A Family Hunt for Alaska Brown Bears, From the Archives
A classic adventure from the OL archives: Three generations head to the last frontier by boat in search of bears, salmon, and trout
This story, A Family Hunt for Alaska Brownies, originally ran 75 years ago, in the July 1947 issue. While it is a classic example of an OL family hunting adventure, it also shows how hunting ethics have changed over the decades.
A JINX IS a nasty thing for a man to have dogging him when he’s out for big game. In 1941, while hunting on Admiralty and Chichagof Islands in southern Alaska, I knocked down a small brown bear which got away, and I missed a much larger one completely on the last day of the trip.
Now, five years later, I was out of the Army and back in this great bruin country, and already six days had passed without one of us getting a crack at a bear. What’s more, it was beginning to look as if the jinx had spread to the various members of my family and perhaps the trip itself!
Late in April we had set out from Seattle on the 84-foot yacht Onawa for Ketchikan—my father (we call him the Colonel), my wife Molly, and my two sons: Chambers and Sherman, aged thirteen and twelve, respectively. Trouble struck right away. A gale enveloped us, and the Onawa groaned and trembled like a cinched-up cayuse, turning everything movable upside down—including several stomachs! Molly would gladly have swapped places with a carefree meadow lark back home in South Dakota.
Our diesels quit several times. Then the plumbing went out of whack. Sherman came down with the measles. And we got lost at the height of the storm, when the night was blacker than a Halloween cat.
AFTER SIX DAYS, however, we finally did make Ketchikan, where we picked up Arnold Israelson and Wes Meyers, who were to guide us. Wes, who had arrived in Alaska along with the ice worm, the totem pole, and the Taku wind, told us he’d have to take it easy, for he’d just been released from the hospital. But this suited the Colonel well—he was nearly eighty and had been ordered to hunt without walking.
Sherman was still spotted like a brook trout, and a doctor advised us to keep him abed for a couple of days more. At last we got under way for Tenakee Inlet on Chichagof Island.
The Onawa carried two outboard-powered dinghies, plus a pair of canoes. A guide and his hunters would travel to the entrance of a narrow bay, usually towing a canoe with their dinghy. Here this would be anchored or beached, and the party would proceed with the canoe, stealing in with the tide. This was an unbeatably silent approach to the head of the bay, where there was always a small meadow of from five to twenty acres.
You could expect to find this open land lush with salt grass in the spring. You could also expect brown bears fresh from hibernation to waste no time getting to these meadows to feed. So you picked a bit of cover for a screen, and sat down behind it on a soggy log or equally wet bit of moss.
This takes the patience of a saint and the heart of an assassin, and we went through the ritual for six days—without any of us firing a shot. That was why I was wondering if my jinx had spread to the others. Oh, I had taken a luckless crack at a hair seal from the deck of the Onawa. The range was 500 yards, and I hardly expected to collect Alaska’s bounty on the animal.
Spring was a full month behind schedule, a condition hardly in favor of good brownie hunting. Arnold and I found two feet of snow right down to tidewater on our first day out. The bear tracks we came across were all pretty old. We did jump twenty-nine Sitka deer that day, but it was brownies we wanted—not those little black-tails.
After four fruitless days on Chichagof, we moved across Chatham Straight to Whitewater Bay on Admiralty Island. Here we at least saw some game. The Colonel, Chams—my elder son—and Wes spotted a brown bear working along a piece of shoreline, but the rascal ducked into the timber before a shot could be fired. The jinx again?
That same evening, Arnold and I canoed up the north arm of the bay. This was familiar territory, for it was here that I’d missed a grand trophy in 1941. We saw one old track in the mud.
However, things picked up a little on the following day. Sherman and I had just returned to the Onawa from some exciting Dolly Varden fishing, when I heard the Colonel yell from the other side of the boat. We dashed around in time to see a female brownie ambling along a strip of beach about half a mile away, accompanied by a cub and a yearling. The old lady was plainly nervous, and soon shepherded her family into the timber. No attempt was made to stalk the animals, as it isn’t considered sporting to shoot a female when she has a helpless cub. It was comforting to at least look at bears, though.
