ALASKAN BEAR HUNT
The Air Force sent me to Alaska in 1963 for a three year assignment as a Radar Maintenance Officer for a detachment from the depot at Sacramento (Det. 14 SMAMA). Although I was well versed in the rod and gun skills, I had never shot at anything larger than a woodchuck in our garden. Our first night after arriving at Elmendorf AFB outside Anchorage we were welcomed with a meal of moose burgers. So I was quickly acquainted with the culture. That culture included camping. We didn't call it RVing then. There were a few slide-in pickup campers, some travel trailers and tents. We had a small Apache pop-up tent trailer. As a result of, or as preparation for, salmon weekends on the Kenai River or the annual moose and caribou hunts, my office-mate and I acquired a used 31 cubic foot freezer.
In addition to the electronics repair in the shop,we also had several radar overhaul teams that performed scheduled and unscheduled maintenance at a couple of dozen radar sites scattered over the vast expanse of Alaska. In addition to the 15 AC&W (Aircraft Control and Warning) sites there were six Aleutian radar sites that were an extension of the fifties era DEW-line sites. The fourth such site was located at Cape Sarichef on the western end of Unimak Island. Unimak Island is the first and largest Aleutian island. The Aleutian peninsula extends perhaps a thousand miles west of Anchorage and that string of islands extends another 1,400 miles westward into the eastern hemisphere until it is well west of Hawaii. Unimak is a volcanic island about 1,500 square miles with a pair of nine thousand foot peaks and a large, still smoking, caldera. The volcano is the tenth most active in the world. There is a lighthouse and LORAN station on the eastern end. There used to be a cannery at False Pass at that point. It was so-called because there appeared to be open water between the island and the mainland. It was so shallow at low tide you could sometimes find a whale or an occasional boat stranded in the pass; hence the lighthouse. Although Unimak is well populated by bear and caribou, the largest mammal on the rest of the Aleutians is a fox. The western end contained the radar site of about twenty people where everyone did double duty. The crypto chief was also the cook. There was one officer, Capt. Kirby Stafford, who was in my radar class at Keesler AFB in ’60/’61.
I frequently accompanied my teams on assignment to show support, help where I could, and learn, firsthand, the issues they faced and to assess the teams in the field. I picked this one because I knew Kirby Stafford. We spent a couple of weeks there doing a depot level overhaul of the radar. We left with everything accomplished except for the replacement of the 100 HP azimuth drive motor. This is a 300 pound electric motor that rotates a large antenna. There was only one spare in theater, and it was in our shop for repair. So, we left with an agreement to return to finish the job when the motor had been repaired.
Available flights were infrequent, so while waiting, I wandered around the island. I saw numerous Alaskan Brown bears. So, when we were to return, I vowed to have all the paperwork and logistics in place to enable me to shoot one of those giants and bring home a rug.
The first thing I had to do was to get a federal game permit because the Aleutians were incorporated into the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge which falls under the Department of the Interior. Now the Unimak Island Natural Refuge is controlled by the Alaskan Bureau of Fish and Game. A prerequisite was a current Alaskan Sportsman’s License which permits hunting, fishing and trapping in any of the dozen or so game management units. These events occurred nearly a half century ago, and I have not researched the current procedures, but I know that now a guided hunt AFTER winning a lottery costs $20,000.. Below is a copy of my actual permit.
Next on the list was a suitable rifle. I had an old, 1923 Model 98 Mauser 7 mm bolt action that had been re-barreled for a Remington 7 mm Magnum round and sported a six power scope. It was designed for the long range shots typical of a mountain goat or Dall sheep hunt. It would prove to be perfectly adequate for moose and caribou, but a 150 grain round is much too light to go after the largest carnivore that walks the Earth. Purchasing a suitable rifle for a one-time event was not feasible on a Lieutenant’s pay. Fortunately, the machine shop that was part of my radar maintenance depot, employed three old time Alaskans. One of them, Dick Johnston, was a burly guy who happened to be the state trap shooting champion and had many years of Alaskan hunting experience. He also had an H & H (Holland and Holland) .375 Magnum that he was willing to let me borrow. The scope was a high luminosity device that was only 1 ¾ power. There was a dot at the center of the cross hairs that covered three inches at 100 yards. This rifle was the diametric opposite of my own. It delivered a heavy, 300 grain round at 2650 feet per second. There are specialty sniper rifles for thousand yard shooting that are more powerful, but this one’s recoil could crack your collar bone if you are not careful.
