The Lucky Shirt bear

I WAS HANGINGon for grim death in the heaving bow of a four-metre rubber ducky ina 1.8-metre swell in south-east Alaska’s Inside Passage, navigatingaround some of the wildest coastline in the world. Chopped to foam by35-knot winds, the waves lifted the craft alarmingly. We’d surf intowards the jagged rocks as we hugged the foreshores of Dall Island,two hours out from the 38-ft cruiser, Glacier- our home for the hunt, moored in asafe inlet – and due east of Siberia!

My uncovered facewas chilled to the bone, but I was not otherwise wet thanks to thethermal layers of clothes and the breathable waders and knee-highrubber boots and my best outdoors purchase ever – my hefty StoneyCreeky rain coat. Underneath was my lucky shirt –a 1960s flannelI’d worn as a pro-whitetail hunter in New Zealand and often since.I was forever hopeful.

Leaning back intothe stern to help stabilize the rubber coffin, fishing outfitter andgiant black bear and Rocky Mountain goat hunting guide parexcellence, Kurt Whitehead gripped the throttle of the 25HP Hondafour-stroke. Smiling through a face dripping with rain and saltspray, he said dead-pan: “Are we having fun yet.”

Laughing, pullingback on the prow rope and bracing my boots on a thick cleat below thegunwaless to save myself being catapulted overboard as the nose divedyet again into the grey-green sea, I tossed back into the wind: “Ofcourse. It’s only a black bear hunt. Nothing dangerous!”

I guess this wasthe “highlight” of the trip, my fourth and certainly toughesttrek after black bears. I’d seen plenty of blacks in the past inCanada and America but nothing big enough to shoot. I wanted amonster or nothing.

And for a whilethere, it looked like I might well go home empty-handed as Kurt waseven fussier in the size department.

With his fiancéTrina Nation, a tough Pawnee Indian descendant, as deputy skipper andguide (she has the best vision of any hunter I’ve ever met), heshoots a handful or so of giant blackies, mostly with 20-inch skulls.These are record-book trophies with hides that square out at overseven-feet – two-metres plus. That’s what had brought me toKetchikan in Prince William Sound, then on to the Tlingit village ofKlawok and a long boat ride in a three-day marathon of travel thatleft me exhausted for days.

A few hours afterthe ordeal at sea, we landed the dingy in a tiny cove with a grassybeach 800 metres from the white-caps. Silently, we stalked throughthe wet, mossy forest along a narrow and muddy bear trail litteredwith the sodden remains of salmon. About 100 squishy paces from themouth of a narrow creek we watched masses of pink salmon spurting inbursts from hole to hole in the gravel, desperate to reach theirspawning grounds.

Finding somecomfortable squats in two forks of an ancient cedar above the riverbar we settled down – nibbling on tarty red lingonberries – to waitfor dead low tide. It was then the salmon were trapped in the shallowgravel beds and the bears came out to gorge themselves on the easypickings. “I saw a huge bear here three times with differentclients in Spring, but we never got him,” Kurt whispered as hehanded me his rifle, a flat-shooting Remington 700 in .300 RUM withmuzzle-brake and Limbsaver pad topped with a 4.5-14×40 LeupoldVari-X3.. That rig was a surprising pussycat to shoot prone andgrouped one MOA over our packs.

The wind swirled,but we were high above the water looking into the dank and gloomyforest. Hours went by and I was amused at one stage by a family of 11land otters that tumbled from the Arctic jungle in a wary troupebefore following trails down to the tideline and a rowdy search forcrabs and shrimps.

Suddenly I hearda crashing sound and some twigs breaking. I looked up from thesplashing of the otters out in the shallow bay and Kurt – a keentrophy hunter himself – sitting almost three metres above me in his“nest,” mouthed, “ I … see… a …bear.”

One minute therewas nothing, strain with my 10×40 Leicas as I did. Then a big blackbear appeared from left to right in the creek, 30 metres away. In thebinos it looked massive, with a great big fat arse seemingly twopick-handles across. The deal with Kurt was simple: he said yes or noto the shot.

There was a longsilence as I looked up at him. The bear was walking towards us belowour stand along a lush green patch of grass just above the gravel.The bear was glistening black, sleek without a hair out of place. Itlooked fantastic to me. It was obviously a boar and tried to catchsome lunch in a pool too deep and missed out. Right under us, itjumped in and bit a salmon. Grasping it in both hands it chomped downon the brain and then the roe, then dropped the remains back in thepool.

I was eager toshoot, reckoning on at easy spinal shot from about eight metresabove!

Then Kurt openedhis palms, put them about 20 centimetres apart and shook his head.Too small.

I wasdisappointed, but understood. That big bruin walked right below usout on to the beach. He looked out to sea, surveyed his domain, thensauntered slowly back into the creek to fish some more. He tried tocatch a few but they were too quick for him. It was now 7.30pm and wefaced another long, dangerous haul home; the lights of the Glacierwell after dark were never sowelcoming.

Trina –daughter of a Montana bear guide and a woman with many North Americanbig game heads to her credit, including a 67-inch bull moose – saidshe’d got within 30 metres of a big sow down on the beach near theboat. Kurt had sent her to scout the clear-felled hills around themooring area for Sitka Blacktail bucks, a nuggety little sub-speciesof mule deer. She had seen only does. A Sitka trophy was my secondarytarget, but with none on the beaches – I saw 37 females during mytrip – I was convinced pretty early I’d miss out on theseinteresting animals. My lower back had been giving me buggery formonths and there was no way I could carry a hefty pack up into thesnowy peaks for a three-day spike camp after the big bucks. Thosedays are over for me.

