Brown Bear on the High Seas

As the last few crimson hues of sunshine melted behind a thick curtain of spruce on the distant horizon, I allowed myself for the first time to contemplate what was now becoming an all too real possibility. The possibility that after years of planning and preparation, after countless hours of daydreaming and sleepless nights, that I may embark on my long journey home without the brown bear I had so longed for. Although Southeast Alaska had once again enriched my heart and mind with its unique gifts, I will admit the thought of going home empty-handed left a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Night can be a lonely time when you are at sea. Later that evening, as I lay in my bunk tossing and turning, the rhythmic, hollow sound of the ocean lapping against the hull of the boat served as a constant reminder that even the best made plans are at the mercy of “The Great Land”. Nine days had come and gone. Nine days that had seen us leave the sanctity of the inside passage for the unpredictable wrath of the Pacific Ocean in hopes of finding an exceptional brownie, what the old mariner, who sat at the helm scratching his head, would affectionately call an “outsized bear”. But soon we would be pulling anchor and saying goodbye to the ancient, weather worn shores of the Pacific and maybe my chances as well.

This was not my initial expedition to the scattered coastal islands of Alaska. In previous years I had served as a camera man and guide on this very boat. I had already experienced the humbling nature of the harvest as well as the adrenalin pumping rush of tracking a wounded bear through the dense undergrowth. But this would be the first trip where I didn’t have a camera or backup rifle in tow and I would be remiss if I didn’t convey that the change in responsibility felt peculiar that first morning. Luckily, some things never change and as the twin Caterpillar engines started churning on the fifty-six foot Delta and the dank, salty, sea air filled my lungs, the feeling subsided.

On this particular crusade we had assembled one of the finest, at least in my estimation, seagoing, brown bear crews ever assembled! Consisting of myself, my brother Miles, father Ralph and one well-seasoned, if not over seasoned captain, Kenny, all willing, all able and all anxious to get the hunt under way. As we slowly maneuvered out of the harbor and into Icy Straights I settled into my perch on the port side of the cabin to absorb the sights.

Southeast Alaska is truly one of God’s marvels and your first inclination is to refrain from even blinking your eyes for fear of missing some of its splendor! In every direction you look there are towering snow-capped mountains rising almost vertically from the sea. Dark green forests carpet what last winter’s snow does not and rushing waterfalls cascade from the peaks brimming with the spring’s melt. There is no shortage of wildlife here. Whether it be the humpback whales slowly searching for a meal of krill or the mischievous, black and white Dall’s porpoise racing under and around your boat, the ocean always has something to see. The air is full of a vast array of fowl, from bald eagles to harlequin ducks, there are simply too many to count. The land is vibrant and full of the gifts of the season. Everything from the raven to the blacktail deer is relieved that old man winter has loosened his grip.

We proceeded up the straight, pausing occasionally to check a crab pot or snap a few photos of a passing whale. Our destination on the opposite side of the island was a two-day trek and with the close of the season, a mere twelve days distant, it was incumbent upon us to make good time. That night we anchored in a secluded bay and ate to our heart’s content on Dungeness crab. The mood was light and jocular, but to a man we were all at least a little nervous. Tomorrow we faced the prospect of traversing the open ocean, a place the majority of us had never braved before.

The next morning broke overcast and gray. A minimal breakfast and a quick retrieval of the anchor found us in route. We proceeded through relatively calm seas for approximately an hour closely shadowing the peaceful shoreline. But as we approached the northern most point of land we seemed to enter a different world. Here the tips of two islands came tantalizingly close to touching as if reaching for each other through what had become a frothing, tumultuous sea. The water was precariously shallow as was evident by several small outcroppings that seemed to form a gauntlet in our midst. We pointed the bow between the nearest two and as we passed between, the waves battered the rocks and the spray flew! We all held our collective breaths as the depth finder slowly approached a mere five fathoms. I could feel the sweat forming between my hands and the brass rail that I foolishly clung to like it would be some kind of assistance in case of a disaster! Fortunately, we were not meant to be casualties of the maze that day and after several tense minutes we emerged on the opposite side of danger and into the open sea.

We turned south hoping to make our destination before nightfall. The Pacific was somewhat calm but even in its relative docile state we still had significant swells to overcome. At first it was a struggle, but after the stabilizers were deployed, we were able to garner a full head of steam. The trip down the coast went smoothly and we arrived at the secluded bay ahead of schedule. I, for one, slept well that night. Tomorrow, hopefully, we would see the first brown bears of the hunt!

