DIY Alaska Brown Bear - A River Odyssey
As time passed and college became more important than hunting, Rich and I both went on to complete our university educations and were commissioned as officers in the Army (me) and Air Force (Rich). With the Vietnam War in full swing, hunting was the last thing on our minds. At least that was the case until 1968 when Rich was assigned to an Air Force engineer squadron at Cold Bay, Alaska – right in the heart of some of the best Alaska Brown bear country on the planet. While serving at Cold Bay, Rich became acquainted with many of the Aleuts who worked in various civilian capacities for the Air Force. As time passed, he eventually came to know Mike Utecht, a legendary Aleut Alaska brown bear guide. In addition to the valuable role he played for the military during and after the Battle of the Aleutian Islands of World War II, Mike had been guiding brown bear hunters since the early 1900’s, with accounts of him guiding hunters dating back prior to 1908.
Eventually, Rich got to know Mike quite well, appreciating Mike’s wry sense of humor and quiet demeanor. Rich soon learned that Mike had guided Bob Reeve when he killed his record Alaska brown bear in 1948. The Reeve bear was very well-known and was awarded the very first Boone and Crockett Club Sagamore Hill Award in 1949. The Sagamore Hill Award remains one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed upon a hunter for an outstanding trophy.
While Rich was stationed at Cold Bay, he learned all that he could about brown bear habitat, ecology, hunting strategies, and the areas around Cold Bay where exceptional bears had been harvested. By 1969, he had begun exploring the general area and learning the logistics of negotiating the many challenges of hunting on both the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea sides of the Alaska Peninsula. In the fall of 1970, on a DIY hunt with his friend Ed Adams, Rich killed an Alaska brown bear. Not long after that, he got a new assignment and left Cold Bay – but not for long!
Through all the time that my brother was stationed in Cold Bay, he shared his experiences with me regularly, and I savored every detail. When he left Alaska, my dreams of ever doing a hunt for Alaska brown bear became less viable than ever.
Rich’s love of Alaska had not waned and, after teaching school for several years in Washington State, he learned of a teaching position in King Cove, Alaska – right back in the heart of Alaska brown bear country, and just a few miles from Cold Bay. He was hired for the teaching position and soon was right back on the Alaska Peninsula where he was greeted warmly by the many Aleut natives with whom he had worked at Cold Bay. Instead of these friends working for him, Rich was now teaching their children.
With Rich in King Cove, my Alaska brown bear dreams suddenly came back to life. It was now possible for Rich and I to do a DIY bear hunt together as Alaska’s guide laws permit a person within the “second degree of kindred” to fulfill the guide requirements for a non-resident relative.
After a year of research and planning, we had the information we felt we was needed to do a DIY hunt in May 1982. The only problem was that Rich could get only one day off from his teaching position. One day certainly wasn’t enough time for a brown bear hunt even if we combined a day with a weekend; three days was, at best, a reach. Enthusiasm and youth sometimes go together to overcome challenges, and so it was decided to do a three-day Alaska brown bear hunt in May, 1982. That hunt is an epic story in and of itself, but suffice it to say that I was able to kill a Boone and Crockett record book bear on that hunt.
Alaska allows a hunter to harvest a brown bear every four regulatory years in hunting unit 9D on the Alaska Peninsula. So, with four years to research and plan another hunt, we enthusiastically began our second quest. When the spring of 1986 arrived, Rich now had five days that he could take off from his teaching job and I had become friends with Bert Flotre, a W.S.U. engineering student from Anchorage. Bert was not only an excellent student, his academic prowess was matched by his hunting experience, skills and enthusiasm. Bert was later employed as a mechanical engineer in Fairbanks and was ready to join Rich and I for our bear hunt. Rich had made a number of backpack trips into the area where I had taken my 1982 bear and was confident that we could find another record-class bear in that area in 1986. The 1986 hunt was even more eventful than the 1982 hunt and I was able to kill an even bigger Boone and Crockett record book bear. But that is just the point where the story of my pursuit of a Boone and Crockett legend begins.
Some of my earliest memories as a young boy have to do with stories about hunting the Alaska brown bear. Back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, one could find bear stories in all of the periodicals and, in those days, we had numerous friends who “handed down” copies of these magazines to my brother, Rich, and I. We read all of the big game hunting stories, and especially anything to do with grizzly bears. At the time, any chance of ever hunting for a grizzly bear was just a pipe dream; but even so, these stories were indelibly etched in our minds. One day, I thought, ‘I want to go on a hunt like this!’
