AFOGNAK ISLAND, Alaska — Everyone here has a bear story. Not a bear-spotting story, which is almost daily, but a bear encounter, a confrontation where both parties have a choice to make — fight or flight. Without variance, the stories begin with a visual demonstration of nearness.
The person will point and say, “It was from me to that rock,” or that tree, or that post, or that whatever, usually about 20 feet away. When you look where they're pointing, 20 feet seems like plenty. Then you imagine a 900 pound, man-mauling beast at the other end, a beast that can close that gap in about two heartbeats.
I went to Alaska from Billings, on a series of four increasingly smaller airplanes ending with a tiny float plane, to visit my brother, Chuck Jorgensen. He's been a hunter as long as I remember, an able outdoorsman who likes his meals medium rare and appreciates some alone time. So it makes perfect sense that he would wind up on a remote island in a remote state. He lives with his wife, Lisa, and three dogs in Kitoi Bay on Afognak, an island about 20 miles long and 40 miles wide in the Kodiak archipelago. They both work for a state-run salmon hatchery, and together they make up about 5 percent of the island's entire permanent population of 39.
The only way to get there is by boat or sea plane. There are no roads to speak of, no store, no tavern, no nothing. I asked my brother if there is at least a Coke machine and he snorted.
At the fish hatchery 20 or so workers live in a small compound of homes and bunkhouses. Many are young fish scientists, or East Coast college-age kids looking for a little frontier adventure. They do the grunt work of catching the millions of salmon returning to the bay each fall and harvesting their eggs, 250 million in a good year, and then releasing the fry back into the ocean to support Alaska's struggling fishing industry.
And, it seems like every one of these people has confronted a bear. They tell their bear stories with an amused chuckle, like it's just part of living in this wild place, on the edge of a primeval forest where humans are a part of the food chain.
My brother shows me a photo of two workers from the hatchery who were deer hunting recently when they were charged by a Kodiak bear the size of a tractor. The men fired twice at the bear as it closed in on them. The photo shows the distance between the hunters and the charging bear when it finally lunged to a stop. The hunters could reach out and in one short step touch fur.
“Four feet, maybe,” said Randy Mason, one of the hunters. “It was pretty frightening. We didn't have much time to decide what to do.”
Bears often bluster when confronted. They will bounce on their front paws, snort and huff, or shake their heads like an emphatic no. They may stand up, to prove they’re taller than you, and even “bluff charge,” making a run at you before veering away.
“This one roared, like a real roar,” Mason said.
When the bear rushed them, Mason and his hunting partner, Nick Allen, didn't know if it was a bluff. They didn't want to fire unless they were sure. They love bears, and bears weren't in season. But they didn't have all day to think about it. As the bear ran for them, the two raised their rifles and backed up slowly until their path was blocked by a fallen tree. They lost sight of the bear briefly as it dipped into a small hollow, and then there it was, nostrils flared and intent on just one thing. They had a split second to fire.
Mason said it took him most of the day to calm down.
Other workers at the hatchery talk about stepping outside their house to have a smoke and meeting a bear at the backdoor. One woman walking the short distance to work was late because a bear wouldn't get out of her path. Another man said he was unlocking a shed when he heard the crisp crunch of claws on the gravel path behind him. He turned, froze for a minute, and then yelled at the bear to bugger off. It did. And one guy said he was sitting on his four-wheeler when he was charged by a bear. He had to fire two warning shots over its head before it changed its mind.
He had a gun because that's what you do here. You carry a gun for just about everything that takes you even a short distance from your house. The deeper into the woods you go, the larger the gun. In my brother's office, along with the usual office equipment, there is a fully-stocked gun rack.
On the first day my brother and I walked into the woods to look for bears he carried his wife's pistol, which I at first doubted would be enough firepower if we had to shoot our way out of there.
“I would rather carry my .300 Weatherby Mag for defense,” he explained in a language I don't fully understand. “But, I chose Lisa's .44 Mag with 320-grain hard-cast bullets designed here in Alaska especially for bear defense.”
We walked maybe a mile from his house to a small mountain lake. On the way I placed my size 11 shoe nearly entirely into the paw print of a bear in the muddy path. We weren't there five minutes before we saw our first bear, laying in the soft moss on a little hill above us about 25 feet away. We stared silently, me standing behind my brother who had his pistol drawn, until the bear got up slowly and lumbered away. We later walked up to a 30-foot cliff hanging over a stream where we watched another bear eating pawfulls of returning salmon. Later, we crossed the lake in a small skiff where we saw a giant sow with two mature cubs walking along the shoreline, one of them pausing to stand and stretch against a tree. On the way back we saw more bears in two other places.
That's 10 bears in 90 minutes, and we weren't even trying that hard. The next day we saw two bears in the estuary four minutes from my brother's doorstep. I could have made the trip in my slippers.
When my brother is trying, like during bear hunting season, he has the luxury of not taking the first bear he sees, or even the fifth or sixth. He can wait for the monster. Last summer he shot a bear so large the skin is too big to hang on his wall. He'd have to raise his ceiling 12 inches to make it fit, or cut off its head. After shooting the bear, it lunged into a pond. He had to go home and return with a come-along to pull the bear far enough onto shore to butcher it so it could be packed out. He also once shot a deer and while walking up to tag it, a bear casually stepped out of the woods, grabbed the deer, and walked away.
“I feel pretty lucky living here,” he told me. “I have a job on this island and a life where I don't even have to take a vacation to be here. It's where I live.”