The midnight sun inched its way along the horizon, creating a luminous glow on the tundra more beautiful than any tropical sunset I’d ever seen. Then a shadow appeared that quickly manifested itself in the shape of a gigantic bruin.
“Bear, Don. There’s a bear!” I whispered to my guide.
We knelt on the soft, dried grass, surrounded by driftwood washed deep onto the tundra by storm surges. The bear was now at 175 yards and Don was so close behind me I could feel his elbow touching my shoulder. With his right hand he continued to range, and with his left hand he checked the wind with a squeeze bottle of white powder. “Look at that noggin!” Don mumbled.
The moment was drawing near. It would be the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming and a half-dozen unsuccessful grizzly hunts. Is this finally happening? I wondered.
This saga beganwhen I was a very young boy and my dad gave me his Bear Grizzly recurve, which I started shooting seriously at age 11. Later, after mowing a gentleman’s lawn for a full summer, I earned an old fiberglass Ben Pearson bow. Then came a Bear Whitetail that cost me the $99 I made painting a house. I simply have been addicted to archery hunting ever since.
I’ve been fortunate enough to take many fine animals with my bow, including a very nice brown bear, but my childhood goal of taking a grizzly had eluded me — almost to the point of my conceding defeat.
After months of talking about hunts with my booking agent, Mark Buehrer, the same question presented itself. Sheep hunt? Moose hunt? Elk hunt? “How about grizzly?” Mark asked. “I know an outfitter called Hunt Alaska. Virgil Umphenour and his son, Eric, not only take bowhunters for grizzlies, they actually want them.”
Knowing that I needed to have shoulder surgery to remove some bone spurs, after booking the hunt I immediately set the procedure up for September so that I could begin shooting my bow again by Christmas. I shot on the cold and windy days to get used to shooting with heavy clothes in all conditions.
The following May, I flew to Unalakleet, Alaska, and after a short time in town, we rode snowmobiles to our base camp a few miles short of the area we would be hunting. Our group included four hunters, along with Virgil, Eric, Don, and Shawn as our guides, and a 14-year-old camp helper named Shiler. My guide would be Don Stiles.
As we left camp on the first day, I told Don I would be the easiest hunter he ever had. “I will not question your ability, and you will not need to question my heart. I have done my best to get in shape, and I’ll hunt 24 hours a day if we can,” I promised.
For two days Don and I pushed farther and farther from camp. As we glassed from high ground on the third day, Don spotted a bear 300 yards away, coming right at us. It seemed almost too easy. Don ranged the bear at 69 yards, but when the wind hit the right side of my neck, the bear stopped and, with the grace of a racehorse, ran across the same tundra we could barely walk across.
We shouldered our heavy packs and headed for camp. When we crossed the bear’s track, Don noticed the front right paw had blood on the middle toe. “Must have cut it on a rock or another bear bit him,” Don remarked.
Upon arriving at camp, we learned the sea ice had blown out and boats were able to make it to the next camp. But Don and I decided to stay where we were, along with a tent, supplies, and an inflatable Zodiac boat with a motor. After a nap, followed by pancakes and bacon, we blew up the Zodiac, boated up the coast several miles, and beached on a small stream that emptied into Norton Sound.
At 1:30 a.m. (there are no shooting hours and no darkness), Don spotted a beautiful blond bear 600 yards away, and I noticed another bear 100 yards below Blondie. Don guessed the blond at 7½ feet, the other at 7 feet. As we watched them, a huge chocolate bear ran between the two. He looked like a Mack Truck passing between two Honda Civics!
“How big was the chocolate?” I asked after all three bears had run off.
“Eight feet, maybe more,” Don said. “I just know I’ve never seen anything like him. At any rate, he’s gone now.”
The following day found us within 100 yards of the huge bear sleeping on the tundra with Blondie. We tried to make a stalk, but the wind was wrong. Don had the discipline to slip out of there, and he never suggested I use his rifle to take the exceptional bear.
The next morning the wind had changed, so Don checked the sea ice. It was a half-mile from shore and heading toward us! We were out of food and would be unable to make it back to camp, so Don said, “Let’s make a run for town in the Zodiac.”
The waves were tossing us around as the crushing ice pack pushed its way closer. I decided to get the life vests ready but saw only one. “The other one is under my backpack,” Don said. I tried to pull it out but Don said he didn’t need it. “Up here, we call those body bags,” Don said. “You’ll freeze to death long before you make the shore. Vests just make it easier for rescuers to find the bodies.”
