Athabasca River, Alberta
By M.R. James
Published in Bowhunter Magazine Feb/Mar 1993
It’s amazing how big even a medium-sized Alberta black bear seems when he’s climbing the tree containing your stand. And when angry growls and teeth-popping threats accompany the scraping sounds of claws on pine bark directly below, it’s enough to make almost any bowhunter wonder just what the devil is going on. Black bears aren’t supposed to act this way!
This was the same blackie I passed up the previous evening. I’d sat and watched a rivulet of rain stream from the brim of my poncho’s hood, thinking I was wasting my evening sitting huddled in a northwoods downpour. Then this bear waddled out of the chipping underbrush, shook himself like a bag dog and plodded to the bait barrel. Quickly sizing him up, I rated him only average. So I sat unmoving, watching as be snatched up the remains of a smelly beaver carcass and padded uphill behind me with the ursine taste treat clamped firmly in his jaws.
Some 10 to 15 minutes later he was back. But this time he ignored the bait, walked directly to my tree, stood erect and peered up at me. Seconds later he jumped onto the tree trunk and hung there like an oversized squirrel.
“Get outta here”‘ I hissed, kicking the stand for emphasis. The bear dropped down and began skulking around my tree, circling and casting occasional glances upward. After several long moments he returned to the bait barrel, grabbed up another mouthful of odoriferous beaver remains and moved off into the soggy underbrush.
Now, the following evening, he was back. Only this time he seemed more interested in me than the newly freshened bait 12 yards away. He’d waddled over, stared up, bared his teeth and growled. Circling the tree base, he then stopped directly beneath my portable stand. Suddenly, as if making up his mind to get a closer look, he started climbing the pine, growling and popping his teeth while clawing his way upward toward my stand.
Instantly I had two major concerns. First, I couldn’t see the climbing bear, much less get a shot at him. I knew I wouldn’t see him either – until he reached the stand’s floor. Second, there simply wasn’t room for the two of us on the small wooden platform. If he was determined to clamber aboard, it was going to get quite crowded and very, very interesting.
“Get!” I shouted, stomping the stand hard enough to make the tree shake. “Go on! Get!”
The surly bear stopped, backed down the tree and disappeared below me, growling. He began moving off but turned and charged back, woofing and huffing. Twice more he repeated this noisy retreat and charge maneuver until my arrow zipped through his vitals and ended his aggressive nonsense once and for all.
Boats ferried Bowhunters to remote baits on the banks of Alberta’s famous Athabasca River (top). The author (bottom) and guide John Visscher pose with the belligerent bear that tried to climb into the author’s stand.
In over 20 years of black bear hunting I’ve never had a bruin act this way. Sure, curious bears have padded past and peered up at me. And a couple have even climbed part way up the tree I was in. But none had ever acted so angrily aggressive, making me believe that he not only took serious exception to my presence but that he actually planned to do about it.
A clue to his belligerence was later found during the skinning process. A deep, infected puncture wound in his right foreleg likely accounted for his sour disposition. The round wound, about the size of your little finger, definitely was not caused by a broadhead..tipped arrow. It may have been the result of some natural woodland mishap or even a small caliber bullet. Whatever, it probably was the source of the bear’s irritation and unusual behavior.
This excitement took place in early June. I was in a backwoods bear camp run by Ryk Visscher and Terry Birkholz of Edmonton, partners in an outfitting venture catering to bowmen seeking a Canadian adventure. Veteran outdoorsmen and active bowhunters, each knows the black bears and what it takes to put a client within point-blank range of a northern Alberta bruin.
During 1991, their initial year operating from a comfortable tent camp on the banks of Canada’s famous Athabasca River, their eight hunters tagged 10 bears including five trophy class bnuins with skulls exceeding the Pope and Young Club’s 18-inch minimum for recond book entry. Texan Stanley Hips, whose ethaloam Hips’Targets with replaceable cores are popular with many bowhunters, arrowed two Pope and Young-quality black bears himself in only three evenings on stand.
My belligerent bear was the third tagged during a six-day 92 hunt. The very first evening, following the three and one-half hour drive north from Edmonton, Michigan bowhunter Milos Cihelka shot the of eight bears that visited his bait. And Sian Hayes, the lone rifleman in camp, killed his first bear after half a dozen fruitless Ontario bear hunts. Several other bruins were glimpsed and talk around the dinner table each night centered on the abundance of game in the area. Besides the bears, deer and moose were sighted almost daily and several of us caught fleeting glimpses of a wolf ghosting across a roadway hacked out of the dense Canadian bush by logging or oil and gas crews.
I saw at least 10 different bears during the five evenings I hunted. My total sightings were half again that number. And at least three of these bruins I rated as definite keepers. Just before quitting time on the evening I’d had my rainy day encounter with the belligerent bear, I glimpsed two large bears – one black and one chocolate – moving downhill behind me. As I prepared for my shot with the pair moving through thick brush less than 20 yards away, the brown brute suddenly swapped ends and chased its black-coated companion into an underbrush tangle. Their roars, growls, snapping jaws and the sounds of breaking branches made my hair stand on end as the two battled over some bear business known only to the combatants.
