ROD DEBIAS AND THE GRIZZLY
Where the Bearing Sea meets the Alaskan shore, even in May the hard-packed ice runs feet deep, spreading against the shoreline 50 to 150 yards wide depending on how the surges wash up and freeze through the long winter. The surges spill up driftwood, too, from huge logs to sticks and random pieces that floated for years until catching a hundred yards up on land. From the icepack at the edge, the surface filters inland into open tundra that looks like pastureland until a person walks on it and tufts of vegetation tug like giant sponges at every step. A man’s foot sinks two to four inches, drawing the energy out of every step.
Past midnight, along the horizon, the sun had washed the tundra in an unearthly glow. From where I stood talking with Don, my guide, the view led to mountainous country—as close as three miles in some places, other places, six to ten miles. We were still talking when the bear appeared. Somewhere between the first rise and the mountains, a shadow ascended from a low spot, not skylining itself, but against the mountains in those bright first hours after the Alaskan midnight.
Don and I stood like two people on a street corner, discussing our moves for the next day, thinking we would try, come daylight, to rejoin the other hunters. The grass is forever greener. We figured they were seeing all the bears while we saw nothing. I had told Don I thought we should move, and I’d asked him how he felt about it.
He felt the same, he said. And no sooner did he say so than I saw the shape amass over his shoulder about 385 yards from us—hardly a shape at first but quickly materializing into a bruin.
“Don! Bear!” I whispered. We dropped down inside a driftwood pile, sticks and logs waist high. I knelt as low as I could and Don knelt behind me. I set my bow in the bear’s direction so that should the time come, I’d only draw and fire. Several minutes later the range was 175.
We stayed put, kneeling on soft, dry grass in ample cover, Don’s elbow pressed against my shoulder as he checked wind with a squeeze bottle of white power. With his right hand, he continued to range; I could just make out his mumbles. “Hey, Rod, it’s the big guy!”
The bear paused with its head down. “Look at that noggin,” Don whispered again, annoying me now to hear him raise the stakes.
“You just keep ranging,” I whispered. “I’ll let him walk past before I draw and he sees me.” Don locked the rangefinder onto a piece of driftwood above the others directly in line with the giant’s path. “Seventeen yards.”
The bear passed the protruding stick and continued closer to us. Fifteen yards. Thirteen yards. He stopped and lifted his massive head, nostrils flaring. He inhaled slowly, three deep breaths, curling his lips to taste the air. He knew something was out of place. Each time he breathed, the air filled with the stench of dead beavers.
Thankfully, the wind held. He hadn’t seen us and I had just reminded myself that this was all business when he rose and towered and I could feel him glaring at our camouflaged silhouettes. I wanted to order Don to shoot but his rifle was in a grass bank ten yards away. The massive head rotated away from us. “It’s over,” I thought. “He doesn’t know we’re here. He’s as good as dead.”
He dropped to all fours. His senses forced one final hesitation and he began to lumber further past. I waited to move unseen. When I lost sight of his eye, I slowly drew, centering my peep sight on the sight ring, the pin just past his right shoulder. I felt the wind in my face. Good. He was well in range and I admired his size. A lifetime of waiting rushed at me. I could have loosed an arrow at any point.
The giant angled away then, standing perfectly broadside. “Twenty-nine yards.” With pins adjusted to 30 yards, I squeezed the release. The Lumenok traced through the dusky pre-dawn air, disappearing behind the front shoulder.
The bear snarled and bit at the entry wound. He wheeled, searching for the source of the pain. Wheeling back and mortally wounded, he staggered away. I nocked another arrow and quickly adjusted my pin to 60 yards but never drew. Sixty yards from me, the bear piled up, nose first.
When did it start, people ask me, this near-compulsion to hunt grizzly? I was a kid, I tell them, eight or nine, when I held my first Bear Grizzly Recurve, the bow my dad used when he was a kid. He let me have it when we were moving to another house and I found it in his closet. By the time I was 11, I was shooting it seriously—so seriously that when the limb split after a couple of years, I mowed a lawn for a full summer in exchange for my client’s old Fiberglass Ben Pearson bow. To this day, I still have both. After that came a Bear Whitetail bow for $99. The summer I was 15, to pay for it, my best friend, Lou Mihalko, and I painted his grandmother’s house for $100 each.
Since the first time I’d strung a bow with the word grizzly on it, since my uncles watched my shooting practice from the porch and told me that bow was only for hunting grizzly, my single goal was to take one, though a boy never imagines the time, the miles, the arrows, the trips, the hunts, the sightings, the nights, the stories, the shots, and the years that come and go without a dream realized. In a large sense—and this is important—it didn’t matter. I love hunting the way I love breathing: naturally, without analysis—and I’ve been fortunate to take some nice animals in my life, including a brown bear several years ago. Decades had passed since the day I found my father’s Recurve and begged to own it, but the grizzly had eluded me almost to the point of my conceding.
Grizzly was far from my mind, therefore, when, after months of kicking around hunts and ideas—Sheep . . .Moose . . .Elk--a friend suggested a grizzly hunt. Shortly after, I settled on an outfitter: Hunt Alaska. They don’t just accept bow hunters for grizzly, they want ‘em.
Forty years after I shot my first arrow, I finally harvested a grizzly. Not just any grizzly, but the new world record.