April 19, 2023
In the late spring and summer, Homer, Alaska, is alive with tourists, most of whom have come here for sightseeing tours or chartered fishing trips. Our group was the only one in the harbor rolling gun cases and heavy packs down the corrugated metal ramp leading to the long dock. We stopped at slip E2. Docked there, with the midmorning sun shimmering off her deep green steel hull, was the Sea Shed, a 67-foot liveaboard boat owned and captained by Makoto Odlin, who met our party at the gang plank.
“Are you guys ready to hunt some bears?” Odlin asked, smiling as he hoisted our bags up onto the swim deck. “Yes,” we agreed in unison. In truth, I wasn’t at all certain I was ready for this adventure. Pursuing bears unguided in the vast, steep Kenai Range of southern Alaska was unlike anything I’d done before. Every hunter was responsible for his own success or failure. Responsibility for tagging a bear rested on the respective shoulders of each man holding the tag.
For 10 ½ hours, the Sea Shed churned through the Gulf of Alaska on smooth water. In the galley, my hunting partners Tim Joseph, Mark Sidelinger and I played rummy with two other friends who’d joined in the expedition: Jon Draper and Jayce Kadoun. As the mountains to our port side grew smaller, the swells rose in size as the Sea Shed rolled through open water bound for Bear Bay.
Sunny skies and mild temperatures were forecast throughout our week-long hunt, an unexpected luxury while hunting Alaska, and one that’s never guaranteed. As we rounded the southernmost tip of the peninsula and began working our way into the labyrinth of interior bays, a bank of dense fog swallowed the boat, limiting visibility to less than a hundred yards. For the next three hours, Odlin navigated by instrument through the mist. Two hours later, still mired in fog, we arrived at Bear Bay.
When the anchor struck bottom twenty fathoms down it was after 10:00 p.m., but still daylight. The fog had loosened. The peaks of the snow-capped Kenai Range appeared against the lavender sky. It seemed a shame to me to sleep in the dark confines of the hull. Above, the sky had faded to deep purple. With a tarp for protection against the moisture and my blanket from the bunk below, I rolled myself into a cocoon, listening to the hum of the engine and staring up into a blanket of dim stars.
To start our hunt, Kadoun and I chose a spot not far from where we were anchored. The narrow island of trees was edged by a broad riverbed lined with loose, gray gravel. Odlin ran the dinghy into a gravel bar at dead low tide, and Kadoun and I stepped ashore. From our position, it seemed best to make our way to an island of rock that would provide a vantage point from which to observe the green meadow. Behind us, the sound of the motor faded, and I turned and watched the dinghy disappear. Except for the slap of waves around our ankles and the sharp cried of gulls the world was silent.
We quickly realized that our estimated route was cut off by two fingers of tidewater. We circled the first bay, crossing at the narrowest point and sinking calf-deep in the stinking gray mud. When we reached the main river channel, we realized there was yet another cove blocking our path. We hadn’t seen any of this on our rudimentary map, or had mistaken them for grass flats, but they had turned what should have been a ten-minute hike into an hour-long slog.
At the far end of the second bay, we had to make a decision. The water had risen with the tide and the beach was gone. Following the edge of the water would mean wading through a couple dred yards of waist-deep water with a soft, unstable mud base. Instead, we chose to cut overland, crossing through the forest and dropping down onto the point we planned to hunt. But just as the bays and rising tidewaters confounded our plans so too did the forest. The wood was a mass of centuries-old hemlocks. The deadfall created a massive pile of timber that lay like skeletons piled atop one another. Some we could crawl under. Others required us to climb onto the tops, grabbing hold of shattered branches as we tried to balance the weight of our rifles and packs without losing our grip and dropping down into a dark network of gnarled, toothy trunks below.
“There’s an open field behind us,” said Kadoun. There laid a broad stretch of flat, green grass we’d missed or overlooked on our map. A half-dozen narrow creeks ran through the meadow, some of which were less than two-feet wide but twice as deep. Exhausted and frustrated, we made our way to the forest edge and began glassing the field. Bear trails, beds and scat were everywhere, but it was unseasonably warm and the only bear we saw was feeding through open ground 500 feet up the side of the nearest mountain.
We set off for the base of the mountain only to find our paths blocked by more deadfall and a fast-flowing river fed by spring runoff. Climbing the mountain meant crossing another half-mile of deadfall and fording the plunging river. Better to sit and watch the bear on the mountain, we decided. Eventually the bear moved off and so did we, retracing our course and finally arriving at the meadow we planned to reach much earlier in the day. We hadn’t been there more than ten minutes when, through the distant white remains of two long-dead trees, I saw a black backline.
“Bear. Looks like a good one.” “Yep,” said Kadoun. “You spotted it, so it’s yours.”
I ranged the bear at 342 yards and then tried to find a shooting position that suited me, but the jagged rocks didn’t offer much. Worsening matters, the bear was obscured behind a veil of grass and only its head and backline were visible. That meant having to shoot through heavy grass and a hidden target, and the vegetation might obscure cubs if the bear was a sow.
There was a rock island on the edge of the riverbed that would cut the shot by a hundred yards. If I was careful, I could reach the island and gain elevation without spooking the bear. We circled wide around the rising tidewater as we walked over the loose gravel toward the vantage point. Somewhere along the way the wind shifted. As I turned to tell Kadoun, I was surprised to see another bear following directly behind us along the beach. The bear wasn’t intentionally pursuing us. It had simply exited the forest and suddenly found itself a hundred yards away from our position. We froze, but there was no hiding on the empty gravel bar. The bear paused, lifted its head, then turned and rushed back up into the trees.
