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. Continue reading Hair’s Breadth Bear