This is a spine-chilling account of a hunt in Alaska that almost ended in tragedy, a real true-life encounter with a dangerous grizzly bear. The author is a professional wildlife biologist with a great deal of first-hand experience with bears; his hunting companions on this trip are also professional biologists. Their handling of this scary situation is a perfect illustration of the phrase “keeping your cool” and how doing so can avert disaster.
Almost no other wildlife biologists I know hunt bear, but I contacted my friend and colleague Warren and said "If you ever want to go black bear hunting together, call me." Obviously, the stars lined up and he got in touch with me about a year ago to set up the trip.
I arrived in Juneau on Friday, May 19th; Warren had a lot of last minute things to get ready, and two other hunters had been invited. The first was Bill K. , a biologist who works for the
We got Warren's boat, the Kapenta, along with enough camping and hunting gear to last years, and headed out. Without a large boat like Warren's this trip would have been impossible: the route to the hunting site is prone to storms and sudden winds. Waters can go from calm to dangerous in a few minutes.
Reaching the beach at the right time was imperative. We need to get there just before high tide to safely navigate shallow and treacherous tidal flats. Tim and I, in hip boots, guided the heavy boat into a pool behind a gravel bar, where we anchored and unloaded hundreds of pounds of food, tents, guns, camping gear, tarps and other gear. This would be our home for the rest of the week. When we first landed, we were surprised to find two kayakers had already set up a camp on the narrow peninsula. They were gracious and said they'd be leaving early the next morning. We explained what we were there to hunt bears and one said "You mean there's bears around here?"
We were well armed: Bill K was using a Model 600 Remington Carbine in 308 Winchester, with 150 grain Federal run-of-the-mill ammo. I have killed quite a few bears with the 308 Winchester, but Tim and I thought Bill was under-gunned with 150-grain bullets: Bill later proved them wrong. Warren used a Model 70 Stainless Steel in .35 Whelen with handloads pushing a 250 grain Hornady round-nose bullets at over 2,600 ft/sec. Tim had two rifles: a 9.3 x 64 Mannlicher-stocked Heym Mauser, and his brown bear cannon, a 416 Remington Stainless Model 70 with a muzzle brake that looked like a howitzer’s. I used a Model 700 Remington Classic in 35 Whelen handloads, using 225-grain Barnes-X bullets.
As we were setting up the tents, I looked into the meadow and saw a small black spot. With my binoculars I could see it was a black bear feeding: since I had seen the bear first, it was mine to hunt. The wind was blowing north and I skirted around on the seaward side, closing in through a belt of spruce trees that parallel the beach. Tim had grabbed his gun and went along for "back-up." When I got through the spruce belt, the bear was gone! Tim explained to me that the way to hunt bears in Alaska is to "…walk straight in on them from down wind. You move when their head is down."
Back at camp Warren began dinner by proudly announcing that he had just purchased a new gas stove. "For Gods sake" I said "why not use propane?" This became a running joke for the rest of the trip as Warren's new stove continued to act badly. Either it wouldn’t light at all, or it would do so by exploding in a wall of flames. Warren wouldn’t let me light the damn thing as he told me that my remarks had insulted it and that “bad Ju-Ju" existed between me and his stove.
The next morning, we were all up and sitting around a couple of spotting scopes. I had told Warren that I had hunted black bear many times in the past and had killed something like 8 bears; I also worked with both grizzly and black bears throughout much of my career. "I can tell the difference between black bears and brown bears," I explained.
"Don't worry," Warren said, "I've never seen a brown bear here in over ten years. For some reason, only black bears use the area." Both of our comments were going to come back to haunt us.
Hunting was going to be something of a challenge: four guys looking at one meadow seemed like overkill, plus, I'm not genetically suited to sit around for hours and watch. I decided to explore. Taking my gun and day pack, I headed north along the beach, hoping to find another area I might have a chance to find a bear or two. Walking along the beach was a plethora of wildlife sign. River otter tracks, wolf tracts and BROWN BEAR TRACKS. Big ones!
Heading up the beach, I found lots of brown bear sign. Lots of it. Jumbo tracks, huge scats and trails made over decades where brown bears used the exact same places to put their feet. I followed a bear trail over a ridge and climbed through an old logging road now a jungle of alder. In retrospect, this was a stupid move on my part. There are things that will literally eat you out there.
That evening, I set up in a little extension to the meadow that Warren, Tim and Bill could not watch. I was sitting there in the sun ready to go to sleep and something caught the corner of my eye. It was brown and I can remember thinking "Cool, maybe I will get a shot at a brown phase black bear." After about two minutes a bear stuck his head out from behind some spruce trees. Jesus Christ, I thought, his head is as big as a wash tub! Now, I've seen thousands of bears in my life, both black bears and grizzlies, but this bear was a dimension bigger than anything I'd seen in the wild. The large blond boar strutted out from behind the trees and he only got larger. He was a mature bear that must have weighed 1,300 to 1,400 pounds. An immense and scary looking carnivore, only about 40 yards away.
