It was mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, still pitch dark in the Alaskan Arctic. As my wife and I were having dinner, a gunshot reverberated from the neighbor's house. Seconds later our phone rang.
For the better part of an hour, a polar bear had been trying to enter our neighbor's house. After it shattered the kitchen window, the bear began breaking the hinges off the door. One shot through the closed door with a .45-70 Gov. crippled the bear.
I quickly bundled in warm clothes and joined my neighbor, an Inupiat Eskimo man, on the blood trail. A couple hundred yards out on the pack-ice, we caught up with the bear and finished the deal.
Throughout most of the 1990s, my wife, Tiffany, and I worked as school teachers in Alaska's remote Arctic region. First we called Point Lay home, a small village of fewer than 100 inhabitants at the time, and situated in what could be Alaska's most remote and unforgiving habitat. In fact, one year we went 199 consecutive days without the mercury ever rising above zero! Combine this with 2 months of total darkness, and wind-chills driving off the Arctic Ocean pack ice that would routinely take temperatures to minus 70 degrees and colder, and you can see that bears weren't the only force to be reckoned with.
Point Lay, in its moonscape-tundra, seems the last place you'd expect to find a grizzly, but they're there. Often, you don't have to go searching for them—they'll find you.
A grizzly once set the village on high-alert for nearly 2 weeks. It was fall, and the subsistence caribou hunting season was in full-swing. With caribou meat hanging on racks outside people's homes, the scent attracted a passing bear, and because there was so much meat available, the bear chose to stay around the area.
Tundra grizzlies often travel the coastline this time of year, searching for carrion that's been washed ashore. Should they discover a whale, walrus or other marine mammal that was beached, a wandering grizzly might stick around for days, even weeks. If these days stretch into winter, grizzlies would den amid small hills on the tundra, surprisingly close to the ocean.
This particular grizzly was sticking close to the village by day, yet hunters failed to find it. When dusk came, so too, would the bear, and residents were forced to pull their children inside to safety. Every night the grizzly came into the village, striking fear into the hearts of all of us. Twice people got shots at the bear, and twice they missed, but it kept coming back.
Then, one night, a third Point Lay resident was given the opportunity to put the village at ease. As the bear pulled caribou meat off a rack outside his house, the man slowly and quietly opened his dining room window, just enough to poke his gun barrel out. The shot came at less than 10 yards, and the tundra grizzly ran a short distance and dropped. The village could rest, at least for a while.
Facing White Death
In the same village, I was awoken at 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1990. A polar bear had attacked a man, and a search party was being assembled. To my surprise, I soon found myself on the blood trail—alone. It was minus 42 degrees with a slight breeze.
As I crept along the ice-pack, I noticed long black hair waving in the wind, and as I moved closer I saw that the hair held fast to a chunk of scalp that was frozen to the snow. The red-stained trail led from the village, down a steep embankment and toward the Arctic Ocean.
Soon into the tracking job, I deciphered that the man had obviously escaped the bear's grasp. Small indentations from the man's kneecaps pocked the hardened snow, and crimson fingerprints revealed the victim was desperate to get away.
But the bear was soon on him again, dragging him by his upper body, back toward the frozen sea. The ice bear's massive paws straddled the scuffing heal marks of the man for 10 more yards, then the bear dropped him, gnarling his head and removing more scalp.
Soon after that I came across the man's jacket, which he'd somehow wriggled out of. Bite marks riddled the collar and shoulders, revealing where the bear focused its attack.
Again, bloody hand prints in the snow indicated more crawling, followed by another seizure by the bear. More pieces of scalp lay frozen to the snow, indicating the man was still struggling to get away, some 50 yards into the ordeal. As I stood in the gully of two massive snowdrifts, I shined my flashlight toward the sea, hoping to see something.
Due to the severe angle of the drifts, the beam of light kept its illumination rather well. At its end I could see, for the first time, what appeared to be the victim. I was 200 miles from the nearest tree stump, and the dark spot that appeared was definitely out of place amid the snow and ice.
Moving closer, with my flashlight fixed on the site and my gun's safety off, I was ready to shoot at first glimpse of the bear. As I closed the gap, a man from the village pulled up on his snow-machine. When his headlight shone on the dark object, it transformed from brown to bright red. The victim's lifeless body was in the middle of the scarlet circle, which had been created when the bear fed on him.
Approaching the scene, it wasn't the victim's body that caught my eye, though it had been devoured beyond recognition. Rather it was the glowing eyes in the background that commanded my attention. The headlight of the man's snow-machine reflected off a distant snowdrift, illuminating the bear's eyes.
The man on the snow-machine was in near shock at the bloody scene, so I proceeded alone toward the bear. Moving slowly across the pack ice, the bear was quartering away. At 30 yards I could see it on the edge of my flashlight beam, and one shot from my .30-06 brought it down.
