Misery Loves Company
It’s a place where dreams are simultaneously made and shattered. A place where mettle is tested and metal is twisted. A place where you might one day find yourself caught in the entanglement that lies squarely between life and death. One of the few places on this planet where the myths and legends are upstaged only by the reality that awaits around the next corner.
I’m talking about a place known as The Rock. Not Alcatraz, not Alcatraz, at all. You’d be wise to spend a few days at Alcatraz to prepare for this place. I’m talking about Game Management Unit 8 in Alaska, more specifically, Kodiak Island.
In 2012 while serving in the United States Army and living in Alaska, I was fortunate enough to have drawn both a Brown Bear tag and a Mountain Goat tag on Kodiak. Within minutes of the tag information being released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I’d made a few phone calls, had a buddy onboard to make the trip with me, and an air charter lined up down on Kodiak. Jackpot. I’d just been dealt pocket aces as it pertains to a dream hunting season. It quite literally couldn’t get any better.
Fast forward almost a year and we’re boarding a commercial plane in Anchorage bound for Kodiak. I can’t remember how much it was now; but, I’m pretty sure our excess baggage fees were on par with what it would have cost us to buy our own jet outright. Regardless, we were embarking on what would prove to be one of the greatest adventures of each of our lives.
We arrived in Kodiak and dropped off all of our gear at the seaplane base. The season for my Mountain Goat tag ended the day before my Brown Bear season opened. I decided to focus on the Brown Bear hunt since I wasn’t sure if and when I’d draw another tag. That said, we planned on trying to do a three day fly-in trip for Mountain Goat, have the plane pick us up after that hunt with the rest of our Brown Bear gear, and fly down to the Brown Bear unit a few days early for some scouting and deer hunting.
Being rookies on Kodiak, we missed a very obvious and fatal flaw to our plan. In Alaska, you aren’t allowed to hunt on the same day you’ve flown. On Kodiak, the wind blows. Hard. We were informed by our charter company that there wouldn’t be any flying the day we were supposed to leave for my Mountain Goat hunt. Great, my three day goat hunt just turned into a two day hunt. Such is Kodiak.
The next day greeted us with slightly improved weather conditions so we loaded up the plane and headed towards the Mountain Goat unit. To date, that was the sketchiest flight I’ve ever been on. Turbulence? I’ll have “Understatement of the Decade” for $400 please, Alex. Sweet, the Daily Double.
As we cleared the last pass before Kizhuyak Bay (where we'd intended to land), the pilot took a look at the water below us and informed us that we wouldn’t be putting the plane down there today, did a 180, and headed back to the seaplane base. Having all of 15 minutes as a co-pilot in a 206, I couldn't help but agree with him, considering I could see the white caps from 1,500'. Swell, my three day Mountain Goat hunt that turned into a two day hunt just turned into a one day hunt. Can you say death march?
Over a few beers and some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten, we made the executive decision to scrap the Mountain Goat hunt and fly down to the Brown Bear unit a day early to do some extra scouting and deer hunting. It felt good to make such an informed and educated decision. The reality is that the weather was going to give us about a three hour window in which to fly the next day and then it was supposed to start blowing again. We hadn't made an educated decision at all, we were merely playing the hand we were dealt. Ultimately, if we'd gone to the Mountain Goat unit, we may have gotten stuck there for several days and missed the Brown Bear opener. Pass.
We made it safely into my Brown Bear unit and immediately set up camp. We didn’t have a ton of time the first day because the weather window was in the afternoon. As I watched the Beaver disappear, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell I'd gotten myself into. We were about to spend nearly three weeks in the backyard of some of the largest bears on the planet and help would be nowhere in sight.
Since we'd brought along a wood stove for the tent, we wanted to go ahead and get that set up and get a fire started since it looked like the weather was about to turn. I'd just purchased this stove for the tent and failed to set it up prior to leaving on the trip and give it a good dry run. Know your gear, right? Fortunately I'd packed my version of a Kodiak Island insurance policy for when a stove pipe doesn't fit together exactly the right way.
As we were setting up camp, a bruin was cruising the beach about 200 yards below us. He actually caught wind of our camp and started heading our way shortly after we saw him. Within 30 minutes of the plane leaving, we had to scare a bear out of our camp. This was going to be awesome. Kodiak was living up to the hype.
We quickly learned that Kodiak is nearly overrun with some of the most beautiful cross foxes we'd ever seen. Tom was willing to risk a little hide damage with his .270 in order to harvest one and put the hide on his wall at home.
Since we had a few days before bear season opened, we decided to do a little deer hunting. We decided to head in the opposite direction of where we'd intended to glass for bears in order to minimize the amount of scent we'd spread. On the way out, we discovered a relic from Kodiak.
