November 04, 2010
When bowhunting the largest land carnivores in the world, you'd better have confidence in your guide -- and yourself.
As I held at full draw and prepared for a five-yard broadside shot, my nerves were temporarily in check. Surely the giant humpback would step into a two-foot-wide shooting lane and remain parallel to the stream where he attentively watched for the telltale wakes of silver salmon.
Abruptly the bear stopped and raised his massive head over the tall grass and stared directly at us. The distance was about the length of a pickup truck.
Would he bolt? Would he move ahead for a perfect behind-the-shoulder shot? Would he think that Cole and I were prey and charge? Would this be my lucky day -- or my last day?
I prayed it would not be the latter!
This situation had begun two years earlier when I'd booked a 10-day hunt on Kodiak Island with Kodiak Outdoors Adventures. Multiple sources had highly recommended outfitter Paul Chervenak, one of the few outfitters who would book a bowhunter. The hunt would take place in October.
This would be my last high-end adventure hunt. I have been retired for several years, and, frankly, hunting species like brown bears was growing too expensive for my budget. But, still, it's something I had to do.
At age 61, I'm in better-than-average physical condition. However, over the past few years, mountains have seemed higher, trails longer, and camping in the wild-beyond less bearable. My father died at age 60 of a heart attack during the whitetail rut in 1978.
Outwardly he was a bull of a man, and his sudden passing made me realize that life can end unexpectedly with no final chapter and dreams unfulfilled. Dad was so looking forward to a retirement that never came that perhaps that's why I worked two jobs most of my life to reach retirement by age 51. Perhaps my father's unwritten ending had in some way caused me to book this brown bear hunt that had always seemed too expensive, too undoable.
Friends regularly told me I was crazy for pursuing brown bears with a bow and advised me to buy good life insurance. "You can't buy life insurance for a bear," I replied.
In the few days prior to my leaving for Alaska, my immediate family members announced -- out of the blue -- that they loved me, which resonated the hollow feeling of a last goodbye. Sure, things can happen, but I was not planning to exit from life just yet.
After I'd booked, Paul sent me a compact disc of two previous bear hunts, which convinced me that Chervenak is the ultimate optimist. Each day's episode started halfway up a mountain overlooking miles of tundra, and Paul's opening recitation never changed: "This is Lucky Day No. 1 (2, 3, 4€¦)." His voice was just as confident about success on day 10 as on day one.
Bush pilot Willy Fulton has participated in more than his share of brown bear adventures. Even at the age of 25, my guide, Cole Kramer, had seven years of Kodiak guiding experience. My brown bear squared nine feet, eight inches. What a lucky day!
Paul would be guiding another hunter, but he assured me that my guide, Cole Kramer, was topnotch. At age 25, Cole had already guided bear hunters for seven years. His track record for shot-opportunities was nearly 100 percent. And he was a diehard bowhunter.
When I arrived on Kodiak, Alaska was experiencing its eighth coldest October on record, and for two days high winds prevented our departure to the hunt area by floatplane. On day three, we were able to air-drop gear into the campsite, but the lake where the hike to camp would begin had frozen. Our only choice was for pilot Willy Fulton to land his Beaver on a coastal bay. We would hike from there.
Kodiak Island is an intimidating landscape for a Midwestern hunter. Its rugged topography is faulted and twisted like a crumpled piece of paper, and Willy Fulton only amplified the rugged aura. Fulton was the bush pilot who discovered the bodies of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard on Kaflia Bay in Katmai National Park in October 2003. Willy regularly flew supplies to Treadwell and checked on him after he had not reported in as scheduled. An old rogue brown bear boar had killed and eaten all but a few body parts of these two bear-trusting adventurers. I would be relying on Cole and his .375 H&H Mag. to ensure that Willy would not witness a similar scene at the end of my hunt.
Cole's GPS showed a crow-flight distance from our coastal drop-off point to camp of 8.7 miles. After we'd weaved back and forth across a winding river and skirted thick brush and boggy areas, the GPS reported that we had hiked 10.8 miles to reach our parachuted gear. To beat an incoming storm, we allowed ourselves only three, 10-minute breaks during the six-hour hike.
Cole and I had scarcely set up camp when wind gusts of 70 mph hit with a vengeance and persisted the entire night. Despite our exhaustion, we could not sleep.
Lucky Day No. 1
After a hearty breakfast, we climbed halfway up a nearby mountain -- Boot Hill, as Chervenak had named the small, flat mountainside overlook -- and began glassing for bears along the meandering salmon stream. The wind had lessened, but the temperature began to drop. Menacing questions kept plaguing my mind: Could I endure 10 days of this wind and cold? Would 10 hours of glassing for 10 days straight, never moving from this windy perch, drive me insane? At age 61, why did I book this hunt? Why was I in Alaska during the whitetail rut?
We spotted five bears at a considerable distance before a young boar, perhaps an 8½-footer, appeared, heading leisurely upriver toward an accessible ambush point. "That bear is plenty big enough for me," I said to Cole. He undoubtedly would have preferred that I hold out for something bigger but gave his approval, and we descended the mountain to a spot the bear might select to waylay salmon.
Kneeling behind a weed clump on a narrow sandbar, I estimated the shot at 20 yards if the bear stayed on the opposite bank. If he crossed to our side, Cole would give me a signal to reposition for a five-yard shot.
