The BAREBOW! Chronicles: “Tenting It” in the Land of Giant Bears
Dennis Dunn 03.02.15
The hunt this story recounts will forever stand out in my memory for one reason in particular: the nighttimes were far more interesting and exciting than the daytimes.
In late November 2005, immediately after returning home from my successful hunt with outfitter Scott Mileur on Kodiak Island, I placed a call to my good friend David Widby. Dave had just retired after 30 years of working for the US Postal Service in the Anchorage area. He is a veteran bowhunter with several dozen Sitka blacktail bucks to his credit, and I had promised to give him a report on the hunt that served as a basis for the previous story.
Before the phone conversation ended, Dave said, “I think you ought to let me help you get a Pope and Young buck. How about joining me next year for an early November hunt down there on the south end of the Island? I’ll get all the food and camping gear together, ship it by air cargo over to the town of Kodiak, arrange for the charter flight, and all you’ll need to do is bring yourself, your bow, and your personal gear.”
As the reader can imagine, I couldn’t say “Yes” fast enough! “I’ll commit right now, Dave, if you’ll commit to letting me pay at least half of all the expenses you incur.”
“Well,” he drawled, “I might be persuaded to consider that.”
A typical “Widbyism,” I thought to myself, generosity to a fault, delivered with dry wit and understatement.
The dates we chose for our deer hunt were October 30 to November 9. I knew they could not come soon enough, so thoroughly had I enjoyed my 2005 adventure with Scott. A few weeks before departing for Anchorage, I called Dave one last time to talk about bear protection. Since we would not be hunting with rifles (or even have one along), I wanted him to pick me up a can of UDAP bear spray—just in case we stumbled upon an ornery bruin in his bed. Since the commercial airlines won’t let you fly with pepper spray (even in your checked luggage), Dave promised he’d get me a can and put it in the cargo shipment to Kodiak. He said he’d also pack a .44 Magnum and a .357 Magnum sidearm. That all sounded like good insurance to me, because I knew there were lots of bears on the southern part of Kodiak.
October 30 did indeed arrive at last. By getting up long before the birds that morning, I caught my 6 a.m. flight to Anchorage, but was unable to get any connecting flight to Kodiak until mid-afternoon. By the time Dave met my plane and we got over to Andrews Air Service, there was barely enough daylight left for our charter to fly us out to the “bush” and return by dark.
Dave had borrowed a large rubber raft from a mutual friend named Bob Ameen—undoubtedly the premier Sitka blacktail bowhunter in the country. His thought was to have our pilot land us at the outlet of Red Lake, and then the next day for us to float a couple of miles downstream before setting up our main camp. Once the pilot learned of our plan, however, he tried to discourage it by explaining that the drainage was just “crawling with bears,” due to the ongoing salmon run. He offered to back up his rather unsettling assertion with a quick flight over the stretch of river in question. Forty-five seconds of flying downstream produced a sight-count of 16 different Alaskan brown bears. That’s all it took to convince the two of us that saner options existed.
Sunset was not far off, so we asked to be landed on the north shore of Red Lake, about one mile away from the outlet. An icy little spring tumbled into the lake right there, and the dozens of mangy, spawned-out coho salmon finning their last in the shallows along the shore convinced us the spring was a much better source for our fresh water supply than the lake. Time became of the essence. The skies were clearing, the temperature was dropping like a rock, and we still had a tent to set up some 200 feet up and over a rather steep, 40-foot-high bank.
Even before we managed to get all the tote-tubs and other gear up the hill and down into the small tundra meadow where we decided to pitch our tent, the wintry sun slipped below the horizon. Fortunately, the clearing weather meant we would have a fairly lengthy twilight in which to work. As things turned out, we didn’t need to haul out the flashlights till it was time to light the butane cook stove and boil water for our Mountain House freeze-dried dinners. By then, the tent was up, the rain-fly in place, and our down sleeping bags inside unrolled and waiting. It had been a long, hard day with little food intake, and I wasn’t sure when a meal had ever tasted so good!
