My friend Dick Spurzem and I had always wanted to hunt brown bears, and it was this desire that brought us to the Alaska Peninsula. In choosing an outfitter, however, we'd made one big mistake: relying solely upon the outfitter's references. Be forewarned any references you get from an outfitter are going to be good ones-from the outfitter's standpoint, that is. So, while we made the appropriate long-distance calls to the references, we really hadn't received a qualified and impartial check of his capabilities.
After flying to King Salmon, Alaska, a small community on the Alaska Peninsula, we were flown by the outfitter via charter aircraft to his base camp about 125 miles out on the Peninsula. With the excitement building inside us, we hurriedly unpacked our gear from the plane and waved goodbye to the pilot as the plane gunned for takeoff. Then the first hammer blow fell on our unsuspecting heads: We learned even though Dick and I had each requested our own personal guide for this 21-day, moose/brown bear combo hunt, the outfitter had one guide and two other hunters in camp! To make matters worse, the outfitter was totally unorganized. Let me cite one example. Because there was a large bay right behind our camp, which led back into a huge swampy area, the outfitter had a large rubber pontoon boat with a wood deck and transom and a 25-hp motor to use for waterfowl hunting. One evening he brought in the boat and pulled it onto shore. Dick suggested to the outfitter that he'd better take the motor off the boat and rinse it out with freshwater (there was a freshwater spring right behind camp). The outfitter, who was playing pinochle with the cook at the time, said, "No sweat. I'll do it later." But "later" never came. As a result, when we got up in the morning, the drifting sand along the beach covered the motor!
Wolves And Bad Weather
After the other two hunters had departed for home, the outfitter transferred the guide and me over to the far side of the Peninsula where we set up a spike camp, which consisted of only a two-man tent. My guide, Bud, was probably one of the best guides I've ever had on a hunt. He was 42 years old and spent 5 months out of each year trapping in Alaska. He really could "read" the signs of the wilderness. For example, as we were hiking one day, we heard wolves howling in the mountains near our spike camp. They seemed to be all around us. Bud turned to me and said, "That's bad! Whenever you hear the wolves howling around you during the day, that means bad weather is moving in. And it won't clear up until you hear them howl again in the same way." Because it was sunny, I took his prediction with a grain of salt. But sure enough, about an hour later, a powerful storm emerged over the mountaintops. It rained continuously for 2 days, with murderous, hunt-destroying winds.
The storm dumped so much water on us that all of the nearby streams, which were knee-deep when we arrived, filled up with water to the point where they stayed shoulder-deep for the remainder of our spike camp stay. As a result, we weren't able to range as far on our daily hunts.As it turned out, we saw several bears during our spike camp stay, but were unable to get to them on account of rain-swollen streams or uncooperative winds for stalking. After 1 week at spike camp, we returned to base camp along the Bering Sea. Upon our return, the outfitter mentioned he'd seen three bears a couple days ago. It was decided I'd go out with Bud and try to get one of those bears the following day-the final day of my hunt. Bud and I got up early that morning, took our rifles and headed for the rubber pontoon boat. After tugging the motor's pull cord about 80 times, Bud gave up, and then I gave it a go. I tugged another 20 times or so and it finally sputtered to life. It was the same motor that had been covered with sand on the beach. But when you're in Alaska to hunt brown bears-and it's the last day of your hunt-you tend to overlook some of those mundane details. And that turned out to be a colossal and near fatal mistake. Bud and I motored about 5 miles across the bay to the mouth of a river. We then entered the river and, through a series of streams, traversed another 7 or 8 miles. Distant mountains fed the streams, and the water was very cold. The small stream we were in finally became so shallow we ran into a sand bar, which just happened to be the same moment when the motor conked out. Because we couldn't get it started, we decided to walk the remaining 2 or 3 miles to the part of the swamp where the outfitter had spotted the bears.
