The second episode of MeatEater chronicles a black bear hunt in the Chugach Range of southcentral Alaska, a place known for wickedly steep mountainsides and alder choked hellholes. I don’t mention it during the show, but I’d actually been up that same drainage with my two brothers, Matt and Danny, about eight years earlier. It was a trip that I’d remember forever as one of the worst (and therefore, best) hunting trips that I’d ever been on.
We were after Dall sheep. This was just a couple years after my brother Danny moved to Alaska, and he’d yet to learn much of anything about the white, high-climbing sheep. Matt and I, who were living in Montana at the time, knew even less. We were all broke and had no money for bush pilots, so our primary criteria in selecting a spot was that it was accessible from the highway. Danny started studying some maps and found a likely stream whose mouth was guarded from the road system by a large river. Figuring that obstacle would keep out hunters with quad runners, we crossed the river in a raft and then tied the raft into a tree so that grizzlies wouldn’t chew it to pieces. With that, we started up the stream with a week’s worth of food.
We didn’t really think much of it after we traveled for two days without seeing a single sheep. This lack of thinking had to do with the fact that we entirely too cold for thought, as the trail that we’d identified on the map had turned out to be somewhat non-existent. Instead we’d been forced to travel up the center of a river that ranged from ankle to thigh deep. The river headed at a large glacier, so the water we were traveling in had been liberated from ice just a few minutes before it flowed over and through our boots.
We reached the glacier, where we’d planned on hunting, after nine miles of trudging through water. There wasn’t a sheep in sight, though we counted three black bears from our camp. From there we headed up a series of tributaries, scouring the mountains for sheep. Again, we didn’t see any sheep. Also again, we saw loads of black bears. In all, we saw about twenty bears while we managed to find only one Dall sheep. It was a young ram that wasn’t even close to legal size, about three miles away on a high peak. It appeared for just a moment and then vanished. We gave chase, thinking the ram might have big friends, but we never again laid eyes on the animal. While looking for it, though, we ran into more bears.
Toward the end of our adventure, things had gotten bad. And I’m not just talking about not seeing sheep. We had run out of food so thoroughly that we actually had to cut a piece of hard candy into portions so that everyone could have a share. Matt had started the trip with a nasty cut on his leg, and it had developed into a purplish blotch of oozing nastiness that he’d wrapped in a makeshift bandage crafted from the band of a pair of boxer shorts. A member of our party (I hate to name names) got separated on his way down a mountain and had to spend the night on the slope. Another member of our party had suffered a collision with a porcupine while navigating an alder choked hellhole, and the others had to pick thirteen imbedded quills from the afflicted shoulder. Our clothes were torn to shreds. Our boots were mostly trashed.
By the time we got out of there, we were under unanimous agreement that it was the absolutely worse place on the planet to go for a walk. But over the years, I continued to ponder the black bears that seemed to dot the hillsides as thickly as deer in a summer alfalfa field. After enough years had passed, all of my memories of misery had faded. What were left were memories of bears. It was time that I went back, I decided. The episode tells what happened.