Finally, we had to finish the refurbishment of the big azimuth drive motor and arrange for flight to Cape Sarichef. We had wooden shipping crates of tools and parts, but we also had a box containing the rifle, Dick’s 10 gauge, double barreled shotgun, and 20 pounds of salt for preserving the hide. Happily he was accompanying me. First, we had to swap out the drive motor. It was no small task; and I served as his apprentice. Once that was done we had ten days before the next stop at Cape Sarichef by a Reeve Aleutian Airways C-47.
Step one was to make sure that the scope was properly zeroed. I made a target out of a cardboard box with a three inch bulls eye, found a nice piece of driftwood on the beach about a mile from the radar, spread out my parka in the sand behind the driftwood and stepped off 100 yards and set up the target. I fired five two-round groups, using up half of my box of ammunition. I tweaked the scope with Dick’s help until the last four rounds were comfortably in the bull. I have never worked harder at mind over matter. When you are firing from a prone position, you do not have your upper body rocking back to absorb some recoil. Also, the prone position means that the butt of the rifle is much higher on the shoulder…right on that collar bone I mentioned. It is crucial when zeroing to slowly squeeze the trigger as if you have no idea when it is going to fire. By about the third round that recoil was nearly bringing tears to my eyes. I had qualified with several military weapons including the M-1, carbine, BAR and .45, but none hammered my shoulder like this one. Man, it took everything I had not to flinch and ruin the shot.
With that done, we started checking out the bear population. We saw several six to eight footers, one almost honey colored, that were possibilities, but I wanted a bigger one. The troops stationed there said the big ones were on the eastern end of the island. So I radioed the Coast Guard light house and asked if we could spend a couple of nights there. It was a three man site headed by an E-6, and they were happy for some company. I asked Captain Stafford if I could buy a bottle of bourbon to take to them as a ‘hostess gift’. Although there was a tiny club at the site, you can imagine that the rules pertaining to alcohol were pretty strict. Kirby had to sign for every bottle that came on site. It was sold by the shot, the records were subject to audit. Nonetheless, he reluctantly sold me a bottle of Early Times bourbon, but I had to pay for each shot! Eighteen shots at 50 cents each made for a $9.00 bottle in 1964 dollars. It turned that grizzled bo’sns mate into a generous host.
After a couple of days of observing the island from some appropriate perches, Dick suggested that I shoot one of those old bull sea lions on the beach. At that time, in some areas there was an actual bounty on them because of the damage they did to the salmon nets and salmon. We didn't want bounty; we wanted some bait. The Alaskan brown bear is the most omnivorous beast you can imagine. We saw several that roamed the beach, eating any and all organic debris that washed ashore on that remote island. Sure enough, when we came back the next day and peeked over the hill, we saw that a big brown had dragged the whole bull sea lion away from the shore and buried it as easily as a dog would bury a bone. He was lying there digesting a chunk of it and guarding the rest when we saw him. As I said earlier, it is a volcanic island. The beaches are a dark gray, and the sand is coarse and sharp. The beach itself is perhaps 20 yards wide. Behind it is a similarly sized swath of grass, and then a fairly steep bluff eroded by centuries of surf. The bluff is covered with knee high grass and no trees. The plan was to keep out of sight (and smell) by circling away from the beach and returning to the edge of the bluff directly above the bear. We did so and were pleased with the fact that the wind was blowing in from the sea and straight from the bear to us.
