I WAS HANGING on for grim death in the heaving bow of a four-metre rubber ducky in a 1.8-metre swell in south-east Alaska’s Inside Passage, navigating around some of the wildest coastline in the world. Chopped to foam by 35-knot winds, the waves lifted the craft alarmingly. We’d surf in towards the jagged rocks as we hugged the foreshores of Dall Island, two hours out from the 38-ft cruiser, Glacier - our home for the hunt, moored in a safe inlet - and due east of Siberia!
My uncovered face was chilled to the bone, but I was not otherwise wet thanks to the thermal layers of clothes and the breathable waders and knee-high rubber boots and my best outdoors purchase ever – my hefty Stoney Creeky rain coat. Underneath was my lucky shirt –a 1960s flannel I’d worn as a pro-whitetail hunter in New Zealand and often since. I was forever hopeful.
Leaning back into the stern to help stabilize the rubber coffin, fishing outfitter and giant black bear and Rocky Mountain goat hunting guide par excellence, Kurt Whitehead gripped the throttle of the 25HP Honda four-stroke. Smiling through a face dripping with rain and salt spray, he said dead-pan: “Are we having fun yet.”
Laughing, pulling back on the prow rope and bracing my boots on a thick cleat below the gunwaless to save myself being catapulted overboard as the nose dived yet again into the grey-green sea, I tossed back into the wind: “Of course. It’s only a black bear hunt. Nothing dangerous!”
I guess this was the “highlight” of the trip, my fourth and certainly toughest trek after black bears. I’d seen plenty of blacks in the past in Canada and America but nothing big enough to shoot. I wanted a monster or nothing.
And for a while there, it looked like I might well go home empty-handed as Kurt was even fussier in the size department.
With his fiancé Trina Nation, a tough Pawnee Indian descendant, as deputy skipper and guide (she has the best vision of any hunter I’ve ever met), he shoots a handful or so of giant blackies, mostly with 20-inch skulls. These are record-book trophies with hides that square out at over seven-feet - two-metres plus. That’s what had brought me to Ketchikan in Prince William Sound, then on to the Tlingit village of Klawok and a long boat ride in a three-day marathon of travel that left me exhausted for days.
A few hours after the ordeal at sea, we landed the dingy in a tiny cove with a grassy beach 800 metres from the white-caps. Silently, we stalked through the wet, mossy forest along a narrow and muddy bear trail littered with the sodden remains of salmon. About 100 squishy paces from the mouth of a narrow creek we watched masses of pink salmon spurting in bursts from hole to hole in the gravel, desperate to reach their spawning grounds.
Finding some comfortable squats in two forks of an ancient cedar above the river bar we settled down - nibbling on tarty red lingonberries - to wait for dead low tide. It was then the salmon were trapped in the shallow gravel beds and the bears came out to gorge themselves on the easy pickings. “I saw a huge bear here three times with different clients in Spring, but we never got him,” Kurt whispered as he handed me his rifle, a flat-shooting Remington 700 in .300 RUM with muzzle-brake and Limbsaver pad topped with a 4.5-14x40 Leupold Vari-X3.. That rig was a surprising pussycat to shoot prone and grouped one MOA over our packs.
The wind swirled, but we were high above the water looking into the dank and gloomy forest. Hours went by and I was amused at one stage by a family of 11 land otters that tumbled from the Arctic jungle in a wary troupe before following trails down to the tideline and a rowdy search for crabs and shrimps.
Suddenly I heard a crashing sound and some twigs breaking. I looked up from the splashing of the otters out in the shallow bay and Kurt – a keen trophy hunter himself – sitting almost three metres above me in his “nest,” mouthed, “ I … see… a …bear.”
One minute there was nothing, strain with my 10x40 Leicas as I did. Then a big black bear appeared from left to right in the creek, 30 metres away. In the binos it looked massive, with a great big fat arse seemingly two pick-handles across. The deal with Kurt was simple: he said yes or no to the shot.
There was a long silence as I looked up at him. The bear was walking towards us below our stand along a lush green patch of grass just above the gravel. The bear was glistening black, sleek without a hair out of place. It looked fantastic to me. It was obviously a boar and tried to catch some lunch in a pool too deep and missed out. Right under us, it jumped in and bit a salmon. Grasping it in both hands it chomped down on the brain and then the roe, then dropped the remains back in the pool.
I was eager to shoot, reckoning on at easy spinal shot from about eight metres above!
Then Kurt opened his palms, put them about 20 centimetres apart and shook his head. Too small.
I was disappointed, but understood. That big bruin walked right below us out on to the beach. He looked out to sea, surveyed his domain, then sauntered slowly back into the creek to fish some more. He tried to catch a few but they were too quick for him. It was now 7.30pm and we faced another long, dangerous haul home; the lights of the Glacier well after dark were never so welcoming.
Trina – daughter of a Montana bear guide and a woman with many North American big game heads to her credit, including a 67-inch bull moose - said she’d got within 30 metres of a big sow down on the beach near the boat. Kurt had sent her to scout the clear-felled hills around the mooring area for Sitka Blacktail bucks, a nuggety little sub-species of mule deer. She had seen only does. A Sitka trophy was my secondary target, but with none on the beaches – I saw 37 females during my trip – I was convinced pretty early I’d miss out on these interesting animals. My lower back had been giving me buggery for months and there was no way I could carry a hefty pack up into the snowy peaks for a three-day spike camp after the big bucks. Those days are over for me.
