Alaska is a beautiful and wild place. It has mountains, the ocean, tidal mud flats, glaciers and those unpredictable bears. Add the quick changing and bad weather and you have an accident waiting to happen. Spend 60 to 90 plus days a year in the wilderness for 45 years and your chances of something out of the norm happening are high. Add small airplanes and small boats and the odds go up. I think about this story and some of the other ones that I've shared and wonder if you readers are asking if this guy is a little nuts! Not really. I have made mistakes and have learned from them but no matter how safe you are or how well you plan in this environment, things just happen.
So far this year in Alaska we have had two bear maulings, several hikers rescued, a kayaker die and a couple airplane crashes that I know of. If you live in Alaska and hunt, fish, backpack, mountain climb or any other outdoor adventure, you will have had or know of someone who has had the same type experiences that I have written about.
Hopefully some of you will learn from my mistakes and some will laugh or cry because you have been there.
Follow me on my black bear adventures in Prince William Sound.
I really love black bear hunting and the splendor of Prince William Sound. The scenery, whales, porpoises, seals and all the other sea life make it a great place to experience Alaska at its best.
About this time of the year I get the itch to go black bear hunting even while I am out brown bear hunting. During my guiding days, all of my springs were spent brown bear hunting.
I guess I spent more time black bear hunting during my pre guide days than for any other animal. I always thought of them like deer hunters think about whitetail deer. They were everywhere and it didn’t matter if you went south or north, a 30 minute drive from Anchorage and you were in good bear hunting country. They were a cheap fun hunt. I killed my first black bear on the Kenai Peninsula, but my favorite black bear hunts were in Prince William Sound.
I don’t remember who told me about hunting out of Whittier but in late May of 1968 I did my first Prince William Sound black bear hunt. I was told to call John Ireland who rented boats in Whittier. I got set up to rent a 16’ runabout for the weekend at $30 per day. In the old days or the 60’s & 70’s, the only way to get to Whittier was by train and it only ran a couple times a day. It only cost 50 cents one-way per person but the first train didn’t arrive in Whittier until about 10:30 on Saturday morning. So, if I was going to pay $30 a day I wanted my boat in the water at least by 6:00 a.m. My plan was to drive to Portage Glacier, cross the Portage Lake ice from the parking lot and then walk through the long tunnel. It was 3 ¼ miles long. I didn’t know of anyone who had walked through it but I did know there weren’t any trains going through and we could use flashlights to see so no big deal.
I was going with two of my Air Force buddies, Gary Wadkins and Dennis Bush. We met after work and drove to Portage Glacier. When we pulled into the parking lot I could see we were in trouble. The lake was breaking up and full of floating icebergs. We got out and looked at it and knew we couldn’t get across. In my chest waders I tried to cross at the mouth of the lake and could only make it 3 ft. of a 100 ft. crossing. We drove about two miles back down the road and tried going across again and had the same luck as before. No way! Now plan B. It was only a little over 13 miles from the Seward Highway on the railroad tracks to Whitter which included a 1 mile tunnel and a second tunnel which was 3 ¼ miles. It was only 7:30 p.m. so we had all kinds of time. So I said, “Let’s do it!”
We parked in the parking lot at the train loading station on the Seward Highway and were on our way. The first couple of miles weren’t that bad. We each had about 25 pounds on a GI pack board so that wasn’t a real big deal for the first 5 or 6 miles but as time went on the fun was slowly going away. Gary and I had been spending time at the base gym but Dennis who was a few years older wasn’t doing any type of a work out so he was not doing too well. The first tunnel wasn’t a big deal and you could see light at the end. The light was very small but you could see it. Once we got in the long tunnel it became dark very quickly. Lots of water was running down the sides and dripping off the ceiling. It was damp and cold. There were a couple of lights at the start and a few about every mile or so but that was it. It seemed like it took forever. We stayed together while we were in the tunnel but once we could see the light at the end, Gary and I picked up our pace. We just wanted to get out of there. We waited for Denny at the end. It was about 2 a.m. and we still had about 2 miles to go to Whittier housing. We told Denny we were going on and for him to take his time and meet us at the harbor. We wanted to get the boat.
