Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to take a grizzly more than any other North American species. A stubborn nature combined with the primacy of establishing that goal so early in life never permitted it to diminish. The only thing standing in the way was the money needed to make it happen.
My first attempt was on the cheap, as I was living in Montana during the very last years grizzly hunting was allowed. I’d made arrangements with an outfitter who guided in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to be on call in case the big boar that caused trouble in his camp each fall showed up. If it did, and as long as the meager quota had not been filled, I was to meet him at the trailhead, ride to his back country camp and hunt the bear. A little voice kept telling me that something might not be on the up-and-up with this arrangement. To hush it up I called the Department of Fish & Game and spoke a friend who happened to be the official in charge of the intended hunting area. “I can’t really say much, but I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” came the reply after a long, uncomfortable silence. “In fact, I don’t recommend that you go anywhere near that guy’s camp unless you want trouble.” Hopes dashed, I tore up the contract and telephoned the outfitter and told him the truth. “I understand,” he replied. “My wife gets like that, too.”
“I know the right guy for big grizzly.” Coming from no less than Craig Boddington, the remark had my attentions. We were planning a hunt together to promote Kimber’s then-new Model 8400 rifles and discussing options. “His name is Dave Leonard. He hunts the Arctic out of Kotzebue every other spring. It’s a real adventure, something like the polar bear hunts that based out of there in the 1960s. The hunts are hard, really hard, but Dave has some really big bears. Success is about fifty percent, mostly due to unpredictable weather. I was there recently and ran out of time, but I really want to go back. What do you think?” I called Dave the next day and booked us for the following spring.
Kotzebue squats along the Bering Sea just north of the Arctic Circle. One does not get there easily or go without good reason. There are no roads, and it is the very end-of-the-line via commercial air from Anchorage. The people who call Kotzebue home are as wonderful as they are unique, for it takes a special type of person to live in the extraordinary cold and darkness that fill much of the calendar. I wish it were possible for me to write a book describing some of the experiences from my visits to Kotzebue, but doing so is well beyond my ability with words and no reasonable person would even consider that such doings were even possible should they ever be accurately described. That said, I mark my time there as an extraordinary life experience, and several of the residents have become life-long friends.
Dave greeted us at the airport and helped manhandle luggage to a waiting truck. After offloading at a nearby hotel, we braced April’s chill with coffee and talked bears. Two hunters were in the field, and while communications were spotty it seemed that one or possibly both had been successful. Weather permitting, Dave would fly his Super Cub out at first light. Craig would go along, and one of the hunters would return. If time allowed, I would go out later in the afternoon.
The weather cooperated and Dave returned with a smiling hunter just as we were finishing lunch. The hunter was happy to be out of the cold, but the reason he was smiling was evident when he unrolled eight and a half feet of grizzly skin for final fleshing. The big boar, chocolate through the body and black down the legs was one of the finest trophies I had ever seen. We also learned that the other hunter had indeed been successful, having taken another good boar with hair so blonde he had taken to calling it Bearilyn Monroe.
I made it to out to camp the next day and was greeted with tales of bears popping out of dens, fresh wolf tracks and a forecast of clear weather. Overflow on the Noatak River made landing a challenge, but Dave handled it easily. Craig was naturally out hunting, so we stuffed my gear into the tiny cabin that was to be our home and verified zero. Afterward, I spent some time adjusting snowshoes and getting acquainted with the little Skidoo Tundra snowmobile that would carry me between observation points.
The method of hunting was simple to hear it told. Craig and I would separate and follow either Dave or one of his guides in big loops, stopping frequently to look things over. We would be hoping to see bears to be sure, but what we were really searching for were tracks. Once found, they were evaluated for size and, if promising, the search was concentrated. Once discovered, a bear would be stalked on foot. If the stars aligned, the bear would be on a kill that it was reluctant to leave and likely would defend, for pickings were scarce.
The weather held, as so it seemed did the rest of the bears in their dens. Craig had to leave after a week’s effort without his bear. I stuck it out for a bit longer with the same result. Dave and I called Craig as soon as we returned to Kotzebue and set a date to try again in two years.
It seemed like forever before we returned to the little cabin, but the flight in had been encouraging. We discovered several herds of moose yarded up along the river within snowmobile distance, one of them being watched by what appeared to be a big boar. Dave was optimistic and headed that direction with Craig and his cameraman the next morning. That didn’t work out, so they packed up a fly camp and flew to a distant drainage. As the weather cleared several days later they flew back, Dave dipping his wings as they came in low over the cabin. Craig had taken his bear over a moose kill after some great crosswind shooting just as a snowstorm threatened to ruin the stalk. Africa was calling Craig, so he left as soon as conditions permitted. Dave and I stuck with it for another week until warm weather threatened to strand his plane in the rapidly melting snow. It was more than a little hard to leave, so another hunt was scheduled.
It was another long wait. John Zent from NRA Publications is always up for an adventure and accepted my invitation. We had a foolproof plan for him, that being to snowmobile out to the area where Craig had killed his bear. A comfortable spike camp was waiting, and 3 good boars had been spotted in the surrounding drainages during moose season the previous fall. It should have worked but it didn’t, and mixed signals costing John his opportunity. I wish I could forget what happened to me.
Several miles west of camp was a big drainage. The wolf trapper who had been using the cabin prior to our arrival had discovered tracks of a large boar near at the top only days before. Since there were moose at the bottom, we reasoned, it was but a matter of time. Things were set in motion, but it took a week to find the bear. We finally saw him walking down the middle of the drainage toward the moose, strapped on webs and mushed to cut him off. I have never been more certain that something good was going to happen, and didn’t think anything of it when the guide dropped my rangefinder in the snow. We set up and waited on a high bank, watching an opening about 80 yards away where he surely would pass.
