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An Unexpected Trip

October 2021
Story by Tommy Vance
State: Alaska
Species: Bear - Brown

After striking out in the tag drawings and Covid making international travel all but impossible, I had come to terms with the fact that my 2020 hunting season would consist of chasing local whitetails and living vicariously through the hunters’ stories in the pages of Huntin’ Fool. However, an email late on the evening of October 5th offering a last-second cancelation brown bear hunt in Alaska changed everything. By the morning of October 9th, I was sitting in the harbor in Hoonah, Alaska with Lucas Clark, owner of Guide Creek Outfitters, getting ready to board a boat that would be my home for the next seven days.

The first three days were spent cruising the water and scanning the beaches for travelling bears. The local marine life was amazing to see. We had constant encounters with sea lions, seals, and sea otters. Often, out of nowhere, whales would breach the water, causing an unbelievable eruption in the normally calm water. In the late evenings, we would sneak into large grass flats and sit until dark, hoping to catch a bear coming out to feed. Although we spotted four different bears during these days, none fit the profile of the bear we were looking for. This hunt came at the tail end of the concentrated food supply down low, and Lucas warned the bears would begin moving up the mountains in search of the last of the berry patches that remained, thus making them much more difficult to hunt.

On day four, Lucas suggested that we hit a salmon stream and slowly work our way up, searching for a feeding bear. He explained that most of the salmon, except for the silvers and a few coho, had already left, but we may get lucky and find a bear still roaming the banks looking for fish that had been buried in the banks after a recent period of high water. This form of hunting bear really got me excited for the day as this is how I had always pictured going after one of these giants.

As we started up the stream, we immediately found a set of fresh tracks headed upriver that Lucas felt belonged to a shootable bear. After a few more evaluations of tracks further up the river, in a low voice, he told me that he felt sure we would catch up to this bear and to be ready as it could be a very quick shot. We continued upriver for another mile or so, and as we rounded a corner, he spotted a bear feeding in a waterhole. We quickly got to one side of the bank, and he began to evaluate the bear. This bear was feeding down toward us, unlike the tracks we were following, which were heading upriver. He soon made the call that it was a sow and not a bear we were going to take. She continued to feed downriver, and in no time, she was within 15 yards. She was magnificent looking with the sun shining on her and the water glistening off her fur. At 10 yards, she sensed something was not right and disappeared like a ghost into the thick brush beside the river.

I was filled with excitement of my first up close encounter of a brown bear and a little disappointment that she was not our target bear. We continued following the river and the tracks for a couple more miles until we reached a hole that was full of silvers. As we admired the amount of fish in the water, we advanced a few steps past the pool, talking about the fish, when suddenly, Lucas grabbed my shoulder and said, “Shoot him!” There, on the brushy high wall of the river not 10 yards away, was our bear trying to slip back down the river. I did not have a round chambered, and by the time I was loaded and ready for the shot, all I could see was his backend melting into the brush. We both stared at each other in shock that all of this had just happened. I felt an instant dread in my stomach that our opportunity for a bear had just faded into the Alaskan bush.

Lucas and I continued up the river, following the tracks just to make sure the bear we saw was the bear we were following. Sure enough, after about half a mile, we began seeing footprints heading downriver and no more heading up. At this point, it was around 3:30 in the afternoon, and Lucas thought that if the bear did not smell us, there was a chance he would come back on the river at some point. He suggested that we hike a couple adjacent logging roads, hoping to run into another bear. This would also allow us to kill a little time to let the wind switch and put us in position to come through the river section he thought the bear might be on at prime time.

At around 5:00, we began slowly heading downriver, anticipating what we would see around every corner. An hour later, we had just gone through the section that I felt held our best opportunity, when suddenly, Lucas grabbed my shoulder. There, 75 yards downstream, was a bear in a deep pool of water. I drooped to a sitting position, chambered a round, and waited for the confirmation that this was our bear. The bear crossed the river, and because of a section of brush, we had to move to the other side as well. He was just getting ready to enter another hole of water when Lucas gave me the go ahead to take the shot. At the shot, the bear buckled and dropped. Two more insurance shots guaranteed that he was anchored.

As I approached the downed bear, it was one of the few times when ground growing occurred instead of ground shrinkage. He was absolutely huge! I could not even lift his head out of the water by myself. Lucas quickly confirmed that this was indeed the bear we encountered earlier in the day. We snapped tons of pictures and then began the skinning process. Being in the middle of bear country with a fresh carcass in the dark with salmon occasionally making loud splashing noises was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck more than once. Since we were so far upriver, the hide was skinned very close to eliminate weight for the pack out, which lead to a lengthy skinning job. Once everything was loaded, we began our three-hour hike traversing the river. By midnight, we had avoided falling into one of the many deep holes in the river, gone around the incoming tide on the grass flat, and survived a 30-minute skiff ride across the Icy Straight. The tomato soup and peanut butter sandwich on the boat could not have tasted better.

The remaining days were spent preparing the hide and enjoying the extra adventures Alaska offers. We spent our time fishing for halibut and cod and catching and eating all the fresh Dungeness crab we could handle, and we even put in 10 miles in the alpine one day searching for Sitka blacktail. I enjoyed Lucas’ knowledge of the land and its inhabitants, along with his willingness to show them to me. Once again, Alaska showed me that if you can handle the ruggedness and have the ability to stand having your tail kicked, her gifts become memories that last a lifetime.

Alaska Bear Hunting