October 28, 2010
A wilderness bowhunt holds the potential for disastrous folly both beyond our control and of our own making.
It rained four days straight and swept what was left of the salmon out of the stream. The big brown bears we sought took to wandering aimlessly. There was no one particular place to look for them; a place where you could say for certain you might see a bear. It was early November and they would be seeking dens soon. During the last remaining days of our trip we invested three trying days of bushwhacking and glassing. We slept under trees where darkness found us. Where the weather was clear and sunny during the day, it was crisp-cold nights.
Our perseverance paid off, however, in the form of a single huge bear. Sitting and glassing distant mountains of alder and fir, he simply appeared not 100 yards away. He was a surprise and a shock and he seemed only to be ambling aimlessly. We positioned ourselves in what seemed to be his most likely trajectory and waited for him to come to us. He walked hugely, shoulder-humped and pigeon-toed and menacing, and we waited in the tall yellow grass as he came. I had quickly inventoried distances parallel and perpendicular to the corridor of open sponge moss and gurgling brook and stunted alder at the edge of that brook. There was no distance longer than 25 yards. The bear continued to amble onward and was at maybe 60 yards. I had remained remarkably calm throughout the experience.
The bruin paused, shook his chocolate fur and slowly swung his massive head as if to take stock of his surroundings. He sniffed the air and blinked his small eyes against the glinting sun and stood square shouldered and huge. A cooling afternoon breeze whispered down the flat bottom set between the steep mountain walls, toward the distant sea. He had no way of detecting us. The wind had been like that all day.
The bear did not continue down the clear corridor however, but turned into a thin finger of firs instead, where we could see him only through gaps in the trees and then only in parts and finally not at all.
Mark and I crept off the small mound we occupied, stepping carefully between the whipping stands of knee-high salmonberry. We slipped across the open moss on the balls of our feet and positioned ourselves at the opposite point of the evergreen strip the bear had entered. We waited ten minutes for him, but it felt much longer. MarkÃ‚'s patience waned and he indicated that he would climb the hillside above and glass to assess the situation. He was convinced the bear had bedded. Mark thought he had the look of a bear looking for a place to rest.
Mark quietly opened the bolt of his rust-pitted .300 H&H Magnum to show me it was loaded and closed it again. He worked the safety so I could see it function. He laid the rifle in cushioning moss beside me and left me alone with only my bow and that unfamiliar rifle. I imagined the bear stepping out. I imagined putting an arrow in his side. I imagined him coming for me, and how I would toss the bow and take up the gun to stop him. The .300 H&H suddenly seemed highly insubstantial. I gauged the distance from where the bear was most likely to appear. A charging bear would allow perhaps a single shot from that distance. I would be aiming at him over the scope, at point-blank range by the time I organized myself. I did not like my chances.
I backed away carefully to a fir across the brook and thereby doubling the likely shot range to 30 yards. That distance, plus the brook, made me more confident while I waited with a nocked arrow and MarkÃ‚'s old rifle leaning into the stiff boughs of the fir. Ultimately the bear did not come.
Mark returned to say he had not been able to locate the bear or any movement within the swatch of cover. Mark reclaimed his gun and we slowly and tediously stalked through the surprisingly thick cover while stopping often to use our glasses. We looked under the shaded fir for the sleeping bear and into thickets of alder and denser salmonberry. There was no bear to be found. It was no good in there. It was not a good place to encounter a brown bear at close range.
We retraced our route while taking just as much time and care as we had on the way in. We did not relax until we were clear of the thickest part of the cover. We talked it over. We allowed for the wind and climbed above the area. There was a flat bench of open grass where it was easy to see in every direction without effort. We waited and watched but had begun to understand it would be no difficult task for him to have slipped away from us undetected. We glassed each dark spot in the leafless tangles of alder. As a last-ditch effort Mark blew a call that produced the cries of a deer in distress. The bear was gone. We would not see him again. We were back to wandering.
It had not been like that in the beginning. We had watched bears along the salmon stream as they worked along the banks and fished for the last of the fall silver run. We watched these bears and studied their patterns and movements. There were two bears on that stream and one of those was a sure Boone & Crockett contender. We only watched because it was nasty-thick down there and too confined and noisy. There was no assurance we could slip up on a bear or find a clean shot. We hung the tree stand and set the pop-up blind at two spots where bears had repeatedly traveled. We set them because the rain would wash away all scent that might spook a bear. It rained four days without pause and the winds often picked up to 40 mph. The stream became a torrent. The tired and rotting salmon were flushed to sea so the bears began to wander.
We ran out of food first. We shot ducks during the unending rain and wind. The ducks had been a way to escape the claustrophobia of the tiny native cabin on Malina Bay. We ventured into dangerous seas in driving rain to collect ducks on the premise that we needed them for food. This was only partly true. Eating canned beans and oriental noodles everyday quickly pales the pallet. Then we ran out of shotgun shells.
Next, we were out of time. We had put on the big push those last three days but we were out of time. We had jobs we had to return to and the Seward Ferry would not wait. It was time to go home or risk missing the once-weekly transportation.
We reached the cabin by dark. The weather was turning. We should have used the calm period to cross back to Kodiak Island, but arrowing a bear seemed more important. I had almost gotten my bear. Almost.
