What will a grizzly do if he suddenly meets up with a man on his own stamping grounds? You can get plenty of opinions on that, most of them different, from men who have had some experience hunting the big beast. Some years ago I read a magazine article in which the writer claimed he could chase all the animals in North America with a buggy whip and a tin whistle.
I have reason to doubt that statement — not because it may be difficult, in this automobile age, to obtain a good buggy whip — but because I’ve spent practically 365 days a year in grizzly country for the last twenty-seven years. And I know of several occasions when the best buggy whips would have been a poor line of defense.
Take the case of Tom Meanie. In the late winter of 1925, Tom was working his trapline about twenty miles north of my place in British Columbia. He shot a moose for meat and then left it for a week. Later, he and a helper returned to spring the traps, and Tom sent his friend down a side line to pick up traps while he went over to the carcass to get meat. Never expecting a bear to be out that early, he took only an ax to chop off the frozen flesh.
From what we could reconstruct from his tracks later, he got within thirty-five yards of the moose carcass when a large grizzly ran out to meet him. That’s the place where Tom’s body was found. The bear had struck him and driven him down through the snowshoe trail to his knees; then he had fallen backward. The first blow seemed to have taken off half his skull and practically all his face; the second savage swipe removed the rest of the scalp.
The bear ran away and never returned directly to the body, although it came back and circled it several times before the police came in a week later.
I and my son Edward have had meet ups with grizzlies, when tin whistles would have been pretty poor weapons. Back in 1933 Edward, also working a trapline, was on his way home for Christmas, when about a mile and a half from the house he saw an animal moving in the twilight. At first he thought it was a wolverine, but when he came within 150 yards, he discovered it was a young grizzly. He started to whistle to scare it away, but the whistle had no terrors for the bear. Getting his scent, it started for him on the jump. Ed hollered and banged on a tree with a stick he carried to knock snow from his snowshoes, but the little battler came on with increased speed.
Ed decided it was time to clear the decks for action, so he unslung his .30/30, and when the bear was twelve feet away, he fired. The bullet struck the grizzly in the chest, passed through its heart, and killed it instantly.
From these incidents you might come to the conclusion that grizzlies will invariably charge a man. That wouldn’t be correct either. The truth is, or so I’ve found it, you never can tell just what the big bears will do. They seem to be very temperamental, to act on the spur of the moment. If they decide to run, then the whistle gets credit; but if one makes up his mind to charge, you’d better be ready with a rifle.
Years ago I was trapping beaver and had just finished springing traps before setting out for home. Loading my boat, I heard some walruses howl south of the cabin, so I paddled quickly across the river and started out to see if I could get a shot. Just entering the timber I got a whiff of decayed flesh, as I turned to face the wind, and there about thirty feet away I saw the head of a large bear over the alders and small spruce. I swung my .300 and fired, then moved out into the open. I soon found the bear, down and bleeding from the ears — finished. The bullet had struck him squarely in the mouth and blown up in the base of the brain. What might have happened, had I missed, no one knows, but from the look I got as he towered over the low growth I suspect it wouldn’t have been pleasant.
I took Herb Rondall of Minot, ND, out for bear in the spring of 1925. Well on the way, our boat got into trouble and filled. Most of the duffel was lost or ruined, so I had to go back afoot for replacements. Since Herb was going to use my gun in shooting, we only had that one along — and I left it with him for protection. Well, about two miles downriver I came on a large silvertip feeding on the remains of a cow moose and two calves which had been walrus killed some time during the preceding winter.
The bodies were in a little clump of spruce, so I didn’t see the bear until I was less than twenty yards away from him. He was chewing on a strip of skin that he’d torn from a moose leg. All I had was a hunting knife — no buggy whip or whistle — so I stood still and watched Mr. Grizzly. He chewed away on his moose skin, came out about five yards to look me over, walked off to the side for ten yards for a second onceover, and then ambled away, never looking back.
I beat it on downriver, decided that I’d been born to be hanged.
