This idea for an Alaskan black bear hunt began years ago when I told Kay Miculek that I wanted to shoot a grizzly with my bow. She said she would back me up and I thought, you can’t get much better than having one of the world best shooters back you up if something went south.
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Earlier this year, Kay came to me and said it was time and that we needed to do this hunt. We settled on dipping our toes into the Alaska hunting scene on a black bear hunt before we went after grizzly. I have archery hunted black bears for more than 15 years and Kay has one hunt in Minnesota under her belt, but neither of us has hunted them in Alaska. Kay, Jerry and Lena Miculek and I then made plans to have a boat take us to remote areas of the Kenai Peninsula on a self-guided hunt.
This was going to be my first bear hunt with a gun. All the bear hunts I had done in Colorado the last 15 years were with my bow, so I was excited to take a rifle with me into the woods. I settled on a JP Enterprises LRP-07 in .308. It is a semi-auto and I thought it would be the perfect rifle to use in Alaska because it could double as a self-defense gun if needed. I wouldn’t have to manipulate the bolt or try to reach for my pistol if a charging bear came at me. I also would be using the Fiocchi Hyperformance – 308 Winchester with a swift scirocco bonded bullet, in 150 weight and 2,875 FPS. Fiocchi is not just know for its shotshells, but also, its rifle hunting loads are some of the best you can get. I had taken an elk with the Fiocchi in .270 caliber last year and couldn’t be more impressed on how the round performed. You need to have the best you can get when going into some of the toughest hunting conditions on the planet.
We loaded up our gear into the “Allen Ray,” our 2-story vessel and home for the week, that would take us around the end of the Kenai Peninsula to where we would be hunting. We were able to get a tiny bit of fishing in on our 6+ hour boat ride and Lena caught the one-and-only fish, a lingcod. Since this fish was not in season yet, she quickly unhooked it and let it swim back into the depths of the ocean below us and we set our sights on bears.
After we made it to our first hunting spot, we anchored and got ready for the hunt. We glassed up a big black bear about halfway up the mountain and decided to gear up and head up the mountain after it. We quickly realized the brush was thicker and taller than we thought and couldn’t locate the bear again. It was an eye-opening experience – seeing vegetation that was over our heads on a hillside that had been covered in snow only a month earlier. With daylight for almost 21 hours and plenty of moisture, the plants had the perfect environment to grow and grow fast. It taught us a lot about the terrain and on our way out, it started to rain on us and the rain wouldn’t stop for three days. We hit the sack thinking we might have better luck in the morning.
We woke up and headed to an area that supposedly had a good bowl in the way back of the mountains that was great for glassing bears. Lena and I set out at 5 a.m.; seven hours later, we emerged soaked to the bone and exhausted from the thickest bushwhacking I have ever done. We found signs of bears in the area – such as tracks, rubs, feces, etc., but were unable to get to a spot where we could glass and the brush was so thick, it was hard to be quiet enough to sneak up on anything.
We learned a lot about the terrain, and I was very impressed with my hunting partner who didn’t complain once and pushed hard the whole day. She even suppressed the laughter when I ended up upside down with my feet in the air having slipped and fallen down a steep brushy hillside. She even made the most of it and did a victory dance when we found a 30- by 20-foot section of grass that was the only bare spot we had found the entire day that didn’t have brush over our heads. The company I was with were not only the best in the world at pulling the trigger, but they were also world class at making the most of any situation. The brush won that round, but we were determined to press on and later, headed to another island and a new opportunity to find what we were looking for.
Rain continued to fall, hard. We dried our things out on the boat, but it definitely made it feel like a wet sauna and by now, I sported a slight dirty sock smell. We headed to a new island and found some really amazing-looking bear country. It was the kind I had pictured in my mind and not as thick and brushy as the place the previous two days. This island was beautiful and besides some decent bear sign, it had a lot of beautiful flowers and gigantic leaves that dwarfed us.
The first morning, Lena and I set out and found several lush fields of grass and moss, a huge lake and a hillside to glass for bears. We bumped one bear in the thick brush and decided to head back with the whole crew in the afternoon to divide and conquer. Kay and Jerry got set up overlooking a different field each where it looked like the bears had been coming out to forage. Lena set up on a pond that had a great hillside to glass, and I headed for some new country that looked great on the map. It had steep, thick hillsides of blueberry bushes next to water and lush meadows.
After working into my second meadow, a bear came out of some thick brush at about 20 yards and rushed me. It stopped at about 12 yard, huffing and curling its lips at me. Having spent over 15 years hunting these beautiful animals, this wasn’t the first time this had happened and usually it was for one of two reasons, they are being territorial or because of their poor eyesight and they don’t know what you are. Black bears don’t normally rush humans and are usually more afraid of you than you are of them, but it is definitely a little more common in Alaska. I’m guessing this one had very few if any encounters with humans and was trying to just figure me out.
The bear turned slightly, and I took a shot that knocked the bear down immediately and just like that, I harvested my first black bear in Alaska and my first black bear ever with a gun. I have taken quite a few bears with my bow, but this was the first with my gun and although this was definitely bow range, I was happy to have my JP .308 with Fiocchi ammo with me.
This bear was going to feed my family for the summer and into the fall until the other hunting season in Colorado opened and for those of you who have never tried bear meat, it is really good. Just like any wild game, you just have to know how to cook it, but I prefer it to beef any day. You can also render the fat and use it in place of any oil or butter in cooking. It makes some of the best pie crust in the world!
