I've been looking forward to being able to write this post for a long time -- in fact, it marks the end of a 33 year-old dream for me. Yes indeed, I was but 10 years old when I read the August, 1976 issue of Outdoor Life and was smitten with the idea of going on a grizzly hunt. Somehow, too many years of post-secondary schooling got in the way, followed by marriage, more schooling, then far too much work. By the time I was in a position to actually do this hunt, our season here in Alberta had just been closed, and I needed to come up with another plan.
After a lot of research and a bit of a mess with another outfitter who wasn't able to deliver a scheduled hunt, I decided to book for 2009 with Jake Jefferson (aka on this site as Brwnbr) of Black River Hunting Camps. That was, in retrospect, one of the best decisions I've ever made.
In a nutshell, Jake delivered an absolutely wonderful well-equipped and well-planned hunt. All the gear was in great shape, and while the fly-in camp was of necessity fairly minimalist, it was far more comfortable than I was expecting. Even the food was a surprise (really, who would have thought there would be sour cream that far away from civilization? :-)
We arrived in camp northeast of Talkeetna in GMU 13 on Sept 17th, got set up, and were ready for action the next morning. I had arrived with what I hoped were realistic expecations for a 10-day hunt in late September -- thinking that I was likely going to at least see a grizzly or two, but that actually harvesting one was by no means certain. I was mentally prepared for some very long days of glassing, and emotionally prepared to go home without a bear if that's how things played out.
Boy, was I ever in for a surprise. After spending a morning filled with sights of black bears, caribou, ptarmigan and a cow moose, there we were on the afternoon of the first day looking at an absolutely gorgeous grizzly at the top of the far side of the valley we were glassing. The bear's location and direction of travel weren't at all helpful, but from time to time things would improve a bit -- and hunters being perpetual optimists, we would move in a bit closer each time and see what happened next.
After a couple hours of this game, things were starting to look interesting, as the bear was definitely drifting back in our direction, feeding on berries mixed into a slide of boulders. When the rangefinder said "597 yards", my mindset began to change. Until that point, I was mentally prepared for this to simply be a bear spotted rather than harvested. But it was beginning to look possible.
Then at around 250 yards, it was beginning to look really possible. That was when the bear heard something as we scrambled up the rocks and thick alders, and suddenly it was looking intently in our direction. A hissed warning and we both stopped, standing frozen for what seemed an eternity as the bear stared holes right through us. Finally, it went back to feeding and the hunt was on again.
The last 65 yards we went up that slope sound simple, but they weren't. The alders got thicker, the rocks got bigger, and the bear got closer. When Jake ranged 185 yards, it was quickly decided that this was as good as it was going to get. I wish I could say that what followed as a cool-as-a-cucumber moment right out of the pages of Ruark or Capstick. But all of a sudden, I found myself dealing with fogged glasses (having really overheated during the climb up), shooting sticks that were sinking into the mossy ground as if it were quicksand, and some intervening brush that partially screened the bear from anything but a standing offhand shot. Eventually, I pulled myself and the shooting sticks together and -- to Jake's great amusement afterwards -- started talking myself through the shot. I don't recall having done that at all, but apparently I was whispering to myself -- "It's just another shot, Don. Just another shot. You've killed gophers a lot farther than that. It's just another shot."
Like hell it was just another shot! IT WAS A GRIZZLY!!!! Bigger than life, and something I'd dreamed about for almost all of mine. And it was right there on those rocks, quartering towards us. Then turning broadside. Then frozen for a moment, before rolling onto its side towards us. As it disappeared, I saw a front leg in the air completely frozen, then its head equally immobile. And then it was gone, vanished into the tangled rock slide. It was only then that I realized I must have shot it, but I honestly wasn't even aware of the .338 going off. All I could see, all I was aware of, was that bear.
Just as it disappeared, I heard Jake's .416 Remington roar out a back-up shot. I wasn't surprised, as the bear wasn't going to allow me a second shot before it was lost in the boulders. From the time I shot until the time it was completely out of sight was less than 2 seconds.
Suddenly, everything was silent. After a few moments of listening, Jake circled above the bear's last known position while I covered the obvious escape routes I could see. Suddenly, a very happy guide called out that I needed to start climbing up slope and come enjoy a very special sight.
As it turned out, Jake's insurance shot wasn't needed. The Barnes TSX bullet from the .338 had flown true, hitting the front shoulder before proceeding upwards and breaking the bear's neck. It had been dead before it even hit the ground.
I'm not sure what these pictures will look like to anyone else, but to me they almost bring tears to my eyes with the realization that the dream I've held longer than any other has actually come to pass. There's almost a sadness in that, a feeling of mortality that furthers the bond I'll forever share with this animal. The big dream, the really Big Dream, is over. Perhaps I'll have the chance to hunt a grizzly again, but it will never be this bear. It will be never those final yards of stalking uphill towards a lifetime of destiny. It will never again be this:
With that, it was time to hoof it 5 miles back to camp in a vain attempt to get back before dark. Then a return trip the next morning, a quick skinning of the bear, and an even longer, heavier trip back. Heavy of pack, but light of heart would be a good way to describe it.
In the end, this trip was beyond anything I ever dreamed. While I suppose in a perfect world success wouldn’t come on the first day (there’s a first – a client complaining about having TOO MUCH success!), the experience of spotting that bear from so far away and spending a couple hours moving in on it was utterly fantastic. And to get to do it in such a scenic, untouched spot with Mt McKinley dominating the western horizon ... well, it was like living a chapter in a book written by Jack O’Connor or Elmer Keith. It was, in a word, magnificent.
Jake somehow understood everything I was thinking as I ran my fingers through the thick hair on that bear. He asked me where I was and what I was doing about 7 or 8 years ago, when that bear was probably born. And then he asked me to think about all the steps and twists and turns my life had taken since then, and to reflect on how it was the same for that bear. There were a million different ways we could have never found each other, but we did, as if we were always meant to. Sitting on the side of that mountain, looking at that bear and the enormous space beyond, I found myself being filled with a mix of faith and humility and felt more genuinely alive than I have in a very long time.
I flew home a few days later quite amazed with all the riches I found. A wonderful memory and trophy, a full heart, and a new friend. I simply could not imagine a better hunt, a better outcome, or a better guide.