By George Siavelis
The eagles were perched in the tall spruce like noble sentries, hired to watch over the river. The beauty of the surroundings was inspiring, but typical for this remote area of western Alaska. We were sitting on a low tundra bluff, overlooking a winding stretch of crystal clear stream. It was one of those absolutely calm, clear, gorgeous fall evenings where the serenity won’t take no for an answer. It was even just chilly enough to knock the bugs down, but not so cold as to be uncomfortable …the kind of evening where even the most troubled soul might lose to the peacefulness. That is, with the exception of seagulls I guess. Seriously, the faint constant clatter of the seagulls told all that the salmon were in. You could watch and occasionally even hear the crowded fish as they rolled, jumped, and chased each other in the pools and riffles below. The sandbars were literally covered in brown bear tracks. We watched as one of the big eagles laboriously took to flight and circled. All of sudden, it dove almost straight down and struck a salmon swimming in mid-stream. The fish was huge and apparently not quite ready to make his final contribution to the river yet. We watched as the fish struggled to free itself and the big majestic bird pumped his wings as hard and as fast as it could. For quite a while you could not tell who would get their way. The eagle as powerful as it was, could not lift the fish, which was fighting hard for its freedom. However, the predator would not let go and kept pumping those huge wings, working the salmon sideways to the current, slowly over towards the bank. The big fish kicked and complained, shaking the great bird with its frantic attempts to escape. For a moment it seemed like the attacker might have bitten off more than it could chew and have to abort the mission. Finally, the eagle worked the flopping fish into shallow water and the gravel. The seagulls went crazy as the big bird killed its hard-earned fish.
I was there guiding a fine southern gentleman by the name of Wes Neal, to hunt brown bear and caribou. Wes shot his bull the day before, from the very same bluff. We were about 3 hours or so by boat from my home and lodge in Aniak, a predominantly Eskimo village along the Kuskokwim River. We had nowhere to hang the meat and so decided to try and get it to Aniak and get back before a bear got the gut pile. We left as soon as the knife work was done. We figured the best time to be absent was in the first few hours when the gut pile hadn’t had time to take on a lot of odor yet. The strategy didn’t work. In the short time we were gone, the brown bears consumed every morsel, leaving only a small bloodstain in the sand. Luckily we didn’t have to kick ourselves too hard, as the sand bar told us it was a sow and large cub that got fed. The morning before that, we had briefly seen a medium sized bear down river a bit, but it never showed itself again. This morning we watched another bear, similar in size but blonde, fishing across the river. He would dive down into a deep pool and come up with a salmon in his teeth. We tried to stalk him, but he also moved down river and down wind too quickly.
It was one of those evenings that you almost know you ‘re gonna see something too. As we sat there enjoying the evening, watching and glassing, I heard a familiar cracking noise. I whispered to Wes that there was a couple of Bull Moose across the river fighting. It was early September and the moose rut was on. I asked Wes if he would like me to call the bulls out in the open to see them and possibly get a few photos. Wes got excited and endorsed the idea wholeheartedly. We were not hunting moose, but Wes is the kind of outdoorsman who enjoys and appreciates wild country… period.
I whined like the horniest, best lookin’ young cow this side of Kamchatka. I followed with a few grunts.
The bigger bull showed himself immediately. He came charging out of the willows right to the very edge of the cutbank. The beautiful monarch stretched out his neck sniffing the air currents and grunted. Then you could see the second bull’s antlers moving through the willows not far behind. It was a beautiful sight, those majestic bulls standing at the edge of the riverbank grunting, on such a beautiful, calm evening, seagulls, eagles, salmon, all of it.
I grunted again and that’s all it took. The big bull launched off the high cutbank like an eager Labrador and belly flopped into the deep, swift current. I looked at Wes. He was thoroughly enjoying the show. Wes’ 72-year-old eyes sparkled like a young boy’s who had just spotted his first big buck. That sparkle again …that sparkle was one of the biggest reasons I have spent my entire adult life pursuing this precarious vocation.
I’m not sure when I saw it for the first time. The first time I was paid to see it was early in my guiding delusions in Idaho. I’ve felt it many times in my own eyes, too. Especially since I started roaming Alaska. It’s often accompanied by a complete feeling of contentment. Even things otherwise considered small, often can bring it on. Sometimes it’s a sunset, or maybe as you watch a fish swim away that you just released, or maybe just a particular stretch of trail.
The second bull followed suit and launched himself into the deep channel. For the next 20 minutes or so, the largest bull and I eagerly traded grunts as Wes and I watched them work their way through the last couple hundred yards of willows. The smaller bull always hanging back a bit, but still determined not to miss anything. Here and there I’d throw in a good bawl to remind them of the reward. The bulls got so close that Wes and I had to scamper forward on our bellies the 10 yards or so to the edge of the bluff, so as not to lose sight of them. I remember when the lead bull got to within 20 yards or so, I felt my eyes sparkling as I watched Wes snap pictures of the bewildered old boy. The soft clicking of the camera seemed to excite the bull more and he obviously knew his antagonist and reward had to be close, so close. The old river channel and tundra were quite open. The bull looked all around scanning the higher ground, and you could sense his frustration at not being able to locate the noisy, but invisible moose. Wes and I just laid in the tall grass, giggling like a couple of devious schoolboys who had just pulled their best prank on their least favorite teacher. The laughing got louder.
All of a sudden, there was a very loud roar right behind me above my head. Wes and I simultaneously rolled over onto our backs. Right there towering above us were 2 large brown bears standing on their hind legs. The big sow continued to growl as she searched my eyes, perhaps for a sign of weakness or perhaps she was trying to ascertain my intentions. We were helpless, and could only lie there on our backs looking up at the big bears. Our rifles were 8 or 10 yards away, on the other side of the excited bears. The biggest and closest bear to me, dropped to all fours. Her front paws touched down on the tundra a measured 4 feet from mine. She continued to growl and look me in the eye. It was an extremely apprehensive moment, to say the least. Then, as abruptly as she had appeared, she wheeled around and bolted off, her speed- startling! Her cub, which was almost as big as her, followed with the same speed. I was pretty much frozen at first. Then I jumped up to see which way they were headed, and if they were after the moose, but they were gone. I can still vividly hear them cracking branches, as they were moving through the forest. I looked at Wes who was obviously shaken, but thrilled too. He was noticeably glad to be healthy at that moment. The whole thing lasted only seconds and seemed to be all over before it started. I looked for the moose, but they were nowhere to be seen. I wondered where they escaped to, and what they had thought of it all. Or had they really escaped? I located a spot about 20 yards away where the bears had laid on their bellies while stalking us across the open tundra. Wes and I contemplated and discussed how the bears also heard the calls, and came in expecting to meet up with moose. Fantasies ran through my head of being someone else, high above, watching as the comic yet very dangerous drama unfolded. Occasionally, I still imagine watching from above, the 2 cocky pranksters lying on their bellies, working the moose closer and closer, giggling, completely oblivious to the very serious stalk taking place behind them. I wondered out loud how many times that old sow might have gotten herself and perhaps her cubs food in that way.
It wouldn’t be long before it was dark, and Wes strongly suggested that we had had enough for one day, and that we should call it a day.
Wes and I enjoyed some good conversation that night in camp, but there were moments of silence where I know both of us were privately contemplating our good fortune. And even in the low light, I’m sure I spotted more than once, …that sparkle.
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George Siavelis Master Guide Outfitter