like Godzilla up there,” I whispered. I could feel my heart pounding and knew that Dave’s had to be doing the same. “If you feel nervous, like buck fever nervous, take two or three deep breaths,” I said. “If that doesn’t do it, take two or three more.”

As we waited in our state of high anticipation, the bear decided to lay down, with his rear end extending down into the hole. Thirty minutes went by. We gradually lost our fiery edge as the bear became more and more relaxed in the afternoon heat. I knew he might sleep for quite a while, and after another fifteen minutes impatience got the better of me.

“Be ready to shoot,” I warned. “I’m going to let him know we’re humans, and he’s gonna run, so be ready. And make sure he’s away from that hole!”

I’ll always remember the look on the bear’s face when I shouted, “Hey bear! Hey bear!” Faster than you can blink his relaxed demeanor went rigid and he spun 180 degrees, diving out of sight into his den.

At first I could hardly believe what I had seen. Instead of running away as I had expected, he had done the one thing that could save his life. Like a trapped king in a chess game, he had countered us with a crafty move that, at the very least, resulted in a draw for the present and quite possibly paved the way for his eventual escape. As I contemplated this turn of events, I gradually came to the uneasy realization that what had appeared to be a sure thing was now anything but.

I looked over at Dave and shook my head. “I can’t believe he did that. He’s not coming out of there until tonight. I’ll bet on it.”

The sun glared down, its rays reflecting off the snow so brightly that I was almost blinded. Dave insisted that I wear his sunglasses—I’d left mine at the tent—so I could see what was going on at the den. While we waited an eight-foot Kodiak came around the corner and passed only 150 yards below us.

In the afternoon heat, snowslides began crashing down from an overhanging cornice, dumping snow into the bear’s den. It didn’t seem to matter. At least we were safe from the slides on our rock outcrop. Later, in frustration, I fired two shots into the snow near the den entrance. Nothing. Only three days left, I thought.

Toward evening, with the cooler air the snowslides came to an end and I said, “I’m going up there. I’m going to try to get him out.”

“Jees,” David said. “Okay, I’ll be ready. Be careful.”

 

Treacherous is the only word to describe what I was about to attempt. I stepped out onto the steep slope and began climbing toward the den. As I moved higher, the pitch increased ever more sharply until I was stomping in my footholds—ten, twenty times each—as though that extra effort could buy me some insurance. Below, black jagged rocks pierced the snow, and I knew that if I slipped and went skidding, the result wouldn’t be pretty. But each time I wrestled with turning around, I would think of that huge Kodiak hiding less than eighty feet away and refocus my resolve. So close.

I reached a rock ledge where I broke off several crumbling pieces and lobbed them into the hole. Nothing. I sang So Lonesome I Could Cry and Kansas City and got silence in return. Desperation drove me. In fits and starts I climbed higher and higher until I was perched twenty feet directly above the den. The hole extended down into the snow at least eight or ten feet, so from my angle I couldn’t see or hear anything.

I said, “You better come out bear. It’s time.” As I stood there making the occasional inane statement, rational thought returned inch by agonizing inch. Looking down, it occurred to me that one slip and I’d fall right into the bear’s den. I imagined his mood to be surly. Then I had the uneasy thought that should he come boiling out and I had to fire my .375, the recoil might jar me loose and I’d either tumble into the den or slide past it to be gutted on the sharp rocks below.

Oh, the possibilities!

When I looked back to where Dave was hunkered down behind the rifle, I noticed that I was uncomfortably close to his line of fire should the bear come out. That’s when it finally dawned on me: This has got to be one of the more idiotic decisions I’ve ever made. Along with that came the realization the bear wasn’t going to be panicked into making a dumb move.

Slowly, and with great care, I started back down the trail, thankful to be in one piece. Thirty minutes later, as I slipped back onto our rocky perch, Dave shook his head and said, “Man, you went way beyond the call of duty up there … waayyy beyond. I wanted to call out to you to come back.”

“Yeah, I finally realized that I was playing the idiot. That dang bear … he ain’t coming out of there until tonight.”

We discussed what to do next. At this point no plan seemed appealing. Faced with so much uncertainty, we decided to “siwash” (an old mountain man term for a makeshift camp without bedding, food and, usually, sleep) in the faint hope that the bear would make his move before dark.

We situated ourselves about fifty feet apart, so we each had a slightly different view of the den. At 11 p.m. I looked through my scope to see if there was enough shooting light. It was dark down in the valley, but I could still see my crosshairs against the snow. I figured we had about twenty more minutes of shooting light.

