Cub Killer

Hunting down a bear who slays his own.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

At first light, the flat, still waters of Uganik Bay reflected a cloudless indigo sky-a vision of tranquility and grace. But by noon, a maelstrom of wind had whipped the sea into an angry, wild-eyed tigress, her peaking whitecaps watery claws that gouged the Kodiak shoreline. From our alder windbreak at 2,300 feet, the spectacle was awesome for hunter Joe DeWane and me, as was the other set of claws we were observing-these belonging to one of the island's famed brown bears, who was overturning boulders in a glacial amphitheater 600 yards above us.

DeWane didn't look like a Kodiak bear hunter. His sunburned and windburned face resembled a cherry tomato, his green stocking cap a stem skewed atop his head. Lines of indecision creased his face. "He's a good one," packer Don Fernandez wheezed between breaths. "He's a nine-footer, a gettable bear."

DeWane watched the bear through his binoculars, turned and studied my face for any sign that would differ from Fernandez's. In camp, we vowed to help DeWane hold out for a 10-foot bear, and this wasn't it. As expected, he was waffling under the temptation. And if I had been in his position, I'd have waffled too. A typical 15-day Kodiak bear hunt costs $15,000. It's a superhuman test of physical, mental and financial endurance. This was DeWane's third. A physician whose hobbies are hunting and running marathons, he had proven he could handle the hardships and disappointments of the Kodiak environment. On the two previous hunts, he had stalked and eventually passed up eight- and nine-foot bears. He wondered if his obsession was overtaking his rational thought.

I zoomed in with my telephoto lens. The bear resembled an oversized hyena with his mottled spots of unbroken dark hair on light-colored areas of rubbed hide.

"Ugliest damn bear I've ever seen," I mumbled, using my camera to hide my grin. The words had us laughing and catcalling as we headed down the mountainside.

It was a good call. Halfway through our five-mile hike back to camp, I sensed a watchful gaze looking down on us. It was almost dusk, but the form stood out as clearly as if it were standing in the light of noon. A huge boar appeared on the mountain's snowy white complexion. The bear was partially hidden by a few alder clumps. Below him were a sow and two cubs, and he appeared to be stalking them. The bear was the length of an SUV, and had a massive head. We watched him in the fading light, and our hopes were high that the next morning he would be ours.

A Savage Attack
In the morning, we failed to spot the bear from afar, so Fernandez climbed a nearby ridge overlooking the high country. Guide Jim Bailey, DeWane and I stayed on an open hillside that offered a good field of fire if the bear should step into the open. We were ready. An arsenal of optics pointed at the hillside: two spotting scopes, three cameras with zoom lenses, three binoculars. For two hours...nothing.

Then a motion caught our attention. Fernandez half plowed, half fell down the brushy hillside, the erratic movements of a man distancing himself from danger. We scanned the land behind and around him and chambered rounds. We saw nothing, but our hairs stood on end in the hot spring sun.

Fernandez shook his head, trying to find the words. "I just saw that big boar kill one of those cubs," he said. "He might have killed the other one too. Those poor little guys didn't have a chance against that big ol' bear."

We wanted to see the evidence for ourselves and started to climb. The snow had long ago melted at the lower elevations. We visually dissected the drab alder thickets as we climbed. Like blankets tossed onto unmade beds, piles of leaves-musty from their long decay under winter snows-pockmarked the hillside. These were bear daybeds, and one was twice the size of a king-sized mattress.

A smaller, fur-covered lump in a clearing supcharged our already heightened awareness. The sight begged for the boar to charge us now, so retribution could be served.

"He's just a little guy, a milk bear who didn't have a chance," Fernandez said. "That big boar just tossed him around like a rag doll."

The three of us cringed at this infanticide. The cub was the size of a small Labrador retriever. Tooth and claw had sliced jagged cuts through its furry muzzle. Brown sand tightly packed the spaces of the bear's emerging teeth. My own teeth tightened as I envisioned the scene. The cub's only reaction had been to bite again and again into the dirt as the boar viciously bit its snout and neck. The difference in the skull sizes was like a watermelon compared to an orange. The cub died when the boar's canine pierced its skull, creating a hole the size of a thumb above the right eye socket.

We groped for possible explanations, but only one seemed to fit. Boars often kill cubs to bring sows into heat. The boar can then breed with the sow, to ensure she carries and nurtures his offspring, and not those of some other boar. This seemed unusually cruel, even for nature. The quest for a 10-footer no longer mattered. We were now pursuing a cub killer. Nine feet or eleven feet, it didn't matter. We all vowed to kill the bear.

Search for a Killer
We waited on stand at the base of the hill, stewing in an emotional soup of anger and impatience and empathy for the dead cub. We waited that entire day, and the next. The boar never showed. We retreated to base camp for a greater field of view in glassing the high alpine.

Bailey was up each morning before the rest of us were, peering through his spotting scope with the intensity of an astronomer searching for a new star. A 30-year veteran of Kodiak brown bear hunting, he knew 10-footers were warier than other bears. He was looking for a blip, a hiccup in the normal rhythm of nature, a subtle difference that most of us wouldn't see.

The round, dark dot, more than a mile away, was typical of the hundreds he had glassed in the last five days. His gloved hand slowly rotated the focus ring. As the shadows from the clouds traced a gray swath across the snowy mountainside, the dot moved in the opposite direction. Bingo.

I zoomed in with my spotting scope. Was it the cub killer? The next image in our spotting scopes-at once alarming yet impossible to look away from-gave us our answer.

The boar nosed the perimeter of the left ridgeline. We observed a sow and cub huddled on a rock ledge the size of a door, about 12 feet below the bruin. The ledge was atop a sheer rock face of several hundred feet.

