Adventures on Bear Island

When you fly to a remote corner of Alaska, boat to an isolated cove, and stalk to within 7 yards of a giant bear, you know you've earned your shot.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I bowhunt to get close to my quarry, but as the 400-pound bear lumbered straight toward me, 15 yards away, I looked at his giant paws and muscular forelegs and realized that I was about to get too close.

I was hunting black bears on Southeast Alaska's Prince of Wales Island. Guide Jim Wehinger and I had spotted the 7-foot boar feeding along a winding shoreline and had crawled to a duffel bag¿¿¿size rock 20 yards away from him. I knelt, nocked an arrow, and waited for the bear to walk from behind a spruce and give me what was sure to be an ideal broadside shot. Instead he plowed through the tree branches and came toward me.

His head looked as big as a 5-gallon bucket, and I could smell the wet-dog odor of his hide. He was seven steps from running me over when I figured it was time to act. I started to draw, but the bear spotted us. He stopped and stared just long enough to realize he didn't like what he saw, and with a deep woof, he spun and plunged into the timber.

I looked at Wehinger and laughed. Our perfect stalk, my first of the trip, failed because we had set up where the bear wanted to be. But I wasn't too disappointed. I'd already seen three bears that day, and before the sun set at around 10 p.m., I'd see another four and stalk two. It was a typical day on Prince of Wales.

It's hard to imagine a place more perfect for growing giant bears than this 2,231-square-mile island. The Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest of Sitka spruce, hemlock, and cedar, covers most of the island, fed by 120 inches of yearly precipitation. Although the northern region is a maze of logging roads, the south, where we were, is accessible only by boat, making hunting pressure insignificant. Steep mountains and thick cover also discourage human encroachment.

There are no grizzlies on Prince of Wales, and black bears have little competition for the salmon that choke its streams. The runs are among the biggest in the state and start in mid-June-pinks first, then chum, sockeyes, and silvers. It's an endless supply of fatty, protein-rich food for any bear willing to stake out a spot and fish. The living can be so good that the bears are able to indulge their tastes like gourmets; some eat only the skin, or the heads, or even just the eggs. When they grow tired of salmon, they move up into the clear-cuts and bulk up throughout the fall on berries. They spend so much time rolling in the blueberry patches that their pelts become stained indigo. By winter they're as fat as pigs.

But it's the spring post-hibernation buffet that brought me to the island during the final week of May last year. When the bears start leaving their dens in late April, they're hungry for greens, and they head to grassy coves along the beach, where they feed on the lush new growth. At low tide they roam the mudflats, digging for clams and mussels and flipping rocks to eat the fish and crabs underneath. The feeding frenzy lasts well into June, and it creates the ideal conditions for stalking. On this hunt there'd be no shooting bears from tree stands as they fed on rancid piles of bait. It's all spot-and-stalk. How close you get depends on two things: skill and nerve.

[NEXT "We camped in a cluster..."] We camped in a cluster of wall tents under massive spruce and hemlocks in the Tongass and cruised the coastline in 14-foot aluminum skiffs looking for black spots on the shore. More often-and my preferred way to hunt-we'd head to one of the many grassy coves, find a comfortable log, and spend the day sitting in the rain and glassing for bears that would inevitably show up.

Brad Saalsaa, my host for the week and owner and operator of Alaska Wilderness Charters, considers this hunt to be relaxing since there's little hiking and he doesn't take hunters out of camp until noon. The days were so long and the bears so plentiful that each of the four hunters on the trip wld get lots of opportunities without running themselves into the ground. This left the mornings for pulling shrimp pots for dinner, taking target practice, or just sitting around camp drinking coffee and listening to Saalsaa tell one of his many bear stories.

On the first morning, Saalsaa told the kind of tale that has earned him a reputation as a bear magnet-for good and bad. He was guiding a bowhunter for brown bear on the Alaskan Peninsula and knew a big boar was in a 2-acre patch of brush. Saalsaa and the hunter spent a nerve-frying two hours creeping through thick cover and peering into openings.

