November 13, 2015

How does one make a perfectly aimed shot on a monster grizzly at four yards, and then again, several days later, at two-and-a-half yards, and still not come home with a bearskin? I’m convinced that only Mr. Murphy’s ghost could design plots so utterly bizarre and dastardly as to produce abject failure in those circumstances!

In his entire bag of tricks, there surely can’t be anything much nastier, or more creative, than the one recounted here—or the one to be described in Chronicle 59. They both happened during the last 10 days of May 2003, on the coast of Norton Sound in northwestern Alaska. I had booked my hunt thanks to Mark Buehrer of Bowhunting Safari Consultants with Virgil and Eric Umphenour of Hunt Alaska, operated out of Fairbanks.

Even though we were going to be hunting along the saltwater shoreline, roughly 30 miles southwest of Unalakleet, we would still be hunting mountain grizzly. When the Bering Sea finally breaks up in the late spring, and the shores become free of ice, an enormous run of herring arrives to spawn and deposit their eggs on the kelp or seaweed adhering to the rocks along the rugged “beaches.” The grizzlies must have discovered this phenomenon eons ago, and every year in mid-May, shortly after coming out of hibernation, they descend out of the mountains, across the open tundra, to feed on the dead herring that get washed up into the cracks between the rocks during the spawning process.

The beaches there are composed almost entirely of huge rocks, big rocks, and middle-sized rocks, so they offer a lot of ambush possibilities for the bowhunter. Almost everywhere along the coastline, there are cliffs or bluffs rising about 40 to 50 feet above the high-water mark of the so-called beaches. Just above that high-water mark runs a well-trodden bear trail that Eric and I came to call the “low road.” Along the edge of the bluffs above runs a second well-traveled path, which we referred to as the “high road.” Both routes appeared to have received about equal traffic over the course of, no doubt, many centuries. As they patrol the shoreline looking for herring, as well as beached whales or walrus carcasses, the bears find many places where they can easily transfer from one trail to the other.

At this time of year, and being well north of the treeline, I found that the sun only dips slightly below the horizon for about four-and-a-half hours, and that one can actually read a book in fine print at any hour of the night without the aid of a moon or a flashlight, provided the sky is not overcast. Since the bear activity was almost entirely nocturnal, I discovered in a hurry that we needed to be sleeping during the day and hunting at night. It took some getting used to, but within a few days Eric and I had made the transition fairly well. As long as the season is open, hunting 24/7 is altogether legal in the State of the Midnight Sun.

When the winds were calm enough (which was most nights during our hunt), the best method of locating a bruin was to parallel the shoreline in a small boat with a quiet motor, out at a distance of 500 to 800 yards, and to cruise slowly along, glassing as we went. About halfway through the hunt, we spotted what looked like a very large boar early one morning around 2:30. He was visible against the open yellow tundra, coming down from the mountains, and, as soon as he hit the shore and headed south on the “low road,” we maneuvered the boat so as to get about a mile in front of him before going ashore.

Due to wind, waves, and tidal action, however, the landing process was always tricky and a bit risky. After having me jump ashore off the boat’s bow, with a long rope in one hand and my bow in the other, Eric would disconnect the feed from the gas tank, put the engine in reverse at dead-slow, after positioning a steel anchor on the bow that was attached to a second rope. Finally, as I tugged on my rope, he would hop ashore himself, with rifle in hand hoping to land upright on the slippery rocks. Once both of us were safely ashore, one hard yank on the second rope would send the anchor to the bottom, some 20 to 30 yards offshore. Absent the use of this rather complicated procedure, our vessel would have sustained major damage on the rocky shoreline whenever we were off hunting.

The author's "landing craft." Image courtesy of Dennis Dunn.

Once on the beach, I verified that the breeze was blowing to the south, right into our faces, so I suggested to Eric that he get up on the “high road” and head north, more or less abreast of me, and parallel to me. I figured that from his elevated position, he’d be able to spot the traveling bear before I would see him down on the beach trail. This soon proved to be a mistake, however, because I had forgotten about the nightly offshore crosswind that was blowing off the top of the bluffs and out over the water.

We had progressed perhaps half-a-mile when I suddenly saw the big boar approaching some 80 or 90 yards ahead. What struck me instantly was the enormity of his bulk. Even more disconcerting was the fact that he was walking slowly along the very same path I was on. Since there was, unfortunately, no cover at all anywhere near me, I knelt down immediately in the middle of the trail. Looking up at my guide on top of the bluff, I realized he couldn’t yet see the bear from his position some 70 yards away, and maybe 25 yards forward of me. Then I glanced back at the bear, just in time to see him lift his nose in the air and pick up Eric’s scent.

With that he broke into a trot. Three seconds later upon seeing my guide’s profile against the sky he accelerated to a dead run, and I instantly knew I was about to have a very close encounter of the most furry kind. Hairy is perhaps a better word than furry. As the bear’s trail and onrushing momentum turned slightly uphill and directly toward me, I hardly had time to get an arrow nocked and drawn before the proverbial moment of truth was upon me.

