January 15, 2016

The Alaskan brown bear turned out to be the final species I needed to harvest in order to complete the first-ever barebow Super Slam of all 29 of North America’s huntable big game animals. Just as the odyssey had encompassed seven different hunts for the grizzly bear, so did it also demand of me seven different hunts for Mr. Brownie. None was easy, all were challenging, a couple were truly perilous, and most were frustrating in the extreme.

Regular fans of The BAREBOW! Chronicles have just finished reading, over the past three months, a half-a-dozen grizzly stories. With this new tale, we begin a series of close encounters with the brown bear, and I want to start off with the telling of an amusing incident that taught me a lot about the quirky personality of Alaskan brown bears. It actually took place many years ago on a fishing adventure in the Dillingham area of the Alaska Peninsula. Thus, it’s not really a bowhunting story, or even a hunting story, but it is a great bear story about an experience that helped prepare me for a number of close encounters with dangerous bruins later in my hunting lifetime. Besides, everybody loves a good bear story, right?

This true tale transpired on the July Fourth weekend of 1986. I was in between marriages at the time; that is to say, between my second failed marriage and the one that allowed me, finally, to “get it right.” One of the many reasons I consider myself to be the luckiest man I ever met is that I’ve had the privilege of being married to three outstanding women—although only one proved to be really right for me. Karen and I are now in the 27th year of our honeymoon, and we count our manifold blessings every single day.

In the spring of 1986, however, I was “footloose and fancy-free,” as the saying goes, and it happened that a meeting of the Republican National Committee took me to Washington, DC, in my capacity as the National Committeeman for my home state of Washington. During the course of the three-day confab, I chanced to meet an impressive young lady from Georgia, who was an avid outdoorswoman. In those days, I did about as much fishing as I did hunting, so when I discovered she was a real fishing enthusiast, I could not resist inviting her to join me on an Alaskan fishing trip I was already planning to take during the first week of July.

A few details still needed firming up, but not long after returning to Seattle, I called her up and extended the invitation—which, to my delight, was quickly accepted. My plan was to fly to Dillingham, in the area of Bristol Bay, and then charter a floatplane to drop us off at the mouth of one of the many salmon rivers that make up the famous Wood River system. The peak of the annual sockeye run would be occurring in early July, and the trick would be to check regularly by phone the daily aerial reports from Alaska Fisheries, and to choose a river where the run was just getting started.

Before long, summer was upon us, and we soon found ourselves bound for Dillingham via Anchorage. Knowing that brown bears might be abundant in the area, I used the stopover to visit a sporting goods store and purchase a long-barreled Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. It was not the first pistol I’d ever bought, but it was certainly the first one that had any chance of stopping a charge from an aggressive grizzly or brownie.

My friend and I flew into Dillingham on July 2 and immediately called up for the latest air-patrol reports on the incoming sockeye run. Though I had previously reserved a charter flight into the bush for the next morning, I had purposely not specified a destination because I wanted to select my target river on the basis of last-minute, up-to-date info from the Alaska Fisheries people. Learning that we were interested primarily in fly-fishing for sockeyes, the man at Fisheries told me he didn’t think we could do any better than to have ourselves dropped off at the mouth of the Agulawok River, right where it dumps into Aleknagik Lake.

We arrived at the flight office before 8 a.m. raring to go—only to find the charter company so overwhelmed with business and resulting problems that the scheduler told us he wouldn’t be able to get us airborne until mid-afternoon. The news was frustrating, but somehow we found something else to do for seven hours, and by 3 p.m. we were on our way into the bush.

As the plane touched down on the lake near the mouth of the river, I noticed several tents nearby and a couple of fellows walking toward our plane along the shore. They greeted us warmly, helped us unload our gear, and then—before the pilot could even get back in his cockpit—asked, rather pointedly, just where it was we intended to spend the night. With the way the men were eyeing my Georgia Peach, I wasn’t so sure I really wanted them to know where we were going to be spending the night. I explained that we had a tent, and that we simply intended to hike upriver a few miles and make camp. Their next utterance, however, suddenly made it clear why they were asking such a question.

“You need to be aware there’s a big brown bear around these parts,” the older man said. “And last night he paid us a very unfriendly visit. Walk on over here with us about 30 yards and take a look at what he did to our cook-tent!”

One side of their tent had, indeed, been torn to shreds, and the scene was decidedly one of whimsical chaos and destruction: nothing but paper fragments left of the cookie bags and sugar boxes; flour everywhere; a dozen loaves of bread lying around, none more than half-eaten; a plastic gasoline container chewed to pieces; not to mention innumerable tin cans disfigured and punctured. The pilot had delayed his departure to come and see things for himself. Perhaps he did so just out of curiosity, but the idea struck me that maybe he was thinking we might want to change our minds and fly back out to civilization with him. 
I knew thatdecision would be largely up to my new girlfriend. She quickly assured me, however, that she was game for anything, so I showed my newly-acquired sidearm to the others, and we started preparing our packs for the hike upriver to only God knew where.

The two men who had come to greet us upon our landing at the river’s mouth were both Fisheries biologists—camped there to do a monthlong study of the Arctic char population that had entered the Agulawok river-system to feed on the spawn of the sockeye run. As my friend and I said goodbye to them and turned to head out into the world of the unknown, I decided then and there that if their problem bear should become our problem bear, we could always come back downriver and camp next to them for added safety.

