By Pat Lefemine
I DON'T KNOW THE word that best describes the events of October 2, 2002. I guess some would call it luck. Others would call it reckless. The parts I do remember, I think about often. But most of the event is just a blur. Post-traumatic shock disorder, I guess. It wasn't supposed to happen the way it did, but sometimes things don't go as planned.
Purposely moving within rock-throwing distance of an animal that could easily kill you is not natural - nor justifiable to anyone except a grizzly bowhunter. But grizzly hunting is like gambling. You know the odds of a grizzly's charging you are low, so you're willing to play the hand. And even if a grizzly does charge, the odds are slim that he'll ever get past the backup rifle. Still, with every step closer to a grizzly, you have the thought, "What if..."
THE SCARIEST PART of grizzly hunting takes place before you ever try it. You never really know how you'll react until you're up-close and personal with a griz. I was surprised by my reaction the first time I hunted big bears. It was the spring of 2000 and the last evening of a long and difficult hunt in central Alaska. My guide, Stan, and I were walking along a sand bar when he stopped abruptly. With painfully slow movement, he motioned with his finger and moved his lips to say: "Bear - right there."
I looked but saw nothing. Then Stan pointed down near my feet, and I made out the form of a large chocolate grizzly - 5 yards away. The big bear was behind a clump of alders on his belly, digging for pea-vines in the sand. His vitals were inching toward a hole in the brush through which I could easily snake an arrow. I needed 10 more seconds.
Then I caught movement from the muzzle of Stan's rifle. He was trying to quietly chamber a round. It was a smart move but bad timing. When the rifle bolt clicked shut, the bear whipped his head around and stared into my eyes. Focused, all I cared about was the shot. But the bear had other ideas. In a rustle of grunts and snapping twigs, he was gone.
The following spring I tried again for a brown bear, this time in Southeast Alaska. I made one stalk on a brown bear, but the stalk ended with a shift in the wind. Later I took a big black bear on that trip after stalking up to him in the open and shooting him at 15 yards. My confidence was high. I had all but lost any fear of being mere yards from bears - even grizzly bears.
THE YEAR WAS 2002, and my third quest for a grizzly began with research, phone calls, and e-mails to various outfitters. I had read in Bowhunter Magazine the story of Dwight Schuh's grizzly hunt in British Columbia (Oct/Nov 2000). After talking with Dwight and some other references, I decided to book with Bryan Martin of Canadian Mountain Outfitters. Unlike my other two hunts, this hunt would be a hard-core, spot-and-stalk backpack hunt for mountain grizzlies during the peak blueberry season. On the hike in we had spotted two big boars - a good sign.
On the first real day of hunting I stalked a record-book sized grizzly. The bear was feeding on blueberries amidst a tangle of blowdowns. I hiked along the steep hillside to within 40 yards of the bear. But the terrain made my final approach noisy and cumbersome, and the bear picked me off.
Over the course of the next week I had several other stalking opportunities, but between fickle mountain winds or just bad luck, something always went wrong.
Then, on the seventh day, Bryan and I spotted a big boar feeding below us. Darkness was fast approaching as we reached the area and began searching for the grizzly. We moved cautiously along the blueberry patch when Bryan stopped me quietly and whispered, "He's looking right at you."
There he was, just a dark form some 50 yards away. Knowing we needed to make our move fast, Bryan suggested I walk toward him to make him mad. I looked at Bryan and said, "Walk toward him?"
Despite my confidence born of experience, the thought of aggravating a large grizzly, a few moments before total darkness, was less than comforting.
"Yeah, get him really mad, and he'll come right to you."
I looked at Bryan sidewise one last time and remarked, "This is nuts, but, okay. Just be ready with that rifle."
I moved toward the bear and, just as Bryan had predicted, the griz came right toward me. The bear's hackles were up as he moved in a posture that signaled "unhappiness." I wasn't exactly gleeful either and wondered what kind of warning label the surgeon general would put on this situation. As the bear came within 20 yards, at a sharp downhill angle, I shot, and my arrow skimmed the ground just under the bear. Fortunately, at this point he went the other way. That was a weird experience, and one that I would just as soon never do again.