Dick quietly reminded me of a couple of the highlights from our previous discussions about how best to succeed. A head shot is futile. Looking at the skull in my study makes that obvious. It would seem that a heart or lung shot would be best. Dick strongly disagreed. He insisted that if we were broadside to the bear, the best shot would be right on the point of the shoulder. As Dick put it, “A live bear lying over there is a lot better than a dead one running over here.” He said to mechanically prevent his charge and worry about killing him with the second shot. Actually, we were in a fairly comfortable position. A wounded, charging bear would have to navigate a fairly steep, sandy bluff while staring down my heavy rifle a Dick’s even heavier shot gun. I was initially puzzled by his choice of weapons. He insisted that if it came to the end game where the bear was about to win, ‘Old Betsy’ would “blow a hole in the bear that you could toss your hat through!” Fortunately, it didn't come to that, but it was not without some excitement.
The magazine held five rounds, and I quietly chambered the first one and peeked through the grass at the bear. We knew he was a big one because we had measured some of his tracks. There is an old rule of thumb that says, “Add one to the number of inches in width of the front foot at the ball of the foot. That number, in feet, will be the average of the length and width of the hide.” Since the tracks were nine inches wide, we could expect a ten footer. He was lying down and apparently hadn't detected us. We were fortunate because he was only 80 yards or so away. He was more or less broadside, facing generally to my left. His head, however, was swung around to his left so it was blocking a clear shot at his left shoulder. I carefully put the cross hairs barely to my right of his head and high on the back edge of his left shoulder. I was shooting downhill at a pretty steep angle, but at that range I just put that three inch dot where I wanted it and squeezed. Then all hell broke loose! He roared, stood up and started turning around to find his enemy. I later confirmed that the round had just missed the shoulder joint and proceeded downward through his chest cavity and made a large exit hole in his right armpit coming to a halt in his right forearm. I still have that classically mushroom shaped round.
I quickly yanked that bolt back for round two when the floor plate covering the next four rounds popped open and hung there on its z-shaped spring. My next four rounds were lying in the grass! I picked up the first one and chambered it. As he was still turning around, I quickly aimed at his near (right) shoulder and fired…no more careful squeezing. It knocked him flat, but he was quickly back on his feet. I also recovered the second round. It was a symmetrical version of the first. Entry was high behind the right shoulder and exiting from the left armpit and stopping in the left front leg. I had not yet put him down to stay, even though he was a dead bear. I was bemoaning the inadequacy of my popgun. I had no recollection of that dreaded recoil. I found another round, opened the bolt, blew the grass out of the chamber, and loaded round three. By now he was running away from me, and I began to have thoughts of tracking a wounded bear with unknown injuries. He was running straight away from me and I just put those cross hairs on the center of mass and fired. Down he went, and up he got. Round four was a repeat of round three. I’m sure I was getting flustered, but Dick was keeping me calm. He said, “Don’t hurry. Squeeze one more right on the center line”. I did, and that 300 grain slug severed his spine, and he finally stayed down. Rounds three and four had entered left and right, respectively, of the spine just below the bottom rib and exited around his throat. Clearly, every round had been fatal, but under slightly different circumstances he would have time to return the favor before he succumbed.
Dick and I just stood there a while, watching the bear while I resumed breathing, collected my equipment, my thoughts and my sanity. We clambered down the bluff and slowly approached the bear, rifle and shotgun at the ready. Dick poked the side of his snout with the shotgun. His head rolled to one side, his mouth opened, his tongue rolled out, and we could see that big exit wound in his throat. We were finally beginning to relax knowing that we were now facing a big job of skinning him. I generally knew what I was doing, but I was glad to have the help of a guy who had skinned bears before. First we had to take the traditional pictures. We found a couple of lumps of driftwood to prop up his head and Dick took the picture below.
I don’t remember too much about the skinning job. I remember discussing, before the trip, the issue of bringing back some meat such as the tongue or the tenderloin. After all, black bear is highly prized game meat. Besides, “wanton waste of game” i.e. taking the horns and leaving the carcass is practically a capital crime in Alaska. Brown bear is an exception. In Dick’s inimitable words, “Frank, you could take the tenderest piece of that bear, cook it for six hours, and you wouldn't be able to stick a fork in the gravy!” It was just as well. That big green hide with four feet and a bushel sized head were plenty to carry. I remember the meat was not red. It was black without a trace of fat. I remember having to re-sharpen my Gerber skinning knife several times because of all the sand embedded in his fur, especially on the front legs from digging. Finally, I remember when we opened up the chest cavity, the individual organs were unrecognizable…they just all poured out onto the ground together. How he got up four times is beyond belief.
