One Woman's Alaska Bear Hunt
by Julia Heinz, Contributing Writer, Alaska
The Friday workload, after extending past 5 PM, is finally done. I hesitate to embark on a trip upriver at such a late hour, especially considering my level of exhaustion and sleep deprivation, but my family is out of town and this my chance. My plan is to travel 20 miles in my river boat, hunt for a black bear tonight, explore the gorge tomorrow, and then return on Sunday.
The jet boat starts easily and begins crawling up current. The wind blows the exhaustion off of my face as I began to notice the bright green of the spring alders along the river banks. I feel the unique excitement of a solo trip into the wilderness. Fortunately, the river is high and easy to read. Passing gravel bars, blue glaciers, clear water tributaries, new bright leaves rejoicing in the wind, I rejoice at the realization that I am alive and among so much life.
I go as far as the river allows and tie the boat to a log on the last gravel bar. I construct a shelter made of paddles and tarp, drink tea, and watch the night embrace the valley. I see signs of bear, but no bear appears. After placing my mat and sleeping bag on the boat floor, I slip into my cozy bag as a gentle rain reminds me to be thankful for the sanctuary that my shelter offers from the elements. Lying there, I reflect on the day and feel grateful to have had the experience of the river to dilute the stress created by my challenging Friday afternoon at work. Sleep comes easily.
I awake at 6am to the sound of a gentle rain, lovely bird songs, and a powerful thirst for coffee. While still in my sleeping bag, I heat water on my camp stove and enjoy the warmth of my life-giving elixir of energy. I begin to get excited as I plan my hike into unknown territory of the gorge. I have never been there but have wanted to explore it for many years. I debate whether to carry the weight of my gun into the gorge. I realize that I have forgotten the bear spray. If a bear comes upon me I may need the gun for protection; furthermore, if I see a bear in the distance then I might be able to take fresh bear meat back to my family. As I ponder this decision, I notice a movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning, I am shocked almost to the point of amusement to see a curious black bear, head bobbing in the current, just beyond my boat motor. Here is my chance. I quickly put down the coffee cup, wrestle my bare feet out of the sleeping bag, pull my gun out of its waterproof sleeve, chamber the bullet, and scurry to the end of the boat, aim at the bear on the bank looking at me from a seemingly safe 75 yards. I squeeze the trigger. Nothing happens. I take a moment of almost comic puzzlement. I then release the safety and aim at the bear once more. He is now gathering speed towards safety, growing closer and closer to the protection of the trees with each of my calming breaths. The unfortunate bear is hit in the lower lungs. He runs, trying to escape death and leaving a trail of bright red blood as his life slips out of the bullet wound drop by drop. I feel the adrenaline from such a moment pumping through my veins; excitement of fresh meat and sadness for the bear’s dying body and transitioning spirit. I finish my coffee with conflicting thoughts of joy and sadness as I imagine that strong bear breathing his last breaths somewhere in the woods. I then consider that maybe he is only wounded. I wonder if it is wise to be here all alone with an angry bear who can hear and see me long before I can hear or see him. I gather my game bags, my knife, its sharpener and my pack. I remove the scope off of my gun, chamber a bullet, and slowly follow the trail of bright red blood over the white and grey rocks, down into an old river bed, along fallen and dead trees and then into the woods. I am now in the territory of the bear. I walk very slowly with all of my senses focused on everything that is around me. Even my breathing seems loud. I think of the stories of wounded bears attacking hunters from behind, and so I look around every few minutes, anticipating the rush of a charging bear. After losing the blood trail several times and retracing my steps back where I last saw blood, I manage to follow it deeper into the woods and brush. I listen for any sound, look for any movement, wish for the ability to smell the bear as the bear can smell me. I wonder if he is watching me and wanting revenge. And then there he is. I see the bear still under some alders and I watch for movement or breath. I soon realize that all of my anxiety was for naught.
The poor bear; so strong, so confident, so curious only a few minutes before, and now so strikingly lifeless. I throw all of my 110 pounds into trying to pull him into the open, but he is too heavy to budge more than even a centimeter. I resign to cleaning him there with my gun nearby. I even speak loud and deep telling any other possible bears that soon the carcass will be theirs. I request that they allow me to finish my job before they claim the kill. I skin a front leg and then cut it off and put it into the game bag.
I continue the process of skinning as I remove the meat, attempting to keep the meat extra clean. I bend some branches beneath the bear, trying to help secure him, but the bear shifts and the branch flings into my glasses and knocks them from my head. My eye is swollen and painful, but my vision is, thankfully, fine. My lens, however, is missing. With a moment of fear, I wonder how I will read the twenty miles of river with only my one eye, but I am thankful that because I choose to wear my glasses rather than contacts, there is no significant injury and that I will not go blind.
After completing the field dressing, I find that my lens is under the bear and still intact, and I feel quite delighted. Fortunately, it fits back into my glasses and all is well. After multiple trips, I manage to get the bear in the boat and I enjoy a slow trip home, fortunately seeing and choosing all the correct channels.
Clearly, much of hunting is luck: being in the right place at the right time with the right awareness. Yet one must resist inertia and seize the opportunity when it presents itself; I almost didn’t go out that late afternoon. Luck plays its part, but we will never get lucky if we do not go out of our way to meet luck halfway.
Photos taken by Julia Heinz MD