Standing up on hind legs, he zeroed in and came for us. Likely a stray breath of wind had telegraphed our intentions. We had paused for a few seconds when the deepest, meanest snort I have ever heard came from the willows. From 12 paces away, on all fours and moving at us in a powerful charge was the bear. There was no mistake in his manner; we each knew without thinking that this was no bluff. We raised our rifles simultaneously and…..
……but, wait……I am getting way ahead of myself. That was the adrenaline rush part. Let me start at the beginning. You need the background on this.
As an Alaska hunting guide I have learned that you can always count on one thing: don’t count on anything going according to plan…..like carefully planned shots at dangerous game from ambush. In reality, each hunt is different than the next and each species is always ready to throw in a surprise or two. That was sure the case with this particular Alaska Peninsula spring brown bear hunt.
Ralph Miller, one of our head guides, met our bear hunter, Jens Perto and his photographer, Otto, in Anchorage after their long flight from Denmark across the Atlantic and the USA. Jens and Otto then flew to the northern Alaska Peninsula where I first met them.
I find that it’s almost always a pleasure greeting hunters preparing for the hunt of a lifetime because their excitement is contagious. That was the case this time, too. After a brief first meeting with Jens and Otto, our pilot and I headed off in search of fresh bear sign. We spotted a number of likely spots and touched down a time or two for a closer look. Within a short time we found active dens and actually spotted two boars within a mile of each other. Things were looking good…..like our plan might actually work.
We touched down nearby and I off loaded our spike camp gear and an Arctic Oven, a double-walled extreme duty tent. These tents are made here in Alaska, and stand up to sub-arctic conditions. They can mean the difference between misery and comfort.
After dropping me off in the mountains, our pilot ferried in Jens and Otto to the ad hoc landing strip near our camp. Also along for this hunt was Deltana’s other head guide, Jim Wiedner. Jim is a long-time Alaskan with decades of hunting and outdoor experience.
The area that we were hunting is beautiful with its high alpine plateaus and frozen lakes. On clear days, we could see at least 20 miles in any direction with range on range of craggy peaks fading into the distance. Alder and willow were the primary vegetation here.
After setting up camp and sorting out gear for the morning hunt, a short hike was in order. We wanted to stretch our legs and get a feel for the lay of the land. Actual hunting was not an option because of Alaska’s “same day airborne” hunting prohibition.
Our reconnaissance hike immediately turned up fresh brownie tracks. Every one of us was excited at the possibilities that tomorrow might bring.
Spring sunsets are a grand event here. The light golden haze transforms into a deep purple curtain, allowing the stars to gradually appear. In May, the sun sets around 10:00 pm and it’s fully dark about midnight. The weather on the day we dropped into this camp was a rare beauty with high temperatures of about 60 degrees and crystal clear skies. Perfect!
Camp consisted of the Arctic Oven and two Eureka tents. Jens and Otto were pleasantly surprised with cots and inflatable mattresses. But it’s more than just comfortable bedding…..Deltana prides itself in quality camps – a good plan in this country where inferior gear can get a person killed or make for a miserable experience.
As we sat around talking that evening, it turned out that Jens is the editor of Denmark’s only hunting magazine, “Jaeger.” He has hunted in 33 countries, for more species of game then I have even heard of. It doesn’t take long to understand that Jens is a thoroughly competent outdoorsman. He has even written a book (in Danish), På jagt i udlande, which I think roughly translates to “On the Hunt in Foreign Lands.”
This is Jens (right) and I with his Alaska Peninsula brownie. Things look pretty calm, don’t they? They didn’t start that way.
In Denmark, it is customary to toast the beginning of a hunt with a shot of Scotch whiskey. “May you fall and break your neck/leg!” is roughly how their toast translates, similar to the theatrical toast. One never says “good hunting” – it’s horribly bad luck, apparently. We toasted their way.
As a hunting guide I have heard many clients talk about their “vast” expertise, but it became obvious that Jens and Otto are not greenhorns in any way when it comes to hunting. They understand what real sport hunting is about. Jens’ prior adventures with African big game, including elephant, Cape buffalo and many plains game species were exciting. His perspective on Cape buffalo, “shooting a cow,” as he put it, was a bit discouraging for me — so much for my dream hunt. Jens has been on two hunts for lion, but did not connect. I quietly hoped that an Alaska brown bear would soon make up for that.
I have seen many a horned game hunter get buck fever when the tables turn and he becomes the game. For some, just seeing a big brown is almost too much and simple shots are blown. As a guide, it’s my job to ease the uninitiated through this hurdle and make the extreme excitement manageable until after the shot. I’ve never been to Africa, but I seriously doubt there is any more soul-stirring and just downright dangerous game then an Alaska brown bear that has decided the hunter is a problem. We were about to get even further educated, as you will see. Fortunately, Jens was cool and effective under pressure.
