Brown bear

According to a report titled Hospitalizations and Deaths Resulting from Bear Attacks in Alaska 2000–2017, brown bears like the one photographed above are far more likely to attack than black bears. Investigations into most of the incidents compiled in the report show that an estimated 96% of attacks involved brown bears. 

May 23— Trevor Schneider peered through his scope, a 1,000-pound brown bear made small by 1,410 feet of distance.

For Schneider, of Bonners Ferry, it was a reasonable shot. He’s killed animals from farther, after all. He slowed his breathing, each breath condensing in the chill of the Alaskan evening.

It was 8 p.m. on May 13 and Schneider and his sister Tana Grenda were on their fourth day hunting coastal brown bears on the southern side of the Alaskan peninsula.

They’d been dropped off by Grenda’s husband along the beach on May 8, set up camp and promptly spent the next two days waiting out bad weather. When the skies cleared, they glassed the steep hillsides above them, eventually spotting a large brown bear they decided to stalk.

They left camp at 6 a.m. on May 13 and spent the next 14 hours hiking uphill, picking their way through thickets of alders and devil’s club. By 8 p.m., they’d traveled about 8 miles, crossing numerous streams, each carrying 50-pound backpacks.

That’s where they saw their bear, one of many that had just come out of hibernation. 

They closed in on the bear they’d spotted from the beach 8 miles below.

“We were going after a big one,” he said. “We weren’t going to shoot a small one.”

He found his spot, 470 yards away, totally exposed on an open expanse of snow.

He aimed. Steadied his breath. And shot.

Once, twice and a third time. The .338 ultra mag (a large magnum cartridge good for long-distance shooting) pierced the bear’s lung, the second high left on the animal’s shoulder and the third through the bear’s neck.

He tried to fire again, but his gun had jammed. Oh well, he figured, he’d fired three good shots on the bear.

Schneider examined his weapon to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, the bear started to move toward him. Schneider couldn’t figure out what happened with his gun, and the bear, despite the three bullets, had zeroed in on them and was rapidly approaching.

Bears are fast. An average member of the species can run 30 mph when threatened. For comparison’s sake, Usain Bolt — the fastest human recorded — ran 27.78 mph when he set a record in the 100-meter run in 2009.

Bears are even faster going downhill on snow. They use their bodies “like a sled,” Schneider said.

“He’s working his way toward us and we’re starting to panic,” Schneider said. “I said, ‘OK we have to run.’”

They dropped their gear and headed downhill, angling toward three boulders, the only cover around. They got behind the boulders. The gun was still jammed. Grenda didn’t have her own rifle.

This particular bear hunt in Alaska has specific rules. First, you can only apply for it every four years. Second, if you aren’t a resident of Alaska the only way you can get a tag is by either hiring a guide (that costs) or going with a next of kin relative who is an Alaskan resident.

Grenda lives in Alaska, so, per the hunting regulations, she was Schneider’s guide.

But also according to the rules, she was not allowed to shoot the bear.

The two opted to save weight and bring only one rifle, one bow and one pistol.

They made it to the rocks on the ridge line, but the bear continued to move forward. When it was about 150 yards away, the animal got “a hit of adrenaline like it almost took drugs.”

They ducked behind one of the boulders and Schneider pulled out his revolver, which held five .454 Casull rounds. He had five more rounds on his hip. Schneider, trying to stay crouched behind the rock, waited until the bear got closer.

He fired, aiming for the animal’s face, but crouched as he was, he missed. He had four bullets left.

He stood up. Took aim.

“OK, I have four more shots,” he said. “I have to make it count here.

“It’s coming to us mouth open, huffing at a dead sprint.”

His second shot hit the animal in the chest. At 5 yards he shot again, hitting the bear in its front shoulder.

That shot turned the animal, and it angled away from Schneider and his sister. He shot once more, hitting it broadside.

Schneider and his sister moved again, this time heading uphill and to the side, figuring it would be harder for the bear to get them. Once they put some space between them and the animal, they turned around and looked down. The bear had tumbled off the ridge, starting a small avalanche.

It wasn’t moving.

Seeing this, Schneider and Grenda screamed — a howl of survival.

“We both thought we were going to die,” Schneider said. “What is that going to feel like? Am I going to feel the pain of getting ripped apart?”

The two made their way back to the bear. Schneider poked it at least “30 times with my pistol” to make sure it was dead. As the adrenaline faded, Schneider sat on the ground, sick to his stomach.

The bear was huge, a 28 1/4 -inch skull and 10-foot-4.

“It looked like a prehistoric monster,” he said.

The duo spent the next several hours skinning the animal and packing its pelt. They hiked down into the low country and spent a cold night sleeping under a tarp.

Schneider’s pack weighed 150 pounds, he estimated. Grenda’s was about 100 pounds.

The next day, they hiked back to their base camp on the beach. They did not pack out any of the bear meat.

“Their meat is very nasty,” he said. “You’re just required to take the hide and the skull for research purposes and stuff.”

 In retrospect, Schneider said they both should have had pistols and a backup rifle.

As for the jammed rifle, it was a freak accident. A spent cartridge had fallen into the front action, blocking the bolt from going all the way down.

“Super unlucky,” Schneider said.

Schneider acknowledged the deadly truth of the situation. He and his sister barely escaped with their lives despite all the benefits of modern technology.

“We’re nothing compared to these things,” he said. “If you were to throw us out there with nothing, we don’t stand a chance. The only way we stand a chance is with the technology and the tools.”

The pure size of the animal, combined with the fact that it took seven high-powered bullets to kill it, underscored the power of nature and humanity’s dependence on tools.

Schneider has realized this in the past. An avid hunter, he and his family run Stuck N The Rut, a popular YouTube hunting show. He’s spent more time than most in the backcountry and has no illusions about his toughness relative to nature.

And yet, the encounter with the brown bear in Alaska drove the point home in a way nothing else had.

“It was a humbling experience in general to just have had that happen and to realize, ‘OK we’re not the top of the food chain,’ “ he said.

“When it comes down to it, we are weak. It doesn’t take much for us to be hurt or injured.”