Brown Bear Story
Blog & Photos by Garrett Baeten
Dreams are a common denominator that we all share and as hunters, we dream of the adventures we read books or see on the hunting channels. Most hunters have a dream of tracking Cape buffalo in Africa, scaling mountains in the Northwest Territories for the white ghost called Dall sheep, or bugling in a rut-crazed bull elk in the high mountains of Wyoming. For me, as a young boy I would watch and rewatch the North American Hunting Club’s Odyssey series which showed Archie Nesbitt’s archery hunt for Alaskan brown bear. This hunt was ingrained in my mind for years and it became a personal goal to harvest an Alaskan brown bear in the same country as Archie, Fred Bear, and Chuck Adams all did.
I grew up in northeast Wisconsin, splitting my time between Green Bay and Lena where my parents lived and also where I cut my teeth hunting whitetails, turkey, and bear in my teenage years. After completing college at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College with a criminal justice degree, I got hired immediately as a patrol officer with several area police departments. Though it was a comfortable time in my life, I always had Alaska in the back of my mind with a dream of the big bruins standing in salmon streams or chasing moose calves. I started applying to police departments in Alaska and was hired by the City of Kenai Police Department in January of 2019. I was faced with the challenge of starting my life all over in a new place with a new career but knew I was one step closer to achieving my dream of chasing brown bear.
I got my chance to hunt brown bear in May 2020 with a good friend, Justin Horton, who I work with and who also happens to own H&H Alaskan Outfitters. Justin and I decided on an impromptu trip to the Alaska Peninsula where we’d spend the next ten days looking to tag two mature bruins known to haunt those mountains. We flew out of Homer, Alaska on May 9th, the day before opening day of the brown bear season, with Beluga Air Charters on a de Havilland Beaver floatplane. After getting camp set up and getting settled in, we headed to a glassing knob where we’d spend countless hours over the next ten days waiting for a bear to give us a chance for a stalk. We saw a sow with three cubs that night which seemed to be a good omen for the week to come.
Day one was sunny and sixty-five degrees with the sow and three cubs spotted. Along with napping in the sunshine, snacking, and trying to not get sunburned, there was not much bear activity until 9:30 p.m. when I spotted a big boar moving across a snowpack. The big bear was 3- to 4 miles away and there was no way to stalk him with just a few hours of daylight remaining.
Day two was a weather day; it is common on the Alaska Peninsula to lose hunting time due to the wind and rain. A mature boar was spotted at last light but once again, we did not have enough daylight to make a stalk on him.
Day three began with us back on the glassing knob. The sow and cubs made their appearance over a mile away on their usual rock outcropping. At 3:30 p.m. we located the boar we’d spotted the night before in the same area we had last seen him, near a clearing in the alders chewing away on grass. Justin was able to sneak with 192 yards of the big bear and with the help of his .375 H&H, sent a 300-grain Barnes bullet to the blonde bear’s vitals. A short time later, we recovered the blonde bear, and I was “skinnin’ grizz” for the first time!
Days four through eight found me hunting through the long days scanning the mountainsides for signs of bear. I made a stalk on a bear that Justin was sure would hit the 10-foot mark and it had a massive skull, but the wind ended the stalk at 320 yards, the bear disappearing over the top of the mountain to not be seen again.
I had another stalk on day eight, Sunday the 17th. The boar appeared to be trying to hunt our local sow and cubs. The boar had the four bears perched on a rock point at the top of the mountain. He then went to a snow patch, laid down, and went to sleep. When I took off after the bear, Justin told me that he would stay at the bottom of the mountain and give me directions to the position of the bear.
I had worked my way through several patches of alders, willows, and devils club to a position where I finally felt confident that I could close the distance to under 200 yards. I didn’t know the bear had awakened and was actually walking towards me. I later learned that as I was climbing the last steep rock wash to get to the top of the mountain, the bear was within 50- to 75 yards of me, though I couldn’t see him. The bear could hear me climbing the rocks but couldn’t see me. The bruin turned around, began walking away but curiosity got the best of him and he came to see what the noise was. As he approached, the wind switched and he got slapped in the nose with a strong whiff of a human that hadn’t showered in a week, taking off the other direction as a result.
After that blown stalk, it was hard to keep a positive attitude. I spent some time at night praying that God would guide me to my dream bear but with the remaining time dwindling from days to hours, the odds of me harvesting a bear seemed slim.
