Editor’s Note: On Friday we explore the vast Safari Magazine archives and bring back a gem from the past. This week a Yukon sheep hunt turns into a brush with death. This article originally appeared in the April, May, June 1975 issue of Safari Magazine.
In early fall of 1972, we loaded the last duffle into the Beaver float plane and our pilot cranked up the engine. We would soon be airborne, leaving Watson Lake, Yukon behind us.
My husband Jack, our daughter Barbara and I were heading for Frank Cooke and Sons great Stone sheep range in Northern British Columbia.
The 1 ½ hour flight over rugged British Columbia passed quickly. Below us we could see little Colt Lake, nestled in the Cassiar Mountain Range. This would be our home for the next fifteen days.
As the big float plane taxied up to the shore line, we could see Frank Cooke’s two sons, Frankie and Mac, anxious to give us a full report on where the big stone rams were this Fall.
The following morning, our camp was alive! Lucille, our cook, was busy making flap-jacks, eggs and bacon, while Clayton, our wrangler, was getting the horses saddled. We had just finished our big breakfast, when Frankie and Mac poked their heads through the tent flap hollering, “Let’s go!”
Jack and Mac headed into an area where Mac had spotted a big ram earlier in the season. Frankie, Barbara and I were going to hunt an area where, on previous hunts, we had taken good rams.
We worked hard the first day, however we spotted nothing that impressed us. Upon returning to camp that evening, we saw the great 43” ram Jack had taken that day, which really put the pressure on Frankie, Barbara and me. Sheep hunters know it’s hard to beat 43” rams.
The next few days, Jack, Barbara and Mac hunted together, while Frankie and I kept searching for my ram. The days passed and Barbara took a good mountain goat and a very good caribou, but Frankie and I still had not found the big ram I was looking for.
The decision was made for Frankie and me to hunt later in the day, with the possibility of locating a ram feeding in the evening. This sounded good and we set up our spotting scope overlooking a big valley the next day. We glassed steadily for hours. Unnoticed by us, a small grizzly about one half mile away, found the remains of a sheep killed on an earlier hunt.
Moments later, a large grizzly came upon the scene and in seconds, I witnessed a rarely seen fight between two grizzlies. The two bears roared and clawed and fought like two dogs. In the stillness of the early evening, you could hear sounds that were almost indescribable. Through our binoculars, we observed that the smaller grizzly was being badly beaten and realizing his lost cause, he scrambled off down the mountain.
Frankie and I watched as the beaten grizzly amvled down through the buck brush toward the ravine we had to ride through to return to camp. Frankie explained the problem and we decided to stay where we were as long as possible, in an effort to give the bear more time to get clear of our return trail. As the sun began to set, we realized we could wait no longer. After riding for about one-half hour, we reached the point where we last saw the grizzly. Out guides have never carried rifles, but at this moment Frankie suggested he carry my .270 Winchester until we cleared the area.
Frankie assured me he was quite certain that we would not see the grizzly again, however if we were to run across him we could have problems, especially in close quarters. I realized that it would be nearly impossible for me to remove my rifle quickly from the scabbard while on the horse and accepting Frankie’s logic, I gave him my rifle. I did notice him put a shell in the chamber, which caused me to wonder a bit, but off we went with Frankie in the lead, one hand holding my rifle and the other his horse reins.
My head was continuously turning from left to right, looking for any movement in the buck brush. I was so intent on watching for the grizzly, that I lagged behind Frankie by about 40 feet and that was nearly my fatal mistake! Suddenly, the grizzly appeared between Frankie and me, standing up on his hind legs with the upper part of his body visible above the thick brush. I screamed as loudly as I could, “Frankie, there he is!”, and with that the bear dropped down and came at me! I heard Frankie hollering to me, “Joan, don’t move! Hold your reins tight!” During this time, Frankie was trying to steady his horse to shoot. Everything happened so quickly, and in those few moments, the bear had raced to within a couple of paces from me, when I heard the crack of the .270. The grizzly bawled and roared as it went down, but in a split second, it was back up on its hind legs, biting at its wounded left front shoulder. I was petrified!
Meanwhile, Frankie’s horse went wild! He had to hold the rifle muzzle next to his horses ear in order to shoot and when the rifle went off, the horse went straight up like it was at a rodeo. I glimpsed at the grizzly only a few feet away, blood covering his mouth and nose. Frankie was screaming, “Joan. Don’t move! – Don’t move!”, while at the same time struggling to hang on to his horse with only his feet and attempting to jack another round into the .270. I was frozen with fear! Seconds seemed like hours!
Suddenly, Frankie’s horse settled down and the .270 cracked again! The bear sagged and Frankie hollered, “Ride Joan, ride!” I have never been one to beat or kick my horse, but I can say in this instance I did everything humanly possible to make my horse go – we took off like a shot!
After galloping for about 100 yards, we realized that the bear had not followed us. Frankie was confident the second shot was a solid hit, since he aimed for the bear’s chest when it was standing. After settling our jittery nerves a bit, Frankie reloaded and we very cautiously rode back. Yes! The grizzly was down for keeps! The 130 grain .270 bullet entered the chest and shattered the grizzly’s spine.
It was nearly dark, and we both agreed to head for camp, returning tomorrow to skin out the bear. When reaching camp that evening, many stories were told. First my version and then Frankie’s. Frankie then explained why he kept shouting for me not to move when we met the grizzly. He was worried that my horse might bolt or stumble, or that possibly, I would be in his line of fire just at the moment he was going to shoot. Everything was critical in those few seconds and thanks to the fact that his theory worked, I am alive today! Special toasts were made that evening to Frankie Cooke, the guide who unquestionably saved my life!
Our hunt resumed the following day. I never did match Jack’s ram, but I did take a good black bodied ram on the last day of the hunt.
As our plane took off from Colt Lake, winging us back to civilization, I again sensed a special feeling of gratitude to Frankie Cooke – the best guide in British Columbia! –Joan Leeds