Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Sonny (Head of Trail Security) and Mr. Bear
We ignored the sporadic rain and headed back to a well known drainage that I had hunted before and was certain we could find some animals to photograph as well as take in the outstanding scenery. We loaded our Labrador, Sonny, in so he could get some much needed exercise as well. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.
We took our time in meandering several miles up the ancient mine track into the high country and the river bottom black spruce forest gave way to alder bands and finally above tree line to a variegated terrain of broken tundra and brush. The preferred home of the caribou...and the grizzly bear.
After a few short moments with the spotter we spotted a lone bull caribou, at least a mile distant feeding on a slope. In the summer months the caribou come up here to high country, more properly thought of as sheep country, to escape the heat and bugs in the cooler mountain breezes. This bull was feeding unconcerned out in the open tundra. We quickly began to use the camera to photograph him with a mix of results through the spotter. Eventually we got OK shots, although it was finicky to do and not so hot when compared to shots taken with proper (read: expensive) digiscopes and dedicated camera mounts.
About thirty seconds later our beloved and generally gentle Lab gave out the most determined and fierce bark I've ever heard him make. Not the usual "Gimme Attention" or "I Gotta Pee" bark but a genuine cry of pack distress and warning. He charged about ten yards behind us and stopped. Growling menacingly he stood ready for action- chest puffed out, hair erect, tail arching forward and was staring intently at the brush that lined our back trail. Knowing that such behavior from our dog was both unusual and intent we gave up our spotting and starting looking for what could be the matter. My wife stood on the floorboard of the ATV to gain vantage of the sloping terrain from our rise and I slid the rifle from the scabbard and worked the action to chamber one of the fat .375 rounds.
Very soon out of the brush walked a large boar grizzly and his intent was pretty obvious- he was coming in to my wife's wolf call at a rapid clip. I don't know how far he'd travelled but a bear will often come in from great distances to calls in hopes of scoring an easy meal. He was just a hundred yards distant and knowing a bear can charge that in mere seconds I snapped the rifle up and settled the forward bead in his chest. Too far to shoot with a coarse bead on a moving target and the element of near total surprise on his part. At this point the commotion of the dog's fierce growls and barks and my wife's shouts stalled the bear....this wasn't what he expected to see making a wolf howl.
He paced for just a few moments more and decided the queer and unusual creatures making all the noise weren't worth the hassle and the last I saw of him was his butt romping into the alders on the far side of the trail. An exasperated gasp was followed by laughter. Cooper's opinion that "the spice of life is not variety but peril" certainly felt true at the moment. We cautiously worked our way over to where the bear had disappeared. His exit path was marked by several long deep pug marks in the hard trail surface. I measured one briefly with my hand- 7" across. By no means the largest Interior grizzly I'd ever seen but a respectable specimen at any rate. We left the area slowly, scanning the entire time to see if the bear would work it's way around and get downwind of us. Sonny at one point began an excited bark and growl that quickly diminished as he walked over and urinated on the bear's tracks...what bravado from the macho dog!
The lesson to the bear country traveller is one that is well worth remembering....every so often it pays to check your six and pack along a canine companion of reasonable fortitude as well as a rifle of substantial power.
Meanwhile, Sonny has been promoted to Head of Trail Security complete with a pork chop and my wife's grudging acceptance has turned into an uneasy admiration for his successful response to Mr. Bear. I, for one, was very happy we were alerted to the bruin by Sonny's keen nose and not by the bear running into our midst from behind.
It's still Alaska out there folks....