I started quartering the bear and looking over my shoulder every little bit thinking I’d better hurry before other bears decided to come in as it was nearing the window of time where it gets semi dark for a few hours in Alaska. I was thinking I was going to have to take a lot of trips to pack it out since I couldn’t carry much from the surgery I had two weeks ago, but then Lena showed up! Not only did she help me cut it up, but she also packed the entire bear out for me so I could let my stomach heal. I definitely couldn’t have done it without her. We made it back to the boat and had a quick victory dessert before we crashed hard in our bunks for a few hours to get up and do it again in the morning. Kay, Jerry, and Lena still needed to get a bear.
It continued to rain hard, but there was promise in the forecast that it would let up. With my getting a bear on day #3, it gave us all hope that we would find more. In the morning, Kay and Lena headed out together and Jerry and I set out to try a few areas. Jerry and I started on a pond that overlooked a hillside we had heard bears on the last couple of days. After three days in the rain, we figured the bears were just as wet as we were and not moving as much. We were surprised by the lack of animals on this side of the Kenai Peninsula. There were some birds and a squirrel or two but very few. No deer, moose, no grizzly, really the only big game animals were some mountain goats way up high and a lot of black bears. The bears ruled this side of the mountain, along with the plants! The vegetation was probably the most impressive – growing upward of three- to five-feet in a month or two.
Jerry and I moved to a different spot on a hillside overlooking a field where we could see about 150 yards. It was raining hard, so we had our hoods up. Both Jerry and I are a little hard of hearing from too much shooting over the years, so we didn’t realize a bear was sneaking in behind us … until a stick broke at about 10 yards back. I grabbed my handgun and Jerry grabbed his rifle and we both spun around to see the bear sprinting off and out of sight as quick as it came in. I’m sure it smelled us and came in to check us out as the wind was blowing right toward him. It never gave Jerry an opportunity for a shot. Up until the bear came in for a visit, I had been sitting next to Jerry violently shivering and too stubborn to say anything. Because of all the frost bite damage on my hands and feet from my Olympic Biathlon years, I get cold very easily, especially when just sitting there. I was with the greatest shooter in the world and wasn’t going to cut his hunt short because of a little discomfort. After the bear encounter, we headed back to the boat, soaked and cold and ready for some food and dry clothes.
The next day, we ladies headed out to sit on our favorite meadow. It started out raining and quickly the clouds started to part and the sun peaked through for the first time in more than three days. Determined that the hungry bears would come out when the weather cleared up, we had an epic sit on the field for over 10 hours. No words were exchanged among the three of us nearly the entire 10 hours, but I’m sure we were all lost in our own thoughts as we took turns dozing in and out of sleep, while at least one of us kept watch. I know for me, I slept harder in that meadow than I have in years. It was almost like the running hard I’ve done for the last 20 years finally caught up to me and for a brief 10 hours I was able to just let the stress of the world go and just sleep knowing two of the best female shooters in the world had my back while I slept and I had theirs while they slept.
This trip, among many things, was good for all of us just to have a few days disconnected from the world and the only stress was whether or not we would see bears and if they wanted to eat us for lunch. Unfortunately, no bears showed up and we headed back to the boat with numb backsides but happy to see the sun and in awe of the beautiful country we were in. Jerry wasn’t able to locate any, but we were still determined to find them.
The last day! We had returned from our 10-hour sit and started heading back to the other side of the Kenai Peninsula as there was a storm approaching that promised 12-foot seas and a really rough ride home. Our captain motored us to our final spot that was just across the bay from Homer and we anchored at 1 a.m. We rose at 4 a.m. to one of the most beautiful settings we had seen yet. The sun was shining, and gigantic snow-covered peaks towered over us and made perfect reflections in the water. This area was completely different than all the areas we had hunted so far. There was much more variety of animals on this side of the mountains, such as moose, grizzly, grouse, ptarmigan and hopefully, plenty of black bears. Lena and I set out with one goal in mind, make it to the top!
We knew that if we got up high toward snow line, we would have a great chance of glassing some bears. The map said it would be about five miles up a little trail to the top, so we put our heads down and started trekking up. On our way up, we saw many promising signs – such as pile after pile of bear poop on the trail and what looked like open areas up high we could glass. The hours started ticking by as we headed up and we saw some beautiful country. We ran into a grouse that gave us a heart attack as it jumped out of the bushes next to us.
Once we hit snow line, we kept going. Our thinking was that the bears were living at or just below snow line and if we got above them, we would be able to see them. We had made it this far, we weren’t going to stop until we made it to the top. We found a few tracks in the snow, but not as many as I was expecting and hoping for. When we made it through or third or fourth snow field, Lena looked up at me and told me that this was her first time trekking through snow. I had no idea and was just as excited as she was to have her first experience in snow like that on top of a beautiful mountain in Alaska with the most amazing views. You really couldn’t get much better than that for a first time and we had made it to the top!
We had a much-needed lunch break and admired the view. We could see the several thousand feet down the mountain to where our tiny little boat was and also where Kay and Jerry were sitting and waiting for bears. From the spot we sat in, Lena and I could almost see forever and we talked about how we wished we were set up for backpacking and could just keep pushing over to the next ridge, the next meadow, the next mountain. But for both of us, it was one adventure coming to an end and more promised on the horizon.
We headed back down the mountain and found a few fresh tracks, a few places to glass for bears but were unsuccessful in locating them. With the unusually warm weather, we knew our chances of seeing a bear as afternoon rolled around, would be very slim. So we headed back down to where we know the rest of the group was waiting for us and headed out to the boat. Once we made it back to the boat, the group decided to end the trip fishing instead of diving back into the brush for bears and we motored out to the bay.
After several hours of somewhat competitive fishing and a little trash talking, our Alaska black bear hunt came to an end. We may not have all tagged out and come home with bears, but we all came home with stories and an adventure we might have never done had this group never decide to get together.
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