First-Time Success on the Emerald Isle
Written by Christopher Hanes
My Kodiak Brown Bear adventure began on the 16th of February 2012. That day had been long and hard. A small contingent and myself had conducted an Air Assault operation into an outlying region of Sha Wali Kot District, Kandahar Provence, Afghanistan. We were there in order to advise and assist the Afghan National Army as they worked to spread the reach of the Afghan Government, and rid the area of Taliban insurgents. Long story short, the day ended in an intense firefight between my Troopers and insurgent fighters. As if that wasn’t enough, horrible weather began to set in that night forcing us to exfil. After the CH-47 Chinook helicopters dropped us off at our combat outpost, I made my way to my office. The first thing I immediately saw was an email in my inbox labeled, CONGRATS!! The email simply said “DB234 Hanes, Christopher” followed by another email that said “do you need a backup shooter?” It didn’t take me long to realize the Alaska Draw Permit results were out and I had drawn a Kodiak Brown Bear tag! While the pains of the day were still fresh, this great news became a beacon of light. As far back as I can remember I had dreamed of hunting Alaskan big game, and more specifically one of the large Brown Bear that roam the renowned Kodiak Island.
Situated in the Gulf of Alaska, Kodiak Island is separated from mainland Alaska by the Shelikof Strait. The island was historically known for its role in the Russian fur trade, but today, thanks to conservation efforts, it is a mecca of high adventure hunting as well as world-class fishing. Since I drew the Spring 2013 tag, I had a little over a year to do my research and get ready. I spent that time searching the Internet for information about Kiliuda Bay, pouring over topo maps, and studying the art of judging bear. I talked with people who had been where I wanted to go on Internet forums, and attended local seminars. Hunting the large Brown Bear was going to be different than any other hunt I had ever set out on. I prepared myself to carry a heavy pack, get to the high ground, and spend a lot of time staring through my binoculars. One thing I was sure of, was my rifle. For this hunt I would be carrying my “Alaskan” rifle, a Savage 116 338 Win Mag that I always carry when hunting in Alaska. Many will argue that a man should carry a 375 or larger when hunting the big bears and I certainly don’t fault them for saying that. I am very confident in my abilities to hit what I’m aiming at with the 338. After a short time of hand load development, I decided to go with a very accurate combination pushing a 225 grain Barnes TTSX. This load allowed me to put 5 shots in a group under .75 MOA under range conditions, and from my prior experience with Barnes bullets I knew it would get me the penetration I was looking for.
I had lined up transportation through Andrew Airways, and a camp setup with Kodiak Kamps, but even after all my research I wasn’t ready. I had still not found anyone who would go on this adventure with me. While I’m confident that I could do this hunt solo, it would be very boring. Also I wasn’t too excited about the thought of watching my own backside while hanging out on an island with the largest land mammal carnivore in the world. I started a thread on the Alaska Outdoor Forum asking for anybody who wanted to share in the adventure, and Matt Gittlein answered the call. Matt had drawn a Goat tag for the same area the following fall and felt he could use the opportunity to scout for goat and familiarize with the area. I was happy to have him. For the couple weeks prior to the hunt Matt and I went over our equipment, and ensured our weapons were zeroed. On April 30th we departed Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage in route for Kodiak Island. After landing in Kodiak we were shuttled around by the great folks at Andrew Airways. We got a few necessities from Wal-Mart and Safeway, and then stopped by the local Fish and Game to check in with the biologist. The night was rounded out with one last delicious dinner and great local brew at Henry’s restaurant. We finally laid our heads down at the Kodiak outdoors and More Bed and Breakfast watching hunting videos almost too excited to sleep.
The morning of May 1st we were up bright and early. After weighing all of our gear it came out at 1,190 lbs. Barely under our 1,200 lbs limit for the Beaver float plane we were flying in on. Looking back we probably had more equipment than we needed, but oh well. We also took good solid food with us to cook each evening, so that weighed more than a bunch of Mountain House would. After a roughly 25 minute flight we arrived at our predetermined camp location in Kiliuda Bay. We set up the 10×10 Bomb Shelter tent, and got a tarp erected over the cooking area just before it began to rain. The rain, and or snow would be our on and off again companions throughout the remainder of the hunt. Luckily our selected camp location was out of the wind and we always got a good night sleep.
