Apr 27 2023

Blind Date Bruin

With a nickname like “Grizz Magnet,” you’d think it would be hard to find a hunting partner, but I guess a sucker really is born every minute. Let me introduce Chuck, who I later learned is also considered a “Grizz Magnet” by his friends. When you put two Grizz Magnets together, they do attract—bears, that is!

A good hunting partner sure is hard to find and let’s say my on-call list for suitable hunting partners is pretty short, so when I was offered a chance to hunt with a complete stranger I was a bit skeptical. You see, we were not meeting up for a day hunt but were going for a 10+ day dall sheep hunt in Alaska’s Brooks Range. Chuck and I are both Alaska residents, however we live approximately 450 miles apart. Chuck is a bit older than me and is a successful sheep hunter. On the other hand, I have not been successful but have put in hundreds of miles looking for my elusive white sheep. When I first spoke with Chuck on the phone, I introduced myself as “The Sheepless Alaskan” trying to make light of my Michigan upbringing (describing myself as the “Buckless Yooper,” Reuben Soady, as played by Jeff Daniels in Escanaba In Da Moonlight). Chuck must have had a lapse in good judgment because he told me he was looking forward to our hunting trip together. 

As luck would have it, I threw a small monkey wrench into our plans when I was fishing in Valdez, AK on August 1st with the family. We had two poles set just off the seafloor targeting Halibut and my daughter, Teagan (my usual bear hunting partner), was mooching for salmon. Teagan hooked the last fish of the trip, a bright Coho “silver” salmon which immediately tried to tangle itself in the halibut rigs. Teagan was doing a great job fighting the salmon and I moved quickly with the landing net to secure her catch. I overextended a bit when I stretched out to net the fish and my feet slipped out from underneath me. I had the fish and my body came crashing down on the stainless steel railing around the fishing deck. It was a hard hit and the air was knocked right out of me, but the important thing was I landed the fish! My left rib cage sure did sting a little for the rest of the day.

After the fish were fileted and frozen, we drove the 360+ miles back to Fairbanks to return to work the following day. The rib cage was still tender, but I was determined not to let it get in the way of my fitness training for mountain hunting. The pain was pretty substantial so I actually took a day off, but that was not the case the following day. It hurt, but I was going to take it easy and see what exercises I could bare and after a few moderate sets I was feeling optimistic. On my third set of pull ups, I heard a loud, audible crack and had to release my grip from the bar. Gasping for breath and holding my ribcage I thought to myself, “You dummy, now you did it.” The intelligent one in the family, my wife, convinced me to take the time and go address the problem with a doctor. A few zaps of radiation later and I was staring at an image of a very visibly fractured rib. My doctor was calm and to the point. She told me I could go sheep hunting, it would hurt like hell, and if I fell just right I could puncture a lung. But other than that she didn’t rain on my hunting parade all that bad. What did I do next? I went home, threw my fully loaded Barney’s pack frame on, and went for a hike of course. Let me rewind. I barely got the pack on and cinching the waist belt tight was less than comfortable, so after a brief hike I tucked tail and aborted that mission. Getting the pack off was more painful than putting it on. 

What a lousy blind date I was turning out to be. Now I had to call Chuck and discuss my injury, which felt like a whole lot of whining. His schedule was flexible and we decided to forego the coveted opening day and attempt to fly out on the 15th, which would give me another 10 days of healing. I picked Chuck up at the airport on the 14th and I liked the guy from the start. The plan was to fly Chuck out first while I drove several hundred miles north with a truck load of airplane gas where I’d get picked up later. Everything went as planned and soon I was dropping into the valley where Chuck and I would be sheep hunting. While approaching the patch of tundra landing strip, my pilot buddy tells me he saw a big grizzly down there just before dropping Chuck off. Chuck had our basecamp set up and as I hiked my gear his way, he exclaimed that he just had a grizzly bear in camp about 20 yards away from the tent. “But it was a small one,” he tells me as if to offer some comfort. Two bears near or in camp, and I’ve been on the ground less than 5 minutes; the Grizz Magnets are working. 

