15 Days in Kamchatka, 15 Seconds of Glory
by TCS Staff
I have hunted African lion, Cape buffalo, and leopard with “real” backup. Men that would stand their ground, hold their water, and if necessary protect me against my own folly. Not here and not now. I was facing one of the most powerful and intimidating creatures on this planet with a guide that would fold on me. He had a fear of these animals. Not a healthy fear established out of respect for their agility, power, and speed, but an unhealthy fear of claws and teeth. He was terrified of bears. Making me more uneasy was the fact that the only gun my backup owned was a .30 cal. SKS. I knew I was in trouble. To top it all off this man had absolutely no confidence in me. He said just two days earlier that there was no way I would kill a bear with the “toy” bow that I brought. Fear and ignorance are a horrible combination when hunting dangerous game.
I was on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, which is one of the most remote destinations on the planet. The only way in is by helicopter and only on reasonably clear days, as you have to cross an extensive mountain range with elevations of over 5000 feet. The “reasonably clear day” would eventually come back to haunt me later in the trip.
I invited English Pope, one of my co-workers, to come with me to video the experience. I told George that I wanted to get the hunt on tape and would also tape some fishing for him to show his future clients. English is a fly fisherman and jumped at the idea of fishing for artic char, rainbows, and silver salmon in a pristine wilderness, so what if he had to video a bear or two along the way.
We loaded our gear on the chopper, with the Canadians’ stuff in the rear so that it could be unloaded first, as they were in the closest camp. A small-framed, wiry fellow boarded last, and Laura told me he was my guide. I looked at him wondering if he had any idea what he was in for. A couple of hours later we landed at the edge of a river on a large gravel bar. As I jumped out, I was overwhelmed with the smell of dead fish as the sockeye spawn was ending and there were carcasses floating everywhere. As the chopper took off and disappeared, I was also overwhelmed by something else - the sense of wildness. What a beautifully wild place this was. George was right. It was beyond description. Then it hit me; I couldn’t wait to see a bear. I couldn’t wait to eat a rainbow, or a silver. I couldn’t wait to unpack my bows and practice. I wanted to soak it in, become a part of it and hunt. It’s engrained in me. It’s one of God’s purposes for my existence, to live wild. It’s true of all hunters; I am no exception, just evidence of His Holy rule. We were once all wild at heart, but the herd is thinning. I would absorb all this place had to offer.
At dinner, Laura introduced English and me to the camp staff and afterward as we sat around a campfire, I explained bowhunting through Laura to the two guides. They sat there stunned, as I showed them the High Country carbon TSSR’s that only weigh slightly more than a kilo. They both said, “You will never kill a bear with one of those things.” I explained that I needed to get within 20 meters. They laughed nervously as they sensed I was not kidding. I felt their anxiety. I asked to see their guns. The head guide showed me a .30 cal. SKS with 80 grain bullets. I asked them to show me the gun they were going to back me up with. They told Laura that the SKS was the only gun in camp. I was the one getting anxious now. What on earth had I gotten myself in to? Two queasy Russians with a daisy BB gun were going to back me up. The feeling came back. I was in trouble.
The head guide told me that two days earlier a Russian hunter shot a bear 5 times in the shoulder and ribs with an H&H .375. He looked again at my bow in despair, as I tried to explain the damage that a 3-bladed broadhead does to the heart & lungs when a bear is properly hit. We all went to bed rather frustrated with each other and agreed to meet for breakfast at 5:00am.
The next morning, at first light, we loaded our gear into a rubber boat equipped with a 20-horse mercury. Victor, the head guide, was in the front, English and I were on each side and Dema, the real guide, was with the motor. We slowly cruised down river some 6 miles before Dema pulled into a small stream full of spawning sockeyes. We pulled the boat into the woods, and Dema motioned for us to follow him. We walked upstream in a line, Dema first, then Victor, me and English. I got the impression these guys thought they were hunting. Were we going to just walk up and stick an arrow in a bear? I guessed so.