I know I’d never downed one any faster. The cold night air quickly developed a real bite to it. The hoarfrost would be heavy the next morning. Knowing it would only be symbolic rather than preemptive, we constructed a makeshift “barricade” out of all the plastic tote-tubs, which we hoped might discourage a bear from trying to walk right through the front door of our tent while we slept. As we headed for our sleeping bags, a nearly full moon started to peek over the crest of a nearby mountain. The landscape was soon swaddled in silver garb, made all the more brilliant by the shimmering frost crystals that were starting to adhere to everything. The stage was set. Little did we know what lay in store for us that night—and the following nine. The Nocturnal Miners and Drillers Convention was about to get underway.
We hadn’t been asleep for long when I awakened with a start to the sounds of digging, a foot or so from my head. The noise was just on the other side of the paper-thin fabric that formed the wall of our tent.
“You hear that, Dave?” I whispered.
“Yes,” came the instant reply.
“What do you think it is?”
“Maybe a fox?”
“Could it be something bigger?”
“Like a bear? I dunno. We’d likely hear him breathing.”
The digging stopped briefly, but then resumed, changing location to a different part of the tent perimeter. This went on for more than half-an-hour before I was finally able to ignore it enough to get back to sleep.
Around midnight, I was reawakened by the sound of pawsteps crunching on the frozen tundra outside our tent. They sounded as if they were only a few feet away.
“What do you think that is, walking so close to our tent?”
“Maybe a bear?”
“You got your .44 close by?”
“Yep, it’s in my hand.”
“Maybe I’d better get my .357 out of its holster, too!”
“I’d say so. But don’t waste any of your five bullets unless he absolutely starts coming through the wall of the tent.”
The steps faded off into the darkness, and silence returned.
As I finally drifted off to sleep once again, I found my mind reconstructing the words to the refrain of that great song from Phantom of the Opera: “Listen to the Music of the Night!” It was fascinating, for sure, but this was already a bit more “music” than I had bargained for.
Our second, long sequestration in the tent introduced several new instruments of terror. About an hour after dark, we were lying there, trying to make the night shorter by swapping hunting stories, when we suddenly heard the thundering footsteps of some very large animals running through our camp, no more than 20 yards distant.
“That had to be several bears,” I exclaimed out loud. “Probably a sow with two or three cubs,” I added. Fortunately, after picking up our scent, the unwelcome visitors had accelerated their pace and just kept on going!
Not long after that adrenaline rush, the nightly Miners and Drillers Convention got underway again around the fringes of our tent. The word must have spread like wildfire across the south end of the Island during the first 24 hours of our presence there, because I swear that every mouse, vole, or lemming in the territory came to contribute his personalized tunnel to the labyrinth developing under the floor of our tent.
At times, I’m sure there were more than half-a-dozen excavations going on simultaneously. The miners, at one point, even managed to get a chorus going of gleeful chirps and giggles. This was a “Music of the Night” unlike any other I had heard before. I couldn’t help but think of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. It was so very entertaining I found it hard to keep thinking of all the little critters as just vermin. And it absolutely amazed me how their tiny claws could send that frozen earth flying so violently up against the underside of the rain-fly!
About three hours into our second nocturnal marathon near the shore of Red Lake, some fox took a flying leap at one of the little drillers and crashed into the edge of our tent, scaring me and Dave half to death. However, that attack only brought the convention to a halt momentarily, so once our hearts settled down we buried our heads inside our sleeping bags and tried to shut out the ongoing cacophony in favor of some serious shut-eye.
When La-La Land finally descended upon me, it didn’t last long. One of the big plastic totes just outside the entrance to our tent suddenly got knocked over. I knew instantly that not even Mighty Mouse was that strong!
“Get out of here! We don’t want any!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. There was no doubt in my mind this time that we really did have a Kodiak bear inside our front yard! Yet—since neither Dave nor I heard him depart—we spent the next hour listening intently, pistols in hand, pointing them from inside our bags directly at the tent door. Once broad daylight allowed us to examine the scene outside, we were most relieved to find no damage and no teeth-marks anywhere—only the toppled tote. Dave recalled that he had placed that one on top of another one, just before going to bed. We concluded a fox must have come along and placed his front legs on top of the upper tote, thus knocking it to the ground.