Having to think on your knees in front of a charging grizzly has a way of speeding up your thought processes. Because he was running so hard, his head was up high, fully exposing his ample chest as an easy target. I knew that one of two things was most likely to happen. In the 4 a.m. half-light of the arctic spring night, either he would not see the obstacle in his path and would run right over the top of me, or else he would see me at the last second and veer to the side.

If, in fact, he was going to run right over me, the big decision I had to make was whether to bury the arrow in his chest at 20 yards or wait until he was four or five yards away. It occurred to me that if he felt the sting of the arrow too soon, he might have time to put on the brakes and come to a stop just as he reached me. The thought flashed through my mind that that might not develop into too comfortable a scenario. On the other hand, if I waited to release the arrow until he was almost literally on top of me, then it would probably take him at least 10 yards to slow down and reverse direction so he could come back and hold me accountable for the lethal arrow inside him. If things happened that way, at least I’d have time to get my pepper spray out of its belt holster and defend myself.

In the calm of a later moment, I paced off the distance to where the beast suddenly realized there was an obstacle in his path and veered off to his right. It was exactly seven yards. As he whizzed past me broadside at a distance of four yards or less, I swung with him and let the arrow fly. My instant visual impression was that I had made a perfect double-lung shot! To this day, I still carry the vivid picture in my mind’s eye of the arrow’s bright red and yellow feathers up against the dark brown fur of the bear’s rib cage, directly behind the left foreleg.

However, I was in a hurry to nock another arrow in case the bear did put on the brakes, and while trying to do so in my crouching position, I lost my balance and toppled over backwards. As the brute disappeared around a corner on the beach trail, I never got another look at him, but I felt certain he’d be dead within 60 to 90 seconds. I also felt an elation that was truly beyond my capacity to describe!

In no time at all, Eric, who had been watching in horror from the top of the bluff, was at my side hyperventilating and trying to verbalize his hearty congratulations. He had not seen where the arrow struck the bear, but he had heard it hit him. I had seen the hit, but I didn’t remember hearing it. High-fives were quickly exchanged, and, after making some colorful statement about a certain part of my anatomy being made of steel, Eric asked me, “Dennis, would you mind if I got out my video camera and recorded a bit of footage of your telling what that whole experience was like for you?”

Naturally, I agreed to my guide’s request, and once he had recorded the grossly-premature, celebratory footage, I handed him my own camcorder, and we did it all over again. Such is the vanity of Man! And he can make such a fool of himself on occasion!

As we stood around trying to kill a bit more time before starting the recovery search, I remember asking Eric just how big a bear he thought we had managed to remove from the general population. He was quick to tell me he had no doubt this was the largest grizzly he’d ever seen in his entire life. Although Eric was not yet 30, he had been born in Alaska and raised in hunting camps by an Alaskan father. Because he’d been a guide himself for over 10 years, I knew his assertion could likely be taken seriously. “He had to be over nine feet, from nose to tail!” Eric insisted.

After perhaps 20 minutes had elapsed, we eagerly set out to follow the blood-trail. Imagine our dismay when less than 30 yards to the south of us we found my arrow lying on the ground virtually intact! It was pointing in the direction of the bear’s escape. The blood-sign extended upward only four or five inches above the broadhead, and it was extremely minimal. Obviously the deep penetration I thought I’d gotten was a figment of my imagination!

More mysterious still was the fact that the only parts of the arrow missing were the broadhead’s three blades and the first half-inch of the aluminum ferrule. The ferrule looked as if someone had cut it cleanly in half with a hacksaw, at right angles to the shaft! Aside from a few tiny specks of red, which we laboriously traced for about 100 yards, the “blood-trail” was virtually nonexistent, although the back half of one broadhead blade was found at the site of the last-discovered speck of blood. It was painfully obvious that our monster grizzly had escaped the ambush pretty much unscathed.

Back in base camp a few hours later, Eric and I hashed and rehashed all the evidence with his dad, Virgil, and what follows here is the only plausible explanation the three of us could come up with.

As the bear had charged past me at full tilt, his front legs were hyper-extending forward and back, forward and back. I had, in fact, put the 645-grain arrow right where I wanted to, yet, just as it arrived at the rib cage, the big knucklebone on the point of the bear’s elbow reaching its rearmost extension had interposed itself and absorbed all the energy of the shot from my 70-pound Martin Cougar 2000.

Then, as the bear continued his mad dash for the top of the bluff, he passed close by a large rock, and the protruding arrow broke off at mid-ferrule, flush with the surface of the heavy bone in which the arrowhead was embedded. Sometimes you just don’t see what you think you see. I had to admit that Murphy’s ghost had won yet another round. Little did I know that the plot he was hatching for three nights later was going to be even wilder than the one I had just survived!