Bear Hunt on the Alaskan Peninsula

By:

The only efficient way to travel to Alaska and in the state is by air. And I had six flights to eventually get to our spike camp hunting area. The final flight was by a Super Cub on floats. I flew on a commercial flight to Seattle and then Anchorage in one day. I would have flown myself again to Alaska but the weather can turn ugly up north in October. That first night I stayed in a hotel, the Alaskan Regal, on Lake Hood. This lake is the major seaplane base for Anchorage and it is controlled by the same tower that operates the international airport a mile away.

The next morning I flew on a commuter flight to King Salmon. There I changed planes for the next leg to Port Heiden on the peninsula. There were other bear hunters in the lobby area of PenAir’s hangar. And all of us had a big pile of gear. I had five pieces myself. They started loading it all into a Cessna Caravan using belly pods. They got it all on and then called for passengers to some of the villages. I was talking to a guide for one of the outfits and neither of us heard the lady call for Port Heiden. He was going there too. After everyone else was out the door and getting on the plane she asked us where we were going. We replied: “Port Heiden” and she told us to get on the plane too. So we did. I was the last one on and it didn’t look like there were any seats left. It held 16 people and I thought; “Oh great I’ll have to wait until tomorrow now”. But the right seat up front was open so I got in it. As a pilot, it was interesting to monitor what was going on.

But boy, I wondered if they didn’t have that plane way overloaded. All the seats were full and the belly pods had a huge amount of gear in them. Once we started to roll down the runway though I could tell that turbine up front had some horsepower. In that sea-level air I bet we didn’t roll 1000 feet before the nose came up followed shortly by the main gear. The Caravan is a real workhorse.

An hour or so later we landed on the well-maintained gravel strip at Port Heiden where my outfitter, Dan Montgomery, was waiting for me in his Super Cub on wheels. His wheel plane, as he calls it. We loaded all of my gear in it and an hour later we landed right on the beach of the Bering Sea. This is where the main camp was set up. A hundred yards away there was a freshwater lake and the floatplane was moored there.

On the flight to the beach camp I got to look at some of the country we’d be hunting. There were 8 bear hunters and 3 other guides. We looked at several dead Gray whales on the beach. The bears had been coming down to feed on them and there were tracks everywhere on the beach.

But mostly the bears are feeding on salmon in the rivers that flow out of the volcanic mountains of the peninsula. This is where I’d be hunting them with a friend from Spokane, Larry Colinson, and our guide Shawn Andres who is from Montana. Shawn is a taxidermist and has done work for me.

The main camp on the beach was big. There were 7 tents with the biggest about 16′ by 30′ and tall enough to stand in. The others were for sleeping. In all, there were 13 people including Dan’s wife and her brother Rob, who did some of the flying. Getting all of the tents, food and other gear that it takes to keep everyone going for up to 3 weeks was a major undertaking. There was easily an actual ton or more of materiel. Dan and his wife put everything in boxes (including a chain saw, ax and shovels, buckets of salt for hides, food, tents, motor oil, woodstove etc.) and mail it from Anchorage in-care-of themselves general delivery in Port Heiden. He then ferries all of it to the beach camp in the wheeled Super Cub. I’m sure it took at least 50 ferry flights to get all the gear into the beach camp. It is a major undertaking. And they send it all back the same way plus bear hides and skulls. The hides and skulls for 9 bears probably weighed close to 1000 pounds.

Our transportation to the main hunting camp on the Alaska Peninsula. The Bering Sea is in the background.
Our transportation to the main hunting camp on the Alaska Peninsula. The Bering Sea is in the background.

There is no gas available for planes at Port Heiden so Rob, the other pilot, would fly to Pilot Point in the wheel plane every other day and fill 5 gallon plastic gas jugs. He’d also get fresh water there. Pilot Point is about 200 miles round trip. Gas at Pilot Point was $2.85 a gallon plus the round trip expenses.

Dan had us all come in a few days early in case bad weather prevented us from getting out into the spike camps before the October 1st opening date. As it turned out we had decent weather and so had time to beach comb before going hunting. The most common find was floats used on fishing nets. And the neat ones are Japanese glass balls that haven’t been used for 30 years or more. I found quite a few. Other years some of the hunters found walrus ivory but no one did this season. There were bear tracks all over the beach too. Big ones.

