Written By Chris Foster
I once explained to a friend who I helped hunt Brown Bear inquiring as to the “why” of hunting the great predator. I told him that “We take them home as a symbol of the wilderness to remember that genuine wild places still exist”. Many times I've sought out these large, mature Brown bears roaming these wild places. This spring was to be such a time.
In SE Alaska you can successfully hunt Brown Bear once every four years. I had taken a beautiful, dark fall bear in 2009. My wait was over and I planned an archery hunt on the Chickamin River in the Misty Fiords with a good friend and very accomplished hunter, Bill. We loaded my 19’ boat with provisions and did a 75 mile run around Revillagegedo Island and slowly and carefully motored up the river. This hunt proved to be a wonderful experience with exciting scenery including a wild river run in my capable boat. We encountered one Brown Bear swimming in the river that got huffing and puffing when we pulled the boat alongside it. Soon this short five day hunt was over with nothing harvested except incredible memories and photos. Bill and I parted ways with a few more weeks of the hunting season to try and make something happen.
Determined to spend a few more days of the waning bear hunting season outdoors and looking over new wild places, I loaded up my boat with overnight supplies and headed north of Ketchikan. This left my wife and daughters not so happy as I had been away and working too much and each of them had some unique need to be fulfilled. I assured them this was it for some time and completed my preparations and shoved off mid-morning on the 26th of May. The weather was windy and clear. The run up the Behm Canal was very rough and at one point I pulled into a small bay only part-way to my intended destination just to relax wave battered back. The winds still pushed me to the shore and I really wasn’t able to relax. In a moment, at an adjacent beach, movement was spotted! Brown Bears...four of them to be exact, jumped and scurried about in a tangle of roots and logs. A sow with three cubs had made their home is this little bay. I knew then that this wasn’t my hunting spot. No intelligent sow would home her cubs anywhere near a big boar. I enjoyed the encounter and turned the wheel north.
Getting to my destination, Spacious Bay, proved to be a relief. It was angled in such a way that helped buffer the wind. I baited a crab pot and then anchored my boat. Using an inflatable pack raft, I paddled to shore and began to look around. I spent four hours exploring various aspects of this foreign and wild coast. It didn’t appear to have much bear activity, so I formulated a plan to explore another bay until I had found good bear sign. Most bear hunters would say don’t stink up a location with your scent, but considering my restricted time-frame, I didn’t want to spend wasted time in an area void of what I came for. I looked at the map, found another deep and semi secluded unnamed bay, and headed that direction. Of course I wanted to see about that crab pot, and found if full of Dungeness Crab. I grabbed a couple for dinner and threw the pot back in to soak.
At the new bay, I took a few moments before the evening hunt to boil crab legs and mix the sweet meat with a freeze dried meal of Red Beans and Rice. Delicious! With a renewed energy I gathered my essentials and jumped into my packraft again to explore this new location. My immediate impression was that the wind was all wrong. In the front of the estuary there wasn’t any bear sign. Determined to get into a position where the wind wouldn’t blow my scent into the estuary I started hiking into the back reaches. Enroute the bear sign got much, much better. There was a large Brown Bear using this location along with a few smaller bears. The prints left in the estuary mud were a dead giveaway. He was eating copious amounts of beach grasses and digging clams. I crawled under the boughs of a large Sitka Spruce and relaxed. I was enjoying everything about the moment. I set up my spotting scope with a video recorder and had my laser rangefinder out to judge distances to various points in preparation. I sat peaceful for about an hour listening to the birds. Soon in the distance a bear was standing at the edge of the forest. I looked it over with my spotter and then put on my PhoneSkope adapter to get some photographs and video. It was almost as if he disturbed my afternoon as a gently spoke into the video, “I think I’m going to have to shoot that big bear”. It was obvious he was a lumbering boar looking for sows.
I determined him to be at 500 yrds to start. The photos and video took place until he meandered to about 350 yrds. The equipment was put away and I got to the business of readying for a shot. I eased forward with my backpack and set up for a prone shot with my .416 Ruger shooting 300g Barnes X bullets at 2200 fps. This was a proven round I hand loaded with excellent accuracy. I had taken a bull elk with the same combo two years prior at 455 yrds. My goal was to allow this bear to walk strait to me and get a solid 100yrd shot. At around 200yrds I saw the bears nose go up and the brakes applied. He sat down and stared right at me! I ranged him at 198 yrds. I almost threaded one into him while sitting but wanted the broadside shot. I held off and waited that split second. It wasn’t to be. The bear spun quickly to exit and all I had was a heavily angled brief rear shot attempting to hit the vitals. BOOM! The great boar spun at the hit and roared. He fell down and I lost sight and a follow up shot. For a moment I had him in sight and I attempted a follow up. Fail! In an instant the woods were silent again.
