“SHOOT, SHOOT, BIG, BIG,” Ivan, my Russian guide, was yelling at the sighting of my bear. “Big,” I asked, as this was the first griz I’d ever seen in the wild. “Da, Da, Shoot,” he replied. So I did, three times with my Rigby. And with that, my lifelong dream of hunting coastal brown bears was over within two hours of arriving in camp. Upon approaching the downed bruin, it was painfully apparent that I made a huge mistake. The bear squared right at seven feet. Hardly the trophy I came for.
How did this happen? I had traveled a long way and spent a lot of money to be disappointed like this! The answer to that question came only after a great deal of soul searching. My immediate thought was to blame the guide for wanting to maintain his 100 percent success rate at any cost. That thought was shortsighted. As time passed, I was able to gather my thoughts, away from the emotion of the event, and arrive at a truthful answer.
I concluded that a combination of factors were responsible for my unsatisfying hunt. A lifetime of anticipation, the excitement of my first dangerous game hunt, a lack of experience in judging bears, the language barrier and so on. Ultimately, I pulled the trigger and that’s where the final responsibility rests.
With that conclusion and hungry for redemption, I rebooked for another fall brown bear hunt with the same outfitter, Denny Geurink’s Outdoor Adventures. I insisted on hunting the same camp and with the same guides. This time, I would do my homework. I poured over any and all photographic media I could get my hands on in an attempt to learn the art of bear judging for myself. I studied mounted specimens, both large and small, at every opportunity. I even attended a Hunters Extravaganza show with the sole mission of observing “Brody the Bear” live and up close to see what a “Big” brownie looks like.
Armed with new knowledge, I again set out for southern Kamchatka, Russia. Unlike my first trip to Petropovlovsk, via Anchorage, Alaska, this trip was routed through Moscow. As of this writing, no airlines are currently serving the former route. This latter, “wrong way around the world” routing required a stay in a downtown Moscow hotel on both ends of the trip.
Moscow has become one of the most expensive cities in the world but it added quite a bit of culture to the experience. I had my best friend along this time as well and we had a great adventure just getting to the bear camp. On the “going over” layover, we were anxious to go out and try some local Russian cuisine. On the “coming home” layover, we couldn’t wait to get to the Hard Rock Café, Moscow for an old fashioned, greasy, cheese burger and fries! Cabbage pancakes and fish soup only goes so far!
Red Square in Moscow and the Mig-25 fighter planes lining the taxiways in Petropovlovsk were interesting sights for Jim Myers and me as we are both former Navy pilots. Neither of us ever would have dreamed of being here when we were on active duty 20–plus years ago. At least not on friendly terms!
We finally reached bear camp after four full days of travel. The camp was exactly as I remembered it. The armored personnel carrier, (AKA “the tank”), we used for transportation over the marshy bog, the cook house, the hunters’ cabin; even the bust of Lennon. They were all there. All the same guides were there as well, with the exception of Ivan who suffered a stroke in camp during the spring bear hunt. Unfortunately, he remained in camp for three days without proper medical treatment due to a combination of remoteness and bad weather in the mountain passes which prevented the helicopter from performing an emergency medical evacuation. He survived but sadly his hunting days are over. His absence was notable as Ivan played the accordion, sang, and entertained us with traditional Cossack dancing nightly on my first trip. I wish him well in his recovery.
We unpacked from the helicopter ride, ate some borsch, and settled in for a couple of hours prior to heading out into the field to continue where I left off two years prior. The conditions were exactly as I visualize coastal brown bear hunting. Tundra, salmon choked rivers, and RAIN! If walking along rivers on narrow bear trails in head high grass, large caliber rifles loaded and at the ready, doesn’t make your heart beat faster, you simply are not alive!
The first evening produced one sighting. At 500 yards, the bear appeared to be a good one through my Leica binocular. We hurried closer
as the bruin was moving back into the alders from the river. He outpaced us and disappeared, not to be seen again.
Over the next three days, all five hunters in camp concentrated hard on the rivers, spotting nothing but sows with cubs. After four days of a 7-day hunt in a camp that still has a 100 percent success rate, with nearly one quarter of the top 20 SCI bears to its credit, we were skunked. The hunters, guides and even our outfitter were left scratching our heads. Where are all the bears?
The decision was made to change tactics. We took “the tank” about 15 miles up into the hills and hunted the patches of pine nut spruce trees. These are not really trees at all but rather groves of tightly woven bushes so thick a man cannot penetrate on foot. Bears, however, love them. In these bushes, they enjoy eating pine nuts in total seclusion.
