A Split Second, to Make Right
A Story of a Solo Brown Bear Bow Hunt on Admiralty Island
by Tim McGee
The Cessna descended toward the blue salt as my eyes searched the shoreline below, looking for a bear that was out there somewhere. The floats skipped across the water and the craft slowed then slipped off-plane, settling to float while we taxied into the shallow water. The stretch my pilot crept over was a long, shallow grade of watermelon-sized rock. Soon the float bumped a rock and was going no closer than the 80 yards we were from the shore.
“No problem,” I thought and smiled to myself for having donned my rubber LaCrosse boots before the flight.
I stepped from the float and discovered the boots were about two inches too short. A pair of trips to the beach with gear were filled with a colorful, mumbling tirade while I negotiated the slick rocks. One more trip to the
“No problem,” I thought and smiled to myself for having donned my rubber LaCrosse boots before the flight.
I stepped from the float and discovered the boots were about two inches too short. A pair of trips to the beach with gear were filled with a colorful, mumbling tirade while I negotiated the slick rocks. One more trip to the plane was necessary to loose it from the rocks and keep it floating free until the engine was fired and the pilot, once again, had control of the craft. I slogged back to my gear, drained my boots and sat down to catch my breath.
It had been an adventure just getting to that beach. After being unable to find a partner to join me, I determined it would be another solo brown bear/grizzly hunt—my third. The drive from Fairbanks to Skagway was filled with critical thinking while I enjoyed the scenery and looked for animals along the roadway. Because I would be on my own I played out scenarios over and over in my mind to be sure I would react properly at the given situation and not sit there with a stupid look on my face while the world turned upside down. My mind focused on a previous grizzly hunt that had caused a great deal of analysis ever since.
Several years prior, I was in an Interior river valley on a grizzly hunt, and although I was able to close the gap on a boar feeding on a moose he had just killed, I managed to strike solid bone in his shoulder with a 25-yard shot from my recurve. The bear spun in search of the root of the problem before vacating the site. The arrow had broken off at the broadhead in the willows on his reaction and showed evidence of mere inches of penetration. The next several hours I trailed him up a steep, rocky creekbed and into sheep country with the hair on my neck standing on end at every turn. The shaft should have proven he had minimal injury from the broadhead, yet I still felt I had to push on after him as long as I could. A heavy snow moved in and sent me back down the increasingly treacherous route with fading light, deadly footing and my glasses fogging from body heat. The next morning had shown bright with the mountain covered in snow and any hope of a search dashed.
I had second-guessed myself then for not trying to get another arrow into the animal, but I had a surprised and angry grizzly at his fresh kill. Because dangerous game should be “calm and unaware” when taking a bow-shot, I realized I had reacted properly by putting my hand on my .44 magnum and ghosting behind a tree until he decided what to do. My other option would have been to send as many 300-grain hard-cast bullets into his chest as possible, but that may have changed his mind about running away and, at the time, I wasn’t sure of arrow penetration. When you have spent your life hunting and adventuring solo, it helps to have a brain that can think calmly and rationally—and do so in an instant.
Since I would be alone with a 12-gauge shotgun filled with slugs as my only backup, I had to mentally prepare for so many possibilities. I would be on Admiralty Island just south of Juneau, which boasts the highest concentration of brown bear in the world, and I knew I could just bumble into one. From my work as a fly-fishing guide I was well aware that a surprised bear is not a happy bear and a charge was a possibility in such an instance. The thought of a bad shot was another concern. I determined that if I had an obviously bad hit, say a gut-shot, with no chance for a follow-up arrow, I would have to use the shotgun as insurance. There was no way I could morally and sanely let the largest land carnivore escape with an arrow in its belly and still have to sort it out alone. I also knew I could be charged after taking a shot, so the backup would have to always be in easy reach. I had so much to think about, so much to continue to prepare for even after the hours of gear prep and shooting in 20-below weather among the snow banks behind my cabin.