On the first morning of legal hunting we were up early and began what would become a daily regimen of breakfast and coffee, followed by a roughly 800’ ascent to a high ground knob that would allow for glassing of the valley that I had decided to hunt, based off of prior map research. While I wanted to push into the valley to what I thought would be a better glassing location, the wind was not cooperating. For days, the wind (from all directions and elevations) seemed to blow directly into the valley. Out of fear of spreading our scent throughout the valley we kept ourselves at the mouth and continued to glass. This took a considerable amount of patience. I really wanted to move around, but accomplished bear hunters had ingrained in me that I absolutely could not spread my scent around. For the daily treks to the top, and the hours of glassing I was glad to have high quality rain gear from Kryptek, and great glass from Vortex Optics. Trekking poles, crampons, Thermarest pad, and a small tarp to make shelter from the rain were also welcome and necessary items. For the next few days the weather was never great. When the weather did break we were able to spot some deer roaming the hill sides. It was a relief to spot the deer, because I knew if I could spot the deer while glassing that I would see a bear if one appeared. Bear sightings were few and far between, but at the end of day three Matt spotted a nice bear. The only problem was, it was two miles away across rough terrain and walking a brisk pace in the wrong direction. All we could do was watch it fade away. The morning of day four brought fresh snow in the higher elevations where we glassed from. As luck would have it soon after we hiked up to our glassing location the sun came out in all its glory. Matt and I jumped at the chance to dry out our gear. Everything I owned was pulled out of the pack and spread around so it could soak up the sunshine. The walk back to camp that night took us down to the beach. During our walk we were entertained by a group of seals and saw some encouraging bear sign.
Day Five: Fifth of May
The morning of the fifth we slept in a bit. The long days of glassing while the weather and wind beat on us has began to take its toll. After our breakfast and coffee we were still up at our glassing location around 9 am. The weather seemed very promising and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Once we were at our glassing post we realized that the wind was pushing out of the valley and we were free to push in deeper. We maintained our elevation but began moving along the ridge. We quickly came into snow pack areas. Since there was little to no snow at lower elevations, Matt and I had elected to leave our snow shoes at camp. I’m not sure that I regret that decision, but it certainly impeded our movement. Under the bright sun, the snow was getting soft, and we were post-holing every step we took. We finally reached the spot we wanted to get to and we were not disappointed. This location offered a commanding view of the valley.
Matt quickly identified a den site a few miles off that appeared to still have a bear in it. We also saw more tracks and indentified a location that we considered spiking out to. Towards the end of the day we decided to move positions and get out of the snow. After making this move at roughly 5:30 pm I looked across the valley at the adjacent mountain and there stood a bear. The bear appeared on an open hill side that I must have looked at over a hundred times while glassing. Upon my first inspection of the bear from over a mile away I determined that it was a sow and that I was going to pass. After I continued to watch the bear I decided that I wanted to get closer. Matt and I descended from our position down into the valley below in a matter of minutes. Now at a range of roughly 400 yards I decided it was a bear I wanted to take. I knew it wasn’t the monster that I had envisioned in my head many times, but I decided then and there that I would be happy with that bear. With the conditions we had been dealing with and only a couple days left of hunting I think Matt was glad I decided to put a stalk on this one. It was around 7:30 pm and I told Matt that I wanted to stalk within 100 yards. We dropped our packs so we could move through the alders easier. As we moved closer to the bear it became apparent that there was a decent sized stream and significant drop off between us and the bear…everything looks smaller in wide open country. At this point we had run out of covered ground to close in on the bear, and the bear had moved lower in elevation, so I would basically be shooting straight across the ravine. I asked Matt what the range was and he replied “125 yards”. “Close enough” I thought to myself. As a proponent of steady field based shooting positions, I sat down in a spot where I had a clear shot and started using dead alder branches to build a stable shooting platform. The bear had no idea we were there and I wanted the shot to be as perfect as possible. Based on the position of the bear I wanted a shot that allowed me to shoot the heart and hit the off-side shoulder. As I sat there finger on the trigger, waiting for the bear to take one, step I felt something I hadn’t felt in years. I realized my reticle was bouncing around and I was experiencing what is most commonly referred to as buck fever, or in this case bear fever. I quickly switched the safety on, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and told my body to get it’s heart rate under control. As I settled again the bear finally reached forward with its front leg, opening up the shot I wanted. Reticle on target, safety off, trigger squeeze, BOOM. The bear immediately buckled and spun around, falling down the mountain. Another quick insurance shot was fired, but I’m not sure it needed it. After working the bolt the bear laid still. I stayed on target for a few more seconds until I realized it was over. I had accomplished a dream that I never thought possible. I had harvested a Kodiak Brown Bear!
