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Charlie’s Brown Bear Hunt

by Johnnie Laird, Muskeg Excursions

May 13, 1999
Weather: Ketchikan, partly cloudy and cool. Anchorage, clear and warm
.

I boarded the Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage after Fran met me at the airport ferry and drove over with me to the airport. The plane was an hour late out of Seattle. Stops were in Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau. Charlie (from New Hampshire) started traveling from Boston around 6AM or so. His planes ran a little late also so our planned rendezvous at the Alaska Airline baggage check worked out. After saying our hellos and getting my baggage we caught a shuttle downtown to the Holiday Inn. After getting our rooms we walked over to a brewpub had a couple of beers and a burger. The deck had just opened for the season and locals crowded it in the late evening sun. Non-Alaskans would have thought it to be cold but some of these people were lounging around in shorts and tee-shirts. Back to the hotel to try to get some rest. Charlie is still on East Coast time. I knew he would be up and wide-awake by 2 or 3 AM.

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May 14, 1999
Weather: clear and warm.

Like I knew from past experience (this will be Charlie’s fourth spring bear hunt with me) Charlie was up and at’em at 2 AM. I’m glad he didn’t wake me till 5AM or so. After breakfast we got or gear together and grabbed the shuttle out to the airport for our flight to Iliamna on ERA airlines. After the hour flight of fantastic vistas we touched down on Illiamna’s dirt strip. Mark Kneen of Iliamna Air Guides was there to meet us. After gathering our gear it was just a short ride over to his home, guest lodging, and garage where our hunt camp and food awaited us. Bill Thompson of Alaska Big Game had arranged our camp, food, transportation and hunt plans. Quickly repacking I was on board the super cub heading northwest toward the Stuyahak Hills. We spotted several moose and many caribou during the hour flight. After checking on and getting further instructions from Bill (who was with a hunter up against the hills) we landed on a strip along the Stuyahak River. Quickly unloading, Mark was heading back to Illiamna for Charlie. Temperature was a warm 60 degrees with a light N wind. After Charlie flew we set up camp while Mark headed back for the rest of our gear. We ate a freeze-dried dinner. Did a little scouting around, oriented ourselves, and did a little glassing. While Charlie went to bed early I checked for vantage points to glass from. Seeing more caribou, beaver, and many types of birds. The Ptarmigan were into their spring ritual heavy. Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke to footsteps around the tent. I think it was a fox. I didn’t look at my watch but it was still twilight out.
   

May 15, 1999

It was just over 20 degrees when we got up in the early AM. After a breakfast of bacon and eggs we walked out to the SW viewpoint. This is our first hunt day (Alaska law says no hunting on the day you fly). We sighted 6 Caribou, Eagles and many Ptarmigan. We then took a hike out across the tundra on the camp side of the river. We crossed a few snowdrifts and some bogs. We were cut off by a rapidly rising stream. We worked our way back to the NW viewpoint and settled in for some more glassing as the north wind built. It warmed up to about 60 degrees again but that north wind chilled to the bone. Not seeing any more game we headed back to camp for an afternoon nap. A few mosquitoes had figured there was something to bite in the area. One flew by Charlie once and he ducked thinking it was a bird! After a dinner of beans and Moose steaks we went out for the evening glassing sighting 7 Caribou scattered in pairs and small groups around the snow drifted tundra. It was fun to watch 2 young ones as they tried to figure out how to cross the deep snow drifts and get across the Stuyahak River only to give up and head back out across the tundra. We saw several Eagles also. We also glassed the Stuyahak Hills more than 5 miles to the west. But still no bears. We wondered how Wild Bill and his hunter were doing. As the sun lowered on the horizon the temperature dropped like a rock. I snapped a 10:45 PM sunset picture. We headed in for the warmth of our sleeping bags. After a mosquito war (not biting me much; but they sure like Charlie) we drifted off to sleep in the twilight.
    

May 16, 1999

We woke up to heavy frost. Oatmeal tasted good this morning. We worked our way out to the North viewpoint. The north wind began to pick up. After glassing for awhile we worked our way over to the South viewpoint. We sighted 2 bull caribou out in the NW corner of our workable area. They were feeding in our direction. We lay down and kept an eye on them. It would be good practice and give us an indication of animal movement. Not long and they were on a beeline right for us. At about 50 yards it was a Kodak moment. We worked our way back to camp. Our mid day meal was Polish (Moose) Sausage, Rice and King Crab. We settled in for a nap. It was hot out of the wind. We woke to the sound of a Super Cub buzzing our camp. It quickly headed off in the direction of Wild Bills camp. We jumped up waving our arms but no signal got through. We should have been prepared. We were ready to move after 3 days of seeing no bears. We didn’t have our tarp out! (The signal that you want the plane to land). We didn’t have our signal mirror out! We didn’t have our flares out! We were caught off guard. We missed a great opportunity to get communication out to get moved over against the mountains. We tried the signal mirror over in Wild Bills direction no response. We were BUMMED. We walked out and spent the rest of the evening at the South viewpoint. We didn’t even spot a Caribou. As the sun set about 10:50 PM and the temperature dropped out we headed back to the camp feeling mighty disgusted with ourselves.Click for more information about this book