As we walked, I noticed large trails paralleling the stream. As we walked the trails, I started seeing chewed up fish carcasses and bear dung and tracks. Things were looking up, there were bears there, and from the appearance there were a lot of bears there. An hour later, we were at a small cabin, the spike camp, and our guides started a fire to boil water for coffee. They told me that there were at least 10 bears in the area of the small cabin and that we needed a plan as to how to hunt them
Victor and Dema had made a plan. After waking at 6:00 am, we would wait until light and go to the place where two streams converge, a place where the salmon were still good to eat.
It was a dense fog as Victor, and English and I slowly walked down stream. Every few minutes Victor would stop to listen. It was an eerie morning to be in the bush full of bears, and Victor with a SKS. In 30 minutes we arrived at the stream intersection. As we were walking, we saw fresh fish carcasses and bear feces everywhere in the bushes. There were bears here, no doubt. English and I thought that 10 might be a conservative estimate.
We built a small, short wall of weeds and sticks on a point protruding over the intersection, maybe 3 ft above the water and hundreds of salmon fighting their way upstream on their march to death. In a week their decaying bodies would be floating downstream. It was hard for me to comprehend; as everywhere I looked there were dead fish. I was beginning to smell like one.
About two hours passed after we set up, perched over the fog drenched fish race. English sat with his back to the bank holding the camera in his lap pointing out of a hole in our makeshift blind. Victor toyed with his rifle. I remember twice when he raised his hand to his ear when he heard a stick break or an unusual noise downwind of us. I let it pass because I knew a bear would never approach from downwind. I watched English nod out while Victor was aimlessly pointing his gun at me. I pointed to the barrel and he swung it away. I turned to face the stream and began to stare blankly into the sea of thrashing flesh. My bow was leaning against the single wall of weeds between the water and us. The fog was clearing to a blue sky and life was peaceful.
A blur! The bear appeared in an explosion from the opposite bank. He had crossed diagonally away at 16 yards. Victor yelled, “Shoot, shoot!” I had already picked up and drawn my bow only seconds after he hit the water. The moment he was broadside I would take the shot, not a second sooner. I was well aware of how much bone was in the front of his body. I was going to be patient despite my screaming guide.
Then it happened. The bear turned in our direction and in a few steps was facing us. At 5 yards he threw his head up and made a guttural woofing sound. He was staring straight at me. I did what I thought I would never do and in my mind I knew we didn’t stand a chance, but I couldn’t let him take another step. I was not going to die this way! I put the pin on the center of his chest, rose slightly, and turned it loose. The bear bellowed a roar and ran back across the river. Somewhere in the commotion a muzzle blast echoed in my ear. Even though I had given strict instructions for Victor to shoot only if I said to, I knew he had shot out of fear. I was trembling so bad I could hardly speak. He had us dead to rights, yet turned and ran. I looked at English and said, “Miracle”. He nodded and said, “Devine intervention”, and I knew absolutely he was right. We had just experienced a mountain of God’s mercy and grace that was beyond our comprehension. English tried to talk to Victor but he wouldn’t respond. He couldn’t talk for 5 minutes. I asked Victor if he saw where the arrow went. He just shrugged. “English, did you see the arrow?” He hadn’t.
I really wasn’t sure what had happened. I thought I had hit him above the brisket, but nothing was sticking out of his chest. Maybe I missed. English and I started looking for the arrow. First, we checked where the bear was standing in the stream. Nothing. And then, we looked along a small sand bar where the bear ran. Still nothing. Finally, we went to where the bear ran up the opposite bank. Immediately, my knees started to shake as I stared at a wall of leaves covered in blood. There was a thick spray of blood everywhere. I looked at English and said, “I think we killed him.” English nodded and smiled. “The arrow must have passed completely into his chest cavity”, I said. English said, “It must have.” I looked at Victor who had slowly walked up behind us, and tried to explain my conversation with English. My impression was that Victor really couldn’t believe an arrow could do such a thing. But I couldn’t imagine anything else. I told Victor we needed to give the bear time to die and we needed to go get Dema to help find him.
