Grizzly in Camp!
I was having a wonderful dream about a big bull moose feeding in the willows along a gravelly lake shore. It was warm there and I could hear the sound of the moose's hooves in the gravel as he walked around. Suddenly my mind said 'Gravel?' There is no gravel here!
It woke me, and as I lay in my warm goose-down bedroll I realized that the sound I was listening to was definitely not hooves on gravel - it was the sound of long claws clicking together as they came straight for our tent.
Reaching across the ground between us in the wall tent, I touched my partner's arm.
"Jimmy!" I whispered.
"I hear it."
The next thing I heard was the bolt action of his 30-06 chambering a cartridge. My 30-30 did the same.
Jimmy Johnny and I were guides that fall on a moose hunt with Widrig Outfitters out of Bonnet Plume Lake in the Yukon Territory. Jimmy and his hunter Lars, had scored on a nice bull just a couple of days previous, and the meat had already been flown out to base camp. Once that had been done, Jimmy, myself, and the two hunters had simply loaded up all our camp gear on the horses along with the horns from that bull, and headed for Lucky Lake which was about twenty miles away and tucked into a tight valley of dark spruce and buck-brush flats. We'd arrived late in the evening and with both men and horses tired and cold, we'd cooked a quick supper and then set up camp. The blankets felt good that night.
Now Jimmy and I lay there, listening to that bear coming into camp. It was not long until dawn would come but it sure seemed awful dark out at that moment. Suddenly the claws quit rattling and I could picture that bear standing at the edge of camp, nose in the air sizing things up. Or was he?
We had set up the camp with the hunter's tent about thirty feet away and a slight bit higher than us on sloped ground, with the camp fire and cooking area between us. The pole saddle rack was directly behind the tent Jimmy and I used, and we had lined the sets of pack boxes (panniers) up about 15 feet or so in front of our tent where they would be ready to go in the morning. When we had come into camp and unloaded the pack-horses the previous evening, I had left the one set of panniers full of moose-meat in the buck-brush about fifty yards from our camp. I sure was glad I had done that now as I heard that grizzly bear start knocking them around not far from our tent.
There didn't seem much Jimmy and I could do for the moment. The bear was directly in front of us, and short of cutting a hole in the back of a perfectly good tent and trying to get out that way, we were stuck. We kept silent and just listened to where he was. He did not make a lot of noise but it was not hard to guess just when he got into the boxes with the meat in it. Then he headed into the bush at the edge of camp again and was gone.
I got up with my flashlight in one hand, and my rifle in the other. Cold and shaking from the freezing damp air, I shone the light around to make sure we were alone and then checked the pack boxes. In my flashlight beam, I could see the meat was gone alright, so I straightened up some of the closer boxes so we wouldn't trip over them in the morning and headed back to bed. We had not heard a peep from the hunters' tent so far, and I envied their ability to sleep through the robbery that was going on.
Confirming to Jimmy that the meat was indeed gone, I snuggled deep into my bedroll again. Oh, but it felt nice to burrow into that still warm goose down on such a chilly night! However, sleep was not to come so easily this time. I lay there with my rifle beside me and listened for a while, knowing that Jimmy was doing the same. Nothing. Not a whisper of claws or fang. No rattle of panniers. Probably half an hour passed and as the tent started to lighten up with the coming of a cloudy new day, so came the rattling of those long claws again. I guess Mr. Bear had now finished his 100 pound snack of meat from the first trip in.
"Here he comes again," Jimmy said.
"I hear him Jim. What do you think we should do here?"
"Let's just wait a bit and see what he is going to do," Jimmy replied. That sounded good to me as I did not want to start a war with a grizzly who was not twenty feet from us - and us both lying down too. That bear sniffed around and poked around in those panniers for what seemed to me like an hour. We'd hear him roll one of the boxes over and then licking it clean. Then he'd move to the next one. He must have gone through them all about three times each, and then he stopped and we could not hear him anymore. We waited. And waited. We knew he was right outside the tent flap and that we were now literally trapped inside that tent.
General layout of the camp. Jimmy and I were in the blue tent, and the
hunters were in the white canvas tent. Lucky Lake is in the background.
"I'm going to call Lars," Jimmy said, "It's light enough to shoot now." I guess the bear heard him too and got curious as to what that noise was, because the next sound I heard was the tent flap parting around that grizzly bear's head as he stuck it through the gap and took a step forward so that the tent flap gapped around his shoulders. He was about three feet from my legs and his little beady eyes were taking in Jimmy and I as we sat there half in and half out of our bedrolls shivering in the cold.
"I'm going to shoot," Jimmy whispered.
