Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Kenai Black Bear Hunt - September 2022

Briefly back in Anchorage between fieldwork, weddings, and COVID, I was treated with what has lately been a rare dry day to go look for a blueberry bear on the Kenai. Nyssa was down for the count with COVID, and I was dragging too, so motivation was low and I honestly kind of hoped I didn't finder any keepers.

Driving south thru Turnagain Pass, I stopped at each pullout to look into as many nooks and crannies as I could on Seattle Ridge. The countless drainages, ridges, bushes, and terrain features here make it hard to check all the terrain. On the south end of the pass I could see the large three brown slugs of a brown bear sow and her cubs grazing on the shoulder of TT43. I'd never seen grizzlies there this time of year, and didn't feel like it was a particularly good sign for a black bear.

I kept driving south towards Summit Lake with a pit stop at Granite Creek to shoot my 270 and confirm I hadn't bumped the scope during my recent bushwhacking and tumbling on Kodiak. By the time I'd made it to the south end of Summit Lake I hadn't glassed any black bears. Figuring that it wasn't my day, I started to make my way north. Looking up from the Johnson Pass trailhead I could see the distinct hump of the shoulder of a big brown bear eating in the alpine. At first I assumed it was the same sow I'd seen a couple hours before, but then watched the sow and her cubs walk out of a gully a quarter mile away.

Another big bruin probably chasing the black bears off the berries - I was really feeling like this wasn't my day. But, looking through my binoculars from the Cornbiscuit lot, I saw the distinctly sharp edges of a black shape waddle out from the yellow leaves of an alder clump high above the road. To my surprise this blackie happily chowing down within a half mile of the four brownies.

The blueberry bear didn't look to be too high on the slope, and I watched for awhile to see if it would stick around. The bear made slow progress north as it grazed into the winds flowing through the pass.  Since it seemed focused on feeding in one area, I stuffed what hunting gear I'd remembered into my pack, and was soon sprinting across the Granite Creek bridge. It felt good to be familiar enough with the area to use the bridge instead of wading or balance beaming on a teetering log as we've done so many times before.

Swimming through grass taller than me, I climbed up towards the bear as it fed above. I was north of the bear, and knew that with the wind, I'd need to traverse south to stay downwind as I gained elevation. As I climbed further, I realized that the bear was higher than I'd optimistically assumed - what a typical problem for me! Once close enough that the bear might start to notice, I crawled behind lines of alders and the small ridges that make up the texture of the front side of Seattle Ridge. At this point I lost sight of the bear, and tried to remember where it had been and project its heading as I closed the gap. 

High above the valley floor, the winds channeled by the terrain of the pass started to swirl like the eddies of a big river and I worked farther south in hopes that the bear wouldn't wind me with the changing drafts. At the point where it seemed the bear would be, I peered around the rocks to find out if my clawed pig was still there. 

The ball of black fur was nowhere to be seen, and I wondered if I'd been scented, she had waddled back into the bush for a nap, or just continued nibbling out of sight. As I've been reminded of by so many experiences over the years, I knew the animal could be out just of sight in a small pocket of the terrain that the human eye wouldn't normally even notice. I moved slowly in the direction the bear had been browsing hoping to catch up with the critter or expose her hiding spot. 

Crawling around the corner, I dropped as fast as possible as my eye caught the movement of ears on the skyline right below. Just as hoped, she had grazed around the corner and under a convexity in the terrain that I hadn't seen. I rolled onto my stomach, leveled the rifle, and waited for the bear to work into sight. Guzzling crow and blueberries like a vacuum, I could see she was a healthy adult as she crawled straight up the hill towards me. 

I squeezed the trigger, saw it connect, then stood as she came charging straight towards me. Knowing just how fast a wounded bear can run, I shot her in the spine as she flanked me, then went running after as she went careening down the hill. 

There was a solid blood trail to track as I followed downhill through 750 vertical feet of meadows and then three alders thickets before I found her in the fourth thicket. Tucked into the heart of the brush, I was 10 feet away before I could see her.

We were still high up in the steep avalanche terrain of the Kenai Mountains, and once I was sure I wasn't about to get mauled my an enraged bear, I dragged her towards a less precipitous incline for field dressing. Again, my optimism got the best of me and I started butchering where the terrain was still inappropriately steep. Every few minutes the beer would slip on the greasy grass and we'd go tumbling another 50 yards downhill together. These repeated incidents quickly reminded me just how dense and heavy bears are. After an hour and a half of processing and five more surprise descents down the hill I was done and ready to start the walk back to the car. 

Remembering the big brown bears not far away, I chambered a round, put on my microspikes, and took a moment to reflect before pointing towards the car. Growing up in a hippy family in Colorado, black bear hunting has been a hell of a challenge for me to figure out as an adult. I've loved getting to know the behavior of these magical animals and learning to hunt them. Of course, along the way there have been some memorable adventures, and I felt really lucky to have finally had this successful solo alpine bear hunt that adds another page to the story that is life.

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