Subarctic Snow Bears

Adventure and intrigue are the intrinsic qualities that make a coastal brown bear hunt on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula a journey into the surreal.

THE CREATOR MUST HAVE BEEN elated when he grasped hammer and sickle and carved the exotic wilds of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Protruding from the icy waters of the Bering Sea like a giant serrated spear, this subarctic mass— the approximate size of Japan—is a land time has forgotten.

Early explorers—those who braved the long and dangerous voyage—marveled at the region’s exotic peoples and the rugged and forbidding panorama. They came in search of fur, gold and walrus tusks—and many forfeit their lives in the pursuit of riches and adventure.

Nowadays, tourists seek the solitude and the intrinsic beauty of the peninsula— to escape the confines of their 9-5 lives. Earth scientists arrive in droves each year, drawn by Kamchatka’s unique geographical makeup—a landscape dominated by earthquakes and active volcanoes.

Hunters who visit Kamchatka have a more singular focus: the colossal coastal brown bears that occupy the northern reaches of Russia’s easternmost territory. These adventurists forsake comfort and safety, and abandon common sense to fulfill life-long dreams of pursing one of the world’s largest and most deadly creatures.

April 29, 2010: Anticipation

As the Mi-8 helicopter’s belly settles into the 9-foot snowpack, realization settles in the pit of my belly that we’ve finally arrived. I’d left my home in Minnesota 57 hours earlier and crossed 17 time zones to get here— Minneapolis, New York, Moscow, Pretropavlovsk, Esso and points north. I take a deep breath of crisp coastal air and climb down from the chopper, stepping onto the compacted snow. I’m desperate to shake someone’s hand, but the camp crew is aloof as they load our gear onto their snowmobiles. Quick glances and curt nods are their only acknowledgments. Our hunting consultant and interpreter, Nikolai Khokhlov, tells us there will be plenty of time for introductions later; the men are intent on getting our belongings and fresh supplies to camp and have us settled in before dark. I steal looks at our Russian guides as they work, trying to size them up. It’s obvious these are hard men, children of the harsh Bering Sea environment and the isolation and poverty of the Cold War era. This should be interesting.

One of the Russians grunts something unintelligible and gestures toward a sled that’s tethered to his snowmobile. I climb aboard for the short ride to camp—two dome tents, a trapper’s shack and an outhouse.

We’re still organizing our gear when the camp cook, Oksana the Ice Princess, calls us for supper. Here we’re formally introduced to the four guides—Kostya, Misha, Sasha and Valery—who will be our lifelines in this strange land. After supper we sit around the table and visit; I’m dead tired but am enjoying every minute of it. It’s apparent the Russians are as curious about us as we are of them, and with Nikolai’s help we get to know a little bit about each other. Soon the crew’s rough exterior begins to erode, replaced with easy smiles and warm laughter.

Several hours later, I retire to the tent. I’m wearing that warm feeling that comes from contentment, a full belly and a slight vodka buzz. The past 21/2 days have been a blur, and my head’s spinning as I put down my journal and drift off to sleep.

Journal—The helicopter flight into camp was incredible—I can’t believe how remote this country is! We’re 17 hours ahead of Minnesota time, and my brain hurts every time I calculate the difference. We actually watched the sun rise twice in one day from two different jets during our journey here!

We have only a sketchy idea of what to expect from what Nikolai has told us. The bears are coming out of hibernation and working down toward the coast. We’ll use snowmobiles to get around and will be hunting hours from camp—spot-and-stalk Russian style. I think the guides told every bear story they know tonight—I could see they were gauging our reactions, and I think they were embellishing the accounts a bit. But these guys have done and seen it all when it comes to brown bears: Bears turning on hunters … a snowmobile falling through the snow into a den … wounded bears retreating into their dens … charging bears. There’s little doubt what I’m going to dream about tonight. ...

May 1: Exhilarating

Our first morning, we ride snowmobiles about 20 miles from camp over hard-packed snow that’s still 10 feet deep, even though it’s now May. In places, we maneuver through treetops that protrude through the snow. Around every corner is a new scenic, postcard-worthy image.

I see my first Russian brown bear at 9 a.m.! It looks huge as it ambles through the snow, and at first I’m not sure if my guide, Valery, wants me to shoot. He indicates it is too small, and I swap rifle for camera and get some great images of the bear as it comes down the mountain. I see about a half-dozen bears in all. What a day!

