Friday, May 20, 2011

Vanishing....Tracking the Grizzly.

Dear friends- sorry for the dearth of posting lately. You've caught me in the Arctic Spring and inside writing is the last place I want to be. I'm also mid stride in training for my fall sheep hunt and smack dab into spring bear season. Lots of stories but not much time to tell them yet. A sample follows.

The morning began just like any other- up early, shower, drive to work and get there before the crew arrives. Then check email, make a few notes, have my morning tag up and get the crew moving in the direction they're needed most. After the brief flurry of activity that accompanies my morning, I usually get a few minutes between crises and the routinely urgent to drink a cup of coffee and catch up on Facebook. I popped open the computer and took a long sip of the cheap swill that passes for coffee in my office these days and my eye was immediately drawn to a message from my good friend and frequent hunting partner, Bill. The message was brief but immediately got down to the point- "Shot a bear last night, lost it on the follow up. Need help. Went in thick alders. Let me know? Need a buddy I can trust."

Anybody who has ever followed a bear into the alders generally ranks it as one of their least favorite activities...ever. Bears will dive for the thickest piece of brush they can get to when frightened or wounded and ferreting one out is a long and tedious process not to mention that depending on the wound and the individual bear- can be quite dangerous as a bonus. Walking through alders can be exhausting, adding wet snow and an angry bear only compounds the problem. I was gratified that Bill had deemed me a trusted hand for such a task but I was apprehensive. I'd done this before and I can't say I enjoyed it. Not at all.

My hand was on my phone and in a moment had Bill on the line to nail down the details and make a plan. He'd spotted the bear late in the day, about an hour before sun down and made a stalk. He'd had some trouble wading the now melting river- ice clinging on the bottom, flowing water on top- and practically had to sprint a mile to catch up to the quick moving bear. The wind was blowing briskly and the bear was headed upstream searching for new grass and forbs on the now thawed riverbank. He'd given Bill an opportunity when he stopped abruptly to look at some unknown morsel on the ground. Bill weighed his options, leveled the rifle and fired three times emptying his weapon's magazine. The bear turned on his heel and leaped the twelve foot cut bank then vanished into the ten foot alders above.

Let me say up front, prior to any temptation for Monday morning quarterbacking, that Bill has killed and participated in killing more grizzly bears than any one I know outside of the professional hunting guide industry. He is also a first rate woodsman and hunter as well as an excellent shot. He reloaded the rifle and followed the bear to where it vanished. As he peered into the alder jungle he wisely considered his options- he was on the far side of a rapidly rising river, he was wet, it was getting dark and he potentially had a wounded bear in an alder thicket, and he was well outside of any community or even within cell phone range. Discretion being the better part of valor- he retreated until he could arrange for backup.

We discussed the situation that morning. The bear had been shot at  sometime just before 11pm (about 1 hour before dark this time of year) and was really big. He was unsure of his shot based on the lack of blood or other signs on the small patch of bank the bear had been on just after the shooting had occurred. We decided the best course of action was to leave the bear until late afternoon in order to not pressure the animal and push him out- often wounded bears will hole up in brush and the blood loss (even from serious but non fatal wounds) will cause them to stiffen up. If I'm going to tangle with a bear in the tangles- I want him at every disadvantage I can get. The bear, if not seriously wounded, could have recovered and left the area by the time we got there.( Don't confuse that with a cavalier attitude about potential suffering- bears significantly injure each other all the time in the wild and frequently recover none the worse for wear- a shallow flesh wound would heal readily on a healthy bear). The bear if significantly wounded could also very well just bleed out and expire quietly. On the northern face of the drainage under the brush there was still two to three feet of dense snow- tracking a wounded animal should be a relatively straightforward process in those conditions.

We travelled to the river ford late that afternoon and donned waders for the trip across the river. The days bright sun and warm temperatures had caused a rise in water level since the day prior- a few more days of this and the ice would go out altogether. We trudged about half a mile through the ankle deep slush- ice particles suspended in water before we got to the first flowing channel. As we entered the icy stream a genuine item of concern became apparent- the increased current began to overcome the meager traction of our waders on the bottom ice and push us downstream! After several harrowing moments we came to a spot where the white bottom turned black, a gravel bar, and we made it safely across. We crossed several such channels, one about a hundred yards wide before we got to the far bank, it had taken two exhausting hours.

