It was a long shot, especially through sleepy eyes and the not so comfortable place I was sitting. I just couldn’t get settled. It was cold too. The early morning chill was abnormal for August, more so than the previous year where t-shirts and shorts were the norm. The big bear swimming on the other side of the river didn’t seem to mind though and he wasn’t really paying that much attention to me or my buddy Lew anyway. I eased the safety off, guessed the distance and squeezed.
The river was shallow this year, more so than I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. The mighty Noatak had changed, and the further north we went even more so. The current had pushed sandbars to new locations, flattened out others and those places where we once could go easily, had disappeared. There were moments when I thought we would have to turn back, but then Lew would find a narrow channel and squeeze the boat through with barely enough clearance. It was like trying to put a puzzle together without all the pieces.
As we pushed on, I started having doubts that we would ever make it to our bear camp this year, I mean the original bear camp, up on the Eli River. The one I’ve written so much about before. The place where we’ve been going for several years; the place where dreams were made and big bears visited like the plague. It saddened me actually, that I might not get to see the Eli again or at least get a chance to hunt its game rich banks once more.
Sadly, I was right, we didn’t make it to the Eli. We came up short even after numerous tries. The channel had changed and the places we needed to travel weren’t possible, the water just wasn’t deep enough to make it. I worried about Lew’s prop and the abuse it was taking. We would get going only to have the gravel bottom grind us to halt. We actually got high centered once and I had to get out and push us back into the deeper stuff. It was frustrating for the both of us.
Accepting our fate, we drifted back down to a nice sand bar that was acceptable, but not ideal. It would have to do for this trip, as long as the water didn’t get any shallower and we could make it out on Sunday. It wasn’t far from the promise of fish and bears at our old camp, maybe a couple of miles, but it still wasn’t the same. The river was wider here, and the splash of big chum were not as frequent as they would have been in the narrow stretch of the Eli where we usually went. Bear tracks, however, were everywhere, which made us smile, giving us hope that it wouldn’t be long before we had a big bear hide stretched out on the gravel bank.
As dark approached, we set camp, pulling out the old green tent and commenced to pounding stakes into the hard gravel and sand. For a change rain wasn’t in the forecast, but like I’ve said you can never count on the weatherman. We gathered a good supply of wood that seemed to be everywhere and started a fire. Lew set-up our kitchen and then we sat down for a delicious MRE and a few drinks. We both knew that we would have company very soon.
Our company would be bears, and it wasn’t long before we could hear the tell-tale sign that our guests had arrived. Splashing and forging the water for fish, the silhouette across the river was unmistakable. He looked big, but they all do when you first see them. The late hour and impending cloud cover didn’t help in the darker than normal conditions, so it was really hard to tell how big for sure. We could have taken a shot, but it would have been iffy at best and I didn’t really feel like rummaging through the dark in search of death. So, we sat and watched the big guy work the bank in search of an easy meal. It wasn’t long before two more bears came out a little further north. I looked at Lew and started to say something, but didn’t, we both knew it was going to be a long night.
As the last of the driftwood burned to embers, we decided to head to the tent and crawl in for the night. I carefully checked my pistol and also my rifle, making sure they were ready in case we were attacked. It was good to stretch out in the sleeping bag and the sleeping pad was nice too, even though I hate both and can never sleep comfortably no matter the circumstances.
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