The ever-intimidating grizzly bear can add an element of fear on your next hunt that you may not have anticipated. However, a well-prepared sportsman can rest assured they are prepared for the worst and hopeful for the best. I am “fortunate” to have spent many nights in the field in some of the wildest grizzly and brown bear-infested lands on earth. From the Yellowstone ecosystem to Unimak Island, you cannot let your guard down. As the old motto from the Boy Scouts says, “Be Prepared.”
When I first began apprenticing as a guide in Alaska, I spent a few seasons on Kodiak Island pursuing blacktail deer and brown bear. The outfitter I worked with was as seasoned of a brown bear guide as they come. I remember him telling me one night that you should always sleep with earplugs in while in big bear country. At first this seemed counterintuitive because I wanted to be warned of every potential danger outside my sleeping quarters during the night. However, he continued, “What you can’t hear can’t hurt you. If you have earplugs in and you still hear it, it’s probably close enough to hurt you.” Basically, there was no point in spending hours awake at night listening to far off noises and the bears snapping twigs as they cruised their home turf. I came to realize early on that I was simply a guest in their territory and I needed to accept it. I have taken this lesson to heart over the years. I always strive to run a clean camp, be aware of my surroundings, and carry countermeasures almost everywhere, but I also have resolved to not stress and worry about the things I cannot control.
It’s no secret that the grizzly and brown bears of the north lands (Canada and Alaska) tend to be more well-behaved bears than their lower 48 cousins. It’s basic social science. Bears that are hunted, pressured, and rarely encounter humans are more likely to respect our presence and flee from potential interactions.
I tend to place encounters with grizzly/ brown bears in Alaska into one of two categories. First is the surprise encounter. This is more common than not as we find ourselves wading through thick alders and brush, trying to navigate with the wind in our faces. You may turn a corner and find a sow with cubs or a young boar trying to mind his own business. Quickly, you both realize you are too close for comfort. Quick thinking is necessary on your part to analyze the bear’s escape route, your surroundings, and the bear’s attitude. At this point, I like to make sure the bear knows exactly what I am and how dangerous I am. Yelling, standing tall, and moving like a human are all on the docket. It’s important to give the bear as much space as possible and let them go back to what they do best, staying alive in the wilderness.
The second encounter category I feel is important to prepare for in the north country is that of a target encounter. We have all heard the stories of gunshots being considered dinner bells for bears in the mountains that have been accustomed to finding a fresh meal after hearing a shot. While this may be true in some cases, more often, a bear will cross the scent cone of a freshly killed deer or caribou and decide he must investigate to find his next meal. This is usually the worst time for hunters because we need to be on guard as we are down skinning, caping, and quartering our animal. I make it a goal to take photos and breakdown my animal as quickly as I can in a safe manner. I always try to keep my pack loaded up so that if I need to vacate the area in an instant, I am not left without my personal gear. It is easy to create a yard sale of an area around your kill site, but this is not a great idea while in bear country. As soon as I have taken all of the meat, cape, and antlers from my animal, I will move it 100-400 yards away from the carcass pile to finish caping, deboning, and loading of pack. This buys me a little bit of time if a bear has already noticed my scent trail and is headed to the carcass from downwind.
Once I’m loaded heavy and ready for the hike out, I try to keep an eye out for my downwind scent cone at all times. While it is unlikely that a bear is going to come after meat that is deep in my backpack in game bags as opposed to heading straight for the remaining gut pile, it can still happen. I try to select a hiking route that keeps me on a ridge or out of the thick brush, and I cue up my favorite playlist on my cellphone speaker. I always sing and make plenty of noise while hiking in bear country when I have a meat-heavy pack. My best advice for this pack out is to realize that any bear that you encounter now may not want to flee and you must be ready to defend yourself. Personally, I would not want to put my life in the trust of a can of bear spray at this point. Realize that if you are carrying the next meal for a bear, it may come down to your life or his. I also do not want to rely on a pistol at this time. I would much rather have my primary rifle dialed down to low scope magnification with a loaded magazine. I could not imagine having to drop my hunting rifle to rely on a pistol I am not nearly as proficient with. However, if I am archery hunting, a 10mm backup pistol like the new Springfield-Armory XD-M would be my choice. It is my goal to get the meat back to camp where I will hang it near my tent. Oftentimes, I hear hunters complain about how they lost their meat to a bear only to hear they hung the meat up almost a half-mile away from their tent. I shake my head and wonder how they thought a bear would be deterred by their human presence if their meat was so far away from camp. I prefer to have my meat close to camp so that I can keep an eye on it and be aware of anything trying to mess with us. This is also a great time to install a portable electric bear fence.
CONSIDERATION ON A GUIDED HUNT
If you are headed on a guided hunt in grizzly bear country, there’s a high possibility that your guide and outfitter are more accustomed to bears in the area and would appreciate you not showing up to camp with unfamiliar bottles of bear spray or loaded pistols being thrown around in their hunting vehicles or airplanes. Be sure to talk to your outfitter beforehand to see what he is expecting you to bring. Pistol-wielding clients can place stress on the guide as he is mostly responsible for leading you while hiking in the wilderness and staying in between you and any dangers that you may encounter. As a guide myself, I ask that you make sure that you listen to your guide and discuss with them what to do and how to act when dangerous game is encountered.
A couple of things to consider on your next hunt. Make sure that you are never without protection. Even going behind the next hill to take a leak could place you in an unsafe situation if a bear is encountered. Never leave your weapon. To make sure your weapon is available and at the ready, I recommend using the Kifaru Gun Bearer carry system. This is far superior to the classic sling over-the-shoulder carry method you probably use now. I prefer the Gun Bearer system over strapping my rifle to my backpack in all scenarios. Next, if something does go wrong, make sure you have a proper first aid kit, including a splint, gauze, and two quality tourniquets. To compliment your first aid kit, you should have a Garmin inReach device with an active SOS subscription. These satellite plans are cheaper than ever and are a definite necessity in the field. Be prepared, make good decisions, and enjoy the experience!