Dan put my group, hunter Larry from Spokane, and guide Shawn and myself, out into an area called the swamp. It was well named. There wasn’t any dry ground in sight other than where our camp was. We landed on a lake and setup camp on the shore on a high spot. As we were to find out, everything we could see was covered with 6″ to 4 feet of water. We wore chest waders everywhere. The weather was always cold, windy and frequently rainy. If we weren’t out trudging through the swamp we’d be cold. But while walking we’d buildup a sweat fast. The plan was to sit on our high spot and watch for bears traveling through the swamp for the rivers. If he were a big boy we’d go after him.

We also moved out to the spike camp in this Super Cub on floats.
We also moved out to the spike camp in this Super Cub on floats.

As we set up the camp the day before the season opened we watched a big 9′ bear about 300 yards away in the alders. He never bothered us but we slept with our guns in the tent. Later that afternoon another big bear moved into the alders too. Surprisingly I slept well that night with two big boars so close. But they were gone come morning, when we could have shot them.

Dan and his two hunters set up a camp about a mile from us in the swamp and their camp was actually in the water. Their cots were dry but under them was 2″ of water. We at least had a dry patch for our tent. The only bear we saw opening morning was closer to them than to us so they went after him. We watched Dick Jacobs shoot the big 9 1/2′ bear through our binoculars. He hit it on the first shot but it ran. He got a few more into it but it wasn’t dead yet. They got closer and the bear finally saw where the trouble was coming from. They said he got on his hind legs and let out a tremendous roar and then turned to rush them. Dick and Dan both shot and the huge bear was finally dead. It was exciting to watch and we could hear the shooting. They said his roar was so loud they wondered if we could hear even though we were a mile away!

The swamp was hard to walk in. We decided that our best strategy was to sit on our little hill and glass with binoculars for the bears. If we saw one that was big enough and close enough we’d go after him. Larry and I alternated days as to who had first choice. We went after a few bears but either didn’t catch up to them or they were too small. Trudging through water and muck was work. There was no real bottom to the swamp and sometimes we’d come to channels that were way too deep to wade through. A few times we’d pull an inflatable rubber raft we’d flown in to cross small lakes and channels. It worked well and sometimes the channels were going the way we wanted to go anyway.

The weather was usually cool but not cold, about 40-50 degrees. But it was always damp, often rained and was almost always windy. Sometimes very windy. It surprised me too that there was not a predominate direction for the wind. While we were there it blew hard from every direction at various times. The beach landings with the Super Cub could be from any direction. But with a slow landing speed (40 mph) or so, sea level air and any amount of headwind made for very short landing rolls. The Aleutian chain is the birthplace for many storms in North America.

On the fourth morning of the hunt it was my day for first choice and Shawn glassed a big bear about a mile away at first light. We took the raft across the lake and then started into the swamp after him. He was walking away from us though and we couldn’t catch up with him. Finally we gave up and headed back. It was afternoon before we got back to camp. A few hours later we saw another bear in the same area. Shawn told me to get my waders back on. He told me it was an 8′ bear. I told him an 8 footer was my minimum but that we should go over and take a look at him. Shawn kept an eye on him as we made our way along the lakeshore and into the swamp. We had about a mile to go to intercept him and it was getting near sunset. When were about 300 yards away from him Shawn laid his pack frame down in the grass and water on the shore of another lake for me to shoot off. I laid down on it and got the bear in the scope. Shawn didn’t say anymore about the size and I decided that an 8 foot bear would do. His coat was very pretty, brown with light streaks through it, much like an inland grizzly. I’m not a good judge of bear size and so relied on Shawn’s judgment. I put the cross-hair high on the shoulder and pulled the trigger. The bear instantly dropped from sight.

Dan with his 8' bear. There is about a foot and a half of water here. The rifle is a Remington stainless steel 700 action, Lilja stainless steel #4 contour chambered for the 338 Weatherby in a McMillan stock.
Dan with his 8′ bear. There is about a foot and a half of water here. The rifle is a Remington stainless steel 700 action, Lilja stainless steel #4 contour chambered for the 338 Weatherby in a McMillan stock.

