feature By: Dawson Smith | May, 19
“Bear.” I whispered to Thane.
“Where?” he asked.
“Third basin, right at the top.” I told him.
Through my binocular, I watched as the big bruin fed high on a steep hillside covered with berry bushes.
By cutting the distance in pieces and using the rangefinder in my binocular, I estimated the distance.
“About three and a half clicks,” I said to Thane. “Probably be there by noon if we take off now.”
We unloaded our backpacks and took only what was needed, leaving the rest, and stepped off. Our trail would take us down off the pass we were on, across and down a flat drainage then up through a spruce stand into the basin. A few hours later, we pushed over the last steep section into the basin.
“Let’s stay up on the left side and just sneak through the trees,” Thane said.
We couldn’t see the grizzly, but there was a rock outcropping at the top of the basin that we used for visual reference. Staying on the left side of the basin, part way up and sneaking from tree to tree, we quickly closed the distance. Almost to the top, we stepped around a small tree and saw the bear down at the creek about 200 yards away.
“There it is,” Thane whispered.
“Yeah, I see it,” I replied.
“Let’s sneak in closer,” I said, as the bear moved back toward the berries.
As we crept closer, Thane said he was going to find a mound to sit on and set-up his video camera. I told him I wanted to at least get across the creek and hopefully sneak within 100 yards. He stopped, and I kept going. Using the sparse trees as cover, I snuck closer and closer. The bear had reached the berry patch and was sitting on its rump raking berries. I edged even closer.
One hundred fifty yards, I thought as I ranged the bear, a few more trees closer. The trees were thinning out, and if my memory was correct, the next patch of three little trees would be the last before open alpine. I snuck closer.
The air was still on the bear’s side of the creek. A few late-season dicky birds noisily fed and cavorted in the high basin. Arriving at the last group of trees, I slid my backpack off and slowly, binoculars raised, peered around the tree. The bear was up to my left at about 10 o’clock at 105 yards. It was sitting on its rump feeding, quartered toward me. I slowly eased back behind the tree. Looking around, I saw that to my right at about 10 yards away there was a hump in the ground. If I could crawl to it and lay my backpack over it, I would have a perfect shooting position. Just before crawling as quietly as possible, I loaded a cartridge in my rifle. I had two more in my pocket and three more in my backpack. I was confident with one though; my .338-378 Weatherby shooting Nosler 225-grain AccuBonds was driving tacks at 100 yards.
I got down on my belly and crawled, pulling my backpack along while keeping an eye on the grizzly.
Any worries I might have had of being spotted were without merit as the bear was engaged in eating berries.
I slowly pushed my backpack over the hump, laid my rifle over it and situated myself behind it. The bear was huge in my scope. It was still quartered toward me, though, so I watched and waited. I secretly hoped Thane was getting all this on video; what an awesome adventure. Twice the bear got up off its rump to shift to a better berry spot, and both times I waited for it to take a step uphill to open up its downhill side, but both times the bear swayed left but didn’t step left.
Finally, after about 20 minutes, it stood up. I centered the crosshairs and watched through the scope as the big bear raised its head, looked over the high country and drew in lungs full of air through its nose, testing the airwaves. The bear swayed uphill, and I found the spot with my crosshairs. Boom!
In the high basin, the shot echoed back and forth. I watched through the scope as the bullet hit, and the bear rolled sideways out of view. I stood up and looked back to find Thane but still couldn’t see him. I was just ejecting the spent case when I heard, wshhhhh . . . whsss . . . crack . . . humphraaa . . . whsss shwshhhh
. . . crack.
Turning to look up the hill, I saw bushes moving and heard hummmpha-humpha-hummmpha-rrrrrr.
Just as the bear came out of the bush, I saw it. As soon as I moved, its eyes locked on me, and I remember clearly seeing its ears lay back, eyes narrow, and bearing straight downhill to where I stood. It was 30 yards away, running full tilt, loud, mad, wounded and probably just as surprised as me.
I fumbled a round into my rifle and closed the bolt, went down on one knee and settled – well, tried to anyway – the crosshairs on the running bruin. Somehow, I thought, Nope, you have one shot and one shot only, this isn’t the time to use it. So I stood up and thrust my rifle out like a spear. The plan (I have no idea where it came from or how I came up with it) was simply to wait until the bear was right on me, jam my barrel in its mouth and pull the trigger.
It was surreal. The sight, the sounds and the size of that bear at such a close distance (and closing so fast) was inconceivable. I didn’t have time to consider the predicament I was in; didn’t have time to orchestrate a plan; in fact, I didn’t have time to be scared, I simply reacted.
