Bushwhacked!

A dream hunt for elk becomes a nightmare when a grizzly grabs the guide.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Steve Levi swung his right leg over the saddle and dropped his foot to the ground. It landed with a flattened thud that raised a miniature cloud of dust. After four days of hard riding, creeping along ridgelines and climbing on and off horses, there wasn't much bounce left to Levi.

Hunting wasn't so physically demanding back in Georgia, but then home didn't have elk like Wyoming did and Levi was determined to endure whatever it took to get a good bull. This could be the place, or at least Levi's guide, Mike Potas, thought there was a chance.

After making sure the horses were secure, Levi removed his rifle from its scabbard and followed Potas through the trees. The two hunters left the cover of the lodgepole pines and slinked along a barren promontory that jutted out from the rim of a basin on the Keller Fork of Bruin Creek in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The point was about 100 yards long and covered with football-size rocks and a few small spruce trees. A boulder the size of a coffee table at the ridge's end was where the two hunters set up a spotting scope to sweep the valley below.

"Potas must not have too much faith that we'll see a shooter here," Levi thought as the guide squinted through the scope's eyepiece. "He didn't even bother to take off his chaps when he dismounted." Just then Levi heard something behind him.

"Whooof!"

At first he thought the sound might have come from an elk that had winded the hunters and was in the process of bounding away. One glance at Potas told a different story, however, as Levi saw him staring over his shoulder in wide-eyed horror. Levi followed Potas's eyes to the source of the noise. Less than a dozen yards away, on the crest of the point, a sow grizzly was charging toward them at full speed as her two cubs stood and watched.

"Unreal," Levi thought. "Maybe she's just bluffing."

Potas was convinced the bear meant business, however. He cursed once, then yelled "Run!"

And they ran.

Hunt of a Lifetime
Anticipation is one of the sweetest parts of hunting, and Steve Levi of Athens, Ga., had a good taste of it months before he headed west for his Wyoming elk hunt. He had signed up to hunt elk with Gary Fales Outfitting just outside Cody, presuming he drew a tag. No sweat. Although Levi had never hunted elk before (much less applied for an elk tag) he got one. Even more fortunate, he drew a mule deer tag as well.

Friends who had hunted western Wyoming had recommended Fales's outfit to him. "If you want an authentic high-country elk hunt without any fancy trimmings but with the chance to bag a trophy-size bull, line up Fales," they said. So Levi booked a seven-day hunt and, on September 7, flew from Atlanta to Cody with his father, James, who went along as an observer.

Their base camp on the Thorofare River was 26 miles from the trailhead at the end of a butt-numbing seven-hour horseback ride. The trail threaded up, down and around the rugged Absaroka Mountains, through forested passes and across meadows lush with the sweet grass that fed elk until the first snows of winter.

"We were taking horses through places I never knew horses could go," Levi recalled. "We would leave before daylight and ride to a vantage point where we could glass for elk, then return to camp around ten o'clock, eat lunch and loaf until three o'clock or so. Then we would go back out and hunt until dark. You got so tired that the soreness you felt didn't bother you so much after a while."

One reason Levi never seemed to get enough rest was his guide. Fales had paired Levi with Mike Potas, an energetic 32-year-old from Meteestse, Wyo. Potas had been guiding since his teens and specialized in bighorn sheep and mountain lions. A lanky six-footer, he was as durable as whet leather and had previously won the local Tough Man Contest in Cody. Potas dre himself and his customers hard to succeed, and he was popular with younger hunters. Fales figured the 31-year-old Levi could handle Potas's daily regimen, which included long rides through some of the most rough-hewn country this side of Alaska.

"The first morning we weren't far from camp when we heard a bull bugling," said Levi. "After we dismounted, we spotted two decent five by fives. Because it was the first day, we decided to pass on them. Later we saw a nice six by six, but he was about seven hundred and fifty yards off and there was no way to get closer."

Levi was hunting with a custom rifle chambered for a .300 wildcat based on a necked-down 8mm Remington cartridge that utilized 180-grain bullets. The rifle was sighted in to be dead on at 300 yards, and Levi had practiced even longer shots at a local range. He was confident he was as prepared as most Western hunters for any reasonable opportunity and, on Friday, September 13, he got a chance to prove it. While riding along a ridge between two bowls, Potas spotted a 160-class mule deer watching the hunters pass. He told Levi the muley was a good buck, and the Georgia hunter elected to have a go at it.

Levi quickly dismounted, chambered a round and, while standing within yards of his horse, took an offhand shot at the buck 175 yards away. As the sound of the shot reverberated through the mountain canyons, the buck dropped in its tracks and slid about 20 yards down the mountain toward the hunters. Potas told Levi that, as a shooter, he would do.

One Last Try
On the final morning of the hunt, Levi was still determined to go home with a trophy rack or none at all. It was a cold morning, with temperatures in the 30s, and the hunters had layered on clothing. Potas was wearing thick long underwear under his blue jeans and chaps and he had a thick jacket on over his shirt. The coat kept him warm, but it also concealed the .44 Magnum revolver he wore in a shoulder holster for backup. Bears-blacks and grizzlies-were a fact of life in the mountains of the Bridger-Teton and six rounds of lead was standard insurance against attack.

As they reached the basin where Potas figured they might see elk, Potas cautioned Levi to stay close to him and be ready to shoot if he saw a bull that passed muster.

"We eased out to the end of the point when Mike motioned me to get down because he had spotted elk," said Levi. "We got next to the only big rock out there. It was off to one side and I was planning to kneel behind it and use it as a rest if I got a shot. The valley was about six hundred and twenty yards across, according to my range finder, and we saw a few small bulls browsing around in an opening. We waited, hoping a good bull would eventually move out of the timber."

