Guest Author- Patty Pennington
It was around 11:30 at night as we began our final descent into the Anchorage International Airport. My husband Jim and I had already been up for over 20 hours. As I looked out the window at the different hues of purple and pink swirling through the sky that came with the setting of the midnight sun, I contemplated the adventure we were about to embark upon. We were going on our very first black bear hunt.
My family back in the lower 48 thought I had lost my mind. “Don’t you realize how dangerous this could be…that you could actually be mauled?” they said to me. I was always the adventurous one in our family of three sisters. I told them that I realized that that was a very real possibility…but I said, “Don’t you realize that this is a trip of a lifetime? How many other Florida gals get an opportunity like this?” I smiled at the recollection of conversations that I had had with my sisters. Oh…trust me…I had thought of the danger. I made the mistake of starting to read Wade Nolan’s book: Death Dance, True Life and Death Adventures from Alaska to Africa before we left. Not a good idea for someone who is trying to get a grip on the courage to camp out in the Alaskan wilderness. My idea of camping is spelled W I N N E B A G O!! Oh and did I mention that I am that gal who never leaves the house without a full face of makeup and an accessorized outfit! And here I was going on a 4 day, 3 night camping trip…in a tent with no running water, no bathroom facilities, no kitchen…with only 2 Zodiac’s to get around in. I had already decided that I was going to take the plunge and be the wilderness girl…I was ready to trade frou-frou for fleece.
Our son Jeremy, who moved to Alaska almost two years ago with his wife Kara, picked us up at the airport and we drove to his house. We didn’t have much time to visit or chat, as we had to be ready to leave by noon the next day. We did get to meet our precious new grandson Caleb for the first time…which happened to be the real reason for our trip to Alaska. Welcome, welcome sweet Caleb to our family! The bear hunt was just an added extra.
We arrived in Valdez around 7 pm the next day and spent the night at Uncle Kipp’s house. Up at 5 am the next morning and dressed in our camo fleece, we were on our way to the marina to load all of our camping gear and supplies into Kipp’s 17 footer. I must say that my son Jeremy and Kara’s cousins Kyle and Nicole had done their homework and had thought of every detail to make this a comfortable and successful bear hunt! It took us a while to get to the camping spot that Jeremy had picked out for us in Prince William Sound. As I looked around, I was amazed that there was still snow on the mountains and surrounding our campsite.
We quickly set up camp and were out on the water in no time. Ok…here was the game plan…Jim had first shot at a black bear, then Nicole, Jeremy and Kyle. This was my very first hunting trip ever so I was content to just watch and take it all in. We glassed the snow patched hillside and found our first bear…we named him Charley. We even went so far as to name the snow patches…they were named after what we thought they looked like; and all the other bears we were chasing. Jim and Jeremy started their 1,200 foot ascent up the mountain, which affectionately came to be called Bear Mountain. Periodically they would scope us in with their binoculars (binos) and we would make hand motions from the Zodiac with a red boat flotation device indicating the path the bear was taking. Ole Charley was a smart bear and they never did catch up with him that morning. That afternoon we motored down to the tidal flats to eat some lunch and see if we could see any bear tracks.
