My right leg throbbed with every step as I plowed through the knee-deep snow. Ed Stevenson, my guide, was breaking trail — an exhausting chore we normally shared. I was no longer hunting. All I could think of was reaching the tent and removing the boot from my swollen leg.
Randy Brooks and I had arrived in the Alaska bush on the first of November — not the ideal time to hunt brown bear. Ed had offered us a great deal if we’d show up after the last regular clients of the season departed.
Hip boots are de rigueur when hunting bears in Alaska. They keep your feet dry if you don’t try fording a river that’s too deep or swift. On the second day of hunting, my boot slipped on a downed branch hidden beneath the snow. My right knee hit the branch with my full weight behind it.
When we returned to the tent after a day of hunting, I discovered a softball-sized knot on my knee. The blood clot caused my leg to swell like a sausage. Our radio wasn’t working, so I couldn’t be flown to a hospital until our bush pilot was scheduled to return, 10 days later.
Elevating my leg while I lay in the tent reduced the swelling. I decided to hunt the following day.
Randy would hunt Dead Creek with Ed’s son, Bill. Ed and I would hunt the river that joined it. It was still dark when we left camp at mid-morning. November days are short in Alaska. Heavy snow that had fallen during the night now turned to sleet.
Branches overhead bent to the ground under their heavy load. Passing underneath triggered a stream of icy snow that engulfed our hats and trickled down our spines.
To keep our rifle bores clear of snow, we covered the muzzles with duct tape. As we pushed single file through heavy brush, we made sure our rifle chambers were empty.
Ed and I hunted hard that day. We followed the gravel riverbank, looking for salmon skeletons and fresh bear scat. We found recent tracks of what appeared to be a huge bear. Fording the stream wherever he’d crossed, we hoped to catch up before he disappeared into the impenetrable brush on either bank.
Spawned-out salmon are easy prey. The bear left 28 carcasses in his wake as he gorged for hibernation. We were still following his tracks when the light began to fade.
“We’d better head back,” Ed said. We’re a couple of miles from the trail we left this morning, and it could be hard to find in the dark.”
That was fine by me. My leg was hurting. I couldn’t wait to get back to camp and rest it.
It seemed to take forever to find the trail. My leg was throbbing as we headed for camp, which was still two long miles away.
We hadn’t traveled 50 yards before Ed turned and said, “I’ll go on ahead and get a lantern. I’ll hang it in a tree where the boys can see the trail from the river. Just follow my tracks and you’ll be okay.” Then he hurried toward camp.
By now my leg was swollen tight and really bothering me. My .375 magnum slung from a shoulder, I put my head down and slogged ahead. My thoughts were concentrated on finally reaching the tent and getting off my feet.
I don’t know how long I struggled through the snow in a kind of mental fog. I wasn’t really aware of my surroundings, and had no premonitions of danger. Except for the effort putting one foot before the other, my mental system had about shut down.
A half hour later, the light from Ed’s lantern came bobbing through the trees. “Hi,” I said as he came near. “Glad you’re back.”
Instead of responding, Ed dropped the lantern. Then he reached for the Ithaca pump slung from his shoulder and quickly shucked the slide. He kept the Ithaca loaded with Brenneke slugs.
I sensed movement behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a huge black bear disappear into the trees.
“That guy almost had you!” Ed exclaimed. “Look at his tracks!”
Checking behind me, I was startled to see the bear had been only 12 feet away when Ed scared him off.
We backtracked to see how long the bear had been stalking me. His tracks began covering mine shortly after Ed had gone on ahead.
“That bear wanted you for dinner,” Ed said. “He was trailing you, working up his courage to attack. It’s a good thing I hadn’t shown up five minutes later.”
Like most predators, bears can sense when prey is sick or wounded. My halting steps had marked me, and I’d looked anything but alert.
“I’ve seen that bear hanging around near camp,” Ed said. “He’ll square a good 8 feet — large for a black bear. Ever year, hunters in Alaska are surprised and killed by black bears. If a black bear gets you down, he won’t mess around. He’ll make sure you’re good and dead. Then he’ll eat you.
“Brown bears are highly dangerous, but people attacked may survive. Black bear encounters are usually fatal.”
Ed spoke from personal experience. He has been fortunate to recover from three separate maulings over the years — the last one just recently. His stomach still bears scars from a brown bear that once got him down in a river. As the bear concentrated on Ed, the hunter he was guiding put a rifle muzzle to the bear’s ear and pulled the trigger.
Sitting in the snow, I shook for several minutes reacting to the close call I’d just had. When the wave of fear finally passed, I got mad! That bear had stalked me for more than a mile before Ed’s timely intervention drove him away just as the bear was ready to attack. With my rifle chamber-empty and slung from my shoulder, I would have had almost no chance of surviving.
I spent the next day in the tent, giving my leg a much needed rest. I lay on my back, my sleeping pad beneath me. My loaded rifle was in easy reach alongside. I kept my ears open for bear-like noises as I read paperback novels to keep me awake. I prayed the bear would show up!
I still wanted to kill one of Alaska’s giant grizzlies, but now I was equally focused on shooting the man-hunting black bear that had given me such a scare. Ed told me my costly brown bear tag could instead be used on the black bear if I got the chance to shoot it.
I never saw that bear again.
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This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine and has been updated. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.