Wed August 21, 2013

Apparently if you live in Alaska you eventually get a bear story.
This is an account of killing a grizzly bear in self defense on the North
Slope on Sunday August 18, 2013.  I don't hunt grizzlies and have never had
a bad bear encounter despite a lot of camping in bear country, both in 15
years in Alaska and elsewhere.

scene with bear, sleds, food

On Friday August 15 my family, wife Jill and kids Thomas (11 years) and Vera
(9 years) drove up from Fairbanks to my favorite pull-off on the Dalton
highway, with the plan to get one caribou as usual.  This was my eleventh trip
up the Dalton to get a caribou.  I have done it almost every year in late
August.  The plan that works well for me is to hike five miles from the
highway to an area which I know, by GPS and map, is outside the Dalton highway
corridor and which has great views for looking for animals.  Then I try to get
a caribou with my rifle, a 308.  This was the first time the kids came hunting
with me.  We know they are strong enough to hike over five miles of tundra.
They can carry all of their own gear and a bit of the shared camp stuff.

On Friday night we slept at the truck and Saturday morning we hiked in.  With
five hours hiking we got to camp about 2 pm.  Our camp was on a small level
hard-tundra spot on the west part of the ridge of "Slope Mountain" at UTM 06 W
0407281 E 7627083 N, which equals 68 degrees 44' 23.46" N latitude and
149 degrees 17' 30.14" W longitude.  I camped at the same spot last year.

Saturday afternoon, as planned I hiked away from the camp and looked for
caribou without seeing any.  Jill and the kids stayed in camp.  All during our
trip the temps were in the 35-45 degree range with frequent rain and wind, and
constant fog and clouds.  That evening we were already wet, but the tent worked
and the inside stuff was basically dry.  Sunday morning, after more rain
in the night, we had more fog.  It made no sense to hunt then but we hoped
for better weather.  It did not come.  Sunday evening we had dinner and decided
we would hike out the next (Monday) morning because the kids had a first day of
school on Wednesday, and we needed time to drive home and clean up.  By that
night we had been in camp for 36 hours; lots of human smells (pee all around
camp).  Our food stayed away from the tent, neatly in bags under the two
plastic sleds we had for hauling out meat, so as to not get too wet in the rain.
We had mostly freeze-dried food, along with candy bars and such.  A single
unopened salami was the only meat, and there was a double-bagged hunk of cheese
too.

At about 10 pm we were in the tent and kids were going to sleep.  We were
reading James Herriott's All Creatures Great and Small out loud.  I heard scraping
around our food/sleds and climbed out of the tent in underwear and socks
and there was a smallish grizzly---of course it looked big.  It looked like a black
(cinnamon) bear the way young grizzlies do---and it was trying to get
to the food.  Of course on the treeless North Slope there are no black bears.
All this went quickly through my head as other things were going on.

I fumbled with the rifle while yelling for the bear to go away.  It was 30 to
50 feet away (10 to 20 strides, perhaps).  The bear responded by looking up
at me, slowly walking to the side to get around downwind and putting itself
just as close to me and on the other side of the tent with everyone in it.
But in 15 or 30 seconds it turned around and headed back to the food/sleds and
climbed on top and tried to tear through the sled and to the food underneath.
It was facing me the whole time, and I was yelling the whole time, and by now
Jill was out of the tent with the bear spray ready and she was also yelling.
I was pointing the rifle at it of course.  It made no charge at us, but this
bear had clearly established that it knew we were there, knew we were human,
had food, and that the situation was fine with it and it was going to stay
close to us and eat our food.

The wind was mostly sideways to the line between where me and Jill were and
where the bear was, but, because of the ridge location, there were gusts
blowing around constantly.  (This made lighting the stove hard, for example.)
Bear spray would not have reached the bear unless we approached, and in any
case it would have blown all over the camp area.  We were beside the tent with
the terrified kids inside, and we were scared of this fearless bear.  I said
to Jill that I thought I should kill it and I thought I could.  All this time
we are yelling "we are people ... go away bear ..." etc.  But it just stayed
on the sleds and tried to get through to the food; it never realized it could
toss the sleds off and get to the nylon bags underneath.  I sat down in a
sitting shooting position, put the scope on lowest power, and saw that its
head filled the scope anyway.  Still yelling for it to go away.  Then I shot
once into its forehead and it slumped but remained upright on the sled and so
I shot again into its skull from the side.  Then it toppled over dead.
After 30 seconds it twitched some more, as I slowly approached it, so I shot
it in the head again.

detail of bear and food bags

We spent some time shaking from the adrenaline and cold.  We reassured the kids
everything was o.k.  I put on appropriate clothing.  Jill and I talked and I
started doing what I generally knew was needed, namely to salvage the bear.
We cleaned up the food a bit; the sled bottoms were covered in blood and broken
but the food was still mostly untouched.  Jill looked at her watch and it was
10:45.

