September 19, 2022
By Ron Niziolek
The cloak of darkness descended upon us. We knew the grizzlies would soon follow. Never before had we experienced this level of grizzly activity. Each day they followed us, at times coming to our elk calls, other times leaving tracks on top of ours as evidence of their presence. Just yesterday, we had pistols in hand after calling in a big bruin.
With the photographs of Randy’s bull taken, we began the task of breaking the bull down for the arduous pack out. One of us worked on skinning and cutting. The other held legs and remained vigilant, painting the surroundings relentlessly with a headlamp, praying not to see eyes. If bears got that close, not much would stop them from claiming the elk. As we finished moving meat bags to a safer location, a bear arrived, announcing his presence by snapping limbs and popping teeth. Unable to return to the site, the skull and antlers would have to wait a week or two for salvage. We left. The carcass now belonged to the bear.
The pack out that night was long but uneventful, covering seven miles. We walked in silence, listening for bugles, rewarded only with wolves howling in a high alpine basin. During our frequent breaks, with headlamps switched off, the stars and sliver of moon greeted us as we reclined against our packs. I insisted that Randy now owed me a huge favor. He agreed. This pack out would be the farthest we’d ever attempted. Too exhausted to eat when we eventually reached camp, we transferred meat from packs into coolers. We didn’t even clean up, but crawled into sleeping bags and soon snored like growling bears.
As night was chased off by rays of sun, we rolled out of our bags, stretching sore muscles and aching backs. My nephew and hunting buddy, Sam, had arrived in camp, ready to hear the story and offer his help. This was our lucky day, but unlucky for Sam, as he would soon learn.
The seven-mile trek to the meat cache was slow; the constant gain of elevation stealing energy from tired legs. Initially, we walked on a horse trail, switching to game trails, and then through a tumbled mess of blowdown for the last mile. Here we walked on logs whenever possible, snaking a course in the necessary direction. The closer we got, the quieter we became. Cautiously, we scanned the scene. The bags of meat were not disturbed, but beyond them, the carcass was buried with forest duff. A large grizzly lay on top of it all. The sun shined on his hair, giving it the telltale silver-tip appearance. A magpie perched on an antler and scolded him. He rose occasionally to swipe at magpies and gray jays. They pestered him in their efforts to score some chunks of fat. Higher still, several ravens squawked. Undoubtedly bringing other bears closer. Other than a sow with cubs, a bear guarding a kill site is the most dangerous scenario to encounter. Quietly, we snuck in, loaded our packs, and snuck back out, stealing glances behind us. A long, painful day ensued, but we got the last of the meat out and on ice.
Early the following morning, I followed Sam up a faint trail into a secluded basin, one of our favorite places. I was struggling to keep up, something I’d never dealt with before. The physical exertion of recent days and the 1,500-foot climb had taken its toll. My old age didn’t help either. This basin was ravaged by fire years ago, and elk love it. Faint bugles reached us as we climbed higher into the basin. Sam was fired up and ready, so I encouraged him to go, as I didn’t want to slow him down. I rested a bit, and then I climbed up to an often-used vantage point.
I watched a couple of bulls across the canyon and soon located Sam angling toward the closer one. As Sam crossed the creek, I caught movement above him. A black wolf trotted by at 30 yards. Sam had neglected to purchase a wolf tag before coming to camp, a mistake he will forever regret. As he continued climbing toward the bull, the canyon erupted with a chorus of howling wolves. I glassed five, an adult gray with a collar and bloody face and four black, six-month-old pups. I had a tag, but despite my best howling efforts, I could not pull them over to my side.
Sam disappeared into the new growth, close behind the bull. The bull continued to bugle, with a wolf pack only 300 yards away. I swear, a few times the bull bugled in response to them. A short time later, I heard hooves smacking logs, and immediately some excited cow calls. Soon after there was more crashing, followed by our agreed-upon signal of three bugles. Sam had gotten it done. Bull down.
It took me 30 minutes to make the trip across. This place is littered with downfall, the nastiest place we’ve ever hunted; it’s also one of the best. We located each other with cow calls. Sam was as jacked-up as I’ve ever seen him. He’d crept close and challenged the bull. The bull ran downhill and paused in a shooting lane for the 30-yard shot. Sam had then stopped him with those excited cow calls and arrowed him again at 45 yards. The wolves were now quiet, so we had a snack before taking up the trail. A hundred yards later we were admiring Sam’s best bull.