The weather the next day was nothing short of spectacular! A brilliant sun shown in the cloudless sky and its comforting rays shimmered and danced across the water like an endless blanket of stars on a clear summer night. The four of us gathered enough provisions for the day’s hunt and around two o’clock climbed into our sixteen foot skiff and headed towards shore. Unlike many coastal areas that boast miles of uninterrupted shoreline to gaze at, this area was comprised of a collection of small coves that made for a unique and exciting hunt. We would cruise into one cove and glass for a few minutes, then move onto the next, hardly any of which were in sight of one another. This meant around every corner could stand a bruin and the anticipation kept us on edge at all times!

After a couple hours of scanning empty beaches we rounded a corner and abruptly encountered the first bear of the hunt or should I say bears! Not seventy-five yards distant a large sow stood, braced in a small patch of sedge grass. Her expressionless eyes slowly searched in our direction, her nose sifting the wind currents in hopes of identifying the intruder. She had heard our small two-stroke engine, but her poor eyesight and unfavorable wind direction hampered her efforts to identify us. From behind her peered two scrawny cubs, unaware of impending danger, but curious as to why their mother had abruptly ceased her midday meal and was now on alert!

For several anxious minutes the old sow stood at attention as the four of us hunkered in our little boat, motionless. The only movement was that of her long, flowing bronze hair that waved ever so slightly in the afternoon breeze. Eventually, failing to gain confirmation of her fears, she slowly returned to her original agenda. We watched intently as the little family fed along the beach searching in every nook and cranny for something that might satisfy their hunger. As I examined the trio, I became amazed at how attentive the gangly little cubs were. Their mother would saunter up to a two-hundred pound rock and effortlessly lift it with one paw in search of a horse clam or small crab and as if on cue, they would find a twenty pound rock of their own and mimic her actions. They were perfect students and I felt privileged to be afforded this brief glimpse into the cycle of life.

After the sow and cubs disappeared into the forest, we resumed our previous quest. For the better part of the day we meandered though the little coves searching for a large boar. We encountered several other bears of average stature but nothing of the caliber I was interested in. That evening, a few hours before dark, we spotted a larger brown bear feeding along the water’s edge. He warranted closer inspection, so we quickly beached the skiff and executed a flawless stalk down the shoreline to within a couple hundred yards or so. The closer look revealed a respectable bear with a prime spring coat but at such an early juncture, I elected to pass on the opportunity. It was only the first day and it was obvious, with the activity we had already seen, that the bears were moving here and I felt emboldened by the fact. There were bears on this seldom hunted coast that had never even witnessed a human being! Somewhere there had to be a monarch and I was willing to be patient.

The next day we picked up where we left off, the weather was spectacular and the bears were abundant. By mid afternoon we had already spied several and every one of us exuded an easy confidence. This area boasted one of the highest densities per square mile of brown bears in the entire state and with so many to choose from, surely it was only a matter of persistence before an old-timer revealed himself. As we boarded the main vessel that evening, we watched in awe as the sun set over what can only be described as a dead calm Pacific Ocean. The brilliant glowing reflection over the vast, endless sea bordered surreal! Only in my most vivid dreams could I have imagined such a perfect moment, maybe too perfect.

Weather in this neck of the woods can be at best unpredictable and as I frequently awoke that night to the sporadic rocking of the boat, I realized that Mother Nature was about to deal us her first spade of the hunt. By morning we were facing the ire of a full-fledged Pacific storm! As the wind howled outside of the tiny cabin, we quickly decided on a course of action and executed. Standing pat in this exposed bay would be an absolute nightmare; hoisting anchor and making a run for a more sheltered cove was our only option. Hastily donning my rain gear and heading for the bow I made an attempt to mentally prepare myself for the task at hand, but nothing could have readied me for the ferocity of this storm! I exited the cabin in a cautious manner but immediately was assailed by a combination of heavy wind and pelting rain. I quickly turned my head in the opposite direction of the onslaught and made a quick dash for the windlass. Retrieving the ground tackle was usually a nominal chore, but that was not the case in the driving rain. I crouched as low as possible, keeping my face tucked below my shoulder for what seemed like an eternity! Finally, I made out the ghostly form of the anchor rising from the depths and after firmly securing it, scurried back into the safety of the cabin.

