As I said at the end of the previous story—it was later that very same day, just a few miles farther into Idaho Inlet, that we found another good-sized bear cruising the high-water mark of the beach, so we decided to try to set up an ambush. He was approaching a section of the shoreline that required him to leave it for a couple hundred yards because of some vertical bluffs that dropped straight off into the water. We went ashore and set up against the cliff just 20 yards short of the spot where his trail rejoined the beach. Before long we heard a heavy limb snap directly overhead, and I readied myself to draw. One guide chambered a shell, just in case; the other turned on my old eight-millimeter movie camera.
The bruin took his time descending off the bluff, but when he finally appeared, he was on a second path we had not seen—about 35 yards out, with a huge deadfall spruce tree lying on the beach between us, projecting well out toward the water’s edge. As he wandered into the open, he clearly sensed that something wasn’t right. His nose was high in the air, but, even though he turned broadside to me several times, the many limbs of the deadfall prevented me from even considering a shot.
After nearly a minute of aimless circling, the bear headed for a rushing stream about 70 yards away, his head low to the ground and presenting a quartering-away angle for a possible shot.
I certainly would not take that shot today, but I was far less experienced then, so I went running toward the water (far enough to clear those spruce limbs), planted my feet, took careful aim, and let fly an arrow at about 55 yards (paced off later). The shot looked good, and, as the big boar shuffled forward and crossed the stream, a loud roar confirmed that I had a pretty solid hit. On top of the far stream-bank, he stopped and turned to face me directly from around 80 yards distant. A second, final arrow “split” his ears, passing harmlessly over his head, and then he vanished into the forest.
Actually, the first arrow had made what looked to all of us like a perfect hit, right behind the shoulder, burying itself nearly to the feathers. I was confident the animal would not go more than 100 or—at most—200 yards, but we all sat down to wait for an hour, just to be on the safe side. I took advantage of the time to go over once again with my guides the vital importance (to me) of their not putting a bullet in my bear should we happen to find him still alive! Unless, of course, he actually charged them—or me! Now that my arrow was in the beast, angling forward through the vitals, no firearm use was justified in my mind, unless somebody’s life was in jeopardy.
When we finally entered the woods where he had disappeared, the feathered end of my arrow shaft lay 15 yards inside. A quick measurement told me that about 20 inches of shaft was missing—presumably all inside the bear. The spoor, or blood-trail, looked pretty decent, yet not as good as I had hoped for. Our quarry had headed straight up the hill, and my two guides immediately split up, so as to cover one another, and began slowly advancing upward — about 30 feet apart. I was instructed to stay in the middle, at least 20 yards below them. Watching their actions, and hearing the tension in their voices, it didn’t take me long to absorb the idea that we were involved in a deadly serious business. Meaning, I figured, an activity that could turn deadly in an instant, with little or no warning.
In truth, I have learned over the years that there is nothing most hunting guides in the Far North fear more—and, therefore, loathe more—than having to trail a wounded brown bear or Grizzly into the brush. Although I didn’t realize it back in 1978, I have since learned that, under such circumstances as we were in then, bear attacks from very close range are quite common and often result in death or serious injury to guide, or hunter, or both.
After 50 yards or so of uphill progress, the spoor my guides were following became very difficult to find. In an effort to make a bit of small talk, I asked if either of them had ever been charged at point-blank range by a brown bear they didn’t know was there until the charge began. Their terse, simultaneous, one-word answer in the affirmative told me instantly that the timing of my question had been less than ideal. Kenny and Fagan were clearly nervous and not enjoying our adventure at all. Before long, however, they picked up the trail again, and when the underbrush soon started to thin out, they both began to breathe easier.
When the bear’s tracks finally reached the snowline, about 500 feet above sea level, the blood-smears on the snow became frequent and heavy. From that point forward, following his trail should prove no great challenge, I thought to myself. I didn’t realize at the time, however, that my bear was actually still alive, and that we were pushing him ahead of us. With hindsight, the multiple beds, about 50 yards apart, really did tell the story. I was so very sure my broadhead was buried deep in his rib cage that I just knew we would come across his carcass at any minute. In fact, I was so convinced we would soon find him dead that I began to lag behind my guides so I could film the ample sign and impressive footprints inthe snow. The tracks were now easy to measure, and I could scarcely believe how big they were. The bear’s front paws measured a full seven inches across the pads, and the length of the rear feet matched exactly the length of the imprint of my size-13 hip-boots.
All of a sudden—with my guides perhaps as much as 100 yards ahead of me—a rifle shot rang out, followed immediately by a second one, and 15 seconds later by a third. Then dead silence. A nauseous feeling welled up in my stomach, and I charged up the slope as fast as I could manage. Just inside the next patch of timber to which the tracks led, I found my two guides standing around talking and smoking cigarettes—but with no bear in sight.
Once I had regained enough breath to ask a question, I blurted out, “What happened? Did he charge you?”
The one-word answer was “No.”
“Well, why the hell did you shoot, then?” I shouted, barely in control of the rage rising within me. “Where is he?” I persisted.
“Down the hill about 50 yards below us,” came the reply. “Behind that brush pile.”
In a flash of anguish, I realized that my guides, in their heart of hearts, had never really believed an arrow could kill a brown bear. Unfortunately, it had fallen to me to be the first bowhunter they had ever guided. Ironically, much to their chagrin, and to my increasing bitterness, when we reached the dead animal below and skinned him out, we discovered that only one of the three bullets had made it through the brush and reached his hide. The one bullet that did had passed broadside through his rump, just three inches from his tail.
What suddenly became painfully clear to all of us was that my arrow had actually killed the bear on its own, and that he was right at death’s doorstep when my guides finally caught up with him and spotted his motion below. The fact that we had been pushing him probably hastened his death. What Kenny and Fagan had not seen, before they fired their three shots, were the telltale signs in the snow of the big bruin rolling down the steep hillside and right through that big brush pile.
It turned out that my arrow had, indeed, been fatal—even though it never actually entered the rib cage at all. In taking off the hide, we learned just how deceiving appearances can be. At the moment of impact, with the bear’s head down, the front leg striding forward, and the quartering-away angle rather severe, the broadhead had actually entered through the rear part of the upper front leg just above the elbow, passed under the armpit, skidded completely around the rib cage underneath the hide, traveled the length of the neck, and ended up right under his chin! Nothing like the hit we had imagined, but—over the course of three hours—it had proved lethal, nonetheless. Because of the final position of the arrow, the bear could not comfortably lower his head, so his only easy direction of travel was up.
I leave it to the reader to imagine the depths of my desolation at the outcome of the events related above. I knew I had killed an Alaskan brown bear with my bow, but I also knew I could not claim the animal as an archery kill because of the bullet hole in his hide. It was to be 21 years before I would again attempt to harvest a brown bear, and I still didn’t have a clue that Mr. Murphy had already surreptitiously entered my life so he could plan for me many more lessons (beyond this first one) in his School of Hard Knocks.