The Boone and Crockett Legacy
In January 1989, I was invited to become 1 of the 100 Regular Members of the Boone and Crockett Club and my first Club meeting that December was so wonderfully memorable. It was great to meet and visit with everyone, but two individuals were especially interesting: Richard (Dick) Reeve, son of Boone and Crockett Honorary Life Member, Bob Reeve; and Jack Parker, a B&C Past President and Vice-Chairman at General Electric. When I met Dick Reeve, our conversation immediately turned to his father, Bob’s founding of Reeve Aleutian Airways, Bob’s great brown bear, and the memorable flights I had made between Anchorage and Cold Bay on Reeve Aleutian. Since my brother was very well-acquainted with Bob Reeve’s brown bear hunt, it was especially interesting to visit with Dick about that hunt.
During my visit with Jack Parker, I learned that he had also killed an exceptional Boone and Crockett Record Book Alaska brown bear in 1964 while hunting with Mike Utecht as his guide. Jack was hunting with General Jimmy Doolittle and killed his bear in the exact same location as Bob Reeve did. It was exciting for me to learn that both of these great bears had been killed in the same area with Mike Utecht as the guide.
It had been almost four years since the 1986 hunt and Rich, Bert, and I were in the midst of planning a 1990 DIY hunt. As I was flying home from the Boone and Crockett Annual Meeting in New York, I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if I were able to continue the Boone and Crockett brown bear legacy started by Bob Reeve in 1948 and continued by Jack Parker in 1964? If I could kill a record book bear in the same place, the chances of another B&C Regular Club member ever doing it again in the future would be fairly remote – especially on a DIY hunt.’
Change Comes to the Alaska Peninsula
In 1980, Mike Utecht’s hunting area comprising Right Hand and Left Valleys and adjacent areas was designated as the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. In addition, the refuge was designated as the Izembek Controlled Use Area, meaning that the left and right valleys of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding area was closed to the use of any motorized vehicle, except outboard powered boats, for hunting, including the transportation of hunters, their hunting gear, and/or parts of game. When Bob Reeve and Jack Parker hunted the area, Utecht’s hunters were flown into a lake between right and left valleys and they walked approximately two miles to Utecht’s hunting cabin.
By 1984, Cold Bay was rapidly becoming a base of activities and a staging area for the exploration and development of offshore oil lease areas. By then, as many as a thousand industry-related personnel were moving through Cold Bay going to and from the offshore drilling platforms. Refuge staff were concerned that the oil-related activities would impact the Izembek. So, in order to obtain baseline data for proper management of the wildlife on the refuge, a new phase in evaluation of the ecology of the brown bears on the Izembek NWR was begun in 1984. The three-year study involved the collaring and tracking of brown bears within the study area and provided key management data related to the density and productivity of the bears using this area. I obtained a copy of the report, and its findings confirmed the earlier conclusion of my brother and I that we were indeed hunting in great big bear habitat.
Mike Utecht had not been actively guiding for several years when I killed my 1982 DIY brown bear, and new guides were vying for Mike’s old guide area when I made my 1986 DIY brown bear hunt. By 1990, several veteran guides had obtained permits to hunt within the boundaries of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, providing additional challenges to my DIY hunt, specifically because, as a matter of practice, I have always tried to avoid hunting in competition with outfitters as a courtesy to them as well as myself. With the Controlled Area use designation and veteran guides hunting the area, it was evident to me that we had to get creative if we intended to hunt where we had planned.
DIY Logistical and Other Challenges
Cold Bay sits at the far Western end of the Alaska Peninsula, nearly a thousand miles from Anchorage, so just getting there from the lower 48 is a challenge in and of itself. Reeve Aleutian Airlines once provided great air service to Cold Bay from Anchorage, but went out of business in 2000. Since then, 2 other airlines have gone bankrupt trying to fly that route. Still today, there is very little in the way of accommodations, food, and supplies in Cold Bay. As I learned in 1982, everything a DIY hunter plans to use for a hunt ranging from food to camp gear has to be carried as baggage on the airlines, shipped in from Seattle on a boat, or mailed. Since the USPS is federally subsidized, I found it was very inexpensive to mail boxes of gear to Cold Bay or King Cove, provided the post office would hold it for pickup. Guides who currently operate in the area most often ship their supplies and gear to Cold Bay stowed in containers and shipped on a boat.