As on any first day chasing your quarry, Chuck and I were excited to start climbing into sheep country early in the morning. We had a beautiful day and took four days' provisions for spiking out while looking for mature rams. The close of day one did not produce any legal rams in the spotting scope, but we mentally noted a band of three rams about 3.5 miles away in another drainage. Camp was set, calories were replaced, and the rib was doing surprisingly well. Chuck went off to “flip a rock”, as Steven Rinella would say with regards to digging a hole for latrine purposes. “Kurt, bear!” is what I heard next from over the hill. I grabbed my rifle and headed his way, expecting to see a bear in close proximity to Chuck’s location. We were both exhausted and fortunately the big grizzly was about a half mile below us, feeding down the riverbed. It was a really nice, mature grizzly and we both stated that if we weren’t sheep hunting it would be a bear worth going after. Knowing the bear was feeding well away from us made it a little easier to fall asleep. The rain started around midnight, which was the beginning of six very wet and cold days in sheep country.

Chuck and I hiked into another drainage and managed to glass a few sub-legal rams that showed themselves when the clouds broke. “Bear in the river bottom,” Chuck told me when the movement of another grizzly caught his eye. The grizz put on quite a show making a scent post on scrub willows on a gravel bar. The clouds cleared just enough and I spotted a ram bedded high on a dark peak that had significantly more mass than the rams we had been seeing. There was just too much precipitation in the air at a distance of at least two miles to get “shooter ram” verification, even with the best glass. Chuck and I looked over the maps and GPS and made a plan to get a better look at that ram. We hiked down off the pass and into the river valley hoping to cut the bear’s tracks to judge its size a bit better. We decided the bear to be about six ft square, investigated its scent post, and pitched camp on a bluff just above a big pile of red, soapberry-filled bear scat. 

The weather was rough, but we were able climb a steep, slippery mountain in hopes of finding the ram we saw the day before. We didn’t see the ram and ran into a sheer cliff dead end in the pouring rain—just sheep hunting at its finest. We tried several other approaches to the mountain where the ram was last seen, but neither the weather nor the ram cooperated. 

With our food exhausted, we began our five and a half mile hike back to basecamp to formulate plan B, C, or D. The riverbed was mostly loose, grapefruit-sized rocks that made for unsure footing, so Chuck and I cut up into the willows for easier walking. I stopped Chuck because something caught my eye. I told Chuck I thought I saw the silhouette of a standing bear but was 90% sure I didn’t. Just then a grizzly stood up about 150 yards away, looking upstream at us. The wind was in our favor, but the bear definitely heard us talking as we were hiking. The bear’s ears pronounced high on top of its head told us we were looking at a younger bear, and just like that he was gone. We didn’t spook him that bad and played cat and mouse with him most of the way back to camp. 

The willow bars were packed with the thickest crop of soapberries I’d ever seen, and the bears sure seemed to be capitalizing on this food source. There was also a bumper blueberry crop not far off the river up in the tundra that Chuck and I enjoyed daily, but the bears had little to no interest in those. At that time, the grizzlies were all content gorging on the soapberries. Every trip through that section of willows produced a grizzly run-in and we saw numerous tracks of various sized bears along the way.

Chuck located a ram near base camp that we were 99.99% sure was legal but wanted to be 100% sure, of course. I was going to take the spotting scope (and rifle) up the next day to try and cypher out whether our local ram was a shooter, but the fog rolled in thick that night and was on the deck most of the following day. 

Our hunting days were winding down and we decided to make the long push to the valley where we saw three rams on our first day. We loaded up food and headed back through the grizzly maze to another spike camp. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Chuck and I began to discuss other options if we were not presented with a nice dall ram. We’d seen a few bull caribou in velvet and had no shortage of grizzly bears. Chuck mentioned wanting a life-size mount of a big Brooks Range grizzly if he got the chance, so we put that on the back burner for the time being. 

