For All The Bears That Shared My Life

Photos courtesy of Paul D. Atkins

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


I stood waist-deep in snow with nothing but a rifle and a sharp knife. I was freezing to death, but I knew the big grizzly wasn’t going to back off! Could this be the end?

It sounds like the beginning of an incredible tale that could be the basis for a movie, a book or a magazine story; either way, it gets your attention dang quick. Like many, I love old stories from long ago. These are tales of high adventure, especially those that took place in the Last Frontier – and more specifically, in the Arctic, where so many of my own

Alaska experiences were also made. There have been a ton of books, numerous magazine articles and even films depicting those incredible times, with most of the really good works predating Alaska statehood. Books such as Hunting the Arctic and Wolfman, plus films Nanook of the North and The Snow Walker have always intrigued me. And hopefully my book Atkins’ Alaska (Alaska Sporting Journal, December 2020) will do the same for someone looking for adventure. (Yes, that’s a plug!)

Anyway, the stories are extraordinary in so many ways, and it always puts me in amazement of how most of the people survived and even flourished back then. What really intrigues me is the way they hunted, and what they hunted with: The primitive gear they used and how they prepared for adventure on the tundra, the mountains or even on the water and ice is amazing. Compared to the gear we have today, it’s truly incredible!

MEMORIES OF THESE ADVENTURES always come to mind this time of year – late winter and early spring – when hunting partner Lew Pagel and I were out in the backcountry looking for bears. We rode our high-powered snowmachines while dressed to the nines in Thinsulate and Gore-Tex. Even though it’s still tough, those before us make today’s hunters look like novices, but we did what we could. Chasing bears – or at least trying to cut a track–was still a lot of fun!

I miss it more than you know, especially now that I live in Oklahoma. Lew is soaking up a tropical breeze on his Southern vacation, so we won’t be doing it this year, but maybe we will again someday.

You see, bear hunting is a passion of mine and always has been. I didn’t grow up around bears; far from it. The Midwestern plains are a long way from Alaska bear country, and the closest thing we had to encountering something that ferocious was a wild hog.

And like many hunters with Midwest or Lower 48 roots, I dreamed of chasing Last Frontier grizzlies, black bears and those monster brownies on Kodiak Island. To hunt them and see one up close was only a pipe dream for most kids like me growing up there. Those stories, old and new, are all we had.

I know many of my friends back here still dream of chasing a big bruin and testing their skill against one of the world’s top predators, but I know that many will probably never get the chance. I wish I could make it happen for them. But I can tell you how to make it happen.

Eating bear meat is part of the experience.

BEAR HUNTS CAN BE expensive for the nonresident, and rightly so. Alaska regulations say you need to hunt with a guide, and the logistics of making it all come together are costly. I’ve seen spring grizzly hunts for as low as $18,500 and as much as $25,000, which boggles my mind.

I guess I was lucky in being able to take two bears on my resident license, and with so many bears it was always quite possible. I wish that I would have had the time to get a guide license years ago. I could have made a fortune with all the bears in that country.

However, not many of the people who live in the Alaskan Arctic hunt grizzlies. There are many reasons, but primarily it’s due to these bears being a non-meat source for many. Eating bear meat is taboo for some, and even if you do it has to be cooked thoroughly to make the meat edible. When I’ve had bear meat a few times, for the most part it wasn’t very good. Some of the best I’ve had, though, has been in hunting camp – usually on a mixed-bag hunt – where we were lucky enough to take a fall bear that had been on a diet of blueberries and not fish.

Several years ago, we were hunting moose way north during an unusually cold September. We weren’t having any luck finding a 50-inch bull, but we did happen upon a fall grizzly cruising the tundra late one afternoon. It was eating berries and not paying much attention to us. Therefore, we were able to make a careful stalk and anchor him not far from camp.

We field-dressed him and took the hide and skull, as Alaska law requires. After a bit of discussion we decided to take his backstraps back to camp in hopes of trying something different than the MREs and dried food we had been gorging on. We wrapped the meat in tinfoil with a little Cajun seasoning, let it sit for a couple days, and then we cooked it over an open fire. It was as good as anything I’ve ever tasted; I don’t know, maybe we were just starving, but it was good eating.

Lew Pagel with an Arctic monster.

WHEN A HUNTER THINKS of hunting in Alaska, grizzly bears are usually the first species that come to mind. They’re majestic, bold and appear out of nowhere, which makes them almost ghost-like when you do see them. If you’re hunting them it’s even more so, and I’m here to tell

you that there isn’t another animal that will get your heart pounding like a grizzly bear. It’s unforgettable.

