Sitting in the Dueling Stone Outfitters booth at the SCI Convention, I was telling Jarrett Dueling about my dream to one day take a big old mountain grizzly bear. As it turned out, Jarrett had an opening and suggested that I come to the Yukon that fall to check out an old burn in a remote corner of his outfitting concession. Since my partner, TJ (Schwanky), had guided for Jarrett in the past, Jarrett suggested that TJ be my guide on this hunt.
Seven months later, we were on the road. It took two long days to get from Calgary to Whitehorse, and after a good night’s sleep, we departed Whitehorse and headed up the North Canol Road. After eight hours of driving and a ferry ride, we made it to a picturesque little lake quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The remainder of our journey to camp would be done by float plane.
We were fully loaded and strapped in the Otter for takeoff the next morning. As the float broke free from the surface of the lake, we left all traces of civilization behind. I looked behind me and saw Jet, my pack dog, comfortably sitting on one of the passenger seats checking out the view. A few minutes later, the plane made a sharp bank to the left and I saw the little lake that was to be home for the next two weeks.
As the Otter taxied down the tiny lake, the realization came over me that it was just TJ, Jet and I on a small lake in the vast Yukon wilderness, with no other humans around for miles. It was pure heaven! As I watched the Otter lift off the lake, I had a feeling that this was going to be the adventure of a lifetime.
We got busy setting up the wall tent and after struggling with the support poles, it was time to take a brief break. I gazed across the lake, scanning for any signs of life. At the same moment, TJ pointed across the lake to what appeared to be a huge grizzly. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed our suspicion. The bear’s hulking body lumbered along the water’s edge, every now and then stopping to eat some berries or turn a rock in search of a tasty morsel. He was safe for now, however, as Yukon law required us to wait six hours before hunting. That night I couldn’t help but dream of that big bruin rambling along the lake’s edge.
I rose early the next morning in anticipation of the day ahead. The landscape was scarred with a labyrinth of caribou trails, and we spent the day making our way slowly along them, glassing the surrounding landscape. The palate of colors used to paint the fall landscape was amazing. Even though we couldn’t locate the big bear, we saw lots of sign of his presence. My spirits were running high and it didn’t take much convincing to crawl into my sleeping bag that night. Nothing brings on a deep restful sleep better than a long day of fresh air and hiking.
The next morning, I was nudged awake bright and early by a very cold, wet nose. My eyelids fluttered open to see a black and white face staring at me. With a wag of his tail, Jet let me know that we had spent long enough in bed and it was time to go hunting. After a quick breakfast and coffee, we got our packs ready.
We all piled into the 10-foot inflatable raft. TJ was at the helm, glassing to the right, and I was glassing to the left. Jet had his eyes peeled towards the bow of the boat.
All angles were covered. When we reached the end of the lake, TJ suggested that we head up one of the ridges where we could get a better view of the surrounding area.
WILDLIFE IN VIEW
After an hour of tough climbing, we spotted two bull moose feeding in a beautiful meadow near the top of the ridge. At last, some wildlife! We pushed on further and as we crested the ridge, we were treated to the sight of a pristine glacier-fed lake.
I wrestled my pack off my back and sank down to my knees. Drinking in my beautiful surroundings, I turned and noticed TJ and Jet gorging themselves on fat, juicy blueberries. Not only were berries plentiful in the area, but so was the bear scat. Jarrett was right; this was the perfect habitat for bears. TJ pulled out the spotting scope and found a grizzly bear on the ridge about 900 yards away. He felt it was a good bear but wanted to get a closer look to be certain.
We set off in a line; TJ in the lead, Jet at heel and me taking up the rear. My heart pounded rapidly. The adrenaline rush had set in. Each snap of a branch stopped us in our tracks. Every sense was at full alert. We made it to the base of a boulder covered hump and dropped our packs.
