Happy Thanksgiving. Rather than bore you with feel-good stories about turkeys or family fun, here’s a terrifying encounter for some caribou hunters on Alaska’s North Slope that is appearing in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY LAWRENCE E. HATTER
Memories of the hunt have a way of fading like the colors of fall as Old Man Winter approaches, but some are indelible.
I’m confident as I stand in the barren land north of the tree line; no sun shines as brightly as one setting somewhere beyond the Chukchi Sea. I can also attest to this: There is no sight more blood-chilling than a large, male grizzly thirsting to gorge himself upon human flesh.
Such was the scenario unfolding before our little group of hunters who had made the long trek to the Brooks Range in search of the ever-wandering caribou herds. An orange- and red-glazed North Slope, once alive with hundreds of the nomads, had grown silent with the dusky evening’s approach.
There was no sign of life in the drainage presently, except four weary hunters on their way back to camp and one skulking assailant concealed a mere 20 yards distant in a stand of buck brush. The only sign of his presence was the autumn breeze caressing the bronze-colored hair adorning his shoulders and a set of expressionless eyes fixated on our every movement.
THE TRIP INTO THE North Slope had been without incident. Our final destination was a several-hours’ flight from the Dalton Highway and likewise if we’d originated from Kotzebue. This was as far as removed from the modern world as any of us had ever dared wander.
That afternoon, as we prepared our quarters for the week, we paid little heed to an inquisitive grizzly skirting the rim of the basin we’d chosen for camp. After all, this was his country and this far from civilization, he likely had never encountered a human being. It was only natural to investigate, then push on in search of some blueberries or a straggling caribou.
The evening passed quickly and we rose the next morning with all the vim and vigor that typically accompanies the first day of a hunt. Overnight, a heavy fog had blanketed the tundra and visibility wasn’t at its peak. Regardless, we anxiously donned our gear and headed afield.
As is common with an initial foray into a new area, we spent that first day acquiring a feel for the territory and making our share of blunders. I vividly recall being perched upon an outcropping that overlooked the Noatak River. I was so deep in thought as I looked out over one of Alaska’s most remote landscapes, I completely ignored the telltale click-clack of caribou hooves behind me.
When I finally came to my senses and glanced over my shoulder, I saw only the tops of several sets of antlers cresting out of sight. I made a feeble attempt to scale the ridge and hopefully find the group of bulls in view, but as everyone knows, you can’t catch caribou once they are ahead of you.
A large hummock approximately a half-mile behind camp was our rendezvous that evening. Everyone had seen caribou from a distance but had failed to connect for one reason or another. After a brief discussion, we made the decision to head toward camp. All our stomachs were grumbling in anticipation of a few meager rations after a long day afield.
MIDWAY BACK TO CAMP, the well-defined caribou trail we were following came to an intersection, which resembled a ptarmigan track. On the off chance we might yet encounter a caribou before dark, we agreed to briefly part ways. I would take the left-hand spur and Jim the right. My brother Miles and father would continue on to camp.
A brisk, five-minute walk found me ascending the last few yards of a knoll that afforded a commanding view of the valley. It appeared I wasn’t the only hunter with an interest in the view from this location, as evidenced by several piles of decaying wolf scat.
As I turned to scan the direction of my ascent, the sequence of events that unfolded can only be described as surreal. An ominous figure had appeared on our back trail and was moving in our direction with fevered intent!
His nose clung to the soil like a bloodhound, inhaling every ounce of human scent the dank earth could afford him. His intention was clear. He meant to overtake my companions as they marched toward camp, and with the amount of ground he was covering with each stride, it would only take seconds!
At that point my senses had slowed to a gel-like state. I remember cold sweat kissing the hairs on the back of my neck. My heart pounded so loudly that it was almost inaudible when I yelled, “Grizzly!” Unfortunately, my scream was choked by an overwhelming state of panic and the garbled concoction that emerged didn’t carry much discernible volume.
By this time the bear had cut the distance between he and his prey to a mere 50 yards and with the attack imminent was at a full charge! Once more I mustered what saliva my suddenly parched mouth possessed and with every last bit of breath I belted out, “Grizzly!” This time my cry rang out like a beacon and froze both men and bear in their tracks – no more than 30 yards apart.
As I stumbled off the hillside, I fully expected the bear to turn and run. But to my astonishment, this wasn’t the case. Even though he was aware we had detected his presence, he merely crouched as low as possible and slunk his way into the brush beside the trail. He remained motionless until I reached my bewildered partners.
Action must be taken decisively in a situation such as this. Our first move was to gain some elevation and distance between our adversary and us. This was easier said than done; as we moved so did the bear, his head tilted and ears pinned. When we paused he instantly found a small impression to obscure himself.
For the next several minutes we waited anxiously. The brute would raise his head slightly to gauge whether we were still staring in his direction, and then he would quickly recoil when he saw the whites of our eyes. If there was any question before, there was none presently.
We were being hunted!
AFTER MAKING A CAREFUL circle around the situation, Jim finally caught up with us from the flank. Considering he carried a grizzly tag and we had a problem bear in need of immediate attention, it was quickly decided he would take the animal.
I remember the bruin watching Jim intently as he made his way into shooting position, carefully calculating his next move. But his lack of urgency would cost him his prey and his life.
The rifle cracked, the bear rolled, only to rise once more in a frothing rage! Instinctively we reached for our weapons, but a follow-up shot rang out from Jim’s 7mm Mag and the threat was neutralized.
I still ask myself questions about the events of that day and, I suppose, the answers will always remain in doubt. Was this the same bear we had seen circling our camp that first evening? Had he waited patiently for our group to separate, before executing an assault? Did he have a taste for man flesh?
In my mind, that scenario doesn’t seem likely, but then again, most details of this story are an anomaly.
In retrospect, I believe he had never encountered men before, knowing only that these gangly creatures were well below him on the food chain. More than likely, he was just another predator hastily filling the fat reserves necessary to see him through another harsh Alaska winter.
I know only one thing with certainty: The bloodshot eyes of a salivating grizzly will remain etched in my mind long after the Arctic sun has turned his withered bones to dust. ASJ
Editor’s note: Larry Hatter and his brother Miles run guided trips for Miles High Outfitters in Grangeville, Idaho. They offer big game hunts for elk, mule and whitetail deer and predators. For more, check out mileshighoutfitters.com or call (208) 739-0526.