Back To Where It All Began

The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


I’ve always wanted to get back to where it all began – the place where I fell in love with Alaska and the beauty of the Arctic. 

It’s a spot on the map in the far North, where few have been and fewer still have returned. It was a place I visited in my youth with my father, my uncle and his friends. It was there where I hooked my first salmon, saw my first grizzly bear and experienced my first real boat ride. 

I remember the cool weather beaten back by long sleeves and camouflage and rifles slung across our shoulders; it was awesome. I’ve never forgotten that day on that piece of river, and I still think of it often. In fact, I was so moved by it that I named my son after that river …


I HAD NEVER BEEN BACK to that spot. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe I didn’t want to spoil the memory and, to be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure where it was – there was only a picture in my mind. So when my good friend and hunting partner Lew Pagel said we should pack up to head north and find that spot, I was eager to go. “Moose,” he said when we talked about the purpose of our visit. “Let’s look for a moose and maybe catch one of those big ‘chum dogs’ you’re always talking about.”

We packed gear all week for the adventure. We had everything hunters need for a long weekend of camping upriver in search of adventure. The weather was going to be iffy at best and would probably involve us getting wet, with the thought of a warm fire but a dream. Cloudy days mixed with rain and cold nights were in the forecast, but the wind was supposed to be light at best, a huge plus when it comes to crossing oceans and sounds and maneuvering upstream in an open boat. 

I packed the usual weaponry: my trusty rifle, the BowTech bow and a pistol, just in case. I knew there would be bears; there always are when hunting the upper Noatak region. The area is loaded with them; when you hear conservationists talk about favorable habitat, well, this part of Alaska is built for grizzlies. Rocky sandbars line the river leading into dense areas of willow and small birch trees. But fish are the key to the presence of bears. 

Salmon congregate in the deep pools, making their final run through the narrow streams into the shallows, creating a grizzly bear buffet. The constant splash and swirl in the water created by these big fish define long stretches of river.

The ride up was a wet one. Rain came down in sheets of misery. Lew and I both knew that if it didn’t let up, the weekend might be a bust. Several times I turned to ask Lew if this was really worth it, but I could see he was determined, even though rainwater was dripping down his nose.

We pressed on, navigating the shallows and avoiding the many gravel bars that are well known once you enter the flat country. Finally, according to the GPS, we had arrived. 

The entrance into the river looked familiar. Ducks, geese and a group of sandhill cranes welcomed us as we made our way into the channel that is called the Eli. Salmon raced beneath us, the rain even stopped briefly to provide a sense of happy anticipation. There is nothing better than riding into new country, seeing new things and being hopeful about what is to come.

WITH NO BOATS OR people in sight, we knew we had the stretch of river to ourselves. We motored slowly up the channel and watched the water break constantly from all the fish hitting the surface. I turned and smiled at Lew, but I didn’t say anything. We both knew what this meant; there would be bears, and many to choose from.

The last bend in the river before it forked brought back my vision from long ago, and I could see it. This was it, this was the place and this, I told Lew, was where we were going to camp. I could see why we had stopped here all those long years ago; it was ideal. 

With plenty of bank to watch for moose and the expected bear, we had good vision in all directions. The river narrowed as well, holding an accumulation of fish like I had not seen in many years. Great hunting, great fishing and – at least for the moment – we had it all to ourselves; this would be our home for the weekend. 

The rain came and went, but Lew and I made quick work of getting up both the tent and the adjacent mosquito hut. The bugs weren’t bad, but we knew that if the sun did break through, they would be. 

The fish called to us, and in no time we were in our waders standing hip-deep in the clear blue water. Every cast was a strike and within minutes we had fish on. The big chums fought like warriors and provided three or four hours of nonstop action. It was fun!

WITH EVENING APPROACHING WE surveyed the area. Our intuition was correct; the shoreline was covered in fresh bear tracks and scat, some monstrous in size. Mixed among them was the occasional fresh moose track that we could only assume was one tough dude to be living in country where everybody was trying to eat him.

Late evening in the North Country is prime time for most species. Moose, bears and other creatures exit the dense cover of willow and alder and make their way to the river. We knew this and made a plan accordingly. Lew went one way and I went the other in hopes of doubling our chances on the short three-day hunt. 

As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and looking back we should not have done this. When in bear country with so many of these predators roaming freely about, you should always stay together, and when I took off on my own I felt this almost immediately. I nervously tried to keep one eye on the river and another on the wall of willows as I pushed forward. It’s an eerie feeling, especially when you feel like you’re being watched.

After 500 yards of this and with darkness approaching, I decided to head back to camp and meet up with Lew. This is when I heard a shot downriver in the direction of where he had gone. I quickly made my way in that direction, wondering what happened. 

As I traversed the mud bank imprinted with a plethora of big bear tracks, I looked for Lew but couldn’t find him. I pushed slowly on, rifle ready and ears listening for the sound of anything that didn’t seem right. It was nerve racking to say the least. 

Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I broke the silence by calling for Lew, but there was no answer. A swarm of bad thoughts entered my mind. What if? What if a bear had charged him and that shot was in self-defense? Images from the movie The Revenant were all I could think about. What if? I pushed forward and to my great relief saw Lew sitting along the high bank of the river smiling. BBD!

