In the final story of Chapter 27, taken from my award-winning book, BAREBOW!, I recounted how — at long last — on May 18, 2004, I was able to dispatch Mr. Murphy’s ghost with the same shot that secured for me the new Pope and Young World’s Record Grizzly Bear. That true tale was titled “Two Monsters with One Arrow.” The sweet victory left me only an August hunt in California for Tule elk and the harvest of a brown bear in Alaska before I would finally be able to claim completion of the first-ever, North American (barebow) archery Super Slam. While I was waiting over the long, tedious summer for the fall bear-season to arrive, the fear developed in my mind that Murphy’s assassination might not remain permanent. Or at least that he might find a way to resurrect himself before my September 15th hunt for brown bear ever got started.
The fall bear hunt, however, arrived at last and — in three, short, unbelievably thrilling days — proved my worries to have been groundless. All the bad luck, that had so plagued me during one “close encounter of the furry kind” after another over the previous five years, suddenly just melted away in the space of a few seconds on the night of September 17th. Read on for the details.
Actually, in the fall of 2003, I had also hunted brown bear in southeast Alaska — but to no avail. Though I had had a truly excellent hunt with outfitter Brad Dennison (Alaska Coastal Outfitters) on the southeastern coast of Chichagof Island, I wasn’t quite able to get within bow-range of either of the two large males we located. In the course of the 10-day hunt, nonetheless, we did count 67 bears and there were several sows, unaccompanied by cubs that I could have taken at close range — had I been willing to take a female.
As for the 2004 fall hunt, I flew into Sitka on September 14 with high hopes, renewed confidence and a feeling in the marrow of my bones that this was going to be the last brown bear hunt I would ever need to go on. I guess somehow I knew that by switching to a different island within the so-called ABC group, my luck was due to change. I had had enough of Chichagof!
Once on the ground in the old Russian capital of Alaska (founded in 1804), I immediately hopped a floatplane for the extreme southern tip of Baranof Island and landed in a tiny harbor right in front of outfitter Jim Boyce’s Cape Ommaney Lodge. After a great dinner and evening of watching bear-hunting videos, I headed for bed so pumped up about our pending departure the following morning that the night turned out to be much longer than usual.
But morning did come, bright and early, along with perfect bluebird weather. Our base-camp vessel was to be the all-aluminum-hulled GUNSMOKE — built for speed and for handling heavy seas. Jim had been guiding hunters for brown bear on Baranof for more than 20 years and the name of his boat reflected the fact that he always found bears and (I suppose) that most of his clients had been rifle hunters. I believe I was just the second or third bowhunter to try for a brown bear with Jim.
By mid-morning, all the fuel, gear, grub and crew were on board, so we left the cape and immediately headed north up the eastern shore of the island. Because of an odd quirk in the Alaska hunting regulations, the bear tag in my daypack would allow me (opportunity permitting) to harvest a second grizzly or brown bear within that same calendar year of ’04. Most Game Management Units in the state allow a hunter to harvest a grizzly/brown bear only once every four years. My May grizzly, however, had come from a one-bear-every-year area in northwestern Alaska and my second tag had been issued for the new “regulatory year,” which runs annually from July 1 through June 30. So I knew I was legal and I was more than eager to finish up my Super Slam within the next 10 days.
Our first evening’s hunt found Jim, myself and Alfredo (our “camp cook” and assistant guide) wading up the edge of a small river, just teeming with salmon. As is usually the case on a calm evening, the air currents were moving down the valley, following the flow of the water and the gentle breeze in our faces was reassuring. As much as possible, we kept our feet in the water, so that our rubber hip boots could not leave any hint of human scent on the gravel or the bank. There’s a common saying: “If you don’t want to leave scent in the woods, wear rubber boots.” I can tell you, however, from having learned the hard way that this bit of popular wisdom doesn’t apply to bears! Their sense of smell is beyond incredible!
