By Kurt J. Jaeger
It was four o’clock in the morning when I woke up. As quietly as possible, I peeled myself drowsily from the down feather sleeping bag and shoved myself past the in-unison snoring guides to the tent entrance. I carefully pulled up the zipper where cold air beat into my face. Thousands of stars blinked from the cloudless sky.
For a while, I stared over the water to where the tiny town of Cold Bay showed some puny lights, then scanned the low waves splashing rhythmically against the coarse stones at the beach a dozen yards away. In the east, the frozen peaks around Mount Pavlof stood out clearly against the velvet black sky and conveyed the impression of an immense expanse of frozen solitude. I shivered.
Taking one last sweeping look over the steep bank behind the tents, the enormous mountain range beyond and the open bay leading into the Bering Straight, I slipped back into the warm tent and the even warmer sleeping bag. However, I couldn’t find the peace for a restful sleep anymore. The prospect to experience the coming day in bright sunshine seemed to work on me like a stimulant, with the nervous thought of it being the last hunting day bothering me.
Based on my experiences over the past six days, I had definitely reached the conclusion that the place of birth of terrible weather had to be in this part of the world. There had also been days when I had several times cursed my decision to come here in the first place, to chase the big bear with my pals from “AAA Alaskan Outfitters” with whom I had hunted successfully two years before for Dall sheep in the Wrangels.
There had been days of driving snow, sleet and low stratus clouds chased by roaring, icy winds with a chill factor of no less than thirty degrees below. Days that taught to me the hard way what “freezing to the bones” really meant. Six days in the hinterland at the base of enormous mountains, always on the lookout for traces on the ground, or the sight of the enormous Kodiak bear.
As I thought of the past week, I drew my head deeper into the sleeping bag. Instinctively, I felt for the rough skin of my nose, which had turned somewhat insensitive, and thanked God that the frostbite there was only minor. My toes seemed it to be worse off. Then I thought of what my hunting guide, Roger Morris, had revealed the night before–that this morning, we would board the inflatable boat and call at another hunting camp along the coast to the West and try our luck there. I was curious about the new area, and hope came flooding back again. Roger had sounded confident, and I knew how hard he would again try for my success. If not, I would fly back to Europe empty handed, without the ultimate result of hunting, though I would be happy about the experience itself.
Now and then a hunter needs success, and lying there I figured that after the hardships I had been through, I deserved some credit in the accounting book of Diana. It had been a damned cold spring with much snow in the mountains and it seemed that the chances of getting a bear were small, although we had twice encountered bears at the base of the mountains. In the first instance, approaching darkness prevented us from getting any closer. The second opportunity turned out to be hopeless since the bear had traveled fast along the foothills of the mountain range without ever stopping.
We were greatly disappointed when late in the afternoon of the sixth day we reached the steep bank and looked down onto the base camp to find no bearskins spread out drying on racks. Instead, we found a note in one of the tents informing us that the three Texans in camp had thrown the towel in on the second day. The biting cold and constant, howling winds were apparently something they did not care for too much. To soften the impact of the bad news, they had at least left a few bottles of expensive whiskey behind for our welfare.
The pale light of the breaking day penetrated slowly through the tent walls. Beside me Roger started to move, then blinked sleepily around him.
“Good morning!” I called out happily.
His astonished look was a confused question mark. I pointed excitedly to the tent entrance.
“I am already awake for a long time and you should really have a look outside. You can’t imagine what a wonderful day awaits you out there,” I said.
Roger did not say a word. He stepped carefully over Dan who still kept snoring and pulled up the zip-fastener. Two minutes later he came back again, a wide grin showed on his bearded face.
“Seems to be your day alright!” he said tersely, then climbed over Dan once more and started to tend to the camping stove. Soon, a busy hustle and bustle and clattering of pots and dishes finally woke Dan from his carpentry. Everybody was up and soon busy rolling sleeping bags and rubber mats and in agreement that the good weather called for immediate action. While Roger was serving the steaming coffee, the first beams of the rising sun reached our tents. The glaring light even dazzled off the material on the inside.
