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Nights with the Grizzlies by W. D. Pickett


In this paper I propose to give an account of some experience with the grizzly bear in the summer and fall of 1885. Here let me correct some impressions prevailing among sportsmen from the East as to the proper time to hunt this animal. As detailed in the sporting papers, one sportsman hunting late in the fall finds them at the timber-line, and having some success and basing his opinion upon statements of his guide, is satisfied that is the only place to find them, and that you must stealthily follow the trail through dense timber, as he did. Another sportsman finds them below the foot-hills among the Bad Lands, and thinks that is the proper locality; and so each one is governed by his own particular good luck and experience. This reminds me of the heated controversy that agitated some of the readers of one of the sporting papers a few years since as to the color of the jack-rabbit of the plains: one party contending they were gray and the opposing party that they were white, each party citing his own restricted experience with that fleet-footed animal. To those having more extended observation it was plain that each side was to a certain extent right as well as wrong, for it is well known that the jack-rabbit is gray during summer and fall and turns white in the winter, and then again sheds his white coat in spring: at least this is the case in Wyoming and Montana.

So with the grizzly. He is essentially an omnivorous animal: his food varying with each season and the locality where such food is obtained, his habitat varies accordingly. He lies in his winter bed until routed out by the melting of the winter snow, and the ground being still frozen, he has to rustle for his grub. He soon becomes poor from the necessity of much traveling around for old carcasses and whatever food comes handy. He is then usually in the foot-hills. In the summer his food is more vegetable—grass, roots, plants, etc. His haunt is then on the highest mountain plateaus, where he does a great deal of rooting in a certain kind of loose rock and loam. In the last of summer, berries are ripe, and he is then found below the foot-hills, and in the Bad Lands, or wherever chokeberries, plums, bulberries, etc., are found. In the fall he craves animal food, and is then found high up in the foot-hills, or again on the mountain plateaus, wherever game is most abundant; and in November and December he seeks his winter quarters. These remarks do not apply to grizzly bears that are found in the Bad Lands bordering the Missouri or the Lower Yellowstone, as they live there the entire year, "holing up" in winter in the bluffs of those desolate-looking regions.

The intellect and intelligence of the grizzly bear are not fully appreciated. Strip him of his hide, stand him erect on his hind feet, stick a plug hat on his upper end, and he resembles in anatomy and general appearance that "noblest work of God"—man: a little too long-bodied, neck a little short, but otherwise, looking at the muscles of his thighs and forearm, a veritable athlete. Re-clothe him in his fur, place him on his all fours, watch him rooting around for grubs and worms and carrion, and wallowing in mud and filth, and he resembles in apparent stupidity and habits the lowest type of animal—the hog. Yet those well acquainted with his characteristics will, I think, agree with me that in intelligence and perhaps even in intellect he is not many grades in the process of evolution below man.

Prospecting for Grub.
From Scribner's Magazine.

About the middle of July, 1885, word reached me that there was considerable sign of bear "rooting" on some high mountain plateaus not many days' travel by pack-train from my ranch. Taking a pack outfit, including my fur-lined sleeping-bag, a good mountain man, and a lad of fifteen to take care of camp and the horses, and enough grub for a few days, we reached the locality, after a hard climb, about noon on the 18th of July. We made camp at about 8500 feet elevation on the head of one of the forks of Four Bear Creek, having to pack wood up from below for making coffee.

