In reading tales of near-death adventure in Outdoor Life, we probably all wonder how we might react in situations that involve charging lions or bears, crashing floatplanes or sinking boats. Probably all of us like to think that at such times we would stare down the pending danger with a witty Samuel Jackson- or Clint Eastwood-style declaration of defiance and leap into action.
During a December trip to Kodiak Island in Alaska, I got my chance to test that resolve and while stumbling short of Jackson’s or Eastwood’s on-screen braggadocio, I was pleased with the outcome. I suppose I have to be, I’m still alive.
I was easing up a steep slope about 450 feet above the beach where Surefire’s Derek McDonald, photographer Matt Hage and I had been dropped off an hour and a half earlier for a day of hunting blacktail deer. After moving through a rolling stand of cottonwoods and willows, we exited the brush into a small opening. We had glassed a pair of deer high on a ridgetop above us and decided to continue working upward until we could get a better view of them and decide if they were worth our final tags.
At the edge of the clearing we discovered a large area of torn up earth and wondered half-jokingly if it had been made by one of the island’s large brown bears. We had yet to see one of the fabled creatures since beginning our Kodiak adventure five days earlier and with just one day remaining were getting a touch dismayed that we might return home without seeing one.
I began up the hill after our brief rest, keeping to the edge of the clearing next to a stand of alders. Derek and Matt fell in behind. Suddenly, a limb popped in the alders to my right. “Deer getting up,” I thought as I moved my hand instinctively to the stock of my .30/06, which was slung over my back.
As my eyes found the source of the noise, my adrenaline kicked into overdrive. Not 45 yards away was the biggest man-eviscerating creature I had ever seen without the benefit of a foot-thick cement zoo wall between us. And worse yet, after a lumbering step or two downhill, the 1,000-plus pound bruin, which on all fours was easily as tall as my shoulders, turned and began barreling straight for us.
“Bear, bear, bear,” I screamed like a siren. I moved to spin the rifle upward to my shoulder and the sling caught on my pack frame, twisting the gun in my hand and sending it toward the ground. I pinned it between my arm and side to stop its fall, my hand still gripping the stock and began to backpedal hard. I couldn’t help but notice how much real estate each of its strides gobbled up. I wanted every second I could to get the gun into shooting position. I also wanted the benefit of being behind the other gun, Derek’s, in case that didn’t happen. Matt was unarmed.
At the sound of my alarm, Derek and Matt scrambled to discern from which direction the threat was approaching. Derek backed up a few steps as he fumbled to tear the rubber covers free of his scope; while Matt, an Alaska native and veteran of three previous bear charges, became the audible thought each of us were trying to plumb from our minds, “Don’t run. Don’t run. Stand your ground.” Anyone who goes to bear country knows this. Getting your feet and your mind to agree on it, however, especially when caught by such surprise is an entirely different matter.
Matt stood waving his arms and yelling at the top of his lungs as Derek, dropped to his knee, leveled his rifle, jacked a shell on the ground (in the scramble he couldn’t remember if he had loaded it earlier or not) and chambered a new one. I immediately froze, got the Model 700 XCR free and before I even had it to my shoulder was already clicking the safety off.
Any hunt in this country begins with a talk about bear safety and as part of that message the point is underscored: Do not shoot one unless a mauling is imminent. If you have game on the ground, you have to relinquish it. This keeps would-be trophy poachers from using self-defense as a free game tag.
By this time, the charging bruin was within 40 feet of us. At the edge of the clearing grew a small alder, approximately 30 feet from where we stood. When the bear hit the opening there, that was as “imminent” as I was going to allow. I was going to shoot. I would find out later that Derek was already tightening down on his trigger, when as quickly as the bear had come at us, it stopped, turned and disappeared back into the forest. The entire incident lasted less than 10 seconds.
Shaken, we kept our guns at the ready and scanned the area to make sure another charge wasn’t forthcoming. Then, with knees still weak, we began laughing and verbally replaying what had just taken place. We realized we had probably surprised the bear as much as he had us. As Derek noted, “Human beings are the only creatures that can be moments from total annihilation, then joking about it 15 seconds later.”
The laughter gradually helped calm our nerves, and it wasn’t long before we decided to continue up the mountain (and away from the direction the bear took) to finish hunting. With the encounter replaying in our minds though, we could never quite escape the feeling that we were as susceptible to being hunted as the deer, and we were probably all honestly relieved, when at the end of the day, we made our way down the mountain without the added enticement of packing a bloody deer carcass back through the brown bear’s bedroom.