Now came the hard part. I had an Army issue pack frame, but this was before waist belts and wide, comfortable shoulder straps. I made an old Indian ‘tumpline’ out of my sweat shirt. The ends of the sleeves were tied to the bottom corners of the frame while the body of the shirt was stretched across my upper forehead to provide additional support for the load. We spread out the hide, hair down, and rubbed in ten pounds of salt, and rolled it up into something like a three foot cube and lashed it to the frame. I had a walking staff. We propped the pack upright on a little mound. I bent my legs and slipped my arms through the straps and adjusted the tumpline. Then with, the help of the walking stick, I bent forward and stood up straight. With the stick I formed a tripod. As you can imagine, walking was a slow and careful process. It was a level comfortable terrain, but there was about five miles of it. Dick added my rifle, binoculars, and other gear to his load, and I handled the bear. I stopped from time to time; shook out my legs, adjusted the straps, and drank some water. But I did not put the load down as I didn't want to have to pick it up again. It took all afternoon to get back to the radar site. As we approached, Dick yelled to a couple of airmen that were outside. They came down in an old Jeep and lifted my pack off and put it in the back of the Jeep. When we got to the vehicle side of the tower, they carried the pack over to the scales used for weighing air freight. The pack weighed 236 pounds! And we weren't done.
Dick insisted that all my work would be wasted if we didn't properly prepare the hide for a delay of perhaps a week or so before I could get it to Jonas Bros, the renowned taxidermist in Anchorage. We appropriated some space on the concrete floor of the motor pool and unwrapped the bear. Dick broke out a couple of scalpels, and we set to work. First we peeled off the hide over the skull sort of like unrolling a glove. Then we worked on the feet, saving the pads and the claws. Then we meticulously scraped a hundred square feet of hide being careful not to remove anything but the sub-cutaneous fat. After rubbing more salt into the backside of the hide, we were done. It was a six hour job. Some of the troops were very interested in the process and offered moral support and conversation. I remember sandwiches being delivered as well some more of that Early Times bourbon. I was exhausted. For the next day I could have s*** through a screen door.
I don’t recall what it cost for Jonas Bros to make the rug, but I would find a way to come up with whatever it cost. Meanwhile, I had some bones to deal with, namely the skull and the penis or oosic. It is about six inches long and seems out of proportion for such a large animal. The cubs are born in hibernation and weigh only a couple of ounces when born. They crawl out of the birth canal and find their way to a teat, latch on, and wait until spring. The bears are not marsupials, but the process is similar. I set up a Coleman stove in the rear of our shop at Elmendorf and put on a pot to simmer all the meat off the skull. There are bacterial/maggot solutions to that process that would have prevented the shrinkage caused by the simmering. Since I missed the Boone and Crockett record book by a half an inch, I probably should have gone that route. Oh, well! The oosic and the two spent rounds that I found were simmered in a pot on the back of the stove. Then my loyal machinists bored a lengthwise hole in the oosic in which I fitted a ball point cartridge. When Durelle complained, I said, “Stop bitchin. If I were a smoker, I’d make a cigarette holder out of it.” We had the rug for several years. It was always a problem displaying it in any house we could afford. Typically the back feet were attached to the wall near the ceiling while the front legs and head occupied some coffee tables or such. When we got to Wright-Patterson AFB in 1974, we really had no place for it. Don and Vi Robb were our next door neighbors in Alaska when I got the bear. He was stationed at Randolph AFB as the Command Civil Engineer. They had a sprawling place in a dry environment, so I asked them to assume custody until we had a better place. So, George, the bear, went to San Antonio. It worked fine for several years. Every spring they would brush some corn meal through the hide and keep it well aired out. Eventually, their daughter, an AF wife stationed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, asked for the rug. Well, it didn't fare too well in Nebraska. Years later we were informed that the hair was falling out and that the rug was beyond salvage. I told her to cut off the claws, send them to me and dispose of the rug. I now have the pen, the skull, a bag of bear claws and some wonderful memories.