Upon returning to camp we get word that Ron Spomer has shot a beautiful 8½-footer today, so we’re on our way. I go over to where the guides are salting the hide—what an incredible animal! As I run my hand through the thick fur I can’t keep from staring at those huge claws and teeth.

There seems to be a storm front moving in. It begins snowing as soon as we get back to camp, and it’s beginning to gain intensity. This could make hunting more difficult tomorrow. The guides are already talking about getting an earlier start in the morning while the snow is more firm.

Journal—I have difficulty expressing in words my first day out hunting on the snowpack. It’s nearly impossible to portray the emotion, the beauty and the wonderment of this magical place.

May 2: Tent-bound

We’re hopelessly snowed in and the guides tell us to sleep in. Total whiteout conditions. It’s too dangerous, and the bears are likely holed up anyway. They don’t like this weather any more than we do. It’s huge that we got in here 2 days ago. It’s doubtful that we could have flown in today and might have been delayed a day or more.

May 4: Field Trip

Like yesterday, we’re still stuck in camp. Snow conditions are awful. Our guides risk a run to a nearby river so we can do some ice fishing. It’s a welcome diversion from the monotony of sitting around all day. We fi sh for Arctic char and it’s an absolute blast. In 3 hours we catch more than 30 fish, including three over 30 inches. It’s easy to understand why we’re not out bear hunting; the snow is soft and wet and the snowmobiles have a tough time of it, even on this short run.

May 5: Stir Crazy

Looking back, the weather the day we arrived at camp was a fluke. The barometric pressure is rising, though, up to 30.10 this morning and the wind is more easterly. Not sure if that’s going to prove significant. It does mean this front is blowing in directly from the Bering Sea. Having watched “The Deadliest Catch” for three seasons, I can’t imagine that’s a good thing.

OK, we’re starting to get a little stir crazy. We’ve been snowed in for 4 consecutive days. It’s definitely brighter out today, though, so I’m still optimistic it could clear off and we’ll get out tomorrow. But it could be worse. We heard on the sat phone that there are bear hunters who’ve been stranded for days trying to get out of Petro and Esso. At least we’re in camp and have one bear down and even got to do some fishing.

I’m still enjoying the solitude and beauty of this incredible place, but we really need to get back out hunting. At night I’m beginning to dream of that 81/2-footer I saw the first day. Seems like weeks ago. Have to say, that bear would be trouble if I saw it now. The rain against the roof of the tent is a constant reminder that it might not happen. Just finished my first book and am starting the second.

May 6: Worried

Just got the word that we’re stuck in camp for another day! The weather front seems to have stalled. After today we’ll have only 3 hunting days left. There’s a glimmer of hope, though. The barometric pressure is on the rise and the wind switched to the northwest last night. Way too warm for the snowmobiles, though, and the sky’s still spitting a mixture of rain and snow. It’s funny how we came to camp with so much time and now we’re watching it quickly slip away.

Tonight we’re partying like rock stars—in fact, Kochya tells us James Hatfield of Metalica was here in 2001, slept in the same tent I’m in … killed a good bear his first day. With Nikolai translating, we share hunting stories, sing American and Russian songs and drink lots of vodka. I laugh until my belly hurts.

May 7: Determined

It’s weather be damned! It’s still overcast, warm and snowing, but after 5 days of being holed-up in our cramped tents we’re all getting shack nasty, and the guides decide we’re going to try to get out and hunt. Their biggest concern is that it’s difficult to see definition in the snow, which means that if they’re not careful, we might drive off a cliff or plunge into a snow-covered creek.

We’re hunting in pairs today, and I draw my buddy, Dean Capuano. At least I’ll have someone I can talk to. Looks like I’m riding with Valery again. The more time I spend with him the more I like him. He’s got a gruff personality, but is just as quick to smile. And even though I’m sure he knows I don’t understand a lick of Russian, he talks to me constantly. I nod politely and smile.

Dean’s with Kochya, the quietest of the lot, and the most experienced. He seems very reserved and is difficult to read. I saw him standing outside the cook shack this morning smoking a cigarette, a sporterized military rifle hanging from his shoulder. I’ve gotta say, it conjured up stereotypical images of the Cold War.

