Coastal Black Bear Hunting in Alaska

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A Blast From The Past

 

                            By Larry Hatter

 

Some of the most unique reminders of our country’s history reside in the most inconspicuous places.  They rest in the corner of an old, dusty attic beside a rickety chest of drawers or on the rack at a downtown pawn shop, mostly unappreciated and uncared for.  Make no mistake though; firearms have played an integral role in our ascension from a few middling colonies into a thriving nation.  It’s for this particular reason, when I first laid eyes on the old Remington propped in a dim corner of the farmhouse, I didn’t see an aging piece of steel and wood, I saw a link to the past.

By the mid-1860s, little was known about the American west and even less about the vast frozen north.  Still licking its wounds from a protracted Civil War, the United States turned its attention to expansion west of the Mississippi River, a term coined by the government as “manifest destiny”. To accomplish this task however, a substantial upgrade was necessary from the traditional cap and ball musket the average frontiersman carried.  The old smoke poles were only marginally effective when pitted against the bow and arrow and virtually useless against the large and dangerous game these unexplored lands had to offer.  With the advent of the self-contained cartridge however; the tide started to turn and in 1867 the Remington #1 Sporting Rifle was born.

One of the first rifles capable of handling the substantial pressures needed to take large game, the #1 gained instant popularity.  It was initially designed specifically to adorn trains and hunt buffalo, but soon found many more uses throughout the western territories and even as far north as the interior of Alaska.  The most famous of these rare weapons accompanied General George Armstrong Custer during an expedition along the Yellowstone River in 1873.  In photos, he famously brandishes his prized 44-90 Remington Special as he sits by a large bull elk and grizzly bear harvested during that excursion.  The rifle accompanied him even as he took his last breath at the Little Big Horn.

So it was understandable that I was in a state of absolute jubilation over the treasure I had unearthed!  The money I’d spent seemed a peasant’s sum for such a unique piece of Americana.  As I took to cleaning the old girl, my mind started wondering, where has this relic been?  How many buffalo has it taken and mouths has it fed?  Has it ever stared down a grizz and maybe saved a life?  Perhaps it protected a prairie family from an Indian raid or a weathered prospector from a claim jumper.  Sadly, I would probably never know, the secrets of this old weapon resided cold in the ground with enterprising men who now were mostly a mystery.

 

It was precisely that moment a grand idea enveloped me.  The proverbial book did not have to be closed on this old-timer.  There was no reason I couldn’t help write its next chapter!  It was a serviceable weapon more than one hundred years ago and there was no reason it couldn’t remain so today.  I was already scheduled to travel to Alaska and hunt black bear with my brother, Miles, and lifelong friend, Fred, in the spring.  So it wasn’t much of a stretch to discern what gun I’d have in tow.

 

The ensuing months I spent mostly preparing for the adventure, acquiring gear, lining out logistics and most importantly, tuning up the ole’ Rem.  I endured many a raised eyebrow during that time.  Whenever I would elaborate on my plan to hunt coastal bear with my antique rifle it would mostly be met with skepticism; however, I was undeterred.  I would spend hour upon hour in the reloading room polishing 45-70 brass, and measuring drams of Black Horn 209 powder.  With each completed round I would feel closer to my goal and when my hands grew tired of the meticulous work, I’d sit back and imagine myself motionless in the dark, boreal forest, rifle rested against an ancient cedar tree, iron sights fixed on the shoulder of a stoic beast.

 

The days filtered by quickly and before I knew it we were flying over the scattered islands of Southeast Alaska.  The area is rich in history as the first cries of “gold” were heard in the Stikine River Valley and soon thereafter near Sitka.  As you follow along the Inside Passage, you can almost see the ghosts of giant steamships carrying thousands young men hungry for the chance of instant fortune over one hundred years ago.

It wasn’t long before we were listening to the heavy drone of the Dehavilland Beaver recede as the pilot eased off the throttle and set us down on a docile Pacific Ocean.  Our host had been anxiously awaiting our arrival and after expeditiously unloading our gear, had us en route to our accommodations.  The lodge was a model of excellence, containing all the modern amenities necessary for a successful Alaska hunt.  To our good fortune we would sojourn here for the duration of our stay.  That evening, with everyone settled in, I gave close inspection to my weapon of choice, which is always wise regardless of your destination.  I was pleased to see that it had traveled well and I felt confident, if called upon, it would rise to the occasion.

 

The next morning we rose to a fine spring sun generously bestowing its warmth upon the landscape. Only a few clouds dotted the powder blue sky and in every direction the breathtaking panorama that belongs only to Alaska was vivid, to say the least.  If you ever stand in the midst of a towering snowcapped mountain, skirted by a dense old growth forest and in its shadow a meandering stream winds its way to a tranquil, crystalline sea, you’ll know instantly you are truly in the “Great Land”.

