feature By: Guy Miner | July, 18
It was time to go after the bear. We each jettisoned our warm clothing, grabbed our rifles and quickly headed out from camp. My .30-06 had four cartridges in the magazine, but an empty chamber. Joey, my guide, was 30 years younger than me but taller with an athlete’s conditioning. He moved out in a hurry, and I was so glad I’d spent many hours in the gym, hiking and riding a bicycle before the trip. We literally ran across the tundra, down from our observation point on the hill. Neither of us was wearing our wading boots. With leather boots, Gore-Tex trousers and gaiters, we forded a thigh-deep stream, somehow making it across with dry feet!
As we descended, we lost sight of the bear. When we entered the willows, visibility was suddenly reduced to a few yards. Joey said quietly, “I don’t know where he is.” Well, neither did I! On the hill we had a great vantage point and could see for miles. There in the willows, visibility was 40 or 50 yards. We looked at each other, and I chambered a cartridge and pushed the safety on. Joey chambered a round in his .338 Winchester Magnum. My old Redfield scope was set on 2x.
We moved forward, very near each other. Joey was looking forward and left. I spent my time looking forward and right, sure that the bear was somewhere off to our right. We moved along as silently as possible. I was feeling on edge, but confident – knowing the grizzly was somewhere there in the willows with us. It was a feeling very similar to what I’d felt in years past when going into danger.
The hunt had started a week earlier with the flight out from Fairbanks in a little Helio Courier aircraft. After I lugged my gear over to the Wright’s Air Service building at Fairbanks, having just parked my Jeep after the 2,400-mile drive to Alaska from Washington, I was met by a strapping fellow a few years older than me. He introduced himself as Mike, my hunting partner for the next week. The two of us stowed our rifles and other gear, then crammed ourselves into the small plane, along with more supplies for the outfitter. We were both good-sized guys and we had a lot of gear for hunting in the Arctic, so it was a tight fit!
Following a suitable warmup and getting our safety briefing, the little plane whirred into the air. Up front next to our pilot, I was enthralled with the view; I had been to Alaska several times over the past 40 years, backpacking and fly fishing for silver salmon, but this was my first Alaskan hunt.
We touched down at Fort Yukon and met our outfitter Lyle Becker and guide Joey Klutsch. Some gear was shuffled and soon Lyle and I were airborne, heading off into the Arctic. There was no sign of civilization below us – no roads, no buildings, no fences, nothing but wild country. We made an uneventful landing on the improvised gravel strip, bid the pilot farewell and started setting up camp. After the plane departed, all was silent except for a small stream running over a rocky bed. I marveled at the fact that the rushing stream was the only sound.
Lyle and I made multiple trips ferrying gear from the landing strip to the camp area, splashing across the stream each time. There were five tents, one for each man and a larger cook tent. Eventually the plane returned with Joey, Mike and the rest of our supplies. We eyed the bags of freeze-dried food warily, calculating how we could make our fresh food last all nine days.
Each of our rifles was different. Joey had a Sako .338 Winchester Magnum, and Lyle had a much-used Remington 700 .375 H&H. Mike had a Browning 7mm Remington Magnum, and I had my familiar Model 700 .30-06. After camp was set up, Mike and I set up a target on the gravel landing strip, paced off 100 steps and test-fired our rifles. All was well.
After flying that day, we were legally prohibited from hunting but familiarized ourselves with the area and laid out a game plan. We would hunt near camp most of the time, and glass from a hill just above camp. If necessary, two of us might spike out, moving up a nearby valley a couple of miles. The air was cool, the skies clear, and at the end of May we had unending daylight. The sun never set during the nine days I was in camp.
We continuously glassed with binoculars and spotting scopes. On the first day, Joey spotted two different bands of caribou from camp. Wandering groups of caribou would come by almost every day. We could see ptarmigan, their bright white feathers making them stand out against the largely snow-free tundra and trees. During our stay, we also saw an arctic fox and several wolves. Each time we saw a wolf, it was alone, never hunting in a pack.
After hours of glassing, Joey quietly said, “Bear.” I love hearing that word during a bear hunt! Four sets of eyes focused on an area a half mile from us. We could see the golden hide of a grizzly moving through the brush. Lyle and I took off with our rifles and minimal gear, trying to approach the bear, but we were unable to intercept it. An area was reached above where the bear had been seen; a small stream meandered through a few scattered spruces and some leafless willows. The bear was gone. Back on the hill, Mike and Joey had seen the bear lope out of reach, far ahead of us. It moved down the valley, and the last I saw, it was far away and moving fast.
