USA: Alaska Interior Grizzly Hunt With Alaska Challenge Guide Service

JES Adventures

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My apologies for the delinquency in posting this report from last month but my dance card has been full since getting home. Here we go!


Day 1

This hunt was to take place in 2020 however the Governor of Alaska Closed the bear season last Spring amidst Covid fears.

The hunt is being outfitted by Craig Hill of Alaska Challenge Guide Service. I hunted with his outfit in ‘19 for Alaskan Barren Ground Caribou.

The area we will hunt is outside of Kaltag in the Nolado Hills. This area has historically produced very good Grizzly as evidenced by entries in the Boone & Crockett record books.

Flying is a breeze these days (despite the mask) and I arrived Faibanks about midnight and finally got settled into bed by 1. I set my alarm for 5 so I could meet Dale the other Hunter for transfer to the airport to catch our 7:30 Flight to the village of Galena. It was -17 and I could feel it. The flight was in a Pilatus and very smooth. As the sun rose over the snow covered landscape my mind wondered back to my polar bear hunt in ‘07.

Craig met us at the airportand we loaded our gear into his pickup and drove
to his house to get changed and everything loaded onto the sleds. We waited until after 1 PM for it to warm up to 2 degrees. It’s amazing how 19 degrees in temperature can make a difference to your comfort level.

We bundled up and took off for the Village of Kaltag a little after 2 and by about 5:45 we’d made the 90 mile trip. Riding a snowmobile is fun for about the first 20 minutes then it’s just work. Craig stopped several times to check the loads as we were all pulling sleds with gear. We will spend the night at Justin Esmailka’s (one of our guides) home which will be the last night of comfort for the next week or two.

After dinner of fried moose steak and Mac & cheese I started to feel drowsy. I was out by 8:30 slept solid for about ten hours.

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Day 2

The house started to come to life by 8 and we had coffee, bacon and eggs to tank up for the day. It’s -4 today with some breeze so travel to camp should be about like yesterday.

We set out for camp at 1:45 it was a rough trip that lasted nearly 10 hours. The trail was rough and difficult to travel at times. I got off the trail a couple times and got stuck. But all of the snow machines have a winch on the back so we went to work.

Once to our campsite about midnight Justin and Devon got busy digging out the 4’ of snow to the ground to set up the wall tent. After a bag of freeze dried fettuccine alfredo and I started to warm up. Once they got the tent up and a fire in the stove Justin waved us in and we all got somewhat comfortable. It’s now 1 AM and Craig said we’ll all sleep here tonight and put up the other tent for y’all tomorrow. My shoulder and knees took a pounding and I ached all over as I slid into my cold sleeping bed and passed out.
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Excited to read more of your adventure, off to a tough start!
 
Can hardly wait for the rest of this. Great start.
Bruce
 
I'm in Arkansas where it is 70-80 in the day and I'm already cold.
 
Day 3

I woke to the daylight but covered my eyes and went back to sleep. About 10:30 the rest of the crew came to life so we had coffee and breakfast burritos. It continued to snow and visibility was very low so we hunkered down for the day. The Arctic oven tent was spacious and downright hot with the stove. I napped off and on through the day and started my book. About 11 PM I turned in and woke several times through the night to extreme heat from the stove and my tent mates snoring. I am going to suggest we scrub using the stove tonight.


Day 4

Justin went back to Kaltag for more supplies and Craig and Devon went to break trails. I chilled out and continued my paperback. I used my sat phone to text home and all is good.

I worked on my paperback, a good thriller so powered through it the whole day. About 8pm they all showed up including Justin. Craig had some fueling issues with his snowmobile so they worked on it well into the night. I turned in about 9 and slept off and on through the night. Between trying to get comfortable on the cot and Nick and Dale snoring all the time it was impossible to get a solid sleep. It’s warming outside so we opted to not use the stove tonight which proved to be a good move.
 