We struck out after lunch up the gulch, and after going a few miles discovered a grizzly rooting among the rocks well up to its head, near the summit of the range, which is here between 10,000 and 11,000 feet elevation. A reconnaissance indicated that the only chance to approach him to windward was by crossing the mountain to the right into the valley of another fork of Four Bear Creek. Accordingly, we climbed over the mountain divide and were making along its opposite slope, when just in our front about a mile off, near the head of the gulch on the right, was discovered another grizzly rooting. It was agreed that I was to have the shot, and it became necessary to leave my horse and dogs back with the men. I took it afoot. A little study of the ground showed that in order to approach him successfully, it was necessary to descend to the bottom of the gorge on the right, and to ascend along its bed. This I proceeded to do. Just before reaching the bed of the gorge I was exposed to view, and was walking fast or running to get the advantage of its friendly cover. When within about fifty yards of the bottom, and with my attention directed to the bear about half a mile away, a large grizzly forced himself on my attention by rising from his bed in the bottom of the gulch. Walking slowly away, he commenced ascending diagonally the opposite and steep side of the gorge. The old rascal during the heat of the day had dug a resting-place in the cool bed of the branch, was taking his siesta, and evidently resented being disturbed. From the sullen way in which he made off, occasionally looking back, I felt he was going to be ugly. Quicker than it takes to write it, I had two cartridges in my right hand, which, with the one in the rifle, were thought sufficient, for at that time the size of the beast was not realized. The cartridge in the rifle was a 110-270-grain express, and those in the hand 110-270-grain and 110-340-grain respectively, all express-balls.

While making these preparations, the bear, going diagonally up the side of the gulch, had disappeared behind a huge conglomerate boulder that overhung the stream. Seeing he must soon emerge, I dropped on my right knee and stood ready to fire at the first favorable opportunity. In a moment he emerged from behind the boulder, walked up a short distance, stopped and looked back, exposing his left side to rather more than a quartering shot. Aim was quickly taken for his heart. A report followed, and the little express-ball did its work well. It broke two ribs, three or four large fragments entered the heart, and the balance of the splinters scattered through the lungs. Making but little noise when hit,—an ugly sigh,—he, as this species of bear almost always does under like circumstances, tucked his head between his hind legs, and rolled down into the gulch, using his fore legs for guides. He came up with a bounce, was on his feet in a moment and making a rush straight for me. I had loaded in a jiffy with the other 110-270-grain cartridge, but waited a moment until he commenced ascending my side of the gulch, hoping with a good shot to roll him back. Crossing rapidly the bed of the gulch, he was in a moment ascending toward me, and when within about thirty yards (he was originally about seventy yards at the first fire) I fired at his front, hitting at the point of the right shoulder, shattering the socket-joint and that bone half-way to the elbow. He did not roll back, but was demoralized and sickened, and had not the sand to come further, but changing his direction to the left about forty-five degrees, passed within twenty yards of my right front. I was loaded and ready for another shot as he passed. He appeared so near done for, however, that I hesitated to fire, wishing to have some practice on him for my two young dogs Bob and Snip, which had never seen a live bear. He, however, seemed, after passing, to mend his licks so fast that I feared he would give trouble in despatching him, so I ran rapidly after him, he in the mean time having partially disappeared under the bank; and when within fifteen or twenty yards he turned at bay, facing me. Before he could charge, if such was his aim, the 110-340-grain cartridge was delivered into the side of the neck within the collar-bone, making a fearful wound, and rolling him down into the gulch, where he soon died. It was only after my man had come up and the bear had been rolled over that his dimensions and the danger I escaped by the little ball doing such execution at the socket-joint were realized. Had it struck an inch and a half to the left, he would have been on me in a few more jumps; and though another shot would have been given, I think, unless it had been a paralyzing shot in the brain or spinal column, he could have so torn and lacerated me as to make death preferable.

I have been in half a dozen scrapes of more or less danger with these bears, but have never lost my presence of mind until they were dead, and the danger passed through realized. I have always determined never to run, but to face them and fire away, believing that the least sign of fear gives any animal additional courage.

I had an adventure similar to this with, a she-bear that had been approached within fifty-seven yards. It was a bright moonlight night, and her cub was squalling in a beaver-trap by her side. A good shot was delivered over the heart. Three shots were discharged as she rushed forward, first by myself, then one from Le Corey, who was backing me, and then another by myself; and when the "racket" was over, the bear was lying dead twelve yards from us. All these shots were bull's-eyes and deadly. In this case I could not have run had the spirit moved me, as from a serious accident I had been on crutches or my back for twenty-four days, and hobbled up the mountain in this instance with the help of a crutch and a stick, Le carrying my rifle.

