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Plenty of Bear
By Russell Annabel
This scalp-tingling story of thrills from browns, blacks and grizzlies was published in The Field and Stream Reader in 1946.

Maybe it will help if I tell you about the experience Gunn Buckingham and I had at Chinitna Bay. It was one of those rowdy blue-and-gold June mornings, with a whiplash wind roaring in from the open Pacific. We had climbed to the rim of a shallow, brush-grown basin in which we hoped there might be a stray Kodiak. As we came out on the crest and looked down, I spotted one — a fair-sized bear standing on the bank of a frozen streamlet at the base of the hill.

Buckingham slammed a cartridge into the chamber of his rifle, and then startled me by asking, “Which one of ’em shall I take?”

“What do you mean 'which one’? There’s only one bear down there.”

“There’s two.”

“There’s one.”

This might have continued indefinitely if I had not happened to glance up the ridge on our left. A biscuit-toss up the slope was a circular patch of tall dead redtop grass, surrounded by deep snow drifts. Leading into the grass was a line of deep-wallowed bear tracks, but there were none to show where the animal had come out. Looking closely, I made out a brownish object partially screened by the weaving grass. It looked like a moss-covered boulder, but it wasn’t, because suddenly it turned over, and four immense brown paws showed above the wind-brushed redtop.

Buckingham said: ‘‘Holy smoke! We must have got into a convention of bear,” and started shooting.

The basin erupted Kodiaks. There had been at least five in the brush below, and they tore out in all directions, smashing through the alders like elephants. The one in the grass island reared straight up at Buckingham’s first shot. He looked like a woolly hangover from the ice age. I could have sworn he was as tall as the spruce trees behind him. Buckingham squinted along his rifle sights and fired again. The heavy soft-nose struck with a wicked whoomp, and the bear crumpled without a kick left in him.

Will Kodiaks charge? Sure they will. I have never seen a wild animal that wouldn’t charge under the proper set of circumstances.

The point is not that you may be caught in a bear stampede during your hunting trip, but that, square mile for square mile, the bear population of Alaska exceeds that of any other country on earth. There are so many species and sub-species in the territory that even the scientists who have studied them cannot agree on the precise number. And they come in an amazing variety of colors: white, blue, black, brown and yellow. If your wife insists that you bring back a bear pelt to match her new bridge set, you can safely undertake the job.

A couple of years ago an Indian hunter named Charlie Toughluck, up in the Nelchina country, killed a blue glacier bear with snow-white ears. Nellie Neal, who runs a roadhouse at the head of Kenai Lake, is the proud possessor of a red grizzly pelt. This extraordinary trophy came from the Sinjack Mountains, two hundred miles above the arctic circle. One look at it will convince you that there are in this world stranger things than we have dreamt of in our philosophy.

Early spring — between May 20 and June 20 — is the best time to hunt Kodiaks. Not only are the pelts better then, but the bears are easier to locate. The alders are not in foliage, and the bears stand out so plainly against the naked drifts that often you can spot one from two to three miles distant, without using binoculars.

Outfit at Seward, and cruise around the Kenai coast to Kodiak Island, or to the low-lying tundra hills of the Alaska Peninsula. Or charter a gasboat at Anchorage and hunt the west coast of Cook Inlet. Put into Chinitna, Iniskin or lUiamna Bays — all good spring bear ranges. At Chinitna you will have the thrilling experience of hunting on the slopes of Mount Redoubt, a live volcano with a plume of smoke and steam rising from an icy cleft at its summit.

Hunting Kodiaks in the autumn is a pretty unsatisfactory sport. The bears are all down in the flats, and the flats are knee-deep with mud and slush. The alders are thicker than hair on a dog’s back, and the weather is rotten.

It rains on the Alaskan coast in September. Boy, how it rains! They tell a story about a schoolma’am who related the Biblical account of the flood to a class of young Alaskans. It didn’t go over so well. One small sourdough stood up and allowed that it had been raining for nigh on a month and a half, and the creek out front hadn’t come up a foot.

