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Netterville: Russian Brown Bears and My Trip to the ‘Evil Empire’

Photo courtesy Ivan Seryodkin, WCS Russia

I’ve always loved the outdoors and have had dreams of going to Alaska brown bear hunting.

I always figured it would just be a dream and I would never have the opportunity to do it. But that all changed in December 2014. I called a friend in Idaho, Rex Summerfield, who owns and operates an outdoor television production company.

My wife, Allison, had met him on a black bear hunt in Quebec a few years ago. I called him to recommend an outfitter in Alaska. He told me he would be glad to give me the names of several good outfitters, but he had planned a trip to Russia and had one spot available if I wanted it.

My first thought was Russia, really? RUSSIA? That had never crossed my mind. So I did my homework and found out that Russia homes two-thirds of the brown bear population in the world. The other third is scattered through Alaska, Canada and the lower 48. You have to realize that I’m just a country boy from Mississippi and this was a huge decision for me to travel around the world on a trip of a lifetime. After much deliberation and prayer I decided to commit to going on this trip in August 2015.

As the day approached, I started packing for the trip. What do you pack for a two week trip in the wilderness of Kamchatka Peninsula fareast Russia? I packed and unpacked seven or eight times not knowing exactly what to take to prepare for the weather.

I figured out really quickly that you don’t just decide to up and travel to Russia. It takes many months to prepare documents and visas because the Russian government likes to keep up with where you travel.

Finally the day of my departure arrived. Allison drove me to the airport in Memphis, Tennessee. To my surprise, as I was checking my baggage Delta Airlines had decided because of the Cecil the Lion crap that they didn’t want hunters taking weapons on their airline.

After much deliberation and aggravation I had no choice but to leave my gun with Allison to take back home. Now I’m off to Russia on a hunting trip of a lifetime with no hunting rifle. After twelve hours I arrived in Moscow, Russia, but my bag was stuck in London. Great, now I have no gun and no luggage.

The first thing you notice in Moscow is how simple and crowded the city is. There are not many happy faces there to greet you. My first hurdle is making it through customs. Without a rifle it went surprisingly smooth. I did get some stern looks from the Russian customs officials. But they stamped my visa and I had a day to spend in Moscow before I was off on another nine hour flight to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Denny Geurink, with Denny Geurink Outdoor Adventures, in Michigan has been taking hunters to Russia for 25 years for brown bear hunts. Denny met me at the airport and we went to check in at the hotel. After getting checked in we decided to visit Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral and do a little shopping. It was very interesting shopping at the market place on the streets of Moscow. The exchange rate is sixty seven reubels to one dollar.

I saw all sorts of Russian fur hats, souveniers, nesting dolls and jewlery. It felt funny buying my kids gifts and paying 8,000 rubels which is only $120. To my surprise there was always someone who spoke a little English in the marketplace and in the restaurants.

I was glad we had an extra day in Moscow because my bag finally arrived from London just in time for me to board my flight to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It is seventeen hours difference in Petropavlovsk Kamchatka than at my home in Oxford, Mississippi.

Myself, Rex Summerfield and Dick Scorzafava, the host of “The Radical Hunter” on the Pursuit Channel and the editor of “Bear Hunter” magazine, boarded a van and made the four hour journey down the roughest gravel roads I have ever traveled on.

I am from Wilkinson County, Mississippi where the roads are pretty bad. The first night we stayed in a small bed and breakfast in a village on the west coast of Kamchatka Peninsula near the Sea of Okhotsk. This would be the last time I would see any kind of civilization for the next ten days.

The next morning we boarded a Russian armored personnel vehicle similar to a tank and travelled seven hours through the Russian wilderness and tundra. All the while, riding on top of this tank which was very rough and uncomfortable. You have to realize there are no roads and this is the reason we took this particular vehicle. We crossed rivers, mud bogs and many miles of tundra and finally arrived at our camp on a small river that flowed into the Sea of Okhotsk only a mile away.

The first thing I noticed as we entered camp was the old fishing nets and fifty five gallon barrels that washed ashore made into a fence to try to keep the bears out. Keep in mind that is no five star resort, we are roughing it here. There are no showers, no house, no electricity and we are living in tents and camping by the fire. I know your probably wondering what weapon I am going to hunt with? Well so am I!

