The BAREBOW! Chronicles: The Three-Week-Early Hibernation Fiasco
Dennis Dunn 03.24.16
My experience on Chichagof Island in 1978 had made me “gun-shy,” in more ways than one. “Guide-shy,” as well, perhaps. Not until the fall of 1999, more than 21 years later, did I leave home again for another attempt on the life of an Alaskan Brown Bear. That decision came as a result of attending the 1998 annual convention of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. While there, I met a gentleman by the name of Tom Kirstein. Tom is Master Guide #98 in the Land of the Midnight Sun, and since 1985, he has owned the Deadman Bay Hunting Area inside the Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Kirstein had been highly recommended to me by legendary bowhunter Jimmie Ryan. In the Preface to BAREBOW!, I mentioned that Jimmie was the second person (just a few months behind Chuck Adams) to complete the N.A. archery Super Slam. Jimmie had bowhunted Brown Bear several times with Kirstein and had taken more than one with Tom — all in pursuit of a new Pope & Young World Record for the species. Jimmie’s wife, Angie, made history on one of those hunts by becoming the first lady bowhunter ever to harvest a Brown Bear with an arrow.
Incidentally, this story, and the next two that follow, may strike some as being rather humdrum. They don’t recount any bow-kills or hunting successes—other than several more victories for the notorious Mr. Murphy. If the reader is only looking for tense, in-your-face action, he or she may wish to skip forward to the last three “episodes” in this final chapter of BAREBOW!. On the other hand, if you want to learn as much as possible about the dangers, difficulties, discomforts, and damnable frustrations of bowhunting the most elusive carnivores in North America, this present suite of three short stories will give you an excellent “feel” for the downside to the “sport” of hunting. Let me just suggest that they are stories deserving of being told—perhaps more for their educational value than for their entertainment value.
Our season opened on October 26th, and Tom and I arrived in camp a day early, courtesy of a Grumann Goose—that most versatile and amazing of all wilderness aircraft. We had taken off from the Tarmac in Kodiak, landed on the breezy waters of Deadman Bay, then rolled right up out of the “salt-chuck” onto the beach 50 yards from Tom’s camp (which had not been used since the spring hunt in May). It was a bright, sunny day, and we proceeded to open up the several buildings, stow our gear and grub for the 15-day hunt, and prepare our equipment for the challenges that lay ahead.
A couple hours after our arrival, the Goose returned to deposit on our beach a second hunter, along with professional guide Jeff Poor. Jeff had worked for Kirstein’s Alaska Adventures Unlimited for quite a few years, and the hunter he would be guiding that fall was a gentleman from Mexico in his late sixties, whose limited English was about on a par with my limited Spanish. Our conversations over Tom’s excellent meals were never what one could call “scintillating,” but hunting stories were somehow told and exchanged every evening, and I guess that’s about all an exhausted hunter wants at the end of each hard day.
Each spring, the season lasts 30 days (rather than 15, as in the fall), so Tom runs two hunts back-to-back. He and Jeff each guide one hunter during each hunt—in pursuit only of a seriously large male specimen of North America’s greatest carnivore. In the interest of sound game management for his area, Tom won’t even let his hunters try to take a younger boar—let alone any sow. Only “old” and “huge” will do. Tom’s results speak for themselves. Nearly every year, his hunters harvest one or more “10-footers”—which is pretty widely regarded as the Holy Grail when it comes to Brown Bear hunting. These are truly humongous animals that can sometimes weigh as much as a ton—literally. Needless to say, however, a 500-pound juvenile can kill a man just as quickly as the true behemoth. Within the ursine universe, “smaller” doesn’t necessarily mean “safer.”
The country surrounding Deadman Bay is rugged, brushy, vast, and spectacularly beautiful. The mountains rise right up from sea level to about 4000 feet, and the bears can be found absolutely anywhere between the two elevations. When Tom told me the afternoon of our arrival in camp that sometimes you can spot bears walking—skylined—along the jagged summit ridge of the mountain range across the inlet from us, I found that awfully hard to believe. The bit of skepticism must have been audible in my reaction, because Tom immediately set up his 65-power spotting scope on a tripod, fixed himself a comfortable seat, and began to scour the skyline across the bay. It wasn’t long before he had me looking through his scope at a moving silhouette some four or five miles away. Teetering on the edge of what seemed to be a sheer, vertical drop-off, the bear looked for all the world like a high-wire artist at a Ringling Brothers circus.