A familiarity with all the breech-actions of the day, together with an extended experience with the Sharps system, has convinced me that the latter system, in safety, facility, and rapidity of manipulation, is not equaled by any. Take the next best, the double-barreled rifle: only two shots could have been delivered in the two before-described adventures. I have never had sufficient confidence in any of the repeating rifles to use them against dangerous game, when so much better could be had. Their want of power, their facility for getting out of order at the wrong time, especially when rapidly manipulated, combined with the fact that their rapidity of fire is very little greater than a system like the Sharps, are the considerations that have influenced me. In my opinion there has not yet been invented a repeating apparatus that is equal, under all circumstances, to the human hands in connection with a good breech system.

A better idea of these bears can be had from measurements than from weight. The bear first alluded to was a very large one (one among three of the largest ever killed by me), and, judging by one killed and weighed subsequently, he probably weighed 600 pounds, though not fat. His length, as he would have stood, was 6 feet 10 inches. Measurements show that he could have stood erect on his hind feet to the height of 8 feet. His head was 18 inches long by 12 inches wide; his hind foot 11-1/2 inches by 6 inches; fore foot, without the toes, 7 by 6 inches. His forearm, after being skinned, measured 18 inches around; his skull, which is preserved, 15-7/8 inches by 9 inches. The tusks projected from the gums 1-5/8 inches.

With the 45-caliber rifle used, I have killed nearly 40 bears—all, with the exception of this one, with a 340-grain express-ball. This 270-grain express bullet was a 44-caliber used for several years on deer from a 44-caliber rifle. It did very good work in this instance, but for a large bear the heavier ball is preferable. The 270-grain ball flies remarkably true for its weight.

In the process of skinning the bear, it was found that this was not the first encounter he had had with mankind. In the muscles of the neck, and of the right fore leg above the elbow and next to the bone, were found four rifle-balls, and a large fragment of another ball. The wounds had healed up, and each ball was inclosed in a sac with the appearance of having been there several years: one 42-caliber 205-grain lead ball lay in the muscles of the neck, another of same caliber and weight, two 50-caliber 375-grain lead balls, and the large flattened fragment of a ball were in the muscles of one fore leg next to the bone. The 42-caliber balls I judged were fired from a '66 model, 44-caliber Winchester, and as all the balls were little battered and did not shatter the bone, they must have been fired from a rim-fire cartridge; all the balls were cannelured.

The bear I was after when this one was stumbled on, took to his heels and disappeared rapidly over the mountain after the second shot. We went for the first one seen, but the dogs getting the wind of him, and having a taste of bear's blood, ignominiously "broke" and stirred him up. We chased him on horseback and afoot for three quarters of a mile, but did not get near enough to get in an effectual shot. The dogs, that had never before chased a live bear, could run alongside of him, but did not take hold. Probably you or I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.

Haying-time cut short this hunt. A short time afterward one of my neighbors complained of the depredations of bears among his thoroughbred cattle, having recently lost two yearlings. I suggested that if he would furnish the medicine in the shape of a carcass, a repetition of such business might be stopped. He agreed, and I at once reconnoitered the locality and selected a point in the valley of a small mountain stream, where he promptly had the carcass planted. An almost daily inspection was made of the medicine, but not until the morning of the seventh day were there any indications of its being disturbed. Promptly on hand at five o'clock that evening, I was rather incautiously approaching under cover of a slight rise of ground and the sage-brush, and had gotten within 150 yards, when a dark object that to my startled imagination appeared ten feet high, and proportionately broad, appeared to rise out of the earth. Recognizing the situation at once, I rose up offhand and pulled, but the firing-pin failed. This had never before happened under such circumstances, and only half a dozen times in the rifle's history, for want of attention to the firing-bolt. The bear gave me time to cock and fire, but as no answering "bawl" came, the shot was evidently a miss, resulting from my being "put out" by the previous mishap. He was rapidly followed to the edge of the willow swamp (about 150 yards), through which the trail passed, where he was seen, evidently unwilling to forego his evening meal. He quickly sat up, made me out, and at once disappeared before a shot could be delivered. I gave him up for the time, very much discouraged at failing to bag such a large grizzly. He was evidently a boar, and certainly was not much scared, and from his size and actions I was satisfied he was the one that had stolen my neighbor's yearlings. The next evening, August 17, I was on hand early; but, acting on previous experience, took a different position on his trail a hundred yards from the medicine. The direction of the wind forced me to take position with my back to the brush from which the bear would probably appear. This did not suit me. On first arriving on the ground, a dark object came rapidly down the mountain-side, about one mile up the valley, through an opening. This evidently was a bear, though not apparently as large as my friend of the evening before; and I felt sure he would make his appearance did he not take the alarm. Lying down, protected by some sage-brush, I waited patiently until the gray dusk of approaching twilight, but no bear appeared on the scene.

