This story is about a trip in which I was guiding a multi-millionaire land developer from Newport Beach, California. I’ll call him Harry.
During those early years of my guiding career I used the Piper Super Cub as a mode of transportation and to locate game. This story takes place along the remote Alaska Peninsula, near the DEW line site of Port Moller, Alaska, half way between King Salmon and Cold Bay, Alaska. I had been trained well in the use of this little Super Cub. All my training had taken place under the guidance of my mentor, Lee Holen, all in the vast range of the Wrangell Mountains which is some of the highest, roughest and most unforgiving real estate in North America. Lee taught me well and I could definitely hold my own in the school of so called “Bush Pilots”, that is, real bush pilots, one who could fly, land and take off on mountain hillsides, shale rock slopes, glaciers, high mountain ridges, all at five to seven thousand foot altitude, all usually with three people in the cub, which is one more than Mr. Piper intended it to carry. To make a long story short, I was good at it and I knew how to handle that cub in most any situation, from the ice packs of the frozen Arctic Ocean to the mountains of the Wrangells and far out the windy, rainy, foggy Alaska Peninsula.
It was October and Harry had booked a trip with me to come up and shoot a ten foot trophy Alaskan Brown Bear. I knew before Harry got here that he was 1. Always in a hurry 2. Wanted the biggest Bear in Alaska and 3. Was willing to go anywhere and work hard to get it. What Harry didn’t know was that his chance of getting a really HUGE Bear was just a matter of luck given the vast area one had to look over to find such a trophy.
Walking an area this size was out of the question. One might have to fly in a Super Cub extensively in an area one hundred twenty miles long by an average to forty miles wide, a 4800 square mile area, to see such a trophy, looking at between twenty and forty Bears a day. It could take days – all this taking place while flying the Alaska Peninsula (note – a fact worth mentioning here – all during the ’60’s and ’70’s, big ten foot Bear were difficult to find. After airplane hunting was stopped and seasons were shortened, the Bear have made an amazing comeback. Today one could find one or two ten footers a day under the same conditions. There are more Bear now than at any time during my guiding career, from 1957 to 1986. Good management and eliminating guides like myself has paid off).
I knew Harry was going to be real particular and would ask me point blank, “How big is it, Ron?” every time we flew over a Bear. Most of the time my answer was, “Oh, he’s about eight foot, maybe nine foot, Harry”. I could judge from the air the size of a Bear in just one pass over him. Of course, I wasn’t always that good but at the time Harry came, I could tell the difference between a nine and a ten foot Bear. The average Brown Bear taken in Alaska during that time period was under eight foot. What we were looking for was rare indeed.
It was technically legal what we were doing, and the method I used to do it. Flying all day, looking for a big Bear, then landing as near as possible, walk to the area where we last saw the Bear and try to find him. The law that was in effect at that time was, if flying is used as transportation, then before one can hunt or take a Bear, one must set up an established camp, suitable for sleeping and eating. Camp must be set up and habitable. Since I was hunting and guiding Harry by myself without any other guide helping me, I carried my camp in the Super Cub with us. If I saw a Bear I wanted to further investigate, I’d land, put up a pop tent, one that simply popped open, takes about thirty seconds, throw all the cooking gear and sleeping bags inside the tent and take off to stalk the Bear, which many times had simply walked away or, if luck was with us, still eating berries or feeding somewhere near where we’d last seen him from the plane. Usually it was less than a mile away, but it had to be down wind and far enough away so that we didn’t scare him off when we landed. These were critical elements that, if not performed correctly, the Bear would disappear.
It was our fourth day of the hunt. We had covered thousands of square miles, looking at just about every Bear that was out during daylight, between Port Heiden and Cold Bay, Alaska. Several times during the hunt I had noticed Peg Legs plane in the area.
This game warden, who I’d nicknamed Peg Leg because he had a wooden leg, he gimped around pretty well on one good leg and one artificial, but one thing was certain – he always had a sawed off double barrel shotgun with him everywhere he went. You never saw Peg Leg without that shotgun. I bet he slept with it.
Peg Leg wasn’t a pilot. He was always with some Super Cub pilot who chartered his services to the Fish and Game because he couldn’t make it on his own. By that, I mean that amongst our peers, I don’t know of any guide pilot who considered pilots who fly and hire out to the protection division of the Fish & Game Department to be really good at bush flying, or willing to take the chance for the trophy sought. These pilots usually had a set of rules they adhered to. The first rule was if the weather was too tough, not to fly. The Fish & Game pilots didn’t have to go – they got paid anyway. Why take the chance? Most of them were only mediocre pilots, fair weather pilots. If the weather was real bad, mostly foggy and windy, one didn’t have to worry about these pilots being out and about.
