50 YEARS OF DREAMING
John Coll Yukon Grizzly Bear Hunter - Sep 2012
“Come and get your Dinner” my mum called from the kitchen. I reluctantly put down my copy of “Outdoor Life” and took one last glance at the Grizzly Bear that towered over the hunter on the cover and scurried out to the dining room for diner with Mum, Dad and my 3 sisters and 5 brothers. It was September 1962 and I was 6 years old. All I dreamed about doing was hunting and even then my goal was to hunt a Grizzly Bear, the “Horrible Bear” of every kid’s nightmares. I saw the movie “Big Jim Cole and the night of the Grizzly” and of course they had spelt my name incorrectly again but it was me in those petrifying scenes and it always turned out alright in the end. We were a big family brought up on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Money was tight so all the children had jobs after school and Dad supplemented our income with trout from the nearby rivers and lakes and red deer from the native forests that abounded on the West Coast. I constantly hectored my Father and older brothers to take me with them hunting. Steve my second eldest brother took me away for a weekend hunting in the Roaring Season when I was 12 years old and I shot my first Roaring Red Stag with my eldest brother Chris’s 30-06. Over the intervening 50 years I hunted at every opportunity. In the mid 70’s I was fortunate to be based in Haast were I worked as an Engineering Surveyor. The venison trade was in full swing at the time and red deer venison fetched $1.00 a pound with velvet a whopping $100 a pound. I was making more money from hunting on the weekends and after work than from my Engineering job! Life was great indeed! With all the helicopter activity going on recovering venison from South Westland I decided a change of occupation was in order. So I applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air force as a pilot. I was accepted onto the May 1979 intake and promptly resigned from my engineering job. A week later I got a letter from the RNZAF telling me that my course was delayed until May 1980! For a young fellow with no attachments this was a God sent opportunity, 12 months hunting for a living then a new adventure in aviation, Fantastic!
Over the next 33 years I worked and hunted and never forgot the dream of hunting the “Horrible Bear”. In 1995 Dad, my great friend and mentor, passed away. I was deeply saddened and missed him immensely and our many hunts together. For some years I did not hunt and a move to the North Island with the RNZAF meant I lost contact with the friends I had in Westland. A trip to Invercargill in 1997 that took me back through the Haast and a chance meeting with an old hunting mate rekindled the hunting passion. Back in the North Island I decided to see what was on offer in the deer scene and was introduced to Sika, Fallow and what was to become my great passion, Sambar. I became a member of Safari Club International and in 2009 had an epiphany while reading an article in their magazine. The essence of the article was that there are two windows in life that overlap for only a short period of time. One is the financial wherewithal to do things that are important to us and the other is the physical ability to be able to do them. In other words when we are younger we don’t have enough money but we have the physical ability and as we get older we have the money but lose the physical ability. There is a small window of time when we have the money and the ability. This is when you must “Just go do it” or the opportunity is lost forever. Now was my time to do my Bear Hunt!
Endless research narrowed the selection of a hunt down to a couple of choices. One was Alaska and the giant Brown Bears of Kodiak Island during the salmon run and the other was the Interior Grizzly of Canada’s Yukon. I just could not make up my mind. In Nov of 2009 my middle son, Ben, and I went on a Buffalo Hunt to the Northern Territory in Australia. During a discussion on the choice of bear hunts our guide said, in his opinion, the choice was easy! This I have got to hear, I thought!
“Tell me what you reckon” I asked.
“Pretty straight forward really, the Interior Grizzly Hunt” he said.
“Why?” I asked
“’cause they eat meat!” he drawled.
And so the decision that I had struggled with for so long made sense in just four short words. I wanted to hunt a truly dangerous game animal and they just don’t come any more dangerous than a “meat eating” Interior Yukon Mountain Grizzly bear.
Grizzly Bear Spike Camp, Snake River, Yukon
Widrig Outfitters based in Whitehorse, Yukon, seemed to tick all the boxes for me. They offered a true wilderness Hunt 40 km south of the Arctic Circle with the nearest road end nearly 300 kilometres away. It was a horse back hunt (I had been riding horses for years), and they used tented spike camps with no luxury facilities or niceties. The fact that it was recommended by SCI added a major plus to the authenticity of their operation. In their pre-hunt questionnaire one question stood out for me. It was “What are your expectations of your Hunt?” I replied “To hunt and hunt hard from the time I arrived until the time I got back to camp well after dark on the last day”
So on the 17th September 2012 I departed Palmerston North for Auckland to connect with my “Air New Zealand” flight direct to Vancouver. I had an old mate who had moved to Vancouver 38 years ago and spent a fantastic couple of days with him before boarding an “Air North” flight to Whitehorse. Two days later I climbed on board a “Black Sheep Aviation” Turbo Otter float plane with a German, a Spaniard and two Danes for the 2 ½ hour flight to Goz Lake where Chris Widrig had his outfit based. I was the only Grizzly hunter, all the others were hunting Dall sheep so I was a bit of an oddity. I was introduced to my guide, Andrew Robinson, a 40 year old hard bitten mix of Scot, Irish, Welsh and Cree Indian. He was short and wiry and looked as hard as nails. I was immediately grateful to my son Ben who had overseen my fitness program. My research showed that 90% of hunters who fail to fill their tags do so because they are not fit. Ben manages a Gym back home in Marton and is a bodybuilding guru. He had said to me at the start of my training, 12 months previous, “Fitness will not be an issue!” That statement had an ominous ring to it when he uttered it! When he gave me my final work out on the day I left for the Yukon he again said to me “Fitness will not be an issue!” only this time there was a smug satisfaction in his voice!! I was to be eternally grateful to him over the next 12 days.