With the photo session complete, the work began. Sam cut while I held legs and stood guard. When we finished breaking down the bull, Sam carried the head about 80 yards where I could start skinning but still see the carcass. He then went and retrieved the bag of loose meat, (straps, tenders, brisket, and neck). On the third trip he was dragging a hindquarter when I looked up and saw the grizzly. I yelled “Bear!” while jumping up, pulling my pistol, and hurrying toward Sam. The bear was only 20 yards behind him, just getting to the carcass. Sam dropped the hindquarter and pulled his own pistol.
We fired a couple of warning shots, attempting to scare the bear off, but we were met with a bluff charge in return. The bear paced back and forth, growling, and popping teeth. We retreated, yelling at the bear and discussing our options. There were only two. Back out of there taking what we could salvage, or push the issue, potentially getting mauled or having to shoot the bear. Since it’s a violation of Wyoming law to battle a bear in these circumstances, we backed out, stopping to grab the head and bag of meat. We went several hundred yards before stopping to skin the head to make for a lighter load.
I then spent a quiet week resting and hunting solo. Sam arrived for the weekend, eager to help me out. That afternoon, we tackled the same drainage where Sam had shot his bull. Two hours before dark we heard the first bugle and soon spotted a good bull tending a herd a half-mile up the creek. We dropped our packs where we were, opting to go light and fast. My pistol stayed with my pack, but I put bear spray on my belt. We each stuffed a headlamp in our pocket and hustled toward the bull.
The blowdown was brutal; we quickly lost count of logs crossed. We stayed high on the east side of the valley to monitor the herd’s movements. At last, we mapped a way to cross the creek and put a stalk on. We scrambled up the far side, fighting for every hand and foothold. As we side-hilled and approached the clearing, I spotted a bear 40 yards below in the creek. Grizzly. He hadn’t seen us, so we crept past, keeping a watchful eye, comforted he couldn’t climb the cliff between us.
As we reached the clearing, the wind swirled toward the grizzly and he took off, crashing through deadfall and brush. After grabbing a little video of him, we continued and reached the meadow. The elk were exiting the upper end of the meadow, the bugling bull pushing them along. We followed, using the brush and downfall as cover should they return. We hesitated along the clearing edge, bugling and trying to pinpoint their position. Then Sam spotted another grizzly where the elk had been only a moment before, 55 yards, head down, grubbing for food.
We quickly evaluated our options. Not good was the determination. The bear was facing us, feeding in our direction. We had a massive logjam and dropoff at our back, making a retreat in that direction impossible. Lateral movement was dicey, every step a possible ankle breaker if we weren’t paying attention. That made it hard to keep our eyes on the bear. Good or bad idea, we decided our safest option would be to get his attention, hoping like many bears do, he’d make an exit. That would allow us to continue elk hunting. The bugles weren’t far away, and darkness was closing in once more.
I began making noise to get his attention. During the next few minutes, the grizzly grubbed his way closer, ignoring my attempts to gain his attention. I joked to Sam that this bear must be deaf. Finally, at 40 yards, Sam handed me his phone to continue the video. Then he tossed a log in the bear’s direction. That did it. He looked up, saw us, and charged! We already had bear spray in hand at this point, and safeties were clicked off. We yelled at him several times as he closed the distance. Sam stepped up to be even with me. At that point, the grizzly veered to our right and passed us at only 8 yards. Neither of us sprayed, though we both had pressure on the triggers. We’d hesitated only because we knew that we’d get back spray and wanted the grizzly to take it fully in the face. Sam and I have extensive bear-encounter experience and this time we were sure that we’d be mauled.
As the adrenaline faded, we laughed the charge off, but I’m convinced if either of us were solo, that would have rattled us for some time. We had a half-hour before dark and discussed pushing after the elk, but with both bears around, we decided to hike out of there, using the waning daylight to help find our packs and pistols. We killed some good bulls last year, but overall, 2021 will be remembered as the year of the grizzlies.
The author is a highly experienced bowhunter from Wyoming, where the grizzly population is obviously out of control.