Of course, if you are tough and don’t mind sloshing around in mud-holes with a wild north wind whistling around your ears and rain sluicing down your back, go to it. You may be lucky enough to knock over a bear or two, but the pelts won’t compare with spring pelts, and nobody will envy you the trip. You’ll spend a good share of your time drying socks, wiping mildew off your boots and gun cases, and trying to keep the sugar from turning to syrup.

If you have a few rounds of ammunition left after taking your limit of bear, spend a day or two shooting leopard-seal. Cruise along the river mouths, with a phonograph playing in the boat’s stern. The seal, believe it or not, will follow the music.

Maybe you have shot at some difficult targets in your time, but wait until you have tried to hit the sleek brown head of a seal bobbing in a gasboat’s wake. It requires a technique which makes trapshooting a child’s pastime by comparison. And the really swell thing about it is that the Territorial Government will pay a substantial bounty for the nose and whiskers of each seal you succeed in killing.

In case seal shooting doesn't square with your marksmanship, try hunting whales. Anybody should be able to hit a whale. In the spring, herds of little belugas, the sacred white whales of the Aleuts, swarm in these waters. And occasionally a big 50-footer comes in from the ocean. Better leave these alone, however, for you may have trouble on your hands if you happen to annoy an old bull whale when he is engaged in the springtime business of courting a lady whale.

Buckingham and I made this mistake once, and I still believe the ensuing mix-up caused the gray streak in my once auburn locks. The barnacle-backed bull we fired at was so enraged by one little .30 slug that he lobtailed all over the place, and came within five feet of smashing our boat to kindling and sending us all to Davy Jones’ locker. Cheechakos can get themselves into more trouble!

By all means supplement your store grub with local seafoods. They make a tail-water chowder on this coast which cannot be equaled in the round world. The ingredients, it seems, are a jealously guarded secret.

“Dear Jim — The bear killed me, but, by Heaven, I killed him too.”

I just happened to be standing at the galley skylight one day when the cook was preparing the noble dish; so I can report that it contains, among other things, sea celery, fillet of silver hake, halibut cheeks, cockle clams, bacon, diced onions and — this appears to be its crowning glory — fried cubes of king salmon milt. The dangerous thing about ordering a bait of this superlative chowder is that it may cause you to forget bear hunting altogether. However, I advise you to pull yourself together and take a chance. You’ll never regret it.

Will Kodiaks charge? Sure they will. I have never seen a wild animal that wouldn’t charge under the proper set of circumstances. Fool around long enough with a porcupine, and he’ll do his fighting best to fill your boots with quills. A week-old seal pup, cornered on the beach, will come at you with the worst intentions in the world.

As to the percentage of Kodiaks that will charge through sheer bad temper and hatred of man, you’ll have to consult somebody else. I know four or five men who have been badly mauled by Kodiaks which, so they say, came busting unexpectedly out of the brush, all ready for war. I knew two men who were killed by Kodiaks after they had shot at the animals and failed to stop them. And I know others who have committed every indiscretion from falling over Kodiaks to popping them with .22 rifles to see them jump, without getting even a dirty look in return.

Bear Attack by John R. McDermott

My advice is: don’t take any chances. Know your rifle thoroughly, don’t stop shooting until you are positive your bear is dead, and never, never under any circumstances, follow a wounded bear into the alders. Failure to follow this last cardinal tenet of bear hunting has caused most of the hair-raising tight scrapes you read about. An alder jungle is no place to meet an angry bear of any species. A ragged old female Kodiak with a pair of gangling cubs growled at me in a hillside thicket one day, and I nearly broke my neck trying to locate her so that I would know which way to light out of there.

A tragedy that took place down near the Canadian boundary has haunted me for years. Big Axel Johnson, a trapper, came home to his cabin in the early autumn twilight and found a Kodiak breaking into his meat cache. Johnson had no rifle with him but was carrying a heavy double-bitted ax.

The bear charged, and as it came bounding at him Johnson split its skull with the ax. But the vitality of the animal was such that it mauled him terribly before it died. Johnson dragged himself to his bunk and scrawled a last note to his partner. It read: “Dear Jim — The bear killed me, but, by Heaven, I killed him too.”

