Bear Hunting: Brown & Black

So far, the 2012 Phelp’s bear harvest has been a bear of each color.


Lee and his Haines black bear, Dave and his Oliver Inlet brown bear.

The hunt for a brown bear was planned way in advance when Dave Phelps (Lee and Shawn’s Dad) bought an Alaska hunting license with a brown bear tag. They planned the dates of the trip for early May and he bought a plane ticket. The rest of the story is below, written by the man himself:   

The Great 2012 Bear Hunt
On Monday, May 7, 2012, we began an inauspicious day. After the perfunctory boat check and fueling we proceed to Douglas Island. We were going to the Alaska Fish and Game office, which was near the dock we would be leaving from. One can buy tags and license from many vendors, but we felt, given the prey we were after, that it would be much wiser to buy what I needed directly from Fish and Game. That way there would be absolutely no issues with the result. After a mere $85 for the license and the pittance of $500 for the Alaskan Brown Bear/Grizzly tag, we could be on our way. Think about it, $500 for a bear tag or $500 for an IPAD. Hmmm. Bear hunt and tag or IPAD; bear hunt and tag or IPAD, bear tag or IPAD: BEAR HUNT AND TAG is the obvious answer. The tag gave the name Brown/Grizzly, so I guess it can be called either. Since the hunt, my preference is “Alaskan Brown Bear”. It sounds more ominous, like any of that is needed after our hunt. (Supposedly, Grizzly’s are interior bears, Brown’s are coastal bears.)