Just as the beast got to me, I skipped right, uphill, and jammed the end of my barrel in the bear’s side, pulling the trigger as I did. Its mouth was wide open, roaring, teeth bared, ears laid straight back. The sight, smell and noise were incredible, its dark, mad eyes followed my leap uphill, but luckily for me its body didn’t.
As the bullet tore through it, the bear rolled over my backpack and piled up about 10 yards below me. I was backpedaling and trying to use shaky fingers to find the last cartridge in my pocket and load it without taking my sight off the bear. It gathered its wits and got up on its hind legs, and its beady eyes bored into mine with murderous intent.
The big bruin lunged toward me as I let my last bullet fly. It rolled backward but got right back up, coming toward me again. I was out of bullets so turned uphill to run and heard Boom! Looking back to the bear, I saw it fall again as Thane’s shot hit it. It was badly wounded but not dead. The sound was amplified, the aggression shook the air. I looked back uphill to run then looked back at my backpack, which was halfway back to the bear. It was rolling around, roaring and tearing up the ground, the basin shook with intensity. I ran toward the bear, grabbed my backpack, then ran up hill about 50 yards, all the time tearing at zippers to get my spare ammunition out. I found them and got one loaded as the noise and perspicuous energy settled down.
Loading another shell, I started to go down to where the bear was but chickened out and took a big wide circle to get to the other side of the creek and meet up with Thane.
“I was up there wondering what you were thinking when I saw you stand up. Oh man. I would have [soiled] my pants,” he said as he walked up.
We snuck over to a clearing where we could see the bear and watched it for a while. However, it was for not. It was dead. Thane and I sat down and replayed the whole event, and I told him why I didn’t shoot from the kneeling position. We watched the video over and over, we marveled at the beautiful bear, and I was reminded of what a good friend of mine, and fellow bear hunter Dave Phillips always says, “Grizzly bear hunting is not for the weak of heart.” His words could not be truer.
The trip out with heavily loaded packs was uneventful. Later, as night took possession of yet another glorious day, we went over the story time and time again. Laying in my sleeping bag that night, I wondered where the decision to save my last shot came from, and I marveled in the experience. I have hunted and killed grizzly bears many times, and respect the animal’s size, strength and ferocity immensely. I wouldn’t want to go through that experience again, but after the fact felt fortunate to have gone through it.
Over the next few days, Thane and I started seeing more caribou up on the plateaus, mostly scattered little herds moving through. We had stalked into range of a few, though the herd bull wasn’t what he had come to find. About noon on a bright blue blazer of a day I said, “Let’s head back to that pass and glass from there.” An hour or two later, we were again in position and glassing the basins for caribou. Before long, we had spotted a few lone or small groups of caribou, a couple of which required a better look through a spotting scope. As the sun started its fall from the sky, I glassed across the valley and saw movement up on a ridge. As I watched, a herd of nine cows and a magnificent bull came over the ridgeline.
Putting the spotting scope on it only proved the point; it was a royal bull, white maned with a high and wide rack. Thane looked over and smiled. “Let’s go,” he said.
As we made our way down off the side we were glassing from, the herd started moving farther up the box basin. I was worried they might keep going right over the top, but once into the steep end, they stopped on an island of grass in the scree. We just kept hiking and soon were within 900 yards. Closer and closer we moved up the mountain, finally dropping off the back side of the ridge to hike out of sight. About three hours later we crawled over the crest and settled in behind a little divot on the hill side. We were 600 yards away from the bull, it was wide open, and we couldn’t get any closer. The sun was falling right behind the ridge above the herd, and there was a storm of dust and flora particles dancing in the sunlight.
Thane pulled his backpack up and set his rifle over it; he had a perfect prone shot. All the caribou were up feeding, and the bull was second from bottom. Thane looked at me and asked the distance. I said, “Six hundred yards dead on.” The bull changed positions to feed up hill. He got behind his rifle again.
“Get ready,” I said as we watched the bull change positions to be completely broadside. Once the bull stooped to feed, I ranged again to make sure its distance hadn’t changed, and got back behind my spotting scope.
“Anytime,” I said. I watched the whirl of the bullet cross through my scope’s vison and hit the bull right behind the shoulder.
“Perfect shot,” I whispered. The herd jostled around on the steep slope wondering what the noise was; the bull swayed but didn’t go down. Through the spotting scope I could see the crimson blotch grow on its side. It fell over, and as the bull rolled down, the cows took off across the slope.
It was almost dark by the time we got to the bull; just time to snap-off some photos, field dress it and break it down. We left the quarters and hiked off the mountain, taking the horns and enough meat with us for dinner. It was a steep, dark journey out of the basin and off the mountain that night. It was another fantastic trip in some of British Columbia’s most spectacular country.