How does a bowhunter respond when his dream animal has pinned him down, and is staring through his soul from twenty-two yards away? Slowly, the animal — uncertain of what he saw move — circles around the hunter’s crouched position. The hunter dares not move. A few more steps and the animal will be downwind and the opportunity will pass. Though the hunter’s face is covered and his eyes squinted to mere slits, the animal finds the hunter’s gaze and their eyes lock.
I’ve found myself in similar positions on numerous occasions with the ungulates I pursued in my developmental years. Hopefully, the animal remains inquisitive long enough to allow the sight pins to settle and a smooth release of the arrow. In most instances, the animal’s exit is imminent so it’s worth the gamble to draw back. But what if that animal might attack you? This was how my bowhunt for a Brooks Range grizzly began…
On an early September day in far northern Alaska, the crisp afternoon air expressed autumn’s presence and a sun hidden behind a blanket of clouds. We’d just hiked in five miles from the Dalton highway and removed our packs. I leaned against mine to rest and take in the panorama of the northern Brooks Range mountains. Nearly immediately I spotted a bear! No time was wasted in grabbing the essentials and I left a trail of smoke in pursuit of the meandering mass of brown fur. Before any sense of apprehension could settle in, I was crawling along a bushy creek one-hundred yards away from a bear that was distracted by its excavating hunt for ground squirrels. My excited crawl elicited the pop of a twig. Suddenly, our gazes were intertwined. Our eighty yards of separation shrunk to twenty-two in a matter of seconds. Mentally, I paged through the file of information I’d accumulated over twenty-five years of dreaming and four years of actively preparing for this opportunity. A mountain of literature and lore failed to educate me on how to react when that animal has you pinned down. That animal — one I had dreamed so often of — was the Alaskan grizzly bear; an animal known for being particularly ornery, determinedly territorial, and remarkably tough.
Arrow nocked and ready, release attached to my string, bow poised, I froze stiff when he looked my way and attempted to draw when he looked forward. He followed an old caribou trail, working downwind towards my scent. The breaks in his gaze never allowed more than a flexing of my bicep against my string. The drama and excitement rose but I remained hyper-focused and stupidly calm. Then he took two steps without gazing and I instinctively came to full draw. I sighted the hair over the bear’s heart, (the spot on the spot) at a quartering away angle but with a trajectory that was obscured by a bush. Two more steps and I would release, freeze, and pray that the bear ran away to die. I knew it would kill him but I did not want to feel his final breaths as he returned the favor.
The breeze the bear needed arrived before the window that I needed to release my arrow and I was left with only the vivid imagery of that majestic bear. I can still picture him as he traversed the rim of that high dirt bank above me. Clumps of dirt launched from his paws like exploding fireworks and his glistening blond plumage disappearing into the abyss of the tundra.
I collapsed in the reverie of an amazing moment in the wild and realized my hunting companions were nowhere near to witness what had happened. I scurried back toward our packs wearing a smirk; one I’d wear for a few more days. I found my friends and realized that some hand signals became misconstrued during the rapid stalk. My two companions, tough rugby dudes, were held up right where I dropped my pack with the understanding that I had motioned for them to wait right there while I went and arrowed that bear alone. As I recounted the twenty-two yard encounter, their faces projected their thoughts towards me: equal parts amazement and concern. They would wear those faces for three more days until the moment I stormed into camp at full tilt and howling like a wolf.
The first morning we awoke to a blanket of snow that wrapped the tundra in the same color of white that the mountains in the background had been wearing. We remained in the tent while several squalls consumed the visibility, basking in the comfort needed to have an enjoyable extended duration hunt. Later, the chirp of feeding birds startled me from an afternoon nap. Their inclination to feed signaled the passing of the storms. We awoke to see breaking clouds above us and a small group of caribou in the valley below us. Our trio snapped into action.
Dan delighted me that evening. Though new to hunting, he watched and learned quickly. We efficiently found the stealthiest approach and closed into a distance less than what he had been target shooting, and he placed a bullet through the ten ring of his first big game animal. We quickly photographed and butchered the animal and packed it to the tent in time to enjoy supper under the fading orange glow of daylight. The compatibility of our team was evident.
