Posted by Eric on 4/15/2020 to
I remember vividly the first time I saw a grizzly. Marty (Dad) and my brother in law James and me were all on Contwoyto Lake in Nunavut, Canada on a 5 day "once in a lifetime" (we say that a lot) hunt for barren ground Caribou. It was day three and we didn't just SEE a grizzly bear. We saw grizzly bearS and watched an epic showdown the producers at Discovery Channel would have drooled to have an opportunity to film.
Here are a few key points to bring you up to speed with some specifics of the trip. Contwoyto Lake is way up there. I mean WAY up there. When the lumbering plane with thick, chunky tires carrying us and our gear from Yellowknife, NW Territory landed on the gravel runway we noticed a large, orange, multi-tiered building right on the edge of the lake. This was the Lupin Gold Mine, aka the end of the line for the TV show Ice Road Truckers. It was a mile hike from the landing strip to the waterfront where our ferries waited to take us to camp. The 15 mile ride would take roughly 2 hours and we were grossly unprepared for A) how wet we would get riding almost maxed out on the choppy water, and B) how unbelievably cold the combination of glacier water, wind, and length of time on the bouncing boat would make us. Maybe a no-brainer, but my goodness it was cold. So cold in fact that I'm not sure any of us ever actually got warm in the next 6 days. If you're hunting that far north in Canada in mid-September and you get wet, you're just gonna be wet.
Later in the afternoon on Day 1 Dad killed his bull. It was a great way to start the trip with about a mile stalk on a bachelor group of 6 bulls and Dad made a perfect lung shot through a small window at 240 yards with his 444 Marlin. To that point it was the furthest any of us had attempted to make a shot with the 444, and our Mike Bellm rechambered Bergara 44 Mag barrels were dizzyingly accurate. How accurate? Prior to leaving we printed a 7/16" 3 shot group at 100 yards running the Hornady FTX 265 grain Leverevolution ammo. We were confident, Dad thought, out to 300 yards with a steady rest and would have opportunity to prove it on this trip in spades.
Remember how I mentioned being cold and unprepared [for the cold]? This was a frustrating moment of dread every morning as we loaded the boat and set out for hunting grounds. Not to mention putting on our gear still wet from the day before. Dad and I eventually got smart enough to take along a tarp to wrap ourselves up with to prevent being completely soaked at the end of the two hour one way boat ride. The bummer of Day 2 was that 2 hour boat ride turned into a 7 hour boat ride as we had massive amounts of motor troubles. We eventually stopped off on an outcropping of land where our guide Peter knew of a friend's boat who had left for the season. We helped him swap out and mount the other motor so we could get back home. Incidentally the "loaner" motor added some much needed horses and allowed us to cover more ground faster.
Day 3 brought a bit of a heart-to-heart with Peter as I was beginning to have concerns that he felt we couldn't hack it physically and needed to stay close to the boat. He must have taken our little talk seriously because as soon as we tied off the boat and got our gear settled he pulled out a pair of hiking boots. I noted the difference verbally to which he swiftly quipped: "Hiking boots... for walking". Dad and I shot each other a look because we knew it was on. Mostly dry to start, we slogged along behind Peter for a few miles up to a rocky outcropping where you could see nearly 5 miles in any direction. Okay 10 miles in any direction. Low rolling hills and vegetation no taller than 16" makes for an easy to view landscape. I say "mostly" and "slogged" because earlier when I stepped out of the boat my foot slipped off a mossy rock just below the surface of the water and in no time I had water up to my thigh. My 9" BOA laced boots didn't stand a chance and almost immediately I had a boot full of ice cold glacier water.
He didn't say much, but when he did Peter was descriptive. He took his pack off and as he did pointed to a spot in the valley below, "bull carcass". He knew animals traveled through this spot and Dad and I both had wolf and wolverine tags in our pockets as well. Not 30 seconds passed and we saw a flash of brown and movement in the area the carcass was supposed to be. But it wasn't any caribou. It was a bear! A grizzly bear even. There's no doubt in my mind that my mouth was ajar as I watched in amazement something 600 yards away could seem so close. Even at that distance the robust and menacing features were evident: the big blocky head, the turned in front paws, the big belly and especially.... ESPECIALLY the hump between the shoulders.
We sat and glassed and within a few minutes spotted a speck of white moving in our direction from a couple miles out. Peter muttered "wolf" under his breath and in a short 10 minutes his observation was proven correct. A beautiful and big arctic wolf was now in our immediate vicinity and headed for the carcass. The bear seemed unaware or at the very least not concerned with the impending presence of the smaller predator, but we watched patiently hoping something wild would happen. The wolf pulled up about 50 yards from the bear and its carcass and the stare down began. Shortly the wolf began to circle and the bear chased him for a couple hundred yards. Speedier and more nimble, the wolf managed to swing around and charge in on the carcass and grab a mouth full before grizz got back to run him off again. It was so stinking cool. Cool enough for me to forget my freezing right leg and foot gradually turning into a block of ice!
The three of us were so enamored by the spectacle in front of us we almost completely missed the SECOND grizzly making his way to the party from our 4 and 3 o'clock over our right shoulder just a couple hundred yards away. If my description of the first grizzly at said distance seemed in your face, the second grizzly plodding along just 200 yards to our right seemed like he was in our laps. Alas no bear tags in pocket, but I was chomping to maybe get a shot at that gorgeous wolf if he took one of his wide swings in our direction. I crept down the shallow slope as far as I could and got locked in on a boulder with Dad's .444 Encore.
Dad and I whispered back and forth what that big 265 grain bullet would do at 600 yards even zeroed 1.5" high at 100 yards. The best we could figure it would be about a 4 foot drop. Even if I did have the chance at a shot the hard part would be getting the wolf to stop. Because now, it wasn't just the wolf antagonizing the original grizzly over his spoils. Now there were 3 animals in a constant merry-go-round of charge in, run them off, 3rd party swoop in for a mouthful, big bear come back to reclaim prize and over and over and over. Looking back it's not even one of those things you could easily craft with your imagination, but I remember the moment as vividly as sitting on the damp ground leaning against a cold boulder praying the wolf would work its way 200 yards closer.
But herein lies the problem. Even if I did get a shot at the wolf a tad closer to our location, how would we get down there to retrieve it? Just as Dad and I had arrived at holdover for a shot, Peter jumped in with one of his sort but pointed phrases, "No way to get wolf out with bears still there". And with the carcass still there for the taking, there was no way at least one if not both bears would still be in the vicinity even if I did manage to make a historical shot on the wolf. So we quickly and quietly backed out, having only seized the opportunity to watch the show as long as nature allowed.
Later that day from the boat we spotted a group of 5 bulls not far from the bank and Peter made an absolutely legendary move with the boat to get us in position. I kid you not he turned it around and backed it in straight at these bulls. Our target bull was sort of right in the middle as they loped over the hillside and we gave chase. Kneeling and resting the rifle from Peter's hard frame pack 10 minutes and a few shots later I connected with a storied shot of 375 yards from Dad's .444 and he dropped hard.
Bummed as I was about not getting a shot at that wolf, we were richer for the whole experience. After my bull almost completely snuck up on us and put a capstone on our day, the day I told Peter that we weren't afraid to put in the work, the earlier events were cemented as those moments where you begin to realize the animal itself isn't really the trophy at all. Well it's not the only prize, anyway. The trophy or maybe even more so the reward are really the sum total of experiences shared that would never had happened if we stayed home or found a reason not to go.
If you can even find an inkling of a way.... GO!