The preparation of the rubber dinghies was next. The outboard motors had to be fastened and the tanks filled for the long journey over the water. Roger, Dan and I took the lead with our boat. Brent followed with a new hunter and most of the gear. The sun shone warming our faces. To our left, the enormous mountain chain covered with ice and snow was overwhelming and impressive in their massive solidity below an azure-blue sky. The incredible harsh world here on the Aleutian chain, untouched since creation millions of years ago, let me feel how small and insignificant we human beings are on this planet.
Roger steered the boat parallel to the coast approximately five hundred meters offshore so as not to disturb any loitering bears with the engine noise. Time passed as we progressed, and in the distance I could see the catchments area of Lennards Harbor as we scanned the steep coastline sliding slowly past us with our glasses.
I don’t remember who spotted the moving brown spot way up on the coastal escarpment first. “Bear!” Roger shouted suddenly and simultaneously throttled back the outboard motor. At the same time we saw how the big brown spot headed with powerful strides for a thicket of alder. It was a bear all right, however, I had not been able judge his size before he disappeared into a thicket.
Brent Jones and his guest in the second boat apparently had also seen something. Gesticulating wildly, they pointed in the very direction, while Roger in the meantime opened the throttle to full power and hurriedly steered the dinghy toward the coast.
“We need to cut him off! I still don’t know whether it is a trophy bear, but we have to try to get closer look at him anyhow,” said Roger.
His voice was almost drowned by the roar of the engine. I clung with all my strength to the safety rope and wondered what Roger planned next. Meanwhile, the bear had moved on to a narrow plateau about fifty meters above the coast toward a fairly large alder patch.
The little rubber dinghy reared up in the shallow waves that splashed us with cold spray. After approximately one kilometer farther down the coastline, Roger steered the bow hard toward a flat spot on the beach. Once there, he ran the dinghy on the surf, stopped the engine, and jumped into the knee-deep water.
“Quick, get the guns! Everything else we leave here!” Roger shouted back over his shoulder while he was drawing the rubber dinghy on the gravel beach. As fast as I could, I rid myself of my rainwear, threw everything together with my heavy jacket in a heap on the shore, gripped my .375 H&H magnum and a full reserve magazine, and hurried behind Roger up the steep embankment.
We probably made it in a new record time up to the plateau. Pearls of sweat covered my forehead. Struggling for breath we looked around, however, we neither heard the snap of breaking branches, nor did we see the bear in the partly dense growth of alder thicket.
“Have you loaded up?” Roger asked.
I only nodded. My senses were tensed tightly. I was afraid that any moment now we could run into the bear. Roger indicated the steep face of the mountain and said, “We must get up there. From above we will have a better view.”
Covering ourselves alternately with our rifles, it was an exhausting twenty minutes until we reached a small rock ledge. From way below, swells of the dark colored sea were clearly visible and the second rubber dinghy plowed slowly in large circles near where we had last seen the bear.
“The bear must be in the thicket someplace over there,” Roger suggested. “We wait here until you have found your breath again,” Roger said grinning when he saw my shining, sweat-covered face.
“He might also be in one of the many little ravines down there,” I added, somewhat disappointed. “I can’t make out anything in the thick alders.”
Roger pointed forward where the thick growth of alder started and said, “Let’s move forward on this narrow rock ledge. It’s possible the bear has not penetrated far into the brush at all on the sloping plateau and will simply wait in there until he feels like moving again.”
We slowly pushed ahead on the slippery rock ledge, groping our way carefully through snow piles and around bulky bushes, taking care not to dislodge a rock that could tumble down the mountain slope to alert the bear. Finally, we reached a spot above the place where Roger suspected the bear to be.
“The wind blows directly into our faces. I do not think that the bear will notice us up here,” I whispered looking at the same time for a partly dry place where I could solidly support my feet and position myself for a steady shot.
“Don’t worry, we have plenty of time,” Roger remarked when he saw my preparations. He pointed with his forefinger at his wristwatch. It was just past noon. The sun was warming marvelously, and after the past days of terrible cold weather, it was plain pleasure. However, despite enjoying the bliss, we feverishly scanned the area below us with our glasses, but could not detect anything moving in the tangle of alders.
Minutes crept by while we searched the area with our glasses. The other boat with Brent and his hunting guest still circled way out in the bay, drawing wide and foaming circles on the dark sea. The noise of its outboard motor was barely audible up there. Then, Roger suddenly stood up. He started to wave his arms to indicate to the left.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I asked nervously.