When the grizzly sow winded the hunters, she answered the supposed threat in typical fashion of her kind: straight ahead, with no benefit of the doubt extended to the intruders.

"Mike went one way and I started to go the other, but I was kind of dumbfounded at first," said Levi. "The grizzly came on so fast I knew I wouldn't have time to raise my gun. Mike took off down the hill and probably that's why the bear veered off toward him. She just went right after him. I shuffled a step to my right and before I knew what was happening, the bear had caught up with Mike."

Potas leaped into one of the scraggly spruce saplings but the bear was on him instantly. "Shoot it, shoot it," screamed Potas, who didn't have time to retrieve his handgun from under his jacket before the grizzly clamped his leg in her jaws. He was holding onto the tree's upper branches and kicking at the sow with one leg while she attempted to pull him out of the tree.

"I chambered a round, but even then I was wondering, 'Am I going to shoot the bear, or shoot Mike?'" Levi said. "In a split second I made the decision not to shoot and lowered my rifle. The next thing I know, Mike is flying out of the tree and rolling and stumbling down the hill for about thirty yards. The bear didn't follow him; instead, she turned and came for me."

The grizzly apparently had spent much of her fury on the guide but still perceived Levi to be a menace to her cubs. Suddenly, she rushed him. With nowhere to run, Levi stood his ground, but the grizzly moved so quickly that he didn't have time to raise the rifle to his shoulder. When the bear was within 10 feet, Levi fired from the hip and instantly chambered another round. The shot froze the sow in her tracks for a second or two. That was Levi's cue to leave and he bounded down the slope to Potas's side. Both men looked back up the incline but the bears had disappeared over the skyline.

The guide was spoiling for a rematch with the grizzly. He had drawn the handgun from its holster and fired a couple of rounds in the air while shouting a string of challenging curses.

"When he settled down some we looked at his wounds. The bear had bit him in the upper thigh of his left leg and it was bleeding pretty good," Levi said. "But thanks to the thick leather chaps, the bear couldn't tear his leg with her teeth or get her claws in him."

Riding for Help
Potas asked Levi to fetch the horses, and by the time he returned, the guide's lower leg was drenched in blood. Levi cut his long underwear and bound Potas's wounds as best he could to stop the bleeding. He then helped Potas mount his horse, but the smell of blood made the mare jumpy.

The guide told Levi he would have to ride for help and instructed him on how to follow the stream to its confluence with the Thorofare. Once Levi reached the river, camp would be a few miles downstream. Minutes after Levi left Potas in the basin, he spooked a big bull from the aspens flanking the opposite ridge. The hunter didn't give the elk a moment's notice, however, and continued his descent toward camp. Not long after he reached the river, Levi encountered two hunters with packhorses. When he caught up with them, Levi discovered they were both doctors making their way out of the high country after a successful hunt. Levi told them what had happened. It was agreed that one of the men would take Levi's fresh horse and seek help at the camp while the other would accompany Levi back to where he had left Potas.

As they were making their way back to the site of the grizzly's attack, Levi spotted Potas coming toward them on his horse. Having decided that it was safer to take his chances on the trail than to wait for more bears, Potas was making a beeline for the Thorofare.

"By the time we reached Mike he was pretty wobbly and lying over in his saddle," Levi said. "The doctor made sure the bandages would hold and then we rode to camp. Another doctor the shoot and lowered my rifle. The next thing I know, Mike is flying out of the tree and rolling and stumbling down the hill for about thirty yards. The bear didn't follow him; instead, she turned and came for me."

The grizzly apparently had spent much of her fury on the guide but still perceived Levi to be a menace to her cubs. Suddenly, she rushed him. With nowhere to run, Levi stood his ground, but the grizzly moved so quickly that he didn't have time to raise the rifle to his shoulder. When the bear was within 10 feet, Levi fired from the hip and instantly chambered another round. The shot froze the sow in her tracks for a second or two. That was Levi's cue to leave and he bounded down the slope to Potas's side. Both men looked back up the incline but the bears had disappeared over the skyline.

The guide was spoiling for a rematch with the grizzly. He had drawn the handgun from its holster and fired a couple of rounds in the air while shouting a string of challenging curses.

"When he settled down some we looked at his wounds. The bear had bit him in the upper thigh of his left leg and it was bleeding pretty good," Levi said. "But thanks to the thick leather chaps, the bear couldn't tear his leg with her teeth or get her claws in him."

Riding for Help
Potas asked Levi to fetch the horses, and by the time he returned, the guide's lower leg was drenched in blood. Levi cut his long underwear and bound Potas's wounds as best he could to stop the bleeding. He then helped Potas mount his horse, but the smell of blood made the mare jumpy.

The guide told Levi he would have to ride for help and instructed him on how to follow the stream to its confluence with the Thorofare. Once Levi reached the river, camp would be a few miles downstream. Minutes after Levi left Potas in the basin, he spooked a big bull from the aspens flanking the opposite ridge. The hunter didn't give the elk a moment's notice, however, and continued his descent toward camp. Not long after he reached the river, Levi encountered two hunters with packhorses. When he caught up with them, Levi discovered they were both doctors making their way out of the high country after a successful hunt. Levi told them what had happened. It was agreed that one of the men would take Levi's fresh horse and seek help at the camp while the other would accompany Levi back to where he had left Potas.

As they were making their way back to the site of the grizzly's attack, Levi spotted Potas coming toward them on his horse. Having decided that it was safer to take his chances on the trail than to wait for more bears, Potas was making a beeline for the Thorofare.

"By the time we reached Mike he was pretty wobbly and lying over in his saddle," Levi said. "The doctor made sure the bandages would hold and then we rode to camp. Another doctor the