The Ghost of Mystery Bay: Hunting A Giant Brown Bear on Kodiak Island, Alaska, Part 2

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

Read Part 1 Here

So our hunt for the ghost bear began.  Mornings started long before sunrise. Our staples were coffee and freeze-dried food for breakfast.  At first light we hiked down to a bluff overlooking the canyon section of the river.  From this vantage point we could clearly see about ½ mile both up and downstream, in addition to a clear view of a great looking meadow directly across the canyon.  A shooting position immediately below the bluff offered a 30 yard shot straight down on bears traveling the river and a 200 yard shot across the canyon into the meadow.  It was perfect.  All we had to do was wait.  Thus our days were spent behind binoculars and our spotting scope.  Conversations throughout the day usually revolved around the hunt, but would inevitably turn into a bet on who got to eat what type of freeze-dried dinner.  At night, the heavy wind gusts and rain often fooled us into thinking a bear was tearing into the tent.  However, most nights we slept like babies and dreamed of God’s country and all the beauty surrounding us.

Throughout the days, we saw mostly sows and cubs, along with a few decent boars, but never the monster whose tracks we had seen.  Average boars on Kodiak are bigger than ‘normal’ standards, and we had to study each animal to confidently determine size.  Watching bears never gets old and is always entertaining.  One sow and cub in particular put on quite the show.  The sow methodically fished the pools, while the cub waited patiently on the shore.  She would submerge her head and walk upstream through the middle of pools.  The water was so clear that we could easily see salmon swirling just out of reach.  When one of the panicked salmon came too close she would flick them up onto the banks and then move off into the brush with the cub to eat.  In deep sections the sow would swim completely under the water after the salmon.  I went down to our shooting position on the cliff and watched them directly below me.  I was so close that I could see the whites in her eyes under the water as she swam after the swirling schools of fish.  It felt unreal to watch her so close.  After fishing, the sow and cub moved into the meadow on the other side of the river.  Here they basked in the sun, and in-between naps rolled around in a moss covered wallow. For two or three hours we watched them undetected, never growing tired of seeing these amazing creatures.

Waiting for the ghost bear to walk the river.
Waiting for the ghost bear to walk the river.

One dark morning I was making coffee and heard a faint clatter across the canyon. At first I thought it was the wind knocking down branches.  However, first light revealed two sitka blacktail bucks fighting in the meadow. These bucks seemed determined to kill one another.  They were near equally matched and violently clashed and spun with tines locked up. Occasionally one deer would slip getting gouged in the flank.  The deer were so tired that their mouths gapped as they breathed heavily.  One of the deer had blood coming out of his steaming mouth.  After a half hour, one deer finally submitted and limped off into the brush with the victorious buck hot on his tail, still driving its antlers into his hind quarters.

The richness of game, along with the rugged beauty of the country made life at basecamp unreal.  Deer were almost always within the immediate area (including mature bucks).  Goats were seen on several surrounding mountain peaks.  Countless silver salmon, dolly varden and steelhead swam in emerald green pools, making the river bottom appear as a dark moving mass.  Thousands of ducks roosted in a beaver pond a few miles away.  Up to a dozen bald eagles perched in trees overhanging the river.  While glassing one day, I watched a bear, goats, ducks, and eagles all in the same field of view.  There are few places on earth that can match the abundance and richness of game species found on Kodiak.

As the days wore on we began to wonder if the ghost bear, whose tracks we had had left the river.  Instead of counting the days we had been hunting, I began to count the days remaining.   We had to make a decision, to either remain where we were or move further up the valley in hopes of finding the giant.  I wanted to push deeper into the mountains.  My dad thought we should stay where we were and give the bear more time.  Having taught me everything, I trusted my dad’s instincts, and so we stayed put.

Heavy rain and sleet fell all that night and into the next morning.  Visibility was reduced to a few hundred yards and a cold wind ripped through the valley.  Silhouettes of the same sow and cub we had watched in days past were seen in the misty meadow across from us.  It was reassuring that at least they were still in the area.  Hours passed as we scanned the river, half hidden by fog, but there were no other signs of life.

Even average bears on Kodiak are big, and judging size and sex can be challenging.
Even average bears on Kodiak are big, and judging size and sex can be challenging.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dark silhouette of a bear appeared 300 yards down the river on a gravel bar.  It worked its way slowly toward us, becoming clearer with every step.  Our interest perked as we observed it’s distinct pigeon toed swagger (indicative of a mature bear). The big, dark chocolate beast clearly had a wide chest, long neck, and a big, blocky head, which was covered in battle scars.  Without a doubt this was a big boar.  Were we looking at the ghost bear?  Could this really be him?