The time we calculated that it would take for the bear would pass came and went. Nervously looking around, I saw the grizzly climbing the mountain far above. “Range him,” I whispered. The rangefinder, having been covered with snow, would not work. We guessed at the distance, on the long side of reasonable for dangerous game. I held accordingly and fired. Thinking a hit, I kept firing until I heard a click. The bear ran up and over a mountain. The only blood in his track came from an ice-cut pad. I’d missed. Later, we managed to get the rangefinder operating and learned the distance was underestimated by over 100 yards. In the featureless terrain that isn’t hard to do, but knowing it didn’t make me feel any better.
Dave and I planned hunt number four not long after I returned home. This time I was to arrive in Kotzebue early, set up a temporary office and work until conditions were prime. Then I would go out and stick with it until we found my bear. What I did was wait almost a week in Kotzebue before we called off the hunt entirely. The weather was simply too warm to land the planes in the unusually deep snow and getting to the cabin on snowmobiles, nearly 200 miles each way, was impossible due to the overflow on the rivers. Things were so bad that Alaska reimbursed all license fees with natural disaster emergency funding.
The primacy of it all would not let go, and the hunt had now become a quest. I think Dave was actually more upset than me, but we planned a fifth effort to ease the pain. It was good to be back in Kotzebue, for it seemed like half the town was now aware of the situation and cheering us on. After being weathered in for three days, climbing into the Super Cub felt good.
Guide Riley Pitts was waiting for me at the cabin. We spent the first day in the drainage where I had missed four years earlier, then hooked up sleds and pulled our gear to another cabin 20 miles downriver. There was no particular reason for this change, other than to spread out from the other hunters.
This time the Arctic seemed colder than the other trips, something I should probably have blamed on age but refused. There was more snow than usual as well, to the point we had to dig down into the cabin in order to open the door. The floor inside was covered with ice that never melted from the corner opposite the woodstove. Cold aside, Riley is one of my favorite people and we had a great time from the start. It also helped that we were seeing bears nearly every day.
The first were cubs, small ones that should have been with a sow. We watched them wrestling in the snow and managed to locate what appeared to be their den on the side of a distant mountain. Figuring the only reason their mother wasn’t there was that she had a date, we spent the next few days trying to find them and spoil the party. Doing so took a week.
Neither Riley nor I could give up on that den, and finally decided to stop watching it from a distance and go measure the tracks. Arriving there about noon, we were trying to sort out the tracks when a big boar came walking down the mountain just out of range. He was clearly big enough in the spotting scope, so we geared up to follow in the hope he would bed down. He did just that, on a knob not half a mile away. The wind was hitting us right in the face and was blowing hard enough to cover the sounds of our approach. Wearing overwhites, there was no way he could see us crossing a solid snowfield. How he managed to do so at 800 yards is something I’ll always ponder. We watched him run over a mountain and out of my life forever.
I didn’t hold out much hope the next morning. It had dawned bitter cold and windy, and with a persistent fog cut that dramatically reduced visibility. We were running low on gas that Dave couldn’t get in to resupply, so Riley suggested working through a range of mountains closer to the cabin. That way, we would be able to find our way back if the fog closed in. Of course, he spotted a bear immediately from the first lookout.
The bear was big. He was also moving away, either because he heard the engines or just happened to be walking in that direction. The country in front of him was steep and rough, and neither of us had ever been in there. Riley pulled out a map, and together we made a plan. Figuring the bear would continue through a pass between two peaks, we agreed to take the sleds around to the other side and then climb, hoping for the best. Off we went, an hour later we were climbing a hard-packed snowfield and trying to stay out of the avalanche chutes.
Topping out, we hit the bear’s tracks. Following slowly, hoping that we were still close and taking advantage of the elevation, we crossed the shoulder of the mountain and soon saw the bear bedded below on a ridgeline. We switched positions to put me in the lead, chambered rounds and cut the distance as quietly as possible.
I would like to tell you that we crept up close to the bear in his bed, that he stood and I took him with a single, perfect shot. The way it happened was more predictable. He must have heard us and ran dead away, crossing a snowfield at maybe 150 yards. I sat down and played the dealt hand, first slowing and then dropping him with a side-on shoulder shot after he had stumbled and turned. The Kimber .300 WSM did excellent work, and I wish I knew how little time passed between the first and last shot. After all, I’d been windmilling the bolt like Pete Townsend did his guitar during the best years of rock and roll.
Riley and I sat quietly for a long time before climbing down to my bear. After all, the hunt had lasted 8 years and I was in no hurry to see it conclude. Once there, we called Dave on the satellite phone to share the moment, and then took our time with pictures. Once Riley had the skin off, he retraced our steps back up and over to the snowmobiles and herded one back to pick me up.
It was a long, cold ride back to the little cabin, but not because of the Arctic or even the fatigue that comes following such an adrenaline dump. When Riley walked back to get the snowmobiles, he discovered that another big boar had been following us as we approached and then shot my bear. His huge tracks were pressed down on ours, right up to the place where I had knelt to shoot. Then the bear walked back over the mountain and all around the snowmobiles. We were lucky. He didn’t tear anything up, including Riley who had left his rifle behind so he could travel light.
The next morning was clear and Dave buzzed our cabin before we crawled out of bed. We packed quickly to take advantage of the weather window and soon were lined out for Kotzebue where the Dwight-got-his-bear party from the night before was still raging. Not that it really mattered other than me just wanting to know, but we did unroll the hide for the tape. My wonderful bear squared 8 feet, 4 inches. Primacy had proven itself to be a most worthwhile theory, and a grizzly like that is worth a lifetime’s wait.—Dwight Van Brunt