“Seeing that little feller reminds me of something,” Wes said to the Colonel. “Once we picked up two Kodiak cubs for mascots on a boat trip. It got pretty rough one day, and the bears spent a lot of time at the rail—heaving. Then one of them fell overboard.” The old guide paused.
“What happened?” prompted the Colonel.
“Well sir, it was the darndest thing I ever saw. The other cub ran to the galley and bit the cook in the leg to attract attention. Then the bear jumped in after his pal!”
CHAIK BAY WAS our next stop, and here I noticed one good sign right away: The meadows had grass that was green enough to interest bears! So Sherman and I set off in a dinghy with Arnold for the north arm of the bay. Mergansers, scoters, and harlequin ducks were everywhere. And I was surprised to find plenty of robins about when we landed at a fine meadow. But although we found the track of a huge brownie, we had nothing to show for waiting at that opening in the timber from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
However, Chambers, the Colonel, and Wes made out better. They picked the south arm of Chaik for their operations. There was no excitement until about 3 o’clock, when the Colonel heard a splash to the rear, and turned to find a bear snooping along the beach. Here at last was game!
“No noise!” bade Wes as he ran the boat ashore behind a little point. The trio left the craft quietly, climbed the slight rise of the point, and peered through a screening cedar. Trotting along the beach was the brownie—headed right for them!
Chams raised his .30/06 as the animal approached the 100-yard mark. Then he gulped in a big lungful of air and slowly let out half of it; but the weapon wobbled so, Wes felt he had to interrupt him.
“Lower your rifle for a second,” the guide said, “and take it easy. But when you start, keep shooting until that bear is down for keeps!”
More calmly now, Chams lined up his sights and squeezed the trigger. At the roar of the .30/06 the brownie was knocked sprawling on the sand. As the animal rolled over and picked itself up Chams slammed another bullet into it. But the brownie wasn’t done for yet. Staggering, it kept coming down the beach.
Four more times the rifle spoke out sharply, and then the bear lay still, hit in the neck, behind the shoulder, in both front legs, and in the lower jaw. Chams had missed only once! His “Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!” broke the sudden silence.
WES MEYERS QUICKLY skinned out the trophy, a four-year-old brownie of medium size. Its pelt was a rich chocolate-brown. Later Wes told me the lad was cooler and handled himself better than nine out of ten adult hunters he had taken out.
The party then proceeded to the meadow at the head of the bay. Almost at once the Colonel spotted a bear in the grass at the far edge of the opening. But unfortunately the animal was too far away for him to shoot at and, as I mentioned earlier, my father was under doctor’s orders to hunt without walking more than a few paces. Reluctantly the trio returned to the Onawa.
When I heard about this last bear, I shouted to Arnold, and in jig time we’d piled into a canoe and were paddling with all our strength down the bay, even though it was quite late—8:30 p.m. The canoe had scarcely grated on the beach before we were off at a dead run toward the spot where the brownie had been seen. En route a herd of more than thirty deer stampeded ahead of us with all the noise of a squadron of cavalry.
Winded and tired, Arnold and I parted the branches of a Sitka spruce—one of a clump projecting into the meadow and peered out through the cover which had been screening our approach. The bear had disappeared! Glumly, and thinking about that jinx of mine, I picked out a stand to try on the next day, and then we went back.
Ten o’clock the following morning found Arnold and me ready and waiting at the edge of the meadow. The wind kept shifting, and finally we decided to move to the middle of the meadow to take cover under a large spruce. There we made ourselves comfortable and prepared for a long wait.
“I’ll bet that bear shows up at 3 o’clock,” I said to Arnold jokingly. Then we forgot about the matter, for deer soon came out of the timber to graze, and it was fascinating to watch them from such close range. We sat back to back, occasionally sweeping the timberline with our glasses. The sun climbed past the meridian and began to cast long shadows across the meadow. Still we waited.
