Monthly Archives: October 2016

Double Rainforest Grizzly Hunt On The Wild Coast Part I

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After a long stretch of writer’s block I had to find my voice again, and what a way and setting to do so a double Grizzly Bear hunt is, at least in my mind’s eye. No question the bottom of a bottle of Aberlour, a pipe, and some successive good strong West Coast IPAs have helped open the literary taps. Alright… so Apex predators and megafauna, the beautiful monsters I discuss in detail in previous writing, define their habitat and an entire place for me. A Wilderness isn’t Wild without its apex predators intact, as truly what are the Wilds without having to look over your shoulder when a twig cracks, or staring out past the campfire at night considering pitch-black sounds? We had a wonderful night doing just that on the last Grizzly hunt, in the thick of the bears and dead salmon, but more on that later. How does one find inspiration in an empty, predator and beast-less landscape? That is what renders a place alive! It’s the bitter tang that makes a lime worth eating, without it there’s only pulp with a mild pleasing flavour… that’s a dead place, experience, and taste. People talk passion for hunting, for things… my life’s passion is experiencing the World as it was when once truly Wild, when we weren’t yet top dog, even if the sensation and experience is fleeting thanks to our modern conveniences. As we sat on a log jamb in the midst of the salmon run and the densest grizzly population anywhere, assistant guide Greg, an extremely experienced hunter and in particular bear hunter, said to me with a content curl of the lip line in the low subtle voice of a hunter on stand, “What we are doing is ancient.”

Killing the (unseasonable) Heat of The Day with Client Jim IMG_1144

At first I missed his meaning so he quietly explained, and I’ll continue with the thought and extrapolate from where his explanation brought me. Sitting in the glow of the end of day and enveloped in the sounds of water and splashes of a salmon churning it, saturated with the pungent scent of an ancient rainforest and rotting fish, we awaited the anticipated movements of our quarry acting on our millennia old instincts. One feels more alive than in any moment except for right before the kill at a time like this, the brain’s switchboard overwhelmed with subtle sensory stimuli, despite when to an outsider’s eye you are apparently doing nothing. There is an introspective clarity and extreme awareness in that time, a consciousness guided by instinct that reaches an all-consuming vortex of focus at the pivotal moments when game is spotted. Honestly, what other activity, when the aim is to do and move as little as possible, can have you so on edge, so alive? Think you could answer even a basic question if interrupted from that focus after hours or days on stand, and your prey has just walked out? Almost your entire mind is on the task, the hunt, the prey. This is what I believe hunters love and why we can speak of passion and love for the hunt, and why some can rightly refer to the hunt as almost a drug. It alters your mental process, focusing every single sense on one task, bringing about extreme patience and clarity, and yet also causing almost all conscious thought to temporarily disappear at the pivotal moment in a torrent of instinct. When else in life is your entire consciousness focused explosively on the crack of a twig or a splash larger than a fish, sensory information that would be ignored in a city park? That’s living, that’s hunting.

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On this hunt, our quarry was the Apex predator whose massive clawed feet were patterned in the river sand, the tracks crossing my own from the previous evening when we had to pull out right as the light was prime, in order to navigate the treacherous river safely. Not tonight however… we were all in, staying in the Grizzlies’ home surrounded by literally hundreds of tracks and hundreds of thousands of salmon. Suspended in our senses’ spell with the predator’s patience bred into every human even if they’ve forgotten it, we were awaiting that one opportunity, that perfect moment, to take our turn as Apex predator. That is what Greg described in that warm, beautiful moment as the light reddened; “This is ancient.”. It is a feeling that must be lived to be known yet nearly every hunter will have known it many times, a contentment and sense of purpose and challenge that really goes beyond explanation. Sincerely I wish there was a name for that… Many exist to describe love, fate, luck, fortune… kismet which needs no definition, merak… a sense of oneness with the universe derived from the simplest pleasures, and perhaps after the shot Aay’han, a bittersweet, perfect moment of joy and mourning. My love for those moments cannot possibly be mine alone, nor unnamed though less and less experience it in modern times. Perhaps one day I’ll have to figure my own name for it or discover the correct one, as certainly many a perfect word exists in languages around the world. Perhaps however with the way our world is going many of those words are being washed away by time and progress, so that I’ll never hear them.  And really… when a feeling’s this good, it’s almost better when it doesn’t have a name, isn’t it?

