“THIRD TIME’S A CHARM”
GRIZZLIES 2 -- SMITH 1
As the rain pours down here in Tupper Lake on the 28th of July, 2014, I decided to start another journal of my upcoming Grizzly hunt in Alaska. I’ve been saving up for two years to make another try at killing a grizzly and have gotten in pretty good condition in that time. I have sent most of my gear and my rifle to my outfitter, Wayne Kubat, up in Wasilla. I’ll be flying out of Albany on September 2, 2014, with a friend of mine. He will be on his first guided big game hunt and is very excited to be going. We are both taking some additional gear with us on the plane and will probably have to whittle down what we can take in our packs when we get there. Both my hunting partner, Scott, and I can only wait anxiously for September 2 to come.
August 23 – Just got a note from my outfitter in Alaska that they had killed a grizzly bear two days ago. He said that the salmon (chum) are in the streams and the bears are showing up. We will be heading to Albany on Monday (September 1) and flying out Tuesday morning at 7:30. I have only one bag of gear to take as all my other stuff, including my rifle, was mailed up back in July.
September 1 – I decided to hit the Saratoga Race Track on the way to Albany and picked up a couple hundred on the way. I hope that’s a sign of good things to come. Eventually got to my hotel, had a nice meal, and hit the sack early.
September 2 - Got up bright and early at 4:30 a.m. and got to the airport at 5:45. I met my hunting partner, Scott, there. We spent all day on planes with stops in Las Vegas and Seattle before finally landing in Anchorage at 7:30 p.m. -– Long Day!! Took a cab to the Anchorage Grand Hotel and unloaded. We then went for supper and a couple of beers at one of my all time favorite eateries—the Glacier Brewhouse. Everything was excellent! Went to bed at 9:45 p.m.
September 3 – Scott was up at 5 a.m. and I got up a short time later. We were both nervously anxious to get underway and Wayne’s wife was to pick us up later to travel to Willow and then catch a plane into Skwentna. We will stay there tonight at the “Skwentna Road House” and leave by jet boat at first light ?? to travel up the Yentna River for about five hours. That will be where we set up our base camp. Wayne’s wife, Marilyn, was on time and we were on our way. A half-hour later we were in Wasilla. After a few hours of getting things rearranged, and having lunch, we drove on to Willow and caught our ride. Our pilot was Barry Stanley and he flew us out in a Maule airplane. The flight was smooth even though the plane was loaded to the max. Barry was a pleasure to talk with on the way as he was a wealth of Alaskan knowledge. The skies were perfectly clear and the view of Mt. McKinley was breathtaking. We landed smoothly at the Skwentna airfield and were picked up there by our guide, Dave McHoes, and brought over to the Skwentna Roadhouse about a mile away. There we met the owners, Mark Torkelson and Cindi Herman. Mark Torkelson was a past winner of the Iron Dog Snowmobile Race in 1989. They could not have been more congenial to us. The Roadhouse was a small lodge with a lot of warmth and great food. After we settled in, Mark took Scott and me on a tour of the surrounding area and familiarized us with the local history. Skwentna had at one time, up until the mid-90’s, a school and a larger population, but now had a year-round population of nine or ten! Not many places anywhere with that size of resident population total have their own year-round State-maintained airport! Later on, after a wonderful meal cooked by Cindi, and a few “Alaskan Ambers,” we took a boat ride with Mark on the Skwentna River and caught a few Sockeye Salmon. It was the end to a really fun day and we hit the hay at about 9:30. We’re planning on getting up around 7 AM, having breakfast, packing up, and leaving to go up they Yentna River around 10 AM.
September 4 – We were up early and had a great breakfast of French toast, bacon, hot coffee and juice. It may be the last good breakfast for a while. Dave, our guide, will be along shortly. It is very overcast and rain is imminent—typical Alaska. Dave was on time and we were at the boat at 10:15 AM. The boat was an 18 foot pram with a 40 H.P. jet motor. It was loaded to capacity with three men and all our gear for ten days in the bush. We went up the Skwentna River for about three miles and then up the Yentna River for five more cold wet hours! It was extremely tricky travel with the channel constantly changing. It was a good thing Dave knew the river so well. We finally stopped at around 5 PM or so and made camp on a “nearby” gravel bar. We had to carry most of the gear about 150 yards. We then ate our bag lunch.