The winter and spring preceding my first visit to Kodiak had been unusually harsh, cold, and especially long—with the result that the local Sitka Blacktail population had been all but wiped out over most of the Island. Instead of seeing what Tom described as an average of 30-to-40 deer a day while out in the field, we were spotting an average of about one deer every other day. The beaches up and down the inlet (where the deer had made their last stand, eating seaweed, and the like) were littered with deer bones from one end to the other, and the bears had clearly gorged themselves on carrion all summer long. Today, as I write these words in June of 2006, the deer population has bounced back strongly all over the Island, showing the amazing resiliency of “Mother” Nature’s species, and I’m looking forward to a deer hunt on Kodiak this coming fall with a friend of mine from Anchorage.
There were still lots of silver salmon in the Deadman River that dumped into the bay, but in the autumn of 1999 the bears certainly didn’t seem to be interested in them. The night before our season opened, Mr. Murphy managed to produce a freak of nature. Sometime after dark, an arctic cold snap swept down from the north, the temperatures dropped to record lows (indeed, for the next several days), and we awakened opening morning to find nine inches of fresh snow on the ground (with much more at higher elevations), and a number of bears high up in the icy cliffs digging their dens for the winter. The snowstorm had ended before daybreak. The sky cleared quickly, and the early-morning sun gave us great lighting conditions for bear-watching through our spotting scopes as the half- a-dozen bruins we could find maneuvered around on what seemed like impossibly steep slopes. “Cliffs” were more like it! What amused and amazed me, both, were the several instances I witnessed of bears backing down the slopes, rear-end first, because of the severity of the incline! At times they looked more like two- legged monkeys, or men in costume—I wasn’t sure which! I was more than a little disappointed by the circumstances described above, but Tom assured me not all the bears would be rushing to embrace their long winter’s nap as quickly as the ones we were watching. And, with the weather on opening morning being so bright and beautiful, of course, it was hard to get too dispirited right off the bat.
Our camp sat on the east shore of Deadman Bay, some 600 -700 yards from the mouth of the river. Most all of our hunting was going to be done in one of two ways. Either by hiking up the Deadman River valley and into its tributary drainages, or by traveling down the inlet toward the ocean by boat and glassing the flanks of the mountains as we went. The tide differentials are not huge in that part of Alaska, but still big enough that we could only reach the river’s mouth easily when the tide was out. Whenever the water level threatened the top of our hip-boots as we tried to sneak along the bottom of the steep, brushy shoreline, the alternative became only a painful, nasty bushwhack (up, over, and back down) to the river—one we tried to avoid whenever possible. Luckily, there was just one time when we actually had to make the climb, but that was by flashlight one night when we returned from far up the Deadman valley, much later than we had expected to.
During the summer preceding this hunt, Tom had planned a “new strategy” he hoped might give a bowhunter a really good shot opportunity at a big Brownie. About two miles up the river, he knew of some beaver ponds to which salmon usually gained access in the fall. The ponds were surrounded at close quarters by a fair number of big cottonwoods, and they were often visited at that time of year by bears looking for “easy pickings,” just prior to “holing up” for the winter. Consequently, the gear we arrived with on the Goose had included a pair of climbing treestands — the big, comfortable kind you could sit in all day and never fall out of, even if you dozed off periodically, or froze stiff as a board. (We came close to the latter.)
Late in the morning on opening day, when the tide had dropped far enough, Tom and I started hoofing it up-river with the treestands tied securely on top of our daypacks. Our route crisscrossed the river channel several times, and — though the river had not frozen yet — the banks were covered with ice, to the point that we started wondering if our beaver ponds might already be frozen solid. Well, we didn’t have to wait long for the answer. Not only were they frozen solid, but they were also covered with snow. Bear fishing was over for the season. The more important question that began to prey on my mind was whether bear hunting was over, as well, for all intents and purposes. On the trek up from the bay, we had seen a couple of deer tracks in the fresh snow, but nary a bear track. None of the several Silver salmon pools we had passed by showed any evidence of ursine visitation overnight. It was a very beautiful, very early, winter wonderland we had on our hands; now we just needed to figure out how to hunt it.
