Written by Stephen Stidham
The boulders or the bear, the bear or the boulders; there was risk with either choice. The drainage had looked much more floatable on prior trips to this spot. My plan had always been, we would just hike back, if the float out looked too dangerous. Yet, the Grizzly kill we stumbled upon on the hike in complicated plan “B”.
The river sure looked more dangerous now that floating out was more than a romantic notion dreamed of while packing a too heavy pack full of sheep meat and gear back to the airstrip. However, trying to sneak by the Grizzly’s kill site in the thick brush was also a dangerous option.
The last few days had been adrenaline filled, starting when we walked up on a fresh Grizzly kill and then when the bear tried to walk into our spike camp while we were glassing sheep. Not much sleep had been had; as we were always concerned he would return and choose us over his recent Caribou kill. The bear had chosen this spot for the same reasons I had, excellent concealment and terrain that funneled game into a narrow choke point. I have hunted this spot over the years with great success.
On another occasion a lone, large male wolf also shadowed me and hunted it at the same time. He also had killed a Caribou near my camp. I desperately wanted sleep to overtake me as I knew I needed the rest for the push back to base camp in the morning. However, the anxiety of choosing between the boulder filled river or the bear kept sleep from coming. This had been my plan and I felt responsible for both myself, but more so for the life of my young partner. I could hear the steady rhythm of his breathing and knew he was fast asleep. Our shelter was toasty warm from the fire roaring in the titanium wood stove. I too should be fast asleep; after all earlier that day I had taken my largest Dall Sheep ram to date.
Sometime before the stove burnt out, my exhausted body surrendered to sleep. The bright morning sun was shining and quickly rising in the morning sky when I awoke. We had packed rafts with us to float back and I had decided we would forego the bear kill and take the river. A check of the Inreach satellite device showed we had today to get back to the strip before a winter storm rolled in. With the meat safe in dry bags and our gear safety in dry bags too, we strapped our packs to the tiny rafts and made ready for the float back. I said a silent prayer as I pushed off from the shore and instantly disappeared from my partners sight.
The float back was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. There was little time to worry about my partner as I was constantly paddling for all I was worth to avoid either sharp rocks or huge boulders. Every mile or so the river would give a brief slow down allowing for me to pull to the shore and dump the water from my raft and watch for my partner. As soon as I saw him I would shove off so we would not collide in the swift sections. The hike back that usually takes over a day, was done in a few hours floating down the swift river. Just as the sun was dipping below the mountains we emerged from the valley and arrived safe at our base camp.
My partner and I each attended to the chores of meat care and camp setup, no words were needed as we had done this many times and each knew what task they needed to accomplish. Once all was done, we had a roaring fire in the stove and fresh sheep meat cooking. We finally relaxed and shared conservation and a fine meal. The snow started falling not long after camp was set and a deep sleep soon followed. I surrendered to a deep sleep both from exhaustion and knowing we were safe back at base camp. I was amazed that those tiny fragile rafts had taken so much weight and abuse. Good thing, because we still had another sheep tag to fill as soon as the snow stopped. But, that my friends is another tale………