PUBLISHED: 10:44 AM on Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Hunt for brown bear becomes a family affair

Photo by Barbara Turley
  It was a tense moment as Kathy prepared to shoot.
For several years, my 16-year-old daughter, Kathy, had been telling her father and me that she wanted to shoot a brown bear. We'd basically been patting this sweet little 5'2" young lady on the head and saying, "That's nice, dear," and never getting around to doing much to help her.

To tell the truth, I was very uncomfortable with the thought of my baby anywhere in the vicinity of a wounded brown bear, and killing one almost never is accomplished with one shot. I didn't even like the idea of her shooting our big .375 H&H magnum bear rifle. The only time I would ever consider pulling the trigger on that rifle myself would be if I thought someone was going to die if I didn't.

However, when the subject came up that spring, Kathy, my husband, Kim, and I had some serious conversations with a friend who was a professional brown bear guide. He and Kim decided that it would be best for Kathy to shoot a 30.06 with 220-grain silver-tip bullets and Kim to back her up with the .375 with 300 grain Nozler bullets. Our friend said that with his hunters, he always made the agreement that if the bear got up after their first shot, he would shoot. That sounded like a very good plan, too.

Photo by Barbara Turley
  Persistence in asking to go on a bear hunt, then persistence in hunting rewarded Kathy with a nice bear rug today.
With pictures of bears, he carefully showed Kathy where to aim. It's important to break the front shoulder and cripple the bear with the first shot. Bears can do amazing things with their heart, lungs or liver completely blown away, but a broken bone mechanically limits them. For about a month, Kathy and Kim went to the Juneau rifle range several times a week, practicing. On the days that they didn't go, Kathy practiced sighting through the rifle so that picking it up and putting it quickly on target became easy and natural for her.

We were very glad when we learned that our 22-year-old son, John, would be back from school in time for the bear hunt. My position on our hunting team was photographer, so another rifle in the party was a very welcome addition. He carried a deadly accurate Jap 31 with 180-grain bullets. We selected Tenakee Inlet as the area for our hunt. Our 24-foot Bayliner served as our means of transportation.

It had been a winter of heavy snow. On a summer canoe trip in Tenakee Inlet the previous year, we'd seen plenty of brown bears.

Now, with hardly any green grass growing along the shore, and deep snow up many of the big drainages, we were concerned that the bears were still hibernating, but we hoped for the best.

Bear hunting is only done in the late evening or very early morning. At that time, the bears come out to feed on the new green grass in the tidal meadows or to eat mussels and barnacles along the shore if the tide is out. Because it's hard to do both the early morning and late evening hunt when the nights are short, we chose to concentrate on evenings. We spent our first night anchored in Saltery Bay on the south side of Tenakee Inlet. Using our Zodiac for a shore craft, we loaded the rifles, packed what seemed necessary in our daypacks and motored to the upper end of the bay, stopping frequently to study the shore with binoculars.

Photo by Barbara Turley
  We'd fired six shots. The bear was down and not moving, but we approached with guns ready.
In the deepening twilight, we watched three deer come out to feed. After watching a long time, we decided to go ashore and look for tracks in the snow along the upper beach. We didn't find any.

We returned to the boat across the dark water, grateful for Kim's foresight in leaving the anchor light on. The dawdling arrival of spring was discouraging. The next day, we explored Seal Bay. That evening's hunt took us up half a mile or more of tide flat. Near the forest, we came to a couple of small ponds with Trumpeter Swans on one of them. A deer ran past quite close to us. On our way back, on the muddy banks of a small steam we finally found what we were looking for: bear tracks. At least one was out of hibernation.

Day by day, we made our way up the inlet, enjoying sunny days, coping with wind and rain, looking at the first signs of spring, and treasuring our time together as a family. The worst thing about a hunting trip, as opposed to one that is purely recreation, is that it's not possible to completely overlook the fact that it's a win/loose sport. We spent some relaxed afternoons lounging by campfires on the beach, melting cheese on rolls by the fire or trying to make the perfect s'more. We also did some time contending with big waves and trouble managing the Zodiac.

We seriously considered heading home a day early instead of wasting any more annual leave. That seemed too bad, since other than not seeing any bears, we were having so much fun. As we lay in our sleeping bags that night, we read from a book written by a man who was a bear hunting guide in Southeast Alaska for many years. This chapter was a collection of stories about bear hunts that didn't go well at all, then turned out right at the very end. That tipped the scales away from heading for home first thing the next morning. Our hunt that evening in the junction between Tenakee Arm and Port Frederick looked very promising with tracks and a recent deer kill, but once again, all we found was beautiful scenery.

Shortly after 5 a.m. the next day, we were underway heading for Juneau. Though we were going at full speed, we still kept watch for dark spots on the shore. Kathy was in her berth sound asleep at six o'clock when Kim and I spotted a bear. She was up and dressed in less than a minute, I think.

I kept the bear in constant view through the binoculars while John brought the boat in closer to shore, but away from the bear. Kim and Kathy shuttled the packs and rifles out to the deck. We pulled around a point out of view and down-wind of the bear. Since we were down-wind, we brought the Zodiac to shore about 300 yards from where we'd last seen him. However, he saw us, and stood up a couple of times for a better look just before we got behind a little ridge. We were nearly to the crest of the ridge, moving quickly and quietly along the gravel beach when we caught a glimpse of the bear near the water. We stopped instantly, put in earplugs and chambered bullets. With the strong maternal instincts I was feeling at the moment, it was a rifle I wanted, not a camera.

We tiptoed forward, afraid the bear had bolted after that last peek (and maybe some of us just a little afraid that he hadn't.) The bear had done just the opposite. We were almost to the crest of the low ridge when the bear appeared above us off to our side, just 100 feet away. It stood up for a better look, then immediately dropped out of sight again. A few seconds later, he appeared down by the water, again standing for a better view of us.

I dropped to the gravel to make myself as inconspicuous as possible while Kathy, John and Kim quickly found rests against a big log that was right in front of them. It seemed like a very long time before Kathy's rifle finally spoke, followed quickly by John's, then more shots from each of them in quick succession. The bear went down and jumped back up again twice. Kim watched through his scope, but saw no need to fire. In a few moments, the bear was lying dead by the water's edge. Kathy had fired four shots and John three, all within a period of about 10 seconds.

The bear fell just at the water line, so the first order of business was to move it away from the rising tide. It took three of us to roll the bear into the Zodiac. We took the bear back to the cove where our boat was anchored and skinned it on the beach there. By about 9 a.m. we were again on our way home, very glad that we'd read that chapter about hunts that succeeded at the last possible moment.