Editor’s Note: On Friday we dig into the Safari Magazine archives and rerun a story from one of our past issues. This week, we follow Burl Jones and his son Mark on a quest for grizzly bear in the Ogilvie Mountains of the Yukon Territory. This story originally appeared in the September/October 1996 issue of Safari magazine.
We were working our way above timberline, to the hunting country of the Yukon’s Ogilvie Mountains. My son Mark and I were being guided through these mountains by Marty Thomas, through vistas of snow-covered slopes, craggy peaks, valleys of dwarf alder, beaver dams and rolling muskeg. Hundreds of miles of spectacular scenery could be glassed from a high ridge. The low brush was higher than it appeared and could hide bull caribou and moose completely, until they decided to stand or move. We were to do our hunting and packing entirely from horseback, at least until game was spotted. Up before dawn to gather the horses, a quick breakfast, a packed lunch and then a ride out from the spike camp in a new direction…this was our schedule for 10 days.
Our first day consisted mostly of a five-hour trip down the upper Hood River and up Moose Creek to Moose Valley Lodge, a plywood shack about 8×16 feet, with Visqueen windows, tin stove and bear-crunched plywood door. The foam pads over our bunks and the food shelves supported by alder boughs made it comfortable enough.
The hunt began in earnest with a ride up Moose Valley. With our sore butts and knees and the lack of game, the ride seemed longer than it was. A couple of miles above camp,we saw the tracks in the fresh snow of a bull caribou headed down the valley. “We must’ve ridden right by him, “Marty remarked with surprise.
As we returned later in the day and were approaching camp, Mark spotted movement against the hillside far ahead. He whispered, turning to me, “Caribou.”
We dismounted and jerked out our binoculars. The bull was feeding contentedly in a large, boggy mineral lick, unaware of us.
Marty set up his spotting scope and after only a few seconds turned and whispered, “This one is a keeper. You’d better take him if you can.”
Mark and I agreed and started our stalk through the taller brush along the creek bank. We spotted the caribou again at 400 yards, then again at 200 yards. Mark crept even closer, until less than 100 yards separated him and his quarry. Mark eased out of the brush. The bull spotted him just as he steadied his rifle on a limb. As the echo of the shot faded, the bull pitched forward and lay still. The 139-grain handload from Mark’s 7mm Remington Magnum had done an excellent job, as it had so many times previously. The antlers proved to be exceptionally long and heavy with good points.
Morning dawned clear and cold and found us packing camp to move out of Moose Valley into Grizzly Valley Lodge, five hours down the Hart River. Because we had taken a caribou from Moose Valley, we hoped to find a moose in Grizzly Valley; it sounded reasonable at the time.
On a previous hunt, large bear tracks had been seen three miles above the grizzly camp, near a pair of recently taken moose carcasses. Marty was optimistic and had Mark and me ready for action. Griz Camp was a duplicate of Moose Lodge – a plywood castle on the banks of a clear mountain creek.The scattering of stunted trees provided shelter and firewood; the grassy meadows made good feed for the horses; and the ptarmigan provided a potential change of menu.
My own story had roots 28 years old, when Mark was five months old and my wife, Eunice, and I moved to St. Ignatius, Montana. As a 24-year-old dental school graduate, I was sent by the Division of Indian Health to the Flathead Indian Reservation. Soon my two-year-old son had learned to identify by name all the big game animals in the Rockies. But Eunice and I were still surprised by the first complete sentence Mark spoke. We were driving along the face of the snow-capped Missions, Mark between us on the seat, when pointing toward the peaks, he said, “Someday … me kill a bear in those high big mountains.”
Now, an opportunity for “some-day” had come for Mark and me, after 26 years of frustration, disappointment and a pair of my own botched attempts. But who could have guessed that it would come high in the Ogilvie Mountains, far from our home in Montana?
The fourth morning, we headed up the valley with great anticipation. A crisp, frosty morning with a two-day-old snow and the promise of sunshine seemed a great beginning.
