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Grays Best

Expeditions: In the Fortress of the Bear Print E-mail

Mind travels in Southeast Alaska.
article and photography by Terry Wieland
From the September/October 2011 Issue

As the Alaskan Grandeur slowly worked her way down the east side of Admiralty Island, I stood on deck in the lee of the bridge, sheltering from the rain, peering through the mist. 

On one side, whales breached and blew, and above the clouds the dying sun flickered like a candle on the snow-peaked mountains. On the other side, Admiralty Island slid silently by while seals glided close to say hello, then dived with a laugh. Seals are always laughing. Zac stuck his head out from the bridge. “You wanted to know when we passed Mole Harbor,” he said. “There it is. In past those rocks.”

Mole Harbor. So this is it. Home of Allen Hasselborg, Alaska’s bear man, recluse, legend. Mole Harbor, site of Frank Hibben’s famous bear hunt. Mole Harbor, now just a name on a map, meaning little to anyone and fewer every year. Hasselborg’s cabin is gone, his garden, his mooring. Overgrown and devoured like everything on Admiralty Island, by rain, giant trees, devil’s club, the creeping deep and soaking moss. Mole Harbor, now just a gloomy plain of dripping ferns.

I tried to pierce the mist with binoculars, but all I could see of Mole Harbor were the rocks, a gap in the shoreline, and the towering mountain catching the last of the sunlight above the clouds. And then it all receded into the fog as the Alaskan Grandeur plodded steadily south.

 

****

Those names don’t mean much anymore. Hasselborg, Hibben. And there were others, too: Stewart Edward White, C. Hart Merriam, Annie Alexander. They were Alaska hunters, explorers, writers, naturalists. The natural phenomenon around which their solar system revolved was the Great Alaskan Bear, and particularly the bears of Admiralty Island.

Allen Hasselborg was their common denominator, a man who lived among the bears on Admiralty, guided Alexander, White, and Hibben, and collected specimens for Merriam. Hasselborg came north in 1900, and from 1917 until 1953 lived in a cabin he built himself beside Mole River. He took refuge in the Sitka Pioneers’ Home in Juneau in 1955, and died there a year later.

 

Image Going ashore: Alisha Rosenbruch-Decker, Jimmie Rosenbruch’s daughter, and generally considered the best guide in a family of master guides.

 

A brief enough summary of a life that, today, few can imagine. It first came alive for me through Hibben, the controversial professor of archaeology and big game hunter from New Mexico who wrote about Hasselborg in a couple of books and several magazine articles that appeared in True in the 1940s.

Hibben was economical with the truth in his magazine stuff, maybe because he was competing with such noted Alaska fictionalists as Russell Annabel, but his portrait of the bearded, ascetic Allen Hasselborg, “an old-testament prophet in hip waders,” was accurate enough. And it led, in a roundabout way, to my presence on the deck of the Alaskan Grandeur that rainy November day in 2007.

Funny how one obscure piece of writing can touch you, hook you, and keep you hooked. In 1988, I hunted in Alaska for the first time, and killed a brown bear on Montague Island. That bear was in close and coming rapidly closer, and I can see him still. Afterwards, I found Montague Island among the appendices of Charles Sheldon’s Wilderness of the North Pacific Coast Islands, and a footnote telling how Allen Hasselborg hunted with Annie Alexander on that island in 1907 and collected her specimens that confirmed the Montague Island bear, known henceforth as Ursus sheldoni.

Hasselborg and Miss Alexander landed in the very cove we hunted from, although I didn’t know this at the time. And now here I was, passing slowly down the coast of Admiralty Island, looking at the misty scene that was Hasselborg’s home for almost 50 years.

When Hibben hunted here in 1941, he wasn’t living in luxury aboard the Alaskan Grandeur, an aptly named floating palace that is one of Jimmie Rosenbruch’s “guide” boats. Guide boat? I’ve seen more Spartan hunting lodges. And all this to hunt black-tailed deer on Admiralty Island.

But that’s the way of things in modern Alaska, where hunters sleep warm and dry rather than huddling under dripping ferns in the rain, and they eat five-course meals instead of munching dry oatmeal. They select the appropriate vintage to accompany the fish course; they don’t boil tea with creek water stained red from floating leaves.

Not that I embrace unnecessary hardship, you understand. But it’s been my experience that the things you remember long after are the odd incidents you never planned, when you did something you never thought you could, under conditions you never expected to see. Twenty miles without water under the African sun. Coming down a mountain with a sheep on your back after 36 hours without sleep. That sort of thing. Things that don’t appear in any record book, and for that reason are vastly more important.