Fortunately, the trip to a more secluded location was not a lengthy one. The deep little cove, which we had discovered earlier, boasted two protective mountainsides which would serve as excellent deterrents to the brutal winds. Here we could wait comfortably until the system passed and we could resume the hunt. The only question was, how long would the storm persist?

Before embarking on an adventure to South East Alaska or anywhere in the state for that matter, you must resign yourself to the fact that their trip will not go off without a hitch. Engines may fail, gear may be lost, the possibility of human error is ever present, but most assuredly there will always be inclement weather! As the storm wore on into its second day, I tried to reassure myself that this was a normality, just a necessary hardship you must endure to experience the privilege of hunting the last frontier. But there are only so many trips you can make from your bunk to the galley; only so many times you can examine your weapon for condensation and listening to music on a tiny plastic device may as well be hard time at a prison camp when the remaining days of your brown bear hunt are dwindling in a deluge!

By the third morning I found myself, chin resting lightly on my left forearm, examining a small crack that was beginning to form in the right hand corner of the drab, olive-colored kitchen table. The idle days were beginning to take their toll and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever see the leeward side of this storm. As the afternoon progressed however, the intensity of the rain began to diminish and with the recent state of lethargy causing us all to become a bit stir crazy, the decision to resume the quest was made without reservation.

Conditions steadily improved as the day wore on and by four o’clock intermittent breaks in the gray, gloomy sky allowed the sun to shed its warmth upon the welcome landscape. As we progressed up the inlet, Miles spotted a lazy harbor seal precariously perched on a large piece of driftwood. It seemed completely oblivious to our presence as he allowed the sun to bake down on his speckled, tan-colored hide. We made an attempt to get closer in hopes of getting a photograph, but as the distance between us shrank to fifty yards, he suddenly flipped into the deep green water and disappeared, leaving only a slowly bobbing piece of driftwood behind.

Another twenty minutes would find us in the largest cove we had happened upon in the previous excursions up the inlet. Here a small creek filtered through a large, bright green sedge flat approximately seventy-five acres in total. The flat was a bear magnet and it didn’t require an expert to deduce it! This time of year, with his stomach still sensitive from the long winter’s slumber, the great brown bear’s diet mostly consists of fresh spring growth and sedge grass is a staple! As we rounded the last corner and the tidal flat became exposed, our eyes locked on a motionless, dark form approximately three hundred yards distant. The time it took to affix binoculars to our eyes was all that was necessary to ascertain the magnitude of this bear. Granted, bears of any type can be a challenge to judge, but when you see a truly large one, you’ll know instantly. This was a bruin of that stature! His massive hump towered above his head as he voraciously consumed his fare and turning broadside his body resembled that of a well-bred Angus steer in length!

The only hope of closing the distance was a small finger of spruce trees to the left of the opening. If we could just make it to the protection of the forest, we could sneak within one hundred yards of our unsuspecting quarry, well within the acceptable range of an ethical shot on North America’s top predator. Unfortunately in life, no matter how much you strive, some things just aren’t meant to be. As our tiny boat canted ever so slightly, the old boar slowly raised his heavy head and peered in our direction. The wind was in our favor and at this distance most would figure the bear’s notoriously poor eyesight would hinder his ability to distinguish us from the small islands and rock outcroppings that rose from the ocean floor. This was not the case however, and after a moment’s hesitation he wheeled on his hindquarters and made a swift exit into the ancient forest. The last image I recall of the brief encounter is of him peeking back over his shoulder at us before he disappeared.

For a moment I sat speechless, replaying the sequence of events in my mind. Then I wondered aloud to my counterparts, who were all seated aft of me, something to the effect of, “How did we mess that one up?” In retrospect I suppose a little frustration was beginning to build inside of me. Not a word was uttered for several seconds until finally, Kenny very simply said, “Nothing you can do about that one”, and that’s where we left it. I suppose there was no sense crying over spilled milk anyway.

With such a tremendous specimen utilizing the area, it wasn’t hard to foresee where we would be concentrating our efforts for the remainder of the hunt. For the next few days we lived and breathed on that sedge flat! From morning to night we perched on an old decaying log that afforded us the optimum viewpoint of the landscape, interrupting our constant vigil only for a quick meal or a brief slumber to rest our tired eyes. Every time I would catch a glimpse of movement at the tree line my heart would spring to life as if waking from an interminable sleep. But inevitably, the culprit would be a foraging sow, inferior boar or a ghostly blacktail cautiously en route to its bedding area.

