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He’s the one we want,” I declared, as I unhitched my spotting scope from my tripod and began gathering my gear. “We gotta go now!” Lonnie’s pack was already cinched and his rifle slung. I pointed out the ridge I intended to climb. “You can head out. I’ll catch up.”
By the time I caught up to my client, the sow and her two cubs were racing up the mountain. The old boar however, was in no hurry. He had played this game a hundred times before. He didn’t even bother to look ahead. With his nose in the lead he plodded after them with the nonchalance of an old man strolling to the mailbox. We lost sight of both parties when we reached the base of the mountain. The stars were going to have to align for this stalk to come to fruition.
An hour into the stalk we were ascending the gut of a sheer high mountain drainage. Moss and icy spring runoff made the rocks treacherous, but with an endless jungle of tangled alders on either side, the narrow streambed offered our only chance to catch up to our quarry. The narrow gorge opened up into an amphitheater of towering peaks and granite walls. I was drawing a drink from a tiny rivulet when a gust of wind whipped into the basin above. “Thermals are switching,” I spat.
As we charged ahead the sow and her two year old cubs spilled over the top into our view. They soon caught our wind and fled with the surety of mountain goats across a narrow ledge that lead out the very head of the canyon. Not knowing how closely, or even if, the boar was still following them, Lonnie and I clawed up the mountainside until our lungs and muscles could go no further. If the boar was still on their trail he would pass by within 200 yards. We stacked our packs and set Lonnie in a prone position and waited.
After several minutes of waiting—with the likelihood of my heart exploding passed—I climbed further up the mountain in order to see over the ridge. What I discovered is that apparently the pursuit of the opposite sex is just as tiring and confusing and the bear world as it is for us humans. I hadn’t gone 100 yards before discovering the boar sleeping on the backside of the ridge, just out of our sight. With no feasible means to approach him, all we could do was sit and wait. If he stood up and took two steps in our direction, Lonnie would have a perfect shot. Of course love and hunting never goes as one plans.
Lonnie and I were still fresh into this safari, but we’d already had a sizable dose of excitement, disappointment, and all the stuff that today’s modern hunters pay bucks to endure. Day One brought blue skies and bear sightings galore. Day Two offered the humbling reminder that we were hunting on the Alaska Peninsula. Wind, rain, and snow plagued us the entire day. We spent the entire day huddled under a tarp sipping tea and hot water to stay warm. Late that evening, the very marrow of our bones was beginning to freeze, when out of the fog waltzed a long, dark boar across the open valley before us. “That’s a big bear!” I gulped in disbelief.
Our scent was blowing directly toward him. I expected the all too familiar nose-in-the-air signaling our defeat, but to my surprise the old limping beast stopped, licked his gimp paw, and laid down right in the middle of a cinder blow. We gave a hurried chase, but the wind was dead wrong. We backed out halfway into the stalk, hoping we might get another opportunity at that bear under better circumstances.
Whether it was the same bear or not, Lonnie spotted a bear bedded high atop an outcrop first thing the next morning. It had a boar’s snout, but because it was curled into a ball, I was uncertain how big it was. We watched a sow and her cubs feeding on the mountainside below. The game changed when they passed by 500 yards below and upwind of the slumbering mystery bear. I knew the instant he stood up and started lumbering down hill, this was indeed a mature boar.
At this point in the saga, all the dark, shaggy brute had to do was stand up, follow the sow’s trail, and he was as good as in the salt. But as big critters so often do, he didn’t follow the script. He stoop up (all we could see was his head), looked around a for a few seconds like he wasn’t entirely sure how he got there, turned around, and went back where he came from. “Dang! I thought we had ‘im,” shrugged Lonnie.
At 65 years of age Lonnie Cook is as fit and nimble as they come. A seasoned sheep hunter, he was well suited for my ambitious, if not impractical plan. He and I circled the high, broad basin to the uppermost ridge. From there we traversed down each spur in search of the wandering boar.
Seven hours after losing sight of the chocolate bruin all we managed to find was a wayward porcupine. Late in the day, with no idea where he might be, we decided to cut our losses and head back to camp. As I started to load my pack a silhouette on a distant ridge of a highshouldered brown bear caught my eye. “There he is!” I hissed, as the bear ambled over the backside. “Let’s go!”
Back to the top we raced. Alder thickets, folds, hidden pockets, and gorges were endless. After a long fruitless search, I selected a high point from which to glass.
As the sun faded behind the distant peaks, so did our hopes of ever finding this bear.
We decided to make one last swing around the mountain as we descended to camp. The first draw we came to was mostly barren and looked rather lifeless. That notion quickly vanished as I spotted movement and the waist-high bush below. “Is that him?” Lonnie snapped.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
Lonnie and I slipped into position and studied the bear is it weaved in and out of the stunted alders. Facing us, he walked out on to an open scree slide, scent-checking a well used trail. I was all but certain it was indeed the same boar. “That’s a good bear,” I assured Lonnie. “Get ready.”
As the bear continued toward us Lonnie found a seated position that suited him. He wrapped his rifle sling around his forearm and sucked the butt of his .375 H&H to his shoulder. “You tell me when to shoot.”
