BEAR OF A LIFETIME
by Bill Zlupko
I know I am not alone when I say that hunting Alaskan Brown Bear has been a life-long dream. So when Brad Saalsaa of Alaska Wilderness Charters and Guiding contacted me about a 2008 brown bear hunt, I was all ears. Brad explained that he had a rare opening due to a cancellation by one of his clients who was having medical complications and would have to reschedule. And as we discussed the dates, flights and all of the particulars, I suddenly realized that my lifelong dream was finally about to begin.
This being my first Alaskan Brown Bear hunt, I really did not know what to expect. I was comforted however, knowing that I had hunted and fished with Brad before, and he had not only met but exceeded all my expectations. In 2005 I had killed a seven foot black bear with a skull that measured 20 8/16”. I booked a fishing trip for the summer of 2007 and landed a 200 pound halibut that is, to this day, still feeding my family.
Going home empty-handed never seems to be an option, and Brad drove this point home during our conversation about the upcoming hunt. “Bill, be prepared to hunt hard – this ain’t no camping trip!” Little did I know just how prophetic his admonition would become.
Traveling to the Alaskan peninsula was absolutely breathtaking. The flights were on time and all of my gear met me at my final destination. A short super cub charter flight landed me at base camp, where Brad immediately began describing our bear hunting strategies.
“What are you expecting to kill?” I honestly answered that all I wanted was a fine representation of the brown bear species. Then I saw the same sly look from Brad that I had seen before. “I think we can do better than that – I want you to get a big bear.”
I must say, it is most reassuring to you, as a client, when your guide expresses higher expectations than you do about your hunt. But then I realized, this was exactly why I had once again booked with Brad and Alaskan Wilderness Charters and Guiding.
Opening morning could not come soon enough for me. We awoke to cold temperatures, clear skies, calm winds and an iced-over tent. A quick, hearty breakfast and we headed out across the valley where, far in the distance, Brad spotted a big brown bear. I looked and looked but could not find the bear he was describing in the distant clearing. I knew that Brad has the eyes of an eagle, but still I was a little embarrassed that I could not spot the brown bear.
As we climbed to our lookout atop the mountain, we came across a set of enormous bear tracks in the snow. Brad placed both of his size 12 boots inside one of the rear tracks and looked at me and said, “We need to find this monster!”
Immediately we started glassing, and within the hour I spotted a bear several hundred yards below us. He was indeed a very fine bear, but would only measure about nine feet squared, this was clearly not our track-maker. And so we watched as he fed to the bottom of the valley and finally out of sight.
A few hours passed, and we made our way across the top of the mountain, moving from peak to peak. Then he did it again! Brad located three bears on the adjacent hillside, bedded down on a little plateau that was set in an area that was almost straight up and down. I could not believe my eyes. Identifying the three bears was not easy as they were all lying down curled up and sleeping and over two miles away. Descending the giant mountain was our only option for getting a closer look to determine if any of these three bears were a candidate for our hunt.
Four hours later we were less than 100 yards from the valley floor. Glassing across to the far side of the mountain, we could see that the bears were finally on their feet. Unfortunately, it turned out to be what we originally thought; one huge, beautiful, blonde sow with two juveniles that she was keeping safe on this hard-to-get-to bluff. I would have never guessed to look for a bear in such rugged terrain. One would expect a Mountain goat or a suicidal sheep to be perched upon this mountain pinnacle but not a bear in its right mind.
There was nothing to do but hike back up to our initial glassing spot and prepare an Alaskan mountain top gourmet dinner. The thought of eating dinner at 6 PM atop our lookout and still having five more hours of light for hunting gave me a very optimistic feeling that we could still make it happen before dark, when a low pressure front was predicted to move in.
Non-stop glassing, as it does in most successful hunts, pays huge dividends. With dinner barely in the digestive process, Brad’s eyes exploded from behind his binoculars as he looked at me and said, “there’s our track maker!” I spotted him immediately, moving down the center of the valley toward the refuge which was off limits to all hunters.
Needless to say the hunt was on, as we had to cover around a mile and a half as fast as we could before he entered the refuge. Running as fast and as hard as I could to keep up with my guide was a true test of how much I wanted to fulfill my life-long dream. Brad would stop every so often to locate the bear and offer me some motivating words so we could head-off this monster.
We finally reached the valley where we had last seen the big boar. We both knew we were getting near. Thought after thought ran through my mind as I followed close behind the man who was about to introduce me to a bear of a lifetime.