I spent the entire fifth day with my guide, Sergei. We must have walked 10 miles on the spongy tundra bog. From time to time, we sat and watched the bear trails leading from one pine nut patch to another. I spotted a good boar around noon. We looked him over extensively and Sergei confirmed it was a shooter with “Bolshavoi” and a “thumbs up.” He began shoving cartridges into his rifle as we set out on foot to get closer.
The bear was about 600 yards away. I wanted to close to within 150 or so. The wind was quartering toward him, which required us to circled around behind instead of cutting him off. The bear either winded us or simply outpaced us again as we lost him in the tall grass. Returning to our observation perch, Sergei broke out lunch from his backpack. The rest of the day produced more sow and cub sightings with one possible adolescent boar, but no shooters. When the tank picked us up at dark. Two of the other hunters had scored on good boars. We finally found the bears! The mood back in camp improved dramatically as we pulled in with two bears on top of the tank. Even the cook was excited. The food, however, was still, well, – nourishing! Actually, it wasn’t that bad. Just different from what we are used to. In my opinion, that is part of the total experience.
We three remaining hunters returned to the pine nut patches on the sixth morning at daybreak. Jim and Yuri, and Sergei and I, jumped off the tank and began the arduous task of slogging across the tundra to begin watching the trails again. Just after splitting up, we heard the tank crank up and move off with Tony, the other hunter. Almost immediately, the tank stopped and the engine fell silent. Shortly, we heard Tony shoot three times. Evidently, the tank noise was too much for his bear to hold his position. The bear crossed the field and Tony was able to anchor him as he crossed a stream.
Sergei and I continued to a position where we were able to watch two sides of a point of brush. Rain began to fall. Lightly at first and then torrential. I placed the bikini covers back on my scope, fully realizing the need to quickly remove them if a shot developed. After processing Tony’s bear, the tank cranked up and drove around the far side of the nut patch to pick up Jim and Yuri.
As they were loading, I heard a faint noise in the brush ahead of me. Looking up, I found myself nose to nose with a monster boar at 20 yards. I had seen 34 bears in the previous five days. None of them looked anything like this one. He was muscular with a head like a #10 washtub – an obvious shooter!
Sergei yelled: “shoot” at the same time I raised my rifle. “Why can’t I find him in the scope” I panicked? Then I realized the scope covers were still on. As I ripped at the covers, the bear wheeled around and disappeared back into the brush. I looked at Sergei in horror as I had just blown my chance at a trophy bear. Sergei looked at me and we both began to laugh.
Just then we noticed movement and realized the bear was still running through the pine nut patch. We ran 50 yards or so to catch him on the other side of the brush point. He exited the pine patch at 75 yards, in a full run, perpendicular to our position. Almost as if in a time warp, I remember thinking: “this is not going to be an easy shot, but it’s time for me to perform.” I settled the cross hairs just in front of his chest and slammed a 300-grain, Barnes Triple Shock X bullet into his shoulder. He tumbled in a forward roll, landed on his feet and continued to run at full speed.
“GOOD, SHOOT,” yelled Sergei. I fired the .375 H&H again with exactly the same result. “SHOOT,” yelled Sergei. The third round hit him
low in the chest. He stumbled but did not go down. The fourth shot hit him in the lungs. This time, he fell but struggled to regain his feet.
I quickly reloaded and hit him in the shoulders with the fifth shot. The great beast slumped but continued to thrash about in a futile attempt to get up. Sergei told me to shoot again at the base of the neck for insurance. I complied with the sixth round.
By then, all the other guides and hunters reached our position. Congratulations were offered and accepted. As we approached the bear, he swung his head toward the main guide, Vascilli, and gnashed his teeth. The guides, assuming the bear was dead and now unarmed, jumped back as I plugged him a seventh time from 10 feet. I racked home the last round and suddenly realized I was the only one standing my ground. Score one for the Americans.
Jim got his bear later that day as well, thereby preserving the camp’s 16-year, 100 percent success rate. A full-blown Russian celebration, including traditional Russian libations and caviar, served on the back of the tank, began in earnest once all the bears were down. With our interpreter back in camp, we carried on an excited conversation, each in his own native language. Although the words were not understood, the camaraderie of hunting buddies shared around any deer camp back home was present. Words were not necessary.
I felt a bit light headed on the two-hour tank ride back to camp. Many things crossed my mind. My bear will place in the SCI Record Book and squared right at nine feet. I experienced a great wilderness adventure, the cities of Moscow and Petropovlovsk, and some true Russian culture. As my thoughts turned toward the long trek that lay ahead, I felt great satisfaction with my hunt, enriched by the experience, and most of all, grateful to be returning home; to America!– Todd Williams