I pulled my jacket hood over my head to ward off the cold wind and resumed searching the hills with my binoculars. The country that sprawled before me was as wild, dangerous and beautiful as my quarry, the Alaskan brown bear.
An early spring had forced the snow to retreat into the Alaskan Peninsula mountains. The broken bones of a moose, revealed in front of my camp by the departing snow, bore silent testimony to how this harsh land dealt with the weak. Paradoxically, this apparently inhospitable place also supported abundant and varied life. Caribou, their winter coats tattered and worn, danced through the tundra. Porcelain swans floated in ponds spawned by the melting winter. Moose browsed and ptarmigan flushed from the alders. Life of all kinds was in evidence. Only the great bears had not made their appearance.
Massive paw prints in the mud of streambeds told me the big bears were present. Unfortunately, most already seemed to have left their lofty denning areas for the alder flats. The tangled alders formed a fortress where the bruins could neither be seen nor approached. A few tracks could be observed in the snow above camp and those were the areas I searched. It was on the fourth day that I saw my first bear.
The bear walked out onto the snowfield directly above camp. I focused the 20x spotting scope. The bear was a beautiful blonde sow and her attributes had not gone unnoticed. A chestnut boar was off to one side in the alders. He moved towards his beauty, his head swinging from massive shoulders. The sow turned and cuffed the boar’s head.
I had to laugh. The boar, a huge bear, sat down looking like a hurt puppy. The sow then belly flopped into the snow to thwart any further advances by the boar. But the boar was persistent. He approached his lady again. She responded to his affections with a thunderous right hook to the side of his head. The blow had the desired effect and the boar retreated again. It was then that I decided to try to approach the quarrelsome lady and her suitor.
It was about 9:00pm and I had very little time to make the climb before darkness. I gathered up my binoculars and Ruger .300 magnum and headed out of camp. I hurried across the tundra flats and began climbing the grass-covered mountain. It took about 30 minutes to get to a rise overlooking the area where I had first seen the bears. I was both relieved to see they were still there and apprehensive at the thought of approaching. I hurried on in the gathering dusk. Too little light was left for a stalk. I made a direct approach, hoping I would not be seen against the darkening brush. Finally I reached the snowfield but only in time to see the bears disappear into the alders and the blanket of the encroaching night. I hiked back to camp in darkness.
The curtain of night lifted at daybreak to reveal the same boar and sow back on center stage, sprawled in the same snowfield. The boar’s bulk spread across the tracks of my boots – boot prints left there just hours earlier.
I pulled on my hipboots and began retracing my route of the previous day. Stopping to recheck the location of the bears, I was surprised to see a third bear had replaced the first two: another sow. She walked methodically, a chocolate drop of a cub scampering along behind. A fifth bear then made its appearance and followed the others up the mountain. This last bear was so light in color that it appeared almost white. After not seeing any bears in three and a half days, I had now seen five in 15 minutes, ranging in color from almost black to almost white! I hurried on.
By this time I got up to the snowfield the parade of bears was over. The snow was pockmarked with tracks. My footprints from the day before were obliterated by big pad prints, but the bears were gone. Their individual trails led to the top of the mountain and then fanned out into the adjoining mountains.
I circled the crest of the mountain, straining my eyes for movement, progressing cautiously and slowly, but to no avail. The bears had dissolved into the nothingness. Only their tracks remained. I flopped down to rest.
The valley spread out below me. At first nothing caught my attention – then I saw it. A bear was in the patch of alders on the ridge below me. It had been asleep and was now rising. The approach of a second bear had disturbed it. The first bear snarled a warning at the second, and then moved into an opening below the alders. I watched through my rifle scope. Lying prone, I had a perfect rest on a clump of grassy dirt. The bear stopped as it moved downhill. I centered the crosshairs between its shoulder blades. The .300 roared and the bear collapsed and spun around broadside. I fired again.
The second bear crashed through the alders to a rise, which it quickly climbed. Extending its head, it peered out, straining nose and tiny eyes for an answer to the mysterious thunder. I lay immobile, trying to hide behind blades of grass. Finally, the bear slowly turned and departed.
Gradually working my way down the steep embankment, I came level with and then moved below my bear, losing sight of it. To approach I had to alternative but to cut back beneath the bear. I struggled through the waist deep snow. Looking up, I could see that I was just below the bear. If it had enough life left to charge, I knew its downhill rush could not be stopped. I struggled harder through the quagmire of left-over winter. My faltering march led me up through the receding snow, which finally released its grasp of my legs. Stopping to catch my breath, I searched the cracks in the wall of alders. I could see nothing but the tangled thicket. I moved ahead, slowly. Finally I saw it.
The bear lay before me, just 12 feet away. It lay still. I threw a chunk of snow at it – no reaction. I reached forward with the rifle, holding it like a pistol. I poked the bear. It was dead. My quest was over.