After a brief rest and shedding all of our loose gear we had came to the spot the bear had entered the brush. On the twelve foot bank the fleeing bear had touched down one time and left a well defined rear track as he sprang for the safety of the alders. By contrast, as we struggled up the bank we left what looked like a buffalo trail of overturned stones and dislodged debris. On top we had no trouble locating the bear's trail, the bear was large and in his haste to escape had left a path through the snow and alders a blind man could have followed. We were stripped down to t-shirts and pants, no jackets, no packs, no slings on our rifles- nothing to catch on the crazy shaped trunks and branches. While it would have been relatively easy to just noisily plow ahead from one track to the next, following up a bear requires a little more finesse. Each time the bear touched down he left a print, we looked at it for signs of blood or hair, the considerable distance between the tracks was looked over as well- was there blood, feces or hair there too? All the while one of us was scanning the limited visibility for signs of the bear and looking for broken trees that marked its path of travel. We didn't speak so we wouldn't alert the bear or mask the brief seconds of cracking branches as it fled or charged.

We also had to be cognisant of each other, to not cross the muzzles of our rifles over each other as we wove our way in and out of the trees and post holed through the snow. We were a long way from civilization here- an accidental rifle shot was as bad a prospect as a bear mauling. I normally hunt alpine country with long vistas and limitless views carrying a rifle with a loaded magazine and an empty chamber. Here it was different- occasionally Bill and I would drift about 20 yards apart and completely lose sight of each other- there was no limitless vista, a bear could be on us in the matter of seconds if it were in here and so inclined. In the gloom it was chamber loaded, safety on, finger alongside the trigger guard, thumb immediately behind the safety- ready to unleash the rifle's power in a moments notice.

The yards passed painfully but after an hour of tense but steady ascension up the drainage the alders gave way to cottonwood and the dense growth opened up a bit. Our anxiety level backed off a tick as well. We quietly discussed the spoor we'd been following for the last hour- no blood, no hair, no feces. The bear never stopped and sat down to lick a wound. I was feeling better that we weren't sharing our immediate real estate with a marginally wounded and angry bear. Bears have a tendency to not be good bleeders, particularly in the fall when thick layers of pre-hibernation fat clog wounds and prevent blood trails. But this was a spring bear, lean in his post hibernation condition; there would be little sub-cutaneous fat to clog the wound and there would be little fat between the internal organs so even on a bear this large the bullet should have left both an entrance and an exit wound.

A bear with a lung shot will only go so far before his lungs fill with blood and he coughs some up- the bright crimson and pink froth of a bleeding lung would have been unmistakable on the white snow. Likewise, a gut shot bear's tract will fill with blood and trigger a bowel spasm- leaving a large bloody stool in his path. A bear with a muscular wound will generally stop once he feels he's not in immediate danger and lick and gnaw at his wound, leaving fur and sometimes bloody saliva on the ground. We saw none of those things. Amateur ballisticians like to talk about the concept of "overkill", but when you're prowling the alders with a big fanged animal "not dead enough" is a much bigger problem than "too dead."

We pursued for another half mile up the drainage, steadily climbing until at last the cottonwood gave way to bare rock and clay of the alpine tundra. The bear's tracks were now predictable and evenly spaced as he plodded on up the canyon to the summit and beyond. It was with some disappointment and no small amount of relief as we turned and headed back off the mountain in the fading light. We measured a front track in a barely thawed patch of clay- nine and a half inches across the front pad- an extreme specimen in the Interior, likely squaring over nine feet. They just don't get much bigger up here. The famed Frank Glaser shot a ten footer about 8 miles to the north of this drainage, in the early 1900s when the country was much wilder. In the modern era any Interior bear over 8 foot was a trophy to be prized.

As we arrived back at the swelling river, I rolled my waders and attached them to the outside of my pack. We had a mile of river and slush to cross to get back to the truck and I would rather get cold, wet feet than fall into this churning cauldron due to bad footing on the clumsy waders. As we entered the first stream and the ice cold water topped my boots and ran down to my toes, the tedium of the past several hours drained away. Bill looked back and said, "I'm just as happy that big guy got away clean, what a magnificent animal." I agreed, the loss of such a grand animal was disappointing but to know that he was running wild and unencumbered by a improperly placed bullet was a relief. We'd likely never see him again. To know what had Bill's shots flying wide that night- whether a scope out of alignment, extreme fatigue and heaving chest or whether the master hunter succumbed to "buck fever" I'll likely never know.

But I can't help but feel a little bit happy that it happened just the way it did.

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