Hello gentlemen. It's been a while since I've been around, but a couple of you asked me to drop in when I had a chance to tell another story, and since you were so kind about the last one, here I am again. (You can read another bear story "The Story of Ol' Number 42” here: http://www.thestalkingdirectory.co.u...1-Ol-Number-42.)
The events of the following hunt mark a specific point in time where my attitude about firearms changed. Up to the culmination of this hunt, I was a devotee of relatively small calibers – less than .30 – and I particularly liked the 7mm. As a ‘true believer’, I worshiped at the altar of kinetic energy created by Jack O'Connor. The events of this hunt changed all of that. It didn't just change my attitude about "fast”, it also caused me to take a long, hard, objective look at Jack O'Connor and all of his preachings. As a result, my attitude regarding both speed and Jack O'Connor changed dramatically.
While this particular story stands alone, and you don't have to read anything else to fully enjoy this story, if you read "The Elusive 40-incher" (found here: http://www.thestalkingdirectory.co.u...sive-40-Incher) you will have a more complete view of the events that led up to this particular hunt.(Think the John Master's series of books. I'm not comparing my literary skills to his mind you. It's just that each of his books stand alone and still make a good series.)
This story starts a year before the hunt actually occurred. While on the "Elusive 40-incher" hunt, I observed some extraordinary grizzly bears in the valley in which we found “Dan's” sheep. (If you read “The Elusive 40-incher”, you will note that Dan is not this fellow’s real name. Hence the quotation marks.) In fact, I had seen four bears. All were absolutely gorgeous. Their fur was dark chocolate with golden tips. Their coloration was so unique, and similar, that I am sure all of the bears were related. I made a mental note and planned to be back the following year to get after one of those bears.
After the sheep hunt with Dan, there were no circumstances under which I would ever going hunting with that jackass again. However, we had a mutual friend, Jim, that I had hunted with for a few years, and whose view of Hunting wasn't much different from mine. I had told Jim about the bears when I got back from the sheep hunt and we had planned to get after them the coming fall. Jim had been my next-door neighbor but unfortunately had been reassigned to Colorado by the Air Force shortly after I got back from the above-mentioned sheep hunt. We remained in touch, and when in one conversation he mentioned coming back up in the fall to hunt, I reminded him about the grizzly bears and the hunt was on!
There really wasn't much planning necessary. Jim would simply make sure he had enough leave to fly up to Fairbanks, depart the next day for ‘bear valley,’ and be back in time to get back to Colorado in a leisurely fashion. Unfortunately, getting to bear valley was considerably easier said than done. Just as it was the year before, there were only two practical ways in: fly in, or ‘horse’ in. ‘Horsing’ in was a no-go for several reasons, the most significant of which was that I didn't know anyone who owned pack horses. Flying in wasn't a big deal, but the way bush pilots are represented by Hollywood and the Press is a far cry from reality. The off-strip landing required at this location wasn't terribly dangerous, but it wasn't the kind of landing you could get a charter bush pilot to do either. The only person I knew with a plane – and who had actually landed in this valley twice – was Dan. Even considering Dan for the ride back to the bears elevated my blood pressure. However, I didn’t really believe he could screw up a ONE DAY “taxi service”, so I told him about Jim and my plan, and he said, “No problem.” Once again Dan was going to reveal his true character.
While Jim was in flight on the way to Alaska, Dan called me and told me that he was flying a bunch of his friends down to Montague Island to hunt deer and he wouldn't be back for a week. The day before he was to fly us out. The day Jim is flying in from 3,000 miles away. Words fail to describe my “attitude.”
My anger notwithstanding, the harsh truth was that we didn't have a ride. It was as simple as that. Jim had taken seven days of leave and had flown 3,000 miles only to find out that once again, Dan had shown his true character and proven that no matter how simple or important the matter was, he simply couldn't be relied on.
I was just about at wit's end. Even though he didn't take any convincing, I felt like I had talked Jim into the trip based on Dan saying he would fly us into the valley. While Jim knew Dan as well as I did, it was I who had convinced him that “even Dan couldn't screw this up.” The only thing I could think at this point was to drive to Valdez and try to connect with a fellow I knew who guided boat-based black bear hunts in Prince William Sound. Even that was a long shot as those hunts are usually booked long in advance of hunting season. Furthermore, we couldn't even check it out by phone because Stan was “out” – probably guiding – and I couldn't reach him before we drove the 400 miles to Valdez.