From this spot, we got an excellent view of the bay, looking away from our campsite. There were plenty of alder meadows down below us and we were certain we would see deer all day long, holding off until we'd glassed a mature buck and could plan a stalk. Unfortunately that was not the case, and our deer hunting efforts were for naught.
We headed back to camp empty-handed on the eve of the bear opener and devised a game plan. This would be a good time to interject a small but very important fact – neither of us had ever hunted Brown Bears. Not a big deal, right? After all, it’s only Kodiak. Having very limited experience with Brown Bears at the time, I’d been doing a ton of research and talking to several folks whose opinions I held in very high regards. What I learned was that the best way to hunt bears on Kodiak is to find a good vantage point and then glass, glass, glass.
We found a great spot that allowed us to glass several drainages as well as two river beds and most of the beach at the head of the bay. After the encounter we’d had almost immediately after arrival, we had high expectations. Unfortunately, Kodiak happened. The unpredictability of Brown Bears in that particular area coupled with the silver salmon run being virtually non-existent lent itself to a very slow hunt.
The buddy that came along with me had aspirations of notching a deer tag, or two. It's a well-known fact that Kodiak has some of the finest Sitka Blacktail Deer hunting on the planet. The winter prior to our arrival saw one of the harshest seasons and subsequent deer die-offs in a long time. As strange as it sounds to say this, there were hardly any deer on Kodiak that year. We’d paid a ton of money and taken three weeks off of work to go on a glorified camping trip on Kodiak. Or so we thought.
After about a week of glassing from that same spot and seeing only a sow with cubs, we decided to hike in a bit further into that unit, look for another area from which to glass, and potentially scare up a deer, or two. As luck would have it, on the second day at the new spot, we found a deer on our return trip to camp in the afternoon. As I turned and looked over my shoulder, I found Tom with his rifle shouldered and that appearance and posture that he wasn’t just taking a look at something, something was about to die.
I wasn’t able to see his target from my vantage point; but, while the report from his weapon was still echoing off the mountains, I saw a Blacktail doe fall to the ground, mortally wounded. We made quick work of getting her dressed out and headed back to camp.
We’d assumed the deer hunting would be much, much better on Kodiak. Ignorant confidence led us to a food bill full of freeze dried meals, various pastas, breakfast bars, crackers, etc. No meat. No meat at all. It’s Kodiak, we’ll just shoot 2-3 deer as soon as we get there and then have an unlimited supply of meat for the rest of the trip, right? Wrong.
Here’s the thing about my buddy and I – we don’t run off of batteries - we need calories! Freeze dried meals are good here and there, I’ll admit; however, having them for every meal of the day for days on end can really wear on a man. We needed meat. When he shot that doe, the meal that followed will go down in the record books as one of the finest I’ve ever eaten. Blacktail doe tenderloin fried on the wood stove in olive oil with a bit of garlic and soy sauce can really lift a guy’s spirit after he’s had the crap beaten out of him for 10 days on an island with some of the harshest weather on the planet.
With spirits lifted, we headed back to the new location the next morning, being extremely careful when we approached the kill site from the day before. Having passed that location, we made it onto our glassing site for another day of unparalleled nothingness. I pointed out to Tom that the kill site was covered with ravens and eagles, all of which bolted at our arrival. From our glassing location, we could see back in the direction of the kill site and if we saw all of the birds flare, it’d be a half-decent indicator that a bear might be present and deem the situation worthy of further investigation. I call it bear hunting with tip-ups!
Remember “unparalleled nothingness?” The day dragged on and we didn’t see or hear anything and could only assume that the birds sat upon the gut pile gorging themselves on offal for the entirety of the day. As the sun started getting lower in the sky, we decided to call it a day and head back. I took point and my buddy brought up the rear as we moved down the dry river bed (salmon can’t run up rocks) back towards camp. The kill site was situated about 100 yards “down river” from a slight bend in the creek. Because of this arrangement, we weren’t able to see the kill site until we were within 100 yards of it.
As I turned the corner, my heart stopped.
Rewind to my studying of Kodiak and conversations with those whom I trust. Of course the question came up, “How dangerous is it, really?” The unanimous answer was resoundingly, “Very!” However, everyone with whom I spoke was quick to point out that the only real danger was a sow with cubs. Excellent. That was great news. It was great because not only was I not allowed to shoot a sow with cubs, but I was now standing roughly 100 yards from one.
I threw up a fist giving the universal hand signal for “Halt.” Immediately, Tom, who is in the Air Force, stopped in his tracks. In another rookie move that almost cost me my life, I decided that the bear was far enough away and hadn’t seen or heard us so we might be able to sneak back out of the scene unnoticed and unscathed. Wrong. Dead. Ass. Wrong.
