Jul 29 2021

Jawless in Kenai

A solo mountain bear hunt turns up an unusual bruin.

As a lifelong Alaskan, avid hunter, and angler, I have spent a great deal of time in the mountains with friends and family enjoying everything the alpine has to offer. For several years I’ve wanted to try a solo overnight hunt for black bear, mostly just to see if I could do it. The idea of going alone after a bear appealed to me because all the challenges and decisions would be my own; everything from the choice in location, to the stalk, and pack out.

            This Fall, all of my usual hunting partners were hooked up with work schedules, and couldn’t join me on my quest to put a little more meat in the freezer, so it was a great opportunity to try that solo hunt.

            So, on a sunny Saturday morning this fall, I headed out for a valley in the Kenai Mountains a couple hours drive from home that I know well. After making it up the valley a few miles, I came to a glassing point I’ve sat on many times and scoured the hillsides for bears as they fed on the berries above the tree line. I didn’t spot anything on my end of the valley, so I turned my attention to the hilltops in the direction I came in.

            Two miles away, there he was, plain as day. It was obvious he was a big bear, even from that distance. I had somehow passed him up on my way in; he was probably obscured by the folds in the hillside which can make a mountain look deceivingly smooth all the way up to its peak.

I took a realistic estimate of the amount of daylight I had left, packed up, and headed down the valley after him.

            When I arrived at the spot I figured I would begin my ascent, I located him again. He hadn’t moved more than fifty yards from where I first spotted him. Not wasting any time, I emptied my pack of everything except water, and other light essentials, grabbed my rifle and made my way up through the patches of alders, trying to pick routes around them when possible.

            I made good time, and after about an hour, I broke through the solid tree line, and was now in the alpine. Locating the bear once again, he was still too far for a shot, so I worked my way closer using the small shrubs as cover. The wind was perfect, and he was still feeding along with his head down, eating berries and pulling up stubby shoots of bright red fireweed as he passed them.

            Because of the topography, a dished-out saddle shaped like a funnel, he was getting closer to me as he traversed the hillside feeding. I got a little closer, took a steady rest, and waited for him to stop broadside. I took the shot at 350 yards, a distance I’m very comfortable with, and he went down.

He stayed put on the steep hillside just long enough for me to grab my pack, then began to tumble down into the alders below. I watched as the green alder tops shook as he clipped them in his fall. They were like little flags marking his way until he stopped.

            After giving him some time, I began looking for blood and trying to locate him, searching as long as I safely could. I was losing light by this time, and the foliage in the autumn alpine is speckled with red, making it difficult. I reluctantly headed back down to my camp for the night as the shadow of the mountain to the west was creeping closer to me as the sun sunk behind it.

            First thing in the morning, I went back up to where the last movements in the alders were, and found him right away.

            The night before had been clear and cold, so there was no worry about the meat going bad.

I was elated, and excited as I crouched down beside him. He was by far the largest bear I have taken.

            Admiring him, I put my back into turning him over, and was startled by what I saw.

His lower jaw was gone. Everything from just below his tongue forward was missing and healed over.

It was obvious he had this handicap for quite some time and had adjusted to it well enough to thrive. Obviously, he had been eating well, evident by the four inches of fat under his hide.

            As I got to work skinning and quartering, the scenarios of what could have transpired to cause the injuries, ran through my head. There are several possibilities, but the biologist who sealed him the following day would offer what he felt was the most likely, saying that it is highly probable that he was in a fight with another boar, which can be quite violent episodes, and his lower jaw was grabbed, broken and twisted clean off.

            After the injury, he wouldn’t have been a very successful predator, so moose calves would have been off the menu since he couldn’t have grasped anything in jaws he no longer had.  Berries, grasses, roots, and insects likely made up his entire diet.

            He estimated that bear was at least six to seven years old but took a tooth from his skull to determine a more accurate age. I should get the results withing a year.

            The solo mountain hunt I had been wanting to pursue for so long had ended in success with a very unique bear, eighty pounds of amazing meat and added to the already astounding amount of respect I have for these animals. They are truly incredible, and tenacious survivors.