Ben Lilly and His Desert Grizzly Hunt from the Archives

Ben Lilly and His Desert Grizzly Hunt from the Archives Outdoor Life

Ben Lilly and the Desert Grizzly, From the Archives

ONE AFTERNOON in the spring of 1910, Ben Lilly arrived in the Mexican town of Gallegos, Chihuahua. He was accompanied by five dogs that seemed dispirited from their arduous journey. Lilly greeted his dogs, one of which he named “Lady” and another named “Red.” The other dogs had yet to be given names. After bidding farewell to the train, Lilly, a bearded and elderly man, prepared to embark on an extraordinary bear hunt.

Ben Lilly, renowned for his hunting skills, was often employed by Southwest and Mexican ranchers to protect their livestock from predatory animals. This time, he had agreed to serve as a guide on a bear hunt alongside an old friend. Little did they know that this would turn out to be one of their most remarkable adventures.

As the train smoke blended into the desert haze, Lilly shouldered his gunny sack and .33 Winchester rifle. He paid little attention to the curious station master and set off toward the mountains. He planned to scout the terrain for a month before his hunting companion’s arrival. Idle chatter was not a luxury Lilly could afford.

In the following days, Lilly explored the rugged mountain ranges of Chihuahua, searching for signs of wildlife amidst desert valleys, mesquite, and oak bushes. The desert bloomed with flaming red and magenta ocotillo and barrel cactus flowers, while mockingbirds sang in the mesquite.

Ben Lilly’s objective was not merely to hunt and kill; he sought to understand and appreciate the desert’s abundant life. During his solitary wandering, he stumbled upon a giant bear track in a lonely canyon. With this discovery, Lilly knew he had found what he was looking for. He also familiarized himself with the canyons where the mighty bears roamed, learning their habits and hiding places.

Once confident in his knowledge of the area, Lilly returned to Gallagos to meet his hunting companion, Frank Sanborn, a former restaurant owner and seasoned hunter. Sanborn, prepared with a wagon and a mismatched team of mules, welcomed Lilly without complaint about the latter’s late arrival. They set off, with Lilly walking alongside the wagon while the dogs sought relief from the midmorning heat in its shadow.

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The journey progressed slowly, the wagon creaking along day after day as the dogs remained silent, and even the usually talkative wagon driver refrained from idle conversation. The dogs occasionally showed interest in the scent of mountain lions and jaguars, marking the presence of these great predators, but Lilly ensured they stayed on track.

After six days, they arrived at the mouth of a canyon where Lilly had discovered fresh grizzly bear tracks. Here, they bid farewell to the wagon and its driver, their base camp established. The pursuit of the grizzly had begun.

On their first morning of hunting, Lilly scouted the area ahead, looking for fresh grizzly tracks, while Sanborn followed silently. Their search led them to a cliff ledge where Lilly spotted a mountain lion, prompting Sanborn to take a shot and earn Lilly’s rare acknowledgment. The following day, they encountered fresh grizzly tracks near the carcass of a longhorn cow. The hounds were released, and a fierce battle ensued, but by the time Lilly and Sanborn arrived, the fight had moved deeper into the mountains.

Undeterred, they continued their chase as the hounds pursued the grizzly through treacherous canyons and steep ridges. Eventually, the exhausted hunters and dogs found themselves beneath a cliff, unable to reach the elusive bear. They made camp and resumed their pursuit at daybreak.

Amidst the darkness, Lilly and the surviving hounds found a path to ascend the cliff. Guided by Lilly’s sharp instincts and the hounds’ keen sense of smell, they relentlessly followed the grizzly’s scent. Lilly often moved ahead to locate the freshest tracks and signal the dogs. Despite exhaustion and physical discomfort, Sanborn admired Lilly’s unwavering determination, grateful that the hunter’s focus was on the grizzly and not him.

