After landing on a gravel bar between alder patches, I surveyed the tundra from Ted’s camp. It stretched monotonously in all directions, a vast barren plain broken only by the low rolling hills to the north. It looked like Wyoming antelope country, and during my visit it was nearly as dry. Alaska in May of 2014 was experiencing an unprecedented dry spell.
Temperatures were in the 70s, and the tundra was crunchy to walk on. This, I imagined, was not conducive to bear hunting. My hunt would start on opening day, but an early spring could mean that we were already too late for the bears. Anything we did find might have a rubbed hide. I needed sunglasses instead of rain gear, and Ted claimed that he had never seen it this warm at any time of year, much less in May.
Brown bear hunting is one of those dreams every hunter must have, but only a few ever seriously consider. That’s how I was. Brown bear hunting only happened in magazines. But Ron introduced me to Ted Forsi in January of 2013. Ron had worked as a brown bear guide for years, including out of Ted’s camp on the Alaska Peninsula in Game Management Unit 9b.
Ted, has been a licensed guide and outfitter since 1986. His area is managed to grow trophy bears. Where Ted hunts, it’s not necessary to draw a permit, but the hunt is only open in the fall of odd-numbered years and the spring of even-numbered years. A guy has to plan ahead.
Despite the warm weather, bears obviously had been around. Within a few dozen yards of camp the ground had been excavated as though with a backhoe, three-foot-deep furrows were carved into the soil through the dense mat of subarctic vegetation. This was the work of the giant bears, digging for the ubiquitous parka ground squirrels, so named because native Alaskans once used them for coats. I wondered how many ground squirrels it took to keep warm on the tundra in January. We could spot a dozen of these reddish-grey squirrels at any given time, even during the heat of the day.
Camp consisted of a number of wooden-walled shacks with tarp roofs, and the tower. This was a 10-foot-tall structure accessed by a built-in ladder. From its height, all the surrounding countryside could be glassed. Ron built it about five years previously. I would spend many hours in the tower in the coming days. Would I know a big bear if and when I finally saw one? Big bears waddle, Ron instructed, and their bodies should be three or four times longer than their heads. “Don’t shoot a seven-footer,” he counseled, “that’s a cub around here.”
They were long days. It was light enough to see at about 5 a.m. and still light enough to glass at 11 p.m. The most productive glassing was the first and last five hours of daylight when things cooled off a bit. That’s 10 hours of glassing per day. Of course, after a few days of this, one needs to get out and tramp the tundra. But both Ron and Ted had warned against it. “You’ll just stink up the hills,” they said, “and there is just as much chance of seeing a bear from camp.” Look for bears with your eyes, not your legs.
And so the routine of a new place and a new goal settled in. In the heat of the day I would have a late breakfast, then a nap. Ted and I swapped hunting stories, some of them even true, although neither of us will ever know which ones. He had hunted out of this camp for 29 years for caribou and bear. I would be here less than 10 days. This was Ted’s world, and I listened to his advice. Be patient, he said. You will see bears despite the heat.
On the second night, I scanned the hills to the northwest from the tower, half daydreaming, and I saw them. The sun was low enough on the southwestern hills that they were becoming washed out and it was hard to see. But there on a bench were two very light spots that I had never noticed before. Something out there reflected the sun back to me. I studied them through my binoculars. Was this something new or was it just a view of some familiar rocks in a new light? Then the bigger light spot moved.
We were watching a female brown bear and her two-year-old cub. They were fun to watch, but she was off limits both ethically and legally. But watch them I could, and when she got too far away from the little one, he would suddenly rush to be by her side. Eventually they disappeared up a long valley, curving out of sight. This cub was probably about the size of an Idaho trophy black bear. If we saw a lone bear out there, Ted said, it might be a boar, and we would grab rain gear, water bottles and candy bars and we would be after him. Spending a night on the hill was a small price to pay.
On the third morning I glassed a large patch of snow on a far hillside from the tower. It was the farthest east of three rapidly diminishing snowfields on a distant hill. Yesterday there had been a large dark spot in the center of that patch. I studied it for quite a while but never saw any movement, although it did have a suspicious shape. Finally I decided it was nothing. Today it was gone. Ted said bears sometimes lay in those snow patches to cool off in warm weather.
Day 4 of 10 dawned clear, and I was up at 5:45. I told myself I would sleep in. The schedule was wearing on me, but I couldn’t sleep. I remained upbeat–sort of. We hadn’t seen any bears since the female with young two days previously, but I reported to the tower, knowing that I had to put in my time to get my reward. By now I had cut a stick at just the right length to rest my binoculars on while standing and glassing. This significantly increased the amount of time I could look through the glasses and decreased the vibration.
