“The range handicap of a bow is great, but the thrills of getting close to your target make up for it. A good-sized, bow-legged Brownie strutting toward one at twenty-five feet is a thrill well worth the time and effort. It’s a great privilege to match wits with a noble animal such as this that nature has so ably equipped to take care of himself.” -Fred Bear
My misadventures with Mr. Murphy were not restricted, unfortunately, to my efforts in the grizzly bear arena. His ghost had actually first decided to zero in on me in the stomping grounds of the Alaskan brown bear. Chichagoff Island, for starters in Southeast Alaska in the spring of 1978.
Both this story, as well as the one to follow in the next BAREBOW! Chronicle, come from the very first hunt in which I attempted to take either a brown bear or a Grizzly. The two, of course, are kissing-cousins, biologically speaking, but at the time I made arrangements for my first serious bear hunt, I wasn’t aware of the subtle distinctions made by the taxonomists, the wildlife agencies, and the records-keeping organizations.
In the spring of 1978, I was working for Savora Archery, as Duke Savora’s Director of Advertising and Public Relations. My first wife and I were still living in south Bellevue (Washington) with our two young sons. Well, it just so happened that our nextdoor neighbor, Bill Manning, was in the evergreen seed business and visited Chichagof Island several times a year for cone-buying purposes. For many months, Bill had been telling me tales about all the Alaskan Brown Bears he would see whenever he traveled to Hoonah on business. Hoonah was the island’s only significant town — a rather small one, as towns go — but it was evidently large enough to generate sufficient garbage for the town dump to be a magnet for a number of big, lazy Brownies that, most days, could be found pigging out inside the pit itself. It wasn’t legal, however, to hunt bears within a mile of either the town or the dump, so all the bears in the area knew that the only danger they had to avoid was to keep from being hit on the head whenever trucks backed up to the edge of the pit and dropped their loads of garbage.
In my conversations with Bill, it struck me that, if there were that many bears right around Hoonah, I couldn’t even imagine how many more there must be elsewhere on the huge island of Chichagof that probably had little or no notion of what man even looked or smelled like. Those were the bears I was interested in, and it wasn’t very long, of course, before Bill managed to put me in touch with a licensed bear guide based in Hoonah. The price we negotiated was $2000 for a ten-day hunt. That seemed like a lot of money at the time, but today the going-price is five-to-eight times that, and you’re likely to be wait-listed for two-to-three years.
His name was Kenny, and he had grown up on the island from birth. He knew the whole northern half of the island like the back of his hand. He explained to me we’d be hunting mostly by boat, and that his commercial fishing vessel would serve as our floating base camp. Not only would that be much drier than any tent on land in the midst of Alaska’s quixotic, coastal weather so early in the spring, but the boat would be a whole lot safer for sleeping at night. Before I ever left Seattle to head north on the last day of April, Kenny described for me on the phone the method we would use to find ourselves a good male bear.
He explained that during the first week or so after the bears come out of hibernation, they need to clear out their digestive tracts by feeding almost exclusively on a certain kind of grass called, “salt grass,” which grows just along the highwater mark of the beaches, and in the mud flats at low tide, throughout the estuary parts of the many rivers that run off the island into the ocean. According to Kenny, the best strategy was simply to visit the many fjords and inlets of the long coastline, and cruise along looking for a good bear out on one of the beaches. Once located, the plan would be to get ahead of the bruin, and then put ashore to set up an ambush.
So—full of enthusiasm, with fantasies running through my head—I flew to Juneau the morning of April 30th. For extra bear protection—just in case!—I had packed inside my checked sleeping bag a Ruger 44 Magnum revolver kindly loaned to me by a good Seattle friend, Ben Wood, Jr. Duke Savora, however, was most eager to have me field-test his first “Swept-Wing”, 3-blade broadhead on a big brown bear, so I was not about to use Ben’s powerful sidearm except in a dire emergency. Duke had most kindly contributed my airfare to the hunt. With some time to kill until my short afternoon flight left for Hoonah — I took a quick cab-ride up to see the Mendenhall Glacier at close range. It “overhangs” the airport just a couple miles away, and for any tourist from the lower 48, that is an experience not to be missed. As you stand there watching huge blocks of ice calving off the face of the glacier, it really brings home, in a very palpable way, just what a vast, untamed wilderness Alaska really is (and, I suspect, will always be).
When my floatplane skimmed to a stop in Hoonah’s well-protected harbor, Kenny was there on the dock to greet me. His assistant guide, Fagin, a hearty Norwegian, greeted me, as well. A final run to the store for last-minute groceries, plus a quick visit to the one, small, sporting goods shop in town to buy my hunting license and bear tag, and before long the three of us were heading out of the harbor to start our first hunt together. It was a dream come true for me, and I could hardly believe I was actually embarking on a bowhunt for the legendary Alaskan brown bear. (As things turned out, I was to hunt with Kenny twice more — many years later.)