About 10 minutes after the noise of the fight ended, a movement caught my attention. The brown-coated bear was padding back toward the bait – alone. I slowly raised my bow and waited. Still screened by the dripping brush, the bear abruptly stood as if testing the breeze. But the quartering wind was in my face and I knew there was no way the bear could scent me.
Come on, I urged, just a few more steps. But when the bear dropped back to all fours, it swapped ends and moved hurriedly upslope. It stopped briefly once more, then took off running as if touched by the business end of a cattle prod. I was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong when I heard the growing drone of an outboard motor as my guide’s boat neared my pickup spot on the nearby Athabasca.
The day after I filled my first tag, I left the riverbank stands in favor of an active deep woods bait site that had not yet been hunted. The rains had turned rutted logging roads to muddy obstacle courses suitable only for ATV traffic. But the hour-long, soaking, butt-pounding ride proved well worth the effort. And the big bear we sighted crossing the drowned road less than two miles from the bait was seen as an omen of good things to come.
This distant stand was in a small opening in the dark pines just above a gurgling creek. Visibility was limited to15 yards or less to my left and directly ahead. A faint game trail, marked by moose and bear droppings, threaded its way through heavy brush to my right. An overturned bait barrel and demolished pile of foodscraps were mute evidence that hungry bruins were foraging here on a regular basis.
Just before 9:00 p.m., with nearly an hour and a half of legal shooting time left, an average sized bear padded in from my right, nosed nervously around the bait site for several minutes but left without feeding. I simply sat and watched. There were better bears around, I knew, and I hoped the first bear’s nervousness was due to some boss bear’s unseen presence.
At 9:50 a bigbear into the clearing beside the bait barrel. One glance told me this was a keeper and I waited for my chance. Quietly circling the clearing, alternately nosing the ground and testing the air, he finally moved broadside and began tugging at the beaver carcass tied to a sapling beside the barrel. My arrow was on target. He made it less 50 yards and died in the shallow creek just behind the bait site.
My trophy wasn’t the only good bear tagged that evening. Chuck Rachwitz, another Michigan bowhunter, arrowed a huge brown-coated bruin about five miles from my backwoods stand. The lung-hit bruin dropped off a high wooded point where Chuck’s stand was, crossed a deep ravine, climbed the opposite bank and died just beyond.
And on the final evening two more bears were tagged – with other shots passed up. Bill Kruse, another Michigander, nailed his first bow and arrow bear while rifleman Stan Hayes filled his second tag. Only my tentmate, Wisconsin bowhunter Carlton Strezyzewski, failed to shoot during the six-day hunt and he passed up several small to average bears holding out for Mr. Big. He’d taken a bear on an Idaho bowhunt two weeks earlier and was after a real wallhanger or nothing.
Our tally for the week was seven bears for six hunters – with several missed shots or blown opportunities thrown in. Everyone sighted several bears and agreed it was a great hunt. I, for one, would not hesitate to book Athabasca River to anyone looking for a another bear hunt here or to recommend good bear area in the wilds of the Alberta backcountry along the northern Canada.
No more than six hunters per week are booked into the bear camp operated by Ryk Visscher and Terty Birkholz. In 1992 each hunter averaged seven to eight bears sighted and several shooting opportunities during their six-day stay. About one in five bears seen was a cinnamon phase bruin and about that same percentage was a potential Pope and Young trophy.
The biggest bear taken during the 1992 season was arrowed by Illinois bowhunter Larry Opie. Tagged the last week in May, it has a Pope and Young green score of 20 12/16.
Two basic factors contribute to the high rate of success enjoyed by bowhunters visiting the Visscher/Birkholz bear camp. First, the remote, hard-to-reach location of most bait sites practically guarantees no competition from local bear hunters or other outfitters. Second, this particular backcountry area of Alberta holds a large, healthy and growing population of black bears. In 1993 plans call for even more emphasis on river baits accessible only by motorboat.
In 1992 a six-day, fully guided hunt (Sunday through Friday) cost $1,750 plus tax with a $500 trophy fee for a second bear. A modest price hike is expected for ’93. Appropriate licenses and tags for two bears run about $100 more. For complete details, write or call: Ryk Visscher’s Bowhunting Adventures.
My own choice of equipment included a Bear Kodiak Express bow pulling 70 pounds, 2315 XX75 Easton arrows and razor sharp Phantom 125 broadheads. I was especially glad I’d packed good rainwear along with a bottle of bug dope. Surprisingly, compared to much Canadian bear country I’ve seen, skeeters and blackflies proved scarce along the Athabasca River. Only twice during the week did I even bother applying Muskol to the exposed skin of my hands and to my camo headnet.
Good guides and good grub – combined with a comfortable camp including roomy tents, cots with foam pods and first-rate trucks, ATVs and boots – offer the makings of a memorable bowhunt in the Alberta backcountry Expert skinning/salting of hides is an added bonus. All portable tree stands with seats and safety belts are situated near active baits. Bow shots are under 20 yards with many half that distance.
All in all, between the first-rate camp and the area’s burgeoning black bear population, this is one Canadian bowhunting hot spot you shouldn’t overlook next time you’re planning a springtime northwoods adventure.