Those Bears Can Bite

The followoing appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 

Editor’s Note: In last month’s Alaska Sporting Journal, we profiled Stan Zuray, one of the Alaskan homesteaders who spends part of the year in the isolated Interior community of Tanana featured on the Discovery Channel’s series Yukon Men. Zuray told us about his younger days as a troubled and lost Bostonian who longed to flee the big city for a chance at a new life in the Last Frontier’s open spaces. We only managed to get a small sample size of Zuray’s struggles back in Boston and his transition to being a subsistence fisherman and hunter and dog sledder. Zuray gets far more detailed about the ups and downs he’s experienced in a book, which included a harrowing encounter with a bear in the wilderness while hunting. The following is an excerpt from Carry On: Stan Zuray’s Journey From Boston Greaser To Alaska Homesteader and reprinted with permission from co-author Tim Attewell. The book is available for purchase at amazon.com/dp/1521098891

BY TIM ATTEWELL 

Stan and (then girlfriend) Charlotte stalked along the Tozi River with speechless lips and searching eyes. They gripped the chains tightly. Between the two of them, they were holding back a total of three eager dogs. 

It was autumn now, a sweet spot for hunting. The outcome of this hike would likely determine if they would be losing weight, or keeping it this winter. Before the humans in the pack saw anything, as usual, the dogs caught a scent and started barking. Stan and Charlotte dropped low, shushing the dogs and whacking them with a willow branch to keep them quiet. Down the trail ahead of them was their prey, a 300-pound grizzly bear.

They crept closer, hoping the dogs wouldn’t play their hand too early and alert the bear. Both homesteaders had rifles now Stan with his .303 British, and Charlotte with a Winchester Model 70 .338 Magnum. The new rifle had been gifted to them by yet another generous Tanana resident. As they approached firing range, boyfriend and girlfriend cast a look to each other, saying “ready,” without speaking. All at once, the dogs were set free, and a scrambling, clinking canine stampede commenced. 

It was the strangest thing. Outside of the cabin, there were times that Stan saw the dogs peacefully coexisting with grizzly bears and drinking out of the same river. Yet once they were confined to chains, the temperament shifted gears, from neutral to drive. 

The dogs reached the bear and entangled him in a flurry of swats, jumps and snaps. It was a maneuver inspired by Skipper’s first tussle with the species. Stan and Charlotte stood in unison and took their firing positions. 

From the days of shooting out Boston street lights with zip guns, Stan’s aim had steadily improved. When a Tanana local named John Hewitt visited, Stan’s marksmanship reached full potential. John taught Stan to breathe, aim, and control where the bullet went. He was a true marksman. Prior to, Stan managed roughly a 3-inch grouping at 100 yards. John brought it down to an inch and a half. 

For each shot taken on that training day, Stan would bend down, pick up the shell casing and pocket it. Perhaps the ecological consideration of keeping the valley litter-free played somewhat in this act; but mostly, it was another way to stretch the U.S. dollar. Stan reloaded every bullet casing he fired.

Now, he would be placing a .303 caliber bullet in a tangled mix of friend and adversary. Stan fired high, hoping to take the bear down in one shot. He didn’t. Charlotte followed up with a wider, more powerful bullet, and the bear made its slow collapse. It might sound like a Hollywood edict, but after years of using this method, not a single dog was killed or injured in the process.

The pair had been out in the woods long enough to learn that, by Oct. 15, the salmon lying on the riverbanks would be thinned out. Most of the bears would move into the Ray Mountains at this point. Those that didn’t, Stan and Charlotte hunted.

BY NOW, STAN HAD perfected his bear bacon recipe. He would butcher the meat, rub salt and sugar on the fattiest pieces, add a few layers of the same, and compress them in a large rough-cut wooden box, down in the cool air of the root cellar. This process was repeated twice over the course of two weeks. The final touch took only one day of smoking, and, of course, a little frying. The resulting product was sweet, savory and fatty. It was a great way to stock up on energy for the winter.

The grizzlies found in Alaska’s Interior certainly weren’t the biggest on the planet, but it wasn’t size that was the concern. Whether a 300- or 500-pound grizzly pinned a person down, death would soon follow. 