We made it safely to Unalakleet where Don’s cousin Middy picked us up, fed us, gave us supplies, and drove us to high ground to check the ice. We were iced-in as far as the eye could see. We’d have to use snow machines to get back to our hunting grounds.
For the next few days the weather was cold and windy, and we didn’t see a single bear track. On the eighth day, at 1 a.m., we were growing weary of all the glassing, and I told Don to take a nap. While he was out I spotted two wolves running toward us. They passed within 25 yards and never knew we were there. As that excitement waned, I suggested we needed another plan. We’d gone three days without cutting a track. Just as Don began to nod his head in agreement, I whispered, “Bear! Don, there’s a bear!”
I assumed a shooting position while Don ranged him and said, “He’s the big guy.” As the giant approached, I whispered to Don to range a small stick in front of me. Don softly replied, “Seventeen yards.”
With no cover, I could not draw without being detected, so I decided to let the bear walk on by — a tough call. The bear got to the stick and kept coming. Fifteen yards, 12, 10…
Suddenly he stopped, nose in the air, nostrils flared. I could hear him draw a deep breath. He exhaled. I could smell him. He drew another breath, this time curling his lips outward. I was amazed at his size. He exhaled again. He knew something was up.
With the wind in our faces, I knew he couldn’t smell us. It must be a sixth sense. He took two steps, stood straight up, and looked down on us. With my bow resting on my knee, I thought, Shoot him with the gun, Don! As quickly as the thought entered my mind, the giant bear turned his head and looked the other way. Flabbergasted, relieved, and now determined, I thought, He doesn’t know where we are. I’m going to get him.
When the bear dropped to all fours and began to walk past us, I watched his eye. When I could no longer see that eye, I drew.
The bear paused and then continued to walk. For a third time in a minute he abandoned the sixth sense that had served him well for many years. He stopped, perfectly broadside. Don whispered, “Twenty-nine yards.”
With my sight pin set at 30 yards, I centered it just behind the shadow of his right shoulder and squeezed my release trigger. The arrow flew true, the nock glowing as it passed through his chest. He growled, bit at the wound, and turned and ran, but he made it only a short distance before falling hard. I nocked another arrow and asked Don to range him.
“Sixty yards,” Don replied. “But don’t bother with a second arrow. He’s already dead.”
He was a monster grizzly, the kind of animal that would be the pinnacle of any hunter’s life. While photographing the bear, we noticed a cut on his right paw. This was the bear we’d spooked on day three.
As big as the bear was, just as important to me was the time I’d spent with Don, Virgil and Eric Umphenour, William “Middy” Johnson (whose grandfather was one of the original Mushers on the serum run to Nome, now known as the Iditarod), and especially the people of Unalakleet.
When life has you down and you think there’s no good in the world, buy a plane ticket to Unalakleet and walk down the dirt street lined with humble houses. Strangers will invite you into their homes to enjoy their best fish and to share stories of their culture. In return, they expect only that you share stories of your own. The people of Unalakleet are the most wonderful, giving people I’ve ever met. Yes, I arrived wondering how anyone could live there. Now I wonder how anyone could leave.
The author owns American Amusement, a vending and amusement business in Windber, Pennsylvania. He has hunted all over North America.
My bear has an official Boone and Crockett score of 27 3/16 inches, making him the number one grizzly for this B&C recording period and number two all time. Safari Club International scored the bear at 27 8/16, making him the new SCI World Record. He also surpasses Dennis Dunn’s remarkable Pope and Young World Record grizzly, but because I used a lighted nock, P&Y will not accept him into the record book.
I hunted with a Hoyt Katera set at 78 lbs., Super Carbon 60-75 arrows, 125-grain NAP Razorback broadheads, Lumenok lighted nock, QAD Ultra-Rest Pro rest, HHA sight, Tru-Fire Hurricane release, Zeiss 10×50 binoculars, and Leupold RX-II rangefinder. I wore clothing from Under Armour, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro; and boots from Irish Setter. A Bushnell BackTrack GPS helped me navigate the Alaska wilderness.
To book a hunt with Virgil and Eric Umphenour, contact: Hunt Alaska, 2400 Davis Road, Fairbanks, AK 99701; (907) 456-3885; www.huntalaskawithus.com. You can also book this and other great bowhunts through Mark Buehrer at Bowhunting Safari Consultants, 1-800-833-9777, email@example.com, www.bowhuntingsafari.com.