Only those who hunt the giant coastal brown bear of Alaska on a regular basis truly know the awesome power, speed and ferocity of these monstrous beasts. Last spring my friend Scott Newman, a superb 40-year-old hunting guide from Petersburg, Alaska, found out first hand just how horrible they can be. His client had just shot three times at a huge bear that was working an open beach near Pybus Bay on Admiralty Island, hitting it poorly, and Newman had followed up with three back-up shots from his own .416 Rem. "I thought my second shot hammered him," Newman said. "So when I went into the thick forest to track him I was sure I'd find him dead." What he found instead was every brown bear guide's worst nightmare. The following is Scott's recounting of the story:
"I've followed up on a lot of big bears through the years, and usually when they're hit hard with a large-caliber rifle they go maybe 70-100 yards before dying," he said. "I got on the blood trail, but this time when I got 70 yards into the trees and hadn't found him, I was just starting to think, 'Uh oh, maybe he isn't hit as bad as I first thought.' Then I heard a small twig snap. When I spun around the bear was coming full-tilt, head down and one giant forearm and paw out as he tried to swat me. It all happened in a millisecond. These bears have been known to break a full-grown moose's neck and front shoulder with one swat. He was just a few feet away, but I raised my .416 and instinctively shot it like a shotgun, the 400-grain bullet slamming him right in the chest. He didn't even flinch-and then he was on me.
"The bear had me down and I'm kicking him, trying to get another round chambered, but I had a gun bolt malfunction and ended up jamming the second cartridge. Now the bear is biting my left foot, giving me a compound fracture and crunching the bones in my left leg. With no rifle to shoot, I started hitting the bear with my fists, but that just made him let go of my foot and bite me in the leg, then on both of my arms and hands. Then the bear just got up and walked away. He had about 30 seconds to live after I shot him, but in that time he chewed the hell out of me."
Facing His Fears
Scott, who has been guiding in Alaska for 17 years-12 as the owner of his own business-had a hand-held radio in his pocket and was able to call the Coast Guard, who dispatched a helicopter. He was bleeding badly and functioning on nothing but experience and pure adrenalin.
Newman spent 21 days in the hospital in Sitka, where the doctor's biggest fear was staving off infection. The bear had bitten him in the thigh, missing his femoral artery by just a few centimeters. Scott ended up with three broken bones in his left foot that had to be pinned, who knows how many stitches and bandages that completely covered both arms and hands. Rehab took all summer, but Newman has fortunately recovered to the point where he guided some mountain goat and deer hunters in the fall. And then there was his fall brown bear client, a man who also happened to be a bowhunter.
"I had nasty dreams about it all summer long," Newman said. "For the first three days my heart palpitated-I thought it was going to jump out of my chest with the anticipation. I had an assistant guide with me; we all carried large-caliber handguns in addition to my own big rifle, as back-up." Hunting up a small stream choked with spawning salmon, Newman's party never did have any close encounters with sows and cubs, a common occurrence on this type of hunt.
On the day No. 5, the bowhunter shot a big 9-foot boar at 40 yards. "The first shot hit the bear too far back," Newman recalled. "I thought for sure he was going to charge. I had a .458 Lott aimed right at that bear and I told the client I was going to have to shoot him. But the bear just didn't seem to see us. I told the guy to nock another arrow and when the bear turned sideways to shoot him again. He did, and this time he hit the bear right behind the shoulder. Then the bear turned and went up the stream bank. He stopped at 50 yards and turned broadside again, so the hunter shot another arrow, but this one sailed over his back and hit a branch with a loud 'crack!' When that happened the bear bounded into the brush and started moaning.
"We waited 11/2 hours before following up on him," Newman said. "We found good blood, and I saw where the bear went into the brush. But when I saw how thick it was, I just could not bring myself to follow the bear into the thick stuff. So I side-stepped the brush jungle and looked around, and all of a sudden I found a huge trail leading into the thicket. There was good blood on this trail, so we followed it. After a short time there was the bear, who had climbed up on a high spot, had turned around and was set up watching his back trail when he died."
That bear broke the spell. "Once this hunt was over and I had skinned this bear out and headed home, everything seemed fine again," Newman said. "I guess I just needed to get back on the horse and ride it again, so to speak."
As someone who has been on a lot of brown bear hunts as both client and guide, Newman's parting words rang particularly true. "This kind of thing has happened dozens of times to almost everyone who guides brown bear hunters," he said. "When you run into bears in their natural environment and realize how big and powerful and fast they really are - and their potential to hurt you -- you have to be thankful that when they see people they choose to go the other way 99 percent of the time. Because if they didn't there would be no brown bear hunters left alive."
I've hunted with Scott Newman before, and would not hesitate to do so again. As my dad used to say, he's the kind of guy you would ride the river with. If you're looking for the real deal in an Alaska brown bear, mountain goat, and Sitka blacktail guide, contact Scott Newman, Southeast Guide Service, P.O. Box 1348, Petersburg, AK 99833; 907-772-4878; www.alaska.net/~seaguide.