Don’t get excited if you happen on a Kodiak whose fur gleams like polished silver. Take your guide’s advice and let the beggar go his way in peace — the color is an illusion. These silvery-looking bears are really the color of a new burlap sack, and are not considered good trophies. Some quality of the sunlight reflecting from the snow makes them look like platinum blondes.

The darker the pelt, the better the Kodiak trophy. Just set your heart on an 11-foot bear with fur the color of rare old hand-rubbed mahogany, and keep saying over and over to yourself “I’m going to get him. I’m going to get him, by golly, if it takes until June 20.” And maybe you will. Stranger things have happened.

Your crew will subject you to the usual sourdough horseplay, if they think you are the right sort of guy and can take it. Here’s one they will try to put over. Back in town, after the hunt is over, they’ll tell you about an extraordinary pink bear pelt owned by a member of the local fire department. Naturally, you are eager to see it. So, taken in tow by the skipper, guide, packer, cook and engineer, you go up to the fire hall. Here, the chief conniver opens a shower door, and within you see one of the fire laddies soaping and scrubbing himself. After a dazed moment or two you get it — then, of course, it’s up to you to buy drinks for the whole framing lot of them, plus a box of cigars for the fire department.

Maybe I shouldn’t reveal this, but it’s the only revenge open to me after the whole-souled way I fell for the lousy joke. Anyway, they’ll get you with the ice-worm stunt, or the old one about the barrel of pickled bear tongues, or any one of a dozen others designed to put cheechakos in their proper place.

You won’t find many black bears in either Kodiak or grizzly country; but go up to the Glacier Lake, ten miles southeast of the headwaters of Knik River, or over among the grassy Kenai hills near the forks of Chicaloon River, and you’ll find them thicker than fiddlers in hades. It is best to pack in; but if you are pressed for time, charter an airplane at Anchorage.

Pitch your camp high on a hillside where you can look out over a wide scope of country, and get busy with your binoculars. The bears will be up in the timber-line blueberry patches, putting on fat for hibernation. It’s easy to locate them, for their black coats stand out against the autumn hillsides like headlights on a raft. There are some big ones, too — 6- and 7-footers. The first of September is the time to start hunting.

A good thing to remember is that all black bears are pirates and have a mighty yearning for man’s grub. A camp left unguarded in black-bear country is a sure invitation for trouble. For some unfathomable reason, blacks have never learned to recognize a tent entrance. Or maybe they prefer to make their own entrances and exits. At any rate, whichever the case, they always tear a large hole in one side of your tent going in, and another large hole in the opposite side going out.

This custom of theirs has reduced legions of strong men to tears. It is beyond the power of language to describe the havoc and confusion a black bear can create inside a cook tent. Tin cans are a cinch for him — he crushes ’em in his mouth like gumdrops. And chances are, having discovered that good things come in tin, he’ll hammer your camp stove flat as a pancake, trying to get something edible out of it.

Some time back, the Game Commission discovered that black bears are predators, and made outlaws of the species by lifting all protection. They were, it appears, killing moose calves, which was only natural of them, considering their fondness for fresh meat and the lack of watchfulness which characterizes moose mothers. While a cow will fight to the death for her calf if she happens to be present when danger threatens, she has the bad habit of leaving her infant cached in a thicket for a considerable period of time each day. A black bear comes along, finds the calf curled up in the alders — and the result is a square meal for the bear and another pain in the neck for the Game Commission.

Up in the tall Knik peaks, however, where there are no moose, the situation is different. Here, if a bear wants fresh meat in any quantity, he is faced with the prospect of going up against the rapier horns and iron courage of an eternally watchful old nanny goat. This has had the effect of making vegetarians of the Knik black bear.

