To understand a story, it’s best to understand how it began in the first place. The story of the forbidden bear began long, long ago.
I’ve always been an outdoorsman at heart – enjoying all aspects of the outdoor lifestyle: fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, boating, swimming, canoeing, trapping, traveling, studying nature and wildlife, berry picking, and so on. But I have always said, amongst all of these, I am a hunter at heart. For I listen to my heart, and that is what it has told me, -ever since I was a young boy, and hunted for agates, frogs and turtles. Those boyhood hunts turned into many an adventure as a teen-ager pursuing small game in Central Minnesota, where I was raised, and as I grew older and gained more resources, I traveled North America – hunting deer, bear, elk, and moose.
My first bear hunt came in the 1980’s, when I was in high school. In Minnesota, we have plenty of bears, but you would never be likely to see one because of the habitat that they live in – which is dense forest, so, the only way to hunt them is with bait. I shot several bears in Minnesota, sitting in a tree watching a bait pile. This wet my whistle, so to speak, but it didn’t really seem like my kind of bear hunt.
Over the years, I’ve watched professional hunters and guides on the television as they did spot and stalk hunts on the bears of the Pacific Northwest and mountain states. Here, numerous black bears inhabit much larger, open country – where they can be detected from afar with binoculars and spotting scopes, and then pursued on foot. Us hunters call it spot and stalk. Now that’s my kind of hunt.
When I first came to Alaska five years ago, I’ve had a fascination with the bears here. The Kenai Peninsula is loaded with black bears, with perhaps some of the highest bear densities in the world, and it’s right here in my back yard. Across the bay from where I live, Kachemak Bay State Park is roughly 440,000 square miles of mountains that is accessible to the public for hunting of these bears. All you need is a boat ride, a few important tools, and a belly-full of desire.
In the spring, when bears emerge from their long winter sleep – the first thing they want to do is eat. There isn’t much to eat in April or May, so bears focus on what is available: lush green grass. They find it on the beaches and tidal flats of the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and Alaska.. As we progress into late May and early June, the snow has melted on the high mountains – where grass quickly responds by growing into lush pastures. The biggest of the bears prefer to be up high, where the very best and largest amount of food is. Also, where there is very little interference from their only real predator – man. Having a thick, black coat is also a factor. Higher elevations are much cooler, as I can attest to from many a failed alpine black bear hunt. You see, spotting one from down below doesn’t mean you’re going to just waltz up there and get it. There are so many factors: the bear itself, with its whimsical ways, the wind, the hunters skill, steep climbs, thick brush, and time.
I’ve shot several small to medium bears in Alaska, right from the beach where I spot them. These are the simplest bears to get – often two or three year-old’s who are still learning the ropes. They are trying to make a living however they know best, wherever the bigger bears will allow it. But in this area, a beach bear is likely to be a sow with cubs, a young female without cubs, or a young boar less than 250 pounds. In five years of hunting, touring, and observing black bears in Kachemak Bay, I can honestly say that I have seen dozens of bears down on the beach, but only one that I would say approached 400 pounds – which is a really respectable bear around here. Thus, I began looking higher.
This particular high alpine hunt probably began last May – when I observed a really large bear eating grass in a steep mountain bowl. From below, through my binoculars, he appeared so much larger than the other bears I watched at the same time – I knew he had to be really big. I dreamed of going up and getting him – but he was so difficult to pattern. If a hunter is going to invest that kind of time and effort, he wants some reasonable assurance that the bear is going to be there when he arrives. But since I didn’t see him every day, and so much of the country was obscure from below – I hesitated to go up there half-cocked, and alone.
Well, life happened. At Majestic View Bed and Breakfast – the business my wife Maria and I run during the summer, we have over 1500 guests come and stay with us in a three month period. Most days, I work as a private tour guide for our guests on K-Bay, taking them salmon fishing, showing them all of the best scenery, and my specialty: getting my guests close to wildlife. I was so busy that June, July and August slipped away from me, and “my bear?” He was up high on a mountain, getting fat and sassy. Little did he know that I hadn’t forgotten about him. The busy season at the B and B was passing, and I would soon have the time to try to pattern him once again..
