Spot & Stalk
Jan 26 2023
Adventure comes in all shapes and sizes, but it’s hard to beat the Last Frontier
By Brian Strickland | @backcountry_brian
Paddling the canoe across the bay in sight of the Gulf of Alaska, I couldn’t help but think about where I was. It truly was a surreal moment. It’s not every season I get to hunt such destinations, and with the ocean’s rich, salty breeze rolling across the bow and a black bear feeding on the tidal flat within eyesight, I knew there was no other place I wanted to be at that moment.
Like many of you, spring means black bears, and there is no better location than Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island to chase them. It literally is a black bear island paradise, a rainforest ecosystem that is perfectly balanced for them to thrive. Tags are only issued in their annual draw and I was one of 180 lucky non-residents who got a ticket to this spring affair. Unlike grizzlies and brown bears in Alaska, a non-resident does not need a guide to hunt them, making them an ideal dangerous game option for the solo adventurer. Needless to say, I was elated when I finally stepped off the ferry after a full day of travel.
There are really two ways to hunt bears on Prince of Wales Island. You can stick to the road system, slipping down the countless logging roads looking for them feeding on the green shoots along the edges, or take to the water and focus your attention on the flats during low tide. With the number of bears the island boasts and the seemingly endless miles of logging roads and tidal flats to slip into, finding an opportunity was pretty easy. In fact, there was not a day I did not have multiple bear encounters. But like anything else, it comes down to finding the right bear. You don’t travel to Southeast Alaska for just an average bear. Plus, with Prince of Wales growing the largest black bears on the planet, you certainly don’t settle for average. It was a 7-foot Ursus americanus or nothing for me and I was using my bow and arrow to seal the deal.
My plan was relatively simple: use map imaging like OnX to dissect locations, marking several waypoints in the process to check out, and then hunt them when the wind and tide were right. With access to both a rented truck and a canoe, as well as a 2577 square mile island to roam, I was off and running that first afternoon and it wasn’t long until I had my first of many encounters.
Slipping down the logging road an hour before, it just looked like it was where a bear would feed. With the dense cover on one side and a small grass flat on the other, it screamed “big bear”. When I eased towards it again in the fading light a couple of hours later, it didn’t disappoint. His head was enormous and his body wasn’t too shabby either. It’s easy to say you want a 7-footer before a hunt begins, but when you’re looking at a legit 6-plus footer with a head the size of a large jack-o-lantern, thoughts change. With his head buried in the tall green shoots, I slipped into range. And just when I was beginning to think this was too easy, the capricious island breeze set me straight. In an instant, his head popped up and he jolted out of sight, causing my pride to shrink.
For the next several days, sights like this were the norm. If it wasn’t the switching wind or an unseen twig underfoot, it was simply bad luck—like having the rental truck break down once. Sometimes you just have slumps as a hunter and my much-anticipated Alaska adventure was turning into one of them. With days now ticking down to hours, I was running out of time and options. But with one tidal flat still left to check off the list, I shouldered my pack and made the mile hike in.
The further I slipped down the trail towards the flat, the more bear signs appeared. Breaking into the open flat, it was obvious I had saved the best for last. A brackish creek snaked down the middle towards the ocean and both sides were thick with rich grass and bear signs. With the sun beginning to set, I slipped down the edge of the creek with the wind in my face, and just when I was reaching the edge of the flat, he appeared. He was easily one of the top three bears of the trip—a no doubt 7-footer—and he was coming right towards me. Before I knew it, 200 yards had melted into 35, and I was in perfect position for a broadside shot.
After kneeling down to lower my profile in the grass flat, I drew my bow and settled the pin. Just like the first bear, everything was falling into place, and I began to pridefully think about how my last-minute heroics would end. As they say, “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” and just when I was about to drop the string he turned and stared directly at me. Although bears are not known for great eyesight, at 35 yards it’s a whole different story. He obviously knew something wasn’t right, so as his scarred face stared directly into mine and I contemplated a frontal chest shot, he made other plans. As he quickly turned I touched the release and helplessly watched as my arrow glanced off his side, burying in the thick grass behind him.
Needless to say, I was crushed. With well over a dozen stalks and nearly three dozen bears seen, it was not the way I wanted the hunt to end. So close but yet so far, as they say. While I watched this bear island paradise fade away from the stern of the ferry the following day in disappointment, all I could do was hope the tag gods would smile on me once again in the future.