“I must try to make it clear to Brent that he steers his rubber dinghy to where we have landed. It could be that the bear will try to break through to the left, below the plateau. We could not possibly see this from here,” Roger replied.
I had not thought about it, but it was obviously quite possible, and if that happened, my last chance to end this hunt successfully would be gone. I would be left without my bear. I realized how well Brent and Roger were coordinated, as I suddenly realized with astonishment how the dinghy changed its course in the direction of our berth.
“Perfect,” Roger mumbled, and then watched the thicket below once more. All at once he rammed his elbow into my ribs.
“I think there is something. I see a tiny brown spot in the brush just below us that does not match the surroundings. If that spot starts to move, then we know what it is,” said Roger.
I frantically tried to recognize something in the tangle of branches, but it was useless. Roger just wanted to say something when I clearly also saw a movement in the thicket.
“He is moving!” Roger hissed. “If he sticks to the present direction, he will come out above the alders onto the open grass slope. We then can finally judge whether we have a shootable bear in front of us. If he is a trophy bear, you must act quickly, though. He will perhaps be visible only briefly.”
Roger could only surmise my nodding. He did not take his eyes from his field glasses, which remained fixed on the bear, now slowly making its way through the thicket. My eyes also followed each movement I could make out between the scrubs. There was no more doubt in my mind. There was a bear down there moving steadily uphill toward the meadow. I decided now to exchange my field glasses with the Mauser rifle. I set the telescopic sight to a 6X and followed the movement with the cross-wires. Soon enough, I recognized the outlines of the massive body. Only another couple of meters separated the bear from the open grass slope.
“He has no idea about our presence,” Roger whispered and then hastily added: “Here he comes–get ready!”
I had noticed this too. The deep rust-colored body pushed the last few feet through the dense tangle of alder branches. Then a broad, monstrous skull followed by massive shoulders appeared in my Swarovski telescopic sight. My heart jumped and I felt my pulse throbbing in my neck. My right hand closed around the finely checkered pistol grip; my forefinger ready for easy pressure on the trigger.
Through tight lips, Roger whispered, “It’s a hell of a bear! Shoot! Shoot!”
Roger’s urgent command was cut off by the thunder of my .375H&H Magnum. My right shoulder jerked back with the recoil. Swiftly, my hand worked the bolt feeding another cartridge into the chamber. I felt good about the shot, had seen the crosshairs on target when the shot went off and the thump of the bullet impacting on the bear’s shoulder came clearly back to us as a muffled echo.
“You got him! I have seen the impact of the bullet on his shoulder!” cried Roger excited.
Once again I had the bear in the telescopic sight and was ready for another shot, but then, as I was about to put in a second bullet, the bear suddenly spun around, changing course, and apparently unhurt, in a blur of movement, disappeared back into the dense alder growth.
A little clearing on the line of his flight gave me hope for an opportunity of another shot. In case the bear came through there, my bullet would be waiting for him, I thought. I saw the brush and branches shaking and could follow his escape path in the scope and as he broke cover. As I had hoped, he ran across the clearing. My crosshairs were at his neck and I squeezed the trigger. I couldn’t hear the impact because at that very moment Rogers .375H&H barked beside me.
Then there was quiet.
Only the gently murmur of surf far below on the beach was audible. We looked at each other and I raised my shoulders in doubt. I was convinced both shots were well placed. However, what astonished me and shattered my confidence in my shooting ability was the complete absence of a reaction from the bear to both shots. Analyzing the situation, could it be that I had missed the bear, and that the bear had taken to flight only because of the shooting noise?
“What a bear. What a bear…” mumbled Roger incredulously shaking his head again and again.
“That may be so,” I said despondently, quite a bid more soberly now. “But where is he? He seems to be completely unhurt. No sign of being seriously hit, no stumbling flight, no angry bawling or savage roaring, absolutely nothing.”
Roger calmed me down. He was convinced to have seen the impact of the bullet and the sudden flurry of the thick fur on the bear’s shoulder.
“He is down there and he is hurt badly,” Roger replied. “This much is for sure. If he had fled through the thicket to the left, he would have to cross the ravine and after another two hundred yards he would come into the open, where Brent is already waiting with his rifle.”
