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Handloading Beyond The Basics
Rifle Magazine
November - December 2002
Volume 0, Number 0
Number 0
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Special Edition! Elk Photo by Mike Barlow. Whitetail Deer photo by George Barnett.
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Like many fine things in life, this one began innocently and without a plan. We were in pursuit of more noble game. Nothing less than a big coastal brown bear, one of the almost mystical 10-foot kind, could tempt our fire. The Super Cub circled the valley and touched the snow very tentatively. The first pass was a light caress, testing, nudging and wondering - wondering if the nearly 30 feet of snow would support its weight. One ski floated at high speed, adding confidence to our landing plans. It would be very embarrassing, and probably fatal, if we were to “poof” into this endless white, as a stone in a bowl of goose down.

After several touch-and-go tests, the pilot pulled full flaps and the power. The roll-out was not long, but the skis remained visible and all was well - at least well until we stepped out. While the snow would support a plane on skis, it would not support 200-pound men, at least not until their armpits made the last bite into the surface. The snow would pack, so with some effort we could tromp a place, climbing, a few inches higher with each circle, out of our own holes. The effort looked just like a baby strip mine. Ah, yes, snowshoes, or in my case, alpine mountaineering skis were going to be very necessary. They kept us afloat while we packed a pad for the tent. Once done, we could walk “barefoot” on the packed surface. It was not a perfect system, for from time to time we seemed to forget our bounds and step too near the edge of the safe-haven. The indiscretion always brought the same result and, looking out of a very deep hole in the snow, is only funny in retrospect.

This spring brought unprecedented snow, even in a place where house-deep snow is normal. Now the little bushes that dotted the valley were really the tops of trees, and the miserable alder brush was literally 6 feet under. The valley and its view were truly a winter wonderland.

We camped on the south edge, near what used to be the timber line. Only the tops of the tallest trees offered shelter in case the wind blew, but they would be much better than nothing. The snow was flat and untouched for almost a mile across the valley, where the floor ended in an almost vertical black wall. The sheer face of the 1,000-foot cliff was too steep to hold snow. It made a wonderful contrast with black rock, some green moss and many hardy bushes jutting out of the vertical face, against an almost endless world of white. We were far enough away that we also had a view of some of the land above the wall. Here again the snow ruled, covering the flat surface with a deep, white blanket.

Wind had pushed the snow out over the edge, forming some dramatic cornices. Long white teeth jutted into the blue sky and hung unsupported in open space like unruly wisps of meringue on a very large pie. In places the mass of the drifted snow had become too much and thundered down the face. Avalanches and rushing water had worked on the rocks for ages, cutting deep grooves. These avalanche chutes left long, white veins in the face of the rock and, as I would learn later, offered a foothold.

This hunt for a big brownie, aside from the deep-snow techniques, was much like any other. It was early spring, and we could see for miles. All we had to do was wait, watch and glass. Sooner or later a big, old boar would “hatch” out of his den. When he did, we would ski and snowshoe through whatever it took. Of course, there was a little nagging distraction: the very large, very fuzzy black bear.

As it turned out, he was the only living thing in this white and still dormant realm. We watched him for three days, and like a siren, he called us onto the rocks. Attacking him was not a clever plan, but it was a very intriguing one. Actually, he had become the object of a macabre fascination because of his apparently death-defying front porch. Several times we watched in high suspense, saying out loud, “Now he is going to die.” He was going to die because he would walk out on one of those dizzying cornices, walk out where there was  nothing but some congealed snowflakes and 1,000 feet of pure, clear air beneath his feet. But he did not fall, and that evening we decided to see if we could catch this fellow.

Actually, a black bear was part of my plans on this trip, only a hunt for one of these big bears with their spectacular coat was to come after the completion of the brown bear. While I brought my big .416 Rigby for the brownie, another, even more special rifle was in the traveling case.

This was an Alexander Henry falling block, chambered for the .450x3 1/4-inch express, black-powder cartridge. It used 120 grains of FFg powder and 360-grain paper patched lead bullets. This rifle was an early one, made in the 1870s, and was the .270 Winchester of its day. That is, despite its large case and bore, it was actually a deer-stalking mountain rifle, not an “elephant gun.” Along with its other wonderful features, this was a rare takedown model. Turning one lever removed the forend and another released the barrel from the receiver. Its long 28-inch barrel could be removed and replaced in a matter of seconds. And finally, true to its maker and era, it weighed just over 7 pounds.

We looked across the wide valley early the next morning, and yes, the big black fellow was on his cliff. The Henry was apart and in my pack, along with some water, a sandwich, ice ax and some rope. I clipped my boots into my skis, and my guide sucked up on his snow-show bindings.

