Jason, my son, was then 12 years old; this was to be our first “real” hunt. He had hunted since he was seven years old, around our ranch in southern B.C. We had decided on grizzly. I had always wanted a trophy grizzly. I had ranched some years before in the Anahim Lake area. We had friends there, and we knew there were large bears in the area.
With weeks set-aside, we packed our guns. Jason chose a single-shot Savage Model 219L in .30-30 caliber, with a 4x Weaver scope. I chose my .270 caliber Husqvarna with a 2.5-8x Bausch & Lomb scope.
After arriving in the Anahim Lake area, we went a few days visiting and talking about bears, and hunting moose. We contacted Wayne Escott, who had worked for me in the early ‘70s and was now a commercial bush pilot for Dean River Air. We made a deal to get the floatplane from Monday, October 11 until October 16. We had heard the stories of big bear down on the Bella Coola River, but some of the Indians talked of “Good Bear” along the nearly inaccessible Dean River mouth where it meets the Dean Channel.
On Monday morning, we left Nimpo Lake and flew down southwest over Charlotte Lake, then heading west to Lonesome Lake, circling to take photos of the very impressive Hunlen Falls that drop straight down about 1,000 feet and flow into the Atnarko River. I had wanted to see these falls for a long time. We then headed north, stopping for lunch and so Jason could fish at Squiness Lake, named after an old-time Indian family of the area.
We arrived late that afternoon in the Dean Channel. Pulling up on a sandbar at the river mouth, we unloaded the plane and made camp right there. We had already found tracks, so our excitement was starting to build. The next day we moved the plane along the river bank about 300 yards and on the south side, so as to be beside our camp. Starting out, we got across the river and worked our way up the shoreline. Wayne knew Felix, an 80-year old Swedish recluse, who had been living in near isolation for many years there.
We took Felix a moose meat roast as a gift, and got into a long conversation with him about life, bears, etc. He told of mushroom hunters landing there by plane, and picking up to $1,000 per trip, each, with the mushrooms being sold in Japan. We scouted that area quite a bit, finding sign of bear but not seeing any of the real thing.
On Wednesday, Jason and I left early, ready for bear. We went south, down the channel, finding sign but nothing else. The banks along this channel were steep and made the going really tough. We saw seal out in the water, and a lot of eagles, but still no bears. We worked our way back inland, arriving about a half-mile upriver from camp, where we found really promising sign and country, but that was all.
Thursday was cold and damp, but not freezing, yet. We had made up our minds that we would go up river on the south side. Wayne, our pilot, was going to come along, having fiddled enough with the plane the day before. The going was really slow and tough. It seemed that for every 10 feet forward, we would also go 10 feet sideways, first down into the river edge, which was usually covered with masses of tangled logs, then up along the very steep banks above the river. There we were, climbing over dead trees and inching our way along. The thought never really occurred to me as to how I would get back with a bear, if we got “lucky”.
About mid-morning, we stopped to snack. Jason had found a simply enormous bear track in a sandy bay area tucked into the river edge, and we speculated over lunch at the size of the bear that made that track. It was surely a “good bear.” We could not see up or down the river more than 100 yards.
About then, we heard a Super Cub drifting low and slow, as they are so good at. For a brief moment, it flashed in front of us, coming down stream and passing out toward where our plane sat. I cursed under my breath, thinking that I hadn’t come all this way to have any bear spooked right out of the area by people when we were 100 miles from a village and even farther from a town.
With a little more uncertainty, but still the same enthusiasm, we started off, crossing a small side channel and re-wetting ourselves for at least the 10th time (or so it seemed). After a while, I decided to move away from the river’s main course. Soon we were walking in a succession of semi-clearings, under some enormous cedar trees that shut out most of the direct sunlight. The flickering shadows across the leafy carpet gave a shady, peaceful look to the area.
Suddenly, off to our left about 70 feet away and partly obscured by a cedar, something started to move slowly up out of the ground. It was a massive head in profile, followed by an enormous shoulder bump. We froze. Here was what we had come all this way for, “a good bear.” But really, I never wanted it quite so close. As I readied my Husqvarna, I heard Jason close his gun.
