Jan 04 2024

By The Skin Of My Teeth

Getting Charged By A Wounded Grizzly & Living To Tell The Tale!

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing views, and may your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”


I suspect the late novelist Edward Abbey was musing about life’s overall journey, however his hypothesis above pretty much summed up our late September hunting trip. Over the previous two weeks we had experienced all the adjectives, and, as if we were following a script, there was a grizzly bear—loud, angry and wounded—running full tilt down the hillside towards me. I was down on one knee and had my rifle, with one shell loaded, safety off, and the jittery crosshairs of my scope were trying to find a home. The bear hadn’t known I was there until it came through the last batch of berry bushes about 30 yards above where I was kneeling. At the instant I had moved, its eyes and ears locked on me, and the bruin altered its downhill race toward safety to where I stood. My partner, Thane Davies, was on a little rise about 400 yards away watching and videotaping the event.


We were indeed on a mountain, the trail had been crooked, winding, at times lonesome, and, at the moment, things were ramping exponentially up the dangerous scale. Lastly, I guess it could be said that Thane had a view that could be described as amazing…


Thane, Bill Cash, Tom Johnson, and I were camped on a high plateau in northern BC in late September where we were hunting caribou, moose, and grizzly bear. The days had been full of adventures for all of us, the weather was perfect (cold in the morning with cool afternoons and evenings), comradery was as good as it could get, however our hanging pole was still empty. The colors, smells, and sounds of fall in northern BC are exquisite, almost as though nature is offering a cornucopia of visual, audible, and olfactory treats before the long, dreary days of winter set in. One can sit on a hillside glassing a valley and see all the vibrant fall colors, hear nature’s characters prepare for the winter, and smell the redolence in the air. It is one of the best times to be afield. Bill and I had hunted the area in the past many times, but it was Thane and Tom's first time. Our routine was similar throughout hunting camps everywhere: we would get up early, have a cup or two of coffee, perhaps a porridge, and then load packs for the day and head out.


Thane and I were sitting in a high mountain pass that we had found earlier in the week. We had sat in the same rock pile the morning before and had seen a herd of caribou in the distance. There were two bulls in the group, but neither were legal. It was that and the sheer size of the area with its tremendous glassing that brought us back. We whispered back and forth in the predawn darkness anticipating seeing caribou, hopefully a legal bull would be in the mix this time. Dawn crept slowly towards us as we waited for better light. It was a crisp and still morning, but the red tinge to the blossoming sky lent suggestions to what the day would be. As daylight provided we glassed further up the set of draws.


“Bear!” I whispered to Thane.


“Where?” he asked.


“Third basin, right at the top,” I told him.


Through my geo-vids, I watched as the big bruin fed on berries high in the basin. It was a classic spot for a grizzly to be. The bear was on a steep hillside covered with berry bushes, a few stunted evergreen trees were scattered lower than the bushes, and the bottom of the basin had a small creek running through it. High above the treeline, quietly feeding in a patch of berry bushes with a noisy creek that should also draw the morning air down, the bear was in a perfect place for a stalk. Even at a far distance, it was easy to tell this was a big bear because it was dark and blocky.


“How far is that?” Thane asked. By cutting the distance in pieces and using the rangefinder in my binoculars, I estimated the distance.


“About 3 ½  klicks,” I said to Thane. “Probably be there by noon if we take off now.”


We methodically unloaded our backpacks, took what was needed, and stepped off. Our trail would take us down off the pass we were on, across and down a flat drainage, then up through a spruce stand into the basin. Thane and I backpacked together a lot, so quietly and with intent we set off. A few hours later, we pushed over the last steep section into the basin.


“Let’s stay up on the left side and just sneak through the trees,” he said.


We couldn’t see the bear, or where the bear should be, but there was a rock outcropping at the top of the basin that we used for visual reference. Staying on the left side, partway up and sneaking from tree to tree, we quickly closed the distance. We would stop by most trees, glass and whisper—our excitement was palpable. Almost to the top, we stepped around a small tree and saw the bear down at the creek about 200 yards away. It had moved down from where we thought it should be but was working back up.


“There it is!” Thane whispered.


“Ya, I see it,” I replied. The bear was moving back uphill towards the berries.


“Let’s sneak in closer,” I said as the bear moved away.


As we went down the hill, Thane said he was going to find a place to sit on and set up his video camera. I told him I wanted to get across the creek and hopefully sneak within a hundred yards. He stopped and I kept going. As expected, the rushing water took the breeze and any sound with it. Using the sparse trees as cover, I snuck closer and closer. The bear had reached the berry patch and was sitting on its rump raking berries. I edged even closer.


“150 yards,” I quietly whispered as I ranged the bear from behind a small tree. ‘A few more trees closer,’ I thought. The trees were thinning out and, if my memory was correct, the next patch of three little trees would be the last before the open alpine. I snuck closer.