My guide, Cole Kramer, had no problem sitting on Boot Hill, staring through a scope for 10 hours stra
ight, to locate bears roaming the vast river valley spread out before us.
The bear suddenly appeared, lumbering along the opposite stream bank. Although his pace never changed, he obviously noticed us as being something out of place. Slowly I drew my bow and centered the 20-yard pin behind the bear's shoulder as he came broadside. Immediately he spun 90 degrees and ran full speed ahead into a side channel.
"Don't worry about it," Cole said as we headed back up Boot Hill. "We'll get you another shot at something bigger." Lucky Day No. 1 seemed anything but lucky.
Lucky Day No. 2
A 10-degree night had frozen everything in our tent, including the toothpaste. Cole thawed enough water for coffee and hot oatmeal, and during breakfast we joked about the cold night although neither of us laughed much. I dreaded sitting 10 more long hours on Boot Hill, but I desperately wanted a second chance.
Throughout the morning, we spotted three bears, all a mile or more from Boot Hill and in the wrong wind direction for stalking. By midday, the sun's rays on my face and clothing felt like a million bucks, and I dozed for an hour. It was the first time I'd truly been warm since the hike from the coast.
With things being slow, I headed down to camp and fixed us hot lunches. Cole stayed on Boot Hill and never took his eyes off the river basin's endless maze of willow brush and waist-high grass. By the time I returned with lunch, Cole had spotted a fourth bear headed our way.
"It's a boar," Cole said. "But he's not big enough. We'll pass on this one."
"He looks big to me," I commented. "But you're the boss." I did not let my disappointment show. Clearly, Cole's desire for me to harvest a true trophy brown was greater than my own. This was not all bad, I speculated at first. But on second thought, what if this trip was unsuccessful? I could never afford to do it again.
"Given the choice, Cole, I'd rather increase my odds of success by stalking average bears daily than holding out for fewer chances on a high-end Kodiak," I said.
"I understand," Cole responded. "I'll do my best to send you home with a smile."
As the sun progressed toward the western horizon, we talked about family, whitetails, and life in general. Cole was a young man with experience and common sense well beyond his years. He displayed as much passion for the outdoors as anyone I'd ever hunted with.
Lucky Day No. 3
During another dreadful 10-degree night, I took Cole's advice and crawled into my sleeping bag fully clothed, ready to hunt the following morning. Unbelievably, I slept better. We had a propane heater and cook stove, but used them sparingly to prevent fogging the valley with camp smells.
We were watching several bears a mile or more from Boot Hill when we glimpsed a brown only a quarter-mile upriver from our position.
Cole threw up his binoculars, but the bear quickly disappeared into the willow brush with a fish in its mouth. "He did not look that big, and I think he had a rubbed spot on his back," Cole said.
As we flew across vast Kodiak Island, the freshly snow-covered mountains looked like reams of crumpled paper.
We forgot about the rubbed bear and kept track of two more-distant ones that appeared sizeable. A conversation about Midwestern whitetails and our individual hunting strategies soon kicked off. Cole had hunted Kansas and Missouri whitetails and was booked to hunt Saskatchewan with his grandfather and another friend immediately after this outing. Talk of big bucks only made me more homesick for my favorite Illinois rut stand 20 feet up a huge, old white oak.
Three hours had passed when the rubbed bear reappeared, heading our direction. Glassing the Kodiak again, Cole became instantly excited. "That's no small bear! What I thought was a rub must have been his coat, wet from catching salmon. He's at least a nine footer.
We need to get down on the river now and find an ambush spot."
Soon I was kneeling on a game trail in tall grass, five yards from the river's edge. The trail formed a perfect shooting lane for bushwhacking a passing bear. Cole ranged the opposite bank at 22 yards. With his .375 locked and loaded, Cole positioned himself six feet behind me and to my left. If the bear charged after my shot, I needed to be the focus of his assault, allowing Cole an ample angle and time to put one or more rounds in the bear's skull.
Cole peered over the grass to gauge the bear's distance and whispered, "He's on our side. Do you want to take a peek at him before you shoot him?"
My anxiety level was already high, so I quickly responded with a muted "No!" I needed to maintain the wherewithal to muster a perfect shot.
Cole's next whisper quickened my heart rate, "He's coming fast. Draw!" I took a deep breath and came to full draw, but then the unexpected happened!
The bear stopped and raised his head over our grassy diversion and stared directly at us from less than 20 feet. We froze, trying not to make direct eye contact. Instead of exiting, the giant brown lowered his frame and lumbered ahead to the shooting lane.
I centered the pin and released. The giant Kodiak let out a roar I thought only an African lion could produce and then spun 90 degrees and disappeared into the willow brush. Cole hollered, "You got him, Les! You got him!"
We ran through the underbrush, following the noise of snapping willow limbs. Our next sighting of the big bear was 150 yards off the stream as he tumbled down the mountainside like a brown Volkswagen!
The skull measured green at 273„16 inches, and the hide squared nine feet, eight inches. Wildlife Biologist Larry Van Daele estimated the bear to be 12 to 14 years old. Thanks to an excellent outfitter, Paul Chervenak, my last great adventure was definitely the best ever! And as for Cole Kramer, my guide-superb, this young man had more faith in me than I did in myself. He helped me make this my truly lucky day.
The author, a resident of Illinois, has been a regular contributer to Bowhunter for more than 15 years.