No Place To Hide
In order for you have the complete picture, let me describe the swamp. It was 525 square miles of perfectly flat swamp, with grass standing about 8 inches high. Everywhere you stepped, you stood in water. Thankfully, Bud and I were wearing hip boots. Before proceeding further on this saga, let me mention I'd told Bud at the beginning of the hunt that he was not to shoot at a bear unless I was in imminent danger of being mauled or killed. I didn't want to travel all the way to Alaska to watch some trigger-happy guide shoot a bear for me. Bud carried a .243 Win. bolt-action rifle as our back-up gun. Now I don't know about you, but to me a .243 Win. is a very small back-up gun for Alaska brown bears. He claimed all the locals swore by the .243 Win. as an all-around gun for its flat-shooting capabilities. Of course, if you're shooting a seal at long range, that's great, but I didn't relish the thought of attempting to bring down a charging brown bear with a .243 Win. at 10 yards. After walking along for 20 minutes with Bud in front and me following in his footsteps, he stopped and pointed. "Here comes a brown bear running right at us!" he exclaimed. "Get up next to me and be ready to shoot." I then made a big mistake. In my attempt to hurriedly move closer, I took a little shortcut and stepped out into an area with no grass growing in it. That, as all of you swamp-hunters know, is an area to avoid because it indicates deep water. As I stepped out into it, I immediately sank to my armpits. I held onto my gun with one hand and with the other grabbed a bunch of swamp grass and pulled myself up very quickly, probably due to adrenaline, which was at that point really pumping through my body. I finally got next to Bud and tipped my rifle upside down to drain out the water. As I looked up, I saw the bear coming right at us about 90 yards away.I quickly knelt down, found the bear in my 4X scope and waited for Bud to tell me when to shoot. All I could see was its head and part of its shoulders. When it was about 60 yards away, Bud yelled, "Shoot now!" I wanted to aim down from the bear's head a little bit and to one side to hit the bear's shoulder, where the neck meets the body. But the bear was weaving its head from side to side as it ran, as bears often do, and when I squeezed the trigger my bullet hit the bear below the right eye. The bullet was then deflected by the skull on down through the windpipe and out the front part of the chest-without penetrating the lungs. But the bear went down like a ton of bricks.
Bud and I stood up and heaved a sigh of relief, keeping an eagle eye on the bear. To our amazement, the bear got up and came toward us again! I shot a second time-off-handed-and hit the bear in the shoulder. It went down and rolled over with all four feet in the air. At that point, we were both sure it was dead. How wrong we were. The bear got up again, only this time decided it wanted nothing to do with us and started to stagger off broadside to our right. Bud shouted, "Shoot it again and kill it quick because I don't want to have to skin the bear in the creek!" I put another .338 Win. Mag. into the bear's chest. It staggered forward approximately 15 feet into the creek and then died. We now had to stand waist deep (over the tops of our hip boots) in the creek to skin the bear. And that water was cold! It took about 1 1/2 hours to skin it, leaving the feet and head attached to the hide. I carried Bud's rifle, and he dragged the bear hide along behind him through the swamp with a rope. We reached our boat about 6 p.m., just as darkness settled across the now ominous-looking Alaska landscape. After tugging the motor's pull cord about 100 times, disassembling the magneto and checking the spark plugs, it still wouldn't start. We were both cold and chilled to the bone. To make matters worse, there was no way we could start a fire in the swamp because there was no wood. The situation was grim: We were 13 miles from camp with a rubber boat that was just about impossible to paddle-and a worthless motor.
I turned to Bud and asked, "What are we going to do?" "We're going to stay active, because if we don't, we're going to develop hypothermia and die," he said in a matter-of-fact tone. "And no matter what you do tonight, please do one thing right: Help me keep this boat in the middle of the stream. As we're going along, there might be a bear right at the edge of the stream, if it sees us right below the bank, it might jump into the boat on top of us." Now that was a delightful thought. We started paddling. Our small stream soon turned into a larger stream, which then became part of the river. We eventually arrived at the bay, thanks to the current in the streams and river, right at slack high tide. For us landlubbers, that means the tide is neither coming in at the mouth of the river, nor is the river going out into the bay of the ocean. Bud said, "As soon as we get close to the point where the base camp is, we'll paddle hard for shore." So we started out with the high tide. About a third of the way out in the bay with the tide, the fog set in. We hadn't used our flashlights the whole night because Bud said it would be better not to use them in order to allow our eyes to be accustomed to the darkness. But had we used one out there, I'm sure we wouldn't have been able to see more than 20 feet. All the while, we could hear the ocean breaking against the point of land on which our base camp was located. I started to become concerned about that time. I asked Bud, "What if we can't make it to shore in time to hit the point?" His answer came quick: "Then we're on our way to Japan."
After what seemed like an eternity, with the pounding of the waves getting nearer and nearer, Bud finally yelled to paddle for shore with as much strength as I had left. We struck shore about a half-mile from camp. We pulled the boat onto shore about 11:30 p.m., knowing the tide was going out and wouldn't come up again by the next morning. We then took our rifles and, because we were shaking so badly from the cold, jogged our way to camp wearing all our hunting gear. I might mention our erstwhile outfitter didn't even hang a lantern on shore for us to see, even though he knew we were out there somewhere and had to be making our way back toward camp. We couldn't have possibly spent the night out there, having no sleeping bags or other cold-weather gear along.
I learned some real lessons on that hunt. And I hope by reading this piece, you don't have to learn them first-hand. My Alaska brown bear trip was the closest I've come, in all my hunting experiences, to meeting the Great Outfitter in the sky.
Editor's Note: NAHC Founder Paul Burke died peacefully on March 14, 2005. As a tribute to him, we've chosen to re-publish one of his classic North American Hunter adventures.