Some days a mile or so is not very far. Today it was a very long way. What should have been an hour-long stroll to the base of the cliff took till noon. The night had been cloudy and warm, leaving the crust on the snow very soft. We had begun to fall through a long, long way from the cliff. Even with snowshoes or skis, every step was apt to sink knee deep or worse. The skis gave me an edge because I could push them forward, allowing them to plane their way back to the surface. The shoes were another matter, making every few steps akin to lifting your foot to the top of the kitchen table. We were exhausted and had eaten our lunch well before the hunt began. While it felt good to take the big stuff off our feet, the vertical avalanche chute we selected as the easiest route to the top did not seem so friendly now.

Half way up, after two hours of chipping holes in the ice, poking toe-holds in the snow and gripping the bare rocks with teeth and fingernails, the philosophy started. It started when my partner in crime suggested that, “If we live, if we reach the top, if he has not been spooked by all of our climbing racket - the very best thing we can hope to find is a black bear.” I consoled my shrinking strength and courage by saying, “Yes, but he is a very big, very fuzzy black bear.” We climbed on.

By late afternoon it was serious. The ice held, and the chute sloped a little more. We were actually going to make it to the top. I began to get butterflies in my stomach. All jokes aside, this had already been a real hunt, an extreme challenge with almost no hope of success. As I shrugged out of my pack and eased the barrel back into the frame, I realized this could fulfill the philosophy in Meditations on Hunting written by Jose’ Ortega y Gasset in 1942. If we succeeded we would “kill to have hunted” and certainly not have hunted to kill.

As we crawled over the snowy precipice, the almost impossible greeted us. The big bear dozed only 150 yards above and to our left. With a modern scoped contraption it was a chip-shot, but with the elegant, old Henry the range was still extreme. We had to draw closer. Some alders had blown free of snow and would be good cover if we could slide 20 yards to our left. When the brush was in line with the bear, we paused to catch our breath. The bear’s tracks were under my nose. My very sick philosophical companion took the opportunity to ask a question that had not occurred to me. I had been busy stalking. “Do you know where we are?” No. “Look at the tracks and the bush.” A wave of very bad thoughts hit me. The terrain was too familiar; the brush, the tracks and the bare snow rushed at me like the end of a horror movie. The brush was the edge of the cliff. We were 10 feet beyond, suspended in space, out on those congealed snowflakes - we were exactly where “he was going to die!”

I fought back the urge to run, knowing that might be the end. Instead, somehow I found the courage, or perhaps just succumbed to enough fear, to crawl forward very gently. The slender alder felt like my mother’s arms. Good fate is good; I crawled on. When I saw him again, the range was 80 yards. The snow made a perfect platform for a shot from prone, and the gold bead settled almost rock-still on the bottom edge of his shoulder. Smoke hid him, but I heard the solid “clup” as the big bullet landed. The bear followed his nose and in a few bounds disappeared over the edge of the cliff.

We waited quietly for awhile, mending torn nerves, and then crawled forward to his last tracks. He was leaking from both sides, and the end should be certain. Marty agreed to return to the avalanche chute to retrieve our packs and proceed down the way we had climbed. I needed to follow the bear.

I imagined he would pin-ball all the way to the bottom, but although the face was extremely steep, too steep for snow to stick, it did have some slope. It was also very broken and covered with deep cracks and brush. The bear might hang up, or under the worst circumstances, might be alive and able to hole up. The first trick was to find a place where the edge of the face was clearly defined by solid rock. I was not going to tempt fate any more that day. There were several good places to slide over the edge, and in most places the alders provided handholds for a surprisingly easy, Tarzan-style descent. Plenty of blood led the way, and I moved quickly and confidently down.

It all looked perfectly easy until the bear clearly caught himself and began to move on a level contour to the left - and then began to climb. I could think of many things I wanted at the moment, but a one-handed fight with a huge blackie on the side of a sheer cliff was not among them. When the trail turned up, the entire picture changed. There was a very good chance the bear was literally right above my head. On a steep hill a bear is faster than any animal, up or down. The attack could be instant. His sheer dead weight would be formidable, while his teeth and claws painted a nasty mental picture. If the fall did not kill me. . .! Carefully lad, carefully!

I moved one branch, one rock, one small step at a time with the rifle held like a handgun, hammer back and finger on the trigger. The climb up lasted only 20 yards, where he leveled out and then, thankfully, turned straight down the cliff again. Somewhere close to halfway down, I could see him in, or perhaps on, an alder about 30 yards below. He was moving, but in a rather odd, springy, up and down pattern. He could have been very dead and just bouncing on the horizontal bush, but it was not worth the chance. My left hand held an alder above my head, while my right foot was on a little pointed spire of rock and my left was wedged in a crack. I cocked the hammer and held the rifle again with only one hand. This bullet hit, and the bear gradually let go. Seconds later I heard a dull thud far below.

Time flies when you’re having fun. I touched the grand bear just at dark. I do not need to apologize to those who have been there, for the rather steamy, somewhat out of focus photos. I was beyond dead tired, hot, thirsty, soaked from the inside by sweat and the outside by the dripping wet snow from the cliff face and freezing at the same time. But, he was wonderful. I will remember him well.

Blackhorn Powder
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