Handgun Hunting the Alaskan Brown Bear

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The stakes become high when the hunter becomes the hunted. Becoming the ultimate jackpot isn’t why you are there. In this game of bullet against claws, teeth and immeasurable strength, the victor becomes the king of the Alaskan tundra. There are no places to hide; there are no trees to climb out of harms way. It becomes a chance hand of how the cards are dealt. You pray they fall in your direction.

It is hunting at it’s finest and it addresses every bit of talent, stamina, nerve, marksmanship, stealth and courage you may or may not have. A thousand pound carnivore that can out-sprint a gold medal Olympian runner and deliver death in a single blow is nothing short of what we all fear, the primal response of being attacked and killed by a beast. It’s what nightmares are made of and throughout history these animals have gained their reputation by the forces of fact. Alaskan brown bears are nothing to fool with, even with a high-powered and scoped .375 H&H. To pursue them with a handgun might put the shooter in the insane category. With ownership of the newly introduced Smith & Wesson .500 revolver, after much thought and deliberation, I decided to try it. Five 470 grain, 1625 fps Buffalo Bore cartridges were nestled in the cylinders just waiting to be sent on their mission, many telephone calls and floatplane miles later, the mini-howitzers would be lit.

As the Cessna 206 skimmed the hillsides in the fog-shrouded tundra, I gazed out the Plexiglas window wondering what would be in store for myself over the next few days. How would this hunt go? Would I even see a bear much less be afforded an opportunity to harvest one? The mid-October autumn had turned the ground colors into bright red and flaxen mixtures of grasses and lichens. Vast patches of blueberries were presented in beyond-count quantities for nourishment to the wildlife. Faded red, spawned-out, late season salmon littered almost ever foot of the wild riverbank. Their carcasses decaying and providing nutriment to insure life to the waters as it flowed by in a reflected introduction to the camouflaged hunters aboard the plane. The steady drone of the floatplane’s Lycoming engine drowned out normal conversation but no one really cared; the magnificent sights below were savored. We outraced the caribou, moose and wolves as the miles passed by. His darting eyes, ever watchful of the wings in such close proximity with the hills, kept vigilance of the potential dangers in art of low-level flying; typical Alaskan stuff.

Soon, a distant azure-blue colored lake appeared on the horizon and within minutes a sharp turn took us onto final approach. It looked too small to land such a plane on but through the skillful hands of Glen Alsworth Jr., our bush pilot and fellow hunting companion, we came to a picture-perfect stop. We had arrived! The mist that all but obscured the mountains now settled in the low-laying areas and coated everything with water droplets. Taxiing to the distant shore, the Cessna was packed within safe weight limits for flight and in the cramped space was an array of the best outdoors equipment one could buy. In a scene reminiscent of a fire-bucket brigade, the guns, tents, sleeping bags, food, ammo, binoculars were off loaded and carried to dry land. Waders were pulled up and the three bear hunters and three observers stepped off the floats into the icy waters of the vast tundra.

Sloshing ashore, we heaped the equipment into a pile and setting up the dome tent became the first priority. As we began to carry the gear towards the selected campsite 100 yards away, someone yelled something about a bear and was pointing towards the far edge of the lake. Sure enough, as I pulled up the Swarovski Optik 7x30 binoculars for a better look, I spied a blond-colored bear that was ambling around the shoreline. It was less than 125 yards distant but seemed not to have a care in the world. We stood there and watched it for about 15 minutes as it ambled towards a distant hillside and disappeared. In Alaska, you cannot hunt the same day you fly in an aircraft so our bear hunt would have to wait until the following day.

In the meanwhile, the tasks-at-hand needed to be completed. A comfortable camp means happy hunters and with the weather conditions worsening, the tent would serve to keep us warm and dry. It would not be unusual for the weather to close in for weeks in Alaska, it’s very wise to have everything one would need to survive a longer-than-anticipated stay. The last pilot I flew with said that one of his customers was to stay just 4 days in an area he flew him into. Bad weather blew in and 26 days later he was able to fly in and get him! When I thought of that comment, months before I carefully stashed a few more candy bars in my pack. Better to starve with a few Snickers and Skittles in my pocket I thought. When I hear talk of Alaskan brown bear hunting, two things come to mind immediately, plenty of ammunition and a first aid kit. Hopefully we would need just the 470 grain .500 peacemakers.

After the chores were completed, I grabbed my binoculars and headed towards a wild salmon river about a mile away. I glassed the hillsides and didn’t see anything immediately. I decided to gain a vantage point by positioning myself on a knoll that overlooked the river and distant hillsides. Walking was easy as the tundra contained no brush or muddy areas, just soft and spongy ground. It was almost like walking on a trampoline. Cresting the hilltop in a very low profile crawl and careful not to show my silhouette, I spied two huge brownies about 250 yards away! My heart almost stopped as I brought up the binoculars and saw how big they were, the closest without a doubt would go over 1,000 pounds and 8 ½ feet tall. The second bear was slightly smaller but looked as round as a baby hippo covered with the most beautiful fur I have ever seen, deep chocolate with silver tips.