"We came to the last 100 yards and we could hear this noise, this rumbling." Saalsaa paused for effect. "It was the damn bear snoring."

The 32-year-old outfitter reclined in his camp chair, letting his audience imagine the sound of a big brownie catching some Zs. Tall and strong with a boyish face and braces, Saalsaa looks like a high-school football player, but his uniform is pure Alaskan guide: a Helly Hansen raincoat and a pair of greasy jeans that smell like skinned bear.

"We finally saw him sleeping 16 yards away under some brush," he continued. "I told my hunter to get into an opening and I'd whistle to wake the bear up. But before this guy got into position, he cracked a stick. The snoring stopped."

The hunter then clanked an arrow off his rest. It was his second mistake, and one too many. The 10-foot bear charged, plowing past the client and at Saalsaa, who dropped it with his .375 H&H.; The beast lay two steps away. Hearing this story reconfirmed my decision to book Saalsaa for a black bear hunt.

Growing up on a dairy farm in South Wayne, Wisconsin, Saalsaa was obsessed with hunting, fishing, and trapping. He raised Eastern turkeys and turned them loose because there weren't any in his woods, and he wanted to hunt them. (Saalsaa is only half joking, I think, when he says that he's responsible for the county's current population of wild birds.) By age 20, his outdoor dreams grew too big for the family's 200 acres.

Saalsaa started by working at a fishing lodge on the Kenai for a summer, "just to see if I could do it." He could. Now he's in the field about 200 days a year-catching salmon all summer and guiding for moose and caribou each fall. But it's bears that seem to star in most of his tales.

"People think an old buck is hard to kill," he said, "but they've got nothing on these bears. Their sense of smell is incredible-better than any other game you'll ever hunt."

[NEXT "I got an appreciation"] I got an appreciation for just how important fooling a bear's nose is when, on the second day of the trip, Jim Wehinger and I hunted a large, hidden cove. Wehinger is one of Saalsaa's guides, his boyhood friend, and a character in many of his stories. He has a regular job in law enforcement back in Wisconsin but gets enough flexibility to guide in Alaska during the spring and fall. In two years he'll be eligible to retire, and he's counting down the days until he can guide full-time, like a man waiting for parole.

Our skiff crawled up a narrow creek until the mountains opened up and before us lay a cove, a half mile wide and 2 miles deep, encircled by steep, snowcapped peaks. The cove was one giant grass flat, interlaced with creeks, hummocks, and fingers of timber. Wehinger tied up, while I found a spot to sit and glass.

Within 15 minutes we counted five bears feeding in various parts of the flat. They looked like black cows grazing in a pasture. One that was popping in and out of a creek bed looked like a large boar, so we worked the treeline into the wind to get a better look, passing beaten-down trails and heaping piles of scat. After an hour-long stalk, we got to within 70 yards and really saw him for the first time. He looked like a Holstein, not only because of his immense size but because of the many bald patches in his hide. At this time of year, bears rub their bodies on trees and snow, removing big chunks of their thick winter fur. He was an 8-foot bear-likely a record-book animal-but his pelt would make a poor rug, so we just watched him, both of us wide-eyed. When the wind shifted, it took him only a few seconds to catch our scent. He splashed through the creek and up the bank into the timber, and the ground rumbled as if a stampede was passing. We felt him leave as much as heard him.

Over the next several hours we saw three more bears, but it wasn't until the end of the day that I got another chance for a stalk. It was a large boar with a good hide, feeding close to a point of timber. It took us an hour and a half to circle into the wind and reach the point, 100 yards from the bear. He sat on his rump like a dog, pulling up mouthfuls of grass and chewing noisily. The wind was right, but the final distance was wide open. There was only one way. I belly crawled, pushing my bow ahead of me. Clouds of mosquitoes rose from the shin-high grass and filled my nose and eyes as I slid to within 50 yards. I didn't need much more, and I started wondering how I'd get to my knees for a shot. Then I felt the wind on my neck and saw the grass ripple. It was a quick gust, but it was enough. The bear stood, put his nose in the air, and walked into the woods.