I headed back to camp after watching the bear for about ten minutes. I didn't necessarily want to be real close him or precipitate an incident. Tim had a brown bear tag and I thought he might have wanted to take this one. Tim followed me back to where the brown bear was feeding, but the big fellow’s hide was rubbed and Tim passed on it.
Nights are short in this part of Alaska in late May. It gets dark slowly at about 11 PM and is light enough to see by 4 AM the next morning. Plus, it doesn't really get dark at night, there’s just a sort of twilight. I was going to check out the meadow and a river to the west. After about 150 yards, I looked up into the meadow and saw a brown bear feeding: it was a different bear than the one I’d seen the night before. I got Tim out of bed and he showed me how they hunt bears in Alaska: walking straight into the bear, down wind in the meadow. We got to about 100 yards, but this bear was smaller than the one we'd seen and was also rubbed. We waved our hands at the bear and it took off at high speed heading for parts unknown, just like a bear is supposed to do.
That afternoon, sitting in my part of the meadow, I heard two quick shots. Warren, Tim and Bill had spotted a black bear wandering into the meadow, so they stalked it by staying low in a river channel. Since Bill had never killed a bear, they decided he would have the first chance: at 77 yards he used his shooting stick and made perfect heart shot.
When I first saw Bill K.'s bear, it looked medium size, probably the same bear I'd seen a few nights before. We gutted him and left him under a tarp. The next morning we took freighter frames and went back: as we pulled it out of the brush, I could see the "medium-sized" bear had grown. It was heavy and had a fine pelt. The gutted out bear probably weighted at least 300 pounds. It was a beautiful mature boar. I was surprised that other bears would not scavenge on the carcass.
As we were leaving to skin and bone out the carcass that morning, Bill K. asked me, "You bringing your rifle?"
"No" I said hoisting the pack frame with my day pack attached. We could see the location of Bill's bear across the meadow. It was nearly 10:00 AM and what would be the purpose of packing another eight pounds of gear with us? Warren and Tim, both experienced Alaska hunters, carried their rifles. In the next several hours, we were about the embark on one of the hairiest times of our lives. During this time, I was about to learn some lessons in dealing with the largest land carnivores on earth.
The skinning and boning went well, all of us chipping in to make the work fast. We soon had the entire carcass, plus bones and the head and skin on my pack frame. Warren started out with the first load of bear meat to camp.
It was sunny and we could see our camp directly across the meadow: there was hardly any vegetation except for the grass and forbs that constitute "bear food." To the right was a small stand of willows that followed the river a ways into the meadow. I, for one, wasn't even thinking about bears as I hoisted the heavy pack frame onto my back.
Warren had left several minutes before Tim, Bill K and I, and unbeknownst to us, had run into a brown bear about half way across the meadow. He assumed it was the one we’d seen earlier in the but it didn’t move away from Warren as he walked toward camp. The bear just stood there and watched him walk by.
Tim, Bill K and I got our packs on and left after Warren had reached camp. I was in the front and merrily heading straight across the meadow, watching downward for holes, logs and anything else that might upset my balance with a pack weighing 80 pounds or more. I was about half way across the meadow when I heard Bill K. shout "Brown bear!"
I looked around and saw the bear watching me as I walked across the meadow. We tried to wave our hands and make noise so the bear would hear and see us: it did, but it didn’t move! Bill K. and Tim slowed down and I sped up, trying to circle the bear to get to camp. I reasoned that as soon as the bear scented me he would run off, like all good bears are supposed to do, and as all the rest of the bears I had ever met had done. Not this time.
When I got downwind of him, the bear started to walk towards me! He could walk much faster than I, and it was at this point that I began to understand that this was not the bear we had seen earlier…and that he was moving straight toward me. He had seen us, he had heard us, and he had scented me, and he was coming in! I had nothing but grass and a couple of small dead logs to hide in. I knew I shouldn't run, and decided the best course was to continue walking toward camp keeping as much distance between me and “Jethro” as possible.
By this time Tim and Bill were moving toward the river to their right. Tim had his 416 Remington bear thumper with him and was trying to keep an angle between him and the bear where he could shoot it without hitting me. At about this time, Jethro had moved to within 50 yards of me. For some reason, he stopped and now turned toward Tim and Bill K.
Jethro was your average sized brown bear. An adult, likely a male, who probably weighed nearly 1,000 pounds. These Alaskan coastal bears are enormous in size and very intimidating to watch; let alone having one approach and stalk you. They’re not animals to fool around with, and they’re used to being dominant in their environment, except for man. Of all the animals I've seen on this earth, these brown bears were the first that were really scary to deal with.
Jethro now was intent on moving in on Tim and Bill K. This was a little better than terrorizing me, because at least Tim had the means to deal with him if necessary. Jethro moved straight into Bill and Tim, looking them straight in the eyes as he came. At about 40 yards, Tim fired a 416 round into the dirt beneath Jethro's feet, with no effect. Jethro continued to come toward them.