That’s when the outlaw guides usually preferred to go. Low visibility, high winds, rain and fog – that was our idea of perfect weather for hunting. Landing and taking off in impossible places was all part of our pattern. We wrecked a few airplanes, but that was part of the cost of doing business. Usually, we had the field to ourselves when the weather was at it’s worst. Which meant ole Peg Leg wasn’t out either.
But lately, the weather had been perfect so we had to keep our eyes open that ole Peg Leg didn’t catch us in a violation. He’d been chasing me around on the Peninsula for a couple years and he really wanted to catch me doing something illegal. He put the word out that he was going to take me down. It would put a feather in his cap and would have been worth a promotion if he could catch me. Such as NO camp set up, which was called land and shoot. I tried very much to avoid such practices but I wasn’t beyond doing it if that’s what it took to get a ten foot Bear for my client.
Anyway, it was a perfect day. We looked all day without seeing a ten footer. We were on our way back to our campsite, which I’d set up on the west fork of the Chignik River just South of Port Heiden. It was about 5:00pm on October 12th, 1961. We were going over Fog Creek, near the Ilnik River, when I looked ahead of us and saw a monster big Bear just disappearing in an alder patch about five acres in size. It was scattered bushes with volcanic ash patches all around it. The alder patch was fairly isolated. As I flew over, the Bear looked up at me – he was BIG, and I mean BIG! I got a real good look, since he was in a small clearing near the center of the alder patch.
Harry immediately asked, “How big is he, Ron?”. I answered, “he’s over ten foot, Harry – let me make another pass and take a better look at the fur condition and verify he’s really as big as I think he is and that he don’t have any rubbed spots on him”. As I made another pass over the Bear at about fifty feet, he reared up on his hind legs and swatted the air, then bit the hell out of the nearest alder bush. I figured right then I was going to have trouble. He wasn’t about to leave those alder bushes and was indicating, “here I am – – come and get me!”. Didn’t look good since those alder bushes were eight to fifteen feet high and could hide an elephant. Once you’re down in them it’s a jungle. It’s a very deceiving picture when one is looking down on it from a Super Cub. If it looks a little bushy from the air, then it’s a jungle when you get down in it.
There was plenty going through my mind about then. Where to land, will the Bear stay, will it be too dark before we can roust him out, and the biggest question – can we roust him without an attack. We sure don’t want what happened to Jack happen to us (Jack Lee, another Alaskan Guide, who I worked with a lot was attacked and almost mauled to death by a real big Brown Bear under the exact same circumstances as we were looking at now, but that’s another story, which I’ll tell you about later).
After deciding he was a good one and we should try and get him, I looked the surrounding area over and found a landing place, a small cinder bed about a mile away. We landed, grabbed our pop tent, set it up and threw in all the camp gear and sleeping bags and took off after that Bear.
Harry was in good shape and we made it one mile in about twenty minutes. We were working the wind so the Bear wouldn’t smell us. About a hundred yards from the alder patch I spotted a small nob twenty feet higher than the surrounding area. Since there was only the two of us, I needed to get Harry up on a high spot where he could shoot the Bear when it came out of the alders. The plan was to leave Harry on this nob while I went around to the other side, enter into the alders, make a lot of noise and scare the Bear out. Harry would have a clear shot. It was risky business for me since I’d be very near the Bear. When he smelled me, he had three choices – stay hid, which they usually do not do; run out towards Harry; or attack me when I got within his smell and range. I sure as heck didn’t relish the latter, but that’s the choice a guide has to make to be a success.
In my twenty-five years of poaching I have guided several hundred clients on Brown Bear, Grizzly and Polar Bear hunts. I can count on two hands all the clients that were unsuccessful in getting a Bear. All of us bush pilots took tremendous chances with the Bears and the flying conditions. Anyway, that’s the way it was. Here I was, rousting out another mad Brown Bear to a hunter sitting on a nob the other side of this alder patch with his 300 Weatherby Magnum.
I started out around the alder patch, not knowing if the Bear was even still in there. I carefully checked my model 70 to made sure I had a bullet in the chamber. These model 70’s are the most reliable rifles made. They have the best safety positions, positive shell extraction and they hold four shells in the magazine and one in the barrel in a .375 H&H magnum caliber. This is one more than any other model. Several times in my life I’ve needed that extra shell. It’s saved my life at least once.