His argument made sense. From where I stood I had a good view into the near vertical rock ravine on the left. If the bear had passed through there, I would have noticed him. Roger stood slowly up and reloaded his rifle. Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said with a wry grin on his face, “We are getting to the fun part now, the one that is most pleasurable!”
When I looked at him a little confused, he continued with a stern face, “We are going to climb down there now and then try to get to him.”
I nodded, trying to put on a brave face, but was quite concerned. Knowing how dangerous such follow-up in the dense thickets would be gave me the shivers. But there was no choice. I slid two of the long slim cartridges into the magazine, removed the telescopic sight from the mounting and stuck it behind my trouser belt. The climbing down the rocky cliff was difficult to say the least. I slipped a few times and sorely bruised my backside.
Eventually we reached the sloping meadow and stood in front of the almost impenetrable tangle of felted trunks and branches of the alder thicket. I looked around. Approximately fifty steps to the right of us the bear had turned into the brush. Roger turned and pointed at the nearest edge of alders, “We are going in here! To follow his tracks from over there would be too dangerous. Cutting through here, we might come on him from the side. Anyhow, this is what I assume. Having seen him running to the left, I suggest that we take the shortest route. However, if the bear has not died yet, we might get into damned dangerous situation in this thicket.”
Memories came back to me of Africa–of wounded buffalo that waited in ambush for its pursuers. In the tangle of branches as thick as an arm there was only one party with a clear advantage, and that was the bear. And, if he was not dead, then he certainly was a sick bear, a furious bear, and a bear that would mean business.
Roger looked at me, “Ready?”
I nodded slowly and thought that this was perhaps the last time we would look at each other in healthy conditions. Then we started. I kept myself approximately two meters to the right of Roger. The visibility was sometimes less than fifteen feet. In the confusion of the twisted branches, the images became blurred, fuzzy as a puzzle. Over and around prominent roots we gradually worked our way ahead, always ready to shoot immediately if something as a wounded and mad bear appeared out of nowhere. It would be a plain lie if I said that I felt comfortable in my skin. It was naked fear sitting on my bare neck. But that fear also gave me the courage to face the decision without undue trembling. We stopped again and again, listening with strained ears for the slightest sound that may betray the bear’s location. But, there was nothing but death-like silence. I only felt the tapping of my pulse in my ears. It was too quiet for my comfort.
Yard after yard we worked our way forward, not knowing what might happen at the next moment. The seconds lengthened to minutes, nibbling like hungry rats on my strained nerves. Gnats floated in front of my sweating face and settled voraciously. I glanced inquiringly over at Roger. From the expression on his face it seemed he too suspected a decision was imminent.
At that very moment I heard a series of bursting crashes, the sound of snapping branches and splintering wood, like gunshots. Furious, enraged rumbling and then a deafening roaring broke the silence like a thunderclap, originating directly in front of us and now closing fast. I felt my hackles rise, literally like a cockatoo’s.
In the periphery of my vision I saw Roger raising his rifle and the recoil taking hold at his shoulder. The crash of the shot mixed with the deafening bellowing from the bear, which I could still not see. Again, Rogers .375 H & H bellowed. I saw him stepping backwards in retreat. He stumbled then tried to recover and then I saw the huge, terrifying dark-brown body of the bear rushing toward us at terrifying speed.
My rifle was up, but I could not shoot because of the risk of hitting Roger. I stepped backward, got a free field of fire and squeezed the trigger. Sighting over the open sights, my shot caught the gigantic bear behind the left shoulder just in time, as he turned and passed the guide barely two feet apart.
Then the fracas was, for the moment, over as fast as it had begun. The rumbling from the shots still echoed down the slopes of the mountain, a couple of branches cracked and then there was death silence again. I felt my hands trembling, knees beginning to shake and the sweat burning in my eyes.
“Damned, that certainly was too close for comfort!” I tried to say to Roger, but the words somehow came out unclearly. Then I staggered over to him. Without saying a word, still under stress, Roger pointed to where the bear had approached. Branches thick as a man’s arm where folded over like stalks or snapped clean off as if cut down with an axe. I pointed to the mossy ground where a trail of blood clearly showed the bear’s continuing direction of flight.