One thing that seemed to set all grizzly bears apart from the other species in the family was their incredible endurance. To offer a comparison: There was a black bear, once, loitering at the standard sandbar that could be seen from the cabin window. Stan took his time, lined up a good shot and snapped its spine with one bullet. The black bear dropped to the ground. By sheer chance, the very next day, a grizzly bear was walking along the same sandbar, looking for salmon. Stan took the same shot, snapping its spine. The bear broke into a wild sprint, using only its front legs. If Stan had been within 25 feet of the bear, though it had lost the use of its lower body, it would have closed the gap before he could have reloaded or turned to retreat. Needless to say, by the time Stan was attacked by a grizzly in the fall of 1976, he was taking them very seriously.

Fishing was coming to a close, and so Stan set out on his annual search for beaver lodges. Cartography had become a crucial part of this process. In autumn, Stan would draw crude maps and mark the various lodges he discovered. In the springtime, during trapping and hunting season, the map would bring him straight to the meat and fur. 

On this particular scouting mission, he had three first-year pups with him, off leash and out for a stroll. For defense, he was carrying his .338 Magnum. It had a broken magazine spring, so getting one round in the chamber was iffy; a second shot was even less likely without turning the gun upside down and shaking it. It was not the best gun for defense, but replacement parts weren’t in his budget, or mindset. The regular protocol meant leaving Charlotte with the .303. So, in accordance with the phrase that could be used to describe absolutely every item and piece of gear in Stan’s life, it was better than nothing.

As he walked, Stan observed a few uncomfortably large footprints in the soil, but that was typical for that time of year. The real concerning detail was, they were wet, and fresh. Earlier that day, the dogs had been zipping all around him, back and forth through the woods. Now, they were tired and just trudging along in front of him. Stan and the puppy pack crossed the river via sandbar and came around the corner. About 400 yards away stood three grizzly bears. There was something strange about them. They seemed incredibly active for this time of day. Stan was worried they had picked up his scent and were already agitated by his presence. Docile bears were great; eating bears were busy, but agitated bears were big trouble.

Having never dropped a grizzly in less than two shots, and carrying a gun that could give him one at best, he decided defending himself against three grizzlies just didn’t seem wise, no matter how high the potential bacon yield. There was no need for serious alarm yet, though. In fact, the moments that followed were very casual. He decided to simply climb up a tree and take some time to look at his map of local beaver lodges. 

He turned to back off and, just like dock workers waiting for the whistle to blow, his tired dogs assumed this meant it was time to go home. They perked up and took off towards the cabin. They would eventually notice the human leader of the pack was missing and turn around, but the one-minute loss proved to be almost fatal. Stan made it about 10 feet up his tree of choice when he heard snorting and thumping from somewhere nearby. Paws pounded against the soil like a drum. It was a sound more intense than he had imagined in his younger axe-training days. Fortunately, that strategy had long since been abandoned. 

While climbing, he turned to see a grizzly about 30 yards off. It was running broadside to him, not charging directly towards him, as he had feared. Stan had his gun in his hand but was unable to take a shot from his place on the tree. He went back to climbing, fast. 

Then he heard a rhythmic sort of grunting. It was the sound of air being forced out of the grizzly’s lungs by its own massive weight, with each heavy step of its swift run. The sound seemed to grow louder with every second. He couldn’t see the bear, but knew it was now charging straight for him.

Zuray at the Iditarod.

BEFORE HE COULD EVEN reach for the next branch, he felt the grizzly hit the base of the tree. It came right up at him. His mind completely abandoned registering anything in its natural speed, order or focus.

The rifle was facing the wrong damn way. Upwards, not down. Stan’s first reaction was to push the butt of the rifle down towards the bear, just to put anything between his leg and its jaws. The grizzly sunk its teeth into the stock of the gun, cracked it in two and pulled it out of Stan’s hands.

With Stan’s gun in its jaws, the titan fell back to the ground. The force of the pull had thrown off Stan’s climbing, and cost him some much needed time. He reached for the next branch, but before he could even pull up, the grizzly was up the tree and on him again. Stan had nothing left to put between him and the grunting monster.

Many people see their lives flash before their eyes in moments like this. Though he didn’t see his entire, crazy life, Stan was granted a terrible flash of thought that told him exactly what was going to happen.

He had heard of people being mauled, crippled and killed by grizzly bears. He had read about it and heard cautionary tales, time and time again.

And now it’s going to happen to me, he thought.

He felt a numbness in his leg.

He felt his arms forced skyward by branches. 

It was as if the tree had suddenly blasted off to be with the clouds. Regardless of sensation, the grizzly was pulling him out of the tree by his leg. ASJ

Editor’s note: Follow Stan Zuray on Twitter (@stanzuray) and like at facebook.com/stanzuray.

Zuray’s support system includes daughter Monica (above) and wife Kathleen.

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