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While the Polar Bear takes the prize as North America’s greatest Apex predator, it would have its paws full in a fight with a Grizzly Bear, and the temperament of Grizzlies is something entirely unto itself. Grizzlies, much to my admiration are far too bold for their own good, to the point of the habit becoming self-destructive.  It’s a habit shared by many things I respect, including many people. This temperament is why their numbers have plummeted anywhere they come in frequent contact with humans. They also fight each other incessantly, and I haven’t hunted a Grizzly boar yet that didn’t have battle scars, often severe. The bear in spring had a large open gash, fresh from that very day on his side down to the ribs. One of this fall’s bears, the beholder of a small body and massive Boone & Crockett All Time head, was heavily scarred and had one ear barely attached. It’s a hard knock life being a Grizzly, they’re straight out of another era and closely related to extinct Pleistocene Ursines, and act as if they belong back in the Pleistocene. There is no tougher creature than the Grizzly bear in its range and the trouble is, he knows it. If you’re on his fish, he’ll get you off them, if he wants in your cabin even foot thick logs aren’t going to stop him. If he likes your camp, he’ll walk through it like a small town deputy with a point to prove, break everything, then unapologetically wander off. This spring I had a massive Grizzly boar lock eyes with me as he swam directly past at eight yards, got out of the river and stared at our group, before deciding we weren’t interesting and casually headed off. They own their kingdoms, you are a guest there, I treat them and their habitat with that respect and savour the experience. A night keeping a fire stoked, gun in your lap, with fresh meat nearby in a small valley with a hundred Grizzlies is something every man should enjoy before he dies. I’ve been blessed to spend many nights that way, and each and every one of them still gives me a charge as if I’d just landed my bike off a home made ramp on sharp gravel when I was ten.

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Now hunting the Great Bears must be easy then, right, with them being so bold, so plentiful where I hunt? While it is really rather straightforward in methods and just like hunting any other predator without bait or calling, it is not easy and we’ll get to that. The basics are you find a food source, you take your best guess at the routes to and from it and prove them with tracks and sign, and then you take your turn as predator and… wait. That part may sound dull but it takes us back to paragraph One. The patience required taps into the instinct and feeling I couldn’t name earlier, good sign makes the patience far easier to come by, and the wait a lot more interesting. Returning from a scout walk to check a suspected grizzly trail, I brought back a tuft of Grizzly hair for the client and pictures of one of the largest sets of tracks in the valley, a front pad wider than my Tyto knife. My heart was sky high, this place would produce, and we all knew it. Sure enough within two days it did, twice. The feeling is pure elation, an endorphin wave of a reward hard wired into the simplest parts of our brains from our evolution as an apex predator. I realize many an anti-hunter would love to seize upon an outfitter referring to the simplest parts of the mind being elated with the hunt. The reality however is those simplest instincts and parts of the mind are timeless for the same reason we can still taste sweet and sour, even though industrial food production has removed the need. Those parts are hard wired, real, all consuming when their synapses light up somewhere deep in the pitch black of the skull, just as they did sometime around 5,000,000 years ago when the first spear was thrust and even earlier with the first stone was hurled at game.

Client Russ from Spring, We’ll Get To This One in Part II RussMorganGrizz1

Now a good food source, that’s a tricky thing to pinpoint on the North Coast, and for the opposite reason as usual in hunting; there is a lot of food. Our first river, I stubbornly stuck to for a week of scouting, as I had a damaged boat with split welds and cracks from a Western ocean voyage in heavily laden, and she was one good wave from doing a sardine can impression with us as the key. This is not an old boat, in fact it has $50,000 into it with repairs and the initial build, and this is only its fourth hunt in this role, conditions and duty are just that severe on the North Coast and this trip in would only class as moderate compared to the truly bad ones. Anyhow, in our first river Greg climbed the mountain sides early on while I searched for tracks and paths in the river, Greg returned with good info on ancient berry trails that were heavily used, and Grizzly crap everywhere. Well, maybe they were on berries… there were still berries hanging and the salmon run was dead in this river, with only the odd rotten Pink swimming confused circles like Saturday morning on skid row. Just the same, the tracks were encouraging, one set in particular extremely good, a good Grizzly has a front pad greater than 7 ½” and these exceeded that. And a fresh wash of the bars in one of the flash six foot river rises the next morning showed the large boar’s hours old tracks, who had predictably funneled through the river at a terrain pinch Greg spotted. We had barely missed him another day as well, with tracks clearly showing he’d stood on a log to listen to the boat approach from downriver, and then with a casual unhurried gait entered the bush and disappeared. I would sincerely like to lay eyes on that bear, and next Grizzly hunt will likely give this challenging river the good hard shake it deserves if nothing else to satisfy my curiousity.

