Hunting the Hunters

Too much Fog, must turn around! Although those words were not spoken, you could see it on the pilot, Dave Wilder’s face, as he throttled forward and pulled left on the steering wheel of the Cessna 206, throwing us all to the mercy of pulling G’s. The bushes were so close, if the windows were open, I am sure we could have grabbed a handful of leaves. Barely making it out of that valley we entered another one, that looked a little bit more promising, at least that’s what the passengers were hopping, not knowing if they could grab onto the seat backs any harder for fear of bursting veins in their hands. We were on our way through the mountains separating the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean, called the Alaska peninsula. This was not my first bronco ride in a small plane in Alaska, so I was not too worried, but that does not mean that I was enjoying myself. The ride was not over, but after 3 hours in a seat, we were  wishing it would be soon. We ended up cruising along a river, nearly water skiing, ending up at the Pacific finally, but with several miles of beach still to go to arrive at

the base camp for the Peninsula Bear hunts. Before it was all done, we had a few more hair raising, or rather, stomach raising, moments that would keep our heads swimming for most of the day. The plane passengers consisted of three guides, Joe Billings, Eric Lantzer, and myself, and then Jason House who we named our assistant client.

After being safely on solid ground once again, we were met by Jessi Markiss, who had been left at the base camp for two weeks, to repair and rebuild the main cabin, which had become a home for bears over the previous winter. He had done a mighty fine job, and it didn’t take much time till we were all moved in and feeling comfy in the newly redone “Stepovak Bay Hilton”. It was a few days before any clients arrived, so the following day we built some blinds to be used by the bow-hunters. While setting up one of these blinds, I accidentally called in a huge bull moose, to 80 yards. This was accomplished by walking through the brush, with two empty water jugs, which sounded like a bull raking his antlers, a common sound during the rut. It was quite a rush, but I did not have a camera to capture the unique moment.  Back at base camp, food was sorted, camp gear set out, and water jugs filled up at a stream located at my spike camp. A few of the guides were dropped off at their respective spike camps, while I worked around the base camp. The first round of clients arrived on the 30th of September, the day before the season opened. Three bow-hunters, and one rifle hunter. Jason, also a rifle hunter, had arrived with us, and was already in the field, watching from a hill, where they spotted 50 bears in one hour, on one river! It was shaping up to be a great season. The weather was typical for the peninsula,

raining and windy, but slightly warm, and visible enough to make the short Super Cub flight to my spike camp. The location was picturesque, with water falls cascading down the valley walls, and magnificent glaciers wrapped in jagged rock. My first client was Mike Blair, who had a lifelong dream of hunting bears in Alaska, so early the next morning we headed out to make that dream a reality.

Our mornings start well before sunrise, with a breakfast and coffee, before donning our gear, and trekking out to our local spotting knob. It was only a 15 minute walk from our camp, so it wasn’t long before we spotted our first bear. But it was only a small one, traveling the nearby creek. In only a few hours we spotted about 15 bears, including sows and cubs, and also two cow moose and one big bull. We put a stalk on one of the big bears we spotted, but the distance prevented us from arriving at the spot before he was gone. At about midday we headed back to camp for lunch and a nap. In the afternoon we headed back out, to our hill, to see what was on the move. We spotted about ten bears, but none gave us a good pursuit option. Although, in a side valley, we saw a bear feeding on grass, but by then it was too dark to go after him, so we decided against it. The next day we followed the same routine, but with a few less bears, but the same bear in the side valley, only up higher. We decided to go and sit in that valley anyway, to see if the bear was prone to return to the

valley floor. Sure enough, it wasn’t but an hour or so before Mike spotted the bear, right across the creek from us, about 300 yards. We were excited, but calm, setting up our shooting rests. The bear was fat, and dark, and in the size range that Mike was looking for, so we agreed that it was a shooter, but we needed to wait for the bear to feed a bit closer. It didn’t take long, before he was 240 yards away. All I had to do was say the word, and Mikes 375 roared to life. The first shot was a good one, but it took two more from his gun, and two from mine, to finish the job. Bears are tough animals, and when it was tearing through the grass, I was glad for the 240 yards that separated us. The shouts and back slaps ensued, and we quickly got to the bear, shaking hands, and actually touching an animal that could tear your face off. It is an amazing feeling. Mike was one happy camper. Due to the approaching darkness, and many other bears around, we left the bear to come back in the morning.

The following day was raining, but even that could not dampen our spirits. Many pictures were taken, and we relived the moment over and over. I was very

happy to have aided mike in fulfilling his lifelong dream of hunting the big bruins. We worked together to complete the job, and pack the bear back to camp. It was a bit later when Preston arrived, to bring us back to base camp. We were greeted there by two of the bow hunters, that had also been successful, and had taken bears on opening day. They had quite the stories to tell, shooting a bear standing up at 2 yards with a bow, that will make your legs shake a little. It was a few days until the next plane arrived, so we filled time by fleshing (Removing flesh from the hide) and salting hides, (to remove moisture and dry out for shipping), playing cards, and eating. Tough life for sure. When the next round of clients came in, I went back to my camp with Nick Busche, and Berg Hansen. Berg was along to film Nick’s hunt. We were a good team, and ended up getting a bear near camp on the first day. All of it was gotten on film as well, which was great. But just as quickly as they came in, they flew out and Preston flew Jason, the assistant client, into my camp. I was happy for the opportunity to hunt with Jason, owner of Antler Shack, who is quite a character, mainly in the comedy arena, but also a multi-faceted artist, who builds antler art, and has a beetle farm for cleaning skulls. So it was a pleasure to have him in camp, and to have another chance to hunt the hunters.

