How Fast Can a Grizzly Run?
EDITOR NOTE: While this is not a waterfowling story, it is a fantastic bear encounter story from a member of the forum – enjoy!
Back in my younger Air Force days in Alaska, I was not known by my present Nome de Plume of Bay Bob. In those days I was know as Bear Bob. Some credit the moniker to my enthusiasm for bears and bear hunting, and others because they say that I was “bearly believable”. At any rate there was some truth to the statement that I loved bears, and bear hunting. I even loved the country where bears and wolves thrived. Somehow I liked knowing that in these places without modern firearms you were no longer on the top of the food chain. I will admit that when sleeping in a tent, I rested much better with my .44 Magnum Redhawk, loaded with super hot hand-loads, under my inflatable pillow.
One of my favorite places in Alaska is the area surrounding Upper Russian Lake. It is accessible by any of three trails or floatplane. The trails, although long, gave economical access to the area for scouting in advance of chartering an expensive floatplane for the logistical operation that most hunts in Alaska require. Two of the trails, The Russian River Trail, and the Resurrection River Trail are part of the old miners trail that ran from Seward on the coast to the Crow Creek Minefields south of Anchorage. This trail was the only access to interior Alaska at the time. The thoughts of the thousands of miners who had hiked it a hundred years ago added to the special aura of the place. The area is pleasant mix of river bottom, avalanche created meadows, mountainside, forest, and of course Upper Russian Lake with its forearm sized Rainbow Trout. The Russian River, which drains the lake, is a great salmon fishery for the many fish that spawn in both Upper and Lower Russian Lake. There is a comfortable cabin on the North shore of the lake maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. There is a nice aluminum skiff kept at the cabin, which in conjunction with the lake gives you access to a large part of the area. It is very handy for fishing the large lake, and hauling equipment, moose meat, and bear hides to a spot for floatplane pickup.
Which brings us to the bears! The area is one where Black Bear and Grizzly Bear habitat overlap. The Grizzly Biologists call it a “Spring Time Intensive Use Area”. I call it a breeding ground. Many sows spend the winter with cubs denned in the surrounding mountains. Typically a sow will spend two winters with her cubs in the den, and run them off in the spring of the second year. The old boars know this and are waiting to make a little “bear magic” when the mood strikes the sow.
The physical power of these bears is amazing. We once watched (through a spotting scope) a sow with young of the year as she descended from her denning area. She would walk up to boulders and casually roll them over looking for grubs. We later back trailed her to locate her den. I was planning on having a date with her the following spring when she exited her den. She was an older bear and very large probably 10 ft plus and past her prime. If I was sure she had no young cubs I felt no compunction in making her into a rug. But I digress! When we were back trailing her we saw some of the boulder she had casually rolled over with one paw. My partner and I, two large strong men, could not budge any of the larger of these boulders. What Power!
One fine spring June, finds me and my hunting partner from Texas, ensconced in the Upper Russian Lake cabin. Set to enjoy a week of ice-out fishing during the mid-day and a chance at a Grizzly or the odd Black Bear in the “witching hours” of morning and evening. We had located a sheep carcass in an avalanche run out, and had great hopes that “ol mister griz” would locate it too. We watched it like a hawk morning and evening for a couple of days. Finally the scent and the wind did its job and a good-sized boar showed up.
Now my partner is a little recoil shy, and a disciple of the “high velocity small bullet” religion. As a result he shot a souped up 7mm Remington Magnum. It was free throated for extra velocity, and accurized to replace the accuracy lost by free throating. My personal choice was “ol’ thumper” a .338 Winchester Mag., lacking the resources and availability of a good .375 H&H. I used the flat shooting Sierra 250 grain SBT, with a ballistic co-efficient of .596, stoked just as hot as “ol’ thumper” could stand them. For short-range work I used the 300-grain Barnes heavy jacket. The velocity was less, but it was reputed to penetrate like a jackhammer.
We circled down wind and stalked to within 150 yards in good cover all the way. We eased up behind a huge cottonwood blow down, and glassed the bear. He was a good one, young, no rubs on the hide that we could see, probably a male, because no sows had been seen yet that spring. My partner won the toss and snuggled down taking a rest on the downed tree. He waited patiently for good side shot as the bear worked to dig the sheep carcass out of the tightly packed snow of the avalanche run out.
