NOTE from the author: Tom Thompson from Danvers, Illinois, can tell you about the meaning of fear. He had a dangerously close encounter with a big bruin. Later, he wrote a story about his hunt that offers a unique insight into what was an “up close and personal” experience any hunter could have had. Here is his story:
Late April found me and my hunting partner, Keith Jeffries, on a Magadan Airways right from Anchorage, Alaska, to Magadan, Russia. The purpose of the trip was a long-awaited and highly-anticipated two-week hunt for the Siberian version of Ursus Arctos Horribilis. We had heard stories about these bears being much more plentiful and aggressive than their Alaskan cousins, so we were extremely excited about our adventure.
After a several-hour layover for customs and immigration at the Petropavlovsk airport, during which we learned what Denny meant by “Russian Standard Time,” we were on our way to Magadan. There we met Mikhail, our translator, and were escorted to the camp.
The camp was located at the mouth of a small river on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. The snow-capped mountains and rugged coastline made for some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The only problem was that an early spring had melted much of the snow, making the use of the camp snowmobiles impossible. That meant we would be doing a lot of walking! Oh…and using a rubber boat if the sea was calm.
The camp was impressive. The tent frames had been made from driftwood using chainsaws and hand tools; they even had hand-sawn plank doors. Wood stoves and cots made them very comfortable. Cooking and dining were done in separate tents and a sauna had been constructed for bathing.
After introductions were made, we shared a few vodka toasts with our new friends, and the adventure began.
After six days of walking mile upon mile through some of the toughest terrain on earth, and seeing close to a hundred smaller bears, the sea finally calmed, and we were able to take the boat out. The camp had a 16-foot Zodiac boat equipped with a 30hp outboard. The guides wrapped me in heavy rubber rain gear, life jackets, and hip boots. They then loaded me into the boat and out to sea we went.
The operator ran the boat parallel to the shore, staying 100 yards or so out. We saw lots of wildlife, including waterfowl, snow sheep, seals, eagles, and, of course, lots of bears. The bears had just come out of hibernation and were ravenous. They were browsing on pine seeds, last year’s berries that had been uncovered by the recent snowmelt, and dead salmon if they could find them. Their favorite food, however, was kelp that had washed ashore and left on the beach during high tide. When the tide went out, the bears would head for the beach and gorge themselves on the kelp.
Using a mixture of sign language and some key words from a small Russian-to-English translation sheet, my guide Alexi indicated that we would beach the boat near a tall ridge that protruded out into the ocean. We would then leave the boat and use the ridge as cover, ascend the cliffs and an elevated observation post, and glass for bears feeding on the kelp.
We found a crevice in the cliff that was full of loose shale but passable. We used this crevice to access the top of the cliffs. There the landscape opened up into miles of dwarf spruce. These are spruce bushes that had been flattened by the winter snows and were slowly straightening back up after the melt. The only way through them, or over them, is to step on the branches and ride them down while holding on to other branches, kind of like walking on springs.
We had to pay close attention to our footing; one misstep would find us at the bottom of a six- to ten-foot-tall jungle of needles and branches. As we neared the top of the ridge, the spruces gave way to the tundra and a beautiful view of the coastline.
We stepped out into the clearing, thankful to have a few yards of easy walking, and headed to the cliff to get a view of the beach below. Alexi motioned for me to move up ahead to the crest and peek over the edge.
I moved forward, slowly scanning the landscape ahead of me. Just as I cleared the top of the ridge, I spotted a huge bear coming up the trail on the other side. He was a mere 15 yards away and walking straight toward me! At that moment my entire body was gripped in sheer panic! I had nowhere to go! I could hear him breathing. I could see his breath! I could see his beady little eyes sizing me up! I was screwed!
Dense spruces lined both sides of the trail in front of me and behind me. I was caught out there in no man’s land! The bear showed no sign of backing off. In fact, he began picking up speed as he closed in on me. Was this where my hunting career was going to end? On some remote mountaintop in the middle of Siberia? There was no way I could stop this bear from getting to me, even if I shot him right through the heart. He would cover the ten yards left between us in less than a second. It was all over but the shouting!
My memories of the next second are a slow-motion blur. Somehow my instincts for survival took over. I shouldered my .338 Win Mag, found the base of the bear’s neck in my crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. That was the only shot that would stop this grizzled blur of the tooth and claw at this extremely short distance.
As I was chambering another round, the bear stood up on its hind legs and raised its front paw to take a swat at me. I took aim to put a second round in it before it could complete its swipe at my face but, it wasn’t necessary. The bear fell dead with the claws of its front leg only a few inches from my boot!
My God! I had just gone toe to toe with a big Russian brown bear and lived to tell about it! It was a miracle. It is still tough to believe I survived such a close encounter with a brown bear. It took me a long time to stop shaking.
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IN THE LAND OF THE BEAR, by Dennis Geurink, is an outdoor adventure book. Fascinating stories all, in 23 engrossing chapters. IN THE LAND OF THE BEAR is 284 pages, 6” x 9”, paperback, available at www.targetcommbooks.com or on Amazon.