Surrounded by big brown bears in a salmon-choked river in Alaska,
a hunter wonders if he’s pushed his luck too far.
Have you ever wanted to be invisible? Ever wanted to just melt into your surroundings completely because you’re afraid even your breathing or the beating of your heart will give you away? That’s how I felt as I sat precariously on a tree branch with my feet in the water as a massive Alaskan brown bear swam by just a few yards away.
I was hunting brown bear out of Yakutat, Alaska, with Gary Gray of Alsek River Lodge, and was guided on this hunt by Gary’s son, Wayne. When I lined up this hunt, my boss at
the time told me to be prepared for “ten days of boredom and thirty seconds of excitement.” As it turned out, that statement could not have been further from the truth.
The first morning we left the lodge, which was located on the banks of the Alsek River, rode ATVs a short distance, and parked. This region of Alaska is covered with incredibly thick triple-canopy rain forest, so you either walk in the river or through the tunnels made by the bears you’re hunting. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards through a bear tunnel when we reached another, smaller river. As we cleared the cover of the trees there, 100 yards away, I spotted my first Alaskan brown bear fishing along the far shore. Wayne said he was about a 7½-footer, so we left him and began wading upriver.
Walking in the water was awkward because of the slick, round rocks on the riverbottom. Crimson-colored salmon swam all around us, and every few yards, we passed fish carcasses strewn about on the narrow shore leading into the dark bear tunnels. There was fish-scale-filled bear scat everywhere, and I was hoping I wouldn’t end up in some of this myself!
We made our way around a bend in the river and sat down on a small grassy spot on the shore. Our first visitors were two eight-foot brown bears. It was obvious they were
twins as they were bothnearly black with white ears. They waded past us about thirty yards away and went around the bend. A smaller bear appeared and began fishing in front of us, and was soon joined by a couple more. We were glassing a nice-size blond bear up the river in the distance when all hell broke loose behind us. I could hear brush breaking and bears roaring, and the commotion was coming our way!
I swung my .375 H&H in the direction of the noise as one of the white-eared twins broke out of the brush a mere five yards behind me and to my right, followed by another bear that was obviously not happy with his company. Right past us and out into the river they went.
I had barely caught my breath when I turned back toward the river and saw that one of the bears in front of us had caught a fish and was preparing to step up on the very spot we were on to enjoy his meal.
“What about that one?” I urgently asked Wayne.
He turned to the bear and in a loud whisper said, “Hah!” The bear turned tail like a whipped dog and retreated around the bend and out of sight.
I asked Wayne what I should do if a big one came that close.
“Shoot him,” he suggested.
It was getting dark, so we began to walk back. That is when I realized that all the bears we had seen that evening were now between us and the four-wheelers, and we also had to walk past all those bear tunnels we’d seen on the way in. We rounded a bend, and standing in the water with us were five brown bears!
Wayne said, “Just spread apart so they can see we’re humans.”
The bears studied us for a tense moment, then all retreated
into their tunnels.
“These bears aren’t mean-hearted,” Wayne said. “Moose, now, they are mean-hearted.” Mean-hearted or not, I had a death grip on my Ruger No.1, and my thumb was keeping the safety close company as we passed all those tunnels. Sometimes I could hear the bears in them, but mostly I couldn’t see or hear anything, which only helped me imagine a bear sitting silently in each one, planning my demise.
We made it back to the ATVs with no problems and began our ride back to the lodge. On the ride I was thinking: Seven brown bears, most within thirty yards, two almost ran over me, and this is only the first night! So much for boredom.
Alsek River Lodge consists of a large main lodge complete with hot water, generated electricity and even satellite TV. Guests sleep in one of the small, heated cabins flanking the main lodge. Each day started with breakfast in the main lodge, then we’d
ride the short distance to the smaller river. Then, just as on the first night, we would wade up or down the river and set up for the day’s hunt. Even with constant rain, each day brought numerous bear sightings.
We began to realize that the farther upriver we went, the bigger the bears were. The big bears get the best fishing holes, and the small river ended at a deep hole where the water came up out of the ground. Because of this natural dead-end, the fish swimming upriver to spawn congregated in this pool and had nowhere to go. It was the ideal fishing hole.
On the fifth day, we set up some distance from this hole to watch the activity. We observed several large bears, including the beautiful blond bear we had seen the first night.
We made a plan that if the wind was right, we would move in close to the dead-end hole for the next day’s hunt. We sat until almost dark then began to head back. We hadn’t gone far when a large sow with three small cubs crossed the river about a hundred yards downriver from us. We let them all get across and into the cover of the trees before continuing on our way. With rifles ready, we cautiously made our way past the spot where they had entered the timber. We could hear the big sow popping her teeth and woofing at us from her hiding spot along the far shore. We made it past with no problems, other than some very sweaty palms and wide eyes.
