In 2001, Yukon outfitters Alan and Mary Young, with whom I had hunted black bear previously in British Columbia, made me an offer I just couldn’t refuse: two grizzly hunts for the price of one. Their new area up in the northern part of the Territory had not been tested yet for spring grizzly since they acquired it, so Alan—eager to help me finish the Super Slam—invited me to hunt with him for 10 days in June, and, if unsuccessful then, to return for another 10-day hunt in late September, at no extra charge! That was a deal no serious bear hunter could refuse, and I was, for sure, deadly serious about this bear-hunting business!
My close friend, Lee Veldhouse from Colorado, decided to join me on this hunt, and after using commercial aviation to reach Whitehorse, Mary Young drove us north to Mayo (and well beyond) to a lake from which we would eventually be transported by floatplane even deeper into the heart of the wilderness. I say “eventually” because our final destination was a long, skinny lake by the name of Worm, whose remaining winter ice-pack did not sufficiently clear to allow us a landing until three days after the “start” of our hunt.
As a result, Lee and I had to force ourselves to relax and endure three days of the best pike fishing we had ever seen. Paddling slowly in a canoe just off the lake shore, we could hardly make a cast toward the bushes without attracting a strike from a voracious pike. Ten-pounders were common, but 20-pounders we released as well. A small six-pounder fed all of us for dinner and provided some truly outstanding eating.
Finally word reached us that half of Worm Lake was free of ice, so we loaded all our gear in the plane and lifted off into the sapphire skies of a gorgeous June morning. From the air, landing looked as if it might be a bit dicey, but our pilot appeared confident, and I guess that was the most important thing. Ironically, an hour after we were put ashore and the floatplane had droned off into total silence, the wind shifted direction, and the large, residual ice floes quickly moved to a new location that would have made any further landings impossible until another wind-shift.
The next dose of our new reality was soon delivered by the discovery that a grizzly had violated our base-camp cabin and helped himself to much of the food stores we were counting on. They had been put up the previous fall, but a padlocked front door and wire-covered windows had not prevented the hungry bear from simply eating a hole through the sidewall of the cabin. Pancake flour was strewn all over the floor and dusty, whitish paw prints were found on every shelf—and in every corner of the cabin. Many tin cans had been eviscerated; others were simply left with multiple puncture wounds. Frankly, Lee and I weren’t quite sure whether to interpret the mayhem as a good omen for the hunt, or a bad one.
Regardless, Alan Young had planned two entirely different adventures for us. Worm Lake was the point of departure for both, but that was all the two would have in common. Lee’s hunt would be primarily a float-trip by rubber raft down approximately 150 miles of river. My guide and I would hunt the peaks and valleys surrounding Worm Lake, and “spike-out” on occasional overnights in different directions.
After bidding farewell the next morning to Lee and his guide as they began to row for the outlet of the lake, my guide suggested we head on foot for the snowy high country to see if we couldn’t find an old griz making a late emergence from his winter’s den. With considerable glassing, we did, indeed, spot several big holes in the snow, with plenty of tracks going to and fro, but—seeing no large critters other than moose that first day—we gradually came to the conclusion that the bruins in the area had all come out of hibernation a couple of days before our arrival.
On the third day of this spring hunt, we at last spotted on a mountainside across the lake from us a good-sized boar putting the sneak on what appeared to be a smaller boar napping below him on top of a sunny rock. They were both just above timberline. The sleeping bear awakened just in time to realize he was about to become lunchmeat. He escaped by the fur of his skinny chin-chin, up through a narrow, rocky chute, and the chase continued at least another two miles until the pair finally disappeared for good over a high, snowy, skyline mountain pass. Perhaps the smaller one was a female in heat, but by the time they reached the other side of the peak, they both had to be seriously overheated.
Unfortunately, those were the only grizzlies we saw the entire hunt. We could not even manage to find a fresh track or pile of scat in 10 days. When Lee and I finally met up again at the end of our respective adventures, he had seen even fewer bears than I had. Once they exited their snowy dens, we simply could not figure out where they disappeared to. I headed home to Seattle somewhat dispirited, but feeling very grateful and hopeful about the second chance I knew I was going have just three months later.