Learning from our combined experiences hunting the Peninsula, we had the food and gear logistics down pat. We would use what was essentially freeze-dried backpacking food supplemented with powdered drink mixes and soups, other dry foods and some canned goods such as tuna fish, chicken, beef, etc. Our personal gear was state-of-the-art at the time and included Helly Hansen rain gear, wool, fleece, polypropylene, and Polartec-insulated Frontier Gear of Alaska Brooks Range jackets (which Bob Hodson designed just five years prior while hunting sheep in the Brooks Range). Insulated ankle-fit hip boots with neoprene socks were a necessity. We had learned that in a wet, cold, brown bear camp without a heat source, keeping our feet dry and warm was a challenge. The neoprene socks could be turned inside out each evening, wiped dry with a paper towel, and placed in one’s sleeping bag for the night where they would be warm and dry in the morning. Our backpacks were Frontier Gear of Alaska Pinnacle frame packs (also designed by Bob Hodson). We chose the Pinnacle packs because we had learned that a 10’+ square brown bear hide would just fit in a Pinnacle bag, and the frame was strong enough to handle the ≥130 lb. load. We could ship whatever we needed to my brother in King Cove before the hunt, and after the hunt, I could mail my excess gear home via USPS. The only tents which were suitable for the Peninsula weather (70-100 mph winds) at the time, were the Bomb Shelter from Barney’s Sport Chalet, designed specifically for high wind areas and used by guides all over Alaska; the North Face Pole-Sleeve oval with its sterling reputation for great strength during high winds; and the JanSport China-Everest – perhaps the most respected and storied 4-season high-altitude, expedition-quality mountaineering tent ever made. We had used these tents before and knew they were the “right stuff” even though they would be shunned by contemporary weight-conscious backpackers today. There is essentially no firewood to be found in the area, so in order to have at least a little heat in one of our tents, we packed a 2-burner Coleman stove and 5 gallons of Blazo fuel.
Our challenge was to figure out just how to access Utecht’s old hunting grounds, located some 10 miles upriver off the Bering Sea beach. My 1982 and 1986 hunts were backpack hunts requiring that the bear hides, skulls, and our camp gear had to be backpacked just under ten miles from where we could get a boat or vehicle. All of this was doable with multiple trips and heavy loads. The logistics for accessing the destination where we planned to camp and hunt in 1990 (where the Reeve and Parker bears had been killed) required a whole different approach; the logistics of which were much more complex, and the area was much more remote and difficult to access than my previous backpack hunts.
In order to execute the first phase of our hunt plan, we had to get to the mouth of a river on the beach of the Bering Sea. We were fortunate because, by now, our hunting partner, Bert Flotre, had purchased an Arctic Tern airplane and had become very proficient at flying. The Izembek Controlled Use order prohibited aircraft from landing in the refuge, but you could land an aircraft on the Bering Sea beach at low tide. When Bert agreed to fly his Arctic Tern to Cold Bay, we had the river access covered. We would fly our gear via multiple trips from King Cove to our landing site on the beach at the mouth of the river. Once Bert had flown my brother and I and our gear to the mouth of the river, Bert couldn’t leave his aircraft unattended on the beach. So the next challenge was to figure out how to get the Arctic Tern back to Cold Bay and store it in one of the revetments during our hunt. Fortunately for us, my brother’s guide friend, Dr. Richard Guthrie, agreed to return Bert to our departure point after he secured his aircraft at Cold Bay.
Once we got to the beach, the next challenge was to get ten plus miles upriver to our planned hunt area. We pondered the logistics imposed by this restriction and decided that our best option would be to use a 12’ Metzeler inflatable raft. We could fly the raft with our other gear and provisions from King Cove to our departure point, and then use the raft to get our gear upriver. The rivers on the Peninsula are mostly quite shallow, and are filled with glacial sediment and sand, which create so many sandbars that an outboard motor, other than a jet, would be useless. My brother had hiked up this river when he killed his bear in 1970, so he knew the topography and the fact that the river was essentially knee-deep on a normal year in early May. With this knowledge, we decided that we could pull a loaded raft up the river all the way to camp and have the luxury of floating out to the Bering Sea coast at the end of our hunt. Pulling the raft up the river required wearing hip boots under our rain pants to keep the rain and water from washing over the top of the boots. We also made sure we had sufficient rope to tow the boat from the bank of the river in order to negotiate areas with steep banks and areas where the river was too deep to wade.