SUDDENLY A DOE stopped feeding, brought its head up sharply, and gazed toward the timber. I swung my glasses over the deer just in time to see a bear emerge from the tangle of devil’s-club, spruce, and cedar.
“Look!” I whispered to Arnold. “A brownie at last!” I snatched a glance at my watch. It was two minutes to 3.
“It’s a good 400 yards,” said my guide. “What do you say we get a little closer ?” This made sense to me. For one thing, I didn’t have a ‘scope sight on my .375 Magnum; and for another, I didn’t want to miss, as I had in 1941. There were a bear and a jinx at stake!
Hurriedly we shucked off extra sweaters and stripped our selves of unnecessary gear. Then we began the stalk—on our bellies across the meadow.
Taking advantage of every hummock and declivity, we snaked along to within a scant eighty yards of the feeding bear. Ever so carefully I sneaked a look at bruin. Although it had been broadside to us all during the stalk, the animal’s rump was toward me now, and I thought I could see a rubbed place on it. The brownie was only a 7½-footer, but just then this hardly mattered.
I nudged Arnold. “How does the pelt look to you?” I whispered. He put his glasses to his eyes and raised up slowly. Then something made me take a second look, and I wasn’t a moment too soon. Apparently alarmed by our peeping, the bear was just getting into overdrive for the timber about forty feet away.
HASTILY I threw up the Magnum, and at its roar of authority the brownie swung around and bit itself savagely in the flank. But the animal didn’t go down. Instead, it made four or five jumps toward the timber and was just about to disappear when my second shot crashed into it. This knocked it flat, but it scrambled up quickly and was gone.
Arnold was sure I had a dead trophy; however, I wasn’t any too certain of this. From past hunts I’d formed a healthy respect for bruin’s ability to absorb punishment. With extreme caution we began to force our way through the spiny devil’s-club, looking over with care all likely hiding places of the bear. We found several pieces of bone, and evidence that the animal was bleeding at frequent intervals. But after we’d followed the trail for about 600 yards, we decided to quit pushing the brownie. Let alone, it might soon stiffen up and lie down. So Arnold and I called it a day, resolving to return and look for my prize on the morrow. My jinx, so far as I was concerned, still rode with me.
Early the next morning the two of us had just started across the meadow to ward the scene of yesterday’s action when Arnold happened to look to the left. There was a brownie working along the edge of a spruce thicket, and he hadn’t discovered us yet!
We ducked back into the edge of the timber for a short conference, and then began a fast stalk, with both the cover and the wind in our favor. It wasn’t long before we’d crept pretty close to the feeding bear, and had just halted momentarily to try and check its position-for it was still screened—when the animal wandered out into the meadow, just about ninety yards away!
I raised the .375 Magnum, lined up the sights on the brownie’s shoulder, and squeezed. The animal was knocked flat by the terrific impact of the 300-grain bullet. But the bear bounced up quickly and once again the rifle roared out, catching it amidships. Bruin was down for keeps, but I shot a third time—for jinx insurance. At last I’d licked it!
Jubilantly Arnold and I ran over to inspect the trophy. It was about the same size as the one Chams had killed, beautifully pelted, though lighter in color. Arnold got to work skinning it, and after we had lugged the pelt back to the dinghy, we set out to trail the bear I’d crippled the day before.
It led us straight up a mountain, through the worst combination of devil’s-club, rock slides, and snow I’ve ever encountered. Though the sign showed that the bear had never stopped once, trailing it was slow work nevertheless, for we had to assume that our quarry might be hiding behind every boulder and stump. Arnold and I struggled through this dense cover for several miles, and by late afternoon concluded that it was a hopeless task. The animal was bleeding less and less, and was still going strong at the point where we called it quits. I hated to leave a cripple in the woods, but it did look as if the bear might recover. Wearily we turned back, buoyed up by the knowledge that there was a nice pelt in our dinghy.
