In a tiny hotel room in Smithers, British Columbia, sorting gear for a two-week hunt that would begin with a bush-plane flight the next morning, I felt like a lottery winner who hadn’t yet claimed the prize.
I kept stealing glances at my hunting licenses, just to ensure they were still there and as real as I remembered. There they were, next to the mini coffee maker, official British Columbia paperwork; licenses for moose, caribou, wolf, plus grizzly bear. Winning tickets, indeed.
The next fortnight promised to be epic but also a little lonely. Most destination hunts of this scope have a patron, a sponsor that foots the bills and sends a representative to accompany a writer like myself. There’s generally a high-profile product to field test, and the sponsor hopes the writer has a memorable time with the gear and sees fit to extol its virtues in the public square.
This was not that kind of hunt.
The seed of the trip had been sown a couple years earlier, during a Dall sheep hunt in the Yukon with Drew Goodlin, product manager for Federal Ammunition. Goodlin wanted to field test Federal’s new Trophy Copper bullet and booked a two-week horseback hunt with Collingwood Brothers Guides & Outfitters, a legendary B.C. hunting outfit. But a couple months prior to the hunt, Goodlin called. He couldn’t go. Did I want to go alone, he asked a little sheepishly. Did I want to fill my multitude of tags in relative solitude? As much as I love hunting with my buddy, I didn’t hesitate, which is why I found myself in Smithers with only my fat stack of licenses for company.
SADDLES IN THE SPATSIZI
Collingwood’s remote base is an old trappers’ camp at the base of the Spatsizi Plateau, one of the great game ranges of North America. Called Hyland Post, the camp is a sprawl of slumping log cabins that preside over one of the few tranquil—and fordable—spots on the brawling Spatsizi River, which froths with whitewater for most of its journey to meet up with the Stikine River and thence to the Pacific near Wrangell, Alaska.
My first morning at Hyland Post was also my last. My guide, a wiry French-Canadian named Max Gauthier, and wrangler, Tania Millen, sorted horses and gear. The plan was to pack into the heart of the Spatsizi Plateau, to a game-rich drainage called Dawson Creek, for moose and caribou, with outside hopes that maybe we’d see a griz worth hunting. As I stuffed my backpack with clothes and gear for 10 days in the bush, I imagined myself trailing back into Hyland Post in a week with three trophy animals astride the pack horses and me sitting high and heady in the saddle. I packed another box of ammo, 180-grain Trophy Copper for my Savage Model 116, chambered in the do-everything .300 Win. Mag., and confirmed the zero of my scope, a tactical model I had brought along as a favor to the manufacturer.
The three of us—Gauthier, Millen, and I—rode all day to our spike camp, a fir grove in the crotch of a gamey basin below the plateau’s rim. I was assigned Amos, a salt-and-pepper gelding that had the lazy gait of a rental steed and the unfortunate tendency to spook at black tree stumps and sharp noises.
“He’s either a little deaf or a little blind,” Max offered in his singsong Québécois accent, turning “little” into “leetle.” His explanation didn’t make me sit easier in the saddle on the 20-mile trek into Dawson Creek.
The next morning, Max and I rode out while Tania tended the pack stock, which were nervous after wolves had pestered the staked-out steeds all night.
I’ll spare you the glorious details, but I filled my first tag in my first day hunting, a 60-inch bull moose that we turned up about five miles from camp. I shot him late in the day, so Max and I spent the last hours of light taking him apart to cool the quarters. Then we strung hunting vests and shirts on the bushes to deter scavengers, including bears that had left a copious amount of sign on the trail around the kill site.
The entire next day was occupied with packing the moose and sending Tania back to Hyland Post with short-quartered meat. As I tucked into my sleeping bag that night, I anticipated turning my attention to bear and caribou, with maybe a bonus wolf.
One of my requirements for backcountry gear is simplicity. Keep moving parts and complicated gizmos to a minimum, the idea being that if an adjustment will fail, it will fail in the place where a remedy is least convenient. I had been a bit nervous about the exposed turrets of my tactical scope in the days leading up to the hunt. The adjustments moved a bit too easily, and as I spent my first day in the saddle, I fretted every time I pulled the scoped rifle out of the scabbard, worrying that the windage control might migrate unintentionally with the friction of the leather sleeve. I added a strap of black electrical tape to the turrets as insurance against inadvertent movement.
