Ol' Four Toes
By Steve Weeks
AK, Brown Bear
2019 was shaping up to be a pretty uneventful year as far as my hunting schedule went. With a repair of an old rotator cuff injury slated for mid-May and a long rehab after, my application strategy for the year was very conservative. I applied for a few of the later hunts, opted to build points for the most part, and concentrated on getting my shoulder back in shape. Little did I know that a single phone call would change all that.
Back in 2003, I had spent the season on Admiralty Island as a fishing guide. I met a homesteader by the name of Mike Shaw who was raising his three boys there. The natives had named the boys “The Wolf Pack" due to their hunting and trapping skills at an early age. Mike and his middle son, Casey, now own and operate Wolfpack Guide and Outfitter out of their lodge on the island. We’ve kept in touch over the years and have been on a couple of adventures since then. Mike’s a man of few words, so when I saw his name on caller I.D., I was immediately interested. He’s long been aware of my fascination for brown bears and had told me over the years that someday we would work on that one. Turns out, they had a hunter cancel and the spring hunt started in less than three weeks. He stated the terms he was offering me and gave me a few days to think about it. I did what any honest hunter would do, or at least own up to, and called the brains of the outfit. After getting a resounding, "Things happen for a reason, you would be crazy to miss this opportunity,” answer, I hung up and sent Mike a text, saying, “I’m in.” Reservations were made and bags were packed for #1 on my bucket list.
I landed in Juneau, got a good night’s rest, and was at the airport early for my floatplane ride to their lodge. About an hour later, we touched down in Cannery Cove. Mike, Patty, and Casey were waiting on the float. After unloading and transferring my things to their two side-by-sides, we headed across the tide flat and up the goat trail road that lead up to the lodge. I got settled in, finished the paperwork, and checked my gun. Everything looked good, so my .338 was added to the big pile by the front door and there it would sit tonight because of the flying/no-hunting rule. After supper, we headed out to take a ride and see what was out for the evening.
The hunting strategy that Mike and Casey use is simple, safe, and extremely effective. Mike is the boat captain, and Casey’s the guide. Mike has lived there for 29 years and knows every channel and rock in each inlet. He’s able to sneak the boat right into shore when the need arrives, dump out Casey and the hunter, and then back out. The tides are massive here, and this method gives you great flexibility. On the ride, Mike told me that Casey had spent the last week staying out until dark spotting. We nosed up to an island that was, at this time, completely surrounded by water in one of the many inlets, stepped off the bow, and headed across the rocks to a vantage point. On the walk, Casey pointed out a bald eagle nest off to the side that was built right on the ground, which is pretty unusual! We reached high ground and set up with a great field of view, our glassing distance being roughly from 0.5-1.5 miles, depending on direction. It wasn’t long until we spotted our first bear, a young juvenile in the back arm feeding. Not long after he wandered off, a sow showed up running out of the brush with a big boar in chase. By the time it turned too dark to see anymore, we had seen a total of eight bears. This included a big dark one that came out right at dark.
This was a 10-day hunt, so Casey prepped me to be flexible, and at least for the first few days, we would hunt from dark until dark. There had been a lot of activity the last couple of days, and he wanted to take advantage of every minute. I told him I was good for whatever he wanted to do and hoped I could keep up.
On the first day of hunt, we were up and out by dawn. Mike dropped us off at the "island," and we spent a few hours sitting where we had the night before. We saw two bears total but nothing worth a closer look. Casey wanted to go look at some other places, so we hiked back to our pick up spot. He blew his deer call, and here came our ride. We cruised several miles of coastline seeing one more medium-sized boar out on the beach scavenging.
We had Mike drop us ashore again, and we walked the beach line for awhile before Casey turned left and hit a bear trail going through the timber. We followed this trail for a mile or so and finally popped out at some old beaver ponds in a hidden meadow. Nothing was sighted, and after looking things over for tracks, we headed back to the beach. It was early afternoon by the time we got back to the boat, so we started making our way back to the island, which was several miles away. We made it back to the island, stepped off onto a familiar rock, and headed to our spot. With the sun out, it was quite warm.