Now there are two schools of thought on bullet placement in a big bear. School one says take him through the lungs if the distance is great enough and let nature take its course when the bear is unable to breathe.
The second school says take him through the front shoulders to immobilize him, and follow up with a second shot to the lungs. I subscribed to the second school and practiced often and long getting off a second accurate shot. I had shot competitively for years with a bolt-action rifle and the motion was automatic. I was as fast as anyone I had seen with a bolt action. I had practiced with “ol’ thumper” extensively. I even went to the extreme of developing reduced velocity loads, and used it for squirrel hunting. Well my partner had witnessed much of my practicing, and thought the “through the shoulder school” was the way to go. Only problem was he did not have enough gun to pull it off.
At the shot the bear jumped in the air and took off. I was watching through the spotting scope and saw the hit. It looked too far forward for a lung shot. I asked my partner “where did you hold?” he replied “I took him through the shoulders”. I called him a name you can only call a close friend.
We sat down and took a break to settle our nerves, and let the bear die if he had a mind to. I feared he would not, he was running pretty good when he left the sheep. After about 30 minutes we approached the sheep carcass to pick up the trail. The snow on the near side of the spot showed pretty good blood splatter, but the far side showed none. I suspected that the bullet did not exit, and we were in deep shit with a wounded bear. He left a blood trail you could follow from the air, and we trailed him for about 300 yards across a large avalanche created meadow. On the far side of the meadow was our worst nightmare, an alder thicket. This thing was so thick a sparrow could not fly through it. You could not see more than a few yards into it, even in the bright sunlight. We stopped for a conference. I was scared, so was my partner. We considered waiting till the next day to give the bear time to die, but the area is crossed by a hiking trail, and the thought of some poor unsuspecting hiker blundering into this pissed off critter killed that idea. We started this mess and it was up to us to finish it.
A wounded bear will often circle to watch his back trail to see or attack what is following it, and that was going through my mind at the time. We decided to separate by about a hundred yards and approach the thicket to see what we could see. Agreeing to keep each other in sight at all times we planned our approach. I removed the first two 250 grain cartridges in my rifle and replaced them with the 300 Grain Barnes. I also removed the retaining strap on the .44 Mag. Ruger I carried as backup. The holster was new and the snap very stiff and hard to remove. We proceeded very slowly to the thicket, doing more watching than walking, and dreading what we would find.
When we were about 50 yards from the thicket I saw a movement in the brush exactly where the blood trail entered the brush. I hollered to my partner “there he is, right on the trail”. In the same instant I raised my rifle to use the scope to see if I could “look through” the brush and see anything.
And he came! By pure instinct with no thought involved I hit him as he cleared the brush. I saw him “hunch up” as the bullet struck. And who was he “coming for “, not the guy who had wounded him but for ol’ Bear Bob. He must have known that I like bears!
He came so fast it was unbelievable, running on less than four good legs, as we would later find. Now remember I was as fast with a bolt-action gun as anyone I know. And I shot this bear as he cleared the brush. This bear died just a few yards in front of me as the bolt handle was on it’s way back down. That bear had covered a distance we paced at 45 yards in the time it took me to chamber another round. An action that I had practiced until it was automatic. Talk about fast! Talk about having to take a bath in an ice-cold lake and change your polypropylene underwear!
I asked my partner who was about 50 yards off to the side “Why didn’t you shoot” he replied ” by the time I got the gun up I was afraid I’d hit you”. I retorted that I hoped he would have found the time if this brute had gotten hold of me.
Then the fun was over and the work started. After my bath that is. I dearly love bears and bear hunting, but man skinning one of these monsters is nothing but work, hard, nasty, stinking, and bloody work. The post mortem revealed that my partner’s shot had indeed not penetrated. The bullet had blown up when it struck the shoulder blade and probably ruined the left front shoulder but it did not seem to slow him down much. My shot had entered the opposite shoulder and traversed the entire 9 foot of bear, lodging under the skin on the opposite rear haunch. Fortunately all 4,000 lbs of energy were expended on him but he still covered the distance fast enough to remain in my dreams (or nightmares) to this day.
