Field Editor, Bear Hunting Magazine
November 3rd, 2014
Admiralty Island in SE Alaska is known to the Tlingit native people as Kootznoowoo or the “Fortress of the Bear”. This 5.7-million-acre Federal wilderness area has the highest concentration of brown bears in the world, about 1.6 animals per square mile. But in 2014 many streams that normally hold spawning salmon are barren so bears are concentrated on the streams that do have fish. This account describes a 2-mile hike up Chiak River (Shy-eek) that I did on the west coast of Admiralty. For the past two weeks I worked for a professional bear hunting guide who had a contract to provide bear protection for three fish biologists.
The ice-cold fingers of the river reach through my waders, making my leg muscles slow to respond. We are wading single file up Chiak River, ducking under huge blown down trees, climbing over others, their greasy slick sides covered with bear claw marks.
The river is choked with spawning pink and chum salmon many already dead, their carcasses draped over tree branches that overhang the river, left there by receding high water. Two miles up the river we are higher on the stream than any bear hunters or fishermen ever tread.
The virgin forest consists of huge spruce and hemlock trees with long tendrils of tan colored Old Man's Beard lichens hanging down. The understory of Devil's Club, salmon berry and blueberry brush is so thick that a man can barely force his way through it.
Having a sight distance of 25 yards feels like open country.
And everywhere there is bear sign, the gravel bars littered with partially eaten fish. Puddles of grey, liquid bear scat, white vomit, and expelled tapeworms are common, signs the grizzlies are completely satiated from eating raw fish. Tracks of every size bear cover patches of sand that mingle with the coarse gravel. Overhead eagles, gulls, and ravens wheel creating a cacophony of sound.
Fine, misting rain falls continuously, soaking us completely.
The smell of decay is so heavy in the moist air that I think I can taste it.
The guide at the front of the group suddenly jacks a round into his 375 rifle as a large bear with white ear tips rises to its hind legs from behind a nearby log.
"An old sow", he says as we all wave our arms and call out "Hey bear" in polite, non-threatening tones.
She takes her time looking us over before dropping to all fours and disappearing into the brush.
Later a larger, nearly black, male bear charges from across the river, taking huge bounding leaps right at us, making loud huffing sounds. Again bullets are ratcheted into our rifles as the guide says "He's bluffing, I hope".
At the river's edge the bear stops in a shower of spray, spit flying from his jaws. His growl sounds like a Great Dane dog inside a 55 gallon drum.
The biologists continue to cut open the brains of dead chum salmon, extracting two tiny "ear" bones for later study.
The bones are formed with growth rings that can be used to identify hatchery versus wild fish. The intent of the study is to learn how many hatchery fish are mingling with wild salmon in the rivers of this area.
After six hours of wading and crawling we emerge soaking wet from the dense forest and with relief walk in the open, across the tide flats to our anchored skiffs.
It has been a truly wild day in the Fortress of the Bear.
I ask the guide "How many bears did we see today"; his response: "I counted fourteen, all of them too close".