My heart was pounding out of my chest. I was sure the huge brown bear could hear it. My guide and I were sliding our feet carefully through the shallow water, feeling for hidden rocks and keeping behind the shoreline outcroppings while intently watching the bear just 50 yards in front of us—waiting patiently for some kind of quartering-away shot. If only he'd stop and turn. "Please give me a chance, just one chance!" I prayed as I stared intently at the bear. "Don't trip on a rock, don't let your boots squeak and make the first shot count!" These thoughts raced through my mind as I waited. With the wind blowing hard in our faces, we knew we had a temporary advantage, but the pond shoreline was about to yield to a valley chocked full of alders. If the bear managed to get there, it would most certainly disappear into the deep brush, ending our chances.
Getting to this moment had already taken 18 days of hunting. The previous fall I'd spent 15 days hunting brown bears with a different outfitter just a few miles south of where we were now. Surviving days of rain, snow and constant wind had required as much perseverance as I could muster. I got giardia, caught salmon by hand, ate crab from pots blown onto the shore, lost 20 pounds and never got close to clicking the safety off my gun. Even though it was a great experience, it was definitely a blow to my hunting ego. My daughter summed it up best, however, when she said, "Dad, you came home safe, and that's all that matters." She was right, of course, but after that experience I knew I had to go back for a shot at redemption.
For my return adventure, I did a great amount of research as to where I'd have the best chance for a 10-foot bear, and was still convinced the Alaskan Peninsula was my best shot. After checking several references and engaging in several conversations with Larry Rivers of Alaska Wilderness Enterprises, I decided to book a brown bear hunt with him.
Before I knew it May had arrived and I was flying to Sand Point. Larry then flew me directly to a spike camp the same day where my guide, Billy Molls, was waiting. Our camp, a large four-man tent and tarp, was only 50 yards off the beach, but in a depression with surrounding alder brush protecting it from the wind. The next day we spotted six brown bears, none of which was close to my 10-foot goal. Considering I'd only seen sows and cubs the previous trip, however, I was optimistic this hunt would turn out better than my first.
Day No. 2 produced 13 bears, six of which were sows and cubs. Most of them were high up in the snow, having just come out of hibernation. One big boar far up in the snow fields spent an hour crawling up a nearly vertical slope, and then would turn over and slide down on his back. Amazingly, he continued this several more times! It was fascinating to watch, but I was growing impatient. Several potential "shooter" bears were crossing the mountain pass above us in the deep snow, disappearing as quickly as they emerged. Hunting brown bears during the spring is certainly a big change from hunting them in the fall, when the bears are camped out at salmon streams. In the spring you have to follow the boars as they search for sows, a physically and mentally draining experience for a hunter.
We started glassing at dawn from our vantage point, only 100 yards from our tent, and we intended to stay put until dark. Since a bear's No. 1 defense is its nose, we didn't want to tromp all over the valley and spread our scent around until we were actually ready to make a stalk. After a few hours, another bear appeared in a marshy area just beyond a nearby pond, roughly a mile in front of us. I'm sure Billy could sense my anxiousness, as I silently prayed this bear was "the one."
He certainly looked big to me. I sat there staring at the bear, trying to remember all the magazine articles I'd read about judging a bear's size. The phrase, "If his head looks small, he's bigger than you think" kept ringing in my ears. This boar's head definitely looked small, but I couldn't estimate his body length at that distance with my binoculars.
After what seemed like forever, Billy looked up from his spotting scope and announced this bear was bigger than 9 feet, and since we had only a few hours of shooting light left, I had to decide whether to put on a stalk. I looked Billy square in the eyes and asked him to repeat his judgment. He calmly replied, "Loren, I think this is the bear you've been dreaming of." That's all I needed to hear, so I jumped up and said "Let's go!" knowing that once we ventured down into the valley we'd carry our scent to all the bears in the area.
Moment Of Truth
It took almost 2 hours to get the wind right as we slowly approached the bear from behind. When we found an elevated bluff that overlooked the pond edge, he wasn't where we expected him, and I immediately thought the worse. We slowly backed off and silently pushed through the alder brush and up the valley floor. As we got farther from the pond, I had a nagging intuition that the bear was still by the pond, but just out of sight. I looked back two times and saw nothing, but when I glanced back a third time there he was, wading across the pond!
The bear was moving away from us so we started a heart-thumping double-time trot. Thirty minutes later we were finally within 100 yards of the bear. I steadied myself on a huge rock and was ready to pull the trigger, but the bear just kept slowly walking away from us. As soon as he disappeared around a bend in the shoreline, we made another attempt to catch up. I quickly knelt down and got ready to shoot. As the bear appeared again only his backside was visible. Billy made some bird noises hoping to get the boar's attention, but to no avail. So once again the bear walked out of sight, and we darted forward to try and find another cut off point.
Billy peeked around the next bend and could see the bear only 35 yards away—this was it! I knelt down and finally flipped the safety off my gun and waited anxiously for the bear to turn for a shot. After what seemed like a lifetime, he moved slightly to my right and I had a clear shot at his left shoulder. Billy whispered to make sure my first shot put the bear down, and seconds later the gun roared. The shot was perfect, penetrating through the boar's shoulder and chest, dropping him on the spot.
After a short wait, we cautiously approached the magnificent creature. My knees were weak and trembling as we finally walked around the boar to make sure he was dead. He was huge, much bigger than I ever expected. There definitely was no "ground shrinkage" to this brute! I had to sit down briefly to absorb the enormity of what had just happened. As I ran my hands over the bear's coat, I gave thanks to God for this extraordinary opportunity, and I promised the bear that its sacrifice would be celebrated and honored forever.
By this time it was 10:30 p.m. and Billy informed me we'd have to come back the next morning to skin the bear. I was reluctant to leave the bear, but he assured me it would be fine, so I agreed. Billy and I chattered like kids at recess during the walk back to camp. Early the next morning we hiked back to the bear, and just as Billy had said, it was untouched. When we got back to camp with the hide, we stretched it out, and from claw-to-claw the bear surpassed the 11-foot mark; the nose-to-tail measurement was nearly 91/2 feet, making him "square" at 10-feet, 4-inches!
I can say from experience it's true brown bear hunting is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent pure terror. But this experience is one that will bring a smile to my face every time I look at my full-body Alaska brown bear mount in my trophy room.