After looking things over pretty well, Casey looked at me and told me to wake him up in a few hours and promptly curled up in the warm grass and sacked out. The tide was going out, and I was happy to just sit and watch everything start to get exposed. Nothing was sighted. About two hours later, Casey woke up, ate his lunch, and was on point. I curled up in my coat in the rocks and immediately fell asleep. I had slept about an hour when Casey’s toe nudged my foot. He had been watching a bear feed out, which eventually moved into an arm he could not see into. It was a big enough bear that Casey wanted to take a closer look, so we grabbed our stuff and off we went. The tide was out far enough now that we could leave the island and travel the tide flats. We made pretty good time. Casey stopped to check the wind, adjusted our path accordingly, and after going hard for half an hour, we were getting close. We worked our way up into the arm, and soon we could see the bear several hundred yards ahead. We set up, and after looking him over carefully with the spotting scope, Casey said it was too young, so we headed back to the island.
Back at the island, I plopped down on the driftwood plank I had wedged in the rocks for a seat. We couldn't have been back five minutes when we looked in the direction the big, dark bear had come from the night before only to see him standing on the brush line. He looked huge in my binos. Casey didn't even bother putting the spotting scope on him. He said, “Let’s go.” The bear was probably a mile or so away, but with water between us, we needed to head inland first and then fishhook back towards him with the wind in our faces. We made good time on the tide flat, and when we were within about 500 yards, we stopped. There was a huge lone boulder out on the tide flat about the size of a pickup. If we could get about 50 more yards to our left, the rock would be between us and the bear. As soon as he started to feed, we crab walked the 50 yards in the open. Now the rock completely hid us. We each quietly chambered up and started to advance straight at him. We reached the boulder, which happened to be about chest high and covered in moss. As we both eased up over the rock, his head snapped our way and he locked onto the rock. I estimated the distance to be just slightly over 100 yards. Casey whispered that he wanted to look him over and to sit tight. After a couple minutes, Casey whispered, “It’s a nice boar; take him if you like him.” I had been dreaming of this moment for almost 45 years. I made sure to take a moment and try to sear this image into my mind and retina forever. My first shot landed true, and as he reared to bite at it, I reloaded and kept shooting. Two follow-up shots and the beast lay still within our eyesight.
After about 10 minutes, we gathered our stuff and headed towards the bear. I tried to thank Casey, but by now, the tears were flowing and I could hardly get out a thank you. He just gave me a big smile and nod of the head. We got to the bear, and Casey held back and let me check him. I sat down to marvel at him, and I could tell by Casey’s reaction that he was just as pleased as I was. He was a brute. The first thing I noticed was that one of his front claws along with several accompanying joints of bone were missing. Boy that must have hurt! One of his front upper canines had a big chunk broken off from the gum line to the tip and decay was attacking the tooth. His face was covered in scars, and he was exactly what I had hoped for and more.
Casey pulled a radio out of his pack and called Mike to let him know we had been successful. It was getting close to dark, so after some quick pictures, Casey started skinning while I held things and kept my head on a swivel. After a while, we could see Mike approaching with the pack board from the north where he had anchored the boat. The two of them made quick work finishing up, and soon, we were stuffing bear hide into the pack sack. We headed out with Casey packing a pretty stout load. It was about a 45-minute walk back to the boat, and it was getting pretty dark by then. We loaded up and were back at lodge and showered up by midnight.
The next day, we worked on the hide and skull. I decided I would stay three more nights and head into town Friday morning so I could get the hide and skull sealed. The next few days were spent riding around checking out all the humpback whales and visiting a sea lion haul out for pictures, and the nights were spent looking for bears until dark.
The plane showed up Friday morning, and soon enough, we were back in Juneau. After a long taxi ride, I was able to get everything taken care of and was loaded up and heading home that afternoon. After the wife picked me up, we made a detour to drop off the hide at the taxidermist before heading home.
Thanks to the Shaw family for giving me the opportunity and to a supportive wife for living with my obsession.