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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Trophy of An "Unsuccessful" Hunt

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., September 3, 2005.)
The stalk had taken too long. I had nothing to show for my effort -- nothing except the things a hunter brings home that are more important than the kill.
We climbed a quarter mile up an Alaskan avalanche and perched on a bare spot that wasn't even close to level. There we planned to spend the next 24 hours. Our meat and potatoes were summer sausage and Pringles. Dessert was a package of Snickers bars. We snacked on raisins, and washed it all down with a sport drink.

We were traveling lightly, unburdened by tent, sleeping bags, or cook stove, hoping to end our hunt by carrying a black bear out of the Alaskan rainforest.

The daytime temperature was in the mid 50's -- warm enough to work up a sweat on our 3-mile hike to this black bear paradise. A misty drizzle, typical of Alaska, made the humidity as high on the outside of my Gore-Tex suit as it was on the inside, so perspiration condensed on the inside, soaking me to my Joe Boxers. What a mistake! The chill taught me why Alaskan hunters say, "Cotton kills."

Our plan was to glass the opposite side of the valley for black bears, then settle on a big one and conduct a stalk that would put it within reach of my seven magnum. Every hour or two, a black bear made his way out of the thick alder brush to feed on tender new grass in open meadows, and we studied each one closely through binoculars.

Spotting a big one, we began the stalk. We slipped and slid our way down the avalanche and headed for the roaring glacial stream that separated the steep mountainsides.

When we found an almost-safe place to cross, round baseball-sized gravel would shift as I placed my feet on them. With the pressure of the water against my thighs and rocks rolling under my feet, I felt like I was riding a skateboard in a hurricane.

After the difficult crossing, we continued the stalk. On the way, we passed a small beaver pond and noticed a young bear on the opposite side. Thinking he was well hidden, he peered at us from inside the brush along the bank, his image perfectly reflected in the still water.

When we arrived at the meadow the bear I wanted was gone. The stalk had taken too long. I had nothing to show for my effort -- nothing except the things a hunter brings home that are more important than the kill.

Besides the 14 black bears we spotted on that hunt, we saw a cow moose, hiding in the alders. How does an animal as big as a plow horse melt into the brush? Tracks from brown bears were common -- with front paws 8 inches wide. At one place we saw brown bear scat that contained parts of a baby moose, and at another place we found brown fur stuck to dribbles of pitch on the trunk of a spruce tree a big brownie had used for a back scratcher.

I also found two complete cow moose skulls. And, while we had been walking upstream in shallow water, searching for a safe crossing, I laid eyes on one of the nicest finds I've ever discovered. A full set of moose antlers -- a fraction under 50 inches wide and complete with skull plate -- was lying in the water.

What led to this moose's demise? Perhaps he was the victim of an avalanche, and his carcass was washed into the water. He may have been killed by a big, hungry brown bear -- at least two or three reside in that valley -- and was finished off in the stream while trying to escape his fate. Or, maybe he was a casualty of winter starvation and succumbed where high water washed his remains into the stream. All that was left was a pair of antlers held together by a section of skull.

With no load to carry out but what I had carried in, I tied those antlers to my pack, and today they are a conversation piece nestled in my shrubbery -- one tangible trophy of an unsuccessful Alaskan hunt.


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