Sightings of humpback whales, porpoises and the orca surfing the boat wake were the highlights of the ferry trip toward Juneau and made a great poor-man’s cruise. I was unaware the ferry wouldn’t actually take me to Juneau, but to Auke Bay 12 miles away, so I was tasked with finding a better way than the expensive cab fare to town. This had shaped up to be a truly on-the-cheap, DIY solo bowhunt and I was pinching pennies until the juice dripped out. As a result, I shouldered my nearly 90-pound pack and trudged down the road until a gracious soul in a VW bus offered a ride for a few miles; then it was back on the soles again. I lumbered into the charter office at the airport to stow my gear for departure the following day and then I found a bus stop for the last leg into town to check-in at the local hostel. Did I mention “on-the-cheap?”
The overnight turned into two when the nasty coastal weather closed in and grounded everything. Hitting the town with a couple international travelers helped pass the time and added flavor to the unfolding adventure. The morning of departure turned into a scavenger hunt for camp fuel as the locals had snatched up most of the stock due to limited electricity after an avalanche had taken out the lines from the power plant. Success turned into frustration when the bus driver refused me service because I was carrying fuel—silly me, I thought I was in Alaska. Begrudgingly, I flagged down a cab, forked over the dough and headed to my flight.
The incredible weight of my pack didn’t mean a luxury camp; just that I had ready-to-eat food to keep me fat and happy at my sparse homestead of a sleeping tent and a tarp-topped cooking area. Tucked into the trees and away from the windy beach, my new digs had a soft floor of thick moss with a nice view of the first bend of the river draining the interior of the island. After stowing my heavy food bag high in a tree, I headed down to listen to the river and spotted a beautiful dark chocolate bear within 100 yards of camp. I smiled to myself and watched him as he worked his way up the river and out of sight. I discovered a bleached-out bear skull in the grass. I counted that as a good omen and I continued exploring near camp. The rest of the day was spent watching Dall’s porpoise rip across the ocean surface, listening to the elephant-like grumblings of a few humpback whales feeding just off the river mouth and unsuccessfully trying to hook any fish that might have been cruising into the river. Later, I crawled into my tent and was lulled to sleep by the eerie conversations of the whales.
The alarm was muffled by the sound of wind through the trees and rain on the tent, so I slept a bit longer then started the day by burning my bannock before heading out for a hunt near camp. I caught movement under a tree near the beach and crept closer for a better look. An otter was busy grooming himself with catlike rolling and rubbing on a log. It was such unusual behavior that I watched him for nearly 20 minutes from less than 10 yards while he enjoyed himself, contented with the newfound company.
The second morning arrived bright and blue. I clicked my pack around my waist, slung my short-barreled shotgun across my back, grabbed my longbow and was off. I tried to find a shallow point or riffle in the river where I could cross and hunt southward along the beach and into the wind. No dice. I cut inland, climbing over hill and dale to circle to the beach stretching north of camp and take advantage of the wind. It turned into a grueling day of plowing through marshes and thick brush in a hot sun while I bumped deer and watched for bear. By mid-afternoon I finally hunted my way down an emerald moss-draped creek bottom to the shoreline. I scanned the beach in both directions and noticed the wind had shifted and was angling back toward camp. Ughhh! I shucked my waist pack and sat down to rip my boots off and air out my sweat-soaked socks. Relief at last. I pulled some food from my pack and had a mouthful of peanut butter and honey burrito when I caught sight of a brown blob out of the corner of my eye. He was upwind and feeding 150 yards away. How had I missed seeing the bear just seconds before? Frantically, I regrouped and crab-crawled backwards into the trees after sloshing back into my boots. I found a bear trail that paralleled the shoreline and was secluded from the beach by a screen of trees and brush. I worked my way up to a clump of brush and deadfall where I had marked the bear. I peered through the impenetrable cover and made out a patch of brown hide within 30 yards. He was still feeding. I settled in to wait for the bear to feed south along the fringe of grass bordering the rocky beach and into the opening I had picked for my shooting lane. After 20 minutes I had lost sight of the bruin and got a jolt when I realized he had moved north instead and into an opportune position for an approach. I slowly crept to the edge of the last bit of cover separating us. Stepping over a grass-covered branch, I ducked under a pine bough, set the shotgun down at my feet and plucked a solid purple heart arrow from my bow quiver. The 18 yards that separated us caused me to swallow hard as my hand tightened on the longbow