I knew we probably had a dead bear, as I couldn’t see any movement in the high grass where he’d stood. Hopefully he wasn’t just wounded and waiting for us. It was getting dark. We slogged our way through the swamp to where the bear had last been. And there he lay, dead right where he’d stood. I’d hit him high in the shoulder and he died instantly. He was laying in about 18″ of water and in high grass. We couldn’t see him until we were right on top of him.

Shawn is a taxidermist and it only took him about a half hour to undress the bear. We put the dripping wet hide and skull into a pack and Shawn packed it the mile or so back to camp through the swamp. The wet hide and skull must have weighed over a hundred pounds. By now it was dark but we could make out the dim outline of our high spot. Shawn only stopped twice to rest with the heavy load.

Larry, the other hunter, had stayed back in camp and watched us sneak up on the bear through his binoculars. But he didn’t see me shoot it. He said that about a minute before he heard my shot he’d put his binoculars down and looked over at the tents. Just beyond the tents stood a mother grizzly and two cubs. Larry’s rifle was in the tent and he hurried to get it. The mother stood on her hind legs and looked around the camp knowing something wasn’t right. When she spotted Larry she dropped to all fours and took off on a dead run far from our camp. She ran until out of sight he said with the little cubs trailing along behind.

After that excitement Larry got back to his glasses and looked our way. It was getting dark and he couldn’t make out much. But he said he knew I’d killed the bear with the single shot he’d heard because he saw the camera flash from one of my pictures.

We stumbled into camp an hour or so after dark and slept well that night.

Soon after we got up the next morning Larry saw a bull caribou running for all he was worth not too far from camp. The big bull jumped into a nearby lake and swam to the far side. Then we saw why he was going through this strange behavior. Two wolves were hot on his tail. The caribou knew he could out swim the wolves in the lake. The two predators didn’t follow far in the lake. They jumped right out, on our side of the lake whereupon they immediately took up an interest in us. The wolves came closer, to within about 200 yards of our camp and moved slowly around one side of us for about a half hour. The caribou continued to stand on the far side of the lake, not moving. We wondered if the wolves thought we might be easier to run down than the caribou was? Eventually the wolves left and the caribou wondered off in the other direction. More excitement in camp.

Along with the bears and wolves we also had red fox and porcupines in the spike camp and in the main camp on the beach, wolverines too. Dan didn’t like the porcupines. He said they’d eat the tires off of the plane and zippers out of a tent. One of his sheep hunters had a porky climb into his tent while he slept and woke him up when he jumped on his sleeping bag in the middle of the night.

The next morning Dan flew in to check on us and offered to move us if we wanted to go to another area. Since I had shot a bear he brought me back to the main beach camp but Larry and Shawn decided to stay in the swamp a few more days. I left for home before they came back so I didn’t hear yet how they fared. When I left the beach camp 6 of 8 hunters had shot bears and both of the others were still out in spike camps.

The next day Rob, the other pilot, flew me out to Port Heiden so I could try to catch a commercial PenAir flight to King Salmon and then hopefully to Anchorage that same day. As luck would have it, the PenAir Caravan landed at Port Heiden just a few minutes before we got there. I asked the pilot if he had room but he didn’t. He had a load of freight, a new motorcycle and rolls of carpet. But he made a call to King Salmon and they dispatched a Cherokee Six to get me. Two other hunters, both from Missoula wanted to get out too. Rob, our Super Cub pilot, made a quick trip back to the beach camp to get them one at a time. But he only got one out before the Cherokee landed and so just myself and John, another hunter, got out that day.

From King Salmon we made an Alaska 737 flight to Anchorage and spent the night there. The next day we flew from Anchorage to Seattle and then Missoula. This hunt proved to be exciting and of high adventure.

A few observations of other bears taken on this hunt.

