The story recounted here took place in October of 2001 and was my first (and only) Brown Bear hunt on the Alaska Peninsula. Mr. Murphy’s chicanery continued unabated, but in forms or disguises I had not yet run into.
After a commercial flight to Anchorage, a second-tier air service delivered me to Port Heiden, on the Bering seacoast. From there, it was a relatively short hop into outfitter Kurt Lepping’s base-camp. A hot meal was waiting for me—my first of the day—and 30 minutes later I found myself climbing into Kurt’s Super Cub and heading for a previously-established spike-camp on the well-known Cinder River. My guide, a Swiss-American named Eric, was there to greet me as we landed on the treeless tundra, and within minutes we had all my gear stored inside the eight-by-eight-foot, lightweight mountain tent that sat just yards away from the edge of the river. Kurt’s last words to us before taking off were that he would check with us in four or five days, and—if we weren’t having any action in that area—he would move us to a new location.
Eric had been flown in only a couple of hours earlier, in order to set things up for my arrival, so he had not really had much time for scouting before I got there. I asked if he’d seen any bears yet. He shook his head but was quick to tell me there was plenty of bear sign around. Having just been airborne that afternoon, I knew I could not hunt till the next morning, but that wasn’t about to keep us in camp while there were still several hours of daylight left. As Eric and I began to explore the banks of the Cinder, it soon became evident there was bear sign most everywhere.
Unfortunately, though, none of it seemed very fresh. Both sides of the broad, shallow river had been beaten down to a fare-thee-well along the banks, and it was impossible to travel more than a few feet anywhere near the river without stepping on decaying fish parts from the huge salmon runs that had already moved upstream and been feasted upon. Though we did spot the occasional fish finning or splashing about, it became obvious after five full days of hard hunting from dawn till dark that most of the surviving salmon, and probably all of the bears, had moved on up to higher, happier hunting grounds. Not a single bear did we see in those five days; not even a single, truly fresh track! Each evening we had returned to camp exhausted from many weary miles on foot, only to give our all again the next day, with identical results. The sour weather didn’t help, either. Since we were seeing absolutely nothing on every outing, I think the only thing that made the stressful and boring routine of those five days bearable was the good humor and levity which seemed to combust every night inside the tent, once we had pulled the zipper shut and lighted the cook stove.
Boots and wet clothes quickly discarded, we snuggled into our sleeping bags and started drooling in anticipation of a hot dinner. In every hunting camp in the world, there is something magical about the effect the smell of frying pork chops or sausage has on a hungry hunter. Eric, whose excellent English still carried a fair German-Swiss accent, was a good cook and delightful company. He had brought along a little schnapps in his duffel, and I’ll never forget our second evening together, as we lay back enjoying a short one while waiting for the pork chops to brown, when I suddenly exclaimed, “Well, this is the life of Riley, isn’t it, Eric?”
The blank look on his face told me right away that he’d never heard the cliché before. “Who is Riley?” he asked, rather puzzled. I did my best to explain the popular metaphor, and once he caught on to the idea that it meant something like “living a life of luxury,” he started laughing and could hardly stop. From then on, our nightly discussions as to who Riley really was, or might have been, were always triggered during the cocktail hour by my opening salvo, “Well, I wonder what Riley’s doing tonight! He can’t possibly be having it this good!” Without fail, and for reasons I never understood, this would invariably set Eric off into gales of giggles, and the cheerful mood was set until we fell asleep each night from a combination of hunting fatigue, laughter, and overeating.
On Day 6, following a nasty night when Eric and I had to move our tent in the dark to loftier ground because of hard rains and rising floodwaters, the outfitter flew in to check on us and decided to move us to a completely different river system. When I politely complained about the absence of bears on the Cinder River, Lepping came back at me with the proverbial, defensive “gotcha”: “You should have been here last week!”
Put in terms that a frustrated, skunked fisherman could relate to, an equivalent declaration would be “Boy, the fish were sure biting yesterday!” The problem with “yesterday” and “last week” is that they never do you any good unless you were lucky enough to be a part of them. In hunting, as with so many other things in life, timing is everything, and it is so often the stepparent of luck, either good or bad. For success with the cervids of North America (deer, elk, moose, and caribou), for example, the mating season is generally regarded as the best time of year for the hunter to go afield. Yet it often happens that when your long-planned dates finally come to pass, you arrive in hunting camp only to be told something like, “Well, the rut came two weeks early this year.” Or, “It’s been unseasonably warm lately, and there are no signs of the rut even starting yet!”
