As I stood over the bear, I replayed the events in my mind that brought me to that point. It was in the spring of 2002 that I made reservations for the flight to my third hunting trip in Alaska with my cousin, Jon. We had decided to hunt for moose, north of Fairbanks on the Elliott highway. It was a place in Alaska we hadn’t been and wanted to see. There were also no size restrictions in this area, so any bull moose was legal game, and although we wanted that trophy bull, we also relished the idea of bringing home meat from a tender young spike. There was also the opportunity to use our tags on lesser a priced animal if the opportunity arose (a form of “fill your tag” insurance). With all that working for us, we could hardly wait for that gun on our back, but first there would be rods in our hands for one day of Silver salmon fishing in Valdez.
When we flew into Valdez we could see numerous boats fishing in Port Valdez Bay. Seeing people carrying the fish they had caught off the docks while driving to our bed and breakfast was really getting our excitement levels built up. The next morning we were off to catch our limits of silvers and anything else that wanted to test the strength of its lips out on our hooks .Within five minutes of dropping my line off our rented boat I was calmly screaming “fish on” then “fish off.” It was literally over that quickly. I might not have set the hook good on that one, but when the next one bites in five minutes I would be all the wiser. Two hours later I still had no fish and felt no wiser. We asked the other boats around us what method was working for them and found they were using the same methods we were and with the same results – nothing. The fish were jumping next to the shore so we decided to do some bottom fishing close to where the action was and see how that would go. It went well. We had our limit of silvers in about two hours, and we found out we were the only boat to do so well in that short of time. We even did better than the charters!
After a breakfast of muffins and goodbyes to Valdez, it was off to Fairbanks for the second part of our adventure. We had one and a half days to find a running car which we planned to purchase and beat the hell out of for the next twelve days. We first started looking for our “huntin rig” in the store parking lots, auto sell magazines, and newspapers with no luck. We had to turn our attention to used car lots. We were being told over and over that “WE HAVE NO CARS FOR UNDER $500.00, NOW PLEASE QUIT CALLING US.” We were getting a little stressed out. Well, there was one guy who offered us a Honda Prelude for a mere $100.00, yes, I said one hundred, but it had no keys, no title, burned oil, torn boots and seemed a little small for bringing us back with our gear and 1,200 pounds of moose, but I felt sure it would do fine for ten days. Jon, on the other hand, was not so impressed. He reminded me that I totally lacked any mechanical skills, and he was sure they didn’t make a one-ton in that model!
Finally, we were off and rolling to our hunting grounds in a rented U-Haul. Not exactly what we wanted at first, but it later turned out to be a dry blessing every night. On our way up the Elliott Highway we did the normal stuff tourists do, and we stopped for pictures at the Alaskan Pipeline rest area, clicked off a few, and continued on. After two hours we reached mile marker 96 where we pulled into a side turn-out and camped till morning. That first night we did lots of glassing around the surrounding hills while studying topo maps and putting together tomorrow’s hunt. Anticipation was running high when from inside our cube (U-Haul) we heard a car screeching from around a corner, lose control, and crash! “What was that?” We both asked. We jumped out of the cube looking for an overturned car, smoke, or something when from around the same corner came a truck with a flat tire flopping all around cruising right towards us! With no signs of it slowing down and an overturned car somewhere over the bank, I made tracks back to the cube and grabbed my gun. By the time the truck made its way to us, we had already discussed how we were going to defend ourselves if this was a drug deal gone badly or whatever. The truth is, I was going to make a run for it and hope John would throw himself between me and them, and if not, I would run in fashion to put him there anyway! It turned out to be a family going into Fairbanks to drop off their father at the airport, and just before the corner this crazy person passed them, driving them to the edge of the road where they popped their tire. As they got out of their pickup, we all began to search for the person who had driven off the road. Suddenly we could hear a car way down in the ditch with absolutely nowhere to go, but down! Jon and I were on the road trying to put all this together and wondering how a road that gets ten cars a day on it can manage to have this happen, and happen at our campsite! The father and his son had gone down the hill to help this person out of their situation.
A few moments of silence was soon broken with a man saying “ma’am, you can’t drive out of these mountains! Ma’am there’s not a road or town for seventy miles, and you can’t get there driving over tundra!” They managed to talk the lady into giving up her effort, and walked her up to the road where she explained she had swerved to miss our stationary U-Haul and went off the road. We looked at each other and where she drove off the road, and we knew she wasn’t all there, because of the distance between the road and the U-Haul was one hundred yards and we weren’t even on the road! They called the local safety officer, changed their tire in record breaking pit crew speed, and were on their way to the airport, leaving us with the crazy woman! She gave us an uneasy feeling whenever she would start laughing for no reason, or roll her hands nervously while smiling a sinister smile and asking us if we use really sharp knives to gut the animals! The safety officer got there just as she was breaking new records on the creeps-o-meter and was finally out of our care and into the town of Mintos!
