Editor’s Note: On Friday we reach back into the vast Safari Magazine archives and dust off a gem from the past. This week we travel to Alaska for monster moose and a last minute connection on a big brown bear. This story originally appeared in the May/June 1997 issue of Safari Magazine.
This is the story of a trip to Alaska, where I hunted moose and brown bear from the last day of August until mid-September 1995. The hunt came to pass through a friend, Tom Cwyner of Las Vegas, Nevada. whom I met on a hunting trip while we both were weathered in at a hotel in Smithers, British Columbia. We were hunting with different outfitters, and waiting for connections to our respective hunting camps. We kept in touch after our hunts and corresponded regularly. We were on the telephone one day when he told me about his recent brown bear hunt in Alaska and his outfitter, George Siavelis.
After several calls, I sent Siavelis a deposit and booked my hunt. I was fortunate that he had a slot open that year. He prepared me for “rain, rain and more rain,” and he was correct to do so. My 15-day hunt would have one day that it didn’t rain. There would be sunshine during only parts of two other days; it rained constantly.
I was met in Aniak, Alaska, by Middit Kvamme, Siavelis’ fiancee and partner, and then boarded a float plane for a 40-minute flight to a place Siavelis and I called “No Name Lake,” but later christened “Last Day Lake.”
Siavelis had arrived a couple days earlier to set up the camp and do some sightseeing and scouting. He had seen two big bears the previous night. One was at least a 9-1/2 footer, he said. The other bear was mature, but he would not try to guess its size. We were right in the middle of things!
We were up early the next day to scout even though the bear season would not open until the next day. Over the course of the two weeks, we saw more than a dozen adult black bears and caribou every day. We bumped into them everywhere! We watched one huge caribou bull for four straight days, the first four days of the hunt. We felt that it would be just short of making the book, but I didn’t want to spook a bear early in the hunt and let it go.
Several days went by, with us spotting and glassing all day long in miserable, wet weather that bordered on snow. We stuck at it, but the days were long. We were out at 7 a.m. and hunted until dark, which came at about 10:30 p.m. Siavelis was relentless. When you book a hunt with him, you’re going to hunt – no ifs, ands or buts about it. He really made me want to hunt, no matter what the weather was like. I have a feeling he is that way with everyone who hunts with him.
At one point, I said, “ What kind of a signal do we have to use to get a hold of the pilot if something happens, since we’re camped in the middle of all these grizzly bears and black bears and stuff? I’d like to know what to do if some emergency develops.”
Siavelis said, “ Well, we do have an emergency locator here, but the chances are that you wouldn’t get to set the thing off, anyway, because the bear would eat you first.”
We did have a way to signal our pilot, who would fly over about every second or third day, weather permitting. If we wanted him to land, we were to lay out a big blue tarp on the lake’s shoreline. We were camped in the middle of things, which is the way Siavelis hunts – he plops his camp in the middle of where he thinks the game is.
We were having lunch on the mountain when I glassed what appeared to be a large, dead tree about three miles away. “What would a tree that size be doing out there in the middle of all those alder bushes?” I asked. “ Well, put the spotting scope on it and see what it is,” Siavelis said.
Sure enough, there was a big moose bedded in an opening in the middle of all those alders. About 400-500 yards to the right of that, two more moose also were resting.
“John, those are damn nice moose,” Siavelis said. “Every one is a wall hanger.”
Just then, the largest bull stood up and walked into the alder thicket. Siavelis estimated its antler spread to be 65-66 inches, with very wide palms.
We watched the moose for a couple of hours, trying to decide whether to go after it. My primary objective was a brown bear, but I also wanted a moose.
“How many days do you think it would take to get the meat back to camp?” I asked.
Siavelis said it was about 5 1/2 miles from the moose to the camp, across really rough and boggy terrain.
Again I asked, “How many days?”
“Well, if everything goes perfect, three days,” he said. “More likely four. Probably five. And if anything goes wrong, six.”
Geez, six days. That would give me one day to find a bear before I had to leave.
“The chances are, if you shoot that moose, you may not get a shot at a brown bear,” Siavelis said. “On the other hand, you could hunt the rest of your life and never shoot a moose that large. A 65-inch-plus moose with those kind of palms doesn’t come along every day, even in Alaska.”
“Are you man enough to help me get that moose out of there?” I said.
“If you’re challenging my manhood, pal, we’re going to shoot that moose right now!”
So off we went.
He took off as if he had rockets strapped to his back end. Three miles and a bog later, I was huffing and puffing, even though I was in good shape, when we stopped about 500 yards from the largest moose. The two smaller bulls had antlers in the 62-63- inch class and were in a little clearing.
“If we can’t get the big boy, you can shoot one of those from right here,” Siavelis said. “It’s probably only about a 400-yard shot.”
“Only a 400-yard shot?”
“From what I’ve heard, you can do it,” he said.
“Okay, but what do we need to do to get the big one?”
“Well, let’s try to call him out.”
I was surprised. “George, how are you going to call him? The rut isn’t on.”
Siavelis looked at me with a cocky look in his eyes. “He doesn’t know that … he’s only a moose.”
Sure enough, we walked several hundred yards to the middle of an alder thicket with a small shooting lane, and Siavelis began to do bull calls and then cow calls. A couple of minutes passed. I was standing with my finger on the safety when I heard the moose turn around in the alders. It sounded as if King Kong were walking straight at us. We still couldn’t see it.