The larger of the two bears was a lighter-colored boar with dark colored arms and legs, a massive head with huge jaws the other bear greatly respected. I watched as the smaller brownie would start to circle the older boar and lower his head as if he was attempting to challenge him. This went on for a few minutes and then I noticed why. The larger bear was on a kill! The boar had raked a huge pile of vegetation onto a mound of which he was sitting. It looked like a backhoe had scraped every bit of grasses, roots, soil and debris it could find into a two pickup truck sized area with a two-foot high mound. He sat in the center of the kill just daring the other bear to come closer. I could see that one of his ears had been torn away and although healed, his terror still reigned. He was the big one nobody messed with. I had carried the Smith & Wesson .500 in my small daypack and it rested at my side for protection. With almost a ton and a quarter of blasting energy in a single shell, the .500 wasn’t going to leave my side. Ever.

As I watched the two bears that evening I determined the thick brush in the area of the river would be difficult to make a stalk. No matter how silent we were, we would sound like a herd of buffalo charging. The only recourse was to attempt the stalk out in the open. It was likely the big boar would still be there. On the kill, they’ll stay for weeks. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t be attacked but I would have bet heavily that we would be. Potholes of water lay everywhere and the walk wouldn’t be easy.

On the hill looking down I could see everything but once we were in the scrub, we could become easily confused as to where the bears were, perhaps targets for other bears that lurked around unseen. It was very surprising as I lay there to see just how wonderfully camouflaged they were. A man could almost walk right into one in the grasses and scrub and never see it. I was intrigued not only by their size but how healthy they were. With the huge amount of available food in the area these bears would be some of the largest animals around. Their fur was in prime condition without any rub spots or damage. After about 45 minutes glassing them and with the approaching dark I decided to head back to the camp, it would be foolish to walk back any later.

That evening, myself and the other men huddled in the tent as the Arctic winds began to pick up fiercely, howling as if it were a huge pack of tundra wolves readying to devour us. The walls of the tent shook violently from the wind and became so loud that one almost had to yell to be heard. We ate dinner in the dim light and spoke about the rewards of hunting in the finest land in the world. Bear hunters are an unusual lot, their quarry can turn the tables with nothing more than screams then silence if the hunt goes bad. From start to finish a bear attack lasts only a few seconds. There was an unspoken excitement in the tent since we all had seen the bear near it and knew this area was loaded with them. The father and son team decided to sleep in the airplane while Jeff, George and myself slept in the tent. With dinner finished and it already being a long day, we snuggled into our sleeping bags to drift off to sleep. The only other words I heard before we had fallen asleep were George’s. He asked, “Where did you put that pistol?”

Sometime around midnight I was awakened by a sudden and huge pressure on the lower part of my body, I thought a bear had sat on me from the outside! I guess I yelped and then realized I wasn’t being eaten, the tent had collapsed on my side by the terrific force of the wind! Try as I might I couldn’t get it righted and with the help of George it was back in place only to collapse again as soon as we laid our heads back down. The intensity of the storm had increased over a couple of hours and now was a full gale. It was piercing cold, a light sleet and rain mix blew sideways as we scrambled out of our sleeping bags to throw our heavy coats on.

The three of us crawled outside to attempt to fix the tent. It was miserable. We tied another rope around one of the fiberglass inserts that holds the tent up and put another stake in the ground to hold it. For the rest of the night, the winds, sleet and rain kept at it and little sleep was realized. I kept imagining a huge bear ripping through the tent and devouring all of us before anyone would have a chance to shoot it. Every sound was investigated by one half-opened eye in the dark. When I mentioned that the next morning as we began to stir I found out I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. Both Jeff and George admitted they had thought about bears all night too and had gotten very little sleep! Of course, it didn’t help when the last thing we saw was a brownie on the hillside right before we went to bed.

The men in the plane were stirring at daybreak, I thought the Cessna would have broken loose from it’s brush anchor and be blown across the lake but everything held firmly during the night. I could hear them sloshing in the water as they came ashore and headed to our makeshift tent. We all prepared for the beginning of the hunt, guns checked and rechecked. Extra ammo was placed in spare pockets, hunting licenses and metal bear tags rechecked.