As I approached the upwind side of the alder patch I figured at any time I’d hear the thump, the sound of a bullet hitting flesh, followed by the sound of a shot as Harry cut loose. Usually the Bear runs out downwind when they smell humans. But the minutes passed and – – nothing but silence. After about three minutes I yelled at Harry that I was going in the alders. I yelled NOT to answer me since I hoped the Bear didn’t know Harry was lying in wait just a hundred yards from where it was expected the Bear would run out of the alders.
I started in the alders. It was my intention to make a lot of noise, walk about fifty yards into the alders, then turn and walk out the side to the right. Next I’d go back and start over, but this time getting into the alder patch about fifty yards, I’d turn left and go out the side making a lot of noise, hollering to Harry all the time. No Bear. Not a sign of him. I’d surmised the Bear had walked out before we got there. I told Harry I was coming straight through the alder patch, that I’d be making lots of noise, NOT TO shoot me. He acknowledged and I started through towards Harry. No Bear and I broke out on Harry’s side without seeing a sign of him. It’s impossible to see any track sign in the tundra. The Bear could of run out without leaving any sign. I told Harry he must have slipped out after we landed the plane, before we got there.
Dejectedly, we walked back to the Super Cub, broke camp, loaded up and took off. I told Harry I was going to take another look just to verify the Bear had taken off and where he’d gone. We flew over the alder patch. I looked down and near the center of that five acre alder patch, about ten feet from an autumn yellow willow was that Bear! He was slunk down, as if to hide. It occurred to me that I’d walked within twenty feet of that yellow bush when I was going through to meet Harry. What the hell, I couldn’t believe that Bear had let me pass that close without attacking me, but he sure did. I told Harry, “Let’s go back and land and go after that Bear!”.
We immediately landed on the same cinder blow, tied the plane to an alder and took off. It was getting late, I told Harry, to hell with the camp – let’s go!. I hadn’t seen ole Peg Legs plane in the last three hours. I wasn’t too concerned about the fact that by not putting up a habitable camp we were breaking the law.
We covered the mile back to the alder patch in less than fifteen minutes. Harry took his spot on the nob. I went around and got on the upwind side, checked my rifle and started in the alders. After easing about fifty yards into the alder patch I could see the yellow bush ahead of me. Needless to say I was getting nervous. Where was that Bear? I was intently looking right at the area where I’d seen him lying from the plane. Was he behind me now, or would he jump me from the side – these thoughts were racing through my mind as I looked ahead, right, left and behind me. I remembered two of my friends in the late ’50’s were intently looking for a Bear to come out of a den when he attacked them from behind. Another of my friends walked up on a gut pile looking for the Bear when it attacked him from the side and killed him. This was all going through my mind.
I just stood frozen, rifle up and ready, when I caught a movement twenty-five feet ahead of me in the exact spot I’d been looking for the Bear. I stared at the spot. After what seemed like an eternity, I could make out two eyes, then the ears and part of a monster head – looking straight at me! He knew for sure where I was. He was completely hidden except those eyes, ears and a dim outline of his huge head. He had to be in a hole or depression, just lying there waiting for his chance. I knew I was in trouble since the Bear already knew where and what I was. I started talking, “Hey Bear – – Hey, Bear”. I yelled at Harry I might have to shoot his Bear. I had the rifle ready and sighted on that big head, safety off and slack taken on the trigger. Harry hollered back, “If you shoot my Bear I’m not paying for the hunt!”.
At about this time that monster slowly turned his head around and gently eased his body around and walked away from me. It was like a ghost – first he’s there, then he’s gone. I yelled at Harry that the Bear was coming his way, then all went silent. About a minute later I heard the thump as a bullet struck body, then immediately heard the shot. Just that one single shot. I yelled, “Did you get a good shot?” I knew he’d hit him since I’d heard the bullet strike before I heard the rifle shot. Harry said, “Yeah, he’s down!”.
I took off in the direction where I thought the Bear would be. I spotted him and carefully walked towards the downed Bear. When I got to where he was laying, I yelled at Harry to come. As Harry was coming up, I took my Hudson bay axe out of my pack and started cutting alder branches to throw over the Bear in case Ole Peg Leg came by in a Super Cub. As I mentioned before, I’d neglected to put the tent up or throw the camping things and sleeping bags in the tent, which made the entire hunt illegal. If I got caught in such a situation, the State, upon conviction, could take my airplane. In those days, that’s about all I owned.
