FAIRBANKS - Jack Hendrickson's first thought when he saw a large area of forest floor torn up on his trapline was that Bigfoot was running around in the Crazy Mountains north of the mining community of Central.
"I thought it was Bigfoot or Sasquatch, whatever you call it," the 63-year-old trapper from Central said by phone Friday. "His toe marks were 8 inches apart. They were huge."
It didn't take long for Hendrickson and his trapping partner, Jimmy Gelvin, to figure out what it really was: a large grizzly bear looking for a place to dig a den.
It was Dec. 11, and the two men were checking their trapline about 12 miles north of Central. They were hoping to find marten and wolverine in their traps but instead found obvious and fresh signs of a grizzly bear hard at work next to their trapline trail.
"He was out at 40 below zero, digging moss and leaves up," Hendrickson said. "He come down that valley, found a place he figured he could den up and dug a hole."
Armed with only .22-caliber pistols used to dispatch live animals caught in their traps, Hendrickson and Gelvin didn't spend a lot of time looking for the hole.
"We're at the bottom of food chain when it comes to hand-to-hand combat with grizzly bears," Hendrickson said.
Instead, the two trappers hopped on their snowmachines and hightailed it out of there. They returned the next day with Hendrickson's 28-year-old son, John, and his friend, Jack Cannon. This time they were armed with high-powered rifles. The four men were scouring the area for signs of the bear's den when the younger Hendrickson and Cannon found it.
"They started hollering at us that they found the hole and to come over and (the bear) started coming out of the hole and they shot him," the elder Hendrickson said.
John Hendrickson shot the bear three times from close range with a 30.06-caliber rifle.
"We were looking right in the hole when we shot him," Jack Hendrickson said. "It was coming out of the hole and he shot it once, and it was still moving. So he shot it twice, and it was still moving. So he shot it a third time, and it stopped moving."
The incident marked the second scary encounter Interior trappers had with predators on their traplines this month. A trapper in Tok, Lance Grangaard, was attacked and bitten by a wolf as he was riding a snowmachine along his trapline east of Tok on Dec. 13. The wolf bit through his parka and three layers of clothing, breaking the skin on his arm. The wolf ran off after Grangaard leapt off his machine and landed on top of the wolf on overflow ice.
It took all four men using a block and tackle to pull the bear out of the den, Jack Hendrickson said. He estimated the bear's weight at 750 to 900 pounds.
"It's a big bear," Hendrickson said. "The skull is about 25 1/2 inches."
The bear definitely showed signs of old age, he said. All its teeth were either broken or rotted off, and all it had for teeth was some nubs sticking up, Hendrickson said.
A friend who is a bear hunting guide on the Alaska Peninsula estimated the bear's age at 25 years or older, Hendrickson said. Even so, the bear had about 2 inches of fat on its back end, so it didn't appear to be starving, he said.
"I think he was just lying in his bed and we disturbed him and he came out," Hendrickson said.
State wildlife biologist Don Young with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks said it's unusual for a grizzly bear to be out roaming around in late December but not unheard of. Big, male grizzlies are the last bears to go into hibernation, he said.
"We've had a couple of winter bears in the Fairbanks area," he said, recalling one large grizzly that was shot in the Goldstream Valley several years ago while raiding a dog musher's dog food cache. That bear was emaciated, Young said.
"A lot of times, you hear stories about winter bears, and they don't have any fat reserves," he said.
If the bear shot near Central had 2 inches of fat on its back end, it wasn't starving, Young said. While the biologist declined to speculate why the bear was still out, there are several possibilities, he said.
"It could have gotten disturbed and moved den sites," Young said. "It could have been (feeding) on a kill."
Hendrickson and Gelvin consider themselves lucky the bear didn't come out its den when they were investigating the site the day before armed with only small pistols.
"We didn't even know the hole was there," he said. "We walked over to the creek, and we weren't 20 feet from the hole and that bear had to be there. He was just out the day before we were there.
"We rode in there on snowmachines so he had to hear us," Hendrickson said. "He had to be looking right at us."
They killed the bear because they didn't want to be ambushed while traveling their trapline, he said.
"What we were afraid of was if he heard us or woke up when we came by with snowmachines," Hendrickson said. "With a .22 you're at God's mercy; that's why we exterminated him."
Grizzly bear season in the area is open Sept. 1 through May 31 so the trappers were able to salvage the hide and meat of the bear.
"We brought the whole thing out after gutting it right there," Hendrickson said. "We took the backstrap and hams off of it."
The trappers hope to use the bear's carcass to catch some opportunistic wolverines or wolves, he said. They set snares around the gut pile earlier this week.
The incident should serve as a wake-up call to trappers, including himself, who carry only small firearms when checking their traps, Young said.
"It's a good reminder for trappers to be pretty careful and carry a little bit bigger gun because you never know," he said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.