It was Father’s Day weekend of 2004. My buddy Fred and I had decided on a joint bear hunt in the area around Hope, AK. We checked our equipment, loaded the RV’s with the four wheelers and put fresh batteries in the GPS units that we had. The trip started on a good note with both of us getting off work early. We put into the camp grounds at Porcupine and settled in to some good eats and camping for the following day. I turned on the GPS and got a good fix on our position, before calling it a night. Unbeknownst to us the Marines were participating in a COPE NORTH exercise and were actively jamming GPS in the area starting at 0500 Saturday morning. I got up, grabbed breakfast and turned on the GPS. To my amazement we had drifted (according to the GPS) a couple of miles during the night. It was very apparent to me the GPS was going to be a good paperweight. We decided to press on using a map and compass. Fred and I discussed our options and figured we would be alright using current topographical maps of the area.
We used the four wheelers to transit about 6 ½ miles from camp and pick up a bear trail we knew was in the area. I marked our path with knife marks on tree bark and by using sticks to form arrows at junctions. We picked up the Bear’s tracks at about 0600 and followed them into the woods along a stream. The woods became thicker and denser than any I had ever seen before. We tracked a big grizzly with a busted claw for about 2 ¾ miles before we realized we were right back where we started. Fred had chosen his trusty 30-06 Savage and I took a heavy barreled custom .30 cal that had been zeroed for 300 yards. Both rifles were exactly the wrong choice for the woods we were in. The longest shot would be about 50 yards and it would be a knife fight in the dark at best. I heard the huffing sound a slightly annoyed bear makes once during the track. It was pretty close to sundown when we decided to call it a day and head for camp. We both had spare guns at camp just in case but not with us.
At camp we told our wives of what we had seen and done. Neither could believe we hadn’t gotten a shot off and were going back the next day. We discussed our choice of guns and decided to take Fred’s Short barreled .45-70 marlin and my Fabrique Nationale FAL semi-auto with 200 grain power point bullets. We also talked about the ability to mark a trail to avoid being lost. Our equipment was holding up well and things were looking like we had the hunt/stalk of a lifetime ahead of us.
We left camp just ahead of sun up on Sunday morning and proceeded to the same spot as before. What we saw was shocking. "Our" bear with the broken claw had been busy. It had knocked over some smaller saplings and shredded bark on the bigger trees where we parked the wheelers. It did not take long to pick up the trail for this bad actor. The grizzly led us on a series of animal paths in the woods that went right through the bear’s back yard. We found over twenty piles of scat in a 50 yard area. The hair on my neck was standing on end and my little voice (the voice of reason) was too scared to whimper. More and more of the local trees were stripped of bark by claw marks and several bigger trees were pushed over. The bear trail led back to its point of origin in about 1 ½ miles. This bear was closing the noose. We picked grizzly hair off the side of a sapling and I decided to have some fun with Fred. I stammered FFFFF FR FRED! He leveled his rifle down the trail and I have never seen him more psyched. I laughed and told him OK let’s go kill this bear.
We moved quickly and quietly through the woods and I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of hide in the brush. I heard two more bear huffs and my pulse was pounding. The area was looking extremely familiar. We had been led in another circle by this bear inside of ¾ of a mile. We were no longer hunting the bear… It was hunting us. We came back down the trail the way we had just came with just enough time to see the bear slip into some really thick brush. It was now decision time…do we continue and take this bear just ahead of nightfall or do we call it a day? Wisely Fred called knock it off and we headed back to the wheelers for the ride back to camp. Alaska Rule #1 never shoot anything within an hour of sundown. You will not make it back to camp before it is very, very, very DARK.
Did we get our bear? NOPE! We could not get a clear shot let alone identify the sex of the critter. We spoke with National Forest Rangers and described the situation we had been in. They let us know just how lucky we were. The bear we were chasing had a history of raiding camps and hurting hikers. He was no stranger to human activity and was not content to go on his merry way. There had been an attack just a couple months earlier in the area resulting in a very badly mauled hiker and some destroyed camping gear.
Lessons learned… You Bet!
Now, if I can just get a Javelina hunt together this summer life will be good.
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