The proverbial ticking of the clock was growing more intense with each passing hour and as we reached that seventh evening, my heart was beginning to feel much like that setting sun. My attempts to maintain a positive attitude were lackluster at best. Somewhere inside of me I knew that if he hadn’t shown himself by now, the old brown bear would never return as long as we frequented his feeding area. Years of experience had allowed him to gain an intelligence level and heightened sense of awareness only the oldest of his kind possessed and I was beginning to see how futile our plight in this cove really was.

I awoke early the next morning to a faint sound emanating from the old, dusty marine band radio situated to the left of the helm. I climbed from my bunk and took a seat on the rickety bench beside the captain’s chair. As the monotone voice methodically illustrated a portrait of the coming weather, my mood, which was already depressed, became one of utter despair! There was a storm on the horizon, due to arrive perhaps the following afternoon. We would have to make a run for protected waters today or take the chance of becoming caught in another deluge which would almost certainly halt our ability to rendezvous with our flight home. The decision was excruciating, but essential, so we hauled anchor within the hour.

My father and brother tried valiantly to console me as we cut through the moderate swells on the journey back up the coast. After all, there was a large bay roughly seven hours to the north that harbored bears and an evening’s hunt there was not out of the question. But it was natural to feel a bit melancholy at this juncture. Hundreds of hours of preparation alone had gone into this hunt and the thought that only one more afternoon remained was sobering.

We reached the entrance to the bay by mid afternoon and I can only describe the scene before me as awe-inspiring! Here the channel was deep but relatively narrow, perhaps only two yards wide, but on each side towered twin mountains at least two thousand feet in elevation! They were densely covered in thick timber only sparsely interrupted by intermittent bright green slopes which were evidence of the avalanches of years past. Continuing on through the long, winding passage my mind began to wonder and I imagined we were sailing through a mythical labyrinth that I recalled from the studies of my youth. Only in the pages of a book had I discerned anything like this and I never believed I would see it in real life!

After approximately forty-five minutes we finally reached the bay itself which was a sight of its own. The two mountains which formed its protective border widened for a stretch and then merged in the center. At their feet lay an expansive beach perhaps one half mile wide and on its western edge a respectable creek spilled into the tide waters, but of most importance to us brown bear hunters was a large tidal flat which annexed to the stream. On it grew a healthy crop of sedge grass. This is why the bears were here and us as well!

I briefly took a seat at the kitchen table to scribble down a few passages in my tattered blue notebook, but no sooner did I open up to the last entry when I heard the phrase, “there’s a bear!” come from my father. Quickly tossing my notebook aside I skipped up the tiny flight of stairs that led to the helm and peered out the weathered Plexiglas windows at the beach which was dead ahead. It took me but a brief moment to find the dark, chocolate shape which was inching its way across the beach. At a distance of well over six hundred yards it was impossible to accurately judge the traveling bruin, but at this late hour in the hunt we had to believe it was a big one – we had no other choice.

After dropping the ground tackle, we quickly gathered rifles, binoculars and cameras and headed for the faithful skiff which had so valiantly carried us throughout the expedition. Its little motor sputtered to life without much of an argument and we headed for land. As the gray, rock-strewn beach grew ever closer, it dawned on me that this would be our final charge and I was resolved to enjoy every last second of this hunt, whether successful or not!

I already had rope in hand as we reached shore. Time was of the essence, so I hustled up a modest escarpment and lashed the boat to a large boulder situated at its crest. My companions joined me and we headed off in the direction in which we’d last seen the wandering brown bear.

The first obstacle we encountered was the largest growth of pop weed I had ever encountered! In each direction, paralleling the shoreline, it spread like a giant, yellow spider web as far as the eye can see. At first, we tried to cautiously tiptoe across as to keep the noise to a minimum, but after a few anxious minutes of ridiculously loud popping and crackling, the tiptoeing morphed into a brisk jog. If being stealthy was impossible, we may as well get the trek over as expeditiously as possible.

What seemed like an eternity later the pop weed field mercifully ended and a mixture of water-soaked sand and ocean-warn rock took its place. Almost immediately I saw the unmistakable tracks of a bear heading in the direction of the creek. As I knelt in the cold sand and placed my outstretched hand across a pad impression I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that this was an exceptional trophy! I rose and we continued on, following the trail step for step until it reached a tiny outcropping of spruce trees adjacent to the creek. Realizing I was breathing sporadically as the climactic moment loomed, I forced myself to inhale and exhale at a more regulated pace. Quietly, I eased the Model 700 Remington off my shoulder and crept around the last bows that were obscuring our view of the sedge flat. I hastily scanned the creek bottom, but astonishingly there were no bears to be found! We stood puzzled for an instant and after a brief deliberation decided to withdraw back into the cover of the spruce trees. Our only hope now was that the boar we had seen from the boat or one similar would seek the flat for sustenance before nightfall.