A few hours later we saw a white wolf, also far from camp. Surprising me, it lay down to take a nap in the weak Arctic sun. Lyle and I took off across the tundra, wading another stream while closing in on the wolf. Eventually we reached the last spot of cover, a hillock with a few stunted trees. I lay prone with my rifle, but the wolf was a small target a quarter mile away. Lyle howled, and the wolf decided to investigate. Slowly it moved in our direction, seeking the source of the howl. As it approached, I kept the crosshairs on target and shot it at about 250 yards. The Nosler 200-grain Partition expanded well. Everyone felt good – we had a wolf down on our first day of hunting, and we had seen and stalked a grizzly!
Another day was spent glassing, moving to different nearby vantage points. Lyle and I popped out of a ravine within 30 yards of a pair of caribou bulls that gazed at us with interest but little fear. The weather ranged from almost warm to cold, wet and windy. As the mosquitos appeared during what passed for warm weather, I came to appreciate the cold, wet and wind.
A day later, Lyle spotted a grizzly moving toward camp! It appeared to be a good-sized boar that was steadily approaching. Lyle and Mike set off to try to intercept the bear. Through our optics, Joey and I could see both the bear and hunters as they closed toward each other in the willows. Mike went prone on the ice, and as the bear moved into the open, he fired once with his 7mm Remington Magnum.
The bear ran about 20 yards and fell! A single Barnes 140-grain TSX had done very well. Joey and I joined Lyle and Mike. The bear was in great condition. Its hide was beautifully colored with dark legs and a golden body. Mike was ecstatic; he’d hunted grizzly twice before but had not taken a bear on either trip.
Mike and Lyle left camp with Mike’s bear the next day, taking much of the camp gear with them on the plane. Joey and I now had enough fresh food to last the rest of our hunt!
Several days passed and only two bears had been seen in a week of hunting. One out-distanced us, and Mike shot the other. Joey and I had settled into a routine of glassing and camp chores. I was enjoying my trip in the Arctic tremendously but was anxious about even seeing another bear.
Late at “night” we were on the hill glassing. Joey had been glued to his spotting scope for some time and finally told me he was watching a bear! It was far off but approaching. The blocky, muscular body indicated it was a big boar. We started our stalk into the wind. At one point we had to walk across crusty snow, and each step seemed loud. Then we were in the willows with very limited visibility, requiring us to move very slowly.
Quietly Joey said, “Don’t move.” I was looking to my right and froze in place, seeing only an endless sea of gray willow branches. Slowly, very slowly, I turned my head. Not 50 yards away and a bit uphill, just coming out from behind a stunted tree was the bear.
As it moved toward us, its muscles rippled under golden fur. Joey cautioned me to not shoot it in the head. I’m sure my first shot impacted somewhere on the barren ridge well above it, surprising me. An experienced hunter and rifleman, I rarely miss something as big as a grizzly walking toward me at close range! Another surprise: The bear didn’t change its pace or stride at all. Suddenly at about 40 yards, the bear turned sharply, came down the little slope, continuing to close toward us, it’s right shoulder and leg exposed.
Putting the crosshairs firmly on its shoulder, I fired, and the bear instantly rolled, falling hard because of the badly broken upper leg that had collapsed under its own weight. Just as quickly, it regained its feet and we both fired, getting in a couple of good shots, and finally I dropped the grizzly with a shot to its right rear hip. It was close now, 15 or 20 yards, and still breathing a bit. While reloading my rifle, Joey passed me his .338, and I shot the bear in the chest, finishing it. We stood there in wonder for a moment. I handed Joey’s rifle back to him then reloaded mine anyway.
There in the silence of the arctic, my hand rested upon the bear’s warm fur. Its long claws were ivory colored. Joey thought it was an old boar, big for the region. I assisted Joey in skinning, but truth be told, his skilled hands did most of the work. It was cold as we began the long walk back to camp. The puddles of water we’d crossed earlier now had a thin layer of ice on them. Fording the stream, my feet finally got wet. We arrived back in camp about 3:30 a.m., and I drank a toast to the bear before crawling into my sleeping bag. Exhausted, I quickly fell asleep.
Joey spent the next day fleshing out the hide while I worked on cleaning up the skull. The skull measured 22.5 inches and the hide squared a little over 8 feet laid out on the ice. It had been an incredible hunt, and I had fulfilled a lifelong dream of hunting grizzly in Alaska.
We packed up as much of camp as possible, and the plane returned the following day. It was a long, good flight back to Fairbanks and the bustle of modern life. I missed our Arctic camp as soon as we landed.