When I was up on the Glacier Lake trapping goats for the Biological Survey, I once saw a black bear make an elaborate stalk for an old nanny and a pair of kids. He scrooched up a ravine on his belly, bounded like a flash across an open shale pitch, and floated softly as a midnight shadow down a daisy-starred swale to within fifteen feet of where the little family of goats was peace- fully enjoying the noonday sun. Just as he was getting set for the final rush at one of the kids, the nanny stood up and faced him.

Having looked an irate nanny in the eye at close range myself, I know exactly how the bear felt. She looked as big as a buffalo, her horns were yards long, and suddenly there didn’t seem to be any percentage in carrying the thing any further. That must have been the way the bear felt, for after a moment’s hesitation he turned and shuffled off down the mountain.

A scrawny little 300-pound bear gave me a scare one day. I was sitting under a trap-line cache on Metal Creek, a tributary to Knik River, making a cup of tea. Suddenly I heard a commotion in a near-by high-bush cranberry thicket. In a moment, out came the black bear, whoofing and popping his jaws in no uncertain manner.

As my rifle was down in the canoe, I swarmed up one of the cache legs to the roof, and sat there, slapping mosquitoes, for two solid hours while the bear did sentry duty below. Finally he wandered off, looking back over his shoulder at every few paces to growl at me. Don’t ask me what had put him on the war trail. Maybe he had been disappointed in love, or maybe he just didn’t like the idea of my being around there. At any rate, I am convinced he would have given me a bad time of it if he had caught me out in the open without my rifle.

Try to put your shots into the chest cavity — a soft-nose through a grizzly’s barrel won’t keep him down.

Indian hunters will tell you that a fighting black is more to be feared than either the grizzly or the Kodiak, for the reason that the latter two species seem always to be in a frantic hurry about mauling a man, while the black will rip and tear at a victim as long as there is a spark of life remaining. This explanation of the Kodiak’s tactics may account for the number of men who have lived to tell the tale after being mauled by the big brownies.

The grizzly, of course, is the trophy of trophies, the goal of every sportsman’s desire. He has glamour and a reputation for ferocity, which has made him the undisputed emperor of the bruin tribe. His fame has been told in story and song since the days when men hunted him with slate-headed lances and made clothing from his hide.

No campfire gathering is a success without at least one grizzly yarn to make the chills run up your spine, and no sportsman’s den is properly fitted out unless there is a grizzly trophy or two in it for the owner to brag about. Ask any hunter to name the world’s ranking big-game animal, and he’ll tell you it’s a toss-up between the grizzly and the Siberian tiger, with the sladang crowding them close for honors.

Your best bet for grizzlies in Alaska is the range of shale hills lying between the headwaters of Wood River and Yanert River. Go in by pack-train in the early fall from the Alaska railroad station at Healy. It’s an easy three-day trip, with only one pass to climb.

Camp at the mouth of Little Grizzly Creek, on Wood River, and hunt the hanging basins and creek heads. This is grand country — high, wild and open, with only a sparse fringe of spruce along the stream banks. On all sides the mighty snow peaks of the Alaska Range loom mile-high into the blue.

There are innumerable small creeks plunging down from the high glaciers, secret valleys tucked away between the shoulders of the hills, windy ridges where bands of white bighorn sheep and woodland caribou gather. And it is the finest grizzly country between Seward and the Endicotts. Count Tolstoy and I once saw eighteen grizzlies here in two weeks.

It is a good idea to do your hunting on horseback — you cover more ground in a day and have opportunity to watch the hillsides instead of your footing. When you have located a bear, anchor your horse to a boulder and crawl as close as you can before going into action. Try to put your shots into the chest cavity — a soft-nose through a grizzly’s barrel won’t keep him down. He’ll roll over a few times and claw up a lot of moss and earth; but the first thing you know, he’ll snap out of it and start for distant places.

And when you have one down, put in an extra couple of shots for luck — the taxidermist can fix up the holes so that you would never know they were there — and then sit down for a cigarette. Time enough to go over to the kill to have your photograph taken when you are absolutely sure that the bear is dead. An action photograph of you, trying to beat an Alaskan grizzly to a tree, will be small consolation to your wife and children if your guide has to ship you home in a box.
 
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