Can you recall your feelings when, as a boy, you passed through a graveyard at the hour of dusk, thinking, with the poet,

'T is now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world?

With what superstitious dread you looked cautiously around, expecting a hobgoblin at any moment to rise out of the ground? How every noise—the crackling of a twig—startled you? So it is with me when watching on the trail of this bear at such an hour. When occasion requires it, his movement is as stealthy and noiseless as a cat's. You hear the rolling of a boulder up the mountain-side in the timber several hundred yards away. You know it must be done by some large animal, and you suspect a bear. Presently the same noise, but closer, and your faculties are all on the qui vive, and you are every moment expecting his appearance. You wait what, to the excited senses, appears a long time. What has become of him? It was, perhaps, a false alarm, and you are discouraged; when, presently, there he stands, apparently right on you, and seemingly risen out of the ground.

So it was on this occasion, as I lay in the open about thirty feet from the thicket, in a prone position in the grass, clothed in soiled buckskin, with three cartridges in left hand and finger on trigger, ready to rise into a sitting position and deliver fire. Hark! the crackling of brush almost behind me. It is a moment of intense interest, for I don't know where he will appear. My attention is kept constantly to the rear and left rear. No more noise. What has become of him? It is getting very dark, and maybe it was a mistake. Presently, there! right on me apparently, but really fifty yards to the left rear, stands a black mass that must be the bear. I rise cautiously to a sitting position, and as he stands, looking wistfully up toward the old horse, I pull away at his side. The report is followed by a suppressed bawl, and he rolls over. I am loaded in a moment and waiting to see if he regains his feet. He does not, and it is unnecessary to fire. I walk up to him with finger on trigger at a ready, but the death-rattle is in his throat, and another shot is unnecessary. He turns out to be a black bear with a very black coat, and pretty well furred. He is dressed as quickly as possible, for it is now dark, and quite six miles to quarters, over a trailless mountain. A walk of half a mile to my horse Pike, and then as rapid a ride home as circumstances will admit, wind up the evening's adventures. I am well satisfied, but know I have not yet gotten the right one, the "calf-killer."

Rush skins and attends to the hide the next morning, and before sundown I am again on hand. The old horse is fast disappearing, and it is desirable to lose no time. Position is taken this time a little nearer the trail. In coming out from the willow-brush it passes for twenty or thirty yards through a marsh that is screened, to some extent, by scattering willows on the near side; and my position enables me to see, through these willows, a portion of the trail over which the bear will probably come. Late in the afternoon a storm had passed around the mountain, and a strong and favorable wind was blowing. Lying prone among the sage-brush, in a position favorable for observation, with everything at a ready, I wait patiently. Sundown comes; the mountain to the west casts its shadows around. It becomes quite dusky: so much so that I experiment as to whether the fore sight can be seen, otherwise a wad of white paper must be tied over the front sight. This is as yet unnecessary. It is now the witching time when this bear likes to prowl around. The senses are all on the strain as they are directed to the left rear. Just then a dark moving mass flits by between the willows on the trail, and soon emerges in full view, but again to disappear in a slight depression passed by the trail. Heavens, what a monster he seems in the dim twilight! As soon as he disappears I move rapidly and noiselessly forward to within about fifty yards of the trail he has to pass, drop on the right knee, and am ready. He does not come to time, however, and has evidently stopped to listen; doubtless remembering the first evening's experience, and being in hearing of last evening's racket. Has he taken the alarm and gone back? When on the point of going to the left, peering over, and taking a chance shot on the run, his back appears over the sage-brush and he is moving confidently forward, having satisfied himself there is no danger. At the first favorable opportunity, as he passes through the sage-brush, I deliver fire into his side, a little too high, and he rolls over, but with such a bawl as to indicate he is dangerous, did he know from what direction came the shot. He is soon on his feet, going back on his trail, toward the swamp. Loading quickly, I run forward to intercept him, and find him, after stumbling along 40 or 50 yards, in a sitting position near the edge of the marsh, evidently nearly done for, with his back toward me. A moment's interval was sufficient to place a ball in the back of his head; he rolls over, and is soon dead. A hasty examination showed him to be a large bear, and the handsomest and most symmetrically formed I had ever killed. He was in just the proper flesh for activity and business, though not quite as large as the big bear killed on the Big Bear Fork of Four Bear Creek, heretofore described.