[NEXT "The next morning..."] The next morning we left camp early to trail a bear shot at dusk by Fred Speechly, one of the three bowhunters in camp. Speechly was confident in the shot, and we expected to find the bear dead after a short trail. But blood was sparse, and after following the spoor for over a mile through the thick rain forest-a tracking job that any bloodhound would have been proud of-we lost it. The realization that we weren't going to find him hit us like a kick in the teeth.

Saalsaa shook his head and spit. "These animals are tough as hell. A hit through only one lung isn't enough. Shots have to be perfect. Hit them good and they'll die quick, most often right in front of you. But if the shot is just a little off-" He let the sentence fade. We could all see what the result would be.

This is the main reason why Saalsaa asks sportsmen to think long and hard about hunting these bears with bows. It's not a game for the inexperienced. In fact, Saalsaa recommends that even rifle hunters choose hard-hitting big bores, like his favorite, the .375 H&H.; "If you don't knock these bears down on the beach, it's too easy for them to get lost in the mountains."

Speechly didn't understand what had gone wrong. His hunt was over, but the grim disappointment smeared across his face was not for himself but for the bear. I had practiced with Speechly and had seen him put five arrows from 40 yards in a tight group. He's an ethical and accomplished bowhunter, an the many bald patches in his hide. At this time of year, bears rub their bodies on trees and snow, removing big chunks of their thick winter fur. He was an 8-foot bear-likely a record-book animal-but his pelt would make a poor rug, so we just watched him, both of us wide-eyed. When the wind shifted, it took him only a few seconds to catch our scent. He splashed through the creek and up the bank into the timber, and the ground rumbled as if a stampede was passing. We felt him leave as much as heard him.

Over the next several hours we saw three more bears, but it wasn't until the end of the day that I got another chance for a stalk. It was a large boar with a good hide, feeding close to a point of timber. It took us an hour and a half to circle into the wind and reach the point, 100 yards from the bear. He sat on his rump like a dog, pulling up mouthfuls of grass and chewing noisily. The wind was right, but the final distance was wide open. There was only one way. I belly crawled, pushing my bow ahead of me. Clouds of mosquitoes rose from the shin-high grass and filled my nose and eyes as I slid to within 50 yards. I didn't need much more, and I started wondering how I'd get to my knees for a shot. Then I felt the wind on my neck and saw the grass ripple. It was a quick gust, but it was enough. The bear stood, put his nose in the air, and walked into the woods.

[NEXT "The next morning..."] The next morning we left camp early to trail a bear shot at dusk by Fred Speechly, one of the three bowhunters in camp. Speechly was confident in the shot, and we expected to find the bear dead after a short trail. But blood was sparse, and after following the spoor for over a mile through the thick rain forest-a tracking job that any bloodhound would have been proud of-we lost it. The realization that we weren't going to find him hit us like a kick in the teeth.

Saalsaa shook his head and spit. "These animals are tough as hell. A hit through only one lung isn't enough. Shots have to be perfect. Hit them good and they'll die quick, most often right in front of you. But if the shot is just a little off-" He let the sentence fade. We could all see what the result would be.

This is the main reason why Saalsaa asks sportsmen to think long and hard about hunting these bears with bows. It's not a game for the inexperienced. In fact, Saalsaa recommends that even rifle hunters choose hard-hitting big bores, like his favorite, the .375 H&H.; "If you don't knock these bears down on the beach, it's too easy for them to get lost in the mountains."

Speechly didn't understand what had gone wrong. His hunt was over, but the grim disappointment smeared across his face was not for himself but for the bear. I had practiced with Speechly and had seen him put five arrows from 40 yards in a tight group. He's an ethical and accomplished bowhunter, an