Bill K and Tim were now backed up on the tidal beach with the swift river waters to their backs and Jethro still coming in to the front. At about twenty five yards, Tim fired a second shot into the gravel, spraying him with high velocity pieces of rock and lead. He stopped, and then walked off. At first, I thought Tim had decided to shoot the damned bear, and was surprised to see it walk off.
Back at camp, we talked about how hairy the entire sequence had been. Jethro's behavior was definitely a concern to us. He wasn’t afraid of humans and had almost certainly had contact with people before, probably taking food from the kayakers that occasionally used the same camp area. This was a dangerous bear that would almost certainly harass and perhaps hurt or kill someone in the future.
Much later that afternoon, I was getting ready to head out to my bear stand. Near where Bill K had shot his bear, Jethro came out again. He sort of fed for a while on grasses near the black bear carcass, but he had other purposes in mind, showing no interest in the black bear carcass remnant. Jethro started to walk toward our camp.
Instinctively, we all knew what was in store. Jethro was coming to make another call on us and it probably wasn’t for social purposes. It took perhaps twenty minutes for Jethro to saunter across the meadow. Several hundred yards from camp, he dropped below us onto the beach: we couldn't see him any more, but we knew he was headed for us. We got our rifles ready and checked to make sure they were loaded. We were loaded for bear, literally, and here he was, coming in!
Jethro reappeared at 20 to 25 yards’ distance up over the bank, heading straight for us. He had no fear, looking us straight in the eyes again. He was the most intimidating animal I have ever seen. I remember thinking, "This bear is going to be dead in a few more steps." We all gave it a 99% chance that we would have to kill the bear before he ravaged us or our camp. At 10-12 yards, Warren said, "If he comes 5 feet more, shoot!"
At ten yards or so, 1,000 pounds of carnivorous bear is mighty scary. Even with heavy rifles in hand you keep thinking, "Can we stop him before he gets one of us?" Jethro stood on his hind legs, looking us over, but didn’t move forward. We held our fire, which I don't think most people would have done at this close range.
After seeing that we weren’t going to back off, Jethro dropped to all fours and walked back to the beach. This was the second time in one day Jethro had been given a new lease on life. I went to the edge and saw that he was walking on the beach to the point of the wooded peninsula where we camped. If he came through the woods back to camp, he'd only be a few feet from us when we saw him.
But Jethro had other ideas: walking around the point he started to approach the Kapenta. "If he climbs onto the boat" Warren said "I'm going to shoot him. I'm not going to sit here while he tears the boat apart." For the third time, I thought Jethro had bought the farm: he put his front foot on the boat, sniffed it and stood there as we yelled at him. Warren had a bead on his head, but luckily for him, Jethro turned and walked toward us.
Next, he walked over to Warren's Zodiac, and began to lick and smell it. For the forth time, we stood there yelling at him and thought he might have to be shot. Bill K. was elected to shoot into the log that the Zodiac and Jethro were both on: he made an excellent shot, just under Jethro's feet. Jethro just looked at us defiantly. I thought he was coming for us; and I'm sure he was thinking about it.
Instead, he moved about twenty yards away and laid down. By this time he had been harassing us for about an hour, and for the next hour or two, he sat there, rolling, half-asleep, but never taking his eyes off us. I suppose he was contemplating what to do next.
Warren went aboard the Kapenta and got some flares. As the evening progressed and the light began to fade, we decided that Jethro couldn't stay the night: we would either have to move him far away from camp, or kill him. We were not going to deal with him in darkness, if at all possible.
Warren shot several flares at Jethro, but he was more curious than anything. He went over to one flare moving away from camp a few more yards, then again laid down and watched us. Bill K shot another round just in front of Jethro's face in the gravel, which cause him jerked back and start walking back across the meadow. The last we saw of Jethro, he was almost in the woods, when something startled him, probably an even bigger bear. When we saw him high-tailing it up river about a mile away, I was pretty sure we would not see him again. And, we didn't.
I learned a lot from this experience. First, I'm going to be a lot more diligent about carrying a rifle in situations where I could run into a grizzly or brown bear. The Alaskan coastal bears are too big and potentially dangerous to take lightly: I’d hate to have to confront a full-grown brown bear with a can of bear spray. Bear spray is a decent alternative in situations where you can’t carry a rifle, but it's a poor second choice. To be effective, bear spray must be used within 10 yards or closer, one short hop for one of these huge bears. No, I'll take a rifle, thank you, and a big one too!
What’s in the future for Jethro? Sadly the fact is that he needs to be killed before he seriously wounds or kills someone. From the standpoint of human safety, we should have killed him. I’d hate to find out that someone else had an encounter with this enormous beast, and had been hurt or killed. It’s only a matter of time before Jethro stalks another person, perhaps a defenseless one. He is big, obviously completely unafraid of people, and therefore incredibly dangerous. For now, Jethro roams the Alaskan rain forest, somewhere north of Juneau, waiting for the next group of hapless humans to terrorize.