As a new day dawned in the high country of the peninsula, our band headed around the backside of a ridge that gave us an overlook of a fresh kill and den site. The weather was again uncommonly beautiful. The grandeur of this wilderness filled us all with quiet awe.
As the day warmed with still no activity it became clear that this bear had already left for the low country. In spring bear hunting, timing is everything. Bears on kills stay longer, but it seems like just a few days up here and then they are heading to lower elevations. The next two days passed with us in the “sit and look” mode. We saw juvenile bears are passing through, and a sow with cubs playing together as they fed on vegetation across the valley. Far off, we could see a very big boar chasing down and thrashing a smaller bear. But, it became obvious this wasn’t working. I knew our best bet for success would be a new location with more options.
Ralph Miller must have been reading our minds. He dropped in that day with the pilot, and he had a likely spot in mind. Just as evening was beginning to fall, the pilot dropped Jens and I onto a long shelf high on the side of a valley. We had just enough time to set up camp…..in the process of which I detected movement from the corner of my eye. A large boar was moving along the talus slope above us. He was heading right for our camp. I quietly signaled Jens to the bear’s presence and we hunkered down with optics to watch him approach. He was above us just meandering along the low edge of an overhanging cornice of snow. Jens was now thoroughly excited. This is what he came from Denmark to experience.
The spectacular vision of this immense animal was more then enough to charge our systems with adrenalin as we watched him approach. As he reached what seemed an impossible climb, he stretched himself up and began to climb up the snow cornice. We were in awe. He left a sidewalk-size path behind him in the soft snow. He reached the crest of the ridge and moved out of view on the other side.
No….that wasn’t the bear that caused the adrenaline rush. Be patient. I’m getting there.
What I believe was the same bear moved for the next two days along the highest ridge in the range of mountains to our north, grazing along just like a caribou. He was moving first one direction and then another, starting down the ridge and then back up. Finally, he headed downhill for good. That was the last we saw of our “welcoming bear”.
After a late meal, Jens and I turned in with an excited, expectant sense of success. From our first night in hunting camp I had explained to Jens that the only time I would shoot at his bear would be if we were in imminent danger or if the wounded animal was escaping into heavy cover. No one wants to track a bear into a willow thicket. Jens made it clear that he agreed, showing again the mettle of this outstanding sportsman.
The next morning found us out early and heading toward a den site. The late spring day was still cool, but rose to an unusually high temperature later. From a lofty perch we scanned the terrain, finding the den and a trail in close proximity. We heard the plane coming into our little landing strip and knew that Otto and Jim would be waiting there with dinner when we returned.
Jens and I finally found the bear himself below his den. He was working a kill. That was good news. I figured he would stay on the kill until picked clean.
We could see movement on the kill, but couldn’t get a decent idea of the brownie’s size or age. We started a stalk, heading far downwind and along a gully. The going was not fun in rotten snow.
The willows were above head high at the ridge top, with open stretches between the fingers of vegetation. I led us down the hill, after making sure our rifles are ready. We just wanted a look at the bear at this point, but if he was a good boar we are ready for whatever.
Jens was carrying a Schultz & Larsen in .358 Norma, an excellent hunting rifle with ballistics comparable to .338 Win Mag. His cartridges were loaded with 250 gr. Swift A-frames. My guide gun is a .416 Taylor on an Interarms mark X Mauser action with a ghost ring aperture sight. I was shooting 400 gr. Barnes X bullets at 2350 fps. Strong medicine, both.
We moved in slowly, looking for movement at where the kill site should be. The wind was in our face, but light. With each step we sank to our knees, even trying to walk on willow branches to spread our weight. The ridgeline behind was increasingly hidden by brush.
Before we could find a decent vantage point, his nose found us. The wind was swirling. He bolted from his kill leaving us no possible shot, due to the thick brush. He galloped away across the sloping terrace — a much better looking animal then we had anticipated. He had a very large head, but dwarfed by the massive body, with no rubbed areas. He was obviously a trophy animal – just what Jens came for.
OK….this bad boy was the adrenaline maker. We’re getting close now. Stick with me.
We had spooked him, but I knew that he would be back to his caribou kill. We checked out an ambush spot from the ridge. It was a bit of a long shot for brown bear, but Jens felt comfortable and he would have a chance at multiple shots should this bear return.
When we arrived back at spike camp we found that Jim and Otto had been busy all day preparing a luxurious camp. The Arctic Oven was set up for cooking and warming up. Another Eureka tent was pitched and most importantly, hot chow was ready.
Over dinner, we shared our exploits with Jim and Otto, explaining our ambush plans for the next day. It is always a mistake to hike and glass, leaving scent wherever you go. I like to pick a good spot and let my optics cover the miles.
After Jim’s great breakfast the next morning, all four of us headed to the observation ridge for a view of the kill site. The Alaska Peninsula weather was just incredible, another crystal clear sky, very little wind and temperatures in the 60’s. This is definitely not the norm here.