Allen Hasselborg sailed these waters in a 25-foot diesel launch, the Ebba, that he built himself, working all one winter with only his scant experience in canoe-making and a set of marine architect’s drawings. Twice a year he would sail into Juneau and return home with provisions and a stack of books checked out of the town library.

We, on the other hand, departed from Juneau in a floatplane, flying south to rendezvous with the Alaskan Grandeur, lying at anchor in a cove. It was then a six-hour cruise south to Eliza Harbor, a long inlet at the south end of Admiralty Island. All the way, there was coffee on the stove and a selection of videos for the big TV in the ship’s saloon.

Up on deck, though, there was rain and wind, whales and seals, lapping waves and snowy mountains glinting in and out of the clouds, and there was that brief glimpse of Mole Harbor and Allen Hasselborg’s spirit for company.

 

Image High on the mountain, at 2,806 hard-won feet above sea level.

 

Admiralty Island is a 96-mile-long mountain range jutting from the ocean, with steep slopes rising to tree line, and then towering mountains shining with snow. It’s part of a world heritage site, cherished by naturalists as a last patch of old-growth timber in a region that has been logged to death. It has the highest concentration of brown bears anywhere in the world—greater than Kodiak in numbers, if not size. The Tlingit name for Admiralty—Kootznoowoo—translates as “Fortress of the Bear.” What the Tlingit would know of fortresses I’m not sure, but there you have it.

So dominant are the bears on Admiralty that there are no other big game species except the diminutive blacktail, also known as the Sitka deer. These are small, quick, and elusive, as you’d be if you lived with brown bears.

Although they’re also found higher in the mountains, blacktails are generally hunted down low for the simple reason that climbing Admiralty is an ordeal. Mostly, guides and hunters go ashore early in the morning, in a small boat, and lie up inland a few hundred yards along one of the many creeks. There you wait for a blacktail buck to show up, or not. Then you go home for lunch.

Best-laid plans and all that, but one never knows if one will ever be here again, and so I insisted I wanted to climb the mountain. I may get a deer, I may not, but who cares? There’s always tomorrow. Today, I want to climb the mountain.

We were five hunters and five guides, and the overall plan was that we would switch around over the course of several days, all of which is fine; I was willing to give up my place in line for the best opportunity at a blacktail trophy.

The trophy I wanted from this trip was a long look at the world from high on the mountains of Admiralty Island.


****

Zac and I went ashore far up the inlet, flanked on three sides by mountains rising from the sea like the ramparts of a fortress.

We made our way over the slippery rocks and into the trees, entering a world, like Gulliver, out of any sane proportion to our own tiny size. Brobdingnagian isn’t a word that springs fluidly to mind, even when you don’t have to spell it, but the towering giants of Admiralty Island make you feel like an ant. 

Where the trees have uprooted and crashed to the ground, they present unscalable obstacles you can only skirt or, if you’re lucky, duck beneath. Some, you can walk under without bending. All are covered in moss—thick, deep green moss as wet as a sponge. Long-dead trees have turned into hummocks that look solid but are softly treacherous underfoot.

Within a few hundred yards of shore, the ground suddenly turns vertical and begins to climb, and instead of the forgiving moss underfoot there is mud. Ascending the slopes of Admiralty isn’t like climbing even the steepest mountain in the Alps or the Chugach; it is a battle against a greasy footing waiting to give way at any opportunity, and you test every foothold before putting weight on it, and make sure you have a firm grasp on anything within reach.

We were climbing the western rampart, and every whisper reverberated back and forth. We had paused a few hundred feet up to catch our breath and get our bearings, looking for a break through the tangle above, when we heard the sound. It came like a rising wind, low at first but steadily gaining in volume, with an edge to it like a banshee, and it echoed back and forth off the walls, rolling down the inlet.

The wind? Yet there was no wind. The tree branches were still, laden with snow, and snowflakes descended tranquilly, looking for a place to rest.

The roar reached its highest pitch then died away suddenly, leaving a terrifying emptiness. I looked at Zac. Zac looked at me. Then the sound came again, rising more quickly this time. Zac got on his radio, murmuring low and muffling the response. Then he looked at me.

“It sounds like a bear,” he said. “An unhappy bear. Maybe in a snare.”

A snare?

“Poachers,” he said. “They use steel cables.”

“How far away do you think it is?”

Zac shrugged. The awful noise came again, a moaning snarl. From over there? Or there?

In that echo chamber, it was impossible to tell. It could have been a hundred yards or five miles.

“What do we do?”

“Nothing. Stay away from it. Jimmie’s going to call fish and game.”

The sun was gone and the snow came heavier as we resumed our ascent, but the cheerful sense of adventure was gone, carried away by that terrible sound. Thick wet snowflakes muffled everything, fell off branches and down our necks, and soon we were soaking wet.