For what seemed to be a long time, I had an excellent side shot. I squeezed the shot off. But, the bear, instead of falling over dead, rose up out of the hollow in the ground and turned toward us. Here it was, coming right at us. I aimed at his shoulder, still hardly believing he wasn’t down. This next shot hit his side, I had gut shot him. This turned him, and he plunged off sideways into a really thick area of alders, windfalls, and devils club. As he was going in, I placed a third shot.
All hell seemed to break loose in that small wooded area. It was too thick to see what was happening, but boy, could we hear the bear snorting, growling, grunting, and gasping draughts of breath. It was a simply enormous and rather frightening sound. I looked back at Jason and Wayne. They looked as apprehensive as I felt. I knew a grizzly could explode out of that cover like an “express train”, with none of the bush slowing him down at all, and leap 15 feet in a bound.
I indicated to the others that I was going to circle around, hoping I could get to a point for a fatal shot. Using some of the larger trees as cover, I circled from tree to tree in the best John Wayne style, but without his air of confidence. Jason and Wayne were following me. All of us were feeling very naked, only knowing where the bear was by that horrific noise. At last, I could see part of the bear’s rear.
At this point, I swapped guns with Jason for the final shot as I had used three of my five bullets. He had all six that he carried left. I was finally about 20 ft. away from the bear, feeling—to be honest—quite scared. I placed the fatal shot into his neck with Jason’s .30-30. As it lay dead, I could see that we had a very “good bear” indeed. But why had my first shot not killed it?
When I skinned it out later, I could see the bullet hole in the exact spot I had aimed, but the Nosler bullet had shattered before getting deep enough in such a large bear. I also found a tight, leather radio collar around his neck. It was well into his fur, and had rubbed sore marks on either side of his neck. I felt bad now, knowing that the bear I had shot was part of a study. But, what was it doing here, 50 miles from any closed area? Thinking back on this, I did not see the collar, even when close to the bear. Plus, with us walking up on him, I don’t know if the bear would have given us the choice of letting him, or us, walk away.
We started the task of skinning, still in awe of this great trophy bear. The skinning went slowly, and we were only about half-finished when Wayne pointed out that it was about an hour before sunset. So, with great apprehension, we left the partially finished bear. With some knowledge of the best route back, we made it to camp just at darkness. We had nervously picked our way, expecting to meet another bear at every turn.
That night, I had many mixed thoughts. Some were good and some terrible. I’d really shot a “good bear,” but there was the matter of the number of shots, the collar, and worst of all, leaving him there. What if coyote, fox, wolf, wolverine, eagle got to him? All these “what ifs” kept coming back to me. We consoled ourselves that at least another grizzly would not eat it.
That night, we had entertainment of a nature that we didn’t need. It started with some splashing and grunts that sounded all too close. Were they just trying to find salmon carcasses, or were they looking for us? We built the fire up high, and in the light of it, pulled in some more of the washed-up logs scattered around real close. Supper was welcome, but the food seemed to dry out and stick as it went down my throat. Even Jason noticed the tension. Normally, good food and sleep would be the only thing on his mind by now, but that night he was making sure that he could sleep in the middle of the tent.
It seemed that all through the night, the bears were getting closer. Wayne and I agreed that we would take turns to keep the fire going. Morning drifted in, as a cold, damp blanket of mist, leaving everything dripping. Jason walked over toward the river, about 20 feet from the tent area where we were preparing breakfast and coffee. His face told us that he had seen something. “Look! Quick, over there in the river are three more bears, not 200 yards from our camp,” he said. They were poking around in the river, looking for their breakfast. We could have shot any one of them, with one looking as big as ours, right in camp!
We didn’t discuss it, but I was feeling worried as to what would await us back at the bear site. Soon, we had the packboard, rope and some lunch ready and we were off. Wayne felt he should carry his .30-30 Winchester, “just in case.” We set out up the river, with the three bears noted earlier nowhere to be seen. We tried to make quite a bit of noise and took our path out in the open as much as possible. Things had done a 180-degree turn from yesterday. I really hoped that our furry friends would stay away today.
A couple of ravens flew up as we approached the bear, but no eagles were in evidence. A quick examination showed the hide to be perfect, so we got down to work. Only now was the size of this bear really impacting on me. Just lifting his paws, and looking around at the havoc he had wrought, made me even more respectful of his massive power.
