Bruin paradise, alder hell. A birds-eye view of the lower Uganik River with Mush Lake in the background. Ground zero for the author’s story of a Kodiak deer hunt. Photo by Eric M. Beeman.
On a crisp November afternoon, I perched on a snow-covered knob, glassing the nearby hills for a blacktail buck that outfitter Dick Rohrer had spotted half an hour before. We’d just finished the fall Kodiak brown bear season at Rohrer Bear Camp and had now switched to deer. In the snow beside me, crouched my hunting client Bob, ready for action on his first day out. When the animal finally appeared a long rifle-distance away, Bob calmly took the shot, using his pack as a rest.
When we plowed our way over to the spot, we were greeted with some blood spatters and a set of tracks leading off. We set off following the trail through the thick brush. I twice glimpsed the deer ahead of us, but could get in no finishing shot. I felt further direct pursuit would only cause the deer to keep moving.
Coming from a southern land, Bob was having difficulty wading through the thigh-deep powder. “Bob,” I said, “just up ahead we may be able to catch that deer as he exits onto the mountainside. I’m going to charge on and see if I can end it as he comes by. You keep watch here in case he doubles back.”
I slogged off, the white drifts slowing my stride considerably, but eventually I reached a small clearing at the edge of the mountainside. Within a minute, I heard crashing in the alders coming my way. I crouched, rifle ready, and out jumped a doe who tore off across the clearing and up the hillside. More crashing, and out sprang Bob’s buck, running flat out. I swung on him and touched off just as he was leaping over a downed cottonwood log. He piled up in the snow and out galloped the third deer—only it wasn’t a deer at all but a female brown bear hellbent on catching the tasty morsel that had so far eluded her.
Probably, the deer stumbled right across that bear, or perhaps the bruin had intersected that olfactory path to gastric nirvana. I’ll never know. Regardless, it was on that deer in a few quick seconds. Rather than finishing it off, it merely scissored the paunch and began to feed in a business-like manner. I don’t remember much noise from the sow, but the poor buck bellowed piteously. I wanted to end his suffering, but could not shoot for fear of hitting the lunging carnivore. The bleating ended abruptly. Attempting to reclaim Bob’s prize, I clapped my hands and hollered. I fired a couple shots over the sow’s head. I moved upwind to waft my hunting guide scent to her, all to no avail. In the end, I left her to her repast.
I met Bob hurrying up the trail. He had heard my shots and was excited to catch up with his trophy. His eyes widened upon hearing my tale. “This Alaska is real. I’ve only been here one day!”
Around the table that evening with the “got the shot, but the bear got the deer” story, Bob put up with some good-natured ribbing from his two hunting companions. My boss, Dick, just quietly raised one eyebrow and didn’t say much.
We planned to give Bob’s kill a miss for a couple of days, since an attempt to pry the current owner off its top would be met with less than enthusiasm. Climbing up on one of the nearby vantage points, we began to glass for another deer. From our lookout, I couldn’t see the kill site, but I did see magpies flying back and forth, feeding on the carcass. A bear would absolutely not permit this for long, and you would soon see a bunch of birds taking to the sky en masse. The absence of this told me that the bear was away. Perhaps a tiptoe down to take a look was in order.
The kill lay belly-up and partially buried in a horrible little gulch surrounded with alders on three sides. I slipped Bob my game saw and covered him with my rifle while he quickly sawed the carcass in two. I just knew that bear was laying up close by. We hurriedly dragged our halves a quarter mile away to a clearing.
“Bob,” I said, “that sow’s going to wake up and notice that big juicy freeway with us at the other end. Best keep a sharp eye on our back trail.” I emptied my pack, pulled out my knives and began to butcher.
I was just finishing up when Bob exclaimed, “Look at the size of one!” I peered up and saw Both-Way-Bob focused on a large buck in exactly the opposite direction. “Watch behind us!” I admonished.
A moment later, Bob screeched, “The bear—it’s right here!” Sure enough, here she came, walking purposefully down the track to reclaim her stolen tucker. I stood, arms wide, and clapped and yelled. She broke stride and began pacing back and forth in a half circle about 20 yards off. I threw on my meat-laden pack, grabbed my rifle and the head and cape, shouted for Bob, and began to back away. Her patience exhausted, the sow once again strode down the trail but paused at the butchering site. We beat feet towards the shoreline, leaving the bruin alone—and all my stuff in a pile by the remains.
That night, the ribbing really ratcheted up with the “got the deer, but the bear got the guide’s stuff” update throwing “Calamity” Bob’s companions into absolute fits. Dick only looked at me and calmly mentioned I was fired, but I wasn’t worried. He’s only really scary when he’s quiet.
At first light, Bob and I climbed a nearby hill overlooking the scene of the previous day’s rapid departure. After an hour with no bear in sight, we trudged down to pick up the pieces. Visions swirled in my mind of torn clothing and big teeth marks on all my optics, and I figured I’d most likely be somewhere on the negative side of nothing for my earnings on this hunt. A big beaver-house of packed snow covered the deer’s remains, but, thankfully, all my gear lay untouched beside. Whew…
We saved cape and antlers, and most of the meat from Bob’s first animal. During the next three days, we somehow lost the bolt from his rifle, had another bear encounter, and on the final day, “Calamity” anchored another fine buck with a borrowed rifle. So ended a successful time with an overload of excitement, which is what hunts should be about anyway.
Myself, I was just thankful that sow hit the original scent trail in front of Bob, rather than coming up on his backside.