We were moving forward as cautiously as possible when Brad suddenly spun around and told me that the wind had shifted.
Now we had to go right at him to force him up the ridge rather than over it. It seemed we hadn’t moved fifty yards when Brad abruptly stopped and pointed, and I could see the great bear in full stride.
“There he is. Shoot him!” The urgency of Brad’s admonition was exceeded only by my own excitement and concentration. With no time to think, it was now all up to my own instincts, and I swung on him as I would swing on a low-rising ringneck and squeezed the trigger. The shot connected with a distinctive “whumph” and the great bear rolled nose-first into the ground. But in a flash he was back up and on his feet. “Hit him again” Brad yelled as I cycled the bolt of the 375 H & H and sent another 300 grain soft-point on its way. Again he tumbled and again he tried to get back to his feet, and again I made certain that he would not, hitting him again and again until he was still.
The sudden silence was nearly as overwhelming as the shooting itself. We approached the fallen giant with great care and deliberation, a moment that I will never forget. Everyone is familiar with the term “ground shrinkage,” but what we were now experiencing was just the opposite, for his size and bulk seemed to grow exponentially as we got closer to him. Brad declared that this was one of the biggest bears he had ever seen, and I smiled as recalled his earlier promise, “I think we can do better than that . . . “ We both stood there in amazement, staring down on this true bear of a lifetime.
But now we realized that the real work still lay ahead of us.
After 4 grueling hours of skinning, we were finally finished about 1AM. We ate a freeze-dried meal and a couple of Snickers to gain the necessary energy we needed to pack the 190 pound hide back to camp. In the darkness, the going was slow to say the least. We were tired, wet and cold as we started up the valley with Brad carrying a pack that weighed over 200 pounds, plowing through knee high mud and 2-to-3 feet of snow. Some of the drifts filled the ditches 8 feet deep in places. Occasionally Brad would hit a soft spot and sink in over his head, and I would have to help him take the pack off and drag him and the load out of the hole. The man-eating alders towered over our heads, grabbing us and the pack and repeatedly throwing us to the ground. All great bear hunters know about traveling in man-eating alders at night, and I felt in good company.
We packed until 4 AM, pushing each other and sharing the load, until we were nearly spent! Brad had not slept for 48 hours. We were now climbing a 2000 foot alder choked mountain and were still only about 500 feet up. The going was very slowly as we worked up the hill together, one of us grabbing branches and pulling while the other searched for a possible better trail. By now we couldn’t see 10 feet ahead of us, the wind was blowing a steady 50 mph with gust over 80, and rain, sleet and snow were driving into our faces.
Brad finally called a halt and said it would be better if we rested until daylight so we could find the best way up the mountain and not have to fight the impenetrable brush in the dark. We lay face down in the snow to keep the wind, rain, and sleet off our faces. I fell asleep immediately. At 5:30 I was awakened by Brad’s laughter; it seems I was using the bloody bear skull as a pillow. He asked me if I was still having fun, and with a long silent pause and a feeling of exhaustion only a dead person would have, I managed to muster up a laugh myself and assure him I was, although I did have to ask “Are they all this hard? Brad’s reply “only the good ones”
Daylight finally came and we rose from the snow, shouldered the heavy pack together and continued our trek up the mountain. Many times we both had to lift and heave the pack up the hill, only to gain 2 or 3 feet. By noon we were finally approaching the top of the mountain. With 3 more miles to go to reach camp, we decided to cache the heavy pack in the snow on top of the mountain.
We finally struggled into camp where we put on dry cloths on and ate some hot food and fell into our sleeping bags. We awoke about 7 PM, ate again and then got dressed and hiked back to the top of the mountain to retrieve the hide and skull. But this time we felt good. We were warm, dry and rested, and we finally returned to camp with the trophy of a lifetime just before midnight. The temperature was 14 degrees.
Waking up the next morning I could still feel the effects of the adrenaline running through my entire body. It was now time to square the hide and measure the skull. The hide squared an honest 11’ 6”, and the skull measured just over 30” inches. Many hunters come to Alaska hoping to harvest a 10 foot bear, the pinnacle for all brown bear hunters. But to take a bear over 11’ is truly a trophy of a lifetime.
Hard work, perserverance, willingness to go the extra mile, and above all, a great guide had certainly paid off. Once again, I had come to Alaska with Brad Saalsaa and Alaskan Wilderness Charters and Guiding, and again I was leaving with a trophy far beyond my expectations.
I will be back