Being a non-native resident of Point Lay, I had to be sworn in by federal agents prior to taking part in the search, which made it legal for me to shoot the bear should I come across it. Closer inspection of the bear revealed a great deal of blood from the victim, but what caught my attention were the finger prints on the bear's chest. Ten distinct finger prints dragged down the center of the bear's brisket, disclosing a struggle that had taken place well into the ordeal.
After the victim had been removed from the site, I returned. Flashlight in hand I crawled along the blood trail, looking for more answers to what had taken place. It was an eerie feeling, being out there alone, knowing what had happened on that cold, dark morning.
Some 75 yards down the trail, the victim had regained his feet before coming to rest a short distance away. Distinct shoe marks from the man and indentations of the polar bear's back feet in the crusted snow left no question the two stood and battled. And this was after the man had lost half his scalp, large quantities of blood and had been dragged by the head in the bear's massive jaws. I believe this was the only time when the man and bear had both been standing—the only time the man could've gotten his hands spread out while pushing on the bear's chest.
It was a solemn, devastating way for a human life to end. The scar left on the village will never be forgotten.
An examination of the 8-foot-plus bear revealed it had been starving to death. A mere ounce of fat was all that existed around the bear's heart, the last of the fat reserves to go before starvation. Large polar bear densities were believed to be the reason for the bear's weakened state, as more dominant boars displaced younger bears in competition for food—namely seals—along the open leads.
Originally the bear carcass was to be destroyed, but fortunately this didn't happen. Today, the bear is a product of a high school science project and can be seen at Homer High School, in Homer, Alaska.
Brooks Range Bruins
After living in Point Lay, Tiffany and I moved to one of Alaska's most striking village settings, Anaktuvuk Pass. Translated in the Inupiaq word, it means "place of the caribou droppings."
But this region, situated on the north slope of the rugged Brooks Range, is home to more than just caribou. Though remarkably remote, the Arctic region—from Kotzebue, Alaska, east to the Canadian border—has established itself as a steadfast destination among grizzly bear hunters from around the globe.
Taxonomically speaking, the "tundra" grizzlies, as they're coined in this region of the state, are the same as the mighty Alaska brown bears. The only difference is the coastal brown bears have a protein-rich diet in the form of salmon every fall, and an easy lifestyle that allows them to grow to gargantuan proportions.
In contrast, tundra grizzlies have huge home ranges and have to work for their food. One year, a male grizzly that was tagged in the eastern Brooks Range later popped up on the West Coast more than 1,000 miles away! Given such movement, hunting tundra grizzlies can be a challenge, but overall, success rates are fairly high.
One spring, while out subsistence fishing with some locals, we counted 16 different bears in 2 days. Later that same spring, I watched a sow and two cubs sniff out a winter-killed caribou. The trio of bruins were playing and rolling on the tundra at the foot of a shale cliff. As the wind changed, the sow stood on her hind legs, sniffing the breeze. She then broke into a sprint, and the 2-year-old cubs followed.
At first I thought they were attacking an ungulate I'd failed to see. Then, when she hit the snow-covered creek-bed, she began frantically digging. About the time I lost sight of her, up came a caribou carcass. She dug through more than 3 feet of snow to get that prized meal, but what's even more impressive is she first detected the smell from nearly a mile away.
In addition to having great noses, tundra grizzlies are also blessed with the ability to stalk with frightening silence. Once on a fall Dall's sheep hunt, I pitched camp near a trio of rams, confident I'd find them in a stalkable place come morning. Waking up, still bundled in my sleeping bag, I peeked through the spotting scope and was relieved to find the three rams near where they'd gone to bed.
After planning my approach, I folded up the tripod and went to put the spotting scope away. It was then I discovered I'd had a visitor during the night. A big grizzly had skirted its way around my tent, mere inches from the door, and checked out the caribou that was butchered, laying in the back of the Argo. Fortunately it decided not to enter my tent. It was a vivid reminder of how hunting in bear country leaves no room for error.
During one of my most memorable grizzly hunts, a buddy and I spent the entire day glassing the eastern breaks of the Brooks in search of a bruin. We found fresh tracks, places where bears had dug up winter-killed moose and caribou, but no bears.
Turning for home, we cut a set of good prints bisecting the snow-machine tracks we'd laid down earlier in the day. Stalking up over the next knoll, we soon found the bear, digging for food beneath the snow in a willow-lined ravine. Closing in, the shot was a slam-dunk, and an end to a perfect day of hunting.
Heading back to the village, I had to stop and admire the beauty of the sun as it graced the snowcapped, ice-laden pinnacles of the jagged Brooks Range. The towering mountains of this majestic range are a blessed sight I wish every hunter could see. The animals and the native people of this land are far from anything that can be experienced in the Lower 48.
But it's the hunting I'll remember most about living in the Alaskan Arctic. Hunting is taken to a different level in this unforgiving habitat, where one mistake can cost you dearly. And if the land and ever-changing weather conditions aren't enough to contend with, there are always the bears, and what would Alaska be without the anxiety of bears stuck in your heart?