Sheer terror made me weak. Racing up the grassy tundra slope toward me was several hundred pounds of mad grizzly. Not just any grizzly, but one really mad, big gut-shot bear.
As large beads of sweat ran down my forehead, I dropped my binoculars and grabbed my rifle. I had about one and a half football fields to stop the enraged bruin, or I’d be doing hand-to-hand combat with him.
“I didn’t know a grizzly could run that fast,” I thought aloud.
This adventure had already been a day in the making. One of our caribou hunters, a lawyer, had a grizzly tag he hoped to fill. We had spent some time on the base camp range shooting and I found out that he could shoot well, at least on paper.
At 100 yards, he could put five shots from his custom rifle into an almost one-hole group. Satisfied that his rifle was on and he was capable of shooting it well, we discussed the hunt and what my rules would be when we were out on the tundra.
“We wanted the bear dead as quickly as possible.”
We looked at a picture of a grizzly, and I explained that he should take only a shot that would break both the bear’s shoulders and put him on the ground. Most importantly, I told him, was my cardinal rule of bear hunting: He was to keep shooting until I told him to quit.
We wanted the bear dead as quickly as possible. He agreed to the rules and I watched him shoot some more. His shooting impressed me.
Early the next morning, he and I were sitting on a steep tundra hill two miles from camp, glassing a vast basin for caribou. I saw movement near the bottom of the hill, and when I put my binoculars on it I saw a big grizzly plowing up a rock pile, digging for ground squirrels. The wind was blowing from the grizzly to us, so we began closing the distance to the busy bear.
I motioned for the hunter to follow, and we went from alder patch to alder patch to get within shooting range of the bear. Normally, I try to get a hunter within 50 yards of a grizzly before putting him into a shooting position. But because this one could shoot so well, I elected to let him shoot from a greater distance. Besides, the big bear was offering an easy broadside target.
Near the end of our stalk, we ran out of cover and had to crawl to a depression that looked like a terrace in the side of the hill. When we arrived there, we were well-hidden and able to look down the hill some 140 yards to where the unsuspecting bear was still plowing dirt to catch a squirrel.
The hunter took off his down jacket and rolled it up to rest his rifle on for a steady shot. I laid my rifle down and got on my belly to watch the bear through my binoculars. The bear was broadside to us, giving the hunter a perfect shot.
I could hear the hunter breathing hard and it wasn’t from the stalk. He was excited, being so close to his first encounter with a grizzly in the wild. I whispered for him to take a deep breath and try to calm down. Then I told him to remember to place his shot so that it would break the bear’s shoulders and to keep shooting until I said to stop.
He looked at me with eyes now big and nodded that he understood.
Watching the busy grizzly, it seemed like an hour went by before the rifle roared in my right ear. I heard the bullet strike the bear, but it sounded like it hit a drum. Howling, the bear rolled backwards a distance down the slope.
Then he got back on his feet and spun around, biting himself in the side. Around and around he spun, howling like a bull. The grizzly was obviously gut-shot.
I watched the bear’s antics through my binoculars and waited for the second shot, but none came. “Keep shooting!” I shouted.
Suddenly the bear stopped spinning. With blazing eyes fixed on me, he started running up the slope, foam flowing from his mouth. What had earlier appeared to be a lumbering, lethargic animal, now roared toward me like a freight train.
Time was critical. The expected second shot didn’t come, so I grabbed my rifle, found the charging bear in the scope and shot. The bear took the hit in his chest and rolled to one side and down the slope a few yards.
I bolted in another round. He caught the grass with his long front claws, got to his feet and with eyes fixed on my position, started running again. I found him in my scope and fired again, this time hitting his lower jaw and doing tremendous damage.
He bawled and shook his head, slinging blood everywhere, and again started charging towards me. I quickly bolted the rifle and this time I picked out his right shoulder and put the bullet in it.
He fell and began tumbling down the hill.
I bolted my last round into the chamber, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it. Hurt as he was, the bear caught the tundra dirt in his claws, stopped rolling and pulled himself up again. Pulling the trigger on my final round, I held just under his now-destroyed chin. The rifle cracked and he sank to the ground, finished.
I, too, felt finished as I realized the magnitude of what just happened.
Now that the crisis was over, I realized two things: First, the bear was just a few yards in front of me. Second, my hunter, who never fired a second shot, was not beside me. Shaking and weak, I turned and saw him scrambling up the slope behind me as fast as he could go.
It all made sense now. The bear probably never saw me. When the hunter realized he had made a bad first shot, he panicked and started running up the slope. Then the gut-shot bear saw the cause of all his misery and started running after it with revenge in his heart. I just happened to be in the middle.