The first couple of days produced no bear sightings at all, largely because the weather was so “stinkin’ awful.” Wind and rain beat down on us almost constantly, and even though we took shelter (of a sort) by poking into several of the bays and inlets, the rain and frequent fog made spotting bears problematic at best. Totally aside from the fact that, in nasty weather, bears are prone to hunker down in one place and severely limit their movements!
Day 3 gave us a mid-morning break from the dismal downpour, so we all went ashore to stretch our legs and see if we could find a bruin in a nearby, hidden meadow Kenny knew about. There was immediately fresh bear scat to be found, and within the half-hour a pair of juveniles showed up 80 yards away in a corner of the meadow—looking for all the world like siblings that had recently been kicked out of the nest by their mother. It was the start of the annual mating season, and these two were either two-and-a-half-year-old cubs that had just been shooed away by mama bear, so she could be bred again without endangering her young, or perhaps they had already been on their own for about a year. The consensus among us was that, if they were actually three-and-a-half-year-olds, it was a bit unusual that they were still together. Almost certainly they were not both males. We took the slightly smaller, more blondish one to be the sister, and the somewhat larger, darker one to be her brother. We estimated their body weights at around 400 and 500 pounds, respectively. Since we were only interested in a much older male, we enjoyed watching them feed in the open for a few minutes and then headed back toward the boat, as we could see another blackish storm-front coming our way.
Day 4 brought us to Idaho Inlet, one of the longer, more beautiful fjords on the northern half of Chichagof. We were starting to get our first real sunbreaks of the hunt, and Kenny remarked that conditions were really good for spotting a bear along the shores of Idaho, where he said he’d had a lot of hunting success in the past. The wind had also put itself to bed somewhere, and Kenny’s comments combined with the glassy surface of the water and the bright sunshine to make my spirits soar. I realized that for the first time since the hunt began I was beginning to feel some genuine optimism.
Fagin must have been reading my mind, because—as if on cue—he suddenly pointed across the channel and exclaimed, “There’s one worth going after, right over there!” What appeared to be a good-sized boar was walking the far beach, looking for that special “salt grass” they all need to clear their digestive tracts after their long winter sleeps. We got well ahead of him with our fishing boat, anchored around the backside of a point, rowed ashore in the dinghy, and soon found ourselves at one end of a rocky crescent beach, looking down the length of it at our quarry feeding 100 yards away at the other end.
There were several 4-to-5-foot boulders near the bear that seemed to offer a close ambush opportunity, so I quickly removed my boots and proceeded in stalking feet down the beach just above the water’s edge. Using the bigger rocks for visual cover and staying low to the ground, I got to what I figured was about 50 yards away and decided I’d better make sure the bear was still where I’d last seen him. Slowly I straightened up, strained my eyes, took a few steps sideways, then gulped in disbelief. The bear seemed to have utterly vanished!
Now bears are notorious for doing disappearing acts, but this one turned out to be much closer to me than I realized. A sudden bit of motion caught my left (inland) eye, and a 90-degree turn of my head from where I had been looking revealed a seriously-large Brown Bear striding along the edge of the forest, oblivious to my presence, and not more than 25 yards away. He was moving to my left, and—since I was left-handed—my feet were oriented 180 degrees the wrong direction. There was no cover whatsoever between us, and the big bruiser of a cruiser might as well have caught me with my pants down! Though I did have an arrow in hand, it wasn’t yet on the string, and the surprise encounter on his terms completely short-circuited my cerebral processes. He wasn’t at all where he was supposed to be!
All in the space of 3 seconds or less, I spun around, nocked, drew, and released my arrow — only to see the bear duck and the shaft skitch off the top of his hump. In a flash the thick alders swallowed him up. My adrenaline rush had nothing left to do but nourish the reddish look of foolishness which immediately invaded my cheeks. My poor shot had been at least two feet high! Normally, at that distance, in the calm environment of my home archery range, I would have pegged a softball—or, at the very least, a football! But, to miss at 25 yards a target as big as a mature Alaskan Brownie, that just blew my mind! I guess what I should have said to myself (once again) was something like, “Well, Dennis, welcome to the world of hunting, where you never control all the cards in the deck!”
Needless to say, Kenny and Fagin were not very pleased with me! Upon retrieving my broadhead from the heart of a stout alder limb, I found one tiny drop of blood clinging to one of the three blades. I had drawn blood, all right—but barely! I vowed on the spot that my next shot at a bear was going to be a far different story. Little did I realize that my “next shot” was going to occur later in the day, that very same afternoon!
Editor’s note: This article is the sixty-third 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 the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here: http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.