After a long day with no bears in sight, we were starting to get discouraged. After making my 15th trip around the hill, glassing in all directions, our patience was finally rewarded. The big guy was headed straight for his kill from out of the south. Jim and I pulled back from the skyline to a more secure area and I alerted Jens.
Jim and Otto decided to observe from the hill while we made the stalk to the ambush point. It was already 7 PM when we began the descent downhill through the brush. Without realizing it, I was moving us through the brush in a more direct route than I intended. A long trip up a finger of a ridge had been my plan but the day was getting short and we had a steady wind from the south.
We crossed the bottom gully, thick with tussocks and a small creek that had begun to flow. As we headed up the backside of the den’s ridge, crossing snowfields saturated with melt and a long thicket of willows, Jens stopped me and placed my hand over his pounding heart.
“That’s not pounding from the hike, that’s excitement!” he said.
I knew it’s true; this man from Denmark could walk across Africa. He has hunted all around the world and he’s strong, but this was his first brown bear hunt.
We locked loads in our rifle chambers; Jens his .358 Norma and I my 416.Taylor. We kept moving up, aiming for a point above the spot we’d picked the day before. Working our way closer to the ridgeline we come to a small clearing leading up to the crest. We stopped to catch our breath and just slow down, and agree on a plan of action.
What we did not know was that Jim and Otto were frantically trying to get our attention, waving their jackets and shouting. They were too far away. That was probably for the best as it turned out. Their signaling would have distracted us.
They had seen the great bear catch a scent or a sound of us. He had moved as if to leave, then changed his mind. He climbed up the hill where he paused on the ridge.
Standing up on hind legs he zeroed in and came for us. Likely a stray breath of wind had telegraphed our intentions. We had paused for a few seconds when the deepest, meanest snort I have ever heard came from the willows. From 12 paces away, on all fours and moving at us in a powerful charge was the bear. There was no mistake in his manner; we each knew without thinking that this was no bluff! We raised our rifles simultaneously and fired. 650 grains of premium bullets with over 9,000 ft pounds of energy slammed into the great bear. He didn’t even flinch or break stride.
I drew my bolt and slammed another round into the chamber as I sidestepped to the left for a clearer sight picture. I drew a tight bead and let fly again. Jens’s shot was right on mine. At that point, there was nothing else in the entire world: no real thought; just instinct developed from practice and the hunt.
The sun was behind the bear but not an impediment to targeting. I can still see in my mind’s eye this truly awesome animal in full charge coming to throttle us. I have nothing but respect and reverence for such a spectacular creation of God.
Jens and I, almost mirror images, cycled and fired again. Time seemed to matter little: ½ a second seemed drawn out to the point where we could see each shiver of the massive muscles as he roared down on us.
At 3 paces the he turned to our right and went downhill. I had one round in my magazine, saved for the brain shot that would destroy the skull and part of the trophy. I chose instead to speed load a single cartridge and send it into the bear as he quartered toward us.
Jens fired again also, the shot sounding dim in my ears. I loaded one more and at 15 feet as he continued down the hill, I hit him again. Then he was out of sight.
Blood flowed freely from the immense bear, smearing snow and willow branches. Jens and I reloaded our rifles and repositioned cartridges for instant use.
We move from our tiny clearing up onto the spiny ridgeline, gaining elevation to try to see the awesome maker of Death. The cover was impenetrable.
We did not hesitate and followed his path. Deep tracks and scarlet blood marked it. Jens covered me from my right side as I proceeded through the willows, looking for any motion. I could just make out a dark form in the brush.
”He’s there!” Jens called.
We moved in, continuing at the ready for whatever would come. He lay still, but just moments ago he was far, far too much alive!
I touched my hot rifle barrel to his hindquarters. Nothing. Still, I hesitated and jabbed harder. I began to accept that this spectacular specimen of the world’s largest land predator was really dead.
Why the charge? We were well into the area this bear claimed. The hill contained his den and caribou kill. He would not be driven off again as the day before. He did what any monarch would do in protecting his kingdom.
As we examined this great bear we came to understand him better. The deep wear on all his teeth showed us that he was well into his 20’s. Very little enamel remained and large, conspicuous cavities were prominent. The right upper jaw and eye socket had been broken at some point earlier in his life, although it had healed well.
Possibly another bear or a kick from a moose had injured him.
This bear was what trophy hunting is all about. In this last year of his life, having added to the gene pool for many years, but fresh from the den, his heavy coat was magnificent, with long unworn claws. He chose how he would meet his death: not running away, or being killed by some young boar, but defending his right to be called King of The Mountain.
This magnificent bear squared over 9’4”. His skull measured 27-2/16”. Jens Perto had the trophy he came across the ocean to find, and a story that none of us will ever forget.
Dane Hamilton is an assistant hunting guide with Deltana Outfitters.