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Now as the client’s arrival loomed, it was becoming obvious I was going to have to return to the river than had produced two other Grizzlies in the past twelve months for clients, and Greg was keen on the move. I was hesitant, we had a new, and good river with consistent track travel, but food was limited, and my boat damaged. Greg has good instincts, and the plan was if we didn’t find strong fresh sign in the current river, we’d make the trip, gently for the sake of the silicone and firewood wedged together bow, to the other river and upstream, a trip of 45 minutes or so from camp. Now that other river does not come without its challenges… it’s large, vicious, and braided into multiple channels with lots of hard corners, shallow bars, fast water, and skinny channels. It also changes every rainstorm, with fresh log jambs and all new channels… and the bad ones can kill you. Fortunately, we didn’t need to venture any more than 10% of the way up I had to in previous hunts thanks to a wrong turn that proved fortuitous. In the split second you have to choose channels, I chose the lesser of two flows by accident, which quickly split into even smaller flows until the rocks were all too visible in the glacial melt water and in the shallowest portions no more than eighteen inches or less deep. Can’t stop here… dropping the stern and the jet drives into the first pool deep enough to allow it, we took stock of our position, realizing we were on a wonderful sight plane with views in all directions for hundreds of yards. You have no idea how rare that is on the North Coast until you’ve hunted here, this is a rare thing, and not to be wasted. I’ll also never see it again as the river changes monthly in the wet season, and I’ve already received word from fishing guides a large flood the week after we left changed it all again already. That’s another write up however, the real monsters, the rivers…

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We tied our damaged and holding boat to a perfect log with a deep hole behind it, on a nice little bar a hundred yards long centrally situated in the open area. Immediately upon getting off the boat, we had tracks aplenty. Grizzlies left, right, and center… cubs and sow, small boar or barren sow, big boar… BIG boar…  Yes, I should have come back here immediately. Little use in sitting here amongst the bears though unless ready to shoot, I had until this point viewed this river as the backup, with the contentment of knowing it would produce having taken two Grizzlies there in the earlier part of the hunting year (September to September to elaborate for non-hunters, our new year starts a tad earlier than convention). This first day we had to pull out, to return to camp at the much safer other river. Camping in the river we were hunting then is extremely challenging, I hesitate to say dangerous, but realistically it is. The level can climb six feet or worse in hours, sweeping everything and moving the logs of dead 800 year old trees with ease as much as twenty feet above the normal flow level… and fall sees by far the worst of the flooding and rainfall. Imagine trying to escape down a treacherous torrent of log jambs… in the dark, with two hundred foot long logs coming down the river with you as the jambs break up. I think I’d rather hug a tree and say goodbye to the boat. For now, assistant guide Greg’s self-proclaimed weather luck, which I was begrudgingly forced to become a believer in, was holding. Unseasonably beautiful weather reigned, and this brought about the red glow from the beginning of the article. During the day Jim and Greg were treated to the sight of Mountain Goats and an utterly massive Black Bear feeding on the high slopes above the river, described by Greg as looking like a truck, and he knows black bears having hunted and / or guided several hundred of them. Always nice to know a place is alive.

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The moment Jim’s Grizzly was spotted I was on the wrong end of the sand bar, and while trying to watch 360 degrees, a rare challenge in this environment that often narrows views to 45 degrees or less, I saw a large headed boar crossing the river maybe four hundred yards downstream. To my great relief he started making his way towards us, coming up on a shore that was two hundred yards distant when perpendicular to our bar… Would he make it that far up without turning into the bush? The head on this bear was disproportionately large, and at the distant first sighting made him appear massive as his head was so prominently visible. He had the head of a 9oolb bear and the body of a 5oo, and I told the client this was a top 50% boar, but not a top 10%. Turns out, his head was so big I was wrong, and on the body I almost over estimated him. That mix of proportions doesn’t happen much. Slowly, the bear picked his way along the shore, stopping to eat a salmon and giving a tough quartering away shot at 220ish yards in the edge of the alders where I agonized over whether I should have Jim shoot. It was an entirely makeable shot, soured by slight cover and a fast flowing river to his rear he could be lost in, and green hell in front that he was more likely to take to if the shot wasn’t anchoring. Those who think it sounds adventurous to follow up a wounded Grizzly Bear in the ten foot visibility and almost impossible movement of the Cold Jungle haven’t done it. I place no machismo or badges on that, it’s an experience best avoided and there’s nothing pleasant about following flecks of quickly rain washing blood on devils club and alder, that’s the profanity inducing ether of life’s less pleasing sides that makes one grow old before their time.