With a blanket of snow on the ground and blood on my gear, I was eager to awake on the second day. I’ve come to believe that it’s a good to strike early in a trip because “blood attracts blood”. Smearing some blood on your gear is similar to passing a bird wing under a dog’s nose to let it know what it’s chasing. I was downright hyper. Every bear’s path would be revealed in that canvas of snow. The area we had chosen had been intriguing me for months and I seemed to have endless energy to explore it.
My boots carried me over twelve miles on day two until the afternoon sun had melted most of the snow. I found tracks of a momma and cubs and walked the other way. As I was crossing the river just before dark, another grizzly came barreling down the bank and splashed across the river just in front of me. That got my blood pumping and when I returned to camp, I was too exhausted to eat and too aching to sleep but eventually drifted off, deciding to sleep-in the next day so I would be fresh for whatever was to come.
In ritual fashion, we let the morning sun from day three rise and burn off the fog before we stirred. A full night’s sleep and waking to a tent that has been warmed by the sun prevents burnout over a long week in the wilderness. With a great plan still in motion, I grabbed a handful of granola bars for breakfast and got dressed. Rarely am I as happy and comfortable as when I’m robed in my hunting attire. I glanced at my daypack, decided against grabbing it, and slid the tent zipper closed. My friends began to stir from their cocoons. I walked with the sun on my back to my vantage point above a herd of muskox.
As I glassed, I thought about the favorite and most functional pack I’ve ever known that I’d left in the tent. It seemed to give me that look you get from your hunting dog when you leave the house with a gun and don’t take them with you. Why did I leave behind those mere fifteen pounds? Could it be that the likes of Fred Bear, Howard Hill, Saxton Pope, my grandfathers, and all those people that I hope to share a hunt with when I leave this world, were orchestrating my movements that morning? With less gear, I’d have fewer burdens. With fewer burdens, I’d have fewer excuses. And with fewer excuses, it was just the bear and me.
At 9:42, in my final scan of the terrain that morning, I noticed him ambling at the head of the drainage a mile and a half away. The fate of my day was recognized and accepted. There was no time to return to camp for my pack, camera, or backup. In my dreams I had always envisioned a trusted gun-toting partner over my shoulder during the moment I arrowed my first grizzly. That day had a different magic. My true hunting partner was back in North Dakota chasing mule deer. My companions on this hunt were buddies yet to earn enough trust to become full-fledged partners in my endeavors — especially the life-risking ones. Once again, everything else in the world was pushed out of my mind. There was only me, the bear, and the expanse of rugged tundra that separated us. Each player in this game had grown to love this terrain and would need to utilize it to win the battle.
The bear fed along an ideal spot for an archery approach. The tundra can be fatiguing but monumental amounts of adrenaline helped me cover ground and I floated up that drainage on a magic carpet. With great apprehension, I took my eyes off him and coursed through a draw and over a small ridge to keep my downwind advantage. His exit points were all in view. If he diverted his path towards me, he’d be walking through ideal ambush terrain. With Ted Nugent’s songs, “Spirit of the Wild” and “Fred Bear” providing the background music, my thoughts were a constant, “Stay in the rugged ground so you aren’t exposed in the open if he summits the hill. Walk slower than you think ‘slow’ is, and keep thinking like a bear.”
The bear never crested the hills above his last position so I slowly combed the entire creek ahead of him without cutting his trail. Dismay began to creep into my thoughts and I had to force myself to focus and continue my slow approach into the wind. My course weaved up to a patch of barren high-ground. Scattered about were several large “tussocks on steroids”. These were large enough to hide behind and could provide some concealing shadow in the midday sun. Cresting the saddle, I could now spot where I had last observed the bear and I sulked in his absence. I sauntered a few more yards to where the bottom of the draw was visible and I sat down to sort through my emotions and reflect upon how that bear had escaped me.