As we huddled around the front of the tent I said that we should make a stalk on the two bears I had watched the night before and all agreed. Glen Sr. and George carried .338’s while Jeff cradled a 45/70 with a 22-inch barrel and peep sight. Both Glen Jr. and I carried the .500’s. Guns loaded, we proceeded to hike the mile to the hill by the river. I noticed the wind had shifted and was blowing off my right shoulder. I stopped and with a hand motion, pointed to the left where we needed to walk so we would be downwind from the bruins. Glen Jr. and I would start the stalk there. I looked from the gently sloping hillside and saw indeed my thoughts were right, the big boar was still on the kill. Much to my surprise there were two other bears halfway concealed in the thick brush as well! Glen and I started as the other men stood their ground watching us in great anticipation of the events to come.

Hunched down, we inched our way towards the bears with 25 yards separating us from each other. Glen was to my right and we were making a good stalk when suddenly one of the three bears stood up on it’s hind legs and spotted us. It spun around and took off, scaring the other bear along with it. I had leveled off in a Weaver stance with the .500 but held my fire as my target wasn’t as prominate as I would have liked. A wounded brownie can become the devil himself and that was the last thing I wanted.

In the meanwhile Glen became separated from me as a small body of water prevented him from coming my way and closer to the boar that was on the kill. The bear started to get up when Glen backtracked and got along side of me. I trained my revolver at the bear and watched Glen as he lay on the ground in a firing position. I nodded my head to him and a second later, the blast of his .500 Smith & Wesson echoed against the distant hillsides. The bear never flinched when the bullet hit him and it continued to get up. Immediately I fired my .500, the bullet striking the great bear center mass and again, it never flinched. We were about 20 yards from it and in a spot where we could be readily seen by the beast. In a blur, we continued firing when our backup with his 45/70 fired twice into the bear on the 7th or 8th shots. When the first 45/70 bullet hit it the bear went down and it got back up, the second hit didn’t seem to faze it. Glen and I advanced and kept firing at the bear. We stopped 15 yards from the wounded brownie and then I heard one of the most terrible sounds I have ever heard in my life come from Glen’s gun. Click. He had run out of ammunition. Immediately I leveled off at the animal and squeezed the trigger, the Smith & Wesson exhaled it’s firebreath . The bear went down and stayed.

Labored breathing is all that could be heard for that moment, the great bear lay dead. Collecting our wits, we stayed back from the beast just in case it came back alive. It’s a very good idea not to go charging in after a kill, especially with bears. I like to give a minimum of half an hour after the bear goes down before going up to it. Simply said, it’s too dangerous. Glen Sr. said the moment we started firing he shouldered his scoped .338 just in case the bear attacked us. In the end, the bear had been shot 12 times. Two bullets found their mark from the 47/70 rifle and there were 10 slugs from the pair of Smith & Wesson .500’s, all shot at close range. As we spoke, Glen Sr., a registered Master Alaskan guide said he had seen bears die with one shot and others like this big boy that took a barrage of shots before going down. Funny thing.

A few handshakes and congratulatory remarks were said and smiles a mile wide on the both of us. I pulled out the Nikon from my daypack and proceeded to take a few pictures for posterity. No one hurt or injured and Glen Jr. had a beautiful 8 ½ foot trophy. Close inspection of the bears kill found the body parts of another bear buried beneath the vegetation! The bear was eating a bear! Then something caught my eye to the left along the riverbank. A brownie.

It’s quite common for bears to come in closer when they hear a gunshot. Probably they figure a free gut pile meal of caribou or moose. Wherever you are out in bear country after securing your game you should be more aware of your surroundings. Gunshots to bears are sometimes like a dinner bell to them and it can end up to a potentially dangerous situation for the successful hunter. This bear however seemed to be content to stay along the river, perhaps holding a wide berth from the big one Glen had just bagged. Across the river about a half-mile away was yet another brownie, a large one at that, coming down the hillside. I turned and told the men that I would try a stalk on the smaller bear on the edge of the river since I might not get another chance to bag one. Glen and his father started the task of skinning his bear out and I told them of my intentions.

The bear was only 150 yards away and sniffing the hundreds of dead salmon that lay on the shore. While I made my way towards it I lost sight of the other bear that was across the river. My heart was beating unbelievably and intent on getting close enough I would move only when the bear’s head was down. Fortunately the wind had not changed and I was still downwind from the boar. My backups were perched on a small hill 30 yards behind me as I made my approach.

Suddenly, the bear stood up on it’s hind legs and provided me with a full chest shot. Drawing my .500, I shot in a split second knowing a second opportunity might not ever occur. When the 470-grain bullet hit the bear with a dull thud, the bear slammed backward into the frigid water. I cursed as the water was fast and probably would carry the body of the bear downriver, perhaps lost forever. I blinked and suddenly the bear jumped back up on the shore and started racing upriver. I shot two more times in rapid-fire succession. The bear jumped into the water and started swimming to an island 30 yards away. I yelled to my backups not to shoot until it was in shallow water. Seconds later, the bear lay dead. The Smith & Wesson had done it’s job well. I had bet my life on it.