Reunion With Lumpjaw

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The droop-snooted, lop-eared, stilt-legged old cow moose was in frightful tizzy. She had backed her mismatched frame out to the very tip of a peninsula stretching halfway across a shallow tundra lake. With the hair along her neck and withers bristling, she was making angry dashes, first back towards the brush and then out into the pond. Bud Branhan and I watched her in puzzlement. I figured that the hot, bright May weather, unusual for the Alaska Peninsula, must be giving the Aniakchak Bay moose spring fever. Then we saw the reason for her frenzy. Two-slick-haired calf moose, so wobbly legged they could be only hours old, stumbled up from their grassy bed and made an awkward effort to follow the cow.

"Darned if I know why she's in such a swivet with the calves," Bud puzzled.

"Could be our bear went though here," I whispered.

But the bear hadn't gone through. He was lurking there in the brush all the time. We didn't know it, however, until we had topped out onto a little knoll. Then we saw the bear, a brown streak bumping himself into deeper brush away from human scent. My rifle came up automatically.

"No--he's not good enough," said Bud, and I could see that the Alaskan brownie was not in any real sense a trophy.

"The sun of a gun is a meat eater, though," I said. "He was figuring to pick off those calves for lunch."

"Peninsula bears aren't normally meat eaters, certainly nothing like mountain grizzlies," answered the outfitter, a veteran of long years in Alaska. "But as you've already discovered, things aren't normal out here this spring. And with so many moose moving in, the bears are changing their habits."

To begin with, the 1959 spring was late in Alaska. When we began our hunt, heavy snows were still hanging on at hibernation level, which ranges from 1,500 to 2,000 feet on the Peninsula home of big coastal brownies. During the first two weeks of May few bears had crawled out of their dens. Then when the weather did change, it turned spring with a vengeance, day after day of brilliant sunshine. It was hot--60 degrees in the shade of plane wing, half again hotter after we'd slogged up a couple of miles of mountain to investigate tracks shadowing across the snow. Fresh from hibernation, the heavy-coated brownies spent the warm days snoozing under alder clumps, where the sharpest binoculars or the best spotting scope couldn't find them.

The hunt, my sixth in Alaska, had started with plenty of fast action. Late on May 14, I boarded a Northwest Airlines plane in New York, stopped to swap hunting lies in Seattle that evening with Bill Niemi, the maker of Eddie Bauer down jackets, stepped down in Anchorage on the 15th at 5 A.M., local time. A commercial flight to Naknek and charter hop brought me to Branham's base camp on Chiginagak Bay, roughly five hundred miles west of Anchorage. There an Alaskan surgeon, Dr. Hale, and other medico, Dr. Sparks of Ohio, would hunt their brownies. Bud and I loaded up his Super Cub and flew to our own camp on Nakalilok Bay. At 6 o'clock on the evening of May 16 we were glassing a handsomely furred brownie. By 8, Bud was skinning a hide to lie before his Rainy Pass Lodge fireplace.

Thereafter matters slowed to an amble--which is about all the pace your correspondent figures to maintain for the first couple of days of Alaskan climbing with hip boots and a packboard sagging with camera gear. To begin, we hooked half a barrel of 5-pound Dolly Varden trout, tossing back all but the o we'd use for supper and breakfast. The we made a 3- or 4-mile jaunt across Nakalilok Bay to a butte of volcanic rock to watch the high snow slopes until sundown, which comes late up there in May, around 10 P.M., with sunrise around 2:30 A.M., and no real darkness in between. We saw tracks traversing the glittering white sides but no bears.

Most of the tracks were old. One set, however, stayed strong and clear under the bright sun of the next two days. "A bear made that trail," mused Bud as we focussed the 50 mm. Bushnell spotter on the high country one morning. "His tread is as wide as a Sherman tank's!"

"Then he's the guy we're looking for," I answered. "Old Lumpjaw Himself."

"Who's Old Lumpjaw?"

"Remember the big bad bear in the Disney film?"

Branham remembered, all right, and the name "Old Lumpjaw" stuck. He was our meat--maybe.

We almost found him, too. A real Alaskan williwaw cut loose somewhere west of us, and next day we were stormbound. As the storm slacked during the brief Arctic night Old Lumpjaw must have moved through our country, for when we made a 15-mile circuit of the hills lying west of camp we found his clean-edged tracks up near the snowline. The fore pads printed a full nine inches across and his hind paws dented hard gravel in a deep 15-inch print. He was on the move, stopping nowhere to chop off mouthfuls of early grass or wild celery tops, or to nip the willow buds that fattened faster every day.

In the unseasonably hot weather, the brownies were moving only during the brief night. They were bedding in rock crannies or in alder clumps throughout the day, we concluded after a 10-hour stretch of eyestrain from a butte we called Eagle Rock because we'd never seen an eagle within miles of it.

The tide was nearly full down by then in the bay, and it seemed sensible to cross the Nakalilok flats back to camp for some hot grub and a few more battles with sea-run trout.

Bud suddenly punched me out of a half dose. "See him?"

I couldn't see anything but that same wall of slides and gullies and snow-filled basins we'd been watching fruitlessly for all day. "Where?"

On the line of Bud's finger I picked up a spot of brown as it showed briefly on a slope far up the valley, perhaps two miles away. Too far to tell whether he was good, bad, or indifferent--Lumpjaw or his kid brother. We'd have to climb up there.