I sat in concealment for an hour or so, binoculars in hand, rifle resting across my lap. It was around five o’clock and my prevailing thought was that only a few precious hours remained when I caught movement to my right across the creek! I brought my Swarovski binoculars to my eyes with lightning speed and they immediately revealed the shoulder of a brown bear cautiously entering the flat behind a small rise. By now my partners were all intently fixed on the same subject and we waited with bated breath as it ascended the small knoll. But as it reached the summit, our hopes were quickly dashed as it revealed itself to be of only average stature.

He was a handsome bear however, sporting beautiful golden hair, highlighted with silver across his back. It fed in relative peace for at least forty-five minutes completely oblivious to his onlookers. He gave me ample opportunities for a shot but I didn’t feel the need. I wasn’t about to take such a revered creature just to fill a tag.

Then, without warning, he went into full alert mode! Head up, ears erect, nose visibly working, testing the wind. He seemed intent on the dark woods directly across the flat and he was focused on deciphering the evidence that the light breeze was bringing him. In a blur, he turned and ran almost straight at us passing a mere thirty yards to our left, never stopping to look back as he continued into the undergrowth and out of sight!

I turned my attention back to the flat, scanning for any sign of what had frightened the bear. We hadn’t spooked him and the only other thing that could have had to be a bigger boar, at least I hoped.

Then from shadows opposite us, a hulking figure slowly emerged! Instantly, that deep brown coat told me it was the same bear we had seen from the main vessel. Directly approaching, he didn’t walk in a normal fashion. Instead he swayed back and forth as if his bulky muscles were so tight in his own skin that placing one foot in front of the other was a noticeable hardship. My shipmates were frantically whispering to me to take the bear! But I was well ahead of them as I already had my 300 Remington Ultra Magnum rested across my pack waiting for the brute to present a broadside shot. As he slowly turned, I pushed off the safety and found him in my 8x scope. For one brief moment, it seemed as if that bear and I were the only beings of any consequence. As I slowly exhaled, the crosshairs found the point of his shoulder and the slightest contraction of my finger sent a 180 grain ball crashing though his chest and into the opposite shoulder! Instantly the beast entered a tight spin, snarling and gnashing at his side, clumps of sedge grass flying through the air in his wake! Then abruptly, he harnessed his rage and came to a dead standstill. Now he was methodically scouring his surroundings searching for any sign of his assailant, hoping to return the favor. As his eyes fell upon us, I cut loose another round, striking him squarely in the midsection! This time he decided a hasty escape was in order, but only covered about twenty yards before his legs gave out and his massive body came to a sliding stop not one hundred and fifty yards distant.

Not a word was spoken as we crossed the shallow creek and made our way to the fallen giant. I was prepared for a follow-up shot, but it wasn’t necessary; the first two had done their job admirably. I quietly admired the object of our quest for quite some time; his battle scarred face, long sharp claws and overall bulk painted the picture of an old warrior, a force to be reckoned with.

The weight finally off our shoulders, we took time to shake hands, give congratulations and generally relax for a little while. Everyone had worked hard for the last ten days and we all deserved a few moments to take pictures, laugh and bask in a little sunshine. We couldn’t make the moment last indefinitely however, and it wasn’t too long before the work was under way.

With all four men skilled with a knife, the chore of skinning was done in short order. Before I knew it we were loading the bear in our skiff and headed for the main vessel. Once safely aboard we wasted little time firing up the engines and continuing on. We still had a storm to beat back to port and a few extra hours travel this evening would go a long way to seeing that happen tomorrow.

As I stood at the stern and watched the bay become smaller and smaller in the distance, a somber feeling slowly overcame me. I realized that there was a likely chance I would never set foot on this beach again and to be completely candid, I have to concede I was unnerved at the thought. But in the days and weeks that followed I began to understand that the feeling was no different than any other time I had left the wilderness for the mundane nature of everyday life. You see, each time I leave, a part of my soul stays behind and awaits my return. That’s how I know I’ll keep going back. At least until life has other plans for me.

By Larry Hatter