The bear had come out on the opposite side of the river. Lew watched as it had made its way across the river, stopping midstream to catch a fish. After dragging it to the far bank and commencing to eat, Lew placed a carefully aimed shot from his 7mm. 

The bear had dropped where it stood; peering through my binoculars in the dusk-like dark I could see it on the other side. High fives all around, but not until I mentioned that we would never do that again! We have to stay together; it’s just too damn chancy! 

We didn’t want to work in the dark and decided to wait until morning to make our way over to Lew’s bear. We thought it would be safe with all the noise and the firing of Lew’s rifle, but all we could do was pray that nothing would mess with the bruin overnight.

IT WAS A SHORT, cold night, with sleep almost nonexistent, a lot of tossing and turning with one ear open for the sound of an approaching bear. The next morning we glassed upstream to see if Lew’s bear was untouched; it was. 

We carefully maneuvered the boat as close as we possibly could and made our way along the gravel bar to where he was. Stiff and wet, the great bear lay where it fell; it was Lew’s biggest so far. 

We snapped off a lot of photos and began the process of skinning the beast. If you haven’t skinned a grizzly or any bear for that matter, I hope someday you can. It’s a surreal and tedious process at the same time but has to be done right if you plan for a rug or to have it mounted. The feet are the biggest challenge, but if you know a little anatomy, you’ll be fine.

Just as the sun broke we had it done and were on our way back to camp. The smell of bear, which is like no other, permeated our clothing, but we were both happy. The rest of the day Lew worked on his bear and I grabbed a quick nap during the “safe” daylight hours. It was good to sleep, especially in the new roomy eight-man Cabela’s tent and new cots that I had brought along specifically for this hunt. It would soon be time for another adventure. 

AFTERNOON APPROACHED AND I awoke. Lew was just finishing up, so I decided to grab the rod and reel and give those “jumping” fish another go. It was fun standing there in the river reminiscing of that day long ago. I could picture my father standing beside me as I hooked my first salmon, trying desperately to land him on the gravel bar. I never did catch that fish, but I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything.

As clouds began to build to the south the sun disappeared entirely. I knew rain was coming and asked Lew what should we do the rest of the day. “You’re up,” he replied, “so you can decide.” I knew that the likelihood of killing another bear was almost a sure thing, but I also knew we might have to move or at least boat downstream in order to make it happen. But my goal wasn’t a bear; I needed a moose. The freezer back home was feeling a bit empty and needed to be filled. 

With only so many weekends left before freeze-up we had to find a moose, or at least hit the caribou migration right. 

We decided to break camp and float downriver, but only until 9 p.m. or so. If we were going to have a chance at anything, it wouldn’t be before then anyway. We did so just as the rain started coming down. 

We said goodbye to that special spot and Lew eased into the river, cut the motor and let the current pull us out. It was quiet – the special silence that is full of anticipation of “anything” could happen at any moment. And it did.

I LOVE WHEN PLANS come together and things tend to line up. As Lew poled us like a canoe, we rounded each bend in complete silence. It’s legal to shoot from a boat, ATV or even a snowmachine in Game Management Unit 23 (covering Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea to the Arctic Ocean), as long as the motor is off and progress from the motor’s power has ceased, which was our case the moment we left camp. We knew that if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have a chance. 

As we pushed forward I felt Lew touch the top of my head – I was sitting on the boat seat directly in front of him – and point towards the left bank of the river. Through my Leicas I could see the big bear coming in our direction. 

He was old, blonde in color and seemingly unaware of our presence. I moved to the front of the boat and positioned myself with my rifle. As we closed the distance, the bear’s attention was on the river, not us. The constant sound of salmon splashing was all he could focus on. 

As I pushed the safety off and found him in my scope, he did what all good bears do: He looked straight at us – almost like a sixth sense – turned and disappeared into the willows. Like so many times before in places across the Arctic, we were bitten by a bear’s intuition.

It wasn’t until seconds later that we saw something we couldn’t comprehend. Another bear was making his way towards us on the other bank. It was surreal. Only this bear was on a mission and just kept coming with little to zero fear, or maybe it was just his stomach that kept him coming. 

He was close; for a minute I thought of grabbing the bow but had second thoughts since things were happening too fast. I lined the rifle up and found the deep chocolate bear in the scope. I never felt the recoil – I never do – and watched as the bear fell where he stood.

I paddled us the short distance to shore and could see he wasn’t as big as the first bear, but I was happy. In the twilight, I could see he was beautiful, with a great hide and exceptional claws. I also knew it was another bear that wouldn’t be taking anymore moose, something I would have traded him for if I had had the chance. But it was a great hunt and a great couple of days.

Lew and I made quick work of getting the hide off and into the boat. It was dark now and with rain setting in we decided to make the long ride home. We are used to this, long rides home in the dark, arriving while everyone else is asleep. We are actually getting pretty good at it. Plus we decided the next weekend would be better for moose anyway. 

As the boat lights guided us home I felt a sense of joy and satisfaction, and it was a feeling that I had come full circle after all these long years in the Arctic. Finally, I had traveled back to the place where it all began, a place that provided great adventure and grand scenery both times, a place that I want to get back to with my son Eli. Maybe we too can create a future memory as well. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.