Shivering from the night’s cold, I had just dropped down to knock off some pushups when I heard the loud roar of Dave’s .338 Winchester.

“Criminy!” I jumped up, heard a second shot and saw the bear sliding down the snow with his head up. Dave fired again as the bear passed out of my line of sight behind some boulders between us. I heard a fourth shot and then the mountain went dark and silent.

Quickly I came around to Dave’s side of the outcrop. “I was doing pushups to get warm when I heard your rifle go off!”

“He came out fast … backing down,” said Dave, his voice piercing the dark. “I got off four shots. He looked pretty limp when he slid out of sight.”

“I can’t believe we finally got him,” I said. “I hope we got him, anyway. This is going to make our siwash a lot easier to take.”

 

The next morning, after a long shivery night, we found the snow had frozen rock hard, making it too dangerous for us to cross the steep slope to where the bear had disappeared. Worse yet, I estimated that it would take much of the day for the snow to soften again. All we could do was retrace yesterday’s footsteps down to an easier slope, then climb back up to where the bear had disappeared.

Before long we came upon bloody tracks leading down over cliffs on the north face, where it was impossible to follow. Once again we had to backtrack. The icy slope angled down in pitches that were either too steep or almost too steep. They would tease us until we’d find ourselves barely hanging on a slope we never should have attempted to cross. I was wearing Koflach mountaineering boots, which had a definite edge over Dave’s boots. Several times Dave found himself caught between fear and sheer panic. Later he would tell me that getting down those icy slopes was the most frightening experience of his life.

Once he got below the snowline, we resumed our search for the bear’s blood trail. We climbed in and out of dark gullies and over piles of moss-covered boulders, with alders and salmonberry thorns tearing at our packs and clothes. It was tiring, but a relief not to be worried about falling to our death. I had stopped to rest and was glassing the cliffs above us when Dave suddenly said, “Hey, isn’t that blood? Right there, in front of you.”

“Sure enough,” I responded, walking over to look at a string of dark red splotches. We began glassing the dense cover and less than a minute later, we were able to make out the bear through a small window in the brush. It looked as if he had died going downhill, which seemed to square with the amount of blood we’d seen. After several minutes of watching, I couldn’t detect any movement and his position looked unconventional, as if he had piled up in the brush.

“He looks dead to me,” I observed. “You might as well stay here; you can see all around. I’ll go down and make sure. Cover me.”

The alders and salmonberry were thick and noisy as I banged my way down the slope. I felt so sure the bear was dead the noise didn’t seem to matter. As I neared the bear’s location the brush grew taller, canopying overhead and closing off the light. I could only see about eight yards ahead of me. Suddenly I heard a low growl, then saw the rising form and giant head of the wounded Kodiak.

I jerked up my rifle, wondering if I could plow a shot through all the brush when he spun out of sight down through the alders. I yelled at Dave, “He’s still alive!”

Dave fired his .338 twice, while I clamored up some large rocks to see the bear 200 yards below, still on his feet. I fired my .375 and then heard Dave shoot again. Somehow the bear stayed up and raced into the alders. I could just glimpse him here and there—slashes of movement—as he charged hell-bent down the mountainside. Just before he disappeared for good I heard Dave’s rifle one last time and moments later saw the bear’s feet come up in the alders.

This time I was sure we had him. Dave and I met partway down and agreed that the bear had gone feet-up in a thick patch of brush. But even then we couldn’t find him! I searched up and down that mountainside for an hour, and I didn’t have a good feeling at the end of it. Was this some kind of supernatural bear? I thought. Had he somehow gotten up again and slipped away?

After everything we’d been through over the past twenty-four hours, my brain was frazzled. Tall alders, salmonberry, and elderberry brush extended in every direction. We weren’t likely to find him by chance. Despite my fatigue, I climbed back up, found the blood trail and followed it out to where I discovered the bear dead in an alder-tangled gully. Finally, we were able to get our hands on him. He was one heck of a bear, but more than that, we’d had one heck of an experience.

We staggered into our spike camp with the hide just before midnight, looking for food, sleeping bags and relief for our burning feet. We’d survived a harrowing but enormously rewarding ordeal over the past thirty-six hours, one that neither of us would forget.

 

 

Pick up more stories of success and survival in Horned Moons and Savage Santas, available in the Sporting Classics store!