The rule with blacktails on Admiralty is, if you see antlers, shoot. Trophy judgment is reduced to a simple question: Is it a buck? They are there, and gone, that quickly.

When a deer flushed from a thicket and dashed past, I barely had time to see something on his head before he was swallowed by brush, but there was no regret; only relief that it wasn’t a bear. Funny how your attitude can change.

For four hours we climbed, measuring our progress by those terrifying roars that pursued us up the slope and a few more blacktails that came and went in a flash. Finally, when we reached a meadow above the trees, Zac’s altimeter told us we were at 2,806 feet above sea level.

“We can’t stay up here long,” Zac said, as we pulled our lunch from the pack. “It’s four hours down, and about that long until dark.” He didn’t need to elaborate.

As we sat, he glassed the slopes above us. About 400 yards up, a buck eased out of some trees and  across a clearing. Zac looked at me. Four hours down. I shrugged. We kept eating.

Through the snow, far, far down the inlet, we could sometimes see the Alaskan Grandeur riding at anchor, and beyond her the channel, and beyond that the mountains of the mainland. And that was the view from high on Admiralty Island. Well, now I’ve seen it. If anything, the descent was worse. Now everything was snow-covered and the footing even more treacherous. Ledges ended in deadfalls or precipices, or nine-foot slides that turned into wild toboggan rides of mud and slush. The snow kept up and the sky darkened, and somewhere near the bottom Zac and I got separated, he going one way around a deadfall and me insisting, in my stubborn silence, that the other way was better.

Night was falling, my thigh muscles were quivering like jelly, threatening to let go and send me sprawling. I could just see the inlet through the trees, and eased out onto the rocks. Nothing looked familiar, so I sat on a rock and waited, and soon heard the outboard. Zac appeared around a bend, silhouetted against the dead-still water. The water was glass, and the boat left a perfect V. There wasn’t another sound to be heard. Not a sound.


*****

Nor was anything heard from fish and game. We talked about the dreadful roaring, and what it might have been. The vision of a giant bear in the grip of unbreakable steel cables, shackled to an immovable deadfall, doomed and raging, left to die an unspeakable death, stalked my imagination as I lay in my bunk, listening to the waves lapping the side of the Alaskan Grandeur. There was nothing to be done. Nothing legal, at least. I’ve seen animals in snares, still alive and struggling, near dead, in Africa. It’s not something you forget. 

Two days later, Jimmie Rosenbruch and I went ashore near the mouth of the inlet, where a creek meandered down to the sea, flanked by soft, grassy meadows. We settled comfortably under a tree and waited. The sun was out, and we might have been on a different planet.

After an hour or so, a buck appeared from the other side of the creek and slowly picked his way along the edge and into range. I rolled on my side, put the crosshair behind his shoulder, and pulled the trigger. In the end, it was all just that simple.

But that’s not the part I remember.

 

_______

Every so often, Terry Wieland goes back to Alaska, and always something strange happens.

 

 

ImageZac Decker, looking for blacktails where we had no hope of bagging one and getting down the mountain before dark.  But you look anyway.

 

If You Go

Glacier Guides, Inc., consists of Jimmie Rosenbruch; his wife, MaryAnn; daughter, Alisha; and sons-in-law Zac and Dustin—all of whom are licensed guides with papers for operating a large vessel, of which they have several. Their hunting ground is the Tongass National Forest of Southeastern Alaska, and they guide both hunters and fishermen. Collectively, they have amassed a mantelful of awards, from the Weatherby on down.

If you’ve ever had the urge see Admiralty Island and the vicinity, Jimmie’s company is certainly the way to go.

Clothing and equipment for this part of Alaska can be summed up in one word: rain. Nothing is completely waterproof, except for Helly-Hansens and hip boots, and you can’t do much climbing in those. So the trick is to outfit yourself with boots and clothing that is waterproof to a point, but still warm even when you (inevitably) end up soaked to the skin. And you will, whether from rain, snow, sweat, or an unscheduled trip overboard.

Obviously, the same advice applies to rifles, except there you have the added hazard of salt spray. Much as it pains me to say it, if you have a stainless steel rifle with a composite stock, this is the place for it. It’s also where you will learn that the word stainless is relative.

Optical equipment is essential, and that means the very best you can afford—again, because of the conditions. On this trip, I used Swarovski everything, and my binocular and riflescope were the only two things that worked to perfection (unlike boots, rainsuit, camera, and rifle).

Glacier Guides, Inc., tells its complete story, with many photos and everything you need to know about clothing and equipment, at its website (www.glacierguidesinc.com).

 
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