The air was still on the bear side of the creek, a few late season dicky birds noisily fed and cavorted in the high basin. Arriving at the last group of trees, I slid my backpack off and slowly—binoculars raised—peered around the tree. The bear was up to my left at about 10 o’clock at 105 yards. It was sitting on its rump feeding, quartered towards me, and I slowly eased back behind the tree. Looking around, I saw that to my right about 10 yards away there was a hump in the ground. If I could crawl to it and lay my backpack over it, I would have a perfect shooting position. Just before crawling and as quietly as possible, I loaded a shell in my rifle. I had two more shells in my pocket and three more in my backpack. I was confident with one, though. Thane and I had been shooting all summer and my Weatherby .338-.378 shooting a 225 grain Accubond was pushing tacks.


I took one more chance to look back hoping to find where Thane was, but I couldn’t see him. I got down on my belly and crawled, pulling my backpack along while keeping an eye on the grizzly. Any worries I might have had of being spotted were without merit as the bear was engaged in eating berries. I slowly pushed my backpack over the hump, laid my rifle over it, and situated myself behind it. The bear was huge in my scope. It was quartered towards me, though, so I watched and waited. A couple of times the bear got up off its rump to shift to a better berry spot, and both times I waited for it to take a step uphill to open up its downhill side, but both times it swayed left but didn’t step. Finally after about 20 minutes it stood up, and I centered my crosshair. I watched through my scope as the big bear raised its head, looked over the high country, and drew in lungs full of air through its nose, testing the airwaves.


The bear swayed uphill. I found the spot with my crosshairs…




In the high basin the shot echoed back and forth, I watched in my scope as the bullet hit and the bear rolled sideways out of view. I was just ejecting the spent case when I heard wshhhhh, whsss, crack, humphraaa, whsss, shwshhh, crack! Turning to look up the hill, I saw bushes moving and heard hummmpha, humpha, hummmpha-rrrrrr!


Just as the bear came out of the bush, I saw it. As soon as I moved, its eyes locked on me. I remember clearly seeing its ears lay back, eyes narrow, and its bearing straight downhill changed to 4 o’clock to where I stood. It was 30 yards away, running full tilt: loud, mad, wounded, and probably just as surprised as me. I placed a bullet in my rifle and closed the bolt, went down on one knee, tried to settle while in the crosshairs of the running bruin, and somewhere in my mind a thought said, ‘nope, you have one shot and one shot only. This isn’t the time to use it.’ So I stood up and thrust my rifle out like a spear. The plan was simply to wait until the bear was right on me, jam my barrel in its mouth, and pull the trigger. I have no idea where it came from or how I came up with it.


It was surreal. The sight, the sounds, and the size of that bear at such a close distance (and closing that fast) was inconceivable. I didn’t have time to consider the predicament I was in and didn't have time to orchestrate a plan. In fact, I didn’t even have time to be scared. I simply reacted.


Just as the beast got to me, I skipped uphill and jammed the end of my barrel in the bear’s side, pulling the trigger as I did. Its mouth was open wide, teeth bared, ears laid straight back—the sight, smell, and noise was incredible. Its eyes followed my leap uphill but, luckily for me, its body didn’t. As the bullet tore through its body, the bear rolled over my backpack and piled up about 10 yards below me. I was back peddling and trying to get my fumbling fingers to find the last bullet in my pocket and load it, all without taking my sight off the bear. It gathered its wits and came up on its hind legs, its beady eyes bored into mine and roared loudly with murderous intent. So scary!


The big bruin lunged towards me as I let my last bullet fly. It rolled backwards but got right back up again coming towards me. I was out of bullets so I turned uphill to run and heard boom! Looking back, I saw it roll again as Thane's shot hit it. It was badly wounded but not dead. The sound amplified and the aggression shook the air.


I looked uphill to run then looked back at my backpack which was halfway back to the bear. It was rolling around, roaring, and fiercely tearing up the ground. I am not sure where the nerve came from, but I ran towards the bear, grabbed my backpack, then ran uphill about 50 yards away, all the time tearing at zippers to get my spare bullets out. I found them and got one loaded as the melee of noise and perspicuous energy settled down. I started to go down to where the bear was, but chickened out and took a big wide circle to get to the other side of the creek and meet up with Thane.


“Holy crap!” he said when he walked up. “I was up there wondering what you were thinking when I saw you stand up. Oh man, that was wild.”


“It was that,” I replied.


We snuck over to a clearing where we could see the bear and watched it for a while. The bear died there.


Thane and I sat down and replayed the whole event. I told him why I didn’t shoot from the kneeling position. We watched the video over and over while we marveled at the beautiful bear. It was an ordeal, but a good friend of mine and fellow bear hunter, Dave Phillips, always says “grizzly bear hunting is not for the weak of heart.” His words could not be truer.


The trip out with heavy loaded packs was uneventful. Later, as night took possession of yet another glorious day, we went over the story time and time again with Tom and Bill around a crackling fire. Laying in my sleeping bag that night, I wondered where the decision to save my last shot came from and I marveled at the experience. I have hunted grizzly bears many times and respect the animals’ size, strength, and ferocity immensely. I wouldn’t want to go through that experience again, but feel fortunate to have come out alive. It was only by the skin of my teeth that I came through unscathed.