The next day we made our way back toward the dead-end hole. Most of the water in the river was knee-deep and occasionally waist-deep, but as we got within a few hundred yards of the hole, the water level neared the top of our waders. We had to continue the
rest of the way through the aggravating tangle of the forest. We climbed and crawled, fell and cursed, on our way to the hole. When we reached the hole, we discovered it had no shore, as the trees grew right down into the water. With no other choice, we positioned ourselves on the low branches of a tree with our feet in the water Wayne sat behind me, watching over my shoulder.
The hole was only thirty yards wide, and the overhanging trees made it seem even smaller. We hadn’t sat even fifteen minutes when a blond head the size of a garbage-can lid protruded out of the bush. It was the big blond bear. He stepped off a shallow shelf into the water and disappeared into the deep hole except for his head. He began swimming toward us, looking for fish.
As he neared our position, the wind swirled, and with an explosion of water he was gone along with any chance of a shot. Wayne whispered that we should get out of there and not spoil the spot because of the swirling wind.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when another huge head popped out of the bush in the exact same spot. This bear was even bigger, and almost black. He stepped up on a rock and looked down into the water, offering a perfect broadside shot. That is when we noticed he was badly rubbed on his rear end, so I passed on the shot. He dropped into the water and began swimming toward us. Again the swirling winds betrayed us, and he was gone.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Wayne said, but before we could move, out came a third bear.
He was a beautiful, chocolatebrown boar with nearly black legs and looked to be in the nine-foot class. He dropped into the hole and began swimming toward us, passing within a few yards of my feet. That is when I began wishing so strongly to be invisible.
Like a bad rerun, this bear, too, caught our wind and started to make a rapid exit. But then a large salmon broke the surface and distracted him. He stepped up on the shallow shelf, peering down into the water, offering a perfect broadside shot at 20 yards.
Wayne whispered, “Take him if you like him.”
At the bark of the .375, the big bear let out a deafening roar and turned to bite at the wound. As he did, he rolled off the shelf, into the deep water, and disappeared. Wayne readied for backup as I quickly reloaded, anticipating an explosion of water and an angry bear coming back up out of the water.
It never came. Wayne broke his usual calm silence and exclaimed, “That was *^%@$ cool!”
The only sign of the bear was a small patch of hair just breaking the surface of the water. As we waded out to the bear, the water quickly breached the top of our waders and the cold water poured in. We floated the big bear toward a small, grassy spot on the shore. With me pushing and Wayne pulling, we finally rolled the big bruin onto shore. He was a big, beautiful boar with perfect hair—a magnificent trophy.
We took pictures and skinned the bear as quickly as possible, as light was leaving us. I had to help Wayne shoulder the extremely heavy pack. I carried both rifles and tried to clear a trail through the gauntlet that was the tangle of the forest. We finally made
it to where we could walk in the river. I parted the branches to allow Wayne to step into the river, but he quickly turned toward me, wide-eyed, and exclaimed, “Bear! Bear! Right here! Right here!”
As I had both rifles, I quickly stepped out into the river to see a huge head seemingly floating toward us. We both yelled at the bear, and it headed into the trees. I worried for Wayne as he tried to maintain his balance on the round, slick river rocks with nearly 200 pounds of wet bear head and hide on his back.
We had made it most of the way back to the ATVs when we rounded a bend in the river and in the darkness made out the shapes of five brown bears in the river with us. Just then, Wayne lost his footing and went down into the water. I was simultaneously trying to get the pack off him, keep an eye on the bears, and hang on to both rifles. I was hoping they wouldn’t think Wayne was a big, delicious salmon splashing about.
I got the pack off Wayne and he sprang to his feet. Luckily, none of the bears moved—I think they were as surprised as we were, or maybe just amused. All but one bounded into the bushes.
One stood his ground as if to size us up, so we gave a yell and he joined his fishing companions in the cover of the brush. I offered to take the pack the rest of the way.
“Are you sure?” Wayne asked, surprised. I insisted, but didn’t tell him that when I had pulled the pack off him, I noticed it floated! He laughed as I floated it down the river beside me. We finally made it back to the bear tunnel that led to where the ATVs were parked, and dragged the pack up onto the shore.
“Stay here,” said Wayne. “I think I can get the four-wheeler down here.” Wayne made his way into the tunnel, then quickly returned to get his rifle. “I better take this,” he said ruefully.
I took a seat on the pack. Minutes later, in the darkness, I could see something in the tunnel. I wondered what Wayne had forgotten this time.
Out of the pitch-black of the tunnel stepped a brown bear! I quickly stood and backed into the river, where the bear could see me better and make out my human form.
I said, “Ha, bear!” but the bruin came right into the river with me. I flipped off the safety as he circled me downstream.
Just then Wayne started the fourwheeler and the lights came on. My unwelcome tormentor bolted for the opposite shore. When Wayne pulled up, I excitedly told him what had happened.
Grinning, he replied, “Why do you think I came back for my rifle?”
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