We launched the boat in good weather. The seas were about 2 foot or less; and all was good. We traveled out Gastineau channel, into the confluence of the Taku River and Stephen’s Passage. The total distance we traveled across the water was about 20-25 miles. Not real far. The wind and the waves cooperated, so we made very good time toward Oliver Inlet, which was going to be our entrance point the Admiralty Island, the destination of our hunt. When we got to the entrance of Oliver Inlet, high tide was still a couple of hours away. The interesting thing about Oliver Inlet is that you cannot enter it on anything but high tide, the mouth goes dry on a low tide. We waited until about 1500 hours and went very slowly in. The minimum depth I saw on the sonar was 5.8 feet. That is not a lot, but given the setup, it was sufficient. It did not take us too long to get into the major portion of Oliver Inlet, where we could pick up a little speed. None of us had been in there before, so we did not know where the portage location was actually located. We stopped in one area and Lee and I walked around looking for the portage location, without any success. We got back into the boat and went around a bend and finally saw the sign that said Seymour Cabin, portage trail, etc. We anchored the boat and began transferring our stuff into the dingy for the short trip from the boat to the shore. I got off on shore and began moving things toward the rail cars. Now that I have mentioned the rail cars, I shall elucidate. There are two small rail cars, each about 7-8 feet long, that all visitors may use to ferry items back and forth to the Seymour Cabin, which, according to the sign, is nearly one mile away. The rails traverse bogs and streams, with a little undulation. There are sections that overhang the creek. The rail reminded me of the rails and rail cars in the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom movie. I shall delve into that more in a few moments.
Ah, back to the offloading of the boat. We finally got all of our gear off the boat, and secured the boat well, with a good anchor. I only mention that because of what came the next day. Hehehehehee. We loaded everything in the rail car after trundling it up the bank from the shore, a distance of about 200 feet or so. We pushed the rail car down the rickety rail, a task that was not too hard to accomplish. Now, mind you, there are warning signs saying that one should not walk in front of the rail car, nor ride on said car, nor having fun zone. It became obvious as to why the State of Alaska would issue such warnings. The rails were generally level and one had do push the cart to make it move. However, there are three sections of the tracks that have a downhill slope. Lee decided it would be fine for him to ride on the rail car down the first incline. It picked up a little speed, but not too much. Then came the second drop and he still thought it was a good idea. (I thought we should obey the signs, erring on the side of caution, older people think that way, younger people – well, tsk, tsk, tsk.) When we came to the third and what proved to be the final, more steep descent, We read a new warning sign that, basically, promised you would die if you road the rail car. My guess is that the State of Alaska knows you will ride the first two downhill sections and they probably do not really mind. But that third section was more than the other two combined, so they put up a new warning. Young and older, on this trip, heeded that sign. 
At one point the rails were suspended by railroad ties that were buried in the creek bed. We finally got to the end of the rail line, which actually ended in the first of two rivers, this one more accurately described as a creek. There was a stop block which prevented the rail from becoming a water logged rail car. We packed all of our worldly belongings to the cabin, which was about 200 feet away. Did I forget to tell you that it was raining cats and dogs? Well, it was. The trail to the cabin was mud, everything was, in fact mud. We got in the cabin and set things up with reasonable speed. Lee put diesel in the tank outside. That tank fed a little stove inside, which, by the way, was a lifesaver, as you will later learn.
We decided to head out and see if we could find a bear. All of us were wearing rain suits and rubber boots. Without those, life would have been miserable, as it was it was only two levels above miserable, which was just what an Alaskan hunt ought to be once in a while. We surveyed the area and then thought we should bring the dingy over to the Seymour Cabin side, so we could use it in the Seymour Inlet. We thought we could go along the shoreline looking for bear, then land and stalk it. So we trundled back across the portage and got the dingy. We put it on the other tram, which, it turned out, had one wheel that was sticking. So we pushed it across the portage, with a little more difficulty and that cart came off the track. Glad we were not riding it! After we got back to the cabin we ate dinner, rested and were debating on how to proceed. Lee and I started out toward the Inlet from the cabin and had not gone but a couple of hundred feet when we look to the northwest, across the bay and saw, what we thought was a bear. Lee used his binoculars and, indeed, it was a bear, a huge boar.
I was not sure that we had time to make it to the bear and get it before it got dark, it was getting dusk, but that’s the perfect time to shoot a bear. I guess the lower 48 time issues were in my mind, not the Alaska daylight time. Both Shawn and Lee said we had plenty of time. We all three would have gone out toward the bear, but we had to cross a river that was too deep for the rubber boots. We did have two pair of hip waders, so Shawn and I wore them and took off like a couple of horses, heading the mile or so that we had to go to get close to the bear. Said bear was a humongous thing, as you will shortly learn. We kept to the edge of the trees the best we could, but thankfully the bear was busy eating grass on the shoreline. We were able to cover the distance fairly quickly, I do not know how much time it took, but it did not seem long. As we moved within about 200 yards (Shawn has a nifty range finder), I still did not want to take the shot. I thought it was more than was wise, given what we were after. As I moved up, Shawn was right behind me. At 111 yards (measured later) I found a pine tree that was about 5 feet tall. Incredibly, about a foot up from the ground was a j-hook growth in the tree. I thought that I could lay the barrel of my rifle in that j-hook and have a very steady rest. I lay down on the ground (did I tell you it was still raining cats and dogs? Did I tell the wind was ripping?) And put my barrel right in the j-hook. What a vantage point with a great advantage. I held on the bear as he was directly facing me. I waited for him to turn, which he did. Right now, my memory of which direction he turned is a little fuzzy, but to my best recollection, he turned his right side toward me (counter clockwise). When he was quarter turned, I felt I had the best shot and angle. I felt it was my best chance of dropping him with one shot. Har har har on that thought. I touch off my .375 H&H magnum, Thompson-Center single shot at 2042 hours. The bear whirled into the air and I VAGUELY remember hearing another shot. Shawn fired one round from his .338 Winchester into the bear. I thought I saw it whirl again when Shawn did that, and then into the trees it went. As it went into the trees, I thought that was an ominous sign. By then I had reloaded my single shot rifle and was prepared for the bear to come back out. It did not. Shawn later mentioned that I should have told him I was going to shoot. I guess I figured he knew it . Lee called on the walkie-talkie and asked if we got it, but we were not in a position to do too much talking, that bear was not down and we knew it. Later, I asked Lee if he heard the shots and he said he heard a BOOM and then a pop. One thing about a .375 H&H, they are loud (I used earplugs so I could hear after shooting).
I went ahead of Shawn, about 20 feet or so, with my gun very ready, if the bear should come running out of the trees. Shawn was just as ready. I had moved to about where the bear had been when I shot, and that is when I could see him. He had run into the trees, about 30-40 feet, turned around, laid down, and was LOOKING at me. I shouted to Shawn that he was alive and looking right at me. I must say, at this point, I will never forget the look in that bear’s eyes. They were steely, piercing and ominous. Shawn told me not to shoot him in the head. It was good advice but I was not sure given that I thought the bear could get up and run. I backed out of sight of the bear and Shawn and I talked about how we were going to approach the situation. We decided that I would go on past where the bear was (on the side we were on, the brush was too thick to get any shot at all) and approach from that side and Shawn would approach from the opposite side. We planned the maneuver so that we would not be in a cross fire situation, should the bear begin to move. There was a large tree between the bear and me so I used it as concealment and approached to about 20 -25 feet from the bear. I was in a position he could not see me. I then took careful aim and shot him in the chest. He jumped straight up, about three feet and dropped right back down. He did not move after that, but Shawn and I waited for a while before we moved in. We told Lee, via the walkie-talkie, that we had the bear down.
Shawn and I then were going to approach the bear to make sure it was very dead. Shawn went through the trees to a position behind the bear. I approached from the front, and was about 15 feet from the bear. I had the .375 loaded and cocked, ready to touch it off if that bear even twitched. Did I mention that it was still raining cats and dogs and the wind was whipping? If not, I mentioned now. Shawn pushed on the bear’s rump with the muzzle of his gun while I was prepared to shoot again. The time was 2042 hours, probably pushing 2045 by then. I’m sure time seemed to be moving much faster than it was. I remember it being 3 or 4 minutes between the first and last shot. The bear was dead. When we finally knew that, we could relax. Adrenaline was flowing out my ears; I assume it was flowing out Shawn’s.
Lee had tried to bring the dingy around in the cove so that we could take the hide back in it, but that proved to be undoable, the water was too low. That young man worked his butt off trying to do that. He got to us within about 15 minutes of when we told him the bear was down. I think adrenaline was flowing out of his ears also.
We tried to take pictures, but the rain was coming down so hard that the flash was taking pictures of the rain drops.