“Did you hit him?” I asked nervously.
“I think so,” Roger replied, “but he came so unexpectedly and so darned fast. My quick second shot along his neck into the top of his left shoulder must have turned him a little.”
“And that in addition to my shot through his side saved you from being mauled alright”, I added, greatly shocked.
The event ran like a film clearly before my eyes. There was no doubt in my mind that Rogers’s life had hung on a thread. Had the bear decided to switch his initial attack to me, the situation could have turned out even worse. However, the circumstances now looked much better for us. No doubt, the bear was heavily hit. Nevertheless, I could not understand why my first shot in the shoulder had not crippled him more.
We reloaded the magazines and then slowly followed the clear traces that ran through the alder like a blood-soaked path. We then came to the ravine that separated the wooded area.
“Can you see the blood over there on the rocks? The bear has climbed up the steep wall on the other side,” whispered Roger, turning toward me. “Listen now, I go across and you cover me from here with your rifle. Is this clear?”
I nodded and brought my gun up halfway with the stock at the shoulder. But nothing moved and when Roger finally stood on the opposite side and I followed. We penetrated through the brush together once more, keeping the line of blood trace between us. I stopped suddenly, as if my ears had heard something. Roger paused motionless. And then we heard it clearly. From in front of us some wood cracked and other indefinable noises could be heard. We advanced very carefully, expecting another attack. We had experienced too much within the last few minutes to get careless and went slowly and carefully closing in toward the source of sounds–guns at the ready.
All of a sudden, between the alders, I vaguely saw a big brown body, stretched out on the ground. Around us, shreds of moss, soil and stones rained through the surrounding alders, thrown up by one of the bear’s front paws. Seconds later, I stood at an angle behind the dying bear with the rifle ready. Bleeding from his nostrils, he was still alive and kicking and I decided to end his life with a coup de grace, when Roger held me back, “Wait! Don’t shoot. It is coming to an end anyhow!”
The next moment a flood of blood shot from the bear’s nostrils and then with a last groan the enormous body stretched itself in a spasm of death. I stood there still paralyzed with latent fear and awe at the size and bulk of the bear, while Roger, seemingly berserk, thumped me excitedly on the shoulders. I kept my Mauser clenched like a vice and it took a while until my tension dissipated and turn instead into an unchecked joy of hunting success. Roger hopped around, excited as a child in front of the tree on Christmas morning.
“You lucky bastard!” exclaimed Roger “Do you know what you have shot on your last hunting day? Do you know that you have shot a record bear? I give it ten feet or more and seldom have I seen such a massive skull!”
Quite unable to answer, I leaned my rifle against a fork of a twisted alder branch and looked at my bear more closely. It was a very powerful beast with huge paws and claws that instilled powerful respect. Carnivorous teeth, not dissimilar to those of a fully-grown lion were completely covered by its bulging upper lip. The huge head flowed without interruption into the massive shoulders. It was one single, solid homogenous mass of muscle and power.
In the meantime, Brent and Dan, including the new hunter from Germany, had arrived at the scene. They shook our hands, and congratulated us again and again on our unexpected good fortune. We all gazed in admiration at the marvelous pelt of the bear that did not have a single rubbing spot. I was happy, and only then did I actually realize how luck had played in my hands on my last hunting day. We merely had to roll the bear for a few feet to the very edge of the plateau and then the weight of the carcass rolled it right down the steep slope to the beach.
And that’s the way we did it.
After we removed a couple of blocking alders, the five of us mustering all of our combined strength rolled the carcass to the edge of the plateau from where it tumbled, crashing down the slope to the beach and close to our dinghies.
We could only estimate the weight of the bear, and considering the efforts we needed when turning the carcass during the skinning, we concluded that the brute weighed close to a thousand pounds. We found five bullet holes–three of them in the shoulder area and one diagonally from behind the left shoulder forward into the lung area. Another bullet had entered his left hind leg. The right shoulder bone was shattered from my first shot, and so was the new 300-grain cone pointed bullet, recently extolled by the manufacturer as a “wonder bullet.” Upon impact, its lead core had completely disintegrated. The largest portions of the projectile were small, indefinable pieces of lead and the very bottom of the Tombak bullet jacket with the stamp of the manufacturer still on it. The rest had dissolved into nothing, and had never penetrated to the lung and heart area. Now, it became clear to me why the bear attacked with such vigor. The two Nosler projectiles, which Roger had fired during the close proximity attack, were stuck in the neck and shoulder muscles with a residual weight of about fifty per cent. They had not reached the vital areas of the bear either. It was concluded that my last shot from roughly seven feet distance and past Roger’s shoulder into the bear’s lungs had brought an end to its life.
