ANCHORAGE - It was a big bear, its front legs spanning 11 feet from claw tip to claw tip, its skull the size of a beer keg, its paws as big as a man's chest.
An Eielson Air Force Base airman shot the record-book grizzly during an October deer hunt in Prince William Sound.
"It's an exceptional bear," said master guide Joe Want of Fairbanks, a 40-year veteran of Kodiak Island, home to the biggest brown bears in North America. "It's an understatement to say that it is a trophy of a lifetime."
But perhaps equally amazing is how much the bear has grown in size and legend in just a few weeks' time on the Internet. Hundreds of people around Alaska and across the country are circulating photographs of the bear and the hunter who shot it. With each missive, the tale and the bear seem to grow.
By the time e-mail stories started reaching the Daily News in late November, the bear towered 12-feet, 6-inches tall and weighed more than 1,600 pounds. Another writer said the ferocious bear had charged the unsuspecting deer hunter, who emptied his gun, but shot the bear dead in the nick of time with his last shell.
Though this was indeed a big bear, those numbers and that sequence of events aren't right.
The hunter, Theodore Winnen, a 22-year-old crew member of the 18th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, said he and three hunting buddies were dropped off on Hinchinbrook Island in the heart of Prince William Sound by an air taxi on a cool, rainy Oct. 14 morning.
Hinchinbrook is a 165-square-mile island near Cordova with an estimated population of about 100 brown bears. Four to six bears are killed by hunters on the island every year, though rarely one of more than 400 pounds.
On day two of the group's hunt, Winnen and Eielson Staff Sgt. Jim Urban set out to follow a creek bed upstream looking for deer. In the creek, they spotted a deep pool with 20 salmon circling.
"We started thinking that we were looking at a bear's dinner plate," Winnen said.
The two men continued following the creek upstream until they came to a small island ringed with thick brush. Forty yards away was a big brown bear with all four paws in the creek, flipping over logs looking for salmon.
"He's a shooter," Urban said under his breath.
"So I started getting in the zone," Winnen said. "When I am going to take an animal, I am really concentrating. We racked shells into our guns and took off our packs and left them by the tree."
The hunters moved a few feet upstream. About halfway between them and the bear was a large fallen tree.
"I said, When the bear crawls over that log, he will present his vital areas and we'll take him,' " Winnen recalled. "I brought the rifle up to take a shot, but the bear moved over the log like it wasn't there. ... I didn't have a chance to get a shot off."
As the bear kept coming along the creek, the two hunters momentarily lost sight of him in a thicket, so they retreated.
"We were sitting there concentrating when, a few seconds later, he pops up right in front of us, about 10 yards away and he was coming toward us," Winnen said. "I don't know if the wind was in our favor or what. We were dressed in camouflage. He might not have seen us."
Winnen fired, hitting the side of the bear's muzzle, sending a shot into its brain.
"He buckled backwards and raised his head like he was going to howl at the moon, but nothing came out," Winnen said. "I put two more rounds in the vital area, then three more after that. Six total."
Winnen said he was amazed at the bear's size.
"I picked up the paw and it was like, good God. The thing was as wide as my chest."
Once back, Winnen took the hide and skull to the state Department of Fish and Game to get it sealed, as required by law.
Unofficially, the skull scored 28 and 8/16 inches and the hide measured 10-feet, 6-inches from nose to tail. While it is impossible to know exactly how much the bear weighed, master guide Want suspects it ran between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds, a world-class brown bear.
Winnen is having the skull preserved and mounted on a plaque. The hide is with a taxidermist, being made into a rug.
Meanwhile, the e-mails keep circulating. The genesis appears to have been a radio talk show in Fairbanks on which Winnen appeared. Photos from his hunt showed up later on the radio show's Web site. And that appears to have been what got the Internet humming.
Guide Want said, "I can guarantee you, in a year or two, someone will tell him (Winnen) how big the bear was and it will be up to 1,800 pounds. And when he tries to correct them, they will call him a liar."
Distributed by The Associated Press.
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