We began the arduous task of skinning the bear. It was huge. Based upon its front paw size, in the area of eight inches, I am estimating the weight to be around 800 pounds (there is a chart that gives one that information). Alaskan Fish and Game measured the skull at 24 3/8 inches. Given that the bear was 7’ 7” from nose to tail, my guess is (given the length of his hind legs) that if he stood up on his hind legs he would have been over 10 feet tall. That’s my story and I am sticking to it!

It took us, all three skinning, about 45 minutes to finish all that we needed to do in skinning and getting ready to take the hide and head back to the cabin. But as we were skinning the bear, Lee saw a funny bulge on its shoulder. We cut it open and it was my bullet. Lee, good eye! The 260 grain Nosler Partition bullet performed just as advertised. The guy who hand loaded it for me did a magnificent job. I cannot thank him (Gary Borton) enough. Did I mention that, for some reason, it quit raining about the time we finished skinning the bear out, and the reprieve lasted until we got back to the cabin with the hide. The wind was not so kind, it continued to whistle something fierce.

The hide and head were so heavy that it was difficult to carry, we estimate 150 lbs for the hide, skull and all four phalanges. For a great amount of the distance, Lee carried the whole thing. I am not sure how he did that, but he did it. It draped it around him like a scarf and he smelled horribly, like bear, when we got back to the cabin. His white shirt was red and he threw it away. After a while we set it up so that I carried the rifles and Shawn and Lee carried the hide.
As we walking back toward the cabin, it was getting very dark. I was trying to lead the way, but Shawn and Lee had headlamps/lights so they were doing better. I made a mistake and led them more out into the bay than I should have and we went knee deep in the mud. It was a terrible situation, carrying rifles, carrying a huge hide and stuck in mud. We finally go back up to solid ground and headed on. As we crossed a small creek, Shawn dropped his flashlight and it went to the bottom. The good thing was that it never went out, so he could see it and was able to retrieve it, but he sure got wet doing it. We were close enough to the cabin that I told them I would take the rifles to the cabin and come back to help with the hide. In the process, I fell face first in the mud and got the guns covered with mud. I was able to cross the first river without falling in and made it through small creek right in front of the cabin. I put guns down and headed back to where Shawn and Lee were (they were waiting on the other side of the river). As I went through the creek I stepped in a hole and went under. I was soaking wet and my hip waders were fully of ice cold snow runoff water. I knew that I had to get back to the boys, so went on, freezing my rear end off. Did I mention to you that the wind was whipping? It was whipping. I got back to the river and told them I fell in. Given that it was so dark by this time, I told them to put the hide in the dingy and leave it for the night. They tied the dingy up to a tree so that it would not float off in high tide.
They waded the river, and got wet even though they did not fall down like I did. When we got back to the cabin we were all toast. All of us were so tired. Lee had hurt his leg trying to pull it out of the mud while he was carrying the hide; thankfully it appears that he is okay.
We ate a bunch because of the energy we expended in this whole ordeal. We started the fire in the diesel stove and got the cabin warm so that we all could begin to dry out and get need rest for our weary bones.
I did not sleep well that night, the excitement and adrenaline was more than my 59 year old body thought was appropriate.
When we woke up it appeared that the rain and wind was not going to subside in the slightest. We decided to pack up and go back to Juneau, even though we had rented the cabin till Thursday. The first trip over the portage was with the dingy, bear hide and head, and a whole bunch of other stuff which filled the dingy. The pushing back to the other side was tenuous; remember I said one wheel would not turn very well? Well, said wheel kept itself from rolling much of the way, so we worked our tails off to portage the mile back to the cove where the boat was anchored.
Something I forgot to mention earlier was the fact that the motor on the dingy was not longer functioning. While trying to steer it up the river to where the bear hide was, the propeller struck a rock and the shear pin broke. So there was no power for the dingy.