The thought of it made me swallowed a few times, and I then came to the conclusion that the .375H&H Magnum, even if loaded with bullets that held together, would not be able to handle a ten-foot bear during an attack at close quarters. If I ever would be hunting the big brown of Alaska again, I would bring my .416 Rigby with Woodleigh’s soft-point bullets.
It was close to four o’clock when we rolled the bear skin up and carried it to the boats. Roger had already attached my government metal marker to it. Meanwhile, Brent brought the bare skull, which he had to present to the Fish and Game authorities. The wind suddenly started to blow from the North and thick clouds washed over Mount Frosty, quickly veiling the sunrays. If we still wanted to get as far as Lennards Harbor, we had to hurry.
Quickly, the boats were occupied and the load tied down. The roles of the leading boat were now changed; Roger and I motored behind, while the lead was taken by Brent’s boat with Dan and the new guest hunter.
Roughly two hours later, we reached the empty camp on a little spit of land and brought the dinghies to the shore. While we were pulling the tents down, the weather suddenly changed for the worse. Snow and sleet, chased by strong winds started to whistle intensely around our ears. The fine and sunny weather had certainly been a short event only. The beating of waves against the beach on the rising tide got more intense and drove the rubber dinghies, which were secured by long cords quickly to higher ground on the gravel beach. As fast as we possibly could, Dan and I loaded the canvas packs with the tents and other utensils into the dinghies then covered everything with waterproof canvas and tied the load down.
Minutes later, we pushed off and ploughed through the already quite high running waves. Icily, the wind blew the high flying spray into our faces, penetrated through every little crack in the rain suit, and dripped ice-cold against our soaked skin. Soon, even the Gore-Tex gloves were soaking wet, but there was no opportunity to change. We needed to hang on every moment so as not to be thrown off the steeply rearing boats dancing wildly in the waves. I thought of the rifles, which by now were flooded by saltwater, and the rest of the equipment floating around in the water splashing into the dinghies.
Two and a half hours later the worst was behind us. Through the curtain of rain the two tents of the main camp near the beach came in to view. Riding on the breakers we brought the boats ashore, pulled them with the help of the surf up on the pebbles, and started unloading. It turned out to be a long evening however, not because of tents were crammed full with clothes to hang up to dry or all the equipment and the weapons that had to be cleaned thoroughly of the saltwater, but because my grand bear had to be adequately celebrated afterwards.
The whiskey left by the Texans rendered excellent service. Toward midnight even I ran out of reserves and all of us were looking for our peace in the warmth of the sleeping bags. Nevertheless, it was an interminable night for me. Haunted by frightful dreams, I experienced again and again those moments facing the bear in the alders–the awesome bellows of the attacking bear, his yellowed carnivore’s teeth and open maw, the gigantic paws–and relived in my spirited imagination what could easily have gone wrong.
Eventually, the pale light morning filtered through the tent walls. I slipped from the warm cover and between the laundry pieces hanging around, made my way to the zip-fastener at the entrance. I was curious to know what the weather had in store for us and whether the waves had calmed down enough to allow a crossing of the large bay over to Cold Bay. My worries were unfounded. Outside the tent, slight surf washed gently against the pebble beach. The sea was calm. We would be able to venture the passage with the dinghy with no problems.
It was a long and sad farewell for me. I would rather have remained for a couple of days more in the company of these unspoiled, dedicated hunters and the majestic landscape. But demands from elsewhere across oceans called, and a couple of hours later, I climbed into the little rubber dinghy that would bring me back to the blunt realities of “civilization” again.
As my eyes swept again over the impressive landscape and the enormous, snowcapped mountains, I knew that a part of me would forever remain here and would in time turn to an impatient waiting for me to return.