Untamed Ground: Brad’s OTC Arizona Bear Hunt
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Securing the SxS on the flat bed trailer, we hopped into the truck offloading at a narrow road that would take us into some of Arizona’s most treacherous bear habitat. After a slow drive in, navigating loose rocks and steep drainages, we arrived at our parking spot just as the sun began to brighten the eastern sky. Double checking our packs we prepared for the long hike out to our glassing location. The previous week's rains left the ground saturated and the air muggy and thick. As we approached the basin the sun now illuminated the area in a dim blue-gray light, moisture laden air created haze across the landscape.
Brad and I slowed our pace as we closed the distance on our glassing location. There was a high probability that once we could see, we would be well within shooting range of any bruins utilizing food sources across from us. A few feet from the edge of the bluff I slipped my pack off and quietly set up my tripod to glass. While doing so I scanned the area and picked up a dark figure moving in the brush below. The shape was unmistakable, a bear. I quickly alerted Brad and attached my binoculars atop the tripod for a better look. Roughly 250 yards below us, a chocolate bear fed, unaware of our presence. “There are two.” I stated flatly as a second bear strolled out from the right. This bear was only marginally smaller than the original one I had spotted. They both appeared to be mature bears. One was an average sized female and the other a younger boar nearly equal in size. Their behavior indicated that despite their similar size they were not hostile towards each other. They were in all likelihood mother and offspring still hanging out in close proximity, unconcerned of each other's presence.
I told Brad to keep an eye on that part of the drainage for more bears and then shifted my attention down canyon. As I moved positions a jet black body rounded the corner through the sparse trees. It was obvious this bear was a large boar even through the 10x binoculars at 1500 yards. I switched optics for a better look, to analyze the bears behavior. The defined blocky head and exaggerated muscle tone of the boar strutted back and forth as he probed his snout into food sources checking their palatability. “Pack up your stuff we’ve got to move!” I swung around and told Brad quickly. In short order we were headed around closer for a better look. En route, I updated some of the bear hunting team. The area we were hunting was unpleasant to say the least. If we were successful in taking this boar we would be accepting an immense responsibility descending into a technically difficult and extremely hazardous canyon.
The sun crested the horizon and began lighting up the distant mountain tops, as we hiked. With this, the air temps rose rapidly, the humid air and dense brush made the hurried trek uncomfortably warm. We had taken a semicircular route drifting away from the edge, where we could see, and finally cutting back towards an open vantage point we had previously glassed. In the final 100 yards, approaching our new viewing location, above the bears last known position, we slowed to a crawl and quietly negotiated the tangled foliage and rocks, until we could clearly see where the bear had been. We once again slipped off our packs, as the bear passed through an open area across from us. Plain as day, with no optics, the black body leisurely moved from plant to plant perusing the selection of food he stood amongst. We quickly set the rifle up, using a couch sized boulder as a shooting rest. I took a quick range and turned the dial on Brad's rifle to compensate for the shot distance.
The bear poked its head in and out of various prickly pear cactus paddles, skillfully selecting a few of the most ripe engorged fruits. With a mouth full of water melon flavored cactus bounty Brad’s shot ripped across the canyon. Instantaneously the bruin, as dark as a moonless night, lay still upon the grass. The shot concluded that chapter like the flip of a switch.
The stalk had been an approximately one mile journey to get into position and both of us were still a bit out of breathe. We took a few minutes to compose ourselves. Then, the process of recovering the bear would begin. I notified the CTK team where we had a bear down and placed them on standby in case we got into a life threatening situation while packing it out. We knew this trek was “going to suck” from the first moment we had seen the terrain.
Backtracking our hike to the shooting location, we found a safe route down the cliffs. A direct approach across would have been suicide as a 20-50 foot sheer face marked the final transition from slope to creek bed. With no safe way down, we were forced to cross up canyon where that particular line of rock had not yet been exposed by the forces of erosion. The descent was a tangle of brush. At times, it required removing one's pack and sliding, scooting, or plowing through the interwoven branches. A scree field opened our final segment straight through to the bottom, which now ran with a steady small stream of clear water. The creek had subsided from the churning torrents of muddy run-off. Days before, rain had turned the, usually dry, canyon into a scene reminiscent of the untamed Colorado river. It was now tranquil and navigable.
In front of us lie a brush choked southern exposure, plants having established themselves amongst the unstable deteriorated rock. It had been roughly 40 minutes since the bear had expired. We trudged up the slope mid-way. Then, walking between the upper cap rock and the lower sheer face we side hilled the 950 yards to the bear. Salt stung as the sweat ran into the corners of our eyes. Water rations were already low and I made contact with the team letting them know we were going to need help getting the bear out safely. Brad powered through the brush closely following me as I navigate the slope. The bear had settled on the next open face in front of us. “There he is.” I stated, pointing with my trekking pole. We approached at a slow pace and prepared for the next segment of the process. It had now been just under 3 hours since the shot and we had much left to do.
Brad and I repositioned the bear and took a brief moment to document the incredible animal in a manor we felt captured his size and dominance appropriately. We began the work of removing the bear's hide and reducing the carcass into manageable portions of meat, to pack out of the canyon. At that time, the other guys made a similar hike across the gapping canyon to our location to assist in the recovery.
After the animal was broken down, we loaded the packs. The sun bore down on us with great intensity and the air was sweltering. We planted our trekking poles firmly, as our legs strained and we cut across the slope with full packs. I decided it would be best to get down the bluffs and use the creek bed corridor as a more direct line to the scree field. That would take us back up the other side. Brush covered the rocks as I forced my way to a small shoot. We took off our packs and tossed them through the brush at the bottom, such that we could more carefully descend the small rock face. I went first, using the plants as additional support to slow my decent and find the best line for the other guys. We made it to the bottom without issue. We took a moment to cool down with the flowing water that swept through small pools. We pulled out a backpacking stove and we boiled pint after pint of water for safe drinking. As much as possible we rehydrated and refilled every drink container we had for the hike out. We had gone through all of our drinks, long before. High temps provided us all with dull throbbing headaches. The new water was a godsend for revitalizing our bodies.
Traveling up the creek corridor we then began our ascent, up the side Brad had shot from. The bottom quarter was an open rock slide. Each step had to be carefully placed and the boulders clanked together under the weight. Clearing the top of the section we slowed our pace to catch our breathe and rest our legs. The air was heavy and hot, each step upwards took an immense effort. At this point, we were all severely fatigued, overheated, and now once again, had exhausted nearly all of our water. The light was now shifting and sunset was near, although we were still catching the full force of the suns rays. We opted to not push it any further and wait for the shade to give us relief as the sun set. All of us were concerned about the final 200 yard push, taking us beyond the limit of safety. While we took shelter in the shade of a few small pines and cooled off, I sent messages to our camp with my InReach device. I let them know we were all still safe and doing ok, but we had now crossed the threshold for concern, and asked them to meet us at the top with as much liquids as they could bring. After roughly an hour they were hiking in to assist and we scaled up the final section of cap rocks then sat down to refuel.
As the sun touched the evening horizon, we shouldered our packs once again and hiked the level ground the remaining distance out to the vehicles. Then, we began the slow technical drive out and headed back to camp. The extreme nature of what we had just accomplished set in upon us. Without proper preparation, communication, and a network of others involved, hunting the vertical desert canyons of Arizona in August temps can be a risky process. It is only because of the reliable people we surround ourselves with that we can pursue bears in this extreme terrain and maintain a high degree of safety.
Brad's Arizona black bear hunt was conducted entirely by the CHASE'N THE KING team on the behalf of AZDO.