Sifting through my mental vault of resources, my emotions settled and thoughts cleared. I recounted a few tidbits: The bears had been roaming the tundra foraging roots and uncovering ground squirrels and with the remaining snow, the dirt exposed by the swipe of his foraging paw would reveal his path. Thirty minutes of observation through my binos produced not one scuff of this dirt, nor footprint in the snow, nor den for the bear to hide in. He had used home field advantage to win the day. The final glance through the binoculars that morning was to locate camp and the gear, food, and friends I had left behind.
I rose from my vantage point and inhaled a full breath of fresh northern Alaska humble pie. The vista of Brooks Range grandeur was and always is, a suitable consolation prize. As I exhaled, a glimpse of glistening blond entered my eye. My body and heart stopped moving. My thoughts raced — at least they weren’t paralyzed too! I was busted and dead.
What I feared was a bear that had busted me turned into a bear that was thoroughly enjoying a nap in a serene sunny locale! Envision a dog on the couch changing positions in his sleep. The bear had sleepily rolled from his side to his back. Those glistening claws shone in my eye like chrome off the bumper of the truck that nearly struck you.
I was eighty yards away…
I was going to kill this bear.
When his head relaxed onto his tussock pillow, I collapsed onto the tundra. The slither towards better ground transitioned me from prey to predator and I slunk to a bramble patch. I felt remarkably composed and surprisingly safe. I smirked at how 115” whitetail bucks make me nervous yet now, in this game of predator vs. predator, I had the focus of a prowling leopard.
The high sun kept that bear cozy and I knew, without a disturbance, that his nap would last until the temperatures fell with the sun. His bed was of the lichens, mosses, and grasses that blanket the permafrost regions of Alaska. As autumn sets, they take on a kaleidoscope of colors that remind me of a spectacular coral reef. I would have loved to swim through that sea of coral to silently close the distance to that slumbering giant. But with senses heightened by adrenaline, I felt more like I was dancing on seashells. It was reminiscent of walking to my deer stands on a frosty morning in the oak woods of Minnesota. The soft snow crunching beneath me, the bramble leaves rustling against me. I was encompassed by a cacophony of nature’s tattle-tales.
When the wind whispered or the bear moved, I’d stealth closer. An uncomfortable — and undoubtedly comical — series of yoga poses enabled me to weave through the bramble to a pocket just forty-five yards from my objective. From here I could confidently deliver an arrow into the animal’s heart but his spine was facing me as he napped on his side. I could not hemorrhage both lungs. The next pocket was a thirty-eight yard shot, I loved the proximity but the shot was obstructed. From there I saw the magic spot that provided love for both aspects. I prowled to this point thirty-four yards from him and readied for the shot.
The slight shift in my body weight while drawing my bow caused my right foot to settle into some soggy snow, creating the disturbance that was essential to avoid. The bear sprung to his feet. We were both hidden in the dwarf willow and concealed from each other. The great beast walked directly toward the disruption. As he ambled through the densest part of the thicket, I drew again. His snout appeared a few yards below me. Once more I was praying for two more steps to reveal the hair covering his heart but he was too close to conceal any noise. He whirled… away…again!
A “Hail Mary” was the only option so I whistled, smooched, and bawled like an injured calf caribou-ish thing. I had no inclination as to what noise would stop a grizzly but one of them did. He turned, sat on his haunches and looked curiously towards the commotion. His ears looked miniscule atop his head. The golden fur that began on his snout became thick and luscious over those tiny ears and then his head swelled into a massive neck and shoulders. I was again at eighty yards and admiring the most majestic and powerful animal I had ever seen.
The bear took a look over both shoulders. It was as if he thought to himself, “I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be leaving but I just can’t help but to circle back and check this out.” If there’s a takeaway from this long tale, it’s to recognize an animal’s range of comfort. I knew that he felt safe from attack at eight yards and would circle the item of interest to as close as twenty. This time I had that tool in my arsenal.