TJ told Jet to stay, and just to be safe, I looped Jet’s leash around his pack. He looked over to me; I loaded my rifle and put the safety on. Belly crawling to the top of the hump, we hoped to see the bear 100 or so yards away. I looked in the direction of where we’d last seen the big bear but saw nothing but willows and buck brush.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my right eye, I spotted movement. There the bear was, working his way out of the bushes, not 40 yards from us. His beautiful golden hair shone bright in the afternoon sun. His head was so large it looked out of place on his body.
IN MY SIGHTS – THEN OUT
In one fluid movement I nudged TJ then quickly positioned my rifle up on a rock. Every fibre of my being was vibrating and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing at full attention. I had him fully in my sights.
He was slowly making his way along an old caribou trail on a direct course toward us. My heart was pounding so loudly I feared the bear would hear it. I was trying desperately to control my breathing. I kept thinking, “If only he’d turn for a broadside shot.” He was getting closer. I wished with all my might that he would just turn ever so slightly and expose his shoulder. Then he turned slightly.
“Take him in the shoulder,” TJ whispered.
The bear took another step, and I no longer had his shoulder in the crosshairs. All I could see was his giant noggin in the scope. I chanted to myself: “patience… breath…patience…breath.”
Suddenly, the bear was no longer in my sights. How did that happen? I looked at TJ in absolute horror, shrugging my shoulders and whispering, “Where did he go?” What we hadn’t realized was that there was a dip in the trail he was on. Squatted behind a rock, I swiveled my body to the right in a blind attempt to approximate the bear’s location.
I caught TJ out of the corner of my eye. He was popping up and down and filming every little bit he could capture. He whispered, “Get ready, he’s caught our wind.” I stayed crouched behind the rock, waiting for the go ahead but all I heard was, “He’s continuing on the trail.”
My heart sank…what were we going to do? TJ popped up again for a quick look. As he came down, he looked me in the eye and whispered, “He’s nine yards away. Your rifle is pointed directly at him…you are going to have to stand up and end this now!”
Breathing in deeply, I attempted to calm any nerves I had left. Then, a complete calm enveloped me. Knowing what needed to be done, I glanced over to TJ and gave a nod.
In one swift movement, I rose and brought the rifle to my shoulder. My eyes met the giant grizzly’s and we exchanged glares. I controlled my breath and my finger gently squeezed the trigger on the .338. The rifle belched, and I could see the hide on the bear’s right shoulder ripple at the impact of the 225-grain bullet.
The bear spun around and ran full tilt down the ridge and into the trees. TJ yelled, “Reload! Reload!” I rushed to reload and got the bear back in my sights just in time to see him tumble head over heels over the crest of the ridge.
You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face if you tried. Adrenaline was once again coursing through my veins and my hands were shaking uncontrollably. It dawned on me that I had just taken a giant grizzly bear at a mere nine yards. I felt confident in the shot, but we were going to have to follow his trail over a steep side hill into the thick willows, buck brush and burned trees. It was not exactly the safest place to go in after a potentially wounded bear.
TJ dropped the video camera in favor of a rifle. We cautiously walked in, parallel to one another, rifles pointed in the direction where we last saw the bear. TJ spotted him first. He glanced over to me with a big smile and walked in confidently seeing that the bear had truly expired.
I jumped up and gave TJ a big hug! I had my dream bear, and what a bear he was!
I bent down and lifted his paw and saw that it was the same size as my head. One swift swipe of his paw and my head would have been a bowling ball. We took our time skinning the big bear out. It was about three hours later when we rolled the 100 pound hide up and stuffed it into TJ’s pack.
I reflected on the events of the day during the long hike back to the raft. I was proud of myself. I’d taken one of North America’s most dangerous predators at only nine yards and I’d been able to remain calm and collected. What an amazing hunt!
It’s a bit ironic that I’d spent countless hours shooting at long ranges to prepare myself for the hunt when in reality, it should have been short range shooting that I was practicing. That may just have been a little too close for comfort.