Before proceeding to disembowel him, I did what had always been done under like circumstances—that is, placed the loaded rifle convenient for instant use. Something whispered this caution, especially now, as it was a time when another bear might appear on the trail at any moment. Keeping my eyes as much as possible at the point on the opposite side of the marsh, where the trail debouched on to it, I had proceeded to rip the carcass from the throat to the pelvis, and had my hands already messed up in a mass of liver, paunch, express-balls, etc., etc., when my attention was drawn to a dark mass at that point, and in a moment my rifle was in hand ready for the emergency. By the time I was ready to fire he had discovered something unusual in his front, and had "sat up" to make me out. Before doing so, aim had been quickly taken at his brisket, and at the report he had tumbled over, the ball striking the left side, fragments penetrating the heart. Judging from his boldness in stumbling on to me, not more than fifteen minutes after my last shot, I expected that he would show fight, but instead he made back on his trail as fast as his condition would allow. From previous experience in just such circumstances, the necessity was at once recognized of a cautious but vigorous pursuit, if he was to be secured before hiding in the brush; and without hesitation I plunged through the marsh, half knee-deep in mud and water, and entered the narrow trail on the opposite side. Pursuing it rapidly for thirty or forty yards to where it passed through a little opening, there, within ten steps of me, was a dark mass, breathing heavily and lying partially behind a small clump of willows. Putting a telling shot through the center of the mass, he appeared to wake up, and gave an exhibition of some of the grandest ground and lofty tumbling, at one time appearing to stand up on his head and kicking with his hind feet ten feet straight into the air. As he did not get upon his feet again, another shot was unnecessary, and he soon settled down and was dead.

This bear was as large from tip to tip as he of the Big Bear Fork, but not as fat nor as large-bodied; in fact, not as heavy as the one just killed. Neither of these bears, I think, needed a second shot, and, undisturbed, would not have gotten on their feet again. A dense thicket was near, and they might have scrambled into its cover and have been lost, so another shot was given. At any rate, darkness was at hand by the time the carcasses were dressed, and a dense fog was settling over the mountain that had to be crossed. The exhilaration of spirits from the killing of two such large bears on the same evening—one of them the bear that I was after—caused me to forget fatigue and fog, and with a light heart Pike was mounted and the mountain ascended. A thick fog soon enveloped us, so that nothing could be seen beyond a hundred feet. Pike and I soon disagreed as to the direction, but I insisted on my way. After going a half-mile and getting into some rough ground, it was evident that I was wrong and completely befogged. The rein was then given to Pike, and he turned squarely to the left, and, having gone 600 yards over some pretty rough ground, he came to the head of the game-trail leading down the mountain, and which we had several times traveled. Pike had his way the balance of the ride, and after passing across the drainage for two miles we got below the fog, and by ten o'clock we were once more at home.

