It was just one year ago that I sat behind a computer in my living room pouring over the regulations and draw permit supplement, dreaming of the opportunities to come once my resident status went into effect in July. Having missed a fall of hunting for the first time since I was 12, I was quite anxious to experience all that Alaska has to offer. Finding out in February that I had been drawn for a Kodiak Brown Bear permit was elating and yet drew more than a handful of jabs from friends who have only dreamed of such a hunt. After months of detailed planning, the day was finally here when my dad and good friend would join me on the adventure of a lifetime.
Thursday afternoon we boarded the jet in Anchorage bound for Kodiak Island. Little did we know this would prove to be the only leg of our transportation that would go as planned. After spending 3 days socked in due to rain, snow, and 50+ MPH winds, we finally left the town of Kodiak bound for Uganik Lake.
Following a choppy ride, Bob from Island Air set the Beaver down on the lake and we caught our first glimpse of the cabin that would become our home for the next 8 days. While we had finally gotten a break in the visibility department, the winds were still ripping across the lake. Needless to say, the trusted Park Service cabin and its oil stove was an essential respite from the crushing wind and snow combination.
After quickly unloading some gear and grabbing lunch, we headed to the butte above the cabin which provided a commanding view of the lake and river valley below as well as the plateau above. Not spotting any animal activity, we headed back to the cabin to settle in for the night. The next morning we again trekked up the alder infested hillside to the butte. On our way we decided to hunt out a cottonwood ridge to break up the vertical climb a bit. Along the way, we spotted our first of dozens of deer for the week. We were fortunate enough to harvest a nice fat doe and the beautiful buck seen below. Despite this being my first blacktail buck, I knew he was a dandy but couldn’t have imagined the quality of deer we would encounter the rest of the week.
For the next couple days we continued to brave the bone chilling temperatures, horizontal snow, and vicious winds while diligently glassing from the butte behind the cabin. Our glassing was virtually ineffective due partly to the fact that we couldn’t sit in that weather for more than 30 minutes and (as we would later learn) the bears had mostly all headed for dens thanks to the early cold and snowy weather. On the fourth day of the hunt, the weather finally broke to some beautiful blue skies but not before dumping 2’-3’ of snow throughout the valley! That morning we had decided we couldn’t keep getting distracted by the deer or we’d never find a bear. However, within the hour we spotted a dandy buck and I wanted to make sure my buddy was able to harvest a nice animal on the trip and encouraged him to shoot the beautiful mature deer.
By Thursday we’d only spotted one bear and 2 sets of tracks. Neither of which was a good sign. I’d been told time and again there are tons of bears in Uganik and its just a matter of which one you want! Certainly not the case when aggressive winter weather comes early and drives them to their dens. The one large bear we’d spotted was down the hillside, across the lake and heading down the lake shore. We had seen him digging for nearly an hour and thought he might have a kill site he was working on that he might return to. After hitting the cabin and changing into waders, we sat near the ‘dig site’ awaiting his return, however it never transpired. Anyway, on Friday we opted to go high to check some of the north facing slopes across from the cabin and hopefully catch a bear establishing his den.
Again, we passed up a dandy buck in the morning to ensure we weren’t distracted from our mission for the day. After cresting the ridge, we again set up to glass the north facing slope. Unfortunately, the trend continued of finding no bears, no tracks up high, difficult deep snow drifts and cold temperatures. We slogged through the deep drifts for the early afternoon but eventually conceded to mother nature and headed back down to the valley below. Once we arrived at our stashed waders, we noticed a group of does milling around in the Cottonwood bottom just below us. Then in the middle of swapping out boots for waders, I noticed the buck we’d seen that morning had made his way back down the hill and was standing broadside a mere 30 yards away! With nothing on my feet and my rifle 10 feet away, I quickly pulled waders on and grabbed the .338WM. Fortunately, he was so focused on the does that by the time I got the rifle pulled up on him he was still within 100 yards. Talk about being caught in an unprepared situation!
With our flight home from Kodiak to Anchorage scheduled for Sunday evening, we figured we’d better check in with Island Air Friday night to see how the forecast looked for getting out of the cabin in time. After the call, we agreed to call again Saturday afternoon. We spent Saturday morning trailing a fresh set of bear tracks to a cut bank where he had been fishing for the few Silvers still hanging out in the river. From there we lost the track despite looking up and down the river for the better part of an hour. Disappointed on the bear front but relishing the great deer hunt we’d had, we made our way back to the cabin to call the pilot. He immediately was on his way to get us which led us into a scrambled hurry to pack our gear. After he didn’t show, we called and learned he’d come half way and had to turn back due to visibility. The rest of Saturday was spent boning out the 20 deer quarters hanging in the 8’x8’ meat cache (what a sight that was!) and playing some cribbage. Sunday became a full on standby day with check-in calls every 2 hours. This was frustrating to say the least as we weren’t able to venture from the cabin for fear of missing our weather window. By 3:30 it was clear that we wouldn’t make it back to Kodiak in time to catch our commercial flight home. As I was breaking the news to my wife over the sat phone I suddenly lost the call but caught a glimpse of movement across the bay. Low and behold a nice bear was making his way towards the cabin! I quickly ran inside announcing my discovery and all three of us rounded up the minimal gear we’d need to stalk the animal. All our gear was packed to fly out so locating what we’d need took a couple minutes. After stalking towards the beach I’d seen the bear on, we had difficulty locating him. He had turned and walked up the creek bottom only to circle around into a clearing where my dad spotted him at 220 yards away. Through the snow and fading light, I quickly pulled up on magnificent boar and immediately after the shot rang out, watched him spinning and biting at the source of pain and disappear into the brush. The bear only went 50’ into the brush and after a quick recovery, we were all as shocked and excited as ever!
It was truly an incredible adventure that I had just experienced with my dad and good friend. We’d put together a hunt in one of the most beautiful corners of our state, harvested some incredible animals, and experienced the challenges associated with steep terrain, unforgiving weather, and unpredictable transportation. For being the first time any of us had hunted black tail or brown bear, we were quite fortunate to say the least. I learned so much on this hunt, including hunt planning, logistics, bear hunting techniques and how proper preparation can truly be rewarding. The bear measured out at 27” and will likely square over 9’. The ADF&G biologist estimated his age at 16 years and commented that we were quite fortunate to find a bear as the early winter had driven most to their dens. His worn teeth and lack of substantial fat led me to believe he was struggling to build up winter reserves and quite possibly would not have made it to the spring. We were picked up by the Beaver on Monday morning and would later learn that flights in and out of Kodiak had been cancelled all weekend. We finally made it back to Anchorage on Wednesday. The hunt plan was for 10 days, 9 of which would be at the cabin on the hunt. Instead, we were gone 13 days with just 7 being in the bush. You never know what Alaska will do to your plans but as long as you’re prepared you will endure and overcome her challenges!