I started to skin the bear.  It is different from a caribou and I did not see
how to keep the pads and claws and nose on the hide so I cut off those things
and threw them away.  The bear was male, in the 150 lb range only, and might
have been a year or two old though I am no expert.  When I got the hide off in
one piece (about 1.5 hours of work for me, doing a not very good job and not
knowing what to do) I gutted it.  Like a caribou and unlike a salmon, there is
very little smell.  Except that its gut was filled with blueberries and it
smelled like making blueberry jam.  The stomach was packed with more or less
fresh berries and grass; no obvious human food.  Once the guts were out and
the hide off the meat cooled to outdoor (i.e. refrigerator) temperature quickly.
I was tired, it was 1 am, and I went to bed.

During the night I actually did sleep a bit.  But every time I awoke Vera and
Thomas were already awake and wide-eyed.  I don't think the poor kids got much
sleep at all.  I think Jill slept a bit.

Jill and Vera

In the morning the weather wasn't much better but we did need to leave.  At
least you can keep an eye out while making breakfast and such.  Another two
hours of work on the bear and I had all the meat in game bags. The front and rear
legs were salvaged, and the meat along the backbone.  Only the meatless spine was
left behind.  I recalled vaguely that I was supposed to keep the skull (unlike caribou)
but it was a mess; I cut off the upper and lower jaw and put those in the game bag too.
The sleds were packed and everyone fed and the kids helped pack up the sleeping
bags and pads.  The hardest thing that day was getting going.

Thomas

The kids did a fantastic job hiking out.  Jill and the kids traded off pulling
the wet 15 lb hide in one sled while I had the meat in the other.  There were
three stream crossings.  At the biggest the water was higher than on the way in
and we all had to wade across.  All this time we had cold wet feet.  Then it
snowed a bit.  Pulling sleds across wet hummocky tundra is work.

traveling out over wet tundra

On the way out we saw, in the distance, the only other hunters in the area also
hiking out.  We met them on the way in; they are friends of Christina, the
friend who was house- and dogsitting while we were out of town.  I thought
"I wonder if they saw a bear".  But they were lightly-loaded and moving fast
and we didn't meet up or talk.

near the road, going under the Alyeska pipeline

After about 7 hours we were at the car and very happy to be there.  Ten minutes
later Wildlife Trooper Bump showed up, I assume just on his usual checks on bow
hunters along the Dalton, of which there were many.  I immediately told him what
happened.  After taking a basic report he told us to check with State Trooper
Sgt Rodgers in Fairbanks, and to drive safe on the way home.  Then our friends
David Maxwell and Heidi show up in the next car that stops.  (Yes, Alaska is a
small world.)  After talking, eating, and changing clothes we drove back to
Coldfoot across a snowy Atigun Pass.  Splurged: ate giant meal and then got the
least impressive hotel room in the US that you can buy for $200 per night.  Drove
home the next day.

When we got back to the house and met Christina, knowing her friends had gotten
back already, I asked her: "Did your friend by any chance have a bear story?"
And the answer was yes; a young bear fearlessly approached them as they were
out searching for caribou.  I am pretty sure it was the same bear.

Sgt Rodgers and the wildlife tech I met at Fish and Game, where I took the bear,
were helpful and understanding.  I had not realized that, not only did I not
have a permit to go bear hunting, also the season had not started for bear
there.  (So taking a permit would not have "fixed" the decision to shoot.)
I filled out a Defense of Life and Property form, including a draft of this
account.

What should we have done better?  In the miserable wet conditions the choice to
have all food, and eat, 100 m away would have meant getting wetter and colder.
We weren't cooking in the vestibule, as I think many people would.  Having
a bear canister is a good thing, but that would have been about three of them
to hold four peoples food for five days; no I still wouldn't carry the weight
to do that.  Bear spray is a good thing---I know the statistics are good
compared to firearms in the charging-bear situation.  But bear spray in a small
camp with many people and gusting winds is a terrifying thought; we could end
up disabled with an angry bear among us.  This bear was shot because we were
certain that it was not afraid of us, that it had clearly decided to stay in our
space, and that it was eating our food that we actually needed.  Jill and I
decided we would do the same thing again in these circumstances.

Ed

Send me email elbueler@alaska.edu or call (907) 474-7693.