Not far from our campsite, right down on the lake shore, sat the big, 100-pound rubber raft, rolled up tight with a strap around it, and one heavy tote containing 50 pounds of salt—which we intended for any capes we might end up with from our deer hunting. Upon arriving the evening of October 30, we hadn’t seen any compelling reason to lug them up the hill and into camp. That quasi-laziness proved to be a mistake, however. On our third morning of the adventure, we discovered both items seriously perforated by ursine teeth and claw marks. Well, we’d already decided not to float down that river anyway, but the many bear tracks along the beach made us a bit uncomfortable, and we wondered how long the uneasy truce might continue. They were tolerating us, and we were tolerating them—but perhaps just barely. The day before, we had come upon a very large male feeding on a kill not more than 500 yards from our tent. We knew they were close at hand at all times.
As for the Sitka blacktails, there didn’t seem to be many of them around! No doubt, precisely because there were so many bears in the vicinity right then. The deer seemed to have moved a few miles away, and to much higher ground. During our first two days of hunting, we found nary a single buck, and the total number of deer sightings was far smaller than the number of bear sightings! The exact opposite of what we’d expected. Throughout the island, the total deer population had reportedly seen a very substantial recovery since the brutal winter/spring die-off of 1998 to 1999, yet we would never have known that, based on our experience with this hunt.
Every day, Dave and I would hike an extra mile or two, into country at higher and higher elevations, and in that manner we finally started finding a few bucks. However, the hunting was nothing like what it should have been—for whatever reasons. Compared to what he’d been used to in the past, Dave found the hunting rather disappointing. He seemed entirely happy just packing his big video camera and still camera wherever we went—and sometimes his heavy tripod, as well. I discovered that Dave is a dedicated shutterbug.
Because I had anticipated a lot of action on this rut hunt, I’d made the decision to bring only a recurve bow. It had been a good eight or nine years since I’d been on a hunt with traditional archery tackle, but the desire to return to it had been growing within me, and when Ken Beck at Black Widow Archery offered to make me a custom, take-down recurve, I knew this was going to be the perfect hunt on which to break it in.
Unfortunately, it broke me in! As things turned out, I didn’t get many shooting opportunities, yet the few I had I totally blew! My sights were set on a Pope-and-Young-quality buck, and I actually released an arrow at three excellent specimens—all of which would have scored well above the required 75 inches. The problem was I couldn’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn, let alone the moving side of a lovelorn buck! And these were close-in shots, no less!
Whenever we’d spot one or more does, I would blow repeatedly on my trusty Woods Wise deer call (which emits a rather shrill, high-pitched bleat), and, as often as not, the does would come running from several hundred yards away to within mere feet of us. It was as if they thought I was their long-lost fawn! If there happened to be a buck in their company, he’d come right in behind them, hot on their tails. Never had I seen anything like it. It was just like reeling in a fish! Except I couldn’t ever seem to hit the fish once I got him in my net! Never before in all my life had I put on such a magnificent display of utter incompetence with a bow in hand! The only reason my partner didn’t see me blush with each miss is because of all the accumulated sunburn and windburn on my face from the cold and constant good weather.
If the success of a hunt is judged by the amount of game taken, then our deer hunt turned out to be a total bust. However, if success is defined by the number of unique or remarkable memories you bring home with you from your wilderness experience, then my 2006 Kodiak Island deer hunt was one of my most successful ever. Imagine the odds of having 10 consecutive days of perfect weather in November on an island notorious for bad weather at any time of year! We never saw a serious cloud in the sky the whole time. Imagine calling deer right to you, like the Pied Piper, and bringing in a big brown bear within bow-range, as well! Or imagine having your tent so undermined by the labyrinthine tunnel system of the local voles and field mice that as you lay in your bag at night you could actually feel the little critters running underneath your back or your buttocks—beneath the floor of the tent that gave them total protection from the foxes! When we finally pulled down the tent and packed it up at hunt’s end, the maze of exposed tunnels under where the tent floor had lain was utterly mind-boggling.
It had been a great adventure, but I was actually glad to be headed home. With the exception only of my two polar bear hunts, this hunt had been the coldest one I’d ever experienced. My fondest memory of the hunt is how I learned to listen in the darkness—and appreciate “the Music of the Night.”
Editor’s note: This article is the forty-second of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the forty-first Chronicle here.
Top image by Dave Widby