After our tents were set up, we decided to check out some streams nearby. They were loaded with Salmon (reds and chums both) with bear sign all around. We eventually took up a couple of vantage points and sat waiting and glassing. After about an hour or so of sitting in the steady rain (which had originally started just as we set up our tents,) a large dark grizzly stepped into the stream a couple hundred yards to our left. As it was getting quite dark, we immediately got into the stream and attempted to head in his direction. The bear was trying to catch Salmon and was so focused that we could attempt to get a little closer. I was the designated first shooter and once we got just inside 200 yards, I tried an offhanded shot. The bear made one leap and disappeared into the thick brush along the stream. We looked around for any sign of a hit but could not find anything. The alders and brush along the stream were extremely thick. I had missed! I thought I was on the bear, but had never cut a hair. This was probably my biggest disappointment in all my years of hunting, but tomorrow is another day. I must keep my spirits up no matter what as it is early in the hunt. As I write this in the tent at 10 PM, the rain continues now with much more in the forecast. A good night’s sleep is highly unlikely.
September 5 – Woke up at about 6:30 a.m. to our guide very calmly saying, “Bear out here, boys!” Scott and I were both pretty comfortable in our sleeping bags, but when Dave said it once again, we both leapt out of bed, grabbed our rifles and watched as a real nice grizzly ran off before we could do anything about it. This was to be the exciting start to even a more exciting day for me. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs, we got packed, and headed up the valley into the wind. We had to cross several channels in the river on our way and, while in the process of one crossing, Dave spotted a grizzly at about 500 yards or so. It was searching for salmon and seemed to be heading our way. It was an extremely blond grizzly bear—very pretty, but quite small. We watched it proceed in our direction for almost one-half hour. (On my last grizzly hunt I had a chance to shoot a bear that was larger than this one, but I had passed on it hoping to get a larger bear. I never got the opportunity to get another shot then.) After much mind searching, I elected to shoot this grizzly if it got close enough. I had yesterday’s miss fresh in my mind and knew that a “bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.” At about 200 yards, it turned broadside and I hammered it. I had just completed my personal “Bucket List of North American Big Game” and I was ecstatic. This took place at 9:30 AM and we could not get to my bear until 1:30 PM because the water in the channels was too deep to cross and, unfortunately, the motor on our boat had seized up.
Dave and I skinned it out and then we all returned to camp where Dave finished caping it out in preparation for a rug. I had finally fulfilled a lifetime dream of mine. It’s funny how absolute depression can change to overwhelming happiness in a matter of a few hours. Life can be so very fickle!
This afternoon we went up the valley towards the headwaters. We sat until dark and then returned to camp at 9:30PM. There were a lot of “chums” and “reds” in the waters up that way, but we saw nothing but a few eagles and a coyote. Moose tracks are all around but none have been seen yet. I fell asleep fast after a couple of celebratory shots of “Crown” and slept like a log.
September 6 - I heard Scott get up around 6 AM, but I never moved. It was 32 degrees in the tent and I fell back asleep in my warm sleeping bag for another hour. Ate a good breakfast and headed downriver for the first time. It was a long walk, especially in hip boots, but the closer we got to our destination (Wolf Creek) the more bear sign we saw. There were tracks of all sizes almost everywhere you looked. Just short of Wolf Creek we saw a light colored sow with a cub and soon after we saw a large dark brown bear. We headed in their direction, but never saw them again. We sat there until about 1 PM and then started back to camp.
A wind was whipping up and got progressively stronger as we walked. Eventually, from about one mile away from camp, we saw through our binoculars that our tents had been blown down. Dave’s tent was hung up in a solitary tree or we may never have found it again. Our tent had been flattened, but luckily the stakes had held. The winds were steady at about 50 to 60 mph. We searched around and found a more suitable, protected spot closer to the wood line, but about another quarter mile from the boat. We were not planning on leaving soon anyway as Scott must still get his bear and we have no motor for the 65 mile trip out. We moved the whole setup in about two hours and we should be fine now. Winds of this magnitude sometimes last two or three days!