Finally I scanned the north hills again; I did so in vain until about 7:30. Ted glassed, too, from down below in front of the cook tent. I descended to start some cowboy coffee in the cook tent, the kind with sludge in the bottom. Out there it was good. Over a cup, I shared the morning tundra-related insights with Ted and he reminded me how important patience was on this kind of hunt. He could read my mind. I really wanted a change of scenery. It was time to go stink up the hills. Stay here, he insisted, a bear will come. But it looked pretty grim. The hot weather continued.
As we held this revealing and entirely predictable conversation, fate smiled. It was a little before 8 a.m. Just as I was shaking my head in agreement about patience, I impatiently glanced to the west, across the parallel gravel bars toward hot, dry, low tundra hills. On the downhill slope and headed roughly our way was a dark spot. I quickly brought the binoculars to my eyes, and calmly said, “There’s a bear.” I thought I was calm but Ted said later that I sounded pretty excited. We watched as it moseyed here and there at about 800 to 900 yards out, poking its head at anything that seemed edible, or at least suspiciously smelly. I knew he was a good bear. He seemed all face, a wide head with small ears. He had big heavy legs, and from the side view his head seemed about one quarter of his body in length. He didn’t walk, he waddled. Ron said to look for a bear that waddles. Ted thought he waddled, too. This was the bear I had waited for. No squirrel dared show its rodent face.
There was a light breeze almost at our backs and the only practical cover was the long alder patch that ran parallel to the gravel bar-turned landing strip. It headed directly toward our goal but the approach on either side would cut the wind. Our scent would be carried directly to the bear. The choices seemed equally bad so we used the shorter route that was also the one that allowed us to keep a better eye on him.
Along the alders we went, and God apparently favored our mission; the wind died as we executed the stalk. It wasn’t a difficult stalk. It was level ground, and the undulating edge of the alder patch provided plenty of cover. Hunched over, we scrambled from one finger to the next, peeking around each to ascertain his position.
After a few hundred yards of this, we ran out of alders. He was snuffling around, nose to the ground in a wide-open bit of tundra, below us in a shallow depression. He still didn’t know we were coming. It’s difficult to describe the excitement of sneaking up on an animal that can bite you in half. He seemed big enough to be prehistoric.
There was no fear; perhaps I’m not smart enough for that. But the concentration on the job at hand was absolute. There was just open tundra between us now. Ted was right beside, and he motioned to indicate that we should get low and cross the open, putting some rocks in between us and the bear. I immediately started the home stretch, but whether a puff of wind at our backs, or perhaps due to our movement, the giant bruin stood up on his hind legs, nose in the air. He was trying to make us out. I knew I had only seconds. If he identified us he would instantly be on all fours and running hard. Probably he would run away from us, but maybe toward us? Ted said calmly, “You should shoot now.”
I pulled the .416 to my shoulder and found the bear’s massive chest, between the shoulders, in the 3x scope. I thought he was at 50 yards, but his size fooled me. Later I would measure it at 100 paces. There was no rest so I shot standing, offhand. I heard the whap! The bear dropped to all fours and disappeared to the left, away from the alders and back in the direction from which he had come. Perhaps he thought to return to some place safe, some place already explored. This put him behind the only cover, that small outcropping of rocks that had failed us as stalking cover.
We rushed in a careful way to those rocks and peered into the depression. A big reddish-blonde pile of fur lay there on its side, blowing gently in the resumed breeze. It was immobile. It was almost the color of the tundra. I was excited and wanted to rush over there but Ted was too experienced for that. He studied the mound from our vantage through the binoculars, searching for signs of breathing. The big chest was still. Observing plenty of caution we moved to the right, to the east, behind the monster, maintaining a 50-yard circumference as we circled him. Only now, as the excitement passed did I realize Ted’s wisdom and my inexperience.
This animal could hunt back, especially when wounded. Ted wished for a rock or a stick to throw at the corpse. It was not to be. The tundra vegetation was soft and matted. Approaching from behind, reaching out with his rifle to touch a hindquarter and with me having mine at the ready, we determined that the bear was well and truly dead.
Now, skinning a bear this big is not a fast job. Both of us worked this hide for three hours in perfectly hot weather, with no wind and plenty of flies. We wore our head nets as we skinned and peeled first one side, then the other. I only inhaled one black fly.
Although we knew we had a great bear there in the field, he was even bigger than Ted or I had suspected. Later he squared out at 9 feet, 5 inches with a 26 and 12/16th-inch skull. I had the bear of a lifetime. I had had thoughts of staying a few days longer and shooting a wolf over the bear carcass, but it was not to be. Getting the bear hide out in good shape became the priority in this hot weather. Already, ravens and a golden eagle had arrived. The big carcass would not go to waste in this difficult land. So ended my grizzly hunt. It was more successful than I had any right to ask.—Bruce Mincher