The sun flashed its first rays above the surrounding hills a little after 4 am on the last day of our black bear hunt on Prince of Wales Island. Our crew of six, which consisted of my two oldest sons and me, my cousin, and my brother-in-law and his son, would be leaving for our homes early the next morning. I had applied for the non-resident black bear tag about 18 months earlier and once I found out I had drawn the tag, I had about a year of waiting before I would actually begin the hunt. In my mind, this hunt would be a slam dunk.
Black bears are plentiful on Prince of Wales Island. With an estimate of 1.5 bears per square mile in Southeast Alaska, that meant the island could be home to as many as 4000 bears. With tidal grasses providing the main food source, most of those bears would be spotted by boats cruising the shorelines. For twelve months, I envisioned spotting a bear, jumping out of the boat 300 yards downwind of it, stalking to about 100 yards, and making an easy, steady shot from that distance. I have been to Alaska on many occasions, and I should have known that nothing ever happens the way you think it will.
We arrived at Eagle Lodge late one Saturday evening after a three hour ferry ride from Ketchikan followed by a two hour drive north to Whale Pass. We passed countless deer on the drive and even spotted a small black bear about ten miles from the lodge. Our spirits were high as we crashed in our bunks that night. We spent our Sunday recovering from the travel and scouting around. Monday morning I drove to Thorne Bay to pick up my cousin, Ryan, who arrived that morning by float plane. On the way back to the lodge, I saw the largest black bear I had ever seen in my life. Living in Idaho near Yellowstone National Park, I have seen my share of bears, even grizzlies. That black bear dwarfed them all, something I do not say lightly.
The weather was beautifully awful. The sunny, cloudless days made it pleasant to be out on the water, but the bears felt more comfortable in the dark shade of the forest. While cruising around the coves trying to spot bears, we saw countless sea otters and seals. We were even treated to a pod of humpbacks which appeared about a stone’s throw from our skiff. If you have never been motoring around the ocean in a small boat and had a pod of whales appear so close by, it is hard to appreciate the level of anxiety one gets when seeing these gentle giants so close. We quickly steered away to watch them from a more comfortable distance.
On Tuesday, one of the other groups hunting at the lodge shot a bear, but sadly it crawled into the tangle of dark brush and crossed a ridge, never to be seen again. In accordance to the laws of Alaska, the hunter had to punch his tag, ending his hunt early without the hoped for results. This exact scenario was what I hoped to avoid. The year before I had been hunting bears in Idaho and shot a bear, wounding it. It tore me up on the inside, but then the bear appears on my trail camera two weeks late, no worse for the wear.
On Wednesday we managed to see our first and only bear from a boat. I had been told by the other hunter at the lodge about a bear he had seen down near the south entrance to Whale Passage. My sons, Will and Matt, joined Ryan and me in the boat and spotted the bear Wednesday night. Ryan motored me over to a cove out of sight of the bear. I hopped out and began making my way over towards the bear, which was about a quarter mile away.
The path to the bear was rocky at first, but then the rock became too steep to navigate and I was forced into the forest. I ducked under moss laden branches and entered the silent, ethereal world of the dark woods. Slowly, I crept towards the beach where the bear was enjoying the early summer sun. I worked my way down through the trees and onto the rocks just north of the bear. The swirling wind worried me, but there was nothing I could do to change that as entering the forest to circle the bear wasn’t a good option. Who was to say the wind wouldn’t change as I walked by and alert the bear?
As I scooted among the sharp, barnacle encrusted rocks, I easily spotted the bear lounging in the grass. I ranged him at 170 yards, and he appeared to not be overly concerned. However, as I put my rangefinder away, the bear slowly sat up and began the slow walk towards the trees. I brought my rifle up and aimed my scope at him, trying to find him in the field of view. Something was wrong with my focus, though, and I instantly remembered I had been messing with the focus earlier in the day. I twisted the scope and finally trained the crosshairs on the bear just as his rump disappeared into the greenery. I was five seconds too slow, and that knowledge gnawed at me all night. Five seconds, I murmured over and over.
Time was running short and we knew we had to change up our tactics. Summer bears start spending more and more time in the shade and become more nocturnal. We decided to spend Thursday morning driving some old logging roads. My brother-in-law, Jared, drove while I sat shotgun, rifle in hand, in the event we saw a bear. Ryan sat in the back with my boys as well as my nephew, Sammy. Deer popped up all along the drive, and I took this as an opportunity to test out how it might work in the event we saw a bear.
“Go ahead and stop,” I said to Jared when we saw a deer standing on the gravel road. Jared slowed the SUV and I slowly opened the door. The deer stared back at us. Gently, I shut the door and raised my arms to see how the deer would react. The deer blinked, but kept its eyes fixed on me. I jumped back into the SUV.
“If we see a bear,” I said, “I hope it stays this relaxed.”