We were all assigned cabins and deposited our packs in the huts before shooting our rifles in. I use a Blaser R93 Professional in .300 Win Mag and have shot hundreds of deer with it. I do all my own load development and use almost exclusively Barnes TTSX 180grn projectiles chronoed at 3077fps. This load just keeps putting things on the ground with one shot.
Prior to this hunt I had 82 one shot kills in a row. Hard to beat as an option! It is topped with a 5.5-22x56 Nightforce NXS scope. However I also had a .375H&H Mag barrel for it that is scoped with a Swarovski Z6 1.7-10x42. I load it with Barnes TSXfb 270grn moving along at 2400 fps. It just flattens things! I had a tag for a Grizzly, Black Bear, Wolf and a Wolverine. I figured on using the .300 Win Mag for the “Small Stuff” and the .375 H&H Mag for the Grizzly. I was first up on the range with the .300 Win Mag. Andrew asked where the rifle was sighted in and I said “1.6” high at 100 metres”. My two shots cut each other at 1.7” high dead on centerline. A grunt of satisfaction came from my guide. I changed over to the .375 H&H mag and I saw his eyes light up. I had used the .375 extensively on deer just because it is great fun to shoot so was really at home using the bigger gun. In answer to his query I replied it shoots 2” high at 100 metres. (Easy ballistics to remember on the big gun 1” high at 50m 2” high at 100m zero at 150 2” low at 200m.) Again both shots cut each other dead on centerline and 2” high. “Nice” was the laconic reply to my shots. The rest of the day (it was only 2:000pm and didn’t get dark til 10:00pm) was spent by Andrew getting the horses all geared up and ready for an early push the next day. While the rest of the hunters drank coffee and talked I decided to go and find out if the local fish where interested in my dry flies. Andrew said I was free to go fishing by myself but to ensure I had my gun with me at all times. “What do I do if I come across a Bear?” I asked. “Shoot it of course” he said. The lake was only about 1 ½ km long so anything that was hanging around was deemed to be a threat to the camp and was fair game. I was assured it would not count as my Bear Tag. About 250m along the lake edge, from camp, I found very fresh Grizzly prints and quickly re-checked my rifle. Suddenly the “Dangerous Game” was more immediate and present! At the end of the Lake I caught a couple of “Dolly Varden” a small trout like fish that responded well to the Black Gnat dry fly I presented to them. Small, but good fun and there was a certain satisfaction to go somewhere completely new and catch the local fry.
The next morning after a fantastic breakfast cooked by Leanne the resident base camp cook, we saddled up our two riding horses and the three pack horses and headed up over Goz Saddle into the Snake River. An eight hour ride had me pleased I had done enough riding back home to prepare my backside for the very hard western saddle. We set up our spike camp along the edge of the Snake River and after spending a couple of hours stalking and observing a mob of 10 Caribou we rolled into our sleeping bags in our canvas tent. We both had our rifles alongside our sleeping bags, (magazine full and one up the spout!). Andrew’s was an unscoped Lever action .45-70 and of course I had my trusty .375 H&H Mag. I also had a very powerful Led Lenser torch at the ready! I must confess to getting almost no sleep that first night. I was acutely aware that we were in the heart of Grizzly Bear country and the only thing between me and the outside world was a millimeter of rather fragile looking canvas. Meanwhile my intrepid guide slept and snored very peacefully! He must have figured the odds where 50/50 on who got eaten first!
I got up at 06:30 and put the billy on for a brew. We had a quick breakfast, packed a lunch and headed up a major side creek about an hour’s ride upstream from our spike camp. We rode up the side creek for a couple of hours then tethered the horses and climbed up high to glass the area. While Andrew was sorting out some gear I climbed up a ridge about 100m away. As I was about to crest the ridge I glanced back and saw that Andrew was frantically waving his arms in the air. I scurried back to him and he said he had seen a grizzly bear just over the ridge from where I was standing. A quick and careful stalk yielded no sign of the bear so we settled in to do some serious glassing. After about 15 minutes a gentle snore emanating from my guide about 10 metres away and I was left to do the glassing on my own. After an hour of very careful scanning I spotted a large grey object at the top of a steep shingle screen on the other side of the river valley. Closer inspection revealed it to be a magnificent silvertip Grizzly bear peacefully dozing in the late Arctic sun.! I sat and watched him for a few minutes while the snores continued from 10m to my right. As casually as I could I said “That’s a nice looking Silvertip Grizzly”. A startled grunt and exclamation came from my guide. He quickly found the grizzly and declared him to be “A Freaking Beauty”………….
If you want to read the rest of John's fantastic hunt, join up with SCI(NZ) and read the full story contained in Safari News #73 in the members only section.