The Onawa took us back to Chichagof Island the next day, and we dropped anchor in Freshwater Bay. As I was still hoping for a big brownie, I passed up the seven-footer Arnold found for me on the first afternoon. My father was in favor of turning south at this point, but I pleaded for one more hunt. Now that my jinx was licked, I was beginning to feel lucky!
Arnold and I spent a long and fruit less ten hours on a meadow, without ever setting eyes upon anything wearing bear hair. For a last hunt, this day was certainly a washout. At 7:30 p.m. we were headed back for the yacht, easing along in glum silence, and my mind was not on bears by this time. Thoughts of a hot supper filled it completely. Perhaps that was why I didn’t see that brownie on shore. But Arnold did and swung the dinghy into a little cove.
“I couldn’t see him too well,” he said. “But that bear looked pretty big to me.” This was indorsement enough! Without wasting any time the two of us began creeping along the timber’s edge toward the bear, which was working slowly down the beach in our direction.
Suddenly the brownie came right out into the open. This was my first good look at the animal, and it seemed huge! Taking a deep breath and holding it, I squeezed off a shot, which struck the bear in the shoulder and knocked it flat. Despite this the brownie regained its feet quickly. The second bullet slammed into the creature’s middle a few inches under the backbone, and again the bear was bowled over by a terrific impact.
For a moment or two my quarry lay on its back, feet waving in the air. Then it scrambled up and got going again. My third shot—a miss—struck the rocks right in front of the bear and turned it toward the timber. But now I had a broadside view of the head. As coolly as I could, I tightened up on the trigger, and before the last echo of the Magnum’s blast had died away, my prize lay still on the sand.
The closer we got to that bear, the bigger it looked. Then Arnold was un reeling his tape—right up to the nine foot mark! Together we rolled the carcass over, looking at the pelt. There wasn’t a rubbed mark on it! I had a big brownie for a trophy at last, and we returned to find the yacht ready to go.
As the Onawa’s refrigerator had stopped working, the captain had been obliged to jettison our supply of meats and poultry. This made near-by Juneau our next stop-for fresh provisions. From this point we turned south, toward home. The Onawa was cruising along the mainland now; good black-bear country. Now and then we’d stop for a short hunt, or perhaps a try for salmon or trout. These were easy, pleasant days, with plenty of beautiful scenery.
At one anchorage the Colonel distinguished himself by hitting a black bear from the deck of the Onawa with the first shot from his .375 Magnum, despite the fact that the range was about 400 yards, and the yacht was swinging on her cable, as well as rolling with the tide. This happened at 9 p.m., so that it was too late to follow the animal, which appeared to be badly wounded.
However, we found it the next morning—Wes, Arnold, Chams, and I. The bear had traveled only a quarter of a mile, and Arnold dispatched the cripple with one shot. It was an old-timer, with a bald belly, and only three teeth in its mouth.
Farther down the coast, at Port Houghton, I was fortunate in killing a nice black bear, and during our stop at Prince Edward Island Chams bagged one too—a seven-footer, which is a fine trophy for a thirteen-year-old boy.
There was action of one kind or another all the way down the coast, from the chinook salmon that took everything from me but my shirt, right up to our last anchorage. The guns had been cleaned and put away by this time, so that all of us were unprepared for any kind of shooting. The Colonel and I were lolling on the rail, when we heard something on the shore.
“What’s that?” my father asked.
“Probably some wolves fighting over a bone,” I said, more in jest than any thing else. The words were hardly out of my mouth when three enormous wolves appeared, walking out of the timber in single file! The scramble for rifles at this point must have been something to watch. I couldn’t find my Magnum right away, and settled for a .30/06. We were soon laying down quite a barrage around the animals. None of us connected, though. The range was pretty long, for one thing, and the wolves ran up and down the beach rather erratically, for another. So after firing about twenty shots we quit. The Onawa weighed anchor, and we headed for home.