We had reached the halfway point on our hunt and had yet to see a moose or a sign of a bear, Pete Jensen our outfitter, already had taken six bears that fall, which was more than usual. And, according to Marty, they had never taken a bear as late as we were hunting. As bears near hibernation, they travel less and stay close to their dens, making them much more difficult to find.
The morning of the seventh day began with Marty frying bacon and brewing cowboy coffee before Mark and I even had put our feet on the frozen floor.
We intended to hunt across a high pass above camp – the last area from Griz Camp that we hadn’t covered – with the hopes of seeing a moose. I leaned against the door frame and glassed the hills across from camp.
Marty joined me and began to glass the same hillsides. I dropped my binocs back to my chest in resignation. Far above snow line and above where I had been searching, there was a caribou carcass from a previous hunt – an old spot of little significance in the same valley with nearly a ton of moose remains. But it was to this spot that Marty’s gaze drifted. After a moment, he quietly said, “We got us a bear.”
With a lunch packed in our saddle-bags, we were soon off, hurrying across the valley, laboring up the steep slopes, winding through the bogs and dwarf spruce to a point several hundred yards below and around from our quarry.
We tethered the horses. chambered cartridges and began our stalk through deep snow and loose rock. As quietly as possible, we raised ourselves over the rocky ridge and peered into the snowy basin. No bear.
It had to be a miscalculation. Maybe it was the wrong basin. That bear had to be just over the next ridge. Had to be.
By the time we reached the next highest point we were sweating through our wool clothes and gobbling quick handfuls of snow. Again, we crept to the edge and peered over into the basin. Again, no bear. We moved forward a few steps to see into the upper part of the basin, then Marty tensed up and pointed, easing down into a crouch.
The bear was stretched out and asleep across a hump of dirty snow covering what was left of the carcass after it had fed and buried it. Even at a distance, we could make out the luxurious length of its fur and the size of its head, cocked at an angle down the hill.
Mark bellied up and rested the .338 across his camera pack. The bear lay flat, partly behind the mound of snow with its vital areas shielded. It was not an easy shot.
After sucking another gulp of air, Mark squeezed the trigger. The .338 bucked and the boom echoed across the basin. The bear jumped up and looked around, surprised. It started loping around the mountainside above us, obviously confused and not knowing which way to go.
I swung the cross hairs of my rifle past its shoulder and touched off just as Mark fired his second shot. Both bullets smacked solidly. The bear tumbled forward into the deep snow, only to bounce up immediately and come plunging down the mountain toward us.
I quickly fired again and missed. Mark shot an instant later. The bear tipped forward and dug a trench in the snow with its nose, skidding several feet before coming to rest on its belly with all four legs. spread. It didn’t move again.
Mark and I stood and stared at each other in disbelief. We reached out and grasped hands. We had done it! Not only had Mark gotten a bear, but I had one, too, and the same bear. Marty lit up a cigar.
We approached cautiously, but the bear was quite dead. A beautiful grizzly, an animal of the high arctic, as much a symbol of the wilderness as anything. All those trips over the years, all those miles of floating and horse backing, and then the final moment of triumph. A hundred moments of anticipation and disappointment had certainly been worth that one moment of achievement.
The fur had a kind of honey color to it, darker on legs and hump, and was five inches deep. We lifted a leg and felt through the fur. A boar.
Mark and I tackled the skinning while Marty returned to bring up the horses as close as possible. By the time he returned, we had the skinning down to the removal of the paws and head.
Spread on the snow, the skin squared seven feet. Marty packed the skin on his horse and we headed on out, back to camp. The next day, as we pulled out for the last time, I couldn’t resist one final look at the snow-covered mountain-side of yesterday’s excitement. Nothing but ravens fed there. We turned the horses down Griz Creek and toward home. They needed no urging, seeming to know that this was the last day.
About two hours down the trail, we came face to face with a bull moose. At 40 yards we stood and sized each other up.
Mark turned in his saddle. and softly asked, “Should I?”
Though his antlers spread over 50inches, I shook my head. “Naw.”We had the trophy of our “some-day,” and didn’t really need another. We would leave that moose on the high, big mountain to fill somebody else’s dream.—Burl Jones