We made it to the Buckner Building, which was built in 1953 and was called “the town under one roof,” and stopped at the bar and asked the bartender where John Ireland lived. He gave us directions. It wasn’t very far from the bar. When I got to his door I gave a good hardy knock and I heard some commotion. Then he hollered, “Who is it?” I said,” Roger Morris.” He said, “What do you want?” “I have come to get my boat.” He said, “Its 3:30 a.m., how did you get here?” “I walked.” “You walked; it only cost 50 cents to ride the train.” I said, “I know but it doesn’t get here until 10:30 and we would miss the morning hunting, plus we are renting the boat by the day and I want to get my money’s worth.” With that he mumbled something and then said he would meet us at the harbor in a half hour or so. We went to the harbor and met Denny who looked exhausted and, then we waited for John. When he showed up he was still mumbling and said he had never heard of anyone walking from the road to save 50 cents. He just didn’t understand. It wasn’t about the 50 cents, but it was about missing the morning hunting.
After we got the boat we were off. It was a beautiful day and we couldn’t wait to spot our first black bear. It was hard to believe that we were just on the other side of Portage and it was completely different country. The mountains were full of spruce and they came right down to the water’s edge. The slopes were still full of snow. There was about 4 foot of snow on the beach except where the tide came in. This country was different and the hunting was going to be harder than I thought.
We continued going slowly about 400 yards off shore. We were glassing the sides above the spruce and the shoreline. We finally spotted our first bear about 7 p.m. So much for morning hunting. The bear was high on the hillside and we weren’t sure what to do with the boat since we had to work with the tides. We got out of the boat put the anchor around some big rocks and started the climb. The snow was soft and in areas were the snow was gone it was really wet and slick. We did a lot of post holing (sinking up to our thighs in snow) and sliding down the slick slopes into the snow. We never really got a good shot but before it was over we had seen 10 bears on this one slope. We gave up on that slope and headed back to the boat which was almost high and dry. We were able to move the boat into the water and continued on hoping to see a bear on shore.
About 10:30 p.m. or so, it had started to cool and we were losing light so we pulled into a small cove. We threw out the anchor, sat there and ate. We slept in the seats in the boat. About 4 a.m. we woke very tilted and high and dry. Of course the tide had gone out so we had to wait about 3 hours for the tide to come in.
After the tide came in we were off cruising the shoreline. About 8:30 a.m. we came around a point and spotted our first bear on the shoreline. The wind was right so we pulled the boat onto shore and made our stalk. Denny was to be the first shooter and he got his first bear. It was about 5’10” which we felt was a great bear. Not too bad for Rookies.
We didn’t see any more bears that day and cruised the shoreline back to Whittier. When we checked the boat in I ask John Ireland where he thought was the best area to hunt around there. He said he had had a client and came down Saturday evening and found us in the best place running around that mountain that had 10 bears on it. We caught the last train that evening and paid the 50 cents. Riding the train was definitely a better way.
I learned a lot on that hunt and came back another 20 plus times to enjoy the beauty of the Sound. My friends and family ended up harvesting 33 bears going out of Whittier. I will tell you a few of those experiences later but as the editor of the German Hunting Magazine once said, no one wants to read a hunter kills a black bear story, but about the interesting things that happened while hunting the black bears. The pictures will tell the killing stories.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the best ways to hunt this area. I found where all the little coves and tidal beaches were that had the tidal grasses. I would check them out as soon as we got camp set up. You could see if and how many times a bear had been there by the length of the grass. They were like lawn mowers eating the grass. Then we would go from cove to cove checking them in the early mornings and very late evenings. Then about 10 a.m. we would find a mountainside to watch because that was about the time it took the bears to leave the beach areas and find a place to nap or eat raspberry flowers. They loved them. On the good weekends we would take half the bears on the shore and the other half on the slopes.
When your hunting in the Sound the type of boat used can set the mood of the hunt. I have used everything from a 16’ Folboat (collapsible kayak) to a 39’ Yacht. Some of my most memorable hunts have been using the smaller forms of transportation. My last ten hunts have been using my 15 ½’Grand Raid III Zodiac. No matter what type or size boat we used, other than the first two hunts, we have always camped on shore in the same location.
On the hunt where we used the Folboat my good friend and hunting partner Earl Boucher had purchased a side motor mount for his Folboat and a 1 ¾ HP outboard motor so we decided to use it. The big boat on this trip was a rented 16’ open V bottom with a 25 HP motor. We had checked the weather and it looked good so Friday evening we loaded most of the gear in the big boat and were on our way.