In the fall of 1931, James Butler and Charles Husler of Saskatoon, Sask., went out with me for their fourth consecutive hunt. Each of them carried a rifle, while I toted a fishing pole, and a pack sack with grub. I was in the lead, following a game trail back a little way from the river, when we came into a little meadow. There I saw a large pile of earth and grass, a grizzly cache, and beside it the grizzle himself. He sniffed, got our scent, and raised up on his hind legs.
Something warned me he was going to charge and I told the boys to get ready, dropping to the ground as I did so as to give them a fair shot. Without a pause the silvertip started for us, like a big silver ball bouncing down the slope. Visions of Tom Meanie flashed through my mind; then one of the hunters fired. Not so good — a hit in the left front leg. But the grizzly turned and went for a clump of spruce. The other rifle blasted out, and I got up and ran out to see the result. The bear was heading for the timber and not wasting time. Later on we discovered that he came back every night after that to finish his moose carcass.
Later I took out a party made up of Dr. E. M. Stanton, of Schenectady, NY, and his son Don. Don and my son Ed went up to the mountains for caribou, and after they’d gone, the doctor got a moose about half a mile above the cabin. When we went back the day after, we found that the carcass had been covered up by a grizzly, so we fixed up a seat and waited.
About 6 PM the old boy came down for his feed, and the doctor got him, first shot. We straightened the bear out for skinning and returned to the cabin. Next morning we went back to do the skinning. Here’s what happened, quoting from the doctor’s diary:
“We reached the carcass about 8 AM. A casual glance showed that two bears, a large grizzly and a smaller one, had left the moose carcass only a few minutes before — their tracks still held muddy water. We proceeded to take several photos, the last one being of me seated on a log beside the bear. Just as it was snapped, I became aware that at the other end of the log — perhaps twenty-five feet away in the alders — there was a live bear.
“We paid little attention and got busy with the skinning. But in about twenty minutes we were startled by the crack of branch in the woods above us, and on looking up, saw two grizzlies — a large female and a cub about three quarters her size — coming down a moose trail not fifty yards away.
“Hooker told me, if I’d stand guard, he’d take their pictures. Now, wild bears seem to pay no attention to the human voice, although they are greatly interested in other noises — breaking twigs, footfalls, etc. These two now came within thirty yards of us, stood up side by side, sniffed a bit, and then retired into the undergrowth.
“Until 12:30 PM, when I started to boil up our tea, those bears kept revisiting us, at intervals of about half an hour. First they’d arrive from one angle, then from another. At one time, the old she-bear came within thirteen yards of where I stood — I paced it off afterward.
“Unfortunately there were only two unexposed negatives left in the camera when the bears came on the scene. When Hooker finally got a chance to photograph them, as I stood on the alert with my rifle, he seemed calm, but he hopelessly underexposed the shots.”
So I say — you can’t tell what a grizzly will do.
The next year I went out with Dr. G. Scott Towne, of Saratoga Springs, NY. The doctor, having killed a grizzly and two caribou, was waiting for a shot at another caribou, while I cut some dry poles and ran them up river to the spot where the caribou carcasses were lying, intending to build a crow’s nest in a tree.
At a spot about 150 yards from the caribou, I beached the boat and started inland. Passing the carcasses, I noticed they’d been covered up by a grizzly, so I turned around to go back for the doctor. There, ninety yards in front of me, was a nice big grizzly, just emerging from a bunch of alders.
Without any reason that I can discover, the bear rose up on his hind legs, let out a snort, and came for me — making about fifteen feet to the jump. I stood my ground until he was about twenty-five yards away, then decided it was time for action, so I cut loose and hit him in the chest. He let out a bellow and fell on his right side, but he got up again and headed away. I thought he was hard hit and I might as well finish him, so I fired again as he went through an opening. Down, with another bellow you could have heard for miles, then up and away.
I got Dr. Towne and we followed the blood trail for half a mile. The grizzly was bleeding badly — the doctor thought it was a lung shot and that he could not go far. But after he’d lain in a stream of cold water for a while, the bear’s bleeding apparently stopped, and we had to give up the chase as it was getting dark.
Wounded badly? The very next night he came back and had a feed! Personally, I think he’s alive and well today. Sometimes, thinking over my meetings with grizzlies, I wonder that I am too.