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May 17, 1999We woke up to frost and coffee as usual. Oatmeal warmed us up again. Then a drone of an airplane on the horizon. It was headed right for us. As it buzzed we stood out on the gravel strip and gave the hand wind direction signal. Mark signaled us back by dipping his wing. In just a few minutes we were talking to Mark. The plane that buzzed us last night went over to check on Wild Bill. Bill had his tarp signal out so when the pilot returned to Iliamna he reported the signal to Mark. Bill’s hunter had taken a bear and they were ready to head for town. The plan was to move us over to Bill’s camp. We were very happy to say the least and tired of the flat tundra and the mosquito bombardments. As Mark left for Bill’s camp Charlie and I didn’t hesitate to start breaking down camp. Mark took Bill’s hunter first and left Bill with a radio. Wild Bill and I talked a little about our move and the area he had been hunting. It was short because we were all busy readying for our flights. Mark returned about 11AM and took Charlie first then returned for me and then our other load of gear. Bill had left his Eureka Bomb shelter up for us to use. We sent a load of gear in to town as Mark left with instructions to come out and check on us the 21th (Fri AM). We moved camp about 100 yards around behind a small knob in anticipation of S winds. We made a water run to a small creek and finished setting up camp. As we did a Red Fox worked his way right through camp checking out the Parka Squirrel holes nearby. Another one of our many Kodak moments. The breeze died down. It became hot (70 degrees or so). After resting we cooked a meal of potatoes and Rib Eye steaks. That evening we went on a recon to orient ourselves and check out the lay of the land and valley we would start hunting tomorrow. We sighted 5 Caribou; an Otter; Parka Squirrels and many birds on our evening stroll (but no bear). And guess what the mosquitoes weren’t bad.
     

May 18, 1999

We woke to a warmish morning compared to what we have been having. Coffee, bacon and eggs hit the spot. We sighted 12 Caribou in the early morning look through the spotting scope. We watched them as they moved off the mountain and as they spooked when they crossed 250 yards down wind of camp. While Charlie was at the scope he spotted a BEAR moving across the mountaintop and uprange into our huntable valley. We didn’t hesitate in grabbing up our guns and knives and head up the middle of the valley to get a read on this one. We quickly moved from vantage point to vantage point spotting the bear as we moved. We made the mile of snowdrifts, bogs and tundra in short order. It appeared to be a nice sized bear. We made a move to a good vantage point to further plan our stalk. We glassed the mountainside where we last spotted the bear but NO bear. Could it somehow gave us the slip? Spotting; looking; scanning but still no bear! We waited. We talked. Still no bear. We decided to head back. Back at camp I put the scope in the area where I last sighted the bear. There it was. Sitting up from behind a big boulder. It had laid down and gotten out of the building north winds. We packed some snacks in our packs and in short order we were on our way again. It was around noon by now. The bear started moving downrange and up the mountainside. As we got back to the spot where we had lost sight of it we settled in to plan a stalk again. It appeared to moving up and over the top of the mountain. The cold north wind continued to build. The bear worked its way side hill till it came to a deep snow filled draw. It would walk a little ways and then fall through the snow climb out and try it again. Then it started straight down the side of the draw, stopping and digging every now and then as it worked its way down and side hill. The big bear worked its way across the bottom of the draw and back up the other side. Digging as it went along. We were more than a half mile away. We glassed and scoped the bear. It was good size and had an excellent coat. At that point Charlie decided that he would take it if we could get on it. It kept moving up the uprange side of the draw. Up over halfway to the ridge top it bedded down in a large snowfield. We looked at each other saying to each other with our eyes ‘this is not going to be easy’. There was only one way to work on this bear and that was to go downwind and get above the bear. We glassed a possible route. We were off. From time to time we would loose sight of the bedded bear. Another half mile up the valley we came to a point we know we would loose sight of the bear until we got right above it. We worked our way across more snowfields, bogs and tundra to the foot of the mountain. Up the ridge occasionally falling through knee deep snow. Half way to the top we turned downrange and angled up. The north wind howled in our faces. I couldn’t use binoculars, my eyes burned and watered. Charlie had switched to his bomber style hat. We kept an eye below us as we worked our way through snowfields and rock piles. It had been over two hours since we last spotted the bear. We moved slowly along the ridge top but couldn’t spot the bear. Did he get up and move over the ridge top? I thought the bear was bedded further downrange than Charlie did. We looked, glassed the best we could in the biting north wind. I sighted a spot in the snowfield brush. I put my scope on it. It was the bear. Still bedded down about 400 yards below us. A discussion of how to put the move on. We decided on Charlie’s more direct approach. Either way we will be directly exposed. We moved slowly down onto mostly snowfield. Staying on top of the snow some times, falling in knee and waist deep sometimes. The bear slept. Down to the next spot of exposed ground. Across another snowfield to some bushes and a small patch of exposed ground. Less than 75 yards from the bear. Charlie finds a window in the brush and positions himself for the off hand shot. I’ll whistle loud and when the bear stands up that’s the shot. I whistle loud! Whistle loud again! No action. The wind is too strong and loud. I’ll yell as loud as I can! "Hey bear" "Hey bear" the bear reacts. Charlie’s shots were on the mark. Charlie’s 338 Browning BAR model II with Federal Premium Nosler Partitions worked. Bear down. Slowly, slowly we work our way in waist deep snow to the bear the end product of a two and a half-mile stalk. A very beautiful dark legged multi-brown coated bear that will square just less than eight feet. After photos and skinning and loading it on my pack frame it was a long haul back to camp. Charlie walks ahead of me breaking a trail and helping me out of the snow when I fell through. Back across snowfields, bogs and tundra. Into camp at about 7PM. We toasted with a beer. Charlie cooked us up some box macaroni and cheese that his six-year-old daughter Rachael packed for him (her favorite food). It went well with that bottle of Burgundy. As the wind switched around to the south and died we called it a day. Crawled in our sleeping bags tired, sore and very satisfied.