It was fairly slow going with the 1 ¾ HP motor but it was pretty neat. We had a 4 mile stretch of open water to cross and about a mile into the crossing and we found ourselves surrounded by a group of porpoises. There must have been 6 or 7. They started to crisscross in front and underneath us. At first it was funny but then they seemed to get aggressive, actually rubbing their bodies against the bottom of the kayak as they crisscrossed. When your butt is setting on the floor with only a 1/4” between you and the water and these 5 to 6 foot mammals are rocking your boat it is time to get out of there. So we headed for the shore and they followed until we were about 500 yards from the shore. Then as quick as they came they left. This only happened to me one other time in about that same area. It was about six years ago. I was with my son in law Sagen and my two grandsons Jared and Nathan in the Zodiac. Six or seven porpoises started to crisscross in front and then underneath. The faster we went the more they crisscrossed flipping water up on the boat. It was hilarious. We got some great video of them and used it in our black bear video.
We then continued on in the Folboat with no more harassment. We had a great hunting weekend taking 4 nice black bear. That was the first time we used the big log at camp for pictures. We loaded up and headed back to Whittier. As we were crossing the same open water where the porpoises had been the swells started to get pretty big. It was like we were on a surf board with half of the 16’ kayak out of the water. This again seemed to be fun until someway a wave came over the side mounted motor and it stopped. Earl tried to get it started with no luck and we were getting sideways in the swells. Hansford Clayton was in the 16’ V bottom. He threw us a rope and pulled us close to shore but there was no way he was going to be able to tow use for another 6 or 7 miles and make the last train. We decided he would go to Whittier and get a big boat to come and pick us up. So we just paddled to shore and waited. The guy showed up with some kind of work boat and we loaded the Kayak on it and then went on to Whittier. We caught the last train for Portage and never brought the Folboat again.
On one hunt we actually made money. It was one of those beautiful weekends and we ended up taking four bears again. We didn’t know before we shot them that two of the bears had fish and game radio collars on. We were told to take them to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Once I got to the office I was sent back to the black bear biologist. He told me he had been working on a black bear study for the last five years. They had been using barrel traps but were unable to trap any boars. He convinced his boss to let them use helicopters and dart the big guys in the tidal grass. They had darted 5 bears the week before we went on our hunt. We had taken two of them and two other groups of hunters had taken two more so that only left one. It had cost $25,000 for that week’s tagging project and we basically “shot it.” He asked me where the bears were when we shot them. I told him lying on their bellies eating the tidal grass. He said that was where they were when they darted them. I told him I had been hunting over there for 8 to 10 years on the same dates because that is when the boars are on the beach. He asked if we slept on a boat and I said no. He said he had interviewed and surveyed 1200 hunters over the last five years and no one had slept on shore because it was too wet or too much snow. I told him it was pretty wet but we had a good camp site. At that time the harvest was between 25-30 black bears per year. My buddies and I had taken 4 on two occasions and I had a friend that was taking 3 or 4 a year and he had a friend that was taking 3 or 4 a year so three groups were taking about ½ the harvest. The others were taken by the other 1200 hunters. He paid us $75.00 per collar or $150. That paid for our gas and the train. Not a bad weekend.
On another trip we took my 18’ Hewes Craft River Runner with a 115 HP motor with a jet unit. We brought Earl Boucher’s 10 year son Brian on his first bear hunt. It was the evening of the first day and we were setting in the boat in one of my favorite coves. It was misting so we had the full canopy up and snapped. We were dry but it was still cool. We hadn’t seen any bears that day and it was getting pretty boring for all of us. It was especially boring for an active 10 year old boy. I heard him keep telling his dad,” Let’s go!” Earl being the typical father told him we would leave when the time was right and to wait quietly. It wasn’t too long after that when we lost our daylight and decided we did need to leave. As we were slowly coming out of a protected cove we were suddenly hit by a wave that went completely over the boat. That got everyone’s attention real quick. Little Brian hollered,” I told you we should have left!! I told you we should have left!!” I guess he was right. The waves were way too close together and the second one also went over us. The good thing was the full canopy kept the water out but there was no way I was going to get the boat on step and going slow with the jet drive I couldn’t get positive control to keep it into the waves. I only had a half of a mile to go to get into the cove where we were camped. Once we were about a 100 yards from the necked down entrance of the cove the waves were reduced to about half their size. We were able to motor slowly to camp with no more problems.
The next day was beautiful and Brian killed his first black bear. Another great hunt ended with a little excitement including killing a black bear.
I have many more special black bear hunts that I will share with you in the future. As you can see, there are always funny things happening on our hunts. We more than likely will never hunt this area again as it is now a registration hunt and will be closed during the time frame we have always hunted there.