Lee thought he could row out to the boat (in the durndest wind you ever saw), and with one oar. I said to myself, I am not sure he can row against the wind well enough to get to the boat. This is where old age and wisdom whups youth, he could not get to the boat so was blown back to shore. Did I mention the wind was blasting away? The next try, I had found a 2X6 about four feet long, which I broke into a 2X3 four feet long and both Shawn and Lee began the rowing in the wind. They were successful and made it to the boat. They lifted anchor and brought the boat up nearer the shore (given that we had to row the dingy back and forth, the closer the better). They anchored the boat and we transferred stuff to the boat. Shawn and Lee listened to the weather report and hear that Lynn Canal and Stephen’s passage had 7 foot seas. Our 23 foot boat would not do well in 7 foot seas. We decided to get out of Oliver Inlet on at high tide (we were at the boat at 0930 and high tide that day was 1600, so 7 hours away). about 3 hours away). If we had to we were going to anchor up outside Oliver Inlet, in the Lynn Canal and wait out the storm. The one bright spot was that the report said the winds might die down that evening, so we had a chance of getting to Gastineau passage and home, if things worked out well. We left the boat anchored in the harbor and went back to the cabin (one more mile of portage, one way) to get the other rail car and all the rest of the gear.
After getting back to the cabin, we ate lunch before we completely packed up. We loaded up everything on the second rail car and began pushing the mile to Oliver Inlet bay where we had anchored the boat. Shawn got to the shoreline before Lee and I did and he gave us a funny look. The boat, all 23 feet of it, was gone. It was not where we left it anchored. As we walked down to the beach we could see it in the distance, being pushed along by the wind (did I mention the wind was whipping). The anchor was being dragged on the bottom of the bay, catching now and then. Shawn and Lee (the two strong ones) jumped in the dingy and began rowing like crazy trying to catch up to our boat before it beached or hit some rocks. I did the honorable thing and prayed that they caught the boat before disaster befell us. I then began carrying stuff from the rail cars down to the beach so we could load it on the boat when Shawn and Lee caught it and brought it back. They rowed like the dickens and caught the boat before anything happened to it. Wheewwww.
They motored back up to where we had originally anchored it, anchored it again and we began the process of rowing back and forth from the shore to the boat, toting all our stuff. I even took my turn at rowing. We got everything loaded and battened down well. We had about 3 hours to wait for high tide before we could leave Oliver Inlet. We waited until about 1500 hours and we began the slow process of motoring through the channel. When we finally made it out of Oliver Inlet and into the Lynn Canal, the waves were not bad at all, about 2 footers. You cannot ask for better seas than 2 footers. As we approached the confluence of Stephen’s passage, the Taku River and Gastineau channel we could see that the waves were quite a bit higher. They were not 7 footers, but they were a ride. When we got so we could go with the wind we were able to make decent time and not have too rough a ride back to the dock where we had originally launched.
We ran straight home, got the skull and phalanges out, brought the hide the next day, with a beaver pelt Lee had trapped to Fish and Game headquarters. After checking in with Alaska Fish and Game and letting them get all the data they needed from the bear we were cleared for all reporting, and headed back home.
Lee’s GPS uses N 58° 05.184’ W 134° 19.372’ as the spot of the kill. If you search the Seymour cabin, they should give the GPS on the website you rent it from, state or federal site. Google Earth will also give you the location by these coordinates.
What a hunt this was, Shawn and Lee were masterful guides and we were so fortunate to actually find that elusive Alaskan Brown bear. It was a hunt of a lifetime with two great young men. I would not have traded it for anything. IPAD or Alaskan Brown bear hunt. Who would ask that silly question?

The black bear:

On our 3rd annual Memorial weekend Haines trip, Lee decided to take his new bear gun along and try to fill one of his two black bear tags. Black bears are very common in Haines and are usually hunted from the road or close to the road. We spent a decent amount of time driving various sections of Haines highway (it gets really rural the closer you get to Canada, and the cabin we stay in is only 8 miles shy of the Canadian border), hiking trails and even biking around looking for bear. Lee was tormented initially by seeing two really nice looking bears on the Canada side and only bear scat on the Alaska side; however, Sunday afternoon brought about a black bear on the correct side of the Haines Hwy eating dandylions. Lee jumped out of the truck but had to cross the road (illegal to shoot across the road at an animal) and in doing so, his movement scared the bear off into the woods … escaped without a shot. Because bears are habitual, Lee and I went back at dusk but was about 5 minutes too late and a different hunter also scared the bear back into the woods at the same spot. We returned at 0300 dawn the next morning and also did a driveby later in the day – Not another glimpse of the bear. We had to drive past the spot en route to the ferry terminal to head back to Juneau and what do you know? That bear was sitting munching away in the same patch of dandylions. So, Lee hopped out of the truck down the road from where the bear was, back tracked to the bear and the rest is Alaska history. A beautiful black bear!


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1 Response to Bear Hunting: Brown & Black

  1. Krista says:

    Wow!!! What a story! Well written!! Thanks for sharing your adventures!

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