It was the Kelly boys, Danny and Kevin, who introduced me to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka when he was with the miners’ union. The Kelly family owns and operates Kelly Press, a union printing facility, and I grew up across the street from them. Kevin and Danny got me into big game hunting, which led to my 30-year career as a guide in Alaska.
I had seen many bears fall to my clients over the years, along with dozens of Dall sheep, moose and caribou, but it was a miners’ union strike in the 90s that led to my first chance at a bruin. Rich and Danny Kelly were supposed to go on a spring black bear hunt in Alberta; something they had both longed to do. Because of the last minute strike, Rich had to cancel, leaving the door open for me to hunt with Danny. That’s when Danny and I met guide and outfitter Mike Ukrainetz.
We had a ball! I shot two average bears, one black and one cinnamon colored, with a 45-70, while Danny archery hunted and passed on bears all week. Mike ran a great camp. He was organized, kept his baits stocked and took good care of the clients. I think Danny knew we’d be back the following year and was waiting to shoot his first bear with his old friend Rich. With Danny being so laid back and me helping with the skinning chores, Mike was happy to hold a week the following season for our entourage.
It didn’t take long to fill the six spots in camp. Rich immediately announced that he and his longtime friend and co-worker Rich Barchiesi were in. Danny’s brother Kevin was chomping at the bit to come along, and the last two spots were filled by my friends Rob Rogers and Louie Heon. I tagged along to help skin and flesh hides and film.
Alberta is a bear hunter’s paradise with a two bear limit and many areas that contain all of the different color phases. As much as 40% of the bears at Mike’s area along the Peace River are color phased with his average bruin squaring around 6 ½ feet and weighing between 200-250 pounds. He caters primarily to archery hunters, but our group was using everything from broadheads to black powder guns to scoped rifles.
A book could be written about the laughing, joking and pranks that ensued. A guy could be in on a good prank being played on one member of our party only to have one pulled on him the very next hour. Loyalties didn’t last long. The fun only intensified at camp with the addition of Mike, his cook and two other guides.
Springtime bear hunts in the North are quite relaxing. Since the sun sets late and dusk lasts for hours, a hunter can remain in his stand until 10 or 11 p.m. With sunrise coming as early as 4 a.m., it’s virtually impossible to hunt both mornings and evenings without becoming a zombie. The typical schedule is to rise around 9 a.m., eat breakfast, lounge around camp or go fishing until 3 p.m., eat the big meal of the day and then head to your stand around 4 p.m. This gives you the last five or six hours of the day to hunt the hungry bruins as they come to the bait. By the time you get picked up and make the drive back to camp for soup, sandwiches and libations by the fire, it’s well into the wee hours of the morning.
Anyone joining us at the midnight campfire the first night may have thought the activity was slow to average until Rich Trumka told his tale. Most of the boys had seen one or two bears but Rich, who had been listening in silence, looked up from the glow of the fire and said, “I saw nine.” On the second evening, when all eyes fell on Rich as he stopped poking the fire with a long stick, he looked up and stated, “I saw 17.”
There was a moment of silence before Danny Kelly threw his arms skyward, dropped to his knees in front of Rich and shouted, “By the powers vested in me…I now pronounce you the BEAR LORD.” Laughter erupted and many a beer can was lifted to toast our new celebrity. Small offerings were presented to Rich as if to a king, while the pesky mosquitoes killed that night became a sacrifice in honor of our Bear Lord. The masquerade didn’t stop there. Before heading out the next afternoon, each member of our party knelt before the mighty Bear Lord seated on his camp chair thrown. The stick Rich had been using to stir the fire became his scepter, and each individual was knighted, blessed and sent to his treestand.
We were all having fun with the charade, but…it worked. A nice bear fell at almost every stand the next few evenings. Danny Kelly found a bear to his liking and arrowed it. Rich Barchiesi shot a big seven footer nicknamed “Otto” that tipped the scales at more than 400 pounds. Kevin Kelly and Rob Rogers both took good bears, and even the mighty Bear Lord himself could take it no longer and shot a nice bruin. Every night, the conversation around the campfire became a plethora of tall tales and harrowing events.
The most hair-raising story came from Louie. Early on the third afternoon, a small bear decided to visit him in his treestand. Waiting until it was peering just over the platform, Louie stomped his foot and yelled, which sent two things into rapid motion – the bear down the tree and Louie’s heart rate.
Before his pulse could return to normal, a nice bear lumbered in, and Louie drew his bow three times before calming down enough to release an arrow. The bear went crashing into the brush and let out a roar that made the hair stand on the back of Louie’s neck. He didn’t know his shot was perfect, and the loud bellows were the “death bawl” common among black bears. Then Louie’s guide got a flat tire, which left Louie aloft in the darkness for an extra two hours while bears growled and snapped around the bait pile below. His eyes were as wide as saucers when he made it to the campfire, but you couldn’t have wiped the smile from his face.
The rest of the week was a blur of picture taking, bear skinning, cold beers around the campfire and the ever present laughter. Everybody had taken a nice bear, and four of the hunters got a second bruin, which put the total harvest at 10 bears! Most of us have returned to Mike’s bear camp since that epic trip and, if Rich Trumka couldn’t make it, there was always at least one call made to his office for a “phone blessing” from the Bear Lord.
For more information about hunting black bear and many other big game species in Alberta, contact Mike Ukrainetz at www.mikesoutfitting.com or call him at (780) 864-3770.