A Tale of Two Bears: Hunting Brown Bears in Alaska
A two-year quest for browns in the wilds of Alaska that included the expected (bone-chilling cold), the unusual (wolverines), and the bizarre (Blackhawk helicopters)
Every bear story needs a bear. Mine appeared on day five of a hunt in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska a couple of years ago. I was asleep in a tent made of yellow canvas so bright it would put a school bus to shame. The tent was sturdy, Alaskan-made, with triple-stitched seams and supported by heavy aluminum poles strong enough to withstand being buried in snow or the force of a gale. It had a reinforced and insulated flap for the metal pipe of a wood-burning stove, but the flap was closed, sealed against the elements. There was no stove. We had a cold camp. No fires allowed.
The only source of heat was that which our bodies could generate, helped out by hot coffee and cider that we cooked on a small stove and then gulped down half a cup at a time in order to get the steaming fluids into ourselves before they cooled in the bitter air.
I kept my rifle next to my cot, magazine full, chamber empty. We were camped on the stony shore of a large lake, using a tangle of willows as a windbreak. The shoreline was littered with the desiccated carcasses of sockeye salmon, withered and leathery. The cold was a mercy in that respect. It kept the smell to a minimum. If it had been warm, the stench of hundreds of rotting salmon would have been overpowering.
The berry crop that summer had been poor, forcing the bears to concentrate on salmon more than usual. Their long-clawed tracks, rimmed with frost, ran up and down the rocky beach, some as broad as my hand with my thumb and pinkie spread to full width.
Somehow the bear was in my tent, and in a mental fog I shot it three times. Blood streamed from its mouth and snout, and it died with its massive head in my lap. The most curious sensation was the lack of malice from either the bear or me. The whole situation just was. And then I woke up, the vivid dream receding before the light from my headlamp as I scanned the inside of my tent and looked down at my .375 on the floor.
Wind and Waves
Hours later, when the sun rose, I stepped outside bundled in several layers of clothes to greet the day. The spitting snow and biting wind forced my head down.
I scurried to the camp kitchen, which consisted of three large tarps that had been strung in the willows with enough line to rig a man-of-war. The tarps formed a barrier wall and a low ceiling. They popped and snapped in the wind but stayed in place.
Guide Les Bragdon poured half a cup of coffee into my mug, which I started on right away.
“There’s a bear right over there on the beach,” he said pointing across the lake. In his Maine accent, the words came out as thar, bahr, and ovah. “But that sonofa whore might as well be on the dark side of the moon. We’d need a boat to get there, and it’s too windy for ours.”
I watched the whitecaps break against the beach, pounding the shore and churning the dead salmon in the spume, and I was glad we wouldn’t be fighting the waves in our inflatable raft. Hiking to the bear wasn’t possible because the river at the lake’s outlet was too broad and deep to cross, even with chest waders. Through my binocular I watched the bear walk along the lake before it disappeared into the bush.
Les’ salty vocabulary was one byproduct of his years in the Navy. Another was his cheerful indifference toward the weather. Like any seasoned sailor, he regarded the cold and wet as mere facts of life. Nothing personal.
He looked the part, too. Around his waist was a leather belt held up by suspenders that supported his Ka-Bar knife, standard issue canteen, flashlight, Leatherman, and spare cartridges for the peep-sighted pre-’64 Model 70 in .375 H&H that was always within arm’s reach. The patrol cap on his head bore a First Class Petty Officer’s eagle and bars. At 64 years old, Les was tough as an oak rootball. Only after the temperature dipped into the teens did he bother with gloves.
My hunting partner, Linda Powell, who handles public relations for Mossberg, joined us at the stove, smiling and stamping her feet on the frozen ground and holding out her mug, which Les filled. Pat McDonough, the other guide, was pouring pancake batter into a hot pan, as photographer Peter Bohler snapped pictures around camp.
By this time in the hunt, the five of us had settled into a comfortable routine. After breakfast we’d hump up the hill behind camp to get to high ground to glass. We spent the first few days nestled up there in the spongy tundra, scanning the lake and mountains and alder thickets for a lumbering silhouette.
The bears we had seen were small, mostly sows with cubs. This puzzled Les and Pat since they knew this area held a lot of big boars. But for some reason they weren’t stepping into the open.
We saw plenty of other game, however. We watched caribou move across the landscape, taking purposeful strides toward the Bering Sea in a hurry to get to their wintering grounds, dipping their heads on occasion to grab a morsel.
Over the course of two afternoons, a wolverine appeared on a hill below ours. It was feeding on the carcass of some unfortunate critter, giving no heed to the outrage voiced by the ravens it kicked off the meat. Once it had its fill, it galloped over to a nearby mountain, running up and down the mountainside in a seemly random fashion and doing whatever it is that wolverines do.