Jim told us he knew of an old boar that frequented this river during the autumn salmon runs and that he had seen him fishing several times over the years about a mile-and-a-half up from the mouth of the river, just below a beautiful waterfall too tall for the fish to negotiate. The falls were our destination that evening and although we spent nearly two hours there, very well hidden, the old boy never showed himself. As dusk began to merge with the shadows and we began the trek back downstream, Jim said, “Well, if he’s not up here, then he’s almost certainly going to be down near the river’s mouth.”
The footing along the edge of the streambed was quite treacherous in places and by the time we reached the estuary part of the river, the darkness was bordering on total. Yet, Jim was convinced his hunch was right. Taking a detour away from the channel and cutting across a grassy flat to the backside of a huge clump of bushes on the edge of the next bend in the river, Jim motioned us to get down on our bellies and crawl forward with him to the upstream side of the clump. As we reached his chosen target and I pulled my head up even with his as he whispered, “Look down and across! Do you see him there? That’s him! That dark blob against the yellow grass bank! I told you he’d be here! And he is big!”
I was, indeed, amazed at Jim’s ability to make good on his prediction. His next one was also right on the money. “The evening thermals are going to give him our scent any second now. Just watch!” Sure enough, no sooner had the words escaped his lips than the dark blob disappeared into the inky forest. On the final walk back to our skiff, I kept thinking to myself, “This guy really knows his stuff! He’s going to get me a shot at a dandy brown bear!”
The next afternoon, Jim took us back to the same river. His plan was for us to climb up into the spacious limbs of a huge, old, rain-forest maple tree that stood within 10 yards of the rushing water, straight across from where we’d briefly spotted the monster bruin at last light. Getting off the ground and up to the first massive crotch in the tree was the biggest challenge, but a huge, leaning, semi-rotten log lay in just the right position to be of help and once one reached the crotch, further ascent was pretty easy. Every major branch of the maple was covered with thick moss, but there were a number of large openings that gave excellent visual access to the rocky beach below, as well as to the bank across the river. It was, at most, 22 yards away. Once I had found the best perch in the tree, with a separate limb right underneath it for my feet, I proceeded to use my brush-clippers to put some finishing touches on all the shooting lanes I figured I might need to use — depending on just where the old boar decided to make his appearance.
We’d been up in the tree not quite 15 minutes, I suppose, when my hunt suddenly — but for the Grace of God — almost came to a tragic end. I was returning to my “seat,” clippers in hand, after a third and final pruning session and as I tried to regain my perch by sliding my left foot forward and down off the patch of moss where I’d already been seated several times, the heel of my hip boot hung up in the deep moss and caused me to lose my balance straight backwards! Jim was standing a few feet away on a slightly lower limb. Seeing the disaster start to unfold, he made a desperate effort to grab me as I flew past, but he missed getting a hold on any part of me and the effort almost caused him to fall out of the tree himself. A second or two later, I crashed onto the river rocks below — 22 feet straight down!
Well, to everyone’s utter amazement (most of all my own), I immediately picked myself up off the rocks (no, it wasn’t grass and it wasn’t dirt) and began — as if in a daze — to climb back up into the tree! It took Jim shouting at me and ordering me to sit down on the log to bring me to my senses enough for the question to begin percolating through my brain as to why I wasn’t already dead! After all, I was 64 years old at the time; I had just fallen 22 feet down onto a surface made of rocks and backwards, at that!
As I sat on the log contemplating why I was still breathing, the answer suddenly came to me. With the help of a big bruise developing on my backside, I remembered that, about a third of the way to the ground, I had struck a glancing blow off a large limb which reversed my rotation! Instead of breaking my back or cracking my skull open on the rocks, I had been pitched forward to land face down on my hands and knees! The fact that, within 10 minutes, I was back up on my perch in the maple was a major miracle, indeed. No one will ever convince me that God does not, upon occasion, take a hand in the affairs of men.
Not surprisingly, the near-tragedy introduced considerable noise pollution into that otherwise-peaceful-and-tranquil environment. Also not surprisingly, Brutus the Boar did not reward our continued vigil-till-dark with a second appearance.