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We watched him eat for likely fifteen minutes, when he eased into the trees. Every dark shape at that point becomes a bear ever so briefly, as you hope for another opportunity. Remember that hyper focus I discussed? Well it’s in overdrive right now. Then, just as your excitement considers waning down one level… the hushed call “Bear…”. The boar had reappeared 200 yards distant, and started pouncing for salmon in a small side channel just yards from the main flow. Jim lined up, and rested on the roots of a rainforest giant, sitting more than ten feet above the ground cradled in its roots and trunk. We cautioned him to wait for the shot he was comfortable with, and to take the shoulder, I wanted that bear anchored to avoid a late light follow up in the cold jungle. Lets just say I missed my double rifle right then, having left my Merkel .375 H&H at home, the veteran of several Grizzly hunts, in favour of a cheap and handy Mossberg 590A1 14” stoked with 3” slugs as I wanted a gun I didn’t have to care for. That benefit diminished in importance as I considered the possibility of a follow up cross-river. There was however a contenting piece of information at hand… Jim could shoot, a former competitive shooter in the military, and he had been a mountain goat hunting client of mine last fall. 200 yards for Jim, and he’ll blush at my stating this, is nothing as it ought to be for any seasoned hunter, I had watched him put a full box of 20 rounds expediently into 6” last year while we tested rifles at the range pre-hunt. He seemed to think that was mediocre, though from a guide’s eye for field position shooting with a .300, that’s a dream come true.

Client Jim Set Up At The Moment of The Shot

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True to form, Jim’s Sako 85 Bavarian .300 lit up and as I heard its crack I watched the bear turn at the shot, two more perfect shots followed rapidly and the bear went down not a couple yards from the first hit. In the next write up I’ll share some thoughts on Grizzly rifles and loads, but that’s overly academic for my present mood. Anyhow, water mist blew off the dark hair on the bear with each hit, showing their perfect placement. It was done, there was no suffering for the old battle scarred boar, and we had an Apex predator solidly down across river on day 2 ½; the average for the last three Grizzlies. Hand shakes, a cheers of preserved chocolate milks (long story), and we loaded the boat to start a long night skinning in the icy water. Then as we set out downstream to round from our channel to the bears, another Grizzly popped out! Holding an LEH resident tag I carry and reserve for an exceptional bear, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a Grizzly that looked like a barrel as it crossed a channel two hundred yards downstream. Greg took the controls on the boat by instinct and Jim handed me his rifle, we beached on a small bar which I ran to the end of to fire from sitting. The first shot hit home, one more was added for insurance and the bear did its death run… into the deep flow. Back to the boat and downstream, this was the beginning of a proper Western experience and the most interesting retrieve I’ve suffered thus far. Quickly the boat caught up to the barely buoyant boar, one spot of dark brown hair alerting me to the bulk under the glacial water’s surface, and I put the boat on it and we ended up running it over. Doing circles and making a plan on the fly when tying a paw proved impossible, we started shunting it to shore with the boat. The trouble is, we could get a little push in, and it would slide under the boat again. Over and over we turned circles around the bear shunting it in to shore, and finally Jim gauged to water to be shallow enough to jump into and seize a paw.

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We had… them! Two Grizzly bears in thirty minutes. How many times in life do you get to enjoy that experience? With no small effort the utterly round Grizzly was rolled onto the nearby bar, safely above the water, and we set off to retrieve Jim’s bear. Approaching his bear, Jim felt the emotions he had calmly avoided at the shot, he had a beautiful, scarred up and massive headed rainforest grizzly down, with the longest claws I’ve seen on a bear here. Night quickly set and the lights came out as we skinned, which is a respectable amount of work with a Grizzly. Wrapping up, we had to make our journey back to camp, and remembering a tight corner and skinny channel at a log jamb, I didn’t like the idea of a night run once we had the boat fired up. One moment of comedic relief was delivered in 6’4, 270lb Greg attempting to fit into a “Universal” life jacket, muttering this is only to help find the body… A picture of that moment has become a favourite of mine to share with mutual acquaintances. Upon moving on the water instead I opted to head upstream and meet a bar I’d walked the day before the was upstream from ours, if memory served it was only a few hundred yards from camp. I made for the bar, and gratefully didn’t ground the boat in the process, bringing it up to the bar. With Greg and Jim holding the boat, I headed in the direction of camp, finding an easy ford back. We tied the boat to the best alder we could find on the bar, with the utter total extent of our available rope, and made the ford to camp, where we decided on shifts to keep the skin safe and stoke a large fire. Greg suggested he’d rise at 03:30, and I took the first shift and built a large fire to send a message to the local Grizzlies. Grizzlies will set upon a kill of their own, or anything, within no time, and in a salmon run a different flavor is something they seem especially interested in. Throughout the night Greg and I walked to the end of our bar and shone lights on the boat, and felt very alive. Well, I speak for myself, Greg having slept first may have had a different take on rising though I doubt it, as he saw two more Grizzlies at daybreak.

Check back for Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 Grizzly hunting thoughts and other fun… in Spring we had the massive Grizzly below swim past at eight yards and get out of the river downstream.

Greg Wrapping Up The Next Morning

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