The cub bobbed its head up and down, exhibiting a youthful urge to play with the approaching boar. The boar's head hung heavy off his long neck, swaying back and forth like a pendulum. Watching him slog through the snow, I envisioned the boar's mouth dripping saliva and the nose flared to capture the scent of his next victim. The cub fidgeted, torn between play and caution. The sow stood fully upright, her head nudging the cub back down onto the shelf. She remained standing, looking at the boar.

Despite her smaller size, the sow had the advantage. The bears faced each other for nearly five minutes. The only way to the cub was a frontal attack. For the boar, there could be no flanking maneuver or side ambush. He would have to kill her in order to reach the cub.

The boar reacted with the savvy of a seasoned predator. He backed off and bedded down. Cold, instinctive patience.

For the remainder of the day, few camp chores were accomplished, as all available spotting scopes and binoculars were focused on the unfolding alpine drama. The standoff was still going strong when the curtain of night left the final act unfinished. We ate dinner and emboldened ourselves for the next day's strategy.

A Dangerous Stalk
The approach to the bears was treacherous. Avalanche danger was high. Sheets of icy overflow covered the rock faces and cliffs, with midday ground seepage making for slippery handholds and footholds. The wind would be blowing uphill in the morning, and the heat waves would take our scent up the mountain, potentially spooking the bears.

At first light, fate smiled upon us. In the purple hue of predawn, we only needed a minute to verify the boar was retreating to the lower mountainside. Higher up, we saw that the sow and cub were still alive. If the boar headed into the alder thickets at the base of the mountain we would in all likelihood lose him. We had a window of opportunity to go after the bear, but that window was rapidly closing. Within minutes, we were in the skiff and bouncing atop the waves to the opposite shoreline.

Once on shore, Bailey said the climb would take a minimum of three hours. We packed light, knowing we would need to push our endurance to the edge.

We clawed and pulled our way through the buckbrush of the lower elevations, spurred on by thoughts of the cub and the cub killer. What if the bear was dropping down only to ambush the sow and cub at a later time? Or ambush us?

Two hours later, we cleared the first ridge...and froze. The cub killer was rapidly sliding headfirst down an avalanche chute 600 yards above us, dislodging boulder-sized chunks of frozen snowpack. The boar slowed and walked stilt-legged, thrusting paws firmly into the snow's wind-hardened surface.

The boar emerged from the snow and climbed to the safety of a rock ledge, then quickly disappeared down the alder- infested hillside to our left. We circled right and climbed higher, keeping the wind in our faces and skirting the rock cornices to maintain a good field of fire.

We climbed, slipped and stumbled our way up to the timberline. Looking up at one last cliff to scale, we immediately stopped. The sow was leading her single cub down to the food and water of the lowlands. They were about 300 yards above us and to our left. We watched as she showed the small cub, with uncommon patience and human-like tenderness, how to descend the rock cliff, often nudging it gently to drop down to the next ledge. Meanwhile, the boar could have been waiting below in ambush. For us to continue along our planned route would have meant either a charge by the protective sow or spooking the two of them toward the boar. Neither was an option. Our only other choice was to continue upward along a hazardous route in order to prevent the bears from seeing or winding us.

As we ascended, barbs from devils club plants pierced our hands, arms and legs. We crawled up onto the massive expanse of an open ridgeline and stood up. The glare from the treeless, snowy alpine blinded us. After a half-hour of busting Dangerous Stalk**
The approach to the bears was treacherous. Avalanche danger was high. Sheets of icy overflow covered the rock faces and cliffs, with midday ground seepage making for slippery handholds and footholds. The wind would be blowing uphill in the morning, and the heat waves would take our scent up the mountain, potentially spooking the bears.

At first light, fate smiled upon us. In the purple hue of predawn, we only needed a minute to verify the boar was retreating to the lower mountainside. Higher up, we saw that the sow and cub were still alive. If the boar headed into the alder thickets at the base of the mountain we would in all likelihood lose him. We had a window of opportunity to go after the bear, but that window was rapidly closing. Within minutes, we were in the skiff and bouncing atop the waves to the opposite shoreline.

Once on shore, Bailey said the climb would take a minimum of three hours. We packed light, knowing we would need to push our endurance to the edge.

We clawed and pulled our way through the buckbrush of the lower elevations, spurred on by thoughts of the cub and the cub killer. What if the bear was dropping down only to ambush the sow and cub at a later time? Or ambush us?

Two hours later, we cleared the first ridge...and froze. The cub killer was rapidly sliding headfirst down an avalanche chute 600 yards above us, dislodging boulder-sized chunks of frozen snowpack. The boar slowed and walked stilt-legged, thrusting paws firmly into the snow's wind-hardened surface.

The boar emerged from the snow and climbed to the safety of a rock ledge, then quickly disappeared down the alder- infested hillside to our left. We circled right and climbed higher, keeping the wind in our faces and skirting the rock cornices to maintain a good field of fire.

We climbed, slipped and stumbled our way up to the timberline. Looking up at one last cliff to scale, we immediately stopped. The sow was leading her single cub down to the food and water of the lowlands. They were about 300 yards above us and to our left. We watched as she showed the small cub, with uncommon patience and human-like tenderness, how to descend the rock cliff, often nudging it gently to drop down to the next ledge. Meanwhile, the boar could have been waiting below in ambush. For us to continue along our planned route would have meant either a charge by the protective sow or spooking the two of them toward the boar. Neither was an option. Our only other choice was to continue upward along a hazardous route in order to prevent the bears from seeing or winding us.

As we ascended, barbs from devils club plants pierced our hands, arms and legs. We crawled up onto the massive expanse of an open ridgeline and stood up. The glare from the treeless, snowy alpine blinded us. After a half-hour of busting