When we arrived at the spike camp Victor woke Dema and then retrieved a full bottle of vodka and asked, “Drink?” “No”, I said, “First we find bear!” I knew his nerves were frayed and now I wanted to look for a wounded bear. I could sense his anxiety, but vodka wasn’t going to help find the bear. I needed him sharp.
At this point, God had taken my anxiety away; I was completely at peace with the situation. Victor did not understand my thoughts about God as he told me repeatedly that we were very lucky. Later that night he told me that was the closest he had ever come to death, and I said, “Same for me.”
We approached the bank where blood was sprayed on the bushes and ground. Victor handed Dema his rifle and motioned for him to go first. I cautioned them to go slowly and they looked at me as though I thought they were stupid.
Dema went first, followed by Victor and me and English was last as he was videoing the event. Dema was following blood and tracks in the dried streambed from the bank when at only 30 yards from the river he looked back at me with a blank stare. I ran up and looked down to see my bear piled up in a pool of bloody water. Victor and Dema, astounded, grabbed my hand to shake it. I melted as the gravity of the situation hit me. A gift from God! All Glory to the King of Kings. I looked back at English and said, “Miracle”. He smiled and said, “Divine intervention!”
The four of us dragged the bear out of the water into a small opening 10 ft. away and began examining the body. There was a massive wound to the right of center of his throat half way between his brisket and head. The arrow was inside him somewhere. Victor later reminded me that when the bear saw me that he raised his head high to size me up. At 5’2” and 138 lbs., maybe 1/4th the bear’s size, I laughed at the thought. But, that is what made him vulnerable. When he rose up, I turned the arrow loose. The arrow had passed through his vitals with such energy that he immediately lost interest in us. He needed to get away from whatever had a hold of him.
We took pictures, ran some video, and spent two hours skinning the bear. The whole time all I could think of was my arrow. I wanted to see where it ended up. While skinning, we did find a tiny hole in his abdomen where Victor shot him with his SKS. I can’t believe they have confidence in those things. But, I was reminded that they never get close to bears. As they were wrapping up the skinning, I was overwhelmed with the need to pray. I went to the river, knelt in the water and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving. I trembled. And I tremble now at the thought of it, as I am reminded how often God has rescued me from my own folly.
When I returned, they were splitting the bear open, not for my arrow, but for the gallbladder that they will sell to the Asians. Victor started at the abdomen and cut around the base plate of the ribs to open a window to the chest. Instantly, among mountains of intestines, liver and lungs, I saw the black shaft. I yelled in elation at its discovery and slapped both Victor and Dema on the backs. They were stupefied! The arrow had come down the throat, cut the aorta completely off, split one lung, passed through the liver and was buried in the intestines and stomach. The bear, in English’s estimation lived 10 seconds. I said maybe 30. He had died in a full run. Amen, Amen.
That night the guides would celebrate by eating bear paws with vodka. I tried them both and enjoyed neither. I believe in traditions, but that is one I could live without. Victor told the story over and over to the rest of the staff how I held my ground at full draw until the last second, and how he feared for his life
Over the next 12 days it rained almost unceasingly, preventing the helicopter from retrieving us, so we continued to hunt and fish. We ran out of food on the 8th or 9th day, but there were plenty of fish. I went to the river alone and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and also prayed that God would reveal himself to my new found friends.
I tell of this hunt to encourage hunters that when you get into a tough situation not to give up and quit. Against terrible odds, I got my bear. I was blessed to have five other people in my corner, all of which worked toward a common goal. They were competent, enthusiastic, and joyful and they sustained me through a trial that demanded patience and perseverance. I was also blessed to see the hand of God in such a wild country and to experience His Holy Spirit in the greatest hunt of my life, and that’s worth hunting for.