The plan for the fall hunt was completely different from that for the spring one. It centered on flying me in to a lake where a rifle hunter had just killed a bull moose. That was the easy part. The major difficulty was in getting a grizzly to locate the remains of the dead moose before my hunt came to an end. What complicated matters further was that the location where the bull had expired was in the middle of a narrow strip of land wedged between two bodies of water—a river to the north, and a backwater slough to the south. Both were across-the-water shots would have been in excess of 50 yards to the carcass, and I knew better than to attempt such a shot without sights.
Every day the wind was blowing steadily from east to west, so the only possible approach for a stalk was from the west, but the last 60 yards were without any cover—across low, open marsh-grass. Shortly after first light each morning, my guide, Gerald, and I would motor quietly across one end of Elliott Lake, killing the engine as we approached the outlet. We would then nose the boat up onto the shore and climb the same 100-foot-high knoll each time, so we could look down the other side and see if what remained of the moose 120 yards to the north had been found overnight by some keen-nosed bruin. Gerald felt certain it was just a matter of time—insisting that some of the bigger bears could smell a dead moose from as far as 20 miles away downwind.
On the seventh morning—finally—we found an extraordinarily beautiful, eight-foot, dark chocolate-brown boar in the act of burying his newfound food supply. It was clearly a slam-dunk rifle shot—but obviously a very different proposition with a bow. We knew we’d probably only get one chance at him, so we wanted to “pattern” him as much as possible before committing ourselves to a particular strategy.
A light rain had been falling since daybreak, and, after we’d watched the bear for an hour or so, a strong breeze picked up out on the lake, creating some pretty good waves that gradually turned our aluminum boat parallel to the shore. Driven up against the rocky shoreline, the rocking hull began banging steadily with dull metallic sounds, and the hair immediately went up on the back of my neck. Bears have excellent hearing, and I couldn’t believe this bear would not hear those unnatural sounds.
Indeed, within seconds, our quarry bolted from the scene, traveling due west across that open marsh-grass and then up onto a little hogback ridge that offered some small willow clumps for cover. He quickly disappeared off the backside of the hogback, never to show himself again until the tenth and final morning of our hunt.
At least my prayers had been answered! It did look as if we were going to have one last opportunity to take this wonderful grizzly when we spotted him about 7:30 a.m. from the top of the knoll we had been visiting each day. He lay bedded just a few feet from the moose carcass, which appeared greatly diminished from what we had observed 24 hours earlier. We wasted no time circling around to the west, to the top of another knoll about 140 yards from the feeding bear. Leaving all my extra gear and clothing with my guide, I asked him to cover me with his rifle and began what I hoped would be a stalk leading eventually to an ambush at close quarters.
Fifteen minutes later, I found myself kneeling, bow in hand, behind the last little clump of willows near the tip of the hogback ridge. My quarry was still bedded, due east of me, about 80 yards away, right next to what was left of his food-supply. Yet, two hours later, nothing much had changed. However, the wind had turned very raw and was spitting moisture at me. I was starting to feel quite chilled. Could it be that this grizzly—uncharacteristically—was intending to spend all day at the kill-site, with such paucity of cover around him? Wouldn’t he sooner or later re-bury his treasure and depart the scene in the same direction he had traveled three mornings earlier?
I felt certain he was clueless as to my presence, but before long I realized I was going to have to force the issue. I motioned for Gerald to circle around to the upwind side and give the bear his scent. I knew it was a gamble, but I was getting too cold to stay there much longer. I figured that once the bear picked up the first whiff of human odor there was a good chance he’d run straight downwind toward me—the same way he’d gone before, when frightened by the sounds of the boat. It seemed like a good plan. If he came up the nose of the hogback again, he wouldn’t see me till he got within about 10 yards, and I’d already be at full draw. If he cut left or right along the edge of the marsh, he’d pass by me at 12 yards, or else at about 18.
Most unfortunately, when the moment of truth at last arrived in his nostrils, I suppose Murphy’s ghost was also whispering in his ear, because he suddenly bolted out the side and swam the river to the north. He was still running as fast as he could run half-a-mile away when he disappeared into the big forest. And so ended that particular grizzly hunt.
Stay tuned for the next episode in my ongoing war with Mister Murphy!
Editor’s note: This article is the fifty-fifth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work, and the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here:http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.
Top illustration by Dallen Lambson