As an indication of the labor usually undergone in hunting this bear, it is stated that seventy-five miles were traveled (one half of which was in the night) before the first shot, and one hundred and five miles before killing the three. I have since traveled more than a hundred miles after a special bear and was repaid by only one shot at long range, and no bear.

The next day Rush and McDevitt skinned and packed in the hides and fat of the two grizzlies. The weighing apparatus was taken along, and the "calf-killer" was found to weigh 405 pounds after being dressed sixteen hours, the other something less. The black bear was not weighed, but it is presumed he weighed about the average of this species (175 pounds) in life.

The rifle employed is the same used for several years, a 45-caliber Sharps, with which I have killed thirty-eight of these bears, of which number twenty-two were killed with a single shot each, using 110 grains C. & H. No. 6, and a 340-grain express-ball. As I have before stated, the rise of its trajectory is 7.01 inches in 200 yards, an average of about twenty shots through a trajectory range. Previously I had used a 44-caliber Sharps, with a bottle-neck shell holding 100 to 105 grains of the same powder with which a good many bears had been killed. No especial ball has been determined on as best for bear and elk and sheep. With exceptional opportunities for several years past among all our big game, together with a careful study of the subject, based on a dissection of wounds made by different combinations of powder and ball, I think the 2-7/8 45-caliber shell, with 110 grains strong powder and a 340-grain express-ball such as I use, the most destructive charge in all American rifles for bear, elk, and sheep. A little lighter ball might answer, perhaps, but I am not sure. The amount of powder would not be sufficient for a heavier one for best results. The best results not only depend on the relative proportion of powder and ball, but also on the diameter and depth of the hole in the point of ball. If the walls around the hole are too thin, they will break off too soon, or in too fine pieces. If the walls are too thick, they may not disintegrate until the ball's velocity has been so much retarded that the particles will not have velocity to make their own way, but will follow the channel made by the butt; so that a good many considerations enter into the problem. The ball in question, shot directly into a bear, elk, sheep, etc., will, after passing through the skin, break up, usually tearing a hole through the ribs, even of a fat animal, through which the unclenched hand can be passed, the fragments scattering in a cone shape, the larger fragments penetrating to the opposite ribs. In this way the whole momentum of the ball is expended on the vitals, the heart and lungs. Hit further back it breaks up into still smaller fragments, making a terrible wound in the paunch and entrails that none of those animals can long survive. I have never known it to fail in breaking the large bones of the largest bear or elk when coming in contact with them.

For deer and antelope my 40-caliber is found sufficient, using 100 grains of strong powder and a particular express-ball of 270 grains. It makes about a 6-1/2-inch curve in two hundred yards, and the ball flies very true. I use also in the 45-caliber the 44-caliber ball before alluded to, using three thicknesses of patch paper. It flies remarkably true for its weight, and makes a 6.34-inch curve per 200 yards, with 110 grains C. & H. No. 6. I failed to say at the proper place that the degree of hardness or per cent. of alloy has a great deal to do with the execution, as well as accuracy of flight, of the express-ball. When of pure lead they break up too soon. Nor have I ever known a reasonable degree of accuracy obtained with any lead ball with a comparatively large charge, beyond 50 or 75 yards. They are knocked out of proper shape by the time they leave the muzzle. This want of accuracy has been observed with the best English express-rifles with light leaden balls. I find in my experience with the balls of my preference (as above) that from five per cent. for the heavier ball, to eight per cent. for the lighter, is best.

A 20-bore double-barreled shot-gun, made by Bland & Sons, of London (chambered for the Kynoch brass shell), for ducks, the several species of grouse, jack-rabbits, magpies, skunks, etc., completes my battery. I value the latter very highly for its "executive ability," combined with a weight of only six pounds.

I have written much in detail, because I think it is the details that make the account of hunting trips interesting. I hope its perusal may interest readers as much as the recalling of its incidents has interested me.

I have made several mentions of Four Bear Creek. The name was given it for want of a better one by the United States Land Surveyors, who happened to be in camp on Hell-Roaring River, near the creek's mouth, on the night in which I killed four bears, the last about 9.30 o'clock at night.

W. D. Pickett.