The bear was just a black speck on a distant hillside and darkness was an hour away, but Mike Knapp didn’t think twice about going. He hoisted his pack and then glanced at me as he started walking.
“If we hurry, we have a chance.”
We were three days deep into an Alaska black bear hunt and so far, this bear, a mile or more away, was our best chance at a bruin. I didn’t care if we’d have to climb the mountain we were now descending, and I wasn’t worried about getting back to camp hours after dark. I was out of food and low on water but pumped about the thought of putting the crosshairs of my Trijicon scope on a shooter bear.
Knapp and I plunged down the steep hill, practically running in an attempt to make it to the bear before the last rays of light faded. Thirty minutes later, we were at the bottom of the canyon, chugging water from an ice-cold spring as the bruin fed on blueberries a quarter-mile away. As the two of us eased closer, the bear disappeared in the thick alders scattered on the slope. Knapp eased off his pack, laid it on the ground and whispered, “Shoot over my pack. Get ready.”
If your idea of a bear hunt is being escorted to a plush stand and then watching over a barrel full of bacon grease and table scraps, this hunt isn’t for you. If you like earning your trophy, even if it means working harder than you’ve ever worked before, an Alaska interior black bear hunt is your ticket to paradise. The terrain is not unlike sheep country: Steep slopes littered with loose rock are divided by thousand-foot deep canyons. It’s hot, cold, wet, dry and wet again. Everything in this country is farther, steeper, deeper, higher and just plain harder than it looks. And bears just aren’t that abundant. Knapp and I saw three or four on a good day; only one on a couple of days, despite hour upon hour of steady glassing. We studied vast open meadows, hillsides covered with knee-high blueberry shrubs and deep canyons of ceiling-high grass and alders mixed with huge fields of short brush. The country was stunning, but nothing was more beautiful than the sight of a coal-black spot on a hillside, even if that spot was a mile or more away.
But now, after a foot-blistering descent, the bear was just 300 yards away. In a matter of a few minutes, I’d have a chance at my first bear. As we lay on the ground waiting for a clear shot, I felt a swirling wind on the back of my neck. The breeze was blowing straight up the slope where we last saw the bear. We waited five minutes and then 10 and then 20. Then Knapp motioned up a long draw, pointing to the bear as it climbed a steep slope a half-mile away, clearly spooked as it trotted up the hill.
Knapp and I put stalks on two more bears. The first was in a patchwork of thick cover and open pockets of knee-high blueberries. When we got there, the bear was just gone. The second was on a distant ridge that required a grueling thousand-foot descent and climb. When we got to within 500 yards of the bear, we had nothing but open ridge between us. As we closed to within 400 yards, the big bruin turned, looked at us and simply trotted into the thick alders.
Eight out of 10 hunters in our group tagged bears, including a Boone & Crockett grizzly bear. Others killed black bears ranging from four feet to one giant pushing seven feet, a trophy by any standards. Even though I didn’t pull the trigger, I’d go back in a second. An Alaska black bear is a true trophy, one that’s earned and not simply collected.
Stoney River Lodge can combine a bear hunt with other big game, and they offer incredible fly-out fishing for salmon, rainbows, pike and sheefish. Visit www.stoneyriverlodge.com for more information.