After a relaxing afternoon we motored back to Bear Mountain and got our binos out and started glassing again. Early evening the bears started coming out. We beached the 2 Zodiacs and up the mountain trekked Jim and Jeremy. Kyle and Nicole got back into one of the Zodiac’s and gave the men directions from the boat while I stayed on shore. I sat there for a while and watched the tide slowly creep in. I got to thinking that I might need some protection in case one of the bears decided he wanted an evening snack from the shore…and I sure didn’t plan on being that snack. After all…there I was all by myself and if a bear dared to make an appearance, I wanted some length between the bear and me. I looked around and washed up in the tide I found an aluminum pole with a hook on the end that was probably 15 feet long. It was light enough that I could pick it up and jab with it. I named it my “bear stick.” I don’t know how much protection it really could have given but I felt better with some length between the bear and me. As I sat by the water suddenly a crack reverberated across the mountain and permeated the stillness. I waited and watched Kyle and Nicole in the Zodiac hoping and praying that my Jim had gotten his bear. After about 30 minutes Kyle and Nicole came ashore and I walked over to them. They really couldn’t see from the boat if they had gotten a bear or not. There were 2 bears up there that they were giving directions for…one of which they saw running and trip and do a flip. Three hours later and we still had no idea…it was one of the longest waits of my life. You start imagining all kinds of scenarios happening up there…none of which are good. Like I said earlier…I had read too much of Death Dance. I was trying to keep the faith but sometimes your imagination just gets the best of you. I had to keep reminding myself that my men up there are some of the best hunters around…they are smart, careful hunters. We all decided to get back out into the Zodiac and see if we could see them up on the mountain anywhere. As we were puttering near the shore we heard them shout at us from a ridge nearby. We motored over to the ridge and there they were…safe and sound…hallelujah this girl was singing! It wasn’t feasible for them to climb down this ridge so they lowered the bear meat and hide down on a rope to us (they had already field dressed the bear up on the mountain) and we picked them up a little farther down the beach. We picked up the other Zodiac and headed back to camp. It was now around 10 pm and the sun is still shining. At camp Jeremy buried the bear meat and the hide in the snow so we could preserve it and work on the hide the next morning. We ate dinner, cleaned up “the kitchen” and retired to our tent for the evening. It was supposed to be in the low 30’s that night…brrrr for this Florida girl. My son did me right…I had the warmest, coziest sleeping bag ever…gotta love that boy!
Woke up next morning to a beautiful sunrise. Cannot express in words, as I looked out from camp to the mountains across the Sound, how majestic and beautiful they looked as they reflected their peaks in the stillness of the water…so serene. I was just in awe…wow God…you did good! It reminded me of the passage in Psalm 95 – “Come, let’s shout praises to God, raise the roof for the Rock who saved us! Let’s march into his presence singing praises, lifting the rafters with our hymns! And why? Because God is the best High King over all the gods. In one hand he holds deep caves and caverns, in the other hand grasps the high mountains. He made the Ocean—he owns it! His hands sculpted Earth! So come, let us worship: bow before him, on your knees before God, who made us! Oh yes, he’s our God, and we’re the people he pastures, the flock he feeds.” Amazing how being out in God’s creation just makes you want to worship Him.
After breakfast Jim and Jeremy unrolled the bear hide and I could finally see what Jim had shot. The bear was jet black with a brown nose and some brown spots over each eye…kinda like eyebrows. I was amazed at how thick and glossy the fur was. I loved it…it was going to make a great rug! The men started working on getting all the fat off the hide. Jeremy used a special scalpel and Jim had a field-dressing knife. It is a painstaking process. You must go very slowly so you don’t poke a hole in the hide. Around the bear paws they had to cut through the ligaments to cut out the bones that formed the paw. Working around the nose, lips and ears required utmost precision. As they would get a section done, I was to start the salting process…you see…you pour salt over the hide to absorb the moisture. I put on some gloves and started rubbing salt into the hide, making sure every square inch had salt on it. I even had to stuff the salt into the toes of the paws and into the nose cavity. After I finished the salting, we rolled the hide up into a ball, put it in a shaded dry place, and put a tarp over it to keep the rain off. We would do the salting two more times before we left…we wanted to make sure that it was preserved well before we took it to the taxidermist.
To say I had a blast is an understatement! The camaraderie we felt with Kyle and Nicole…hunting with my two favorite men and making Kodak moments…working together as a team…in camp, on the water…all to reach the goal. I will always cherish my new friends and the sweet memories forever etched upon the pages of my mind that were made on my very first hunt ever in the Alaskan wilderness. Would I do it again…trade frou-frou for fleece? You bet…in a heartbeat! But next time…I get to shoot first!