Every trip to Alaska is special to me, but none more so than this one.
It started out with a strange phone call from my buddy Bobby Condon that came just before his birthday. I could tell something was wrong by the way he sounded. He’d had two heart attacks and was calling me from the Intensive Care Unit in Anchorage, where they flew him by medical transport. In spite of all this, the first thing he said was, “we’re still going hunting!”
The basecamp … home away from home.
As it turned out, after about a week in the hospital and some cardiac rehab work on his part, he was right!
Alaska is one of the few remaining places where there is a spring bear season and this time around I wanted to try for a black bear with my longbow. Condon was after either a grizzly or a big black bear with his rifle.
In the springtime, bears come out of hibernation and want to feed after their winter nap. Their early season food source is typically green vegetation. Where the bears are located along the ocean, they come down to the beach to feed on the spring grasses and plants like the fiddlehead fern when they sprout. They also like to wander the beach to look for goodies such as the occasional dead seal that washes up on shore.
Our game plan was to fly across the Cook Inlet from Soldotna, Alaska, where Condon lives. We took to the air with Matt Owen, a friend of ours who operates the Northern Air Trophy transport service. We’ve flown with Owen a number of times out of Kotzebue for caribou, and he’s a classic Alaskan Bush Pilot — a guy born to fly an airplane. The ride across the inlet was interesting, and once we started circling the area we wanted to hunt Owen spotted a black bear feeding on a grass bank along a creek.
A bluff along the beach where the bears fed in the grass.
We set up our camp just off the beach in the sand. Given that our typical camp is on a gravel bar somewhere, the sand was a refreshing change. While we were walking around squaring camp up it didn’t take long to figure out the bears were enjoying the green grass along the beach. There were several sets of black bear and brown bears (grizzly) tracks going up and down the shore. We went about the business of getting our gear together for the following day and cooking up a Mountain House meal, and it was time to hit the cots with high hopes for the next day.
Condon, as an Alaskan resident, can legally hunt for brown bears without a guide. In fact, he’s taken several of them over the years, including a couple of huge brown bears that he has full-size mounts of in his home. As a non-resident, brown bears were not on the game plan, which is fine by me as my view of them is different. I would just as soon watch them from a distance or not at all!
We got up the next morning, had some breakfast and made our way down the beach towards the creek we wanted to walk up. We were about halfway to where we wanted to go when a black bear popped up on the bluff above us about 100 yards uphill. Obviously there wasn’t going to be an opportunity with the bow, so Condon took a crack at the fleeing bear with his rifle.
A saltwater flat where bears were feeding on grasses.
He thought he had a hit, but I saw dirt kick up above the boar. Either way, we had to go check it out. Climbing up the steep bank proved to be interesting. When we got to the point where it was almost straight up, I had Condon head back down and continued pulling myself upward. I made a thorough search of the area, which revealed no sign of the bear or that it had indeed been hit.
While I was on top of the bluff, I found several piles of bear scat along with some big tufts of blonde hair, and decided it was time to leave.
We continued on to the creek, where we discovered that its banks and the area all the way up to the bluff was covered in a nearly impenetrable amount of willow, which we tried to bushwhack through for hours, but ended up retreating back to the beach.
The next couple of days proved uneventful. We did not see any bears, but it was obvious from the new tracks that would appear on the beach in the morning that they were still up and about during the night. One morning we were awakened to the sound of a helicopter that seemed to be just outside the tent. It turned out to be a state wildlife trooper who stopped to check on our licenses.
The author with his longbow along the rocky shoreline of Cook Inlet.
Later in the trip, we were about out of time to hunt, and were getting ready to fly out. All our gear was packed except for the tent. We had left my bow and Condon’s rifle out where we could get at them. At one point, Condon went out of the tent and alerted me that there were two bears down the beach. The bears were both black bears, but instead of a sow with a cub, it turned out to be a boar and a sow.
I grabbed my bow and went after the bears. They were both facing into the wind, and I was using the jumble of logs and rocks along the beach for cover while trying to close the distance and come up from behind them. The sow went back up on the bank to feed, and the boar stayed there eating the grass along the tidal flat. I managed to get to within about 20 yards of him, and picked a spot behind his leg. I had just started drawing the bow when he spotted the movement and bolted.
The bear made the mistake of running by Condon on his way out of there and Condon made a good shot with the rifle. Like most of our adventures, we went from boredom to chaos, plus now we had a problem. The plane was coming in an hour and we had a bear to skin and pack back to camp! We worked together and managed to get the job done just before Owen arrived to take us back across the inlet.
Bobby Condon of Soldotna, Alaska, with a nice black bear.
Alaska is one of the few places left where you can still hunt black bears in the spring. In order to hunt there, you need a hunting license, a black bear tag, and harvest tickets, all of which can easily be purchased online at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=license.main.
There are a number of flight services that serve spring bear hunters along the coast in the southern part of the state, and you should plan on some extra flight time to look around and hopefully spot bears near a potential camp area. Another option is going to hunt on a boat where you can stay at night, and use a skiff with an outboard to travel around the inlets and look for bears.
Going and hunting Alaska is a special event for those of us who are not fortunate enough to live in such a place. This trip was even more special because I got to see that my friend overcame his heart issue, and we got the chance to do the thing that he was meant to do — hunt wild Alaska!
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