People think I’m crazy; even friends of mine have told me so. Strangers.
Family members. They all believe I’ve lost my mind. When I get back home to Oklahoma each summer, I hear things like, “Are you nuts?” and “Man, you’re crazy doing all that stuff.”
You’d think it would have something to do with living up here, and roughing it out in the Arctic, where cold and darkness are a normal way of life. It’s all stuff you’re likely to see on TV, but it isn’t reality.
The thing they really can’t comprehend is my infatuation with bears and
the fact that I like hunting them. It hasn’t always been that way, but over the 20-plus years I’ve been here it has become so – even more this year – and it’s not only me. My best bud Lew has the fever as well. We just absolutely love it!
Yeah, it’s crazy and there’s really no simple reason why. I’ve tried to explain it, but can’t. Not really. I guess the passion came from a combination of time and places, and even certain circumstances that brought us to this serious addiction with bears.
IN THE OLD DAYS, spotting a grizzly was like seeing a ghost or some kind of alien being, especially during the spring months, when searching the hills and snow-covered tundra was the order of the day. Fall was a little different, as seeing a bear was a little more common, especially along the rivers and streams where the fish came to die.
Sometimes you’d see a bruin on a hill through binoculars, a brown spot on the orange and brown landscape. I remember how amazing it was for me personally to see a bear. It was usually from far off in the distance, but still notable.
Things started to change several years ago. Our trips each fall for moose and caribou instead became bear sightseeing tours. Most of those sightings occurred in places where we hadn’t seen bears before, which we thought at the time was very cool.
Those weekends were epic: Lew and I boating north across the sound, navigating the river past the sand bars, and making our way through the canyons into what was once legendary country for caribou and moose.
We stayed at “base camp” – a name we gave a spot in the middle of what 20 years ago was a game-rich environment.
Base camp was nothing but an old abandoned park service cabin that had been left to rot over the years. It sat deep in the willows right off the river and was severely dilapidated. Its foundation had slipped, leaving it on an angle, and the roof leaked profusely. But it had four walls with a table and shelves built into the walls, plus a couple of wood slabs for bunks.
We fixed it up a bit, adding a wood-burning stove and a reclining chair
Lew had brought from home. It wasn’t the Hilton, but it was comfortable and worked for us.
We used that cabin for years while chasing bears up and down the riverbank. At the same time we were always looking for moose, and we did take a couple of caribou during those years, but the bears were the main event. Even though we never took one in that area, we did see more and more as time went by. It wasn’t until we started venturing a little further upriver that we actually figured things out. We haven’t stayed at base camp in some time.
The Eli River sits about another 40 miles upriver. If you’ve read my stuff recently, then you know how fortunate, lucky and persistent we’ve been hunting bears up there.
It’s almost become second nature to us. It’s not “if” we get one; instead it has turned into more like, “How many do you think we’ll see and are you going to fill both of your tags, Lew?” Or, “Are you going to
save one for spring?” I know that it’s crazy, but honestly there are bears everywhere. This year was no different.
IF YOU READ LAST month’s edition of Alaska Sporting Journal, then you saw where we went early and were successful on both fish and bears. Lew filled one of his tags on the last evening, and even though it was a bit tricky getting back in the dark through some dense fog, it was an enjoyable trip. Our next outing was even more so.
We usually plan our trips a month or so in advance, depending on what we
have going on during that month. Because weather dictates a lot of what we do, having to boat to where we want to go isn’t always easy. Depending on direction, any amount of wind makes getting across the sound difficult at times. Labor Day, however, is always booked and is when you’ll find us heading north for bears and hopefully to hook a few fish. This one was no different.
With a boat full of gas and gear we made it across to the mouth of the
Noatak River. It wasn’t long before we pulled into camp, which was in a different area this year, even newer than our trip a couple weeks before.
A gravel bar that sits higher than others and has a deep pool thick with fish out front would be our home for the extended weekend. It was almost dark – not to mention windy – and we already had seen two bears on the ride in, so we knew we were in a prime location. The big chums stirred more than usual and we were excited for what was to come.
We quickly got our tent up and had just sat down to a delicious MRE when
we saw the first bear show up close to camp. We sat, ate and watched. Then two more. Before the end of the evening we had counted nine in all.
With all the activity going on, we knew the night would be a long one for the both of us. Like new tenants, we had moved into someone else’s house, took over their table and disturbed their eating arrangements.
We had bears coming in all night. Lew sat and watch and I slept.
He had many encounters during the early-morning hours close to our tent. One of those was with a bear he described as the biggest he’d ever seen. I saw the track the next day and confirmed he was right. There were big bears here.
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING we heard the all-too-familiar noise of splashing water outside. It wasn’t salmon; it was a bear. I peeked out the tent window and could see the bruin feeding down the bank without a care in the world.
I carefully slipped on my boots, grabbed the rifle and exited the tent. I was hoping to make a stalk without being heard. So far so good as I inched my way as close as possible. The .300 WSM was light in my hands and I quickly set up the Bog Pod for position.
The bear never noticed and the recoil from the shot was never felt. It was a clean shot – quick and precise. The bear swirled and went into the willows, leaving a blood trail 2 feet wide.
You never know what to expect when you follow a bear into places where you can’t see, but it’s all part of the process.
With two loaded rifles, Lew and I inched our way into the thick willow. There, laying camouflaged in the dirt, was my bear. And what a great bear he turned out to be!
It took a couple hours to get the hide off and both of us to carry it out. It was a big bear, my biggest to date, the skull of comwhich we later measured as 24 9/16 inches. I was happy, lucky and thankful.
With two days left on the trip, Lew and I fished, ate like kings, told stories and had a great time burning the daylight hours.
If you don’t know, bears seem to like the river best either early in the morning or late in the evening. They’re hungry and searching for fish in order to fatten up for the long winter ahead. For us it’s time to watch and wait, knowing it won’t be long before things get serious.
There are occasionally times when you’ll catch a bear out during the day, but it’s pretty rare. Also, if you spend enough time where fish congregate, you’ll notice that the salmon are more active during morning and evening than other times.
It may just be me, but during certain periods the fish like to – or tend to be – more active in the water, splashing, jumping, etc. I’m not a biologist, but I’ve noticed it and the bears absolutely are drawn to this food source during those times.
The next morning Lew woke me again. Out of grog he told me there was a bear outside. It was Lew’s turn and besides, I was completely happy with the previous day’s results. Lew exited the tent and was on the move, while I was still trying to get my shoes on.
Finally, I got out and watch as Lew moved down river and into position. Lew’s 7mm is loud, especially with a muzzle brake attached to the end of it. I knew better than to watch without covering my ears, but I was almost too late. I heard the boom and watched as the bear went down. Lew made a great shot that wasn’t easy; another bear down and another moose saved.
IT WAS A GREAT trip. We hunted the last evening hoping to fill my last tag, but I think the bears had finally figured us out and our gig was up. Maybe they decided to find a new place to live. I kind of doubt this. If we were to head up there tomorrow, I bet they would be there waiting for us.
The ride home wasn’t fun. We knew it would be rough with wind gusts coming at us at 30 mph, but we made it home safe and sound, soaked and happy. AmSJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.