We had no choice but to cast our fate to the wind and see which way we were blown. Those winds blew a strange course.
We arrived at Stan’s place in Valdez only to find out according to his wife, that he was both gone and completely booked up. We had no “Plan B.” I told Jim we should just wander the streets of Valdez and see if we could find a boat to charter. I knew where to go to find bears, I just couldn't get us there without a boat or plane!
The first few places we checked were either unavailable in the time frame we had, or were absurdly expensive. I was getting downright discouraged. Finally, when we walked into what was nothing more than a tourist “flight-seeing” kiosk on the docks of Valdez and related our sad story to the lady in the shop, she told us her husband might be interested in flying us out somewhere we might get some black bear hunting in. He was out on a charter at the moment, she said, but was due back in about an hour. We waited with the hope only the desperate have.
When he arrived, he told us that he “knew a guy” that guided for bears, and that if we were willing to pay for the plane ride out to Tatitlek, we might be able to get “Midi” to take us out on a bear hunt.
"No promises though."
We leapt at the offer: $150 each to fly the 20 miles from Valdez to Tatitlek. At this point, we were more than willing to take a chance on Midi 1) being there, 2) being willing and available to take us out, 3) to not charge us an arm and a leg, and 4) to get us back to Valdez in time for Jim to head back home. (The Air Force takes a dim view of being AWOL regardless of the circumstances.) It was already late in the day, so we grabbed our gear from my truck and climbed into the Cessna 185 on floats.
When we landed at Tatitlek, Midi was waiting for us. We threw our gear in his pickup and drove the 200 yards to his house. Tatitlek is a native village in every sense of the word. Since the Alaska Native Interest Lands Claims Act (ANILCA), there have been many “new” villages spring up where oil and mineral exploration showed good prospects. However, Tatitlek had been in existence long before ANILCA was a gleam in Jimmy Carter’s (ptooey) eye. Tatitlek had “modern conveniences” like electricity and roads but not much else. (Since you could probably throw a rock from one end of town to the other, “road” may not mean what you think it does in this case.) We exchanged pleasantries and met his wife and kids, and then got down to business. The plane had long since left.
Midi had clearly heard the gist of our story from the pilot long before we landed so he figured he had us over a barrel. And he did, to a certain degree. (Remember that the plane is gone.) He also figured that we were ‘typical white guys’ that knew nothing about Alaska and had more dollars than sense. (Think about it.) He was mistaken on both accounts. First, at that time I had been living in Alaska almost longer than Midi had been alive and second, we had a fixed amount of money; there weren't any ATMs in Tatitlek in 1985.
He started 'negotiations' off wanting way more than we had and more than we were willing to part with even if we had had it. We actually got our wallets out and showed him the sum of all of our money – $400. That was it. Furthermore, we didn't need “guiding”. All we needed was a boat ride to some place we could reasonably set up camp, and return and pick us up in three days. After he grasped the reality of the situation, he told us that he was planning to drive (boat) over to Cordova anyway, and for our $400 he would drop us off on his way over and pick us up on his way back. We had a deal.
We left as soon as Midi got ready. There were more surprises when we got to his boat. It was by no means derelict, but it wasn't exactly the Queen Mary either. It was a mostly homemade, wooden, salmon fishing boat in need of some attention. I had no doubt about its seaworthiness or I wouldn't have sailed with him, but the helm was definitely crowded with the three of us in the wheelhouse. The real problem was that there was no cowling or any other cover on the engine. Once we got underway, Jim and I couldn't hear each other when we were shouting into each other’s ears! It was really bad.
In the above picture of Prince William Sound that includes Tatitlek, you can see that it is protected from the direct ravages of the ocean by Bligh Island. Once we got out of the protection of Bligh Island, the weather got very bad. We were taking green water over the bow with every wave. Not long out into the Sound, Midi moved from the cabin to the flying bridge so he could see to navigate. I’ve been in rougher seas in the middle of the North Atlantic, but I had never before, nor have I since, been at sea in weather as bad as that was. The rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was doing at least 50 knots!