We knew the moose was going to come out within 30 yards, looking straight at us. I was ready and Siavelis was hunkered down. When the moose came out, it was ready for a fight! It looked as us, put its head down and started rotating its massive headgear. Siavelis smiled at me, and stuck his fingers in his ears so I guess I was supposed to shoot. As I lifted my .300 Weatherby Magnum to my shoulder, the moose got ready for a battle. When I shot it in the shoulder, you would have thought all hell broke loose. I chambered another round and shot it again.
I couldn’t have been happier and Siavelis couldn’t have been happier for me … this was a gorgeous animal. But it had fallen in the worst possible spot – between two grassy tussocks. We took some quick pictures because it was pouring rain and cold and getting dark. We tried to remove the cape and get the moose rolled over, but it had fallen with all four legs underneath it, so we couldn’t use the legs as levers. Man, we were in a world of hurt. Darkness set in, and when the flashlights began getting dim, we called it a night.
We had a 5-1/2-mile walk back to camp in the dark, in the rain. We reached camp about 2 a.m., so tired we could hardly eat.
We woke the next morning and put the tarp out in another heavy rainstorm. There was a place about three miles from the kill where the pilot could land a plane with wheels, saving us about 2-1/2 miles of packing meat to the lake. About midday, the plane touched down and Siavelis arranged for the pilot to bring in two packers. We then set up a spike camp near the “landing strip.” We decided to haul one load of meat out that night and then return over the next few days to remove the rest, carrying 80-150 pounds uphill to the landing strip each trip. At end of the second day, we had the antlers and one more load of meat to bring out. We expected the plane to return the next afternoon and need two trips to get the meat out. We had returned for the last load of meat and the biggest moose antlers I’ve ever seen, when we saw Siavelis’ brother-in-law, Ralph, at the carcass. The pilot had messed up his wheel plane the day before. It was now unflyable. Ralph had been dropped off at the lake to help us pack the meat to where it could be flown out with the float plane. Just when we thought we were done!
The next morning, we discovered that a bear – a very large bear – had eaten more than 200 pounds of meat. We gathered up the scraps that the bear had buried and brought out what was left, along with the antlers, which Siavelis had cached separately.
Two days before I was scheduled to fly out, we spotted a brown bear that Siavelis estimated to be 9 feet-plus on the mountain above our camp. As the plane flew in pick up the moose meat, the bear darted into the alders and that was the last we saw of it. It was disappointing because the bear was in a really good location and it had been moving toward us.
As I went to bed that night, we heard a grizzly growling near our tent and then roaring on the hill. It was unnervng, but exciting. We slept with our riles in the tent, both of us wondering if we would be having company that night. The next morning, we woke before light, put on our boots and took binoculars to the lakeshore. As daylight was breaking, we spotted a brown bear on the side of a mountain.
Siavelis couldn’t say how large it was. He figured it was over 8 feet, but not much larger. It was a really handsome animal and in good condition.
“It’s not a 9-footer, but it’s a great trophy nevertheless. If you just stick with me, we’re going to go up and try to get above the bear before the wind changes. If you can keep up with me, we’ll be on top of that bear in roughly 45 minutes.”
“I’ll keep up with you as long as you’ll give me time to get my breath when we get there! Don’t bring me out with that thing 50 yards from me and make me have to snap-shoot when I’m dragging my tongue behind me!” I said.
We followed a caribou trail through the alders, but we literally ran up that mountain as fast as we could go. We were where we wanted to be in exactly 45 minutes.
After getting rid of our packs, chambering rounds, catching our breath and having a sip of water, we advanced the last 75 yards. As I began belly-crawling up the knoll, l saw Siavelis stuff a large pinch of snuff between his cheek and gum. When l looked down there was no bear! Siavelis and I were both worried that it might have gone into an alder thicket. We both belly-crawled to the next knob, where I could see the bear’s back. It was standing in a depression with its back end to us. I moved to within 60 yards of the bear, and when it, after what seemed like an eternity, turned broadside, facing uphill, I shot. The bear roared. I shot again and was chambering a third round when Siavelis fired his .375 H&H.
Siavelis did not want the bear to charge us or run into an alder thicket that neither one of us wanted to crawl into. I respect him for shooting.
“Let’s wait a few minutes,” Siavelis said. “I’ve walked up on bears that I was convinced were dead and had them take swats at me.”
We sat, talked and congratulated ourselves. After about 10 minutes or so, we approached the bear and took photos. The sun had come out, and it was a beautiful day. We gazed out over ruggedly beautiful mountains and valleys with no names. lt was then that we renamed our lake “Last Day Lake.” We rejoiced at where we were and what we were doing.
As we pulled out our knives to skin the bear, an Alaska Fish and Game Department warden flew over us. Our pilot had predicted the agency would investigate our missing 200 pounds of moose meat. As we loaded the hide and skull in our packs and headed down the mountain, all kinds of wild things were running through my head. When we reached camp, I practically jumped the 6-1/2-foot guy wearing a Fish and Game patch on his shoulder.
I told him what I thought of his investigation. My bear was on the ground when he flew over us, but if he had been 20-30 minutes earlier, it would have been two days in a row that I would have missed a chance at a brown bear. I told him we could fly over the moose kill site, and over where the bear had gotten into the meat, and I would show him exactly what happened.
We had to make three passes before we could find the carcass, because a bear had covered it! We also flew over our makeshift landing strip and saw where a bear had torn up the hillside. After seeing both sites, the warden was convinced I was telling the truth.
“Since you put me through all this, I think that it’s only fair that you fly me out of the bush, so that our pilot doesn’t have to make two trips,” I said.
Much to my surprise, he agreed to do just that. He turned out to be a really nice guy.
I flew home with a lot of fond memories. Siavelis and I correspond on a regular basis, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can hunt with him again. Maybe we can name another lake, river or mountain.—John Hutchins