Plagued By Grizzly Bears

My wife Nicki and I had a caribou hunt on our bucket list for several years. When we found out in late 2016 that an Alaska hunting license and tags would be doubling in price, we decided 2017 was it. We bought tags and booked a 7-day unguided hunt with Artic Air for September 2017. In early September, we flew into Kotzebue, Alaska and met up with the folks from Artic Air for the flight into the Brooks Range. The pilot told us the caribou were starting to migrate out and about 10,000 had come out of the Brooks Range already. Upon landing on a gravel bar next to the river, we met a party from Texas (a father and his boys) who were just finishing their hunt. They were successful with a medium size caribou and had seen others too far away. While they were load­ing their gear on the plane, a small herd of caribou with a couple of small bulls came out of the willows on the other side of the river, across from camp. It was a good sign and got our blood pumping. The river was full of spawning salmon and we asked the other hunters if they’d seen any grizzly bear, and they said yes, but they didn’t have any trouble with them.

The first day of hunting was uneventful. The temper­ature was a warm 70-degrees, so we were in t-shirts most of the time. We saw some caribou too far away to go after and we also saw several bears along the river, but nothing close. The second day started mild, but got windy and colder. Nicki and I had split up as we usual­ly do and I was hunkered down in some brush on top of a hill glassing when it started raining. Later that afternoon, I spotted Nicki walking back towards camp (she said she had got cold and was going back to camp to warm up). As I watched her, I continued glassing and spotted a herd of caribou coming our way. It was a herd of 10 bulls and when I glassed Nicki, I knew she had seen them too. They were headed to come across in front of her. so she found cover in a shallow hole as they worked closer. At about 300 yards she shot twice and missed as wind gusted and her bullets went wide. The caribou bunched up and Nicki waited until the bull she picked out was clear and her next shot was right on, as the rest of the herd scattered, her bull toppled. I worked my way down and joined her. She had got a nice bull with no velvet, which is what she wanted. She was already talking about having it mounted. Since it was getting late in the day, we dressed the bull, taking a tenderloin to eat at camp, then drug it several hundred yards away from the gut pile. We then decided due to the weather and darkness to return to camp and we made plans to get it to camp the next day.

The next morning, we headed back to get the caribou. When we were about 400 yards away, I noticed some movement and my binoculars confirmed there was a griz­zly on the caribou! We were told later we should have let him have it, but Nicki was adamant that it was NOT going to get her caribou. I fired a couple of shots into the ground near it and we yelled and waved our arms and it took off across the tundra. It had partially buried the caribou up to its front shoulders and had eaten some of the hind­quarters. We dug it up and skinned and quartered it and packed it back to camp, then cleaned the quarters and bagged them and hung them on a willow tree frame made by previous hunters about 75 yards behind the tent. That night Nicki cooked part of a of the tenderloin for supper and we found it was tough and terrible tasting! I had eaten caribou before and it was delicious. I noticed this caribou had almost no fat when we dressed it, unlike the two bulls a friend and I had taken 14 years before, which had 2” of fat on their backs.

The next morning before I headed out to hunt, we checked on the meat we had hung up. All the quarters had been torn down and consumed by a bear or bears. the meat sacks and bones were scattered everywhere. The caribou was gone! The only thing that was left was the horns and cape, which we had put close to the tent. We had heard nothing during the night. We took pictures of the remains to show the Alaskan State Troopers if they came to check on us. We knew they were sticklers for making sure we salvaged all the meat (as it turned out they never came). It had rained during the night and was still raining, but I went hunting for the morning. I could not locate any caribou, but did see a grizzly downstream.

That night I woke to the sound of rocks being flipped over. My heart skipped a beat when I heard grunting sounds not 20 feet from the tent! I started yelling and beating the sides of the tent, which woke up Nicki who started doing the same as we heard a bear running away across the river. I had put my Ruger .300 WSM fully loaded next to my cot before I went to sleep and I was ready for a bear if it came into the tent. That morning, we could see where the bear had flipped over big rocks under the tarp, which was 20 feet from the tent where we cooked our meals as he looked for any morsels we dropped. Our ‘latrine’ was back in the willows near the caribou meat, so before going back there, we made a lot of noise and took our rifles. We had all the food, which was all freeze-dried except for some bread and trail snacks in the tent. We had no means to put it up in a tree. I decided to go hunting that afternoon. The stream we had been jumping across to go hunting was swollen due to the rain, so I took off my boots to wade across. When I got back, Nicki was working on her caribou cape with her rifle by her side. It seems a grizzly came to camp and gave her a surprise visit before she scared it off.

That night we were awoken twice by bears in camp. We scared them off, but it was unsettling to say the least. We could hear the bears walking around the tent and splashing in the river. The next morning, we decided we should leave. We called Artic Air on our satellite phone and told them what was going on. They were shocked we were having bear problems as the last hunters at our camp had no problems. We asked if we could be moved to a new location, but they said the weather had locked down the flights out of Kotzebue. they advised us to shoot the bears if they gave us problems, but I didn’t want too unless absolutely necessary. They were just doing what they needed to do to prepare for winter. I continued to go hunting for caribou, but with not much success, just a few cows/calves and not very close. We continued to have nightly visits from the bears. One morning we could not find Nicki’s caribou rack. We searched for it and finally located it 75 yards away, with bear tracks all around. We managed to put it in a tree out of reach.

On the 6th day of our hunt, we called Artic Air on the satellite phone and were advised the weather was clear and they could come and get us. We made the decision to leave a day early since we weren’t seeing any caribou and the bear problem wasn’t going away. It turned out to be the right decision as the next day (our original pickup date) all flights in and out of Kotzebue were grounded. We talked with other hunters who were waiting to fly out to hunt. We managed to get out on our flight to Anchorage on time that evening and made it home the next day.

Reflecting on our hunt, I figured the bear (or bears) did us a favor by eating the caribou. If the tenderloin was terrible, the rest of the meat wouldn’t have been good either. We got Nicki’s caribou mounted and now when we look at it, we are reminded of our grizzly adventure.