What is the most dangerous big game hunt in North America? I bet if you asked 10 people, at least 80% of them would say grizzly or brown bear. If you really wanted to make things interesting, add a bow to the equation and now you’ve really upped the ante. On a recent trip to Alaska I booked an archery dall sheep hunt as my primary target specie with the opportunity to hunt other animals on a trophy fee basis. But as most hunts in Alaska incur bad weather, my sheep hunt was no exception. Alaska’s infamous cloudy, wet, cold weather churned up and down the valley floor like it was stuck in a washing machine cycle for several days making it virtual impossible to locate any rams on the peaks and ridges above.
Luckily my guide, Scott McRae of Alaska Summit Guide Services convinced me to purchase a brown bear license before departing Anchorage on our sheep hunt. Scott mentioned that we may get lucky and see bears walking the river in search of spawning salmon. To me the thought of hunting a huge bear with archery equipment was beyond intriguing, it was one of this archer’s ultimate dreams. But as in most dreams, they usually don’t materialize that easily. I’ve been to Alaska on three previous occasions and have never seen a brown bear or grizzly. Bear tracks…yes. Bears….no. I kept thinking you can’t win if you don’t play so I bought the license in hopes of having an encounter. Statistically speaking, the odds of seeing a bear had to finally be in my favor, right?
In the field, wet, damp and borderline miserable we switched our focus from trying to glass the peaks and ridges to glassing the river bottoms below. We dropped elevation to get a better vantage point where we could see more of the river and surrounding marshes below. I bet we weren’t settled for more than an hour when Scott said “Bear!” I couldn’t believe it. The words I longed to hear for so many trips finally rang true. Scott quickly got the spotting scope out and started sizing him up. After only a few short minutes of watching the bear work the shoreline, Scott estimated the bear to be around 8 ft squared. To me, 8ft or 10ft, it made little difference, I was engaged and wanted to seize this opportunity. Scott studied the river bottom carefully, mapping the route we would take. As in most mountain hunts, it took us longer to reach our destination than expected. Thick brush and wet marshes just added to the degree of difficulty on this hunt. Once we finally reached the river, we both began glassing, searching for the bear.
Within minutes I located the bear. He was about 400 yds down river on the opposite bank and working his way towards us. I honestly remember thinking to myself “this is actually about to happen”. In hopes of getting a closer shot, we waded across a shallow channel of the river to a small gravel bar and waited. However, just as quickly as all that adrenalin consumed me; it started to wane even faster. The bear walked into the thick brush and was no longer in sight. I sat there waiting and wondering in a much more somber mood…is this going to happen? We waited 20 – 30 minutes before wading back to the river bank. With the unstable, swirling winds blowing up and down the valley floor we both figured the bear must have smelled us and slipped away. Seeing as we only had 2.5 hours of daylight left to work with we opted to stay put in hopes of another bear showing up. Scott and I sat on a log and shot the breeze for an hour or so.
As the sun began to fade, I heard Scott whisper “Bear…. less than 200 yards down river and closing quickly”. Our bear apparently crossed the river and was walking right at us! Like a Chinese fire drill, we quickly moved to our gravel bar figuring the bear would give us a clean 40 yard broadside shot. Clearly the bear didn’t get the memo as he jumped in the river and started walking right at us! I remember Scott whispering “make sure the bear doesn’t see you”. Great, I’m basically behind a barren branch and a huge brown bear is walking right at me. How in the world am I going to be able to draw my bow without being noticed?
The bear is still walking right at me, head on 50 yds, 40 yds, 30 yds and then finally he starts quartering to me giving me a slight shot. He briefly looks away and I quickly draw my bow waiting for my opportunity. Still moving closer, I can’t take it any longer and let my arrow fly. At a mere 15 yds, I watch my arrow disappear into the bears hide and brace for the train wreck as he’s running directly at us! Sitting motionless, only tracking the bear with my eyes everything seems to be running in slow motion. The bear is definitely trying to figure out what just happened. He runs by us with blood pouring out his side, running into the river and then onto a small island 70 yds away. Watching the brush violently thrash back and forth we knew the bear was hit hard and was most likely going to bed down.
A few minutes later Scott whispered, “Can you believe how close that bear got to us? I watched the entire event unfold through my rifle scope. I had pressure on the trigger and planned on shooting if the bear stopped”. I knew the bear was close, but seeing as I was on sensory overload I never really grasped just how close the bear was until we walked over to look at the blood trail. My arrow passed through the bear and was dangling out the opposite side. When he ran by us, the arrow fell out a mere 5 yards from where I was crouched down on the gravel bar! I had no clue the bear was that close! You could see the bear tracks and huge amounts of blood sprayed all over the sand. We were both confident that our bruin lay dead less than 80 yds away.
We circled the island and slowly worked our way on shore. I climbed an old dead tree to see if I could get any kind of visual on the brute. Working my way up the tree higher and higher, I finally saw what I was looking for…..brown was down! My dreams of shooting a brown bear with my bow materialized after all! Once the picture taking and skinning were done we started our long hike back to camp. Later, Scott measured the bear at a legitimate 8’1 ft sq. Scott was right on the money! Even though I was never able to connect on a ram with archery equipment I did manage to kill a gorgeous 12 year old sheep with Scott’s rifle the very last evening of the hunt. This truly was a hunt of a lifetime.