Fast-forward to my third day in the Spatsizi. Max and I rode out on a drizzly morning and were only a couple miles past my moose kill when Max’s mount, Archie, stopped short. A blond bear bounded across the trail and into the head-high willows, which rippled with the bear’s passage. The movement stopped after a few hundred yards, an indication that the bear was watching its backtrail.
Carefully and quietly, we turned our horses, rode a half-mile back toward camp, and then dismounted and tied up Amos and Archie. I yanked my rifle from the scabbard and cinched my pack. Max and I made a mile-wide circuit to get the wind right and climbed a low ridge. Our plan was to sit all day until the bear showed itself.
I extended the legs of my shooting sticks to the correct height, got comfortable, and sat in the gray rain, watching the slope ahead of me through my scope. Max scanned the willows with binoculars. The wind stayed at our left cheeks—perfect. My mind drifted to the mountains beyond the willows.
This was a dream for me. I had fantasized about a wilderness horseback expedition for years, riding in the shadow of Jack O’Connor and Eric Collier and their monthlong pack-train treks for mountain sheep, double-shovel caribou, and surly silvertip bears.
Max snapped me out of my reverie.
“There! Top of the ridge. Just right of that leetle spruce.”
I panned my rifle, and there in my scope was one of the most marvelous sights I’ve ever seen. It was the blond grizzly, sitting on its haunches, sniffing the wind with a clay-colored snout. I ranged the bear—210 yards—and feathered my scope’s parallax dial.
“Whenever you’re reedy,” whispered Max. I breathed deeply, settled the crosshair on the center of the bear’s chest, and tightened the trigger. The shot broke perfectly, and the bear went down at the crack. I was shaking as I cycled the action. This hunt was conforming to my fantasy’s script: first a beautiful moose and now a trophy wilderness griz.
Max and I soaked up the moment, and then reality intruded. Who would approach the kill site? The vegetation was so thick that neither of us fancied walking up on a wounded bear, but the evidence—or rather, lack of it—indicated that no follow-up shot would be necessary. We sat on our ridge for another hour, scanning the willows for any sign of movement.
Seeing none, Max volunteered to approach the kill site from upwind, with the hopes that his scent would agitate a wounded bear into moving. I stayed on the ridge, ready to put a killing shot into a wounded griz.
Max waded into the willows. No movement. He continued to the very spot where I had delivered my bullet, then stood on a slight rise, his upturned hands around his shoulders. No sign of a bear.
We combed the area for an hour, looking in vain for blood or even bullet-cut hair. Then he suggested that we bring in the horses. Max said it would be more effective to canvass the area from the height of a saddle.
I untied Amos and Archie and led them into the willows. Their nostrils flared at the scent of fresh bear, and they pulled at their leads. Max and I unstrapped our packs and ate a quick lunch while we reviewed our options. Our best bet, we agreed, was to circle the willows on horseback and see if we could find some sign of a wounded bear along the perimeter.
I swung into the saddle, short-reining the head-tossing Amos. He was obviously nervous about the scent of griz and the tight cover. I was just moving Amos down a little trail in the willows when Max called out behind me.
“You forgot your pack,” he shouted and tossed my daypack up and over Amos’s quivering flank.
That’s all it took. The slightly blind and deaf Amos, with a nose full of rank grizzly, was certain that he was being rushed by a surly bear. He lunged like a bronc at the Calgary Stampede, then porpoised his back, dropped his head, and gathered himself into a violent, convulsive buck. I held on for the first eruption and tried to gather reins for the second, my hunting boots flapping out of the stirrups. By the third buck, I knew I was coming out of the saddle. In a moment of lucidity, I scanned the ground, looking for landing zones among the willow staubs.
I can’t say I ever found one, but I was involuntarily ejected anyway, greeting the ground with my back and tucking into a roll, the contents of my saddlebags fluttering down around me like confetti.
Six years on, I still carry my right shoulder a little lower than my left. I mistrust most horses I board. And I insist on capped turrets on any riflescope that spends time in a scabbard.
I cherish the skull mount of that Spatsizi Plateau moose I tagged all those years ago. I left another reminder of that hunt in the field: a big old moose shed antler with a cross-hatch of black electrical tape in the middle of its immense palm. You might find it somewhere on Dawson Creek, leaned against a fir tree about 100 yards from a rock that looks vaguely like a shooting bench. You’ll know it’s mine by the three .30-caliber holes tightly grouped 13 inches to the right of center.