I made it about 10 yards back into the curve when she was on us like the pudgy kid down the street was on whichever team was unfortunate enough to pick last. Reacting purely out of instinct – thank you Uncle Sam – I shouldered my weapon and went into auto-pilot. I immediately started yelling at the bear trying to get her to recognize us as humans and turn and run. To my surprise, she stood up on her hind legs and we could see her nose working like crazy trying to place this undoubtedly foreign scent. I continued yelling at her trying to scare her away and was about to fire a warning shot when she lowered her head and ears, dropped back down onto four legs, and started coming at me.
I’m very aware that Brown Bears will often bluff charge. I was also all too familiar with the advice I’d been given by two master guides on Kodiak who told me that the only bear who means business is a sow with cubs. At 10 yards, she could have been on me in the blink of an eye. While still yelling, I put my finger on the trigger and got serious as she took her first step in my direction. Accelerating with a quickness I couldn’t fathom for an animal that large who seemingly lumbers about all day long with no real direction, she started covering ground. Steps two and three made me feel like she meant business and that if I’d fired a warning shot at that point, I might not have the option to rack the bolt and get another one on target before I was missing half of my face.
My custom .300 RUM sent a Barnes TTSX in her direction and I was able to slip the round right under her chin and catch her in the sternum from about 20 feet. Back to her hind legs she went and expired almost immediately. For an incredibly low percentage shot, I was extremely lucky to have had it end the situation almost instantly.
I'd like to offer a sincere apology to the readers of this article - there are no pictures from this event. As you might imagine, taking out a camera and snapping a few photos was the absolute last thing on my mind.
In Alaska, you’re legally allowed to take an animal for which you don’t have a tag or that is out of season if it is in immediate defense of life or property. At that moment in time, my life was most definitely in Jeopardy. However, in order to mitigate false DLP (defense of life and property) claims, a requirement of this situation is that the trophy must be turned in at a local ADF&G office, otherwise guys would run around the state taking trophy animals year round, claiming DLP, and walking away from the encounter with a new taxidermy bill. In this case, the stipulation of the DLP was my skinning the bear and bringing in both the hide and the skull for an investigation.
There was one small problem, however. Actually, there were three large problems. This sow had three cubs with her that were larger than most dogs I’ve seen. That was likely their last fall with their mother. Even though they were cubs, collectively they would have made short work of us. I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed. We elected to backtrack about 200 yards and then take a circuitous route through the waist-high vegetation and alders back to the riverbed roughly 300 yards below where the incident happened. This would allow us to get back on the easier path offered by a dry streambed without disturbing the cubs and causing another ruckus.
It's worth noting, at this point, that our senses were hyperactive during this jaunt through the brush. After what had just happened, we had a very short fuse and very high heart rates. We couldn't have been more than five feet from breaking through the brush back into the dry riverbed when I, again taking point, stepped on a rabbit that nearly voided my digestive tract. After some colorful language and mild cardiac arrest, we were back in the riverbed heading back to camp.
Once in camp, we fired up the sat phone and called the Kodiak ADF&G office for some guidance. We were instructed to leave the bear at the scene and forego retrieving the skull and hide in order to not interfere with the cubs. Since we likely would have had to terminate the three cubs in order to fulfill the requirement of bringing in the hide and skull, I was happy to hear the wildlife officer give those particular instructions. Although I was on the island hunting bears, I was distraught to have to put one down in this fashion and the idea of doing it to three more was troubling at best. I think it's important to mention that even though we head out to try to harvest these animals, we also genuinely care about their well-being and the health of their populations. If hunting is conservation, then hunters are conservationists, bottom line.
After that experience and having been on the island for almost two and a half weeks with nothing else worthy of mentioning, we decided to call our air taxi and head back out. Kodiak started to act up again and we found ourselves stuck in the tent for two days waiting on decent weather to be able to get back out. Unfortunately, I was no longer jazzed about getting back out after bears during those few days so we hung out in the tent. My wife and I had just had our first child about a year prior to this trip and it had really bothered me to put that sow down in the presence of her cubs. Regardless, one of us would live to take care of his/her children and I made certain it was damned sure going to be me. The plane arrived during a brief window of calm weather on the third day and took us back to town.
I went by the ADF&G office once we got back to town and filled out the DLP report, explained the story to the wildlife officer, and walked out of there with a heightened respect for both the wildlife on Kodiak and those fine gentlemen who protect them and enforce the fish and game laws. After an investigation, it was determined by ADF&G that I had acted in accordance with the laws pertaining to DLP and the story ended there. I later found out that they'd commissioned a guide in that area to retrieve the head and hide of that bear and upon inspection, determined that the evidence supported my claim.
To this date, I have yet to experience a similar fear. The sheer terror of that situation is emblazoned in the forefront of my mind and will likely remain there forevermore. Even though I didn’t notch a tag when I was there, I walked away with an incredible trophy in the form of a story. I now have an experience that others can only dream about. An experience that I shudder to remember.
Kodiak 1, Boomer 0. I’ll be back Kodiak, I’ll be back.