Where better to witness and capture the raw, unfiltered realities of the food chain than the Last Frontier? Alaska is one of few remaining places in the modern world where bold humans can venture to pursue wild protein alongside other apex predators…namely the brown bear.
In preparation for winter hibernation, burly bears patrol autumn riverbanks to indulge in a silver platter of running salmon, giving bear hunters a chance to selectively target the mature animals that normally live in seclusion of the bush.
THE HUNGER would lead us to Alaska Expedition Company’s remote camp beneath the jagged Chugach Mountains, where the Tsiu River spills into the Gulf of Alaska. Like so much of Alaska, this territory and its wildlife are largely unspoiled by man.
Alaska saw its first powered aircraft take flight in 1913, and more than a century later airplanes are still the dominant form of overland travel in the state. This is especially true for adventurers hoping to reach interior gems—such as virgin hunting and fishing locations. More than 100 bush planes come and go daily from Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage.
Getting to Alaska Expedition Company required two flights: the first aboard a World War II-era DC-3 from Anchorage to Cordova, the second in a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter (one of the most common Alaska bush planes) from Cordova to the grass runway of our camp.
“Roughing it” in Alaska doesn’t always mean cold nights in wall tents or trappers’ cabins. Despite being far off the grid, our accommodations were astonishingly comfortable thanks to the grit and ingenuity of Charles Allen, a true modern pioneer and owner of Alaska Expedition Company. “Every screw and nail, every board, every panel, every chair … everything had to be flown in,” Charles noted. “And so, that’s always been and remains a challenge.” Simply pondering the construction and upkeep of this operation is enough to make a guy extremely thirsty for brown liquor (an ample supply of which was also flown into camp).
The major draw of the Tsiu River, for both man and bear, is the world-class silver salmon fishing. It’s illegal to fly and hunt the same day in Alaska, but it’s perfectly legit to fly and grab a fly rod. We were eager to paint the Tsiu with brightly colored streamers and taunt the aggressive silvers. Hardly a cast went unscathed by the hordes of salmon.
The fishing guides at Alaska Expedition Company never stop working. Their days start and end in the dark. So when it’s time to turn silver salmon into sushi, a dull knife isn’t an option. (Is wingshooting up your alley? The area is flooded with ducks, too.) Charles, a burgeoning entrepreneur, also founded Knives of Alaska and DiamondBlade Knives, so his staff doesn’t have any trouble keeping their edge at the butchering table.
It was early October when our hunt for brown bears commenced along the Tsiu River. The salmon were coming to the tail end of their annual fall spawning run. A handful of bears were still lingering along the exposed banks of the Tsiu and its maze of sand dunes, scooping up an easy meal, but with each passing day more bears disappeared into the bush as the feeding frenzy fizzled.
As an Alaska Master Guide, Charles knows how to tango with brown bears. He’s faced many charging bears, and he was forced to stop a sow with lethal force on one unfortunate occasion, but his respect for the animals is more a derivative of genuine admiration than fear.
Charles prefers spotting and stalking bears in the sand dunes, but during our hunt he knew an upriver trip by johnboat was inevitable. This late in the season, most of the bears were migrating up the Tsiu and its tributaries, bedding in the hellacious alder thickets and frequently visiting the river for any remaining salmon.
Should we be given the chance, my friend Michael Burnside would be the first to take aim on a brown bear and release a Nosler Partition from the barrel of a Mossberg. The rest of us were ordered to follow up with shots until the formidable animal halted all movement. Several close calls with bears during the first couple of days set our spirits high, but long hours laying in wait along the wet-and-windy Tsiu began to take a toll on mind and body.
Michael was carrying a Mossberg Patriot Synthetic in .338 Win. Mag., while I opted for the larger .375 Ruger in Mossberg’s Patriot Laminate Marinecote model. Charles carries a custom .416 KDF and his assistant guide is always loaded with a 12-gauge slug gun. For brown bear firepower in this neck of the woods, you want to pack a weather-resistant platform with a big bore. Get comfortable with open sights or low-magnification optics, as most shots will be within 30-60 yards—any closer or farther and danger is rather imminent.
The discovery of fresh tracks left behind by your quarry is always an encouraging sign, but that encouragement is rivaled by frustration when the animal is constantly a step ahead.
While we attempted to outwit the biggest predator on the block, another stealthy carnivore was hoping to draw blood in the sand dunes. We never spotted this lone wolf, but his prints were enough to remind us that Alaska’s food chain has many links. It’s survival of the fittest out here.
Our daily routine at Alaska Expedition Company started with a hot cup of coffee, a dry set of waders, a long 4x4 ride, a sunrise glassing session of the sand dunes, and an arduous boat ride into the bush. We had all but given up on the goal of killing a bear in the dunes, but Charles was sure to thoroughly scan the rolling terrain each morning for any remaining bears before firing up his mud motor and leading us up the alder-choked river. On the sixth morning our efforts paid off, as we found ourselves in the perfect ambush of a bear lurking in the dunes.
The stars still burned overhead when Charles spotted the bear—merely a dark blob, impossible to judge its size. We got into position as Charles evaluated the bear, when suddenly another monster appeared at our right flank. “That’s the bear you’re going to shoot, Michael!” Charles barked without hesitation as the behemoth lumbered toward us. Then the bear spotted us at 60 yards. He stood on his hind legs, towering over 10 feet tall, when Charles called the shot and Michael unleashed a 225-grain bullet into his broad chest. It was a fatal blow, but the rest of us followed up with a barrage of shots for insurance. Just when we thought it was over, the bruin showcased his remarkable power—he stood and walked another 80 yards before permanently resting in the sand.
We all took turns working a DiamondBlade across the bear, reveling in the calamity of an unforgettable hunt while sharing reverence for the grand animal. Charles revealed he had been trying to catch up with this bear for weeks. He was a wise, dominant old boar estimated at 12 or 13 years old. A green score of his massive skull sits at 26 5/16—once official, it will make the Boone and Crockett Club record book. But in a game this great, who’s keeping score?
Following Michael’s hunt, I had reserved an additional 5 days to find a bear of my own. We hunted hard, including a 12-hour sit on a floodplain loaded with trapped salmon—an ideal bear buffet. I didn’t so much as glass a bear during those 5 days. Southeast Alaska’s infamous weather kept us in camp for an additional, unplanned 36 hours. “We’re stuck here. Let’s hunt.” Charles’ stamina pushed us until the final hours, my hunt ending with a thrilling stalk and a bittersweet standoff with a bear that deserved a few more years on the Tsiu. Perhaps he will be waiting for me in the sand dunes when I return.