Had fox been our intended quarry, I could have filled my bag limit every day. Never in my life had I seen so many foxes (and of all colors)! They were simply everywhere all up and down the river. Tom’s opinion was that, despite the temporary deep-freeze, it was still worth spending two or three days high up in the trees above the beaver ponds. He said bears tended to cross the valley through there rather often in the late fall. So — choosing a big tree with double trunks about 25 yards from the edge of the nearest invisible pond — up we went, and by 1:00 PM we were all settled in for a watch and a wait until evening. When approaching dusk brought the glassing to an end four hours later, the only bears we had spotted had been seen through Tom’s scope, several miles away, high in the mountains. The hike back to camp was uneventful, and we reached the tricky saltwater passage along the shoreline just in the nick of time.
The second night brought us some further snowfall of a couple inches, and dawn came along much grayer — and even colder yet. The thermometer outside the main cabin read 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Our second trip up into the valley produced no better results for the day than did our first one, but at least the upstream portion gave us a decided psychological lift. Half a mile from the river’s mouth, our old tracks from the first morning were suddenly joined and paralleled by some very fresh, and very large, bear tracks! “Clearly a big male,” Tom opined, as I nodded my head — in awe at the size of the prints. In a mile or so, the bruin’s tracks diverged from ours. He had decided, evidently, to explore a tributary valley that connected up with the main valley we were in. By 10 AM, we were up in our treestands again and settled in for an all-day vigil. Since the deer sightings were nil, and the very few bear sightings all continued to be so distant, the only thing that really broke our seven hours of relative boredom from time to time was the visit of the occasional fox passing through the general vicinity beneath our lofty perches. I had never taken one with my bow, so after passing on three or four, I finally decided the population could stand a bit of reduction control, and I dispatched a large red one that was sitting about 20 yards out from the base of my tree. I figured that if a bear should happen to get a whiff of fresh meat, why so much the better!
The third morning gave us a temperature reading in camp of only 8 degrees. As I believe I recall hearing later, that night in the town of Kodiak broke all previous low records for the month of October. Tom felt it was worth one more day up in the trees by the beaver ponds, but I had my doubts it was likely to be any more productive than the first two days had been. As we neared the base of our familiar trees, however, I was astounded to see a set of really large and fresh bear tracks heading straight for them. As Tom and I prepared to mount the trees with our climbing stands, he pointed out some super-fresh claw- and bite-marks in the bark of the big trunks about three feet off the ground.
I quickly glanced all around and found myself wondering just how fast I could climb my tree if that bear suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Obviously the bear knew we had been there before, but what kind of message, if any, was he trying to communicate to us? I found the question a bit spooky and spent some of the rest of the long day contemplating it. I noticed quickly that there was nothing left of my dead fox’s remains, and my guide was giving me the distinct impression he felt we might see this particular bear reappear by evening.
Well, it didn’t happen! Yet we did get pretty cold up in those trees that day. Tom had been wearing since the start of the hunt a pair of hard-shelled, fiberglass boots — something that looked to me a lot like a ski boot, but wasn’t. He indicated they had always served him well traveling in that rugged country in the fall before, but he admitted he’d never subjected his feet in them to the temperatures we were having to endure without any exercise all day. By the time we climbed back to earth around 6 o’clock, Tom had suffered a bit of frostbite in his outer toes, and I really felt for him because I knew that all afternoon he had been quite uncomfortable. He kept resisting my suggestions that we abandon our treestands and start hiking somewhere, and that’s when I began to learn what a truly dedicated guide is all about. In my opinion, he’s among the best of the best. Tom Kirstein is a man of few words, and he’s almost always slow to answer a question. You learn in a hurry, however, that the answer is always well worth waiting for — either for its humor, or for the information it imparts. He devotes serious cogitation to each question you ask.
Nothing really changed much after that. Nothing save our method of hunting. We spent most of the next 12 days traveling by boat up and down the long inlet, glassing from every beach along the way — wherever we could put ashore to set up the spotting scope. Because of the constant motion, of course, scopes are worthless in any boat. Most glassing was done looking across the fjord and studying the far slopes that gave us the best visibility. Aside from sows and cubs, this technique yielded only a few sightings, and they were all of boars well above the vegetation line — carving out their winter dens in the deep snow.