The first actual grizzly I ever saw – at least in the wild – was also one that I successfully shot. That may sound crazy or even weird, but it’s true. Yes, we did see a lot of bear tracks, especially when hunting moose and caribou back in the early days. Big and small, there were tracks everywhere lining the river and sand bars leading into walls of willow and alder, but I never saw a live bear.

However, those tracks told a story and made me wonder what lay ahead. It scared me, actually, and to tell you the truth, they still do today. If anything, it taught me to be cautious, careful and to never assume. Anything can happen in bear country.

Your first spring bear is special. From cutting a track to making the stalk to the actual shot with bow or rifle, it’s

all significant. But for me personally, it’s the actual walk up to the bear after it is down. It’s a surreal moment and an accomplishment like no other. Time seems to stop, and you actually have a hard time believing you really did take one of Alaska’s greatest trophies.

When it comes to hunting a spring grizzly, late March is, or was, kind of the “marker” for us in the Arctic. The sun is back and the big boys usually start to stir if the weather is right. It has been my experience over the years that the large bears emerge first. After six months holed up in a den, hunger and the constant ice melt will arouse them to leave and move to lower elevations in search of food. Finding a den and then cutting a track to the lowlands brought us a lot of success.

Hunting along the river or a drainage leading to the river was usually our best bet. Bears move down out of the hills to see what the spring thaw has brought in terms of food – whether it be a dead caribou, dead fish or whatever else they can find. If you’re lucky enough to find a winterkill on the tundra, you’ll usually find an array of bear tracks, too; if you’re lucky, maybe the bear itself.

Another best bet for us was to glass the bare spots and shale outcroppings of hills and mountains. The snow is usually gone in those places and bears tend to like the sun, especially during late March and most of April. Good optics are a must and patience is the key, but with enough time and searching we could usually find a bear or two.

The biggest spring bear I’ve ever seen was during a subsistence sheep hunt in the middle of March many years ago. It was unusually warm for that time of year and we were way north, close to 100 miles north of Kotzebue.

We were in a river trying to navigate the overflow and keeping one eye on the river and the other on the mountains

that surrounded us. My hunting partner at the time was several hundred yards ahead of me on his machine when I happened to see movement to my right. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! There was this huge beast standing at the edge of the ice digging in the snow. He saw me about the same time I saw him, but by the time I could stop and try to get into position to get a shot, he went barreling over the hill. All I could see was his behemoth backside moving away.

I tried to track him, but the effort ended on a steep incline and the deep snow of the mountain. Man, he was huge and to this day I still don’t know how my buddy didn’t see him. I guess we had other things on our mind.

MY LAST SPRING BEAR hunt was like a dream, and even though it was just a few short years back it seems a lifetime ago. These days I sometimes catch myself thinking about that hunt and wondering, “Did we really do that?” I wish I could

remember every moment, and not just the big things. I write about them, of course, but it’s hard sometimes to put emotion to paper. I needed to film it, I guess.

Lew and I had made it to the hills and the sunny slopes that line the Noatak River drainage. It was a beautiful day – near perfect, if there is such a thing, for that time of year: bright sun, soft snow, with a hint of chill in the air, and no wind. A win-win situation for a couple of veteran bear hunters.

As usual, we found a place to stop and glass. It was perfect and we could see forever. Even though I hadn’t looked through a pair of binoculars in some time, the clear images of snow mixed with spruce and rocks were easy on the eyes. We were looking for tracks – paw prints of a bear that had recently exited from his den. It was fun sitting there with my good friend. We talked as we glassed and reminisced about past hunts and game camps that we have shared. It’s the way these moments should be.

Remember when we camped right over there, and that big moose strolled into camp?

Yeah; that was a hell of a day.

How about that muskox you shot standing on that far hill?

He went, what, 15 yards after you put an arrow in him?

I think so.

As we sat in the bright sun, Lew said, “Uh, look at that; there’s a bunch of caribou over there on that far ridge.”

“Where?” I asked.

They were on the left side of the far hill. I rested my elbows on the front of my snowmachine and peered off into the distance. I couldn’t find them, even though I knew they were there.

Back and forth I looked until I did see something, but it wasn’t caribou. “There’s a bear!” I exclaimed.

Lew asked where as I pointed to the opposite ridge.

The rest was history …

The bear was as big as I imagined him to be, and Lew agreed as we strolled up to have a look. We had done this so many times it seemed like second nature, but it really wasn’t. We laughed, high-fived and tried to hide our amazement at such an event.

It was a great day in the sun, in the Arctic, and in a time where we were lucky enough to do the things that we did. The far north has been a blessing to be a bear hunter. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writ- er and author formerly of Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s had hundreds of articles published on big game hunting in Alaska and throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. His new book Atkins’ Alaska is available on Amazon and everywhere good books are sold. If you want an autographed copy contact, Paul at atkinsoutdoors@ Paul is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.