“There are bears everywhere,” said Kadoun. I agreed. This might be an easier hunt than I thought. When I crested the island, the big bear we had seen feeding in the meadow had vanished. Whether it smelled us, saw the other bear’s retreat or simply wandered into the woods remains unknown, but the result was the same: we were out of luck.
BEARS ON THE BEACH
After another tough hunt on day two, Kadoun finally had his chance at a bear. It was late evening, darkness was descending when a large bear appeared along the shadows of a beach in Bear Bay. The stalk would have to be precise and fast, for the light was fading and at any moment the bear could take a half-dozen steps and vanish behind a wall of alders.
We made our way around the crescent-shaped beach made up of wet rocks and beached kelp that smelled rotten after a day in the sun. Luckily, the terrain worked to our advantage, and there was a small rise that allowed us to move within range of the bear. Kadoun found a rest on a bleached piece of driftwood, and I called out the range: 300 yards. The bear was still unaware of our presence, moving toward a steep pile of rocks not more than a dozen steps from the water’s edge.
“I’m going to wait for him to turn.” For the next two minutes we were at an impasse. The bear was feeding away toward the rocks, refusing to turn, and Kadoun was doing his best to remain mentally prepared to make the shot. Eventually, the bear came broadside. The rifle cracked.
The bear’s reaction to the first shot was not dramatic. The animal simply lifted its head, and I was sure he had missed. Then the bear started for the trees, and a split second later a second shot rang out. I heard the thwack of the bullet and the bear turned two half-circles, one to the left and right. It paused under the low-hanging limbs before disappearing into the growing darkness of the forest.
Following a wounded bear into the coming night with one light would be foolish, resulting in facing the angry bear at close quarters or, more likely, driving the wounded animal into more rugged and steep terrain and adding greatly to the recovery efforts. I was relating this to Kadoun, who was nodding in stern agreement, when I saw his eyes widen.
“The bear just fell off that cliff!”
Indeed, it had, and that’s where we recovered it a few hours later as the brief boreal night gave way to dawn. After the second shot the bear had climbed directly up onto an overgrown ledge where, feeling the effects of both 200-grain ELD-X bullets (Jayce’s first shot had been perfect—why the bear failed to react is a mystery) it tumbled down the 40-foot rock face. Draper and I helped Kadoun skin and butcher his bear, and then we loaded everything into the dinghy and made our way back to the Sea Shed for a late breakfast.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
There were two full days left to hunt. I chose to spend the first of those days lying on an island of stone in the center of a river where Tim Joseph had seen a bear the day before. There were perhaps a dozen trees on the island, which was surrounded by water after the tide rose, and I spent the better part of twelve hours lying in wait on the soft moss hoping a bear would feed on the open grass. But that never happened. It seemed a real possibility that I would return home empty-handed from the hunt. All my hope rested on connecting with a bruin on the final day.
I decided I’d spend the first half of the last day glassing a narrow finger of land twenty miles down the coast. The hunters who had already punched their tags could fish for rockfish, lingcod and halibut in the waters just offshore while I waited for a shot. But that chance never came, and I made my way back to the beach to rendezvous with the Sea Shed just after noon.
I still held out hope that there might be another chance at a bear. The odds were not in my favor, though, and my last hopes were all but dashed when a red and white Cessna with floats circled low over Bear Bay before skimming to a landing on the mirrored water during its second pass. I sat near shore watching as the plane backed up to the beach while pale otters rose from the water to survey the goings on. “That’s it,” I thought, and said as much to my hunting companions. “If they’re hunting or camping, we’re as good as done.”
But the plane’s pilot did a curious thing. He turned the Cessna so that its propeller faced the bay, backed it onto the beach, and secured the airplane as if he planned to stay for some time. I saw the pilot sloshing through the blue water to the tail of the craft where, inexplicably, he took a single photo of the plane with his cell phone. Then, as abruptly and unexpectedly as he’d arrived, the pilot loosened the aircraft, started the engine, and took off from the water, never to be seen again. We all agreed it seemed like a lot of work for one cell phone picture of a plane, but perhaps the departure of the Cessna would leave the area undisturbed long enough for me to get a shot. It was 7:00 in the evening. In a few short hours, the sun was behind the tops of the range. I’d all but given up hope when Kadoun shouted: “Bear!”
The black form was silhouetted against the same beach where we’d sighted in our rifles days before. The only hope of connecting with the bear was to take the dinghy far down the beach and then stalk back, but time was limited. Draper and I picked a place far from the bear and Odlin eased the nose of the dinghy up onto the rocks. I climbed up the face of the island and tried my best to lay down flat on the granite points. The view from the next rock pile was no better. That left only one island of land between me and the last place we’d seen the bear. With time waning I crossed the rocks and climbed up the 10-foot rock pile, hiding under the trees, and formed a rest from moss. There was still no sign of the bear.
With no additional cover behind which to hide, and without better options, I began making my way down the rock pile, inching around the bend in the river and trying to see the meadow. I glanced to my right, and there, on a narrow patch of grass, stood the bear. It had returned to the woods, but reappeared exactly where we’d first seen it. At 150 yards, I kneeled on the tumbled rocks, rested my arm on my knee, and centered the crosshairs of the Zeiss just behind the bear’s front leg. The bear stopped feeding and looked up at me. There was no waiting. When the rifle came steady, I squeezed the trigger. The report of the suppressed shot echoed up the river, and the bear fell where it stood.
We finished our final butchering on the swim deck of the Sea Shed as it churned northwest through the Gulf of Alaska. The deck lights offered enough illumination to finish the task, which was challenging with the roll of the boat on the black sea. I used what energy remained to clean the deck. Then I fell into my bunk and slept. Five hours later, sunlight was streaming in the galley. Scattered human voices and creaking wooden planks meant we had returned to Homer, a town filled with tourists—and a few tired hunters.