Jared pulled forward slowly and the deer finally moved when we were about ten yards away. This process was repeated one or two more times that morning with the same results. Finally, at about ten o’clock, we saw some real action.
“Bear!” Jared said as a small bear caught our attention.
“OK, I am jumping out, then you just start backing up slowly,” I whispered as I dropped out of the SUV and chambered a round.
Dropping to one knee in the grass, I raised my rifle and saw the bear disappear into the trees. Not again, I thought to myself. As I looked down to adjust my stance, a second bear leapt from trees about 50 yards in front of me. When I looked up, the bear was almost across the two-track and into the trees. I never had a chance.
After a few minutes of waiting, just in case one of the bears stepped back out, I returned to the SUV and sat down. Everyone was chatting excitedly about the encounter. For Jared and Sammy, these were the first two bears they had seen after over four days in Alaska.
“Well what this tells us is that this plan is working. We’ve seen more bears on roads than we have on the shores,” I said. Everyone nodded in agreement.
Eventually, we returned to the lodge and began our preparation for the evening hunt. Matt and Ryan would be joining me on the boat as we tried to get a shot at the bear which had eluded us the night before. Sammy, who had caught his first fish ever on the trip, wanted to stay at the lodge and fish along with Will, so Jared decided to remain as well.
The bear had stepped out of the trees at 6:15 pm the night before. I posted up in a pile of rocks at 5:45 pm and was ready in case the bear arrived early. The sharp rocks and barnacles dug into my flesh, making this a very uncomfortable sniper’s nest. Time ticked by. After thirty minutes, no bear had stepped out and I heard the whine of a motor speeding towards our cove. Ryan and Matt sat in the skiff, drifting with the wind and the current, as the motor boat arrived. I couldn’t be sure, but I was concerned that the motor boat was the lodge owner. Was something wrong at home? Had Will or Sammy been hurt? Thoughts raced through my mind and as I looked through my binoculars, I wondered if the visitors were Alaska State Troopers. After a few minutes, the boat left, and Ryan and Matt continued drifting in the cove. Had something been wrong, they would have motored up to me, but since they didn’t change position, I relaxed and continued my vigil.
Long minutes passed. The wind, which had been consistently in my favor, began to swirl. I shifted my legs to restore the circulation. The sun drooped closer to the horizon and we needed to be back at the lodge by 8:30. Reluctantly, I stood and made my way back to where the boat dropped me off. Ryan picked me up and we motored back to the lodge with sagging shoulders. If I was going to fill this tag, it had to happen Friday morning. We would need all the time we could get as I would need to get the hide sealed and frozen as well as get the meat processed and frozen.
Dawn broke at 4 am and by 8:30 we were on the same road where we saw the bears on Thursday. Unlike the previous days, the weather was cool and rainy. The SUV slowly bounced down the road as we explored areas where animals had been spotted. By 9:45 we were at the far end of the road and turning around. No one spoke much as we knew this was our last opportunity to find a bear. After twenty minutes of slowly driving, we started to head up a hill. I scanned the forest line until Matt spoke up from behind me.
A black bear slowly ambled out of the woods, oblivious to our presence. Without many words, I climbed out of the SUV and quietly shut the door while chambering a round. The bear had crossed the two track, but I was not sure if it had run into the forest. I walked forward as quickly as I dared, ducking down to stay somewhat hidden. A cool breeze on my face calmed my concern about the bear catching my scent. I closed the distance in seconds which felt like an eternity. Miraculously, the bear was still on the side of the road with its rump facing me. It was eating grass, completely unaware of my presence. I raised my rifle, but the angle wasn’t quite right as the road was still blocking the bear’s vitals. I crept forward, eyes focused on the ball of black fur. I was now about 40 yards away and raised my rifle, standing statue still. The bear turned around to face me, still unconcerned. As the bear continued its turn and exposed its vitals, I fired and saw the bear roll down the embankment landing by the edge of the trees. I knew the shot was fatal, but I moved forward and fired two more shots into its vitals to ensure it did not try and sneak into the forest. As quickly as it began, it was over. I had harvested my Alaska black bear at the eleventh hour.
I only had four surgical gloves with me, so Ryan and I set to work skinning and quartering the bear. After nearly three hours of hard work, dealing with bugs and rain, we rinsed our hands in the creek and headed for the lodge. To this day I am not sure how we managed, but I was able to get the hide sealed while everyone else worked at cutting and vacuum sealing the meat before tossing it in the freezer. By Saturday morning, we all left with bear meat in our coolers, mine weighing nearly 80 pounds due to the weight of the frozen hide.
Alaska reminded me that nothing there comes easy. Everything is earned. The real trophy from this trip was the opportunity to connect with family and expose them to a lifestyle I enjoy. The meat and hide are merely icing on the cake. Every time I eat the meat or gaze at the bear rug, I will remember not just the bear and the hunt, but the comradery, failures, successes, and memories of an unforgettable trip.