Chuck and I pushed hard for the next three days trying to dig out a ram in marginal weather conditions, but were unsuccessful. On day seven, we were greeted by the typical heavy fog accompanied by sleet and snow. I rolled over in my down sleeping bag, thankful to be warm and dry for the moment but was anticipating a cup of coffee when I heard Chuck fire up the Jet Boil. I was still under the tent fly slipping on soggy boots and rain gear when I heard Chuck’s deep voice say, “Kurt, bear!” I asked how close the bear was and Chuck replied 100-150 yards. Okay, that got me out of the tent. The grizzly was soaking wet and looked jet-black as it eerily emerged from the fog, walking towards our camp. Chuck had his rifle to his shoulder and was trying to get a clear view of the bear through a wet scope lense. The bear looked substantially bigger than the bears we had recently been seeing and when it stood up, its ears were very small compared to its head and were way down on the sides—this was a nice, mature bear. Chuck was unable to get a clear shot and we watched the bear disappear into the fog. After a quick cuppa joe, the fog lifted a bit and we walked to higher ground in hopes of seeing our grizz again. It didn’t take long, and we spotted him feeding on soapberries within a mile of camp. The good news was that he was feeding downstream, towards basecamp. He was so content eating the berries that he completely ignored a small group of cow and calf caribou that passed within 40 yards of him. 

There’s nothing like breaking down a completely soaked camp, but we did in hopes of catching up to our bruin down the trail. Chuck and I sat on a blueberry knoll patiently glassing the valley below us for our “camp bear.” After two hours, I had given up hope and thought for sure the grizz had gone up another drainage, but I was wrong. I was somewhat shocked when I found myself staring at him 800 yards out, devouring soapberries. Plans went into motion and the stalk was going to be complicated. To keep the bear in sight meant staying high where we had zero cover other than the rolling tundra behind us. To close the distance, we descended a few times to the river in hopes of catching him in a clearing within 200 yards. Each time that failed, we climbed back up, caught up to the feeding bear, and tried again. Over the next several hours we all moved along, but the bear just never presented a good, high percentage shot. I looked downstream and saw where the ridge we were walking converged closer to the soapberry belt, creating a pinch point, and probably our best shot at this bear. The ridge was steep and a sheer cliff below us led right into the rocky river. Were we back in sheep country? 

Chuck got set into shooting position and we just waited for the bear to keep progressing through the berries. Something changed. The bear suddenly took a 90 degree turn (I guess because he was getting full) and began walking away from us. He kept walking away and we were just about to write him off when he stopped in a clearing and just began to mill about. It was a touch farther than Chuck wanted to shoot, but the wind was calm and his rest was solid. Chuck dialed the yardage into his scope, and I provided overwatch to call his shot and watch the bear if needed. Remember, this is a blind date hunt; I had never seen Chuck harvest an animal. However, from living in very close proximity with him for over a week, I was quite confident in his decision making. Chuck didn’t even look back at me and said he could do it. My binoculars were locked on the bear, and I watched as he slowly presented himself broadside, facing to our right. I caught myself whispering for him to move forward a little as his right leg eased forward. Perfect. The report of Chuck’s rifle hit me at the precise moment I would have taken the shot myself. The bullseye was hit and the bear aggressively spun around looking for what bit him. He was going down, but Chuck followed up with another well-placed shot, which sealed the deal. It had been over 10 hours and over three miles since we woke up to that bear near our camp. 

Chuck was very pleased to walk up to a mountain grizzly with no ground shrinkage. This guy was a bruiser and had plenty of scars, both old and fresh, to prove how tough he was. We literally couldn’t drag the bear, so we rolled him to a suitable place for photos and skinning. Chuck and I didn’t talk much about photos, but I knew I was in good company when I saw him respectfully cleaning up the bear with moss and water.  We took some photos, then skinned the bear while discussing our “sheep hunt.” We had been blessed with a few dry hours but then as we packed the camp, hide, skull, and some backstraps onto our backs, the fog piled in and it got dark. We only had 2.2 miles back to base camp in the fog, at midnight, through nothing but bear infested soapberry thickets; what could go wrong? We saw four more grizzly bears from base camp before being picked up by the Supercub the following day. The Grizz Magnets were still working! I highly recommend backcountry hunting for broken rib therapy and trying out blind date hunting. What an amazing experience.