while my eyes burned into the edge of the shoulder muscle that rippled as he stepped forward. I swallowed hard again, confidently took the shot and watched the arrow slide through the hair on his hump. My jaw dropped as he flinched and froze with a mouthful of grass when the arrow splintered with a crash against the rocks on the beach. Soon, he went back to grazing and I went back to breathing. The second arrow was on the string and I concentrated on my mark; then it was on the way. Excitement turned to horror as my arrow struck with a sickening thud in the center of the bulge of his belly. The bear hunched at the impact and lunged toward the safety of the tree line, just to my right. My stomach turned and my body instantly flushed with dread at the thought of pursuing a gut-shot brown bear alone. At his second lunge the shotgun had somehowmaterialized in my hands and I was swinging on the running bear. The slug passed in front of his chest as I scolded myself for leading him as though he were a grouse. Passing behind a huge, bark-less stump, he was moving fast for cover when my second shot creased his spine and he spun on his haunches, nipping at his lifeless and trailing hind feet. The muzzle blast echoed off the bare wood and slammed into my left ear like a sledgehammer. Two more rapid-shucked shots from the pump gun struck tight behind his shoulder as he rolled backwards into a shallow ravine and out of sight. I slowly moved up to the bear rolling on his back in the depression and put my final slug into his chest before backing away. A feeling of disgust and frustration from having to shoot the bear with a gun was overwhelming, but I knew I had possibly saved my own life and had saved the animal from what couldhave been a slow, miserable death. Dejected, I ambled down the beach toward my pack to rest and finish my meal.
The hike back to camp was thought-clustered with images, flashes of the previous hunt and a replaying of events. My heart was broken. In an instant, the shotgun had ruptured the silence of paradise, blasted my eardrum and shattered my dream of a successful brown bear hunt. I felt I had betrayed the animal, as well as myself. I had come to the island with the understanding, an agreement with nature, that I was to meet this bear on certain terms—and I hadn’t lived up to the contract. In this experience I had only a split second to make my decision and, though I’d continue to beat myself up over it, I knew it was the right one.
In the morning, arriving near the weapons cache, I began to call out to the bears of the island. A few steps at a time and a boisterous voice to announce my approach, I moved in to see the site had been undisturbed. My bear lay peacefully where I left him and I stood, admiring the great creature for some time before easing down to him. I ran my hands through his mane, admired his claws and powerful shoulders.
The skinning job was enhanced by the constant drizzle soaking my wool clothes and letting me experience the joy of wet, slippery hands on razor-sharp tools. The mile trek with the hundred-some-odd pound load was insanely difficult, just off the edge of tragic. The only route was across the beach of snot-slick, bowling ball-sized rocks conveniently packed just less than a boot’s width from each other. The rubber boots lacked the support and protection of regular hunting boots and after the two-hour trudge, my feet felt like they had just come out of a cement mixer full of boulders. I was relieved to have been able to stay on my feet as a fall wouldn’t have just hurt like hell, it may have resulted in real injury. The soft moss at camp soaked the last bit of energy from my jelly-filled legs, but gave my feet the reprieve they begged for. The cooking shelter soon housed a hide rack where I could work without getting soaked. I made several dropped calls on my cell phone before it grabbed just enough signal to ask for a pickup several days early. I was done being wet, fruitlessly fishing for fish that were yet to run and concerned about the possible hide spoilage in the constant moisture.
The plane arrived the next afternoon at high tide and I was able to direct him to a steep bank at the river mouth where loading was easy and taxiing out was a breeze. My taxidermist met me at the airport and agreed to take me to the ferry terminal. I bumped up my reservation and steamed off toward Skagway and the car waiting there for the long drive down to the Lower 48—and drier weather. I stood on the boat deck to scan the shoreline for critters and watch the water for whales until the fading light and cooling breeze pushed me back inside. I felt invigorated and excited at being on the move and dry again, though still heavy in the heart. I sat and tried to read, but kept going back to relive the hunt and the incredible adventure. I also began to wonder how long the ringing ear would remind me, daily, of this unique experience.
It’s still ringing today.
For author Tim McGee, growing up in Colorado and guiding fly fishing in Alaska for several years has only encouraged a life outdoors. With over 30 years traditional bowhunting experience through half a dozen states, the author now resides in Kansas City, Missouri, with his lovely wife.