Finally, at 60 yards the glossy-haired chocolate stepped clear and broadside. He looked larger-than-life. “Take ‘im,” I whispered.
“Boom!” roared Lonnie’s magnum. The massive bear growled, swung his head, and bit at the wound.
“Hit ‘im again,” I insisted, as the great beast regained his composure and fled for cover. He disappeared before my hunter could fire a second round. “Stand up,” I instructed. “He’s gonna come out the top.”
As Lonnie and I trotted ahead the wounded bear burst out in front of us. A second shot was low. Even though I could see the bear was losing strength, I ordered him to take one more shot. “Take your time.”
“Boom!” Lonnie drilled him high in the shoulder, which sent the massive ball of hide, limbs, and claws tumbling inertly into the abyss below. “Oh no!” Lonnie moaned with a nervous smile. “No telling where he might end up.”
“Ugh… Nothin’ we can do it about now,” I shrugged with a smile, as I offered him a handshake. “Congratulations! Let’s go see what we got.”
Scree rock made it easy to get down to the bear. He was nothing but a balled-up mass of fur wedged in the rocky streambed when we arrived. He didn’t look at all as big as I had expected. I pulled out a front pad and put my hand against it. As I further pried the front leg, the bear’s massive head flopped at my feet. I figured it was a record book skull. “He’s a good one, alright!” I beamed.
We admired the bear, took photos, and laid it on its back for skinning the following day. As we shouldered our packs Lonnie was gazing at the sheer slopes in every direction. “I don’t know how we’re going to get out here tonight, much less how we’re going to pack a hide out of here tomorrow,” he groaned.
“That makes two of us,” I muttered.
We literally bear-crawled out of the canyon. Completely exhausted, we stopped for a breather before our final push to our tent. An easy-natured, mild-mannered man, Lonnie didn’t even crack a smile when I joked that we might have to cut the hide in half to get it out.
It was dark by the time we trudged up to our ocean-side camp. After a huge supper, we enjoyed a long fitful sleep.
We set out at noon the next day to walk around the cape at low tide. My hope was that we’d enjoy a leisurely stroll up the drainage to retrieve Lonnie’s bear. The plan went swimmingly for the first hundred yards. At which point the drainage gave way to three-story waterfalls, granite walls, prickly Devils Club, and alder-infested vertical slopes. By way of the crow it was no more than a mile-and-a-half to the kill site from the mouth of the creek. It took us two hours to get there. “Well,” I sighed, “there’s no way I’m going to be able to haul this hide taking either of the routes we’ve already tried, but I eyeballed a spot on the way up here I hope’ll work.”
I stumbled and swore as much as skinned, but finally that backbreaking job was over; a new one was soon to begin.
With the sopping-wet hide draining overtop a clump of bushes, Lonnie and I enjoyed lunch, and a well-deserved rest.
Tired of speculating about it, we loaded the skull and all my excess gear into Lonnie’s pack. We rolled up the bear skin is tight as we could and stuffed it into mine. “She barely fits,” I grinned. “If it fills this bag, he’ll probably go 10 foot.”
We follow the creek bed downstream for 100 yards before turning uphill. The slope was sheer and muddy, but fortunately the alder limbs we’re just numerous enough to grab hold of, yet sparse enough that one could wriggle between them. We didn’t dare stop for risk of tumbling back down to the bottom. With gritted teeth, we gripped, growled, and grunted until finally the climb from hell was over. As we lay against our packs in a thorn thicket gasping for air Lonnie laughed. “What do you suppose would’ve happened if we would’ve slipped back there?” he asked.
I offered a nodding chuckle. “If I’ve learned anything guiding in Alaska all these years,” I huffed to catch my breath, “is that it’s amazing what a guy can accomplish when it’s do or die… I don’t know as that we would’ve died, but I damn sure didn’t want to find out.”
Lonnie and I were still far from done. We fought our way through a mile of thorns and alders before finally coming to a well-used bear trail. We follow that trail to the edge of a 50-foot seawall. Cutting through that seawall was a centuries-old drainage ditch. I studied it against the mile of alders that stood between our camp and us. “You up for it? If we can get down the beach it’ll save us a ton of brush bustin’,” I lobbied to my client.
“You’re pack is heaviest. I’ll follow you,” Lonnie shrugged.
It was every bit as steep and every bit as slippery, but with fewer alders to cling to as the slope we climbed earlier. We offered a lot of blank stares, prayers, and head scratching, but in the end, we made it to the beach without major incident.
As the gravel crunched under our boots with each slow, laborious step, the tension of dangers faced slowly melted away. The challenge we took on and the obstacles we were forced to overcome along the way made it one of the greatest adventures of our lives. “This was tougher than any sheep hunt I’ve ever been on,” Lonnie asserted with a smile. “The mountains here are just as high and just as steep. But this was more dangerous… My pack is heavier,,, and I got a feeling the whiskey back at camp is gonna taste better too.”
Billy Molls is a registered Alaska big-game outfitter, author, public speaker, hunting consultant, and producer of the awardwinning Modern Day Mountain Man DVD series. For more information go to www.billymollsadventures.com.