Being an engineer, Bert decided at the last minute to bring a small outboard motor with a “jackass lift,” just in case we encountered water deep enough for the motor to work. The “jackass lift” was a contraption with a long pole that allowed the driver to lift the motor out of the water “on the fly” sufficiently to get across sandbars by raising and lowering the long handle. On the first day, after we had pulled the boat about 6 miles upriver, Bert decided it was time to try the apparatus. Three or four shear pins later; he, the motor, and the lift were relegated back to their place at the rear of the raft.
The River Trek
Although we started marshalling our gear at the King Cove airport just after daylight, it was noon before we had everything to the Bering Sea beach at the mouth of the river. I had very little experience with rafts and had never used one for anything but fishing high mountain lakes in Idaho and Montana, so I was not of much use when it came to piloting the raft. Bert, on the other hand, had a lot of experience fishing with all kinds of boats and rafts, so he was our designated “pilot.” My brother became second-in-command because the last thing a “big” brother wants to do is to tell his “little” brother what to do. Initially, I watched the two of them plow up the river at quite a good pace while I took photos to document the trip. Eventually, it was my turn, and I was surprised how easily the raft towed, even though it was quite heavily loaded with gear and supplies.
The river was wide, braided at its mouth, and just knee-deep, so we made good time once we learned the technique of how best to tow the raft. The weather that day was overcast and threatened rain, but we were on our way and paid little mind to it. We soon learned that it was necessary for one of us to wade up the river ahead of the boat, scouting for the sandbars which often reached all the way across the river. The scout would determine where the tailing or shallow end was so the raft could be pulled to that side of the river and maneuvered around the sandbar where the raft would drag bottom. The days were long, and by about 8 p.m., we reached a spot along the river where we could bivouac for the evening. We had our gear organized so we could easily access one pack with our “Bivi Camp” with lightweight 2-person tents and enough food for a couple meals. The majority of our gear was stowed on the raft, which we pulled up on the sandbar on the edge of the river. We slept “lite” that evening, as the last thing we wanted was for a brown bear to find our raft while ambling up or down the river during the night.
The first night on the river, it rained all night, and no bear showed up at camp; so the second morning we bunched our bivi camp and headed back upriver, eager to reach our campsite and get ready for the bear season to open on the following day, May 10th. Season was now open and, about two miles from our campsite, the river got too deep to wade and we figured out how to rig the tow ropes “Erie Canal Style”, as I called it, so the nose of the raft would face out in the river and keep the raft away from the bank as we towed it from the high bank above the river. It took a lot more effort to tow the boat in this manner, but our destination was now in sight and everything became easy.
Not far upriver from where the high bank and deep water ended, we reached a side channel that took us inland to where we had planned to camp. With no time to even think about unloading the raft, we spotted our first brown bear on the hillside at the mouth of the valley beyond our campsite. I was elated, as the bear was on the same ridgeline that was featured in Bob Reeve’s famous brown bear photo! I knew we had finally arrived! It was an unusually nice day for the Alaska Peninsula and we spent the remainder of the afternoon setting up our camp on a dry spot near some alders which would provide some protection from the wind. The camp was perfectly and strategically located so we could glass much of the surrounding area on both sides of the river.
Our hunting area was on the Pacific slope of the Aleutian Range. These mountains are of volcanic origin; very irregular, and broken by steep valleys and gulches carrying streams of snow water through the tundra into the ocean. No timber grows on these slopes, but in many places there is a heavy growth of alder, which makes for excellent cover for the bears. Higher up, there is nothing but snow. During the fall, these streams are teeming with salmon and the brown bears are usually hunted along these streams. In the spring, the salmon are not in the streams, so the preferred method of hunting is by intercepting bears after they leave their dens in early May to travel across the mountains and valleys in search of other food sources. This is also mating season for brown bears, and big boars are often encountered as they are searching for a mate. I have always preferred hunting in the spring, because you often see more big boars, the foliage is off the alders, and the grass is matted down from the winter’s snow. The Peninsula weather is legendary and everyone who hunts there has tales to tell of the wind, rain, snow, and cold. Our hunt was no exception. We were greeted in Cold Bay with snow, rain, and winds raging at 80 mph. We were fortunate that the wind died down for a couple days, enabling us to get our gear to the mouth of the river.