WE HAD ONE DAY LEFT as Bryan and I hiked the mountain across from camp. We had seen a couple of good bears there during the week, and we were gambling that one of them would still be around. The mountain was covered with snow, and after a few hours of hiking Bryan cut the track of a large grizzly heading south. We followed the track before breaking off and heading for a higher vantage point. As the afternoon sun began to drop, Bryan motioned frantically. He had found the bear.
We discussed the situation, and I handed Bryan my video camera. He also had his .375 H&H loaded and strapped to his shoulder.
As we got closer my adrenaline kicked into overdrive. The bear was an enormous dark-chocolate boar, easily over 8 feet - big for an inland grizzly. As I stalked the bear, I had no fear of being charged. What scared me was blowing the shot. I can't really call it target panic. It was more like target pressure. This was the last afternoon of the last day of my third grizzly hunt. I had to get this bear.
With camera in hand, Bryan followed 10 yards behind me as I cautiously stalked to within 25 yards. The bear was now broadside and feeding. But when I started my draw, he spun around to feed in a different direction. I let down.
The bear walked downhill a few steps, and I moved with him and readied for the shot. Then he turned and started feeding back toward me. In a moment he was going to be in my lap. Although I was standing in the open, he was so busy feeding that he paid no attention to the camo blob directly in front of him.
In his feeding frenzy the bear turned broadside. This was it. I pulled back the 70-pound recurve and flung an arrow - over his back. The bear ran 5 yards and stopped. He looked at me briefly and then lifted his great head to test the wind.
Okay, by now I admit to having full-blown target panic!
The bad news was that I had missed and put the bear on alert. The good news was that he was 17 yards away, standing still, and quartering away.
Carefully I slipped another arrow on the string and with intense concentration picked a spot and focused. As I held for just a moment, the sight picture came together, and I delivered the arrow right where I was looking.
The bear didn't like it.
Upon impact, he bit at the arrow. He then snapped his head up. We made eye contact. He charged.
I have little recollection of the next 3 seconds. I don't remember nocking a third arrow. I don't remember standing up. I don't remember drawing my bow. I only remember being at full draw, clearly picking a frontal spot, and shooting when he was 4 yards from me.
The 700-grain shaft buried up to the fletching in the bear's chest. Perfect.
The lethal shot confused the bear. He motioned to bite at the fletching which moved him off course just enough to miss me. In a blur of brown hair the bear streaked past me, and I turned just in time to see Bryan drop the video camera and raise his .375 H&H.
The bear refocused and headed straight at Bryan.
Bryan's first shot hit the bear at 3 yards, spinning him 90 degrees. Bryan shot again, and the bear ran downhill and out of sight.
It took us a few moments for reality to sink in. Bryan humbly apologized for shooting my perfectly hit bear. While I appreciated his courtesy it was not necessary. We both had made the best possible decisions - even if they were subconscious. Remarkably, neither one of us was particularly scared. We'd had no time for fear.
Nor did we give any high-fives or "Yahoos!" on that mountain. Our situation was dangerously close to being tragic.
We found the grizzly 100 yards away. My frontal shot had found a soft spot at the base of the bear's clavicle the diameter of a golf ball. It's hard to think about what would have happened had my arrow not found its mark, or had Bryan's shot not spun the bear off his intended course. Needless to say, luck was on our side that day - sort of.
WE HIKED OUT the next day, and when I arrived home 2 days later my wife, Julie, asked if I would ever go grizzly hunting again. My response surprised her.
"UhÃ‚€¦ Actually I'm thinking about going next year for a brownie." She looked at me puzzled, that "wife look" painted across her face.
"Remember when you told me that the chances of getting charged were slim to none?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"You were wrong, weren't you?"
"Well, yes, I was wrong," I admitted, looking at her intently. "But what are the odds of getting charged twice?"
Pat Lefemine operates the popular website, www.bowsite.com.
My grizzly hunt took place in British Columbia with Canadian Mountain Outfitters. For information on this hunt, contact: Bryan Martin (250) 317-5525; (541) 333-2304; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.canadianmtnoutfitters.com.
I was shooting a Black Widow SAIII recurve at 72 pounds, Gold Tip carbon arrows, and Wensel Woodsman broadheads. Total arrow weight was 750 grains.