The snow is coming down in sheets by the time we start glassing several miles from camp. It’s about 8:30 a.m. when Kochya and Dean pull their sled up along side of us, both of them pointing up into the fog. About two-thirds of the way up a steep slope, maybe 600 yards away, the dark form of a huge bear fades in and out of sight. Valery fires up the Skidoo and we skirt the base of the mountain trying to get a closer look. There it is! My first impression is that this is a good bear. While it’s hard to draw a reference, it has that swagger I’ve seen in mature black bear boars.

Minutes later, Kochya pulls his sled up alongside ours and he and Valery have another animated discussion. They seem to be in disagreement about what to do. Valery is very aggressive once he gets on a bear, and with no further ado we’re off again, angling up through the trees.

The bear is two ridges over and the cover is extremely thick. I’m not confident we’ll be able to get to the animal. When we cross over to the next ridge, that all changes. We break out into a clearing and the hairs on the back of my neck take life. I can just “feel” we’re getting closer.

My head is on a swivel as I scan the woods for the bear, while trying desperately to keep from getting knocked off the sled. Valery cranks hard to the left and the machine slides to a stop. The bear’s already ahead of us! Valery points to its huge tracks and my eyes follow the impressions in the snow. The bear is definitely on the move and probably knows we’re in pursuit.

Valery punches the throttle and we’re off to the races. Now it’s a matter of overtaking the bear before it reaches heavy cover or crosses a creek where we can’t follow. I catch a glimpse of it through the birch and know immediately it’s a big bear. Valery maneuvers the machine to a high vantage point and I slide off the sled and frantically work my way up a ridge as fast as the deep snow will allow. I clear its crest and see the bear! I make a quick dash to get in position and then drop to the bipod. The bear’s moving through the brush, and I can’t get a clear shot. It’s gone.

“Medved, medved! Bolshoi, bolshoi!” Valery shouts, and I run back to the sled. He grips the Skidoo’s throttle, hell bent for election, and we plow through heavy, wet snow toward a steep birch ridge. I hold on for life and limb as the sled I’m clinging to fishtails and then falls in behind the accelerating snowmobile. My grasp of the Russian language is limited to five basic words, but the two my guide just yelled are at the top of that short list: big bear! I catch a glimpse of the chestnut-colored bruin as it drops into a creek-bottom dotted with clumps of heavy alders and willows. Just as quickly, it’s gone. I awkwardly bail off the sled for the second time in 20 minutes and scramble down the brush-choked slope of a gentle hill, trying to cut off the bear. My legs feel as if lead weights are attached to them as I struggle to keep them churning through the wet snow. Then I see the bear, quartering hard away from me, headed for more heavy cover. My window of opportunity is slipping away.

The boar resembles a runaway freight train, plowing a deep trough in the snow as I scurry to get into position for a shot. My breathing is forced as I push forward, and then drop to my knees and extend my shooting sticks. I’m hyperventilating badly as I try to settle the crosshairs on the south end of the northbound bear. The angle is a hard quarter, but I sneak a look at the front shoulder and tug the trigger. Missed high! I quickly work the bolt and get back on target. The second shot connects, and the bear drops out of sight. I run to the steep creek bank, expecting to see the bear piled up. Instead I see nothing but tracks where it bailed off into the water. I scramble up the creek edge and there it is, standing less than 30 yards away, looking back at me with attitude! I jerk the rifle to my shoulder, steady the crosshairs and end the drama.

It all happened so fast, I don’t immediately comprehend the enormity of what just took place. Dean is laughing as he walks up and slaps me on the back. From up on a hill he and Kochya had watched it all. “You were in such a zone,” he laughed.

I can’t take my eyes off the huge bear as Kochya and Valery meticulously skin it out. And I keep running my fingers through the bear’s thick, chocolate coat. I’m lost in thought as we hunt our way back to camp. I feel like I left a piece of my soul on that creek bank.

Epilogue: Days Gone By

The steady drub, drub, drub of the Mi-8 has a hypnotic effect as I stare out of the portal window. Dean taps my shoulder and points at a set of tracks winding through the snow, and I follow the treasure trail to its source. A giant Russian brown bear looks up as we pass over it at 600 feet. It’s a striking symbol of the wild country it dominates.

I slip back to the hunt and slide back in time. I close my eyes and conjure the image of that runaway bear plowing through the snow as I scramble to get the shot. Incredibly, my pulse begins to quicken.

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