"No!" I said. "Wait! He's too close." I could see that 30-06 aimed right at that bear whose shoulder looked about six feet high as he stood over my legs. I knew Jimmy could drop him right there, and I also knew that 30-30 of mine would be firing all seven rounds as if it was a full automatic once I got that lever started. But that bear was just too close! I'd seen enough grizzly bears die to know that one of their last acts is to get something - anything- between their jaws and crunch it to powder. This bear was right beside my legs.
His head looked as big as the back end of my saddle horse and those little beady eyes at that distance took us both in with a slow flat stare that I don't believe missed anything inside that tent. He eye-balled Jimmy and he eye-balled me and his head moved but a fraction as he did. Then with a slow and deliberate motion he backed up and slid outside of the tent to sit outside the flap and sniff at the boxes once more. I felt like he'd decided to leave us alone in the fridge 'til later for dessert, as we were in the bag so to speak. It bothered me, that feeling.
If you've been around grizzly bears much, you are aware of the raw power and speed that these animals are well known for. They are very effective predators and are at the top of the food chain. I was feeling about the bottom of the food chain at the moment and was thinking of the size of the claws on this boar. We could see he was a mature bear and was a good big specimen of a Yukon grizzly. These interior bears do not get as big as their coastal cousins, although they are both the same species, but the food they live on is different. The coastal bears get to take advantage of the salmon runs and all that protein makes them grow huge compared to the interior bears in central Alaska and the Yukon Territory. A big Yukon grizzly will go eight feet. This particular one from my vantage point of the moment, looked like he'd make that at least. He was a deep dark chocolate brown, and from what I had seen so far, had the bowed legs and short neck of a boar. A hungry one.
We were fairly trapped now. We could not get out of the tent, and we were too close to start the ball rolling to make the bear move away. What to do?
"I'm going to holler at Lars, and warn him and Benny," Jimmy whispered again.
"Good idea Jimmy, tell him to bring his rifle, too."
"Yeah," he replied. "Maybe he's going to have to kill this bear so we can get out of this tent." I knew exactly what he meant. That 12 X 14 foot wall tent was starting to feel awfully small to me too.
Jimmy hollered. "Lars, there's a bear in camp! Bring your rifle!"
That spooked that old bear, too, and as we heard him jump for the bushes twenty feet away we heard Lars and Benny rush from their tent slightly above us and on the opposite side of camp. Jimmy and I remained in the tent. We could not see anything from inside but we thought that we were between the bear and the hunters, so it seemed advisable to stay put and not be out there running around - even if we could have been. I had no idea as to how excitable these two fellows were, and at the moment I was thinking that the walls of that canvas tent where no match for a round from Lars' .375 H&H.
"Lars, can you see the bear?" Jimmy hollered.
"I can, Jimmy," said Lars. He sounded calm to me which gave me hope.
I asked him, "Lars, where is the bear in relation to this tent?"
"He is standing up on his hind legs, looking right at me!" Lars answered. "And he is about twenty-five feet off to the left of your tent with the lake behind him."
Both Jimmy and I scrambled to the tent flap, rifles in hand and peeked out, spying the bear who was watching these new people come from the other tent.
Jimmy looked at me and I nodded back.
"Shoot Lars!" Jimmy told him. "But make that first one count!"
Perhaps two - maybe three - seconds went by before the Boom! of that .375 and then the instant slap of the bullet as the bear let out a short bawl and rolled into the surrounding buck-brush where he was immediately still.
"Shoot again Lars! And keep shooting until we are certain he's dead." I told him.
Boom! Boom ! Boom! Three more shots rang out and we knew then that this party was all over.
View of where the bear fell in relation to the author's tent.
By now we all had pretty cold feet as no one had time to put on their boots, and there was a light dusting of snow on the ground yet. After some hurried dressing, we all sort of converged on the carcass of that bear at the same time. I noticed everyone still had their rifle in hand, so after carefully making sure the bear was down solid, we made sure everyone had their rifle in a safe condition and started looking the bear over.
The author, Rick Mortimer with the Grizzly Bear
We'd been right, he was a good sized boar, although not quite making the eight foot mark. A touch over seven and a half from nose to tail root. We guessed his weight at between five and six hundred pounds. He was not a very fat bear, which again indicated that he was probably an older bear. But then the blueberry crop had not been that good this fall, so he did not get much benefit there. Also, this was poor gopher country he was in, both of which would have certainly helped him decide that a little robbery job on our camp was just the ticket.
As we stood there admiring the size of his claws, his teeth, and the quality of his thick coat, the adrenalin started to leave us all about the same time, leaving us cold and shaky. Definitely time for a good fire and some hot coffee.
This is what is so great about hunting in the mountains. You never know what is going to happen; nor when it will happen. But some of these events are sure surprising! The unexpected aftermath of this eventful morning was the story that got told around the hunting camps that fall about how two guys from Denmark had to 'rescue' their guides from a grizzly bear. A 'huge' one of course!