Keep it coming please
 
Day 5

I woke to snoring, farting and daylight. I had to pee so after I finished my morning prayers I donned my coat, boots and hat and headed outside. It was noticeably warmer today, actually comfortable compared to the previous days. I expect it’s in the 30’s with no wind. The sun is trying to peak through and there is a light snowfall at higher elevations. We are in hopes of some clear off but Justin and Devon both said as it continues to warm the bears will start popping out and we are in the right place to intercept them.

Craig said they saw quite a lot of moose yesterday along the river bottom which is perfect as the bear start hunting moose as soon as they come out of their dens. Once on a kill they will stay a while which will give us the opportunity to track them.

The morning progressed the snow showers persisted so it looks like another day in camp. In retrospect I should have brought more books!

Day 6

We sat around most of the day, stayed warm and waited for the weather to clear. About 2:30 Craig, Justin and Devon headed over the pass for fuel from the first stop. Justin was going to head in to town but about 5 miles down the trail he spotted a fresh bear track so he came back to camp.

I turned in at 10 and they were arriving just as I dozed off. I could heard them talk about a bear but didn’t get up. A descent nights sleep, the usual tossing and turning.
 
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Day 7

We woke to fog so didn’t leave camp until 10:45. It took a couple of hours to get to the location of the tracks and the three went to scout while the other hunter and I sat and waited. About an hour and a half later they came blowing back and said let’s go let’s go. Dale loaded up with Justin and they took off. I rode tandem without a seat behind Nick. We were in back so I was clearly not the shooter.

We struggled to get up the trail falling off several times. At one point a 4” branch flew back broke the windshield and we thought Nicks nose as well. I said what’s the use in us slugging our way up if he’s gonna shoot. Nick said Craig is waiting for us up ahead so we carried on.

We got to a stopping place as Justin needed to cut some branches out of the trail. About that time Nick said I see his tracks going to the base of that big spruce tree but not where they came out. As Justin cut Nick kept looking around and said there’s the bear, under the spruce tree. You could see him pop up his head so I tried to get to my rifle as Craig was carrying it over his shoulder. Dale sat down and with his rifle across the snowmobile and was trying to locate the bear. I said I can see him are you gonna shoot and he said yes. About 2-3 minutes later The bear lifted his head to look at us and the shot rang out. The bear rolled over and was dead in his tracks. A nice 8’ bear at 55 yards. The next few hours spent taking pictures and getting the hide off.

On the way back Craig said there’s a bit of daylight left if you want to take a run over to those mountains and do some glassing? As he pointed off into the distance I said sure let’s go.

We rode another 20+ miles up and over a high ridge down a valley of very soft snow. We got stuck multiple times and finally got back to camp just before 11. I took 3 Advil drank a bottle of water and went straight to bed.

An uneasy feeling came over me today. I was not happy with how the hunt played out. Justin had the other hunter and I together in the tent this morning and said he wanted to make sure that everything was understood before we go hunt this bear. He said one of you will go in the woods and the other will stay below and watch for the bear crossing the river. I said “I have no problem going in the woods” and Dale said “it’s hard on me to ride on the back of the machine” so it was decided.

When the moment came and Justin rode up and said “hurry up, let’s go”. I grabbed my rifle and started towards him when Dale got on his machine.

After the bear was down, I was somewhat shocked it had played out exactly the opposite of what was agreed upon.

My mind ram the gamut over the 5 hours it took me to get back to camp. I just let my humanity get in the way of clearer thinking and I went to sleep questioning the day. As I fell asleep to my nightly prayers I thought about the coming days and if I would be successful. This is my third attempt for an Inland Grizzly so I was a bit anxious to say the least.

Sometimes in the night, I awoke to the words “you are loved” and that was the first thing on my mind when I woke again in the morning. Whenever I have been challenged in life, I always remember that I am HIS. My LORD loves me and I know he wants me to be happy and successful with my dreams and aspirations.

From there forward, I had given up all the animus and ill feelings from the day before and moved forward with the hunt in order to be successful.
 