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May 19, 1999

We woke up to a very frosty morning. The first order of business was to get the signal tarp out. Then the last of the bacon and eggs went well with coffee. The east wind was kicken. Now for the wait. We were not scheduled to be checked on by Mark till Friday morning (21st). I started in fleshing the bear. It took me between 6 and 7 hours to get it ready for the salt. That kept me busy. As for Charlie, well he tried to beat his Palm Pilot at chess. Level # 4 proved too much for Charlie he never won. We both made occasional trips to the spotting scope. That east wind blew. The hardest wind day yet. Every time we would hear a jetliner or military plane overhead Charlie would jump up with radio in hand "is that a cub". "NO, it’s just the military" I would reply. Freeze-dried made for a good dinner. Charlie went for the Lasagna; I had to settle for Sweet and Sour Pork. We turned in early.
   

May 20, 1999

We woke up to yet another very frosty morning. The strong East wind had eased off some during the night. Charlie decides he likes Freeze Dried foods so much he boiled up some water for some Chili-Mac. I had the Granola with Blueberries. We then started to break down camp and move it out on the landing strip. Then I carved and cleaned on the skull. While I was keeping busy doing that I hear Charlie battling it out with his Palm Pilot Chess Game again. He moved his way up to the top level (#8) with no luck. Then back down to bottom level (#1) proved that the computer could be beat. I hear shouts of joy coming from the tent. An occasional trip to the spotting scope sights 3 Caribou on top of the ridge and a little later a large Brownie moving at a fast along the ridge top and up and over. Around 3 PM or so just as I was getting into a nap Charlie yells out "It’s a Cub". In just a few minutes we were talking to Mark and loading Charlie and our first load for Iliamna. By the time mark makes it back I have the rest of the camp broke down and packed to the strip. On my trip to town we spot many Caribou and Jumbo Brownie way out in the middle of the tundra miles from the nearest mountain. The ride was a little bumpy in the east winds. After a shower Charlie and I headed over to the Airport for a Cheeseburger and Fries. After the cab fare these were $25 burgers. Isn’t rural Alaska great Then it was back to Mark’s guest cabin and packing for the flight to Anchorage in the morning.
  

Conclusion:

On Friday morning Mark was heading into Anchorage so Charlie and I and our gear squeezed into his Cessna 206 and headed for town. It was almost a 3-hour flight of very beautiful scenery of Lake Clark National Park, Lake Clark Pass, and the Cook Inlet area. Sighting a bear in the pass and the Beluga Whales chasing King Salmon in the inlet. We went straight for pizza and a few beers. We then checked into the Regal Alaskan and cleaned up. Bill meets us and we took the bear over to Knights Taxidermy and then went out to toast our successful hunt. Charlie caught the 7:30 PM (red eye) headed for Boston. On Saturday about noon I headed back to Ketchikan.

Our appreciation goes out to 2 people that made this adventure a reality.

Bill Thompson – Alaska Big Game – 907 563-8240 - who guides Brown Bear, Dall Sheep, Moose, Black Bear and Caribou. He has a few openings left for fall ’99.

Mark Kneen – Iliamna Air Guides – 907 571-1251 - registered guide and bush pilot. He is a VERY good bush pilot and conducts guided and non-guided hunts.

Johnnie Laird is a long time Alaska outdoorsman and guide.  You can read more about opportunities to hunt with him at http://www.muskegexcursions.com

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