My Russian guide, Mesha, that speaks no English, is around fifty five or sixty years old and you can tell he has lived a hard life. My first question through my translator, Andre, is what kind of hunting rifle do you have for us? Rex and Dick also flew Delta and could not bring weapons either. So Mesha pulls out an old Russian made 7.62×51 open sight rifle comparable to our .308 in the U.S. At first I thought it was a joke. I quickly realized it was not a joke because Russians don’t have high powered rifles with great optics. This was going to be a challenge.

The first night was very exciting and we didn’t get much sleep because of the anticipation of the hunt and the bears entering close to camp. We brought along a Russian bred dog named Nort. He was our camp watch dog. If you can imagine it being so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face and having to use the outhouse fifty yards away, thank God for Nort. I learned very quickly to always have a treat for him so he would sleep at the door of my tent. Every night you would hear him growling, barking and chasing bears out of camp. Like I said we were on a small river and the salmon were coming up stream out of the sea to lay their eggs and die. So this attracted a lot of bears near camp.

It’s finally time to go hunting. We set off through the tundra in search of the Russian brown bear. Rex is behind the camera and we have one Russian rifle to share between three hunters. I’m up first. As we walk through the tundra it is amazing at all the different berries growing on the ground. There is so much food for the bears and other wildlife. As the sun comes up, we are glassing for bears feeding. I spot a big bear about a half mile away and it looks tremendous.

This is my first time to ever see a brown bear in the wild. Mesha looks at me and motions his hands out wide telling me it is a big bear. So the stalk is on. We crawled four hundred yards to get into range of the bear. The tundra is like crawling on a fluffy pillow. We close the distance within eighty yards Rex is over my shoulder with the camera. Mesha is setting up my shooting sticks. As I take aim, in the back of my mind I am thinking I hope I don’t miss because this thing will eat me. I settle the sights on the bear and squeeze off the first round and it is a solid hit.

To my surprise the bear did not flinch. I fired several more times before the bear fell. As I am reloading, at a quick pace, Mesha is congratulating me on my first Russian brown bear with a Russian rifle. We approach very carefully and I notice it is a beautiful blonde bear. These animals are amazing at how big they really are. They weigh anywhere between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds and stand between 7 and 11 feet tall. We take lots of pictures and Russian custom is to celebrate with vodka. Now, I’m not a drinker but I didn’t want to insult my Russian hosts, so we all take a shot of the worst rubbing alcohol I’ve ever tasted. What an exciting hunt.

We loaded the bear into the armored personnel vehicle and head back to camp where Mesha and Antatolie skin the bear and salt the hide. All the meat is saved and put in bags in the cold river so it will not spoil. After we finished tending to the bear we relaxed around the fire and ate lunch. I found out why most of the Russians are so skinny. They eat a lot of fish, caviar, cheese and soup and drink a lot of vodka. You might as well get used to eating a few black flies also because they are everywhere.

Over the next few days, Dick and Rex aren’t having very good luck with the Russian rifle. We have seen over ninety bears but not having any success. Some of the sow bears would have up to three cubs and most had twins. The population is very healthy and growing. On the fifth day, I get my second opportunity. I’m told that we are going to a valley named “The Valley of the Bears”. With that name it has to be a good spot. We set up on top of a hill overlooking the large valley. In the background is one of the twenty-nine active volcanoes on this peninsula.

Over the next hour we spot several bears feeding on the berries in this valley. Mesha sees a very large male bear in the distance. You can imagine the challenge of stalking one bear through a valley filled with many bears. My nerves were on edge. After what seemed like being an eternity we finally get in range of the bear we are after. I settle in on my shooting sticks. The bear is feeding about one hundred yards away and I take the shot. He falls instantly. I don’t know who was more excited me or Mesha. I have just harvested my second Russian brown bear in five days. I can’t explain how excited I was and what a dream come true I had just experienced.

Over the next few days I took up fishing and filming for Rex on his hunt. I caught several nice spotted Artic char and silver salmon that we enjoyed cooking and eating at camp. On the last day of the hunt Rex finally got his bear. I’m sorry to say my friend, Dick Scorzafava, was not so lucky. But we were able to experience some beautiful country and meet some wonderful people. Russia is not the evil empire we think. The people are very nice and very helpful and welcomed three Americans with open arms. I will never forget the new friends I made on this trip.

I would like to thank Dick and Rex for letting me join them on my dream hunt. Also thanks to Denny Geurink Outdoor Adventures for hosting us.

Howard Netterville of Oxford is an active outdoorsman and loves Ole Miss athletics. He has a wife, Allison, and two children, Lexi and Fred.

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