One of the other hunters had shot a huge bear but had just wounded it. The bear ran into a creek bottom choked with alders. He had a young guide named Ernie who hadn’t hunted grizzlies before. Ernie was scared to death to track a wounded bear in the brush. Gary, the hunter, said the alders were so thick it you could hardly see 5 feet. But where the bear crashed through it looked like a four-wheeler had been driven. The two hunters and Ernie followed blood and tracks through the thick stuff for over a mile but didn’t find the bear. They never found the bear and Gary ended up shooting another big bear. Ernie was still afraid of the bears after Gary shot the second bear. Gary said it died and rolled on its back with all four feet in the air. But Ernie said he wouldn’t go any closer unless he shot it again. Gary walked up to it then and Ernie followed but was just awestruck by the huge size of the bear and saying how stupid they’d been to follow a wounded bear like that into the alders.

When they got back to the main camp though and told Dan they’d followed the first wounded bear through the brush he was upset. He told them they should have just looked around the outside of the brush looking for tracks coming out. If the bear had been in there he said he would have laid in wait and then jumped them when they were too close to escape. They would have been mauled, most likely killed and then eaten. The brush was so thick they couldn’t have gotten a shot off either. Those big bears are 20 years old or so. They get a little bigger and smarter every year. This bear is now on display in the terminal of the Missoula airport.

While we were setting up our spike camp the day before the season opened another Super Cub moved into our area. Dan had already left in the floatplane and we don’t think the other plane saw our camp. They set up a new camp about 2 miles away in the swamp and we could clearly see them in our binoculars. Later that afternoon the Super Cub started flying around looking for bears. He found a big one between our two camps and started buzzing the bear with the plane. He was clearly hazing the bear and it looked like he was trying to get the bear to cross one of the deep channels. Their hunters were on the other side. It didn’t work though; the big bear circled and came over to us. This bear was the second big bear that was in our alder patch the night before the season opened. And he probably wasn’t too happy after being chased by a Super Cub.

Later that afternoon the green Super Cub spotted another big bear in an alder patch on the far side of our lake. He hazed this one too coming in about 10′ over the ground and getting the big bear to run. Then he’d try to turn him by coming at him from another direction. The green Cub along with a second plane had set up another camp on the other side of us. This second bear was near this camp. The next morning one of their hunters shot a big bear and we suspect that it was this one.

What they were doing was a clear violation of the Alaska game laws and very unsportsman like. We got the N number of the Super Cub and wrote it down after looking through binoculars. When I was leaving to go home from the Port Heiden airport an Alaskan Game Warden landed in his Super Cub and taxied over to where I was. Knowing I was a bear hunter he asked me about my hunt and checked my license. Afterward I told him about the green Super Cub and gave him the paper with the N number written on it. He seemed pleased to get the report and told me he’d give the information to an investigator who would contact me. I think the penalty for a violation like that is confiscation of the airplane.

I talked to Larry after I returned home and he said the green Super Cub hazed another bear in the swamp after I left. He just happened to talk to some bear hunters in the Anchorage airport on his trip home and they were the hunters from the other camp. They were very unhappy with their outfitter. Not all of them shot bears and the camps were poorly furnished and the food was poor. Worse, they paid more than twice what we did for the hunt.

Larry said the Game Warden flew into the main beach camp and sealed our bears. Larry and Dan also filled him in on the bear hazing like I did.

(I found out about a year later that the outlaw outfitter was convicted of his crimes.)

Two days after I left, Dan pulled Shawn and Larry out of the swamp. The next day Dan and Larry hunted on foot out from the main beach camp and a few miles out they found and killed a huge 10′ – 2″ boar with a 29 5/16″ skull, a Boone & Crocket brown bear!

About a month after I returned from the hunt Dan stopped by the shop in Montana. He had 9 bears in the back of a pickup to deliver to Shawn’s taxidermy shop. We spread out Larry’s huge hide and looked at the skull. Dan had flown down with the hides and skulls, which he shipped airfreight to Seattle.

He told the story of one of the other guides, Steve, hunting a bear with Dan after we’d all left with his bow! They snuck up to 25 yards of a good-sized bear and he shot him with an arrow just behind the front shoulder. He said the bear bit at the arrow and walked away from them a little. But 30 seconds later he was dead