As is the case with so much of hunting, a change of scene often brings a change of luck. Thus it was with our third evening of this bear hunt. During the day, we had followed the coastline a little farther north and had anchored the GUNSMOKE in a little fjord near the mouth of another small stream that Jim knew would be full of spawning fish. Going ashore shortly before sundown, we spied a mother bear and twin cubs swimming and fishing in the estuary part of the river. Upon seeing us, they quickly exited the scene, and within five minutes or less a young male entered the same fishing hole all by himself. Alfredo and I were watching him and waiting for Jim to return from anchoring the skiff out of sight and in a location where the falling tide that evening would not leave us high and dry, with no way to get back to the Gunsmoke after dark.
The young boar eventually crossed the stream and wandered over to within 15 yards of our hiding place. Then — all of a sudden — hearing something he didn’t like, he started running back across the river and into the woods whence he came. Minutes later, Jim rejoined us and our slow journey upstream got under way. Once again, the reassuring breeze was in our faces and we kept our “tracks” in the water as much as possible.
We had progressed only a couple hundred yards upstream when I spotted what looked to me like a superb ambush location for an archer. The river at that point had narrowed to a rather uniform width of about 10 yards and what attracted my attention was a good-sized logjam, with a really nice holding pool directly above it. The stretch of water wasn’t more than about two feet deep, but it was just alive with salmon thrashing around, not to mention well-used bear trails coming out of the brush from every direction. With fish scraps strewn about everywhere, this was obviously a major feeding station.
Looking upriver in the direction of the sunset, we could see that the right-hand bank was a wide, open, flat gravel bar for about 80 yards. The left bank was more vertical than horizontal, about six-feet-high, closed-in, and brushy for the first 40 yards, but then — above that — it opened up to another low, flat gravel bar. I suggested to Jim and Alfredo (who was carrying my camcorder) that we cross the stream to the cut-bank right above the logjam, hunker down up against it and just wait for a boar to arrive on the scene. Jim agreed it sounded like a good plan.
After everyone got settled into position, it was perhaps no more than 20 minutes before a bruin suddenly appeared some 70 or 80 yards above us and began to fish his way down the middle of the channel, splashing up a storm as he made quick work of one unlucky fish after another. Almost immediately my guide flashed me the thumbs-up signal, indicating it was a male and one that would go at least seven and a half feet. The relatively bright light still reflecting off the river’s surface had allowed Jim to pick up through his binos the silhouette of the boar’s pendulous private parts.
Though Baranof certainly has many bears that will measure over eight feet and even a few over nine, I had told Jim that I would be more than happy to settle for any mature male, but, conversely that I had no interest in taking any female, no matter how big. Thus his signal was something that put joy in my heart instantly! With any luck, this was going to be my Alaskan Brownie — at long last!
The developing situation looked promising, indeed, as the boar kept coming closer and closer. All at once, while standing on the left gravel bar with a flopping salmon dangling by the tail from his mouth, he jerked his head around, stared intently across the river for a few seconds and then tore madly off into the brush. Having witnessed this kind of bear behavior many times, I assumed a larger male was approaching. When the second bear showed up a minute later, however, it seemed about the same size as the one that had just departed.
I kept looking back at Jim to see if he had been able to “sex” the new arrival yet. Each time I checked, he would simply give me a shrug. The drama began to get much more interesting when the first bear suddenly re-emerged from the bushes. He walked slowly right up to the edge of the current, paused for a few seconds to study the other bear, then waded across, right up to it, while bear #2 stood its ground. I wondered if we were about to become spectators to a real donnybrook of a bear battle! My guess couldn’t have been further off! What happened next was that they kissed! Their noses touched and they just stood like that, muzzle to muzzle, for a good 15 seconds. We were flabbergasted! After all, this wasn’t the rut! I had seen rather similar behavior between sows and boars during the spring mating season, as they pursued their mating rituals, but this was the fall.