Day nine was another weather day with only a few hours of hunting to be had in between rain squalls and wind that seemed to gust 50- to 60 mph. I had one final day of hunting before the floatplane was coming back to extract us. I needed every ounce of luck and help possible to pull off a successful stalk on the last day.
Justin and I took off walking early on the morning of the last day, May 19th, to the north along the mountain in hopes of running into a bear. It was sunny and sixty-five degrees with a forecast of bluebird skies with a high chance of sunburn. We found a good vantage point to glass from which we could see over the mountainside and the vast river valley dotted with beaver ponds and willow patches. Our plan was to sit and glass the area until 9 p.m., then work our way slowly back to the tent by dark.
At 4:15 p.m. Justin spotted what looked like a good-sized boar walking towards our location at the same elevation at which we sat. The bear was slowly feeding in and out of the alders but still making progress towards our hideout. Justin and I were trying to come up with a plan to stalk the bear, but the old bruin was in a good defensive position against any hunter wishing to close the distance for a shot.
The bear continued walking towards our position and we decided to make a break for it and try to get in range of the bear. The bear walked amazingly fast for how large an animal it was and we quickly found ourselves much closer to the bear, yet needed to close the distance to 250 yards or less to take an ethical shot with my .375 H&H rifle.
My grandfather, Don Baeten, had been there with me when I harvested my first whitetail buck. Grandpa Don also shared several successful hunts with my dad and I over the years whether it was turkey, deer, or rabbit. Grandpa Don passed away in December of 2019 and while the pain of losing him hurt, I knew I had some help upstairs to get a shot at this bear. I looked up at the sky, asking God and Grandpa Don if they were watching, to give me the courage and guidance to take this bear.
We bailed off the side of the mountain, racing towards a rock hill to cut the bear off. The bear kept walking, so we kept running. We made it to the rock hill where we figured the bear would be in range once we got to the top.
I spotted the bears’ rump hanging out of an alder thicket a short distance from the rock hill. As the bear walked out of the thicket, Justin provided the rang: 249 yards. I changed the power of the rifle scope up to nine and pushed the safety to fire. I remembered to take several deep breaths as I settled the crosshairs on the chest of the big brown bear. The bear stopped walking and I pulled the trigger.
The next few minutes were kind of foggy. All I remember was seeing the bear biting at his shoulder, so I figured I had a solid hit. I fired twice more and watched the bear go down. Justin went towards the last spot I saw the bear and a short time later through the binoculars, I saw him smile and give me the thumbs up that he found the bear.
I tilted my head back to the sky and smiled up to Grandpa Don, thanking him so many times for the help. This wasn’t just my bear or Justin’s bear; it was also Grandpa Don’s bear. Having a guardian angel always helps, whether it’s in the Alaskan backcountry or while driving a squad car taking calls for service.
I don’t know if words can describe the exhilaration and satisfaction I felt when I walked up to my bear. I stood in awe as I looked at the beast laying at my feet, thanking the animal for giving its life so I could celebrate it throughout the remainder of mine. I had to shed a few tears, not only for the bear, but for achieving a lifelong goal that could not have happened without so much support from the best friends and family I could have ever asked for.
After the high-fives, pictures, and more “skinnin’ grizz,” I got the hide jammed into my pack, and started the four-mile trek back to the tent at 10:30 p.m. We arrived back at camp at 1:10 a.m., wore out and ready for a few hours of sleep before the plane came to take us back to civilization at 11:00 a.m. that morning. I only slept for four hours that night. Maybe it was the adrenaline, body aches from the pack out, or the dehydration. But I was still up early, going through the pictures from the previous nine days and thanking God for every opportunity I had on this hunt.
The plane dropped onto the lake and we had camp loaded in a short order. Within half an hour, the plane was gliding across the lake with us aboard, headed back to Homer. As I looked out over the mountains on the Alaska Peninsula, I could only imagine how many more clawed monsters were living their lives as the species had for thousands of years. I had never experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows as I did on this bear hunt. This hunt was mentally the toughest hunt I’ve ever undertaken but the bear was worth every second of it. If anyone has the slightest goal of attempting to hunt Alaska brown bear, I would highly encourage it so I can read the story in Hunt Alaska one day!
As a side note, my boar measured out to 9’6” square with a 26 5/16th skull. He is currently at the taxidermist in Soldotna so I can recall this hunt for the rest of my days.
Garrett Baeten is a local outdoor writer from Kenai, Alaska. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.