Hot and winded from fast travel, we finally made it to a knoll some three hundred yards below an alder strip into which, from the halfway point, we'd seen the bear go. Shrugging off packboards and rifles, we went to work with the glasses. No bear, not even a suspicious spot of brown.

"He must've moved while we were wading the river, Bud."

"Doubt it. He's asleep in there somewhere."

Believe me, we'd never have seen that bear if he'd stayed asleep. Only when he rolled flat onto his back, then calmly reached up and pulled down an alder branch to scratch his belly and did we catch the movement. He had scraped out a cool hole in the brush roots, for all the world like a dog under a hydrangea bush, and sprawled to blend into a slope.

"Two small," said Bud. I had to agree; perhaps an 8-footer but no Lumpjaw by a long mile. "Good chance for pictures if we can get down this way, though," Bud concluded.

Knowing he always carried a long-lensed movie camera, I suggested, "What if I slam a bullet into that rock right over him? He'll move downhill."

"Do that," said Bud, and he worked his way over to the left nearer the line the bear would take.

The clap of the 275-grain slug from the .35 Mashburn Magnum, whacking rock a foot or two over the bear's head, brought him out of there faster than any firearm ever slid down the brass pole. He burst across the slope for fifty yards in one rolling rush, whirled, and looked back towards his bed in angry inquiry, hackles high over his hump and lips pouting in a bear's piggy snarl. Then he turned again into downhill flight another hundred yards or so onto a half-acre patch of snow directly ahead of Bud, pausing there to growl and cuss at the loud noise that had disturbed his siesta, displaying himself nicely for the camera before dropping over the edge of concealing gully and out of our sight.

I was sitting outside our camp the next morning, soaking the ankle in 35-degree sea water, when another brownie paraded out across the bay. Just over the flats he was, ambling along in broad daylight. We had the spotter on him in minutes. "Pretty bear," said Bud. "Looks like a rangy young boar, but he'll square only nine feet at best."

Foot and ankle half numb from the cold water, I hobbled over to the scope. He was a handsome bear, all right, in good coat. But even without any nearby object with which to compare him for size it was obvious that he wasn't even close to the record class--he hadn't the ponderous dignity, the belly-sag, and the massive rear-end waddle of a really big old boar. I couldn't have made it over there anyway.

That evening the Chiginagak Bay transmitter told us that the two doctors, their brownie hunt over, would be flown over to Bud's lode at Kakhonak to smash up some fishing tackle on the leg-long rainbow trout of the Iliamma area. So Bud suggested that we shift our base to the larger bay. Since the move would mean another day of rest for my gimpy ankle, that made good sense. Off we went into the morning, arriving in time to help load the float-equipped Taylor-craft that Denis Branham, Bud's brother, was flying to ferry the doctors and their guides to Kakonak.

"Fresh tracks showing on the snow slopes up here every day now," reported nephew Dean Branham as we waited between flights. "You fellows will find a bear, alright."

Bud and I weren't worried. We'd been yakking about finding Old Lumpjaw, but we really didn't have to find the biggest bear on the Peninsula. This hunt was a sort of reunion between a couple of characters who liked to be with e bullet into that rock right over him? He'll move downhill."

"Do that," said Bud, and he worked his way over to the left nearer the line the bear would take.

The clap of the 275-grain slug from the .35 Mashburn Magnum, whacking rock a foot or two over the bear's head, brought him out of there faster than any firearm ever slid down the brass pole. He burst across the slope for fifty yards in one rolling rush, whirled, and looked back towards his bed in angry inquiry, hackles high over his hump and lips pouting in a bear's piggy snarl. Then he turned again into downhill flight another hundred yards or so onto a half-acre patch of snow directly ahead of Bud, pausing there to growl and cuss at the loud noise that had disturbed his siesta, displaying himself nicely for the camera before dropping over the edge of concealing gully and out of our sight.

I was sitting outside our camp the next morning, soaking the ankle in 35-degree sea water, when another brownie paraded out across the bay. Just over the flats he was, ambling along in broad daylight. We had the spotter on him in minutes. "Pretty bear," said Bud. "Looks like a rangy young boar, but he'll square only nine feet at best."

Foot and ankle half numb from the cold water, I hobbled over to the scope. He was a handsome bear, all right, in good coat. But even without any nearby object with which to compare him for size it was obvious that he wasn't even close to the record class--he hadn't the ponderous dignity, the belly-sag, and the massive rear-end waddle of a really big old boar. I couldn't have made it over there anyway.

That evening the Chiginagak Bay transmitter told us that the two doctors, their brownie hunt over, would be flown over to Bud's lode at Kakhonak to smash up some fishing tackle on the leg-long rainbow trout of the Iliamma area. So Bud suggested that we shift our base to the larger bay. Since the move would mean another day of rest for my gimpy ankle, that made good sense. Off we went into the morning, arriving in time to help load the float-equipped Taylor-craft that Denis Branham, Bud's brother, was flying to ferry the doctors and their guides to Kakonak.

"Fresh tracks showing on the snow slopes up here every day now," reported nephew Dean Branham as we waited between flights. "You fellows will find a bear, alright."

Bud and I weren't worried. We'd been yakking about finding Old Lumpjaw, but we really didn't have to find the biggest bear on the Peninsula. This hunt was a sort of reunion between a couple of characters who liked to be with e