This technique did, however, bear fruit for Jeff and his hunter. One evening, Tom and I returned to camp to find the two of them all excited about their prospects for the next day. That afternoon, while glassing across one part of the long inlet, they had spotted a good-sized bear roaming around in the snow at about the 2500-feet level, just above the vegetation line. Suddenly a second bear, even larger than the first, had appeared on the skyline about 1000 feet above the original bear of interest. The larger one had wasted no time descending, and, when it reached the first bear (which had been foolish enough to hang around), it jumped it and killed it within less than a minute! The assassin had simply put the smaller bear on its back and then jumped up and down, stiff-legged, on his prey’s rib cage, until the luckless sow (as it turned out) died of internal injuries.
When the two hunters returned from the hunt just after dark the next night, they brought with them a huge bear hide and skull — not to mention quite a tale to tell. Jeff’s hunter was utterly exhausted, and the long climb up, followed especially by the descent, had been too much for his bad knees. He had fallen down dozens of times, and I know Jeff felt fortunate even to get him back to the boat. As for the kill, here’s the best my recollection can deliver from the story I heard that night.
After hours of laborious climbing, when the two hunters finally arrived within rifle range of the monster boar, he was fast asleep on top of the carcass of his previous day’s conquest. They were still below the beast, and essentially all that was visible to them was his head. They had run out of cover at about 250 yards distant, and the Senor from Mexico, who prided himself on being a crack shot, assured Jeff that that was all the target he needed.
Lying prone, and using Jeff’s pack for a rest, he touched off a shot from his elephant gun. Nothing! The bear didn’t move. Not so much as a twitch! The hunter couldn’t believe he had missed, but the evidence seemed pretty clear. So, a second round was fired — with the same result! At this point Jeff jumped up and started shouting, “Hey, Mr. Bear! Wake up!” Several times! No reaction. Left with little choice, the two walked up to the bear, ever so cautiously — guns at the ready — and found him deader than a dodo bird.
In skinning out the bear’s head, Jeff discovered that both his hunter’s bullets had entered the skull — one blowing up the brain instantantly. The skull was fractured in a couple of places and would not, therefore, be eligible for entry into any of the records books. After a good night’s sleep, Tom got out his measuring calipers the next morning and proceeded to reconstruct the skull and take its unofficial measurements. The zygomatic arches were intact, fortunately, and the width dimension came out at a full 12 inches, exactly. A piece of the occipital bone at the back end of the skull, however, was freshly broken off and missing. Despite our extensive efforts to locate it, it could not be found anywhere wrapped up in the hide, in the boat, or on the floor of the cabin. That fact notwithstanding, the skull, as it was, still yielded a length measurement of a full 18 inches.
How much of the true length was really missing? The bear biologist in Kodiak, with whom Tom checked in the skull and hide at the end of the hunt, studied the skull carefully and estimated it to be missing about one inch of length. All serious Brown Bear hunters reading this will no doubt let out an audible groan, because the current Boone & Crockett World’s Record for Alaskan Brown Bear stands at 30 and 12/16ths inches. It is, indeed, very possible that the Senor from Mexico had destroyed his own new World’s Record! Is it sometimes possible to be too good a shot? One wonders. Or is it simply that one’s ego, from time to time, is one’s own worst enemy?
As for my own archery hunt for Brown Bear that October-November of 1999, its outcome was determined by factors far beyond my control, or my guide’s control. More often than not, it seems, that’s the way hunting is. The wise hunter counts his lucky stars — and never curses his unlucky ones. We give thanks for every bit of good fortune we encounter in the field, and we accept every failed hunt as no more than the next stepping stone to some success we hope to have one day down the road.
Despite coming across an occasional set of fresh tracks in the snow, I don’t believe Tom and I saw any bear during the entire hunt closer than 2 miles away. Not one single opportunity for a stalk or an ambush ever presented itself. For both guide and hunter, the frustration was enormous. But — with such an oversupply of venison that year — the late salmon run had evidently not been needed by the bears. Add to those factors the bizarre, early freeze-up, and I guess the bears thought they were pretty well justified in seeking a three-week-early hibernation.
This article is the sixty-fifth chapter 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.