Trina hadprepared a tasty shrimp (prawn) gumbo soup, an aromatic salad of fishand crab, and we ate it with venison casserole washed down with whitewine. On the way to Dall Island – named in 1866 after an earlynaturalist, William Dall, Western Union’s chief scientist – we’dgone shrimping. This was hard yakka for a bloke with a crook back butit was a two-man job setting the pots up to 200 metres deep andwinching them in later. But the results were something like 1,000large tiger-striped prawns and sundry other crustacea. Delicious theywere, too.

One night aferocious storm surpassed the other squalls that plagued us thissojourn. I was woken in the four-berth cabin of the charter boat byalmost being flung from my bunk and organised chaos. Trina was at thehelm and Kurt was out on deck wet to the skin trying to keep hiscruiser and two inflatables from smashing into the rocks. The boathad torn its anchor from the mooring and was being blown onshore. Itwas a near thing, but the crisis was averted and we all slept in thenext morning.

There was littleprivacy on board, but mostly we were on the water anyway getting tothis bay or that, near or far, or climbing hills to slip down intoweathered bays to beat the wild, on-shore winds that threatened toscuttle the hunt by alerting all the bears.

Each day we’djump on the rubber craft and head out looking for bears. Despite thecrappy weather I saw 13 bears for the trip, the biggest one twice,but we couldn’t get it right for a shot. It was the huge boar seenpreviously in Spring and we were keen to nail it.

The night beforemy very last day of hunting it squalled with wind gusts to 50 knots.The rain poured down and the calm bay was a washing machine of waves.I couldn’t sleep and the boat slipped its anchor again. But by10.30, the seas were surprisingly calm and the wind had droppedthough the rain was incessant, but not heavy. “The winds havechanged 180 degrees, so we’re in with a chance,” Kurt said.

I had a goodfeeling as we headed back to Windy Bay, where he had seen but beenunable to grass the biggest boar of the trip, always in the sameplace after slipping from the forest down a whopping blown down logthick as a man ‘s body into his favourite fishing hole. Wind andtide and the treacherous 10km journey back to the “mother ship”had beaten us every time.

This run we wereable to get really close to the mouth of the creek and the shinglefan of small streams into the bay. I set up the rifle over a moss andlichen-blanketed log and waited. My back was screaming at me from thepounding the night before. I couldn’t settle properly. I became thehypocritical atheist turn-coat, almost praying: “Please Lord, letthe bear come tonight. Let him come early. Let me shoot him well.”

Kurt was dozingon the mossy log when I nudged him in the ribs and said: “Bear.”The big bruin had come down his favourite path really early at2.20pm, on to his log stairs and into the creek to feast. My prayershad been heard.

“He’s a goodtrophy, man. A great trophy. I wouldn’t pass him up on day one, letalone now, that’s for sure.” Kurt said. “Can you shoot him overthe log?”

But it was toofar on a brute only partly visible behind a huge blowdown. “Tricky,”I said. “I can only see about four inches of his back…”

“Okay,” saidKurt. “Nothing for it. Let’s get closer.” I wasn’t expectingwhat happened next.

We ducked intothe forest and ran just inside the bush fringe, climbing over logsand down into side creeks, up over boulders until we ran out of coverand were suddenly there, right beside the big bear’s log bridge.Kurt raised his hand: “Shhh!” He then indicated the bear was justover the log. We were no more than 20 metres away and the bear wasundisturbed, crunching on a juicy dog-salmon.

When it rose Ishot it in the shoulder. I could barely see through the scope, set at14X and on infinity for the long shot, which I forgot to change inthe excitement. And the lenses were smeared with muck and water fromour rush through the trees. But at this range it didn’t matter. Itthrashed about, tried to chew a small tree in rage and pain and Ishot it again in the creek. In the spine this time.

It died in thestream and I couldn’t believe how big it was. Even like a drownedrat, it was humungous. “Man, you got yourself one helluva bear,”Kurt said. “It’s one for the Books.” And it was. The hidesquared at 7ft 4inches and the skull, over 20 inches green,officially scored a tad under when measured dry 50 days later..

But it wasacademic to me as I don’t bother entering heads in record books.The trophy speaks for itself.

Kurt went tobring up the Aquapro as I rolled the great hulk down the shallowstream into deeper water. Getting that 350lb monster into the bow ofthe dingy took forever with my crook back giving out constantly atthe wrong time. The journey back with the best part of a tonne in arubber boat went surprisingly well, with the seas flat at the optimumtime.

I couldn’tbelieve my good fortune with my boots resting on the glossy hide. Atop blackie had been a long time coming, but well worth the wait forthis prize, which is being full mounted as I write. It’s the samesize as my mounted grizzly. What a bear!

“You watch,”Kurt said as the little Honda purred along. “Now the hunt is over,the sun will shine.” And guess what? It did. Sunset got better andbetter until at 7.40pm a rainbow striated the orange sky. It was thenTrina said: “Bear on the rocks.”

And there,exactly 0.125 nautical miles, or 80 metres from theGlacier, a nice black bear trudgedalong the slimy, rocky foreshore. But although a six-footer, it wasjust a tiddler compared to the one we’d just winched on board. Mylucky shirt had come through.




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