By daybreak the sky had turned woolen and the wind was kicking up whitecaps outside the shelter of the bay. The aluminum skiff was loaded but the well-used 30-horse outboard proved stubborn. Mark yanked on the starter cord furiously for five full minutes before the motor sputtered to life, belching blue smoke lost in the wind. Coming out of Malina Bay the waves smashed wickedly along the cliff-lined coastline. The sea was full of floating debris, but Mark pointed the skiff straight across to Raspb
erry Island in the most direct route and the small boat bucked and plowed through the chop. She was bow heavy and cold water sprayed over the high sides. I moved aft so the boat would ride better with so much gear riding too far forward. I had been watching from the bow for hazards. We hugged the Raspberry side of the Strait and Mark had to stay on top of it to keep the skiff straightened out.
We passed through The Narrows and rounded Raspberry and entered larger swells breaking over on themselves in ragged curls. Chiachi Point on Whale Island poked above the sea when we mounted swells before sliding or slamming into the concealing troughs. We were riding with the waves and a southward wind typical of the season. The skiff was taking a pounding crossing Whale Pass with Occidents Point coming slowly and then Pokati Point and across more wild open water passing Kqniuji Island. Then Kodiak Island was rearing from the pitching water. I was ready to get off the rough sea. I was glad Mark was piloting the skiff and not me.
Mark had the insignificant 30-horse wound tight. We were taking the waves side-on while aiming straight at Inner Point on Kodiak, only a rifleÃ‚'s shot away. The sea was suddenly a raft of tossing trash, as waves pounded the cliffy shore in booming reports. There were entire trees and well-worn logs bobbing through intermittent mats of flotsam that rode heaving swells. The outboard occasionally jumped on its transom and revved loudly when knocked from the water by heavy logs going under the hull. There was a large assortment of discarded lumber and empty plastic containers of various sizes and descriptions. Net buoys were part of the raft. It must have been just such a net from lost fishing material that tangled in the prop. The motor suddenly bogged and a swell turned us on the restless sea. Then the motor quit completely. Mark raised it and began hacking at an orange tangle of woven polypropylene twine with a belt knife as we spun to the seaÃ‚'s whims. The swells and wind were pushing us toward shore at a fast angle.
Mark frantically cut and unraveled the twine and we were carried ever closer to the beach of jumbled boulder and rooted rock abutments. Waves reached higher as they neared shore. They stood tall and narrow and curled to create sudden tubes before lurching forward with gained momentum to clamorously smash into the ragged shore.
We were dangerously close. Mark dropped the motor and declared it hopeless. There was nothing resembling a landing site where we were headed.
I grabbed the one oar in the skiff and scrambled over gear to reach the bow and fight the rock away from us. The boat shifted violently and I was in the bottom and on my face. I grabbed the oak pallet in the bottom, placed to raise gear above bilge, when the skiff bucked again, I rose with it. I pushed out with my arms and the boat slammed down hard and my shins found a metal cross strut and took the brunt of the blow. I was rolling in the bottom yelling to fight off pain. My left shin was suddenly wet and sticky.
Mark shouted and the skiff met the shore abruptly. The keel caught and the skiff was still until another and bigger wave hit us. The boat spun and turned over. Gear catapulted out of the bottom. Freezing water poured over us. The next wave hit and rolled the boat. I was in the water and the edge of the skiff crushed across my thighs against shear rock. It was an irresistable force and I screamed with pain and waited for the next wave to crush me completely. Instead, the wave receded and sucked the boat away, as I clawed away frantically. I was on a small point of rock and fell off the opposite side. I was in the water again when the next wave embraced me then painfully tossed me against barnacle-crusted rock. I kicked at a large log aimed at my chest and saw the next wave gathering itself.
Mark caught me by my jacket hood and towed me up onto a flat piece of rock. The incoming wave helped and suddenly, I was looking at three feet of polished stone as the water rolled away. I was almost amazed to see my legs still functioned. Assorted gear bobbed at the waterÃ‚'s edge and washed and tumbled with the surf. While I caught my breath Mark was already scrambling and recovering gear.
The skiff washed in on a wave. It was full of water and appeared as something forsaken. Mark snatched up the loose bowline at the apex of its ascent and quickly dallied it around a rock and let the sea wash away from around her. I found more rope and limped to Mark with it. We would splice it in and tie the skiff off to a spruce above the high tide mark the waves now licked.
All of our gear was recovered. Sea salt would have its effects, but nothing was lost because it was all in dry bags or doubled plastic trash liners. Mark used gasoline from the outboard tank to start a roaring fire and we slumped back to wait for the tide to turn. Getting that skiff off the beach was serious work. The outboard was hopeless. The lower unit was shot even if it would have started. We wrapped gear in a tarp dappled in seaweed and housed this bundle with the badly dented boat. We had a long walk ahead of us. We debated climbing over the top but decided there was too much brush involved. We would stay to the lower forest and its open old growth and carpets of lush moss and beaten deer trails. It was much easier than fighting brush even if it meant a longer walk.
That was pretty much the end of the tale. We plodded and talked and eventually the Kodiak airport loomed into sight. We were able to hitch a ride into town. Mark had a friend in Kodiak City with a bowpicker and we retrieved the stranded skiff and gear with little trouble. We missed the ferry but MarkAir was cheap transportation in those days. We checked parcels of gear on subsequent flights and drank beer in the bar and missed three flights to get it all home. We caught the final flight to Anchorage where we were able to claim all of it.