A new thought came to mind and later that night back on board the big boat, Jim said the same thought had occurred to him: Was it possible we had witnessed the chance encounter and reconciliation of two siblings that had lost track of each other a few years earlier, after being kicked out of their mother’s company as she prepared to be bred again? What else might explain such behavior at that time of year? Today I am fully convinced that’s exactly what it was we witnessed. If any reader has another plausible idea, please get in touch with me. I’d love to hear it.
In any case, the drama soon began to involve us more directly, as the two bears started fishing together and heading downstream in our direction. At about 40 yards away, the male placed himself clearly in the lead, never seeming to take his eyes off the water in front of him. The air movement was still perfect and when Mr. #29 was about 12 yards away, still quartering toward me, I slowly began my draw. Jim was crouched just inches behind me and Alfredo was hiding in a log-pile about 20 yards behind us, with my camcorder running. Being left-handed proved to be a great boon to me in this situation, because I was seated facing upstream on a rock outcrop of the steep left bank. That meant my bow-arm (my right arm) was extended toward the river. The shot would have been impossible for any right-hander.
By the time my quarry reached the point of being straight out in front of me, fully broadside, the distance was no more than five yards, and the big boy still didn’t have a clue that there was any danger around. As he pulled his right front leg forward, I let the arrow fly. In a nanosecond, it disappeared through the “sweet spot” and out the other side into the river, never to be seen again. Forty yards away and fewer than 10 seconds later, he was stone dead and I learned later what is meant by “a dead run.” Without any sign of slowing, he had simply plowed into the gravel like a big semi hitting a concrete seawall. We found him still in an upright position, but with not one leg visible. All four were stove in underneath his massive body.
We all sat there for a few seconds, stunned at just how swiftly and perfectly the drama had unfolded. Nary a twitch nor a sound emanated from the departed bear, who just moments before had seemed so strong, so fearless, so near and so threatening. All of a sudden, I realized my heart was jumping for joy and that an enormous weight had just been lifted from my shoulders. Six, previous, unsuccessful bow hunts for this species! Now, at last, a most improbable victory! A weight built up over many years of strenuous effort, sacrifice, frustration, enormous patience — and (at times) bitter disappointment — was suddenly gone.
The Super Slam was finally mine! It was actually behind me now, instead of right there in front of me, just beyond reach! I had done something which, thus far, only six other bowhunters had accomplished before me. Yet, by aiming from pure instinct and never using any sight-pins attached to my various bows, I had gone them all one better and achieved a (first-ever) barebow Super Slam.
Sometimes, reality has a way of making it hard for you to get your brain around it. I still can’t quite believe it happened, that it’s really true. that I still don’t have to go on one more bear hunt, leaving my wife and mother back home to worry themselves silly about me. As things happened that night of September 17, 2004, we decided to wait till morning to skin out my brown bear. There were simply too many other bears in the area at that time of year to take unnecessary risks. Consequently, we all three relieved our bladders in a circle around the carcass, piled some extra pieces of clothing on top of it and then headed downriver for the skiff.
The next morning, under sapphire skies and brilliant sunshine, we found Mr. #29 undisturbed. Ninety minutes later, with the help of three sharp knives, we had him all skinned out and decided to open him up and see just what internal path the arrow had taken. There was no doubt in my mind that it had passed through both lungs, but because I had been about four feet in elevation above the close-in bear at the supreme “moment of truth,” the arrow had angled down rather sharply. It had also traveled a path much more quartering-forward than I realized. As a consequence, we found a gaping triangular hole right through the precise geometric center of the heart. It truly seemed to have been the “ultimate” heart shot. What a truly fitting conclusion to my quest!
And, when one considers the odds of my surviving, not to mention, without injury, the 22-foot free-fall out of that maple tree the previous evening, it is certainly more than the word “lucky” that comes to mind. Does divine intervention, perhaps, seem a more apt description? It certainly rings true for me. I submit that only by the Grace of God was I able to get up and walk away from that fall, living to hunt again and complete my Super Slam the very next night! For so many reasons, I am surely the luckiest man I’ve ever met.