Friends Endure Long Waits to Tag 2 Alaskan Bears
As Tyson Hall and Chad White of Cross Plains watched the Piper Cub disappear into Alaska’s skies in early May, they couldn’t wait to start their 12-day bear hunt in the surrounding wilderness.
Flash forward 12 days: With two hours remaining in their hunt, they had seen nothing except ptarmigan since the plane’s departure. Yep, no wolves, bears, moose, wolverines or any other mammal known to science. Just ptarmigan, an arctic grouse with feathered feet and a silent “p” for the first letter of its name.
Hall and White might as well have been hunting pterodactyls.
“Each day we climbed 700 feet up this mountainside above camp, sat behind windbreaks we built with piled rocks, pulled out our binoculars, and glassed the valleys below for 12 to 15 hours; same view, every hour, every day,” Hall said. “Well, not every day. It rained 36 hours straight at one point, so we stayed inside the tent the entire time; sleeping, napping, reading books, playing 20 questions and looking at each other to pass the time.”
Finally, with two hours left in their hunt, White and his guide were back in camp eating lunch and watching the mountainside where they’d spent most of the day. As if by magic, a brown bear suddenly appeared above camp. The men scrambled back up the mountain. They slowed when reaching the site where they last saw the bear, and crept forward to peek over the crest. They were shocked to see the bear 25 yards away.
White fired a round from his rifle, a .300 Winchester Magnum, into the bear’s chest. He couldn’t get off a safe follow-up shot when the bear spun and fled, so his guide fired twice as it ran in Hall’s direction. Hall, meanwhile, had crawled forward to be their backup. When he looked up, the bear was broadside only 20 yards away. Just to be safe, Hall fired his .300 Win-Mag to finish the bear, which stretched over 7 feet long.
The two friends posed for photos before skinning the bear, removing its skull and boning out the meat. Hall said they hadn’t packed game bags, so he removed his long-johns, tied off the cuffs, and stuffed them with meat to pack back to camp.
And just like that, their 12-day hunt wasn’t so frustrating after all. Hall felt amazed to be standing there in Alaska, roughly 70 to 80 miles from the nearest transportation, with little or no chance of walking out if the Piper Cub somehow never returned.
“Believe it or not, an Alaskan bear hunt wasn’t on my bucket list,” Hall said. “I’d put my name on quite a few Facebook lists where outfitters post discount-priced hunts when clients cancel at the last minute. I can’t afford full-price hunts ($20,000 to $25,000) for browns or grizzlies, so I hunt for deals that match my budget. I’m self-employed and my schedule has some flexibility. When the outfitter contacted me, Chad and I pretty much dropped what we were doing and flew to Alaska.”
After the Piper Cub hauled Hall and White out of the bush for the trip home, the outfitter apologized for the tough hunting. He explained that winter had lasted longer than normal, and the bears were just starting to get active after emerging from hibernation. The outfitter then made an offer Hall couldn’t refuse.
“He said if I returned in mid-June, he’d make it up to me with a grizzly hunt,” Hall said. “I checked with my wife, and accepted the offer.”
Hall flew back to Alaska on June 15, and drove five hours north of Anchorage. Four other hunters who had been in camp that week all got bears, so Hall was optimistic when settling into a pop-up blind his first day back. Because daylight lasts “forever” in mid-June, Hall and his guide hunted from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m. the first two days.
This time, Hall even saw a mammal. Actually, two of them. His blind overlooked a bait site 70 yards away, and he saw two porcupines during his first 20 hours of watching. The sightings caused him to break the silence his guide demanded.
“When I saw the first porcupine, I said, ‘porcupine,’” Hall said. “When the second porcupine showed up, I said ‘porcupine’ again. My guide gave me a dirty look and said I was talking too much. I didn’t say another word.”
Hall initially wasn’t thrilled about hunting over bait, but changed his thinking. The surrounding alder brush was dense and noisy, making it futile to hunt on foot. In addition, bears are extremely wary of human sounds and activity, and approach bait sites cautiously.
And if that wasn’t enough challenge, Hall learned bear numbers aren’t as high in Alaska as hunters assume. In contrast, mosquito numbers in mid-June are infinitely higher than humans imagine.
“The mosquitoes were incredible,” Hall said. “I was glad my guide brought a Thermacell (repellent device). It worked really well.”
Finally, after sitting four hours the third night, Hall saw a big grizzly at the bait site. “All of a sudden it was just there,” Hall said. “It came in really quiet. I had never seen a grizzly before. My first thought was to take a photo, so I reached for my camera. My guide looked at me like I was nuts and told me to shoot. It was 8 seconds from the time the bear appeared until I shot him, right behind the shoulder. My bullet got great penetration. I was shooting a 250-grain A-Tip Hornady bullet from Copper Creek Cartridge because I wanted the heaviest bullet possible for my .300 Win-Mag. Those bullets cost $120 per box of 20 ($6 per round), but they’re worth it. No one wants to wound a bear and have to track it.”
Hall’s grizzly stretched 9 feet long, and he brought home its huge skull, hide and meat. “I’ve always kept the meat from everything I shoot,” he said. “And the head is huge. The guide thinks it might qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club’s record book. The bear was probably 13 years old, and its teeth were all busted up. It was in decline. It probably wouldn't have made it another year.”
Now that Hall has hunted grizzlies in Alaska, he’s looking for good deals on muskox or caribou hunts in Greenland. Another priority is getting off the grid and beyond cell-phone service.
“The most enjoyable part of hunting Alaska was no internet access or cell-phone service,” Hall said. “You can forget all your commitments for a few days. You realize you’re on the animal’s schedule, and it doesn’t know the time or your schedule.”
Tyson Hall of Cross Plains, Wisconsin, poses with a grizzly bear he shot north of Anchorage, Alaska, in June. — Tyson Hall photos
Chad White, left, and Tyson Hall pose with a brown bear that White shot in mid-May while hunting in Alaska.
Tyson Hall holds up a front paw of the 9-foot-long grizzly bear he shot in Alaska.