Skwentna River, Alaska
Man oh man, if a guy could script a boy's perfect first hunt this would be it. I am writing this on the plane, headed home from Alaska, with my youngest son Truett sitting beside me. What an incredible week in the bush.
Even without one of my kids along, this is a favorite hunt of mine for a few reasons. Firstly, I love hunting spring bears in Alaska. I think I have headed North to Alaska right at 10 times over the years with the goal of arrowing a spring blackie and hauled a bear home just about every single time. Those are the type of odds I like on a hunt and this is one, I simply never get tired of it. I've found it is a great way to get into the bowhunting groove for the year. Secondly, I get to hunt with Roy Roth, which is again, something that is very special to me. On the hunt, any hunt, we share the same no holds barred mindset. We are definitely on the same page in the bush and he is the best hunting partner and true friend I've ever had. We've shared a lot of good times and a lot of tough times. Confided in each other and celebrated each other. And while we don't see one another too much any more, other than on an annual hunt or two, when we do get together we pick up right where we left off 20 years ago when we shared that first campfire. But lastly and most importantly this hunt has become a sort of proving grounds for my kids. Tanner made this trip with me 8 years ago when he was 7 to try and bag his first bear. He didn't kill one, had to pass on a sow that was still towing a cub, but he gained a lot of valuable experience on that hunt. I hauled him up North again when he was 11 and this time he made good, hammering a nice bear with a .20 gauge shotgun pushing a slug. He earned that bear and I was proud of him. This year it was Truett's turn, who is also 11. Truett has kind of slipped under the radar so to speak in regard to hunting. Tanner has had a lot of opportunity to go with me on hunts, scouting trips, photos shoots, help me do video work, etc., while Truett has missed out a little bit. He is a tough kid, but not woods tough. He simply hasn't been in the mountains as much as he should have...I blame myself for this. Honestly, I feel like I have blown it a little. I wanted to turn that around and was really looking forward to sharing a week of the best "quality time" a father could ever spend with his son as we hunted black bear together.
Getting ready for the hunt, little Truey worked his tail off. We watched videos and looked at photos while talking shot placement. He proved he was disciplined and a very accurate marksman with his 7mm-.08. He also ran hundreds of rounds through a .22 up at Grandpa Larry's punching paper...after watching him do his thing on the practice range, I knew he was more than ready to make good if a bear gave him an opportunity. One thing I have decided to do with my kids is start them out with a rifle as they develop as hunters. I just think bowhunting is so dang tough...I could see it being really frustrating for a young hunter. I want them to enjoy the experience, have success, learn to respect the animal and the hunt. Not to say there aren't plenty of kids getting it done with a bow, but with my kids and their school and sports schedules putting the time I think is required to become a proficient bowhunter would be difficult, if not impossible. So, while I haven't killed anything with a rifle in nearly two decades, I think my kids will rifle hunt for most of their teenage years before deciding where their passion is --- with the gun, the bow or maybe a little bit of both. I don't really care. I just want them to be active outdoorsmen and responsible, respectful hunters. Also, this hunt is perfect for a new hunter. While bears can be intimidating, the way Roy and I set this up for the kids is very controlled. We are right there with them, talking them through crunch time, giving support etc. We put them in treestands or a ground blind with a good rest and make sure they're right mentally to make a good shot. Despite all this, they still have to execute the plan. It is a lot of pressure, especially since we always video tape the experience to relive with friends and family back home, but what I have found is that if you believe in your kids and teach them to believe in themselves....anything is possible. This includes killing a bear in the backcountry of unforgiving Alaska. Trial by fire, yes, but we put them in position to succeed. Their life is going to be full of challenges and this is but one...a life lesson. Tanner has risen up the challenge, as have all of Roy's kids. Justin, his little guy who was with us on this trip, is 10 years old now and has killed
7 bears already and landed who knows how many King salmon. One of the toughest little suckers I've ever met. A mini-Roy to be sure.