My dear friends Lauren and Tom arrived at the end of August. Lauren had harvested his first bear the year before – a good sized beach bear. This year, Lauren was looking for something bigger. Meanwhile, Tom had witnessed Lauren’s hunt last year, and had decided that he wanted to give bear hunting a whirl too. Tom was my first priority, and we were able to get him a nice 250 pound boar on his first day of hunting. After Tom returned to Minnesota, Lauren stayed on to continue hunting with me. We were seeing bears on the beach every day, but they were small, and not what Lauren was looking for. We cast our eyes to the mountains, and saw some really big bruins up there, every day. This we call patterning: seeing where the bears are from one day to next, morning, afternoon, evening, and so on. Patterning is crucial to big game hunting – especially if you have time. We located one particular high mountain bowl that seemed to be the finest dining. We knew this because the biggest of the bears were there day after day. In places like this, the mountain floor is literally carpeted with blue berries, so much so, that one couldn’t make a step without stepping on a dozen berries or more. The bears were up there, day after day, gobbling up the berries like a hoover vacuum.
But the rain. Oh my gosh – In all my life, I have never seen so much rain. For the ten days that Lauren was visiting, it rained almost incessantly in the mountains and fjords across the bay. Rain made viewing with binoculars next to impossible at times. Clouds obscured our vision most of the time. Lauren and I needed a full day to hike up, pursue the bear, and carry it back down if successful – but we weren’t about to go up if the chances weren’t really good. We were running out of time.
On the day before Lauren was to leave, we decided that, rain or not, we had to give it our best shot. We were down below in the boat at daybreak, glassing for a big bear – but none were to be seen in our high mountain bowl. Earlier, we had spotted a big blackie on another steep mountainside several miles away, and when we returned several hours later, he was still in the very same spot – so we decided to make our play. I won’t bore you with the details, but lets just say that it was a long, difficult hike to get up to that bear – only to have the wind swirl and send our bear scurrying for the alders below. We walked back down, exhausted, with blistered feet,, dejected, and knowing that Laurens hunt was over. But that is part of hunting. We don’t always succeed, but we do learn.
What Lauren and I learned on that day, from our high alpine view, was that there was at least 5 large black bears in a hidden area of our favorite mountain bowl – an area that cannot be seen from down below in a boat, but was easily in view from the height of another mountain. Now, I had the confidence to know that, whether or not I could see a bear from down below, with those kinds of odds, I would go up there anyway, sight unseen.
Still, we felt like getting the big mountain black bear was forbidden – like it was just not allowable to accomplish such a thing. Like all of the forces of nature were against us, toying with us. After all, what are we in the overall scheme of things but puny animals – like ants on an anthill where the bear lives, and is the biggest ant on the hill. I wondered to myself, could this be so difficult a feat that I should just stop getting my hopes up? Should I just give up on this? If you know me, this is about the time I dig my heals in.
I said goodbye to Lauren, and began a string of five consecutive days of tour guiding. I busied myself entertaining guests with humpback whales, horned puffins, sea otters, and wild salmon – but the big black bear up in “five bear bowl” was never far from my thoughts. I watched the weather daily. Rain continued, but a day was coming up that looked to be stellar, and according to my calendar, I was free.
The afternoon before the hunt, I was packing and preparing when an older couple approached me about taking them out for an ocean excursion. I guess making money and making our guests happy trumps my bear hunting. I reluctantly told them “yes”, knowing my bear hunt would have to wait, but I’m not going to lie – I was extremely disappointed.
About 8 pm tha night, I was in my boat, returning from the other side of the bay with two guests who I had delivered earlier that day for a hike in the park. My phone rang, and it was Lou, the guy I was supposed to guide tomorrow – the stellar day. What could HE want? I answered the phone. Turns out, Lou was sad to inform me that he and his wife were feeling under the weather and had made the decision to not go out with me tomorrow. He was very sorry to inform me of this, at such a short notice, and was it ok? Now normally, I would have been disappointed, but in this case, I was elated. The bear hunt was back on!
On the way home, I stopped to gas up my boat and get some lunch supplies. Once home, I finalized my packing, and hit the hay.. Morning would come fast and I wanted to be well rested for tomorrows hunt, which I knew would be extremely challenging for me, irregardless if the hunt was successful..
That was two days ago. As I now write this, I lay here in my bed, recovering from that solo alpine hunt in “5 bear bowl.” . Little did I know that this hunt would be an endurance fest that would test me beyond any limits that I could ever have imagined.
Have I piqued your interest? I hope so, for this writing is only the background of the story; the best and most interesting parts of this adventure are yet to come.
Please stay tuned for The Forbidden Bear. Part 2: The Hunt. Watch for it on my blog page on Majesticviewbb.com, which will also be shared on my personal Facebook page.
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