I’ve never been a tough guy, but in 1993 I was tougher than I ever thought I’d need to be. If I had to do it again, almost 30 years later, I might not survive that frigid May night on a mountain in Alaska.
When you plan a do-it-yourself spot-and-stalk black bear hunt in Alaska, you hope to land on a date when the bears are out of the den and feeding. Too early, the bears will still be locked up in hibernation. Too late, the bears will be down in the valleys where cover is thick. Either way, you won’t see many bears. You aim for the sweet spot, a time when the bears spend hours feeding in grassy meadows and are visible for miles so you can put on a stalk.
That year, the winter held on. My brother Andy and I were in the Chugach National Forest, scanning the alpine meadows above the Resurrection River for a black bear. The 8-inch wide long-clawed track we saw in the river’s muddy gravel was a brown bear. A big one, maybe a man-eater in the wrong circumstances. My tag was for his smaller black cousin.
“There’s one,” Andy whispered. “He’s above the spruce, feeding on grass.” We noticed some mountain goats on a ledge below him, on the steep west side of Boulder Creek.
“He’s way up,” I said. “Do you think we can get that high before he leaves?”
“It’s the only bear we’ve seen. We gotta try.” Not knowing how long it would take, we headed up through the timber until we reached 10-foot high alders bent downslope from limitless tons of snow through countless, endless winters. We struggled for a half mile feeling like fleas fighting through tangled pig bristles. The alders finally thinned out, but with every step we sunk knee-deep in crusted snow until we reached the area where the bear had been.
Nothing was there except a few spruce trees. The bear had been feeding in windswept spots, but he was gone and it was too late to head back down. We had stashed our 60-pound packs with tent and sleeping bags to reduce climbing weight, and all we were carrying was water, snacks, a knife for the wet work if we got lucky enough to shoot a bear, and an mylar foil emergency space bag. People say that shiny piece of worthlessness saves lives. My experience gives me doubts.
As soon as the sun faded the wind kicked up. With nothing to block it, the temperature plummeted. The crusted snow, softened by the daytime sun, was refrozen by the icy night air. The wind rapidly robbed us of heat. To endure the night, we needed to button up quickly, so out came the space bags in hopes of mitigating our miserable predicament.
The wind, whipping through the spruce trees, had already scattered millions of sharp needles everywhere, and they were frozen into the snow. In a matter of seconds, needles punctured our bags and ripped them stem to stern. And since the ground wasn’t flat, resistance to sliding down the mountainside was futile. In less than a minute, instead of reflecting our body heat back and blocking the wind, our space bags were nothing but fluttering ribbons of mylar.
That minute was the first of hundreds we suffered through that night. Sunrise would be the only thing that would prevent us from becoming frozen corpses lost on a nameless mountain.
Don’t ask much from one of those space bags. They might have their place, but if the temps are in the 20s and you’re lying on Alaskan mountain slope scattered with spruce needles and swept by a bitter wind, stubbornness will keep you alive longer than a space bag will.
We never woke up the next morning, not because we were dead but because we never slept. At dawn we scrambled down the mountain. After we located our packs, Andy spotted a black bear scrambling into some thick brush. The same bear? If so, he was smart enough not to spend the night on that mountain.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.