After a full day and a half of travel, we finally arrived at Roy's cabin in remote Alaska at midnight. Given it never really gets dark this time of year in this country, it was the perfect time to go check a couple baits.
Get the "pots soaking" so to speak. We left the kids and Roy's dad, Grandpa Ray, at the cabin to turn in for the night. It had been a long day. Actually, Truett did want to go with us, but beings it was going to be a Bonzai baiting mission, that wouldn't wrap up until 2 or 3 in the morning, we talked him out of it. I liked his fire though. He was ready to get to work!
Second day of the hunt we woke up, and ate a full hearty breakfast compliments of Grandpa Ray. Then it was off to tend baits. Roy's cabin is 65 miles up the river, then we were running at least another 40 miles working baits. Lots of wild country, full of black bear, grizzlies and moose. A number of baits had brown bear coming in at one time or another, which means there was more than a few glances over the shoulder while we worked. In this unit, 16B, moose numbers are real low right now because of all the bear, which is one reason why you are allowed 3 black bear per year in this area. Fish and Game wants bear killed and we are doing out best to oblige. It took a full days work tending the baits, burning "Bear Crack" and hanging treestands but by 8:30 p.m. me and Truett were dialed in to spend a few hours in the stand. Come 11:30 p.m. we had watched a number of squirrels visit the bait, but nary a bear. Truett was disappointed, but I was not. Being a long time, public land, DIY guy, I am plenty used to kill-less days. Fact is, I really didn't want him to kill the very first day he hunted. I wanted him to pay his dues. It would have been o.k. with me if we went a couple days with no kill.
The next day it was pretty much the same routine. Except this time while burning "Bear Crack" at a particularly hot bait in the early afternoon a big boar decided he didn't want to wait for us to leave. Like it or not he was coming in. This caused some frantic moments as I tried to position Truett for a steady shot while the bear stood up, dropped down, walked toward us, stood up, circled and so on. We tried to give him space while jockeying, but it was not working out like I envisioned. To get control of the situation we decided to climb into the treestand and see what the bear would do. He came in to the bait as predicted, but wouldn't give Truett the shot he needed. I told Truett to focus and prepare himself to kill the bear...I would tell him when to shoot. After about 20 minutes the bear spooked, ran off a short distance, stopped and headed back in. I was whispering to Truey, "Not yet, not yet." When the bear turned broadside, I gave a bear alarm sound, "wooh, wooh, wooh," stopping him in his tracks. I then hissed, "Take him." Truett gently fingered the trigger and the gun bucked. There was little doubt the boar was hit hard as he ran with an unsteady gait through the tall grass....in seconds he piled up a short 50 yards away. Truett let out a sigh of relief and wore a toothy smile as the camera rolled. I said, "You did it buddy, you got your first bear. I am proud of you."
To top off the trip, later that day Truett caught his first King salmon, to finish off what Roy calls the, "AK Combo." It was then Truett gave himself the nickname, "T-Crush." You gotta love the confidence huh? One big, successful hunt and the feeling is you can conquer the world. I have felt that before, which is why I love sharing this experience with my boys.
Confidence is hard-earned for growing boys. The next day, our last full day to hunt before beginning our day and a half long journey home, I crushed a bear of my own, another boar, dropping him in his tracks with one hard hitting arrow and then just before 11 p.m., Truett landed his second big King in as many days...all on his own I might add and yup, caught all the action on film. Could life get any sweeter...I don't think so.
Next up for the Alaska experience, little Taryn, my daughter will be joining me in AK for spring bear. She is 4 now and I can assure you, that little fire plug is full of enough spit and vinegar to get a bear killed.
Truthfully, I feel sorry for the bears of the North. They have no idea what's in store for them. Growing up with two older brothers has put a heck of an edge on her. The tough part is going to be convincing Tracey that Taryn is ready for the hunt in the next couple of years. I am looking forward to that conversation(s).
In the end, more than anything, I am thankful I can share trips like this with my kids. This is the type of stuff I never had a chance to do growing up...I am a lucky and grateful man.
Good hunting, Cam