Day 8
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I woke about 8 to the sound of Dale packing. He was ready to go by 8:30. I guess he’s had all the fun he wanted since his bear was in the salt and it was 24 degrees in the tent!

We sat around camp most of the morning while Craig sent Devon and Nick downriver to scout. About 1:45 they rode back into camp and said they had found tracks. We got out gear together and headed out. We got to the location where you could see the tracks in the distance on a far hillside and Craig told Nick and I to wait while he and Devon drove into the trees to see if they can find the tracks.

They were gone nearly 4 hours, when they finally showed up they said they never found the tracks in the timber but have been stuck several times. The snow has a soft crust on top and then lots of fluff below so it’s difficult running in many places as the snowmachine falls through.

We made a run further down the river to do some glassing and, I got stuck couple times and had to be winched out - the norm for most days.

About seven Craig called it a day and we headed back to camp for dinner we’re going to travel over another ridgeline tomorrow to the Gazaza river valley to look for bears. After a dinner of freeze dried chicken alfredo I turned in about 10. I’m looking forward to a better night sleep now that Dale is gone as he constantly snored the previous 4 nights.
 
Day 9

I had a good sleep, didn’t wake as many times as previous nights. I only heard Nick snore once and it was about 8:45. Devin came over for the torch and started our fire. It was 24° in the tent so I welcomed the warmth of the stove while I put my clothes on. I had my morning cup of coffee while we discussed the day. We were going to head over the pass and glass towards the west.

We got out of camp about 11 and the running was good. I only got stuck twice on the way up and we got to a high peak and started the glass. Craig spotted some bear tracks back to the East, on the opposite side of the valley so we made a plan to go back across and see if we could find the tracks. We got to the main trail about 1:30 and Craig told us to wait for Justin while he and Devon road up high to locate the tracks. About 20 minutes later Justin showed up and we visited for about an hour, Justin had cut fresh tracks down by the Nolado river less than 20 miles from Kaltag. He said let’s talk to Craig about what they have seen. Then about an hour later Devin showed up for us. Craig was waiting a mile up the trail and we all discussed.

We rode for several hours trying to locate the tracks and by 6:20 we were on them. It was determined the bear went down the mountain spent the night then went back up. A long day with a lot of riding. We headed for camp had some smoked salmon appetizers and freeze dried Chili Mac for dinner.

He told Justin where the tracks were so the decision was made to hunt this bear today and if we aren’t successful we’ll go for the one Justin cut tracks on first thing tomorrow.
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Between the weather, snoring and how the hunts played out, I'd be frustrated too. Hang tough, it will happen for you!
 
Day 10

We got out of camp about 9:45 and made way for the tracks. The trail was hard so ran at a good speed topping 35 at times. About 2 hrs into the trip Nick’s machine wouldn’t run. Devon and Justin were somewhere behind and Craig was out front. So, we waited until someone arrived to assess the problem.

Justin got there and found the machine overheating so he drove it the next half hour through the fresh, fluffy snow which cooled down the engine.

We caught up to Craig a little after noon where he located the track from the night before. The bear had come out of its den off a high hill and was headed down to the river valley. We meandered through the spruce forest with his track in sight most of the time. At one point Craig leaned off his machine and felt the snow in the track. Craig said “he’s close”.

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Continuing on through the forest zig zagging between the trees, I was about 40 yards behind Craig when I came into sight and he’s yelling “get your gun theres the bear”. I could see the large brown mass moving through the snow 75 yards ahead of Craig. When I got off the machine to get my rifle out of the gun boot I sunk to my waist. Pulling myself around I got the 338 win mag and slung it across my back and pulled myself back on to the machine. I got ahead to a clearing as quickly as I could and was parallel to the bear as he trudged through the deep snow. I slid off the snow machine sinking nearly to my waist and chambered a round. I saw the old boar swing his head to look at me as I shouldered the rifle. He took a step and I aimed high center and dropped him with one shot. A magnificent old boar, broken and worn canines and a large scare on his hump from fighting. He squared 8’3” but was thin and gaunt. Both Craig and Justin speculated on his condition and how he must be very old. I looked at my watch and by 12:54 it was all over.