Trina had prepared a tasty shrimp (prawn) gumbo soup, an aromatic salad of fish and crab, and we ate it with venison casserole washed down with white wine. On the way to Dall Island – named in 1866 after an early naturalist, William Dall, Western Union’s chief scientist – we’d gone shrimping. This was hard yakka for a bloke with a crook back but it was a two-man job setting the pots up to 200 metres deep and winching them in later. But the results were something like 1,000 large tiger-striped prawns and sundry other crustacea. Delicious they were, too.
One night a ferocious storm surpassed the other squalls that plagued us this sojourn. I was woken in the four-berth cabin of the charter boat by almost being flung from my bunk and organised chaos. Trina was at the helm and Kurt was out on deck wet to the skin trying to keep his cruiser and two inflatables from smashing into the rocks. The boat had torn its anchor from the mooring and was being blown onshore. It was a near thing, but the crisis was averted and we all slept in the next morning.
There was little privacy on board, but mostly we were on the water anyway getting to this bay or that, near or far, or climbing hills to slip down into weathered bays to beat the wild, on-shore winds that threatened to scuttle the hunt by alerting all the bears.
Each day we’d jump on the rubber craft and head out looking for bears. Despite the crappy weather I saw 13 bears for the trip, the biggest one twice, but we couldn’t get it right for a shot. It was the huge boar seen previously in Spring and we were keen to nail it.
The night before my very last day of hunting it squalled with wind gusts to 50 knots. The rain poured down and the calm bay was a washing machine of waves. I couldn’t sleep and the boat slipped its anchor again. But by 10.30, the seas were surprisingly calm and the wind had dropped though the rain was incessant, but not heavy. “The winds have changed 180 degrees, so we’re in with a chance,” Kurt said.
I had a good feeling as we headed back to Windy Bay, where he had seen but been unable to grass the biggest boar of the trip, always in the same place after slipping from the forest down a whopping blown down log thick as a man ‘s body into his favourite fishing hole. Wind and tide and the treacherous 10km journey back to the “mother ship” had beaten us every time.
This run we were able to get really close to the mouth of the creek and the shingle fan of small streams into the bay. I set up the rifle over a moss and lichen-blanketed log and waited. My back was screaming at me from the pounding the night before. I couldn’t settle properly. I became the hypocritical atheist turn-coat, almost praying: “Please Lord, let the bear come tonight. Let him come early. Let me shoot him well.”
Kurt was dozing on the mossy log when I nudged him in the ribs and said: “Bear.” The big bruin had come down his favourite path really early at 2.20pm, on to his log stairs and into the creek to feast. My prayers had been heard.
“He’s a good trophy, man. A great trophy. I wouldn’t pass him up on day one, let alone now, that’s for sure.” Kurt said. “Can you shoot him over the log?”
But it was too far on a brute only partly visible behind a huge blowdown. “Tricky,” I said. “I can only see about four inches of his back…”
“Okay,” said Kurt. “Nothing for it. Let’s get closer.” I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
We ducked into the forest and ran just inside the bush fringe, climbing over logs and down into side creeks, up over boulders until we ran out of cover and were suddenly there, right beside the big bear’s log bridge. Kurt raised his hand: “Shhh!” He then indicated the bear was just over the log. We were no more than 20 metres away and the bear was undisturbed, crunching on a juicy dog-salmon.
When it rose I shot it in the shoulder. I could barely see through the scope, set at 14X and on infinity for the long shot, which I forgot to change in the excitement. And the lenses were smeared with muck and water from our rush through the trees. But at this range it didn’t matter. It thrashed about, tried to chew a small tree in rage and pain and I shot it again in the creek. In the spine this time.
It died in the stream and I couldn’t believe how big it was. Even like a drowned rat, it was humungous. “Man, you got yourself one helluva bear,” Kurt said. “It’s one for the Books.” And it was. The hide squared at 7ft 4inches and the skull, over 20 inches green, officially scored a tad under when measured dry 50 days later..
But it was academic to me as I don’t bother entering heads in record books. The trophy speaks for itself.
Kurt went to bring up the Aquapro as I rolled the great hulk down the shallow stream into deeper water. Getting that 350lb monster into the bow of the dingy took forever with my crook back giving out constantly at the wrong time. The journey back with the best part of a tonne in a rubber boat went surprisingly well, with the seas flat at the optimum time.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune with my boots resting on the glossy hide. A top blackie had been a long time coming, but well worth the wait for this prize, which is being full mounted as I write. It’s the same size as my mounted grizzly. What a bear!
“You watch,” Kurt said as the little Honda purred along. “Now the hunt is over, the sun will shine.” And guess what? It did. Sunset got better and better until at 7.40pm a rainbow striated the orange sky. It was then Trina said: “Bear on the rocks.”
And there, exactly 0.125 nautical miles, or 80 metres from the Glacier, a nice black bear trudged along the slimy, rocky foreshore. But although a six-footer, it was just a tiddler compared to the one we’d just winched on board. My lucky shirt had come through.