The Ghost of Mystery Bay: Hunting A Giant Brown Bear on Kodiak Island, Alaska, Part 1


A two part story and photographs by Field Staff Writer J. McFarland.

2.0Kodiak Island pierces out of the turbulent northern Pacific Ocean 25 miles off the coast of the Alaska Peninsula.  Not too long ago glaciers and giant ice fields carved the island’s mountains, which shoot straight up from the sea and dominate the landscape.  As the largest island in the United States, Kodiak has over 1,300 miles of jagged undeveloped coastline (the Big Island of Hawaii has only 266 mi).  Kodiak is notorious for having the some of world’s roughest seas, most un-forgiving violent weather, and what we came for, the largest bears on the face of the planet.

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Brown bears are not only wildly intelligent, but they are also the largest terrestrial predator in the world. This combination makes them an extremely challenging and dangerous animal to hunt.  Contrary to their man-eating reputation, brown bears generally avoid humans.  Mature bears live solitary lives and act more like ghosts than bears.  They slip in and out of heavy cover (mostly under the security of darkness) and learn at a young age how to expertly evade humans.  In fact, bears on Kodiak have killed only one person over the past 75 years.  That is not to undermine the danger of these great animals.  Almost every year someone on Kodiak is injured by a bear.

Mystery Bay has a reputation for housing some of the largest and hardest to hunt bears on the island.  Mountainous terrain and nearly impenetrable vegetation (dense alder thickets and menacing salmonberry bushes) makes this area particularly difficult to access.  Hunting these deeply respected bears in such a challenging environment appealed to my dad and me.  After all, the harder the hunt, the greater the reward.  Right?

Floatplane Views
Views from the float plane alone were worth the trip.

The roar of our floatplane’s engine signified the beginning of our expedition. Midflight the weather began to deteriorate.  The cloud level dropped and so did our trajectory.  Before long we were flying through spectacular mountain passes and looking up in awe at goats on the vertical cliffs above.  The goats were so close that I felt as though I could reach out and touch them.  Those scenes alone were worth the trip.  During the flight we also got our first glimpse at how rugged and tough this country would be to hunt.  Although the plane was too loud to talk, I remember my dad looking back at me with wide eyes as if to say, “did we bite off more than we could chew?”.

We landed in the salt water in Mystery Bay and unloaded our gear on the gravel shore while a light sleet fell peacefully, yet almost deceivingly, to the ground.  As quickly as it arrived, the plane roared off and disappeared into the snowy mist, leaving us in silence and solitude.  My dad was the first to speak, “there’s no turning back now”.  Ahead of us would be a 13 day battle.  Little did we know at that point, that it would be the toughest, yet most rewarding hunt of our lives.

Arrival to Deadman Bay.
Arrival to Mystery Bay.

The next morning we started early, our headlamps guiding the way through the thick frosty brush.  Our goal was to establish a basecamp in the headwaters that feed Mystery Bay.  We covered as much ground as possible, however, on Kodiak that is easier said than done.  Bushwhacking through steep alder covered slopes was torturously exhausting.  Instead of “bulldoging” straight through them, you have to either high step over branches or crawl on your hands and knees under them. To prevent getting hung up, you constantly must push and shove stubborn branches over your pack and gun.  Overtime, these simple movements were exhausting.  Making matters worse, bears sleep in the alders.  Hidden by the thick vegetation, we commonly stumbled directly into beds, where body-sized depressions had recently been vacated.

Unfortunately travel in the meadows was even harder.  The chest high grass was laced with thorny salmonberry bushes that were sharp enough to tear clothes and skin.  The only way to penetrate the thick grass/salmonberry mixture was by doing the arm motion of the breast stroke, thus “swimming” through the brush.  To make travel even worse, the ground was covered with abrupt little mounds and craters (tussocks) that constantly cause you to trip.  The only good thing about the dense vegetation was that it caught your fall. After one of many tumbles, I lay in the grass with my 70 pound pack anchoring me down.  I was frustrated.  It is hard not to take the beatings from bushwhacking on Kodiak personally.

Spotting Bluff
The view from the spotting bluff overlooking the river. Bears were seen traveling both the river below and in the meadow across the canyon.

After hiking all day and a few hours into the night, we finally made it to a great basecamp on a knob overlooking the valley.  Below our camp the river narrowed into a canyon section.  The stretch both up and downstream were substantially wider, so our canyon acted as a bottleneck for bears traveling the river.  These constrictive features created big, deep pools, which harbored large schools of salmon.  Bear tracks lined the riverbanks.  One set in particular was considerably larger than the rest.  The hind foot was exactly as long as my size 15 boot, and the front pad was 8 inches wide.  This was a monster bear, and judging by the tracks, he had been in the area several times before.  However, like a drifting ghost, his presence appeared sporadic, coming and going less frequently than the other bears.  We hoped that if the stars aligned and we played our cards just right we could have a chance at this giant bear.

Read Part 2 Here

Bears can smell four times better than a bloodhound.   Therefore being patient and spending time behind glass, instead of constantly moving around and dispersing human scent, is the key to success.
Bears can smell four times better than a bloodhound. Therefore being patient and spending time behind glass, instead of constantly moving around and dispersing human scent, is the key to success.

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