The chase continued, with the hounds barking in the distance. But despite their efforts, Lilly and Sanborn arrived too late to witness the intense battle between the dogs and the grizzly. Disheartened, they examined the bear’s hiding spots and studied the marks left on the ground and the wounded dog. Lilly admired the grizzly’s cunning in using the landscape to defend itself.

Undeterred by their setback, Lilly and Sanborn spent the night on the mountain, enduring the cold wind. The next morning, they resumed their pursuit, following the grizzly’s tracks with the remaining dogs. Lilly’s expertise and the dogs’ determination guided them through challenging terrain, until they finally reached a fifteen-foot cliff.

Ben Lilly and His Desert Grizzly Hunt from the Archives Outdoor Life

Again, the dogs were unable to ascend, and Lilly decided to make camp at the foot of the cliff. He tended to the wounded dog and calmed the others, discouraging them from attacking the grizzly above.

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The next morning, the hunters and dogs set out early, finding a way up the cliff and resuming their pursuit. Lilly, with his instinctual understanding of the grizzly, guided the dogs, occasionally circling ahead to locate fresh tracks.

Despite exhaustion, torn clothing, and aching bones, Sanborn felt a mixture of relief and trepidation, knowing that Lilly’s unwavering determination would lead them to the grizzly, no matter the obstacles.

Late in the afternoon, they spotted the grizzly. The hounds had been barking half-heartedly, but now the bear burst from an oak thicket at the head of a small valley. Its color matched the dead oak leaves that it scattered, and a dark stripe ran down its back. The hunters, including Ben Lilly with a smile on his face, could see this even from a distance. The dogs, ecstatic, ran after the bear across the valley, and everyone felt that the end was near.

They reached another valley, similar to the one where the bear had been. A volcanic upthrust from centuries past had created an opening at the slope’s head. The hounds crossed the ridge into the glade, closing in on the rocks. Finally, they saw the grizzly below them, backed against the jumbled volcanic pile. Beavertail cacti grew on one side, providing him protection. The hounds would have to attack him head-on, into his powerful jaws. The grizzly’s teeth snapped shut like a massive iron door.

Ben Lilly quickly assessed the situation and ran down the slanting valley. The bear glanced up as he approached, but it was too tired to make a run for it. The bear growled and snapped at the dogs, but they continued their relentless assault. The dogs surrounded the bear menacingly, creating a ring of danger. Their barks filled the air, driving the bear further into himself.

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Even before Lilly joined the fight, the dogs sensed victory. The bear rose up on its hind legs to fight from that height. Blood and saliva dripped from its mouth, and its sides heaved beneath its grizzled fur. It licked its nose with a pink tongue.

One hound, more daring than the rest, rushed in and tore at the bear’s belly fur. The bear fell forward, attempting to retaliate, but another dog attacked his face. A third dog bit into his shoulder. Roaring in pain and rage, the bear fought back with its powerful jaws. It twisted and turned, shaking the dogs loose with its immense strength.

In the growing darkness, the bear seemed larger than ever. The hunter Ben Lilly, unnoticed by the bear or the dogs, approached. The twilight cast a shadow over the bear, making it harder to see. The hounds on its belly didn’t hinder its attack. The bear lunged forward, aiming to crush the hunter’s head. But Lilly raised his rifle, and at the same time, the bear started descending.

There was a flash of yellow flame and a muffled shot. The bear’s teeth and jaws were outlined in red light as if it had breathed fire. Then there was silence, filled only with the smell of gunpowder. The bear’s lifeless body fell among the dogs.

Lilly and Sanborn made camp beside the fallen bear. They ate its flesh and fixed up one of the wounded hounds. The group sat silently around the fire. A poorwill called from the rocks, and a tired hound groaned in its sleep.

Ben Lilly stared into the darkness, his features stern and impassive. The profile of the hunter and the motionless body of the bear lay on the other side of the campfire, like shadows.

Editor’s Note: The last Mexican grizzly bear reportedly died in the 1960s, and the subspecies is presumed extinct. Read more OL+ stories.