 

We spent most of that first day scouting for sign and getting a general feel for the lay of the land.  Our initial plan was to gain some high ground and glass for foraging bears, but after enduring several hours without success, it became apparent the strategy was nonproductive.  We were able to gain several vantage points with commanding views, but the forest was so overwhelmingly thick it made spotting the bruins virtually impossible.  Even the clear cuts, which appeared so ideal from afar, produced little, the ground cover being so dense that it would easily conceal any of our prospective quarry.  A quick conference with my companions revealed that we were all thinking along the same lines.  We needed to descend into the creek bottoms where the spring growth was lush and the blacktail does were busy giving birth.

 

The decision reaped almost immediate dividends.  As we entered our first section of creek bottom the telltale signs of heavy bear activity were evident.  Fresh tracks lined the soft, sandy bank at the waters edge and the half eaten remnants of skunk cabbage that were scattered about the secluded draw were all that was necessary to confirm our suspicions.  Suffice it to say, the duration of the hunt would be spent in close quarters with the island’s marauding bears.

 

That evening I was following a frequently used trail which snaked its way through a stand of tremendous old growth cedar.  The trees were so immense that it would take several men hand-in-hand to encircle one’s girth.  This also meant that a bruin could be encountered in an instant, concealed by the towering timbers until the last precious seconds.  The thought sent the slightest of cold chills down my spine and I gripped my #1 Sporting Rifle a little tighter.  It was here I encountered the first prospect of the hunt.  As I emerged around the edge of a decaying stump I instinctively froze as a bear stood motionless not thirty yards distant.  He had been rooting around in a skunk cabbage patch as evidenced by a yellowish piece of bulb that slightly protruded from his mouth.  As we stared at each other I quickly ascertained that although he was a handsome specimen, he was not a large one and I elected to pass the opportunity.  I did, however, take the opportunity to raise the old rolling block to my shoulder and peer down the barrel flats at the sleek black form.  As I did the young boar gazed at me intently with almost a curious look about him.  Perhaps he was thinking, “What do you expect to accomplish with that old clunker?”  Regardless, he soon wheeled in the opposite direction and ambled off into the tangled undergrowth.

 

As the sun set that evening, I reflected upon the day’s events.  An old boar was not going to stand and gawk like the younger one had that evening.  I would have to make my decision swiftly and my hands had to work in a similar fashion if I were to be successful.  Making matters even more critical was the fact that my weapon only carried one round.  I’d have to make sure that one shot was made with precision or risk trailing a wounded beast through the almost impenetrable undergrowth – a situation we wished to avoid at all costs!

 

The next day’s weather mirrored the last, sublime, so we delegated a few spare hours to enjoy some of the many fishing opportunities at our disposal.  The creeks were especially active close to where they met the ocean and a #2 Panther Martin was all that was necessary to reel in Dolly Varden after Dolly Varden and some cutthroat as well.  When our arms grew weary we stopped for lunch and prepared for the afternoon’s hunt.  The general consensus was that if we frequented the area where we’d encountered the most bear sign, sooner or later it would produce.

 

That evening found us in a major drainage approximately five hundred feet above sea level. We’d discovered a blockaded logging road that looked promising so we decided a quiet walk might be worthwhile.  I slid a 45-70 cartridge into the chamber of my rifle.  Time would be of the essence in such a dark, rain forest type setting and most likely I wouldn’t have time to load if I blundered into an unsuspecting bruin.

 

The road was ancient, resembling more of a trail with heavy patches of alder hampering our vision.  The fractured limestone that encompassed the main path had to be avoided as the crunching sound it produced beneath a boot would alert any bear well before we could see it.  So we stayed as close to the edge as possible, treading lightly in the deep grass and intermittent ferns.

 

As we rounded a small corner a sight lay before me which I will not soon forget.  A hulking, black form stood transfixed not fifty yards distant!  I knew instantly that this was a bear of incredible stature and the Remington was cocked even before it found a resting place on my shoulder.  As the iron sights found the crease behind his shoulder the hammer struck home and the rolling block erupted in a cloud of white smoke, breaking the silence that had preceded the moment.  As the air cleared I could make out the distinctive outline of the downed brute lying mere feet from the safety of the forest.

 

Moments later we were staring in disbelief at what only can be described as the largest black bear any of us had ever witnessed!  His face was scarred and broken and what was left of his bronze colored teeth were either snapped off or worn to the gum.  As I knelt beside the fallen giant to pay homage, a feeling of absolute humility overcame me.  Not just because of the stature of the bear but because the North Country just has a way of making you realize your insignificance.  It was a surreal moment.  When I devised this plan months ago I could never have imagined it would end in such an unbelievable manner.  I placed the old rifle across the boar’s broad back and took a moment to collect my thoughts.  I was now part, albeit a small one, of a story that spanned several generations and most likely many more.  It won’t be the last time this weapon plies its trade.

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