It is now 6:30 p.m. and we are going over to the stream where I missed my bear on day 1. We got there at about 7 PM and settled in for about two hours of watching the salmon stream. At 9 PM, after seeing nothing but many spawning salmon, we pack up and decide to check one more spot (almost exactly where I had missed earlier) and then Dave said, “BEAR!” The howling wind was in our favor, therefore, we got off the stream and headed through the woods coming out about 50 yards from the bear. She was distracted with her fishing and never saw Scott pull up his rifle. He nailed her in the stream and she made an effort to climb the bank but shortly, she fell back in. A couple of finishing shots later high fives and handshakes were in order. She was a good-sized sow with a fine thick coat. We dragged her to higher ground and started the chore of skinning her by flashlight. During the skinning process, our rifles were all loaded and ready to fire with one of us constantly on guard as there was another bear huffing and puffing on the other side of the stream about 75 yards away. It was pretty hairy and everyone was happy when we were on our way. Scott had shot at 9:11 PM and it was shortly before midnight when we got back to camp. The next thing we killed was a bottle of Crown. Everyone was in good spirits and we all slept well.
September 7 - Woke up to a gorgeous, clear day. The winds have quit and we have a long day ahead of us after breakfast. This morning, the coyotes were howling up a storm, so chances are they found Scott’s bear carcass. I’ve got to go back to the kill site as I believe I left my binoculars over there when I had taken my camera out. Scott accompanied me while I searched for my binoculars, but we returned discouraged since we could not find them. (Scott insisted that I make this entry in my journal as I later found my binoculars in the bottom of my pack!)
We then started to get ready for our float out. We left at 2:30 and immediately had to drag the loaded boat over several gravel bars for a while before getting to a channel deep enough to begin floating. The Yentna is a glacier-fed, wide, slow-moving river, but very powerful and can become very dangerous if you are not paying attention. It is imperative to stay in the deepest channels and to avoid “sweepers” along the banks. We floated for 6-1/2 hours eventually setting up camp at a nice spot with a lot of dried firewood. We had supper around a nice roaring campfire and after; a couple of hours of reminiscing, we went to bed. The sunset this evening was spectacular.
September 8 - After a good night’s sleep, we had “freeze dried” breakfast and broke down camp. Once again we started our float trip hoping to make it to Skwentna in about 10 hours. This float trip is an unplanned, unwanted extension of our adventure, but much easier to accept since we both killed a grizzly. Our guide, Dave, has become an excellent water boiler for our freeze-dried food. Like many other hunts I have been on in the past, good camaraderie built between the guide and the hunter(s) is generally quite strong. After breaking down camp, we hit the river. We floated along at about 2-1/2 mph according to the GPS on Scott’s phone and, after about six hours or so, my shoulder and back were killing me. There was very limited space to get comfortable in the boat. After about 8-1/2 hours of floating, a boat pulled up, driven by Mark from the “Skwentna Roadhouse.” He hooked on to us and towed us in saving us about three or four more hours of float time. I was especially ecstatic that he had shown up. We brought all our gear to the Roadhouse and settled in for a nice long shower, a few beers, a good steak dinner, and a very comfortable bed. We will be flying out to Willow tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. if the weather is good enough. Went to bed after supper as we were both dead tired.
September 9 - The day started out with heavy rain and it became doubtful if we would get out of the bush. We were all packed and ready to go. At about 10 a.m. our pilot, Barry, called and said to be ready in about ˝ hour as there was a small hole in the weather. He was on time and we were on our way to Willow. After we landed, our outfitter, Wayne, picked us up and we drove to Wasilla. We repacked all our gear into plastic totes and brought them and our rifles to the Post Office to be mailed home. We then brought our bear hides and skulls to the taxidermist to have rugs made. The rugs will be ready in about six to eight months. We then took a ride with Wayne’s wife, Marilyn, to Anchorage. We settled in at the Ramada where we would stay for the next week to see more of Alaska by rail, car, and foot power.
During this week in Anchorage we got to see many different attractions and beautiful scenery. This will bring to an end this edition of Smith’s Hunting Tales. It will be great to get home and see my wife. Without her patience and understanding, these hunts would never be possible. It is becoming more physically stressful on each successful hunt and sleeping on the cold ground has lost its allure. I may return to Alaska again sometime with my wife, Beth, but I’ll be sleeping in a soft bed while we are there. Perhaps I have ended my Alaskan excursions, but who knows for positive? I have killed a moose before, but I’ve never killed an Alaskan-Yukon moose! Stand by! Hoping to hit Montana for an elk hunt next fall if things go as planned. Have to do it while you can!
Spent the full week touring around Alaska by rail and saw some gorgeous and unique country. We ate a lot of seafood and consumed a fair amount of “Alaskan Ambers.” The flights home were long, boring, but smooth. Got into Albany just after midnight and will go back to Tupper Lake tomorrow.