The rangefinder remained by my eye. My body shrunk into a camouflaged sliver and was completely hidden behind my bow. The bow became a mere branch of the shrubbery. He took two steps and the range became seventy-one yards. “In three strides he’ll return to effective kill range,” I told myself. The whirlwind of emotions rapidly turned to poise. I coaxed him with some persistent “smooching” noises and he continued along his circling path, when sixty yards away, he once more glanced behind him. I utilized the break in his gaze to find the spot that would conceal my draw movements and I adjusted my position and focused solely upon that shrub. He loped along behind the shrub, I drew back, he emerged and then granted me the “two more steps” I had twice wished for and stopped. As he did, my arrow punctured his side. There was a cyclone of fur, snow, blood, and mud as the bear bit at his side. He straightened course and burst over the hill one final time, away from me.
I could envision the arrow and I knew it impacted farther back than any bow hunter desires. If he was going to make it into the thicket along the mountain face, I needed to observe precisely where. Nobody wants to blood trail an angry bear. I was fast on his trail and covering great distances with each stride. I found my arrow in the dirt and studied the bright red blood decorating its fletching. This gave rise to a trail of giant bear tracks filled with deep red splatters. Still, in full stride, I shoved a ptarmigan arrow into the ground so it stood upright to mark the point of impact and arrived at the crest of the hill in time to watch the bear’s back legs falter. He fumbled onto the tundra, rolled to his back and gave a guttural groan of defeat.
I rested below the crest of the hill seventy yards from the ailing beast and waited for him to expire. My binoculars were the only thing exposing my position. They were fixated on his mid-section to determine the entry hole and plausible organs involved. Hopefully, I’d see the cessation of his chest movements and watch him go limp.
Time crawls in these moments. Lying prone in the melting snow caused me to chill. I slowly backed off and untied a base layer shirt from my waist and reapplied it and then did some push-ups. I couldn’t afford to be shivering if I had to shoot him again. If it took four hours for him to die from that misplaced arrow, I’d be watching him that long. To pass the time, I pre-programmed some phone messages to my best friend back in North Dakota. I couldn’t wait to tell him and I knew he’d nearly soil himself. I was sad he wasn’t there. Mostly, I just kept my eyes on the bear and made damn certain he didn’t see me. He’d certainly have reason to charge me now. Also, there was no doubt this arrow pierced the paunch. It was imperative that he remained where he was so I could crawl to closer cover to his right and complete the task — if the situation dictated.
When he attempted to stand, I knew I needed to shoot again. If he walked any farther it would change the game dramatically and take the situation into the land of the unknown. A few nearby jumbo tussocks would provide the spot to end the agony. I dedicated fifteen minutes to crawl the short distance because I told myself, “The bear must NOT know I’m here and I will only shoot him if he makes another attempt to stand.” The next time he attempted to stand I was just sixty yards away and behind good cover. Though his hind legs were too weak to walk, he remained perched on his front leg. His desire to reach a safer spot was apparent in his eyes. My heart yearned to give this great animal the death he deserved. My last arrow hit him exactly as it should. He fell to his side while a misting of frothy red snow under his snout indicated that both lungs were hemorrhaged. He promptly expired.
Those ten minutes that I waited to approach him were the only minutes in the day where I didn’t know what to do. What does one do when they’ve just accomplished their dream? I collapsed into the snow, could barely support my head, and was overcome with nausea. My ensuing retching painted the snow, a bilious representation of a lifetime’s worth of desire. I gathered myself and smelled his hide and caressed his face, a routine I’ve come to do with every animal I harvest. The blond fur was glistening, soft, aromatic, and trimmed with vicious claws, but there is no way to find the poetry or prose capable of describing the sensation I felt. I gave thanks for his life, my life, and the experience of sharing his final moments on this great landscape. When I was composed, I left my bow with him and ran and howled like a wolf for two miles back to camp. I tackled my friends and watched their looks of concern transition into looks of astonishment and admiration.
To many, it may seem this was just a bear. To me, it was the culmination of a lifetime of dreams, preparations, and lessons in the wild. It was everything that is Alaska.