Harry came down. He wanted a picture. I took one real quick picture and was getting my knives ready to skin the Bear when I heard the distant sound of a plane. I scrambled to get the alder branches on the Bear and Harry and I got into the brush a couple feet away. We got under a camouflage tent fly and I pulled out my binoculars. I found the plane through my Zeiss binoculars and sure enough, it was Peg Leg’s plane. I knew he’d seen my plane parked on the cinder blow and would fly straight to it, after which he would start making larger circles to locate us. If we could hold out and hide a little while it would be getting dark and Peg Leg would have to leave.
He started his circle. As he got close to us I told Harry, “Don’t look out even after he’s flown by since he’ll be looking back to see if we make a move after he goes by. When he starts to bank to make his turn, we can prepare ourselves better. His own wing will be down and block his view towards us”. After Peg Leg had flown on by and was making his circle the other side of my plane, I figured it was safe to get up and better prepare our hideout. I cut a couple more branches and threw them over the Bear, the crowded back under our camouflage fly as Peg Leg headed our way for another look.
On the second pass Peg Leg made over us, just as he went over, that damn Bear jumped up from under the alder branches I’d tossed over him. All hell broke loose! That Bear alive, less than ten feet away, the game warden overhead just looking for a violation and to top it off, NO RIFLES. They were leaning on an alder bush just out of arms reach. We both made a dive for the rifles and laid two shots into that Bear faster than the blink of an eye. The Bear was down again. I rushed to get the alders back on him before the plane came back around for another pass. I don’t know to this day how Peg Leg and his pilot missed all that commotion as they flew over. After several more passes and without seeing anything suspicious, darkness got the best of ole Peg Leg. He headed for Port Heiden, where he was staying.
By this time it was almost dark. I started skinning the Bear, with Harry helping by holding the flashlight. I estimated the big Bear to be between twelve hundred to thirteen hundred pounds. He was a big one. It took me about fifty-five minutes to rough skin that Bear. I usually have three knives when skinning. That way, I don’t have to stop to sharpen my knife.
I got the skin on my pack, lashed it down, got it up on my back and picked up the skull, ready to lead Harry back to the airplane where the camp was. By now it’s completely dark, around 9:00pm. Walking back to the plane was going to be slow since I had a hundred and ten pound Bear skin, plus a twenty-five pound skull and a nine pound rifle to carry. Even in my excellent physical shape at that time, tundra walking with such a load can be a grueling experience.
We started walking in the direction where I thought we’d left the plane. We walked ten minutes, then fifteen – after we’d been walking about an hour we still hadn’t found the airplane. It’s pitch black dark. We couldn’t even see our feet it was so dark. One thing I was thankful for was that it wasn’t raining and blowing twenty or thirty miles and hour like it usually was on the Alaskan Peninsula.
After another hour I told Harry I was going to have to put down the Bear and leave it. I couldn’t continue carrying it all night while we searched for the plane. Harry wasn’t too happy about leaving his Bear, but I told him I’d put a red bandana up in the top of an alder bush to mark it and when it got light in the morning, I’d go get it. He reluctantly agreed. What a relief to get rid of that load! I’d been carrying it over two hours.
To add to our problems, the batteries in my flashlight finally gave up. We were stumbling around in the dark with no flashlight. Harry and I worked out a plan to walk a grid pattern, keeping in touch at all times by talking to each other. After what seemed like hours later, we stumbled upon the plane, flopped ourselves in our sleeping bags laid out under the wing and dropped into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning I got up and started back in the general direction of the Bear kill. No more than ten minutes away I saw the red bandana waving from the top of an alder bush. I picked up the Bear hide and went back to the plane. We packed everything up and took off for my camp in the West fork of the Chignik.
A couple days later I saw ole Peg Leg at Port Heiden. I jumped his case and told him he left us stranded, that we were broke down when he circled us down by Blueberry Creek. He never did know how close he was to catching me red handed that day.
Peg Leg stayed on as a Game Warden in the Alaska Peninsula area for two or three more years. Then he just disappeared. I never did find out where he moved to. Peg Leg was only one of several Game Wardens who chased me around on the Peninsula during the next several years. A couple who come to mind are Joe and Steve, but that’s another story, which I’ll surely get around to one of these days.
The Bear was a monster. He was a sixteen year old male with a hide that squared ten foot eight inches and a skull that was over twenty-nine and three eights inches. The State of Alaska measures all Brown Bear hides that are killed in Alaska. A tooth is taken which is tested for age.