The first full day of our hunt went with only seeing moose tracks, two moose miles away, and a bear that I could have taken with my moose tag but wanted to wait, with it being only my first day out and all. The second day brought the same tracks but no moose or bear. It was time to travel down the road and see what it had to offer. While it didn’t have any animals to show us, we did see the beauty that Alaska has to offer. I can’t remember what day it was, but we made it to the airport strip, boat launch, restaurant, and a motel known as Manly. There we had indulged ourselves in the finer things in life like a greasy cheeseburger, fries, and Coke. All this while watching T.V. and sitting in real chairs! It was one hour of pure bliss before we set off for another week of canned foods and log recliners.
For the next five days we hunted from different spots along the highway and saw nothing but tracks. At one point, we spent two days hunting a spot where we could hike in, climb up a mountain, build a fire, and glass for miles. Alaska was giving us some of the most beautiful views she had to offer but none of them included bull moose. From there, we could walk the ridge for a mile on a trail made by wolves, find a spot where we could see forever, sit down and glass, and then we could look around us and see the scat and tracks of a wolf. I could feel the primeval hunting connection between me and the wolf, that brought both hunters to that spot to sit and look for prey! I’ll tell you that I could have stayed at that spot for a week, soaked up all that scenery like a sponge, not kill a thing and still have one of the best hunts of my life!
It was getting close to the end of our hunt and within sights of our original camp when we ran into the fellow with the flat tire. He told us that after the lady had been taken back to Minto by the public safety officer, she was released from jail, but she had nowhere to go. So, three local hunters let her tag along for the ride until she could get a lift back to Fairbanks. As two of the hunters took off to look for moose, she and one of the hunters stayed behind to party. When the two hunters came back after a day of hunting, they found the lady stabbing their buddy and laughing while doing it! At that point, me and Jon looked at each other and said how we could recall her eerie laugh all while she asked about our sharp knives! The fellow told us how they captured this lady and tied her to a tree with duct tape, and this is where she stayed all night until the public safety officer could get her the next day! Then they had their buddy airlifted to a Fairbanks hospital, where he made a full recovery. When they finally took this lady in, they found out she was wanted in Oregon for numerous prostitution charges and the suspect of a murder case! If this was not weird enough, she was really a HE! As we said goodbye to our new friend, we thought of how lucky that guy was, how lucky we were, and how the words transvestite and hunting should never be in the same story!
As the close of the second to last day came, Jon called me on the walkie-talkie to tell me he had just seen a bull moose with a big set of antlers cross the road and proceed down the draw into some trees we were glassing into! We sat across the draw from each other glassing and waiting for the moose to show himself again until it got too dark to see anything. By the time we both got back to the cube, we were too tired to find another spot to hunt and decided to try and get this bull tomorrow. It was after all, the only forsure bull we saw on the whole hunt, and we knew by the tracks we saw that they were moving through this area on a regular basis. Before we split up in the morning to watch our separate basins, we decided to take whatever legal game had presented itself. On and off through the last day we talked back and forth on the walkie-talkies about where the animals might be and the things we’ve seen and done the previous days. Around five he radioed me to say there was a bear feeding on the ridge above, and I’d better get a move on because he was moving fast. “Ten- four,” and I was off in a flash. I knew first hand that bears were notorious for feeding in random patterns until they quickly seem to disappear! It took me about ten minutes to where I could see the ridge. I crept through the bushes and trees with my gun shouldered the whole time. At times, I was able to hear him ripping at the ground and moving through the dry foliage. Then I could hear nothing, but my senses would come alive, wondering if he smelled me and was circling around, just ahead waiting for visual confirmation or laying in ambush! (These are the hunts I love most. I swell with a primeval euphoric feeling, and it’s because I have absolutely no idea of what’s about to happen next. This is not at all like our everyday lives!) And there he was! The bear was in his everyday life. He had turned off his primeval senses and was standing on his hind legs scratching his back on a youthful tree looking right at me! Whatever he was feeling had caused his precautionary senses to turn off and not notice my presence right there in the trees staring at him, not even thirty feet away! As I raised the gun, he went down and continued feeding, and he was probably aware of his surroundings again, but it would be too late.
He squared out a little over five feet. Although not a big bear by any measure, he was a true trophy to me. In a day we would be back home. We will be two thousand miles away with these great Alaskan stories to tell our friends about. Planning our next trip to Alaska is a long time away. So until then, we’ll savor a fine bottle of merlot, premium cigars, and the finest back straps ever cooked over a camp fire. Courtesy of the bear.