Since it is against the law to fly and hunt the same day, we could not shoot anything, but we decided to head to the hill, to see what we could see. We spotted a few bears along the river, but nothing big.  We did see a big old bull moose, walking past our camp, which we tried to call in, but he was too wise for us. For a change of scenery we went over to the side valley that Mike had had his bear harvest. The carcass had not been eaten much,  from what we could see through our binoculars, so we hiked up the valley a ways. It was Jason that was looking back to the carcass when he spotted a bear! It looked big and dark, but it was hard to be sure in the fading light. Sneaking closer we watched the bear walk through the brush towards the carcass, take a few bites and then begin to paw at the ground and start to bury the carcass. This was something I had seen pictures of but never witnessed. We could hardly contain ourselves as we hiked back to camp. We got up early the next morning, however the weather was nasty, with heavy rain, so we decided to wait it out in our sleeping bags. It wasn’t till after lunch that we ventured out to the side valley. Just as we got within sight of the carcass, we saw fur. It was the bear. Sleeping on top of the carcass that he had buried. It was incredible, for a bear to be out in mid day, in the sun, sleeping on a carcass. It proved to be the perfect scenario for us to get close. Circling back, we were able to crawl up to within 70 yards of the bear. Then it became a waiting game.

For over an hour we waited, with more than one anxiety attack every few minutes when he would lift his massive head and look around lazily, and us getting ready, and then as he put his head back down, we would wait again. All the while I had Jason’s video camera rolling. Not only was this an incredible experience, we were going to get it all on film. It seemed like forever, but finally, he slowly got up, stretching his front legs, but he never got up any higher than that. With a whisper of “I’m Gonna Dump Him”, his muzzle blast nearly blew me away, but it did its job, and the bear dropped like a rock. His roars were loud, but i don’t think they were as loud as us. One more shot in the back quieted him, but he was paralyzed from the first shot so he was not going anywhere. The camera was rolling and victory was sweet. Whenever walking up to a bear, they always looks smaller than you think, but once we saw those feet, and the head, we knew we had ourselves a Monster, or in the words of Jason, “A Tank”. We could not believe it, and it was quite some time before we actually calmed down enough to take any pictures or more video. We did not know exactly how big it was, but it was huge, definitely the biggest bear I had ever been involved with.  The pile that he had made was about 3 ft tall, and he had cleared an area at least 50 ft. in diameter. Cameras clicked away, I think more than on a red carpet at the Oscars. We even hailed Preston on the radio, and had a fly-by of approval. And to wrap it all up, it was a beautiful sunny day, which is pretty rare for the Peninsula. We got back to camp by dark, tired and still excited. We could hardly sleep, but we did, and in the morning we headed back to base camp.

Once there I only had a short while working on the big bear hide, before I was called out to Eric’s Camp. The river there had flooded, and the bear that they

had shot was unreachable due to the high waters. So in pouring rain, and hard winds, Preston literally “dropped” into a little gravel bar,  and sent me from there to retrieve the bear. He was able to fly Eric to there as well, and together we skinned the bear. The Super Cub only holds one passenger with gear, so we had to wait our turn to fly back to base camp. Once there we had to finish the process of taking care of the hide, which involves a lot of knife work. We helped each other though, and got done before the night was out. The next day brought yet another round of clients, and the departure of those that were done. only one hunter left empty handed, but he will be back to pursue those brownies again in the near future. One of the hunters that arrived was from Canada, and he was my fourth client. We returned to my camp again, hopping to continue the quick successes we were having there. Sure enough we saw a bear on one of the carcasses while retrieving water. The next morning we went up the side valley again, and after waiting for a while, spotted a bear on the carcass. He ended up bedding down in the brush just above the torn up area. A wide sweep through the brush, and a stalk up the hill brought us to 100 yards. A similar situation to Jason’s Bear, but we only had to wait a little while before the bear got up, and Tim put him down with one shot. Once again, excitement was exuded, and pictures and memories were created. It was not as big of a bear as Jason’s but still a good bear. We made it back to base camp the following day, and we were met by yet another successful hunter, who had harvested an awesome big bear. The weather cleared up and was nice all the way until we left a couple days later.

We left the area 5 days early, which was greatly appreciated due to the fact that it was a very long hunting/guiding season for us, and I was happy to be at the end of it. Those small comforts of a warm shower, and a soft bed, are luxuries to guys like us that spend more than 60 days out in the field, in a tent, on cots or on the ground, and it was a great thing to come back to. The season wrapped up nicely with 10 bears taken on the Peninsula. The work continued back here at the Lodge, drying hides and such, but many great memories were created, and it was yet again another season come and gone, but it will always be something that is thrilling and heart pounding, to hunt the hunters.

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