No one dare argue with mamma bear

Viewers will know him as the guy with guns, tusks, furs and other weird stuff who pops up on Border Patrol from time to time. He's Davey Hughes, the founder of Swazi outdoor clothing company, and this is his story.


On the way home from hunting dall sheep in the Chugach Mountains in Alaska I decided to call into Baranof Island to visit my dear old friend Jimmy Boyce. Jimmy is an experienced bear-hunting guide, and the day I arrived he was taking a client hunting.

Would I like to come? The answer was obvious. At Jim's request I also took my video camera to film the hunt. And my rifle. Having walked these tight streams before, I knew things can happen fast, plus, I guess, it always pays to have a back-up. Knowing I was bringing my rifle meant Jim decided to leave his behind - our first mistake of the day.

We headed up the coast aboard Jim's boat, the Gunsmoke, pulling into a small bay where we unloaded the skiff and motored to the shore. Off we went upstream, Jim's client in tow. A fair walk found us above a pool holding a large number of spawning silver, or coho, salmon - a place where the bears had been recently feeding, judging by the large amount of fresh salmon carcasses lying upon the bank.

Jim, his client and I got ourselves set up on a root wad (the protruding roots of a big tree that had fallen over), which provided an ideal vantage point. On one side was a decent drop down to the creek.

We'd been there less than two minutes when first one, then another, young adult bear came down to feed; the largest was a male, probably weighing 250kg. He casually circled the pool, watching the salmon, waiting for his chance to grab another fish. Gradually he made his way around until he was directly underneath our wad. Less than three metres below us he stopped, puzzled, unsure of what had set off his warning senses. All at once he caught our wind, woofed and took off across the face at a great rate of knots.

Unfortunately he ran bang smack into a huge female grizzly bear, causing a mammoth fight. The sow chewed him up real bad. The young bear, hind leg seriously mangled and dragging at an awkward angle, crawled into the bush as the big female slowly backed off, heading back up the hill.

She was, in my mind, the most beautiful creature. Just amazing. As the wind blew through her hair, standing it on end, you could see all her muscle tone defined. She was the matriarch, her demeanour leaving no doubt who was in charge. At that moment her two adult cubs came out from the scrub, both larger than the one she had recently ripped to shreds. No wonder she had acted so aggressively.

By now all three bears were probably 60 to 70m away, moving their heads from side to side, taking in the scene. Meanwhile, we sat below minding our own business - or so we thought. That's where the big female spotted us. Within seconds her tone of indifference became yet again one of aggression. She huffed, puffed and chomped on her teeth, woofing all the time.

Jim's client and I were blocking Jim's view of the events, so he asked what was happening.

"Well, Jim," I said. "It's like this, matey. We are in the shit."

The female began pulling out logs, rolling forest debris and creating quite a spectacle. All the time she was moving that massive head of hers from side to side. She was pissed off, and wanted us to know it. Down the hill she advanced, her cubs following. As if this wasn't alarming enough, one of her cubs - possibly a male - seemed incredibly belligerent, salivating as he ground those large canine teeth.

In bear language, well ... not good.

As they kept coming, I put away my video camera and took up the rifle, a weapon with bullets big enough to worry sheep, but not three charging grizzlies. The bears lumbered down the hill, not quickly but with deadly intent. My world slowed. The decisions I would make in the next few seconds would be pivotal. A week earlier I'd been talking with a great Alaskan hunter, Gary LaRose, who had once had his face badly chewed up by a bear. Gary's advice still rang in my ears: "If grizzlies get within 50m, Davey, don't fire a warning shot, they're so darn quick you won't get the next one away.'

I said to myself, when they get to 20m I'm going to shoot. But which one? Nothing would be worse than wavering, as that would more than likely lead to missing all of them.

So I waited and waited, choosing alternatively between the Stroppy Young Male and Big Mama. But which one? All three were now within the range I'd set. I had to act. Maybe if I shot her, maybe, just maybe, I'd have time to get another round into the chamber. If the cub kept coming, then I'd have to shoot him as well, more than likely off the end of my barrel.

Then as the bears hit the 15m line a different thought entered my head. It doesn't have to end this way. I really do not want to shoot any of these animals. With that in mind, I steadied my rifle and in a strong yet stern voice, told the charging bears I was the meanest, darkest, most desperado son of a goddamned bitch ever to walk the face of the Earth. I was also heavily armed and incredibly dangerous. If Big Mama knew what was best for her and her cubs, she'd get the hell out of Dodge.

And so they stopped. They turned and re-entered the forest. We breathed out in unison.

"Whoa, that was interesting." Jim, a graduate of the US Navy Seal school, is one of the most laidback bastards I know.

However, much like a movie, and a bad one at that, the baddie returned. The sow left her cubs in the scrub and was coming back for more. This time she meant business; you could see it in her small pig-like eyes. I realised now I'd have to do something. The adrenaline returned in a rush. Some days at the office you don't require an EpiPen shot to get the system going.

When she was within 15m I was ready to fire. Closer and closer. This was it. No turning back. It's her or us.

Then, as if the gods of Alaska were looking out for us, her male cub came out from the undergrowth, right underneath her, and collided with her. No, this couldn't be happening. That cub got one hell of a hiding. We heard her laying into him in the low scrub as she chased him, caught him, then chased him again.

It didn't take the three of us long to decide it was for the best that we actually got the hell out of Dodge. We boulder-hopped out of that creek pretty damn quick. It was just on dark, not the best time to be walking out of a bear-laden creek.

The lesson I learned? When your finger's on the trigger - or a decision has to be made, whether it's to do with an animal, an employee or a family member - you can sometimes just lower your rifle. You don't have to pull the trigger. You can talk.

Sometimes people shoot far too quickly. Go with your gut. Nine times out of 10 you'll find there's time to sit down and come to an arrangement, agreement or negotiation that benefits everyone. Something that surely beats hurting someone or making them upset. Or worse, having them sue your ass.

Untamed - The Extraordinary Adventures of the Swazi Man

by Davey Hughes

Random House, $45

- The Aucklander

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 27 May 2017 16:05:45 Processing Time: 693ms