Jim and I stayed in the cabin trying to maintain our balance and occasionally screaming into one another’s ear. We couldn’t see a thing. Green water over the bow with every wave, and when we weren’t getting hit with a wave we were looking down into the trough between two waves. After about two hours of this, it occurred to me that Midi very well could have been washed overboard by any of the waves we had taken and we would have never seen or heard him call for help. For all we knew we could have been going around in little circles out in the middle of Prince William Sound for the past two hours. I signaled to Jim that I was going to go out and make sure Midi was still aboard. Waiting for what I thought was the right moment I opened the door to the cabin and stuck my head around the corner to see if I could see Midi on the flying bridge. Just about that time we took another wave and I bore the full force of it with my head and shoulders. Had any more of me been sticking out, I would have at least been washed back to the stern deck, if not overboard. However, at that last moment before the wave hit me I saw Midi sitting stoically at the helm. I got myself back into the cabin and slammed the door.
After about another hour, we noticed that the seas had calmed a bit, and we could actually see land now and again. Before too much longer we made a course change and the engines slowed as we crept into Port Gravina.
It was just as spectacular as all of Prince William Sound is, and the wind and rain had stopped. The sun was even out! We putted into the head of the fjord , set the anchor, and settled in for the night. Under normal circumstances, the wilds of Alaska can be amazingly quiet. After the four-hour assault on our hearing by the boat’s engine, the quiet was profound. Finally, for the first time in a couple of days, “it was good”.
Oh yeah, once we got into Port Gravina, Midi decided that he didn't “need” to go to Cordova after all, and would stay with there with us. While it had occurred to me that the trip to Cordova was a ruse, I was nonetheless glad that he had decided to stay. Now we wouldn’t have to pitch camp on the beach in bear country or deal with bad weather should another storm blow in.
We awoke the next morning to a spectacular day!
The date was May 11th. As the morning wore on, the tide slipped out from under us and the boat heeled over on the tidal flat. We spent a couple of hours wandering around looking for bears or signs of bears, and dug some razor clams for dinner. Later, as the tide was coming back in, we returned to the boat and just basked in the sun waiting for a bear to show up somewhere on the beach. Late in the afternoon, a nice black bear came out and wandered the beach looking for what it could find to eat. We watched it for about an hour but decided not to try a stalk as I really wanted Jim to get a brown bear, and we still had all of the next day before we had to start back.
While we were ‘lounging ’ around, we were of course getting to know one another by sharing stories. Midi looked up at a steep, almost cliff, ridgeline on one side of the fjord, noted that there were some mountain goats on it, and said, “Last month, my cousin and I climbed on seven goats up there.”
I asked, naively, “Did you get one?”
He looked at me like I had accused him of molesting his sister. After a moment’s pause he responded with no small amount of sarcasm, “We shot them all.”
Silly me for asking such a stupid question. I really should have known better.
This time of year there is plenty of daylight, and as the evening wore on we saw another smaller black bear down on the flats, but again chose not to get after it. We cruised over into the small bay you can just see the opening to in this picture..
It was a storybook setting. Beartrap Bay was very secluded and the walls of the fjord rose steeply from the water, completely surrounding us. We spent another very peaceful night on the boat.
We could spend all of the next day (May 12th) hunting, but that was it. The trip back wasn’t a trivial one. We had to leave first thing the following morning in order to get back to Tatitlek by late afternoon to catch the plane back to Valdez in time to drive the 400 miles back to Fairbanks so Jim could catch a plane back to Colorado. Still, I was optimistic about getting a bear. This was bear country. There were plenty of bears around; we just had to find one.
By 5 PM of that next and last day of hunting, we were back on the boat completely discouraged. We had seen plenty of mountain goats, but no brown bears. Not even a black bear for that matter, which made us regret not having gotten after those the others we had seen on the first day. Jim and I sat dejectedly on the gunnel of the boat dangling our legs over the side while Midi glassed up the valley that took off to the north from the Beartrap Bay. He said, “I see your bear.”
This is long enough for now. If you haven't had a chance to read the stories mentioned above, this break will give you a chance to. I'm still editing the rest of this story.Tomorrow, the Hunt!