The location of our campsite was ideal and situated not far from where Mike Utecht’s bear hunting cabin was located. The Reeve and Parker bears had been taken just a few hundred yards from our camp, so I was excited about the possibility of finding a truly great bear. Once we were set up, all we had to do was to wait until we found the right bear. Our plan was to stay pretty much at camp the first few days of the season, and purposely not get our scent any farther from the camp than necessary. We began seeing bears the day we arrived and spent the next several days glassing and evaluating anywhere from 6 to 8 bears per day, waiting for a big one to show up. We observed bears as high as the highest ridges around camp and as low as the valley floor, just a few hundred yards from our tents. Each morning, we found fresh bear tracks in the sand along the stream where we were camped. It rained particularly hard one morning, and the wind gave our tent a good workout. I opened the tent door to get some fresh water out of the creek and spooked an immature bear that was grazing less than 50 yards from the tent.
Late in the evening of the fifth day, we spotted a large blonde bear moving over the high snow-covered ridge to the east of our camp. It was late and the light was fading, so we did not get an opportunity to really evaluate him before he was lost in the alders on the mountainside. The next morning, we were up at daylight glassing the mountainside in earnest. It was about ten o’clock when we spotted him feeding in a small clearing in the alders, half-way up the mountainside, about a half mile from camp. My brother had observed a lot of big bears over the 10 years he had lived in King Cove and he knew this was indeed a big boar that certainly merited a stalk for a closer look. The bear fed in the open for about an hour and then bedded on what turned out to be a basalt outcropping. He was in a perfect position for a stalk and, ultimately, a shot from below the outcropping. We crossed the valley floor and climbed up on the leeward side of the draw where he was bedded. By this time, we knew he was the bear I was after and, when I found an opening in the alders below the bear, I had a perfect 100-yard shot. One shot from my .375 Weatherby was all that it took. I had completed my quest to continue the Boone and Crockett Legacy of three record book bears being taken by three B&C Regular members in the same area!
It was about 2:00 p.m. when we began skinning my bear and, by 5 p.m., we had the bear hide stuffed in Bert’s Pinnacle backpack and started our trek down the mountainside and back to camp. Bert was the strongest of the three of us and carried the load much of the way down the mountain. Rich and I packed the skull, spotting scope, and rifles. From time to time, we alternated with Bert and arrived at camp by 8 p.m. We celebrated with a round of Pepsi’s that evening and hit the sack early. We spent most of the next day working on fleshing the hide and prepared our gear for our float out of the valley.
On our last day in the valley, we got an early start packing our gear and were on the river by 10 a.m. The float out was quite leisurely with the occasional need to negotiate the loaded raft around sandbars that lay just under the water’s surface. With the use restrictions imposed by USFWS in the refuge, we never anticipated seeing anyone else on our float downriver. However, about half-way to the mouth of the river, a super cub came flying upriver, circled us, and landed several hundred yards downriver. As we approached where the cub had landed, two individuals were approaching the river bank. We pulled in to meet them concerned that they were in trouble. We were greeted by John Sarvus, the USFWS Izembek Refuge biologist, and his assistant. We had known John for a number of years and had a great deal of respect for him. He was one of the very best of all the Refuge biologists we got to know out at Cold Bay in over a decade of sharing information with him about the Reserve and the brown bears in the area. John checked our bear, sealed it, congratulated us, and was on his way. In over 50 years of hunting, that is the only time I have ever been checked by a game warden or biologist in the field!
We were scheduled to meet Richard Guthrie the mouth of the river the following day so he could pick up Bert and fly him back to Cold Bay to retrieve his Arctic Tern. With no way to communicate with Guthrie and let him know we were a day early, we camped at the mouth of the river for our last night of the hunt. The following day Guthrie came and picked up Bert, and he made several trips flying us and our gear back to King Cove.
When we got everything back to King Cove, we reflected upon our DIY trip. It was one of those very special hunts where everything had gone according to our carefully thought-out and researched plan. It was indeed one of my all-time epic DIY hunts.