My guide and I were, in fact, thrilled by the refreshing change of scene. We pitched our tent between two big sand dunes just a couple hundred yards away from one of two small, adjacent streams. The two creek-beds, above their juncture, ran up into the hills, more or less parallel to each other for several miles, at a distance of 300 to 400 yards apart. Neither averaged more than 10 yards across (in places, far less), but their extremely serpentine character — together with the heavy brush along both banks — offered prime ambush opportunity for a bowhunter. The entire situation really whetted my imagination and my sense of pending — just-around-the-corner — spontaneously-combustible — adventure. Eric and I got more than a little excited, that first morning at our new location, when we stumbled onto some super-fresh bear tracks in the sand halfway between our tent and the first creek. They were BIG tracks! No mistaking that fact, and somehow I figured we were destined to see their maker before the hunt was over. At least I knew I wanted a chance to help him meet his Maker!
Both streams were harboring a fair number of fresh salmon that seemed to be moving up toward their spawning beds. A bit of fresh bear sign was in evidence, all right, but the scat, tracks, and fresh fish-parts were disappointingly few and far between. Unfortunately, we soon discovered we were very near the edge of another outfitter’s area, and more than once we spotted rifle hunters in the distance, less than a mile away. Late one afternoon, a small aircraft materialized out of nowhere and touched down on the tundra a scant hundred yards away to pick up a solitary hunter we had not even noticed.
After two days of walking the stream banks and/or wading in the water channels with the wind always in our face, discouragement started to set in once again. We still had yet to spot our first bear! Only by hiking “upstream” on the open tundra for an hour-and-a-half in the predawn darkness one morning did we finally start seeing any bruins moving about. Yet by 6:30 or 7 AM, they were all bedded down in the brush. The morning before our fly-out date, we did see what looked like one good-sized boar roaming about, some two miles away.
He, too, managed to effect a permanent disappearance almost immediately. The time, once again, was not yet 7 AM. By the end of the hunt, there was little doubt in our minds that the Brownies had become completely nocturnal. All of our daylight traveling into the wind, both upstream and downstream, had produced nary a single encounter with a fishing or feeding bruin. That was not the way a $15,000 hunt was supposed to go! On the other hand, of course, that’s why they call it a hunting trip, not a shooting trip. With all real hunting—and especially bowhunting—there are never any guarantees: offered or expected.
The final night before the Super Cub was to pick us up in the morning and return us to base-camp, an early winter storm swept in and deposited six inches of snow on everything in the local environs. At dawn, the sky was clearing, and it wasn’t long before the sounds of an airplane cut the still morning air, and we began hurriedly hauling gear out to the cinder beds where the pickup was to take place. As the plane was about to set down, imagine my total shock when — not 30 yards from our tent — I came upon the freshest, most gargantuan set of bear tracks in the new snow that I had ever seen! They had to have been just minutes old, and the pads on the front paws measured an honest nine inches across!
For 10 days, we had been searching for a large boar (or really any boar), and now, suddenly, in the final minutes of the hunt, a real behemoth had found us — but left us no time at all to follow his red-hot tracks in the new-fallen snow! What an insult! What a poke in the eye with a sharp stick! As we lifted into the air with feelings of intense frustration, Kurt circled and started following those immense footprints so clearly visible in the white stuff below.
Would you believe it? Not 250 yards from our abandoned tent-site, there he was, bedded down in a patch of brush, looking up at us!!! As we flew over him for the second time, I could have sworn I saw him laughing! At least his jaws were open, and his lips were curled. As for Murphy’s ghost, he must have been having so much fun that I think he forgot I was the one who was supposed to poke the bear with a sharp stick. Come to think of it, I’m sure he planned that role-reversal! Thus ended another unsuccessful bowhunt for my frustratingly-elusive Alaskan Brown Bear. And I had become another hunt wiser about the devilish resourcefulness of Mr. Murphy. What I didn’t realize was that his best tricks were yet to come.