Without delay I had my bag packed and rifle magazine topped off before I made my way to the bears point of entry into the rainforest tangle. The great bruin was so heavy and powerful that he tore away large chunks of soil as he sought time and distance from me. Blood covered some vegetation on the forest floor but nothing in great quantities. The tracks indicated the bear was moving very well. I used flagging tape to mark some of the blood location and started moving uphill with my senses primed. After about 30 minutes and waning light I determined the bear was zig zaging and that made me nervous about the prospect of him circling and attacking. That determined my course of action. It was time to back out for the night. The weather forecast was great with no rain and good temps. I hiked out of the thickets and back to my boat. At the boat I powered up and made my way into open water where I had cell phone service from some remote unknown location. SE Alaska is like this, you’ll get spotty signal through passes or in the middle of large bodies of water. I called a good friend at an adjacent hatchery, Matt. He, without delay, agreed to help track. He insisted I come to his place, rest, and we would get an early start the task. I didn’t sleep that night. The real video was replayed and I reviewed the mental video of the shot over and over to the point of insomnia.
The next morning we got underway at around 5am. The run back to the bear bay was smooth and the strong coffee Matt brewed had me chatting like his 9th grade girlfriend. Matt is a great outdoorsman and carried his own rifle and packed all of his provisions for whatever circumstance may arise. We functioned as a good pair in this situation. With the trail markers I had placed at the shot location getting started on the blood trail wasn’t difficult. Little did I know how much tracking I had in store? Matt and I spent the entire day judging every leaf, stem, stick, imprint, and spot as we followed the tracks of the bear. He took us through rough drainages with downed trees. He side-hilled rocky cliffs. He circled the perimeter of a small lake. He then kept climbing towards the highest point behind where I had shot him. We were getting fatigued and our hopes were slipping that this bear would be recovered. The only thing that drove me on is that he was bedding frequently and we always found at least spots of blood. Matt had to go back to work at the hatchery and I had just about had enough. We abandoned the tracks. I said to Matt, “I feel like I’m leaving an old friend”. After spending the entire day going step for step with the great bear, I had bonded with him. Our paths would cross again! I ran Matt back to the hatchery and immediately turned my boat towards home. I wanted my dog. He had been in this situation before and I felt he would be the key to locating this bear.
At home my family hesitantly understood my need to leave again. I’ve been hunting for years and it’s a family tradition. I got a lunch, quickly refueled my boat, and headed back out on the water. To get to the mountain ridge where we last left the tracks I went to an adjacent bay. Using the last recorded GPS coordinate I navigated through the trail-less forest to the point I was searching for. I found the last spot where I knew the bear was and put Z (my dog) onto it. I proceeded to feed him Caribou hot dog slices to encourage him to guide me on. After repeating that a few times, he knew the deal. He did wonderful helping me track the bear as he had stopped bleeding and the higher elevation vegetation didn’t reveal his tracks nearly as well as the lower elevation vegetation. Soon Z came alive and with wild tail and quick step set to guiding me. At his very first bark I knew we were close. I was hoping the boar had expired. Just my luck...he was still alive! The forest erupted and the great bear bounded slightly downhill and slightly cross hill. I sprinted to get visibility and to a shooting position. After navigating a few trees and boulders I managed to get high and increase my visibility. There he was, still evading two days later. I only had a momentary off hand shot at a moving target and hit him good taking him off his feet. My heart beat intensely from the adrenaline and the effort. I approached cautiously as the bugs enjoyed eating any piece of exposed skin on my neck. He was down for good. It was perhaps the most relieved I’ve ever been in a hunting moment. The effort to recover this bear was great and genuine.
Being solo, I had a monumental task of skinning this massive animal. With a lot of patience sprinkled in with some skill, I carefully positioned and maneuvered the hulk to remove the massive hide. Because I was so remote I needed to also remove all four paws and the skull from the hide. The entire task took four hours. I put the skin on a pack frame and secured the skull in my small daypack also lashed to the pack frame. I estimate the load to be around 100 pounds. Moving through the forest tangle was difficult. At each step something soft or unstable would give way. The visibility was poor too . I told Z, “take me to the boat” and without fail he guided us step for step off the mountain. That was such a great relief. I was able to relax while I hauled my heavy load of hide and skull, following my happy working dog. We reached the beach after a couple hours and the sight of the boat was a great relief. With renewed energy I took to getting the boat ready for the run back to town. It was a great moment to successfully recover this bear.
As a hunter it was very important that I followed through and tracked this animal down. We have an obligation to place a good shot first. When that doesn’t happen we have a duty of pursuit. I had completed that duty and it felt good.