There was no time to for further thought, we had to react.  Staying out of sight, we slipped into our shooting position on the cliff below.  Despite the miserable pouring rain, my heart felt like it shock my entire body with every beat.  Outside of shooting my first buck when I was a kid, I can’t remember another time when my heart literally felt like it might beat out of my chest.  As if by destiny, the bear stayed on track and continued toward us.  He fished in a pool just 30 yards directly under our cliff.  I could hear him breathing and the gravel grinding beneath his heavy feet.  We needed him to walk out of the pool and twenty yards around the next bend where the river was wider and ensured a better opportunity for follow up shots.  As the bear emerged from the pool I glanced down to flip up the scope covers.  The glass was totally fogged.  As was my dad’s scope.  We wiped our lenses in a rushed panic but could not get them clear with the cold and pouring rain/sleet.  Although I could barely make out the bear through the scope, he was so close I felt confident for a good shot.  The bear rounded the river bend.  With my heart thumping and a foggy scope, I squeezed off a shot into the shoulder of the biggest bear I have ever seen.  The bear roared like in the movies and reared up on his hind legs.  All hell broke loose.  Furiously, I chambered another round and shot again.  There was little effect on the mass of roaring bear, blood, and water.  My third shot drilled the bear in the neck and brought him down as fast as he reacted to the first shot.  Finally he lay motionless.  I gave him one last insurance shot with my final round, and he didn’t flinch.

The author and his father with the hard-earned ghost bear of Deadman Bay.
The author and his father with the hard-earned ghost bear of Mystery Bay.

My dad and I stood speechless on the cliff for a moment, trying to absorb all that had just happened.  I was frozen with a death grip on my gun, still locked on the fallen bear, when my dad grabbed my shoulder and shook me back to life.  Big hugs, smiles, and congratulations followed.  We both glowed with thankfulness for everything that came into play to make this beautiful moment possible.

The bear was so big, that despite our best efforts we could not pull him out of the water.  Even after field dressing him, he still would not budge.  We ended up skinning half of him underwater, then only after removing both hind quarters were we able to pull him ashore to finish the job.  It took two grueling days of shuttling gear and bear to get everything back to the bay’s shoreline.  Another day was spent fleshing and salting the hide.

The size of the ghost bear was impressive.  Note: the author’s hand pictured above is an XXL, yet still dwarfed by the bear’s massive paw.
The size of the ghost bear was impressive. Note: the author’s hand pictured above is an XXL, yet still dwarfed by the bear’s massive paw.

The sheer power of these animals must not be taken for granted.  All four shots were well placed, yet the bear remained unstoppable until ultimately being paralyzed by a bullet in the neck.   Three shots from my .338 win mag, with 225 grain Barnes bullets, broke through both shoulders, punctured both lungs, and passed all the way through the beast.  The fourth bullet that paralyzed the bear entered from behind the left shoulder, traveled through the chest and full length of the neck, and was recovered in the back right jawbone.

The bear’s skull measured 27 inches, hide squared just over 9.5 feet, and body weighed between 1,100 and 1,400 pounds.  It was an inch away from entering the famed Boone and Crocket record book.  The front pads measured 8 inches across and back feet were exactly as long as my boot.  My dad was right all along.  The giant ghost was destined to return.

The 9.5ft bruin fell an inch short of making the famed B&C record book.
The 9.5ft bruin fell an inch short of making the famed B&C record book.

This expedition was the essence of hunting.  It required an evolving game plan, teamwork, and braving some of the worst conditions imaginable.  Hunting is not about conquering an animal.  Nor is it about the size, quantity, or trophy quality.  Hunting it is about respect for game, and an understanding and appreciation for the surrounding environment.  It is about passion for the outdoors and sharing memories that will last a lifetime with those who mean most to you.  And if a hunt happens to involve harvesting an animal of a lifetime?  Then all the merrier.

The author and his father had to fashion a stretcher to carry out the bear.  It took them two grueling days to shuttle gear and bear out of the mountains.
The author and his father had to fashion a stretcher to carry out the bear. It took them two grueling days to shuttle gear and bear out of the mountains.

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