I have to admit that, during the first half-hour of hiking which followed, I was feeling pretty apprehensive about where we should camp, and about how much we really needed to worry over that particular renegade bruin. Imagine, then, my great relief, surprise, and delight, when all of a sudden we rounded a corner on the riverbank and discovered the niftiest, most perfect, modern little A-frame (chalet-type) cabin you could ever hope to stumble on in the middle of nowhere—just sitting there waiting for us at the end of a tiny backwater cove of the river! Clearly, neither the pilot nor the biologists had been 
aware of its existence, or else they would have told us to look for it!

The best part of all was that the cabin was empty, neat as a pin, and without any lock at all on the Visqueen-tarp front door! Inside, we found a table with chairs, an empty flower vase on the tabletop, and, most importantly, a sleeping loft seven feet up, accessed by a hanging wrought-iron ladder, whose bottom rung was suspended about three feet above the cabin floor. The cupboards were totally bare. Whoever owned the place obviously understood that the best way to protect it from bear-damage was to leave the front door “open” and invite a curious or hungry bear to inspect the interior personally. The “door” consisted of a double layer of clear plastic, spread across the opening, hanging freely at the sides, and sandwiched between a couple lengths of two-by-four nailed to the bottom.

In surveying the loft situation, I decided it probably wasn’t bear-proof, but that it no doubt offered us substantially more security during sleeping hours than the floor below or the plywood front-deck outside. We happily put our air mattresses and sleeping bags “upstairs” and began to think about catching something for dinner.

On our hike up the river, we had noticed—with a bit of disappointment—that the salmon run had not yet arrived. The only fish we saw, as our eyes scanned the crystal-clear water, was an occasional rainbow trout or Arctic grayling finning just off the edge of
 the faster current. It seemed almost impossible to believe that, by dawn the next morning, the sockeyes would be there in such numbers you’d think you could walk across the river on their backs! That proved, nonetheless, to be the case.

Our chalet faced upriver, and the view was across the calm surface of a very pretty little backwater bay. After I’d assembled my fly rod and tied on one of my favorite #16 dry-fly patterns, it took only two casts before a 17-inch grayling grabbed my offering and provided us the wherewithal for a great supper. Needless to say, given the spectacle we had seen about a mile downstream, I washed all our dishes well away from the cabin and carried the fish scraps over to the main river to toss them out in the swift current.

Around 10:45 p.m., sunset colors began to suffuse the sky. Fifteen minutes later, the entire western half of the hemisphere above us was strewn with glowing coals of scarlet, crimson, and mandarin orange. It was one of those sunsets you never forget—the likes of which you may (if you’re lucky!) see maybe 10 times in your life.

By the time darkness had finally extinguished the last of the celestial embers, a nearly-full moon was rising directly upstream from our cabin. As it cleared the horizon, the intensity of its silver light became almost blinding in its reflection off the glassy surface of our lagoon. Nature had never seemed more beautiful to me than on that, the first evening I’d ever spent in the Alaskan wilderness!

About 1 a.m., my friend and I crawled at last into our sleeping bags, and I took the precaution of removing my .44 Magnum from its holster and laying it near the head of my bag, just in case. After exchanging a few reminiscences of the day’s events, we were just beginning to drift off to sleep when a heavy object struck the outside of the cabin wall. The loud thump was immediately followed by a prolonged, strident, scraping noise—as if someone were dragging a stout stick along the siding-boards of our cabin.

There was no doubt in my mind that our most unwanted visitor had just arrived. Within two seconds, I’d flipped onto my stomach and was lying prone, propped up on my elbows, Smith & Wesson in hand, pointing the barrel down toward “the door.” It was, indeed, the renegade bear, I thought to myself. It just had to be! By the time I had the hammer cocked, our intruder was prowling the front porch, visible through the windows on either side of the door, and silhouetted against the brilliant backdrop of the reflected moonlight.

I thought the chances were virtually 100 percent that this bear already had our human scent in his nostrils, so what happened next quickly turned the emotional subtext of the unfolding drama from mere worry to downright fear. He suddenly headed for the Visqueen door and without any hesitation started to enter, as he had no doubt done on many previous occasions. I knew that the last thing I wanted to have to do was to shoot that bad boy within the confines of a space as tiny as the one we were holed up in! In just one leap, he could have been up in that loft with us!

Brown bears have hair-trigger tempers, and—once you get their adrenaline pumping—their legendary strength is said to multiply severalfold. To this day, I don’t know 
what possessed me, but—just as his big head came through the edge of the plastic tarp which he was in the process of shoving aside with his massive shoulders—I let out a bloodcurdling yodel that lasted a good five seconds.

To say that the bruin had a swift reaction would be a gross understatement! It was the Fourth of July, after all, and he departed the scene like a bottle-rocket! No further fireworks followed—praise the Good Lord! Not only did we not see him for the remainder of 
our trip, but when we hiked back to the mouth of the river four days later, we learned the men from Fisheries had not seen him again either. I suspect that bear may not have stopped running till he reached the Yukon.

Ever since then, when hiking alone in bear country, I have “carried” a yodel with me rather than bear-bells, and I highly recommend it as a “weapon” to be added to one’s arsenal of bear deterrents. I believe the only kind of grizzly or brown bear that a yodel won’t deter is Frank Dufresne’s “25th bear” (I invite the reader to seek out his wonderful book, titled No Room for Bears). Perhaps this particular bear did not really know we were in the cabin, but what I learned for certain on that July Fourth, back in 1986, was that surpr