The skinning proceeded as well as it ever does. The taxidermist only had to sew up a few mistakes when he did the rug. We left most of the paw skinning for him too. We had several days before our plane was to pick us up so we did our best to reduce the weight of the hide. Remember those pictures of natives carrying “dinner” on a pole between two big men. Well try to imagine the same thing with two guys and a bear hide. It must have been funny to watch if you were not involved, and if there was anyone to watch. We salted the hide real well and rolled it at night. During the day we put it on the rear of the cabin to air out, and get some sun and maybe dry out and lighten up a little. We really did not want to pay for a second floatplane flight to bring the hide out.
The day before our scheduled pickup we were sitting around a campfire in the little clearing just in front of the cabin. We had tired of catching big Rainbows, if you can believe that, and were planning our final evening hunt. The morning would be full of packing and hauling our gear and hide down to the floatplane landing. As we were relaxing the unmistakable sound of pack frames jingling with tied on accessories making a rhythmic tune. Apparently a group of hikers had covered the nearly 20-mile distance from the Sterling Highway trailhead. And to go along with the jingling, what to our wondrous eyes did appear?
It was a group of “Outward Bound” college girls, with a University of Alaska female professor in the lead.
They were beat, trail weary and trail worn. We broke out a couple of six-packs of Coors cooling in the snow melt fed stream that runs right by the cabin (Pee Creek we named it! Ever camped by running water?), and put on a fresh pot of coffee and sat down around the campfire to exchange pleasantries.
The professor inquired as to what we were doing in that area so early in the spring. We showed her the Rainbows we had cooling in the creek and mentioned that we were also bear hunting. She replied that it seemed like a lot of trouble and expense to hunt Black Bears, which are common, and even considered a pest in Alaska. We added that we had hoped to run into a Grizzly of two also. She replied that we were wasting our time there because there were no Grizzlies in that area. She had it on the good authority of several biologists from the college. I wish I had video or at least pictures of what followed.
I adopted my best West Virginia hillbilly drawl and said, ” well Mam’, you seem right knowledgeable about bears and all, could I get you to step behind the cabin here and help us identify what kinda bear this is that we shot”. Get this picture! Here we go around the back of the cabin with the professor and a whole gaggle of young college girls who trust this lady with their very life. And behold there is a 9 foot Grizzly Bear hide nailed to the back of the cabin, “just getting a little sun” I quipped. Their eyes got so big that the light reflecting out of them, I swear, was brighter than the sun.
After much Oohing and Ahhing we settled back around the campfire. The professor was dumfounded and swore revenge on the biologists who put her and her charges life at risk. I asked why she was so concerned about bears. One shot in the air from your .44 will send most packing. She replied that since there were no Grizzlies in the area she did not want to carry the extra weight, and mumbled something about communing with nature on it’s own level. They pitched their tents real close to the cabin that night, and the sound of the privy door opening and closing all night testified that Pee Creek was fulfilling its God given chore!
After a great breakfast of ham, eggs and pancakes whipped up by yours truly (we always take too much food in case the trout don’t bite) they were ready to break camp and continue on their several day trip. I found the professor and handed her my .44 Redhawk, in its holster, and a spare pouch of ammo, and my name and phone number scribbled on an unused bear tag. I added that she could call me when she got back and I would come by and reclaim it. She was much relieved, and we got big hugs from her and all of her charges. Wilderness hospitality is a wonderful thing!
Well we had to stock the cabin pretty well with our excess food and supplies, but we got light enough to make it out in one trip. My partner has retired back to Texas, too old to hunt, but “ol’ griz” hangs on his wall. I missed my date with the big sow the following spring because the breakup was late and Grizzly season was over before the lake cleared of ice. “ol’ thumper” is on detached duty, back in Alaska. It is with a young friend who moved to Anchorage with his Alaskan wife. Which reminds me, I need to brew him up some special loads for “ol’ thumper”. Nobody knows what a baby likes as well as it’s Pappy!
Bay (Bear) Bob