One motivation behind this hunt was to try out Mossberg’s then-brand-new Patriot rifle chambered in .375 Ruger. The Patriot has been a big deal for Mossberg. It’s a solid and functional bolt gun, and from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s the best-looking big-game rifle the company has ever produced. It’s also the first Mossberg to be chambered in a dangerous-game caliber.
The .375 Ruger is one of our most modern cartridges. It exceeds the performance of the classic .375 H&H, and does so in a shorter-length action. Because of its rimless design, sharp shoulder, and gradual taper, the case has more capacity than the .375 H&H. Since its introduction in 2007, it has established a good reputation in Africa and North America on game that likes to fight back.
The other motivation was personal. Linda has been a good friend for a long time, and we had talked for years about doing a brown bear hunt together. The new Patriot gave us the perfect excuse.
Later in the day of my bear dream, the winds died down. We decided to take a boat ride to the other side of the lake to look around. While we were there, the whump-whump-whump of a helicopter filled the skies and a Blackhawk cruised overhead, banking from side to side along the lake. It landed a couple of miles away, at the lake’s far end. The crew of the helicopter unloaded some gear, and we could hear the faint pop-pop of gunfire as they took turns shooting on the beach.
This set a series of events in motion that culminated months later in an apology from the commanding general of the Alaska National Guard. Not only was this a poor use of our tax dollars, but helicopters are forbidden in the refuge, and casually shooting up the countryside is a no-no as well. After some investigating, we learned that a helicopter had been in our area before we arrived as well.
Anyone who’s hunted big bears knows they are sensitive to pressure. Small wonder we never saw a mature boar during our week there. It was a costly stroke of bad luck.
Our outfitter, Rick Grant of Tikchik Airventures, was understandably furious as the details of the skylarking Blackhawk became known. Though it was in no way his fault, he worked with us to set up another bear hunt last fall to try again.
Rick took us to a different part of the refuge in early September, and as he banked his Otter over the tiny lake, Linda and I saw that camp was already set up with military precision. The plane’s pontoons splashed down, and as Rick feathered the throttles to guide it to shore, Les was standing in hip boots in the crystal-clear water, waiting for us.
Since flying and hunting in the same day is neither ethical nor legal, we had to wait until the next morning to go after bears. Unlike the weather during the previous year’s hunt, which took place at the end of October and during the onset of winter, it was mild.
As before, we climbed to high ground behind camp to glass. This year, however, the land had produced a rich bounty. I ate blueberries, cranberries, and crowberries by the handful as we walked, pausing only to pick away the long strands of gold and brown fur that got caught on my hands after reaching down.
A light rain fell, cooling us off. We had a mountain at our back and a 270-degree view across a landscape that stretched for miles in every direction.
We saw bears everywhere. We spotted them high in the mountains that were in front of us. Out on the flats to either side. Working the banks of the rivers and lakes nearby, gorging themselves on silver salmon. We counted at least nine, but none were particularly close and we discussed in which direction we might go after lunch to make a stalk.
After the meal, we had time to kill before heading out. I went to my tent, stripped down to my long johns, laid my rifle next to my cot, closed my eyes, and dozed. The next thing I heard was Les’ voice floating in my head in an urgent whisper: “John. John! There’s a bahr in camp. Get up.”
It was no dream this time. I stepped into my camp slippers—fuzzy-lined camo Crocs, if you must know—grabbed my rifle and followed Les toward the cook tent. I saw the bear about 100 yards away on the hill right behind us, moving parallel to the camp.
“That’s a good bahr! Shoot it!” Les said.
I was standing in shoulder-high alders and had to take a couple of steps to the side to get a clear shot. The bear stopped and turned, quartering our way. I fired offhand and hit the bear, then ran the bolt and fired again, and again. Within a couple of seconds I had put three bullets into the bear and it collapsed in the tundra.
“By god, that’s some shootin’!” Les said as he slapped my back. The bear was dead when we got to it, and after congratulations, pictures, and skinning it out, Linda and I tucked into our supply of bourbon to celebrate.
The next morning, we again climbed the hill and spotted a number of bears. One was angling toward the far end of our lake, about 2 miles away, and we decided to put a stalk on.
To intercept the bear, we dropped down into camp to skirt the lake. But at that moment we noticed another bear, this one just 300 yards in front of us, heading our way. We could tell it was a good-size boar and we scrambled to get into position for a shot. Linda got set up on shooting sticks, and the next time we saw the bear it had closed the gap to less than 100 yards. One shot from her rifle and the bear fell, and the celebrating started again.
After the cold, barren hunt the year before, which had been spoiled by intruders, this was a remarkable turn of events. Two bears in two days within a stone’s throw of camp. For us, the second time was the charm.