Former DNR Law Enforcement Chief Alan Marble works as a chef at a hunting-fishing camp in the Alaskan bush and sends along reports on life up and out there. Here’s his latest contribution.
“To hear John tell it, that evening was one he will remember the rest of his life, in vivid detail…the tangled alders and the hemmed-in feel of the spruces looming overhead….the measured splash and crunch of gravel of big pronated pads moving down the braided river. He thought he could smell the bear, and, very possibly, he could. Doesn’t matter, if he thought he could he did, and it added that 4th sense to the formula with the pressure of his thumb on the rifle’s safety.
Only a minute or so earlier Larry had whispered, “Quiet as you can….chamber a round. But, be brisk.”
The bolt on the rifle needs to move smoothly and without hesitation to positively engage and chamber the cartridge that is nearly as big around and longer than a man’s little finger.
When you can hear and maybe smell the bear and you are closed in by the sky and dark sweeping spruces, your eyes widen and it as if your pupils expand an inch or so in diameter. Involuntary muscles at work, you strain to pull the sensory overload under control.
Then, Larry. “Whenever you are ready.”
A big rifle at close range seems to make two distinct reports, especially when hemmed in by trees. Not so much for the shooter….the trigger pull and subsequent shot often go unnoticed by the hunter. For anyone else close by, it can best in my head be described as a sharp lingering “CRACK” and then “WHOP!”
The big bear faltered and went down in the creek and started to stand and Larry pitched in with his .375 and it all came to an end.
I sometimes catch myself thinking of the glory and relative ease of the hunting guides and their leisurely days afield….glassing for hours….snoozing at times….waiting and eating sandwiches and gorp, waiting for the massive presence of a bear or bull moose to make itself known. In some ways I think my estimate of their routine is correct.
However, as is true for any hunter, the real work begins when your animal is down. For me, it usually entails about 3 pounds of cock pheasant or mallard drake….or 10 ounces of plump woodcock…..occasionally the relative heft of 10 pounds of Canada goose. The “work” is the quick field dressing, guts out….then, much later, usually in the comfort of a sunshiny late fall day or in the confines of the kitchen, the final prep of a game bird….plucking, or breasting out and removing the legs. For a cock bird, total “work” time is perhaps 20 minutes…..5 minutes to gut it, 3 minutes to string it up to hang and age…..another 15 to pluck it or otherwise render it table-ready.
It is a tough job, but someone has to do it.
When a ton of bull moose goes down, or 600 to 900 pounds of brown bear thumps to the ground, a process begins that will consume anywhere from 10 to 24 hours of time for two people, with a commensurate reduction of time with extra skilled hands present. It is close-up work….with the smell that accompanies the skinning and butchering of an animal. It is for skilled hands and very, very sharp blades. When done properly, it is work done with an artist’s care and a sportsperson’s respect…with a certain spiritual awe that attends the wilful killing of an animal in a hunt of fair chase. You cannot glorify it, and shouldn’t overly dwell on it. If you hunt, there will be that sudden death of the animal you have hunted, and that moment should be accompanied by a deeply reflective moment….I don’t care to hunt with, or spend a lot of time with, a person who does not feel that tug of spirituality that follows the shot.
It was 11:00 pm by the time John and Larry had completed the preliminary work on the brown bear and loaded their packs and began their halting two-steps-forward/two –steps-back trek down the Grant River in the dark. The river parallels the shore of Kulik for two miles before emptying into the lake, but that ¾ of a mile of muskeg and spruce trees was trackless and passed over floating bogs with potholes and black water beneath. Half-time wading in the river, the other half walking a bear trail downstream, they headed for the open shore of Kulik Lake. When they emerged at the lake the sky had gone totally black, and Larry used his flashlight to signal up the shore in the direction of the tent camp, a mile away. Joe and his client Mark were tending the little fire and fixing something warm to eat, having heard the shots and figuring on success.
Joe saw the flashlight beam and jumped into action, fired up the motor and sped down the lake to retrieve Larry, John and the bear. It was 2:30 in the morning when they slumped at the campfire and proceeded to tell the story and eat whatever warm food was heaped on a paper plate before them.
John was the first member of the family to connect on this hunt of a lifetime. The next day Joe brought John and the bear back down to Fishing Bear, to congratulations all around. Joe took a quick shower, grabbed some more groceries and headed back up to join Larry and Mark to continue the hunt.
Here in camp a certain excitement rippled through both hunters and guides. Terry, the father of this clan, was hunting with his guide Pat and with Caleb, the young packer who started in camp last season and already has become a fishing guide and would love to continue that growth process to become a licensed hunting guide in Alaska as well.
Matt, the third brother, was teamed with Troy and had Conner as his packer. Lars, the Tall and Redheaded from Germany, was guiding CB, the Montana judge. When the resident moose season opened, Jon from Goldenhorn up river, shot a nice bull and told us of the carcass and its location. Such a carcass provides a unique bear hunting experience, and Lars and CB had the nod to hunt nearby.
Each day at dark the boats would return to camp and I would kick into overdrive to put hot food on the table with as little delay as possible. Eating at 11:30, with dishes to do and food to put away, pushes sleep farther back and makes 6 am for me seem even earlier than it really is.
CB connected with a nice bear at the carcass after a couple of days. Matt and Mark killed nice bears on different days and were more than happy to join brother John at camp to do some fishing, some napping, some ready and some preparing to go home to tell their stories. Dad, however, was still a holdout. His easy-going manner and ready smile, however, showed that this hunt was far more about time in the wilderness with his boys than anything else.
Two days to go in the hunt, coming down river near dark, Terry, Pat and Caleb all saw a dandy bear at the river’s edge. They killed the motor and drifted down river, closer. Pat asked if Terry had a shot, and he said, “Yes.”
“Take it,” Pat whispered.
Terry fired a shot, chambered another round and fired again. Pat fired. The bear turned and scrambled up the 10 foot back into the thickets and vanished. Downstream, fishing in front of camp in the fading light, Joe heard the commotion. He hustled up to the little lodge….”Just heard three shots.”
Back on the river, Pat beached the boat and all three gingerly stepped ashore. “Pat asked, “How do you feel about your first shot?”
Terry answered, “I feel good, I had it right behind the shoulder.” Terry, I had learned over the ten days as our guest, did not run to verbal extremes or over-the-top emotions. “I think it was a good shot.”
Pat and Caleb cautiously climbed the near-vertical bank and stood and shined their lights over the low ground cover and scattered spruces. They could not see anything, nor could they see any blood. They could not hear anything either.
Pat called it, “let’s head to camp and we will either get help to come back or hit it in the morning.”
All 3 had an empty spot in their guts, a gnawing feeling at leaving a job unfinished, at possibly having a seriously wounded bear within a mile or so of camp. They checked in with Justin when they slid the boat up on the gravel and Justin made the next call. “We will put a party together in the morning.”
The following day, after a hasty breakfast, Justin, Pat, Troy and Terry returned to scene. Troy was first up on the bank, found blood, and looked around. He took a few steps into the bush and called out, “Got him.” It had turned to face the river, its attackers, and expired in that position. Terry’s first shot proved to be a mortal one.
Relief and hearty congratulations filled the woods as Terry put his tag on the largest bear of the first hunt period. His boys stood around, grinning and flailing at white socks and mosquitoes and the barrage of photos began.
Pat waited patiently with Caleb at his side, waiting for their real work to begin. Photos taken, they enlisted a team and rolled the bruin on its back and began to skin it. A gray jay flew in and perched on a spruce stub and began its own patient wait.”