It took some time to go back and collect our packs and then cross the ravine that separated us from the bear. The terrain was treacherous enough that we probably should have used ropes to get down, but the excitement was getting to me and we mostly just slid down. Then there was nowhere to cross the stream at the bottom so we just wadded across. Now that we were across, the bear was still a hundred feet above us on the mountain. I was pretty certain that the bear was dead, but the thought of it not being dead kept running through my mind. The hill was so steep that I had to use my hands to climb. I knew I couldn’t carry my rifle and climb, and a rifle slung on my back wouldn’t be worth much. I decided to make the climb with my 10mm pistol. I climbed to a spot above the bear so I could look down on it. I cautiously approached, sliding down the hill side, pistol in hand. It became obvious that the bear was finished. Its front paw was caught in an alder holding it on the hill side. I released the paw and the bear tumbled down the hill and directly into a waterfall…so much for keeping the hide dry!
It was 9:00 pm now and the light was fading. I had originally planned to conduct and extensive photo session, but since I had never skinned a bear before and it was getting dark, the photo session was kept brief. Utilizing an Outdoor Edge Swing Blade knife and a meat hook that allowed Matt to hold better, we made short work of the skinning. My original plan had been to separate the skull from the hide, allowing me to carry the hide and Matt to carry the skull. I was nervous about skinning out the skull and feet. I wanted to hand over a good pelt for the taxidermist to work with. Since it was dark and I wasn’t confident I decided to carry the hide back with the skull and feet still in. Matt cross-leveled most of my gear from my pack to his, allowing me more space to put the bear hide. Stuffing the soaking wet hide into the pack took up every bit of the 5200 ci pack, with the head sticking out of the top. While setting down I situated the pack and straps, and then attempted to stand up. I couldn’t move it. I’ve carried a lot of heavy packs over the years training in the Army, and through Iraq and Afghanistan. This was without a doubt the heaviest pack I had ever carried. Matt helped me to my feet. Now with this incredibly heavy pack on my back the idea of climbing up and out of the ravine was impossible. The next course of action was to follow the stream out to the ocean where we would be able to cut across flat ground to our camp. There was no shore on the side of the stream so this left us walking down the middle of the rushing, snow-fed, freezing cold water. Another concern was the noise of the stream. We were worried that another bear in the area might not hear us coming. I certainly didn’t want to startle another bear in the dark and have to try an evade it while carrying this heavy pack. So the roughly three mile walk back to camp consisted of white light headlamps, whooping and hollering to alert other bear of our presence. Whether it was the heavy pack, freezing water, or just the days of hiking Kodiak, by the time we got to camp my legs were shot. After shedding the pack I reached down to take off my gaiters and crampons to find my legs below the knee were covered in ice. I quickly shed all of my clothes and jumped into the bomb shelter tent. I was never so happy to have the buddy heater and a mountain house meal at the ready.
The next day consisted of sleeping in, feasting on good camp food, and hide maintenance. As luck would have it the weather was beautiful. I removed the skull and feet, then Matt and I spent a few hours fleshing. The satellite phone came in handy to call my wife and parents, tell them we were safe and that I’d gotten a bear. My wife informed me that the weather was predicted to change for the worse over the next couple days. We weren’t due to be picked up for a couple more days, but after a call to Andrews Air they said they would be there to get us in the morning. Another phone call to Jesse at Dahlberg’s Taxidermy had me straight on how to care for the bear hide until I arrived back on the mainland. At 9:00 am we had our equipment packed up and down on the beach. We watched huge flocks of birds feeding on herring in the bay as our Beaver float plane arrived to take us back to civilization. After arriving back in town we took the bear to the fish and game office for sealing, repacked our gear, and then hit up Henrys Great Alaskan Restaurant one more time.
This hunt was truly the hunt of a lifetime. I had a great time and made great friends. Pitting oneself against Kodiak in an attempt to harvest one of her magnificent animals is no easy task. No matter how I tried to measure it I couldn’t call my bear an eight footer. While it would have been nice to take a ten foot monster, I didn’t even see one to stalk. The hunt for the bear I took was one of the hardest I have ever endured, and that meant the most to me. That Alaskan Kodiak Brown Bear hunt has now been forever immortalized as an astonishing skull that sets upon my mantle and an outstanding rug that hangs on my wall. Kodiak will be a part of me always, and I cannot wait until I return to the Emerald Isle to stalk her game again.