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After the obligatory photo session I lite up a cigar, got my flask and relished in the moment while Devon and Nick skinned the bear. It was a gorgeous day, sun shining and in the upper 30’s with no wind. Those conditions actually were comfortable despite the low temperature.

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The Skinning was done and we headed for Kaltag about 3:45. I only got stuck once on the way out which was a real bonus! We arrived at Justin’s house about 6 pm and I was absolutely beat. We rode over 50 miles today and I felt it. After dinner and a shower I called it a night. The guides will go back tomorrow to break camp and I am going to Mass and recover from the last week. We will ride the last 90 miles back to Galena the next morning so I can catch my flight to Fairbanks for an overnight before flying home.
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Day 11


I was up early, well rested and warm! I got my flight booked for 3:20 on Wrights Air to Fairbanks. We took off about 10 so that should put us in Galena a little after 1. About an hour into the trip Nick was in the rear and disappeared. About 15 minutes later a man rode up next to us. Craig knew him so they chatted for about 10 minutes. He said he had found Nicks gun on the trail and gave it to him a while back. After he left I told Craig we’ve burned a half hour and maybe he should go check on Nick. Well, another half hour later they showed up, Nick got his machine stuck and had to be winched out.

We ran as fast as we could but just couldn’t average 30mph as the ice/snow was rough in many places. Craig stopped again to shed some clothes as it is warming up. I looked at my watch and started to be a bit concerned about our arrival time.

We finally got to Craig’s house at 3 and I asked him to call Wright’s. When he did the guy said, Stepan, oh he missed the flight it left 45 minutes early. I’d never heard of that before but that’s Alaska for you.

Craig started calling charter companies and got a guy in Fairbanks that said he couldn’t make a charter today but he works for Everts Air and if they have a cargo load for Galena he’ll send it up and I can catch a ride back. He said to call back in 15 minutes but before we could call he phoned back and said he has a plane coming and will be there at 5:30! I was shocked at how well this worked out.

The pilot showed about 10 mins early and they unloaded about 50 Cases of soft drinks! He waved me over and I loaded my gear in the Pilatus and 10 mins later we were airborne for Fairbanks.

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After a nice dinner of salad prime rib and baked potato at the famous Turtle Club it was back to the hotel to get some sleep as I have an early morning tomorrow.

In retrospect, this hunt sounded easy but now that it’s over I see it differently. We left Galena a week ago Friday and it was -17 degrees. The 90 mile trip on the frozen Yukon River took a little over 3 hours. Then it was -20 when we rode 8 hours to camp last Saturday. The winter storm hit and we sat in the tents keeping warm for three days. Once the storm broke and the weather was good the other hunter got his bear on the first real hunting day. I rode another 80+ miles looking for tracks over two and a half days before shooting my bear.

This is a highly productive hunt but require patience and perseverance to be successful.

I will forever be grateful to Craig Hill of Alaska Challenge Guide Service for being an honest outfitter and doing what he said he’d do. To Justin and Devon Eskamaila and Nick Long for helping me along through the difficult conditions to get my Grizzly.

This finished my bears of North America and is # 24 of the North American 29.
 
Awesome story! Thanks for sharing!
 
Between the weather, snoring and how the hunts played out, I'd be frustrated too. Hang tough, it will happen for you!
@375 Ruger Fan Hunting always poses unique challenges that have to be dealt with. I try to get along with everyone and make the best of a situation. It can be unfortunate when clients get mixed in with someone they’ve never met and end up sharing a tent, guides, etc. This has happened to me more often on North American hunts than elsewhere. When I ran my hunting lodge in Texas, I always tried to keep groups exclusive, it just seemed to work out better.
 

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