I had skinned out many moose while I was guiding, and also cows on the ranch, but trying to turn over and move 1,000 pounds of grizzly is tough. We pushed, pulled, shoved and did just about everything we could think of to turn him over. Boy, what a job. I had cut the skull off at the neck joint, and the paws at the wrist bones, thinking that I would do the rest in Anahim Lake the next day. We rolled up the skin, with the feet, paws and head inside, and proceeded to rope it onto the packboard. Then I tried to lift it and get it on my back. That didn’t work. Wayne and I carried the packboard over to a large cedar, lifted it up to shoulder height, and with Wayne’s help, I swung it on. Hell, it just about swung me down with it. I tightened the waist belt, and with Jason carrying my .270, we started back.
Things went well, until we came to the first downed tree. As I tried to get over, the pack and bear skin pulled me backward. It was no use, I couldn’t hike out with this massive weight. I decided the only way was to skin the head and paws out, and generally flesh-out the hide. Two hours later, we were ready to continue. We had lost at least 50 pounds from the load, and when re-packed, I felt that I could just manage it. Boy, what a journey back to camp. I was glad we were only three miles in.
After a quick lunch, we broke camp and loaded the plane. This is when our next excitement began. The tide in the inlet was down; consequently, the river level at the mouth had fallen. It was too shallow for take-off with all the weight, so we unloaded the plane. I waded out into the river, holding the plane straight up stream as I stumbled around in the ice water. With the plane as light as possible and the motor warm, Wayne gave it full throttle. My heart was in my mouth as Wayne, in his expert manner, bounced the plane up the river, until first one and then the other float lifted and he disappeared round the bend. Moments later, we were pleased to see the plane lift up above the trees, as it wheeled round grabbing for height to get over the trees. It was then I realized my legs were damned cold, I was still standing out in the cold, rushing water.
Wayne landed out in the channel, then taxied in to the sandbar that we had started this hunt from. Packing our equipment on the plane went well, as I thought of warm baths and scotch whiskey that was waiting at Anahim Lake. A half-hour later, we were skimming over the lake infested timber. We landed at Nimpo Lake. We were soon at Darcy Christensen’s village store, where we related the story for the first of many times.
Darcy, our host, had a country butcher’s shop out back, and a 500-pound scale with a meat hook hung high. Two of us hoisted up my grizzly and watched as the needle pointed to 148 pounds. Next, we weighed the undressed skull; it was 45 pounds, so we assumed that with the paws, etc., the hide had weighed over 200 pounds. No wonder it was so impossible to pack any distance over that rough going.
We got to work, spreading out the bear and then working coarse salt into the hide. We spent lots of time on the ears, releasing the cartilage right up to the tips and getting the salt in. From the measurements that we took, we worked out that the bear stood over 10-feet, 6-inches high and could have reached over 13 feet. The rug has a 9-foot, 6-inch spread, with claws longer than my fingers.
This was far more of a grizzly than I had ever dreamed of getting. As we retired that night, we went over bear stories such as the Anahim Lake rancher and neighbor, Cony King, who had been attacked by a grizzly sow and now sports a blank eye socket and massive scars from this near fatal encounter.
It was April 1983 when I got an excited phone call from Helmut Schold, a young German émigré taxidermist who had impressed me with his skill and artistic ability. He had been so shocked by the finished size of the skull that he had taken it to Helmut Cofmeister, a Government Wildlife Technician. They had green-scored the skull length at 17 inches with a skull width of 10-5/16 inches, giving a total score of 27-5/16, which put it over the existing world’s record. On June 21, 1983, Jack Graham and Jim Laughton, both Boone and Crockett Official Measurers, met with grizzly and me for an official measuring. Ultimately, my bear received an official B&C score of 27-2/16 inches by B&C’s 19th Big Game Awards Judges Panel.
Jason and I have reflected on this hunt on several occasions, still only half believing that his first major hunt could end this way. For us, it simply remains “our grizzly hunt.”
Witness the hard-core determination of North America’s most successful hunters. They combined physical conditioning with research, fair-chase ethics, and shooting prowess to seek out and harvest legendary trophy animals.
Thirty hunters. Thirty record-book trophy big game animals, most of them taken without guides on public lands. Thirty epic tales to share back at hunting camp. These are the real-world stories behind some of the top-scoring trophies ever recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club.