Memoir

Hunting with the boys

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AS SOON AS we heard the growl, Hans released the safety on his rifle and, in the same motion, swung it from its cradled position across his chest and aimed toward the bushes. ‘Step back...slowly,' he cautioned. We took two backward paces. Behind us, the creek bubbled towards the inlet. Sandbars and shallows had slowed its flow, giving the salmon, who fought frantically to reach their spawning grounds further up river, a brief respite.

‘Let's go,' he said, after only a moment, and we moved into the bushes. The bear had left. Only a swathe of flattened grass, a blob of excrement and a smell that reminded me of wet pine needles marked its passing.

We re-entered the creek on the far side of the bushes. The water was thigh-deep, but our waders kept us dry until we reached the shallows. Salmon lay about us, dead and dying, flaking apart in the current; others burst between our legs and around us as thickly as spring pollen. We moved upstream tenderly, measuring every step.

A sow and two large cubs were fishing in the reeds ahead, pawing and slapping the water. With a drop of his hand, Hans signalled us to squat, while he flicked on his lighter, checking the wind direction. When he was confident that they could not pick up our scent, he motioned us out of the water and on to a trail made by another bear, at another time. We were only here to shoot big males.

Further upstream, we moved away from the river, climbed a steep hill held together by the roots of an old hemlock, and found a log that gave us an unobstructed view over shallow rapids. A likely bear fishing spot. We nestled with our backs against the fallen log and waited. Hans pulled out a packet of Copenhagen and settled a pinch of the tobacco behind his bottom teeth. John chewed on a wad of Redman, expectorating a blood-coloured stream every few seconds.

Seagulls rode on the backs of swimming salmon, pecking them to death. Bald eagles soared lazily, seemingly disinterested in the feast below. A waterfall above the rapids roared and foamed, wetting and chilling the air, making me shiver regularly.

When we got back to the beach, the tide was creeping stealthily toward our launch. Another fifteen minutes and we would have been stranded. Hans and John unloaded their rifles, and Hans pulled on the line that anchored the launch to the shore, hand over hand, coiling the rope meticulously as it fell toward the ground.

Nobody spoke as we motored back to the boat. Hans stood at the wheel, steering us through a chop that had grown to three feet. John sat on the middle seat, stains of dried red spittle at his feet. I hunkered down in the bow, trying to stay out of the wind and spray, ready to make the launch fast when we arrived.

Hans suddenly threw the skiff into an arc, and when I looked carefully over the gunnels, I could see plumes of water shooting into the air. We got within thirty metres of the humpback whales before they sounded, and then they were gone.

 

IT HAD BEEN twenty-five years since I had last seen Hans. He'd hardly changed. Still all muscle, hair still blond, only grey five-day growth giving an indication of his age. He was prosperous now, an outfitter and hunting guide. His company, South East Alaskan Guiding, was one of the most respected in the country. He promised his clients a good chance of killing brown bear and mountain goat, the two most sought-after trophies in American big-game hunting, the two most demanding and dangerous. He had an impressive success rate.

Hans transported his clients to the hunting grounds of Admiralty Island, forty miles south of Juneau, Alaska, on his fifty-one-foot long-line fishing trawler, the Northern Star. I recognised her at first sight. Not new, but immaculately cared for. She looked like an Eton boy among urchins.

The Northern Star slept five comfortably; it had a stove, oven, fridge, hot shower, toilet and clothes dryer. A generator powered the electrics. But it was also a working fishing boat, with a satellite-navigation system, depth finder, radio and autopilot.

The Alaska Shark, the boat I worked on so many years ago, had a compass, charts, ruler and pencil. Landmarks were used to avoid rocks, and you had to steer the boat yourself and shit over the side, or in a bucket when the weather was bad. Even on Hans's boat we still shat over the side...old habits die hard.

Hans had invited me to join him on a bear-hunting trip. You couldn't turn an offer like that down. Or the chance to see an old mate.

 

JOHN ALWAYS CLIMBED awkwardly out of the launch and onto the boat. Bad knees. He never complained, even when he was in a lot of pain, which he was when his pain tablets started wearing off, or when Hans pushed him to the limit. Hans had no tolerance for weakness.

It was John's fourth hunt with Hans. It wasn't that Hans could not find him a big bear – just that John wanted the biggest and was prepared to wait. He had already spent $50,000, but it had nothing to do with money.

When I asked him whether he thought he was ever going to get his bear, he laughed and answered in his syrupy Arkansas drawl, ‘It's an island – he ain't going anywhere.'

We had been up since 4.30 and had eaten only a few mouthfuls of cereal. Hans had already begun frying bacon bits, diced potato and a small hill of onions before John and I were out of our waders. I poured coffee, before walking aft to light a cigar. Protected from the wind by a scimitar of land, the water around the boat was as flat as a skimming stone. The sun had burned away the early morning fog, letting the sky mingle with the water, in a lapis lazuli of blues and greens. Outside our cove, the waves rushed by in low walls of grey and foamy white.

 

JOHN IS WHAT many Americans call a good ol' boy, some a cracker. He lives in a town that stayed segregated until the mid-1960s: the picture theatre, bowling alley, swimming baths, drinking fountains. ‘Even when they took the signs down that separated humanity, people still stayed on the same side of the picture theatre they always had, used the alleys that they always bowled on, drank out of their own fountains,' John told me with considerable consternation.

John likes to eat grits and gravy; he is a member of a private business club, a town leader, a former marine, a Vietnam veteran. He lives in a large house filled with the grim detritus of his hunts throughout the world, calls black Americans ‘coloured' and runs a well-digging company started by his ‘daddy' that he took to new fiscal heights. At one time, John employed almost exclusively black Americans; now he hires only Mexicans. ‘They're better workers – coloureds don't want to work anymore.'

I was tempted to question this generalisation, but he had worked himself from nothing to something without an education, and who was I to judge?

‘Whites don't want to work either,' he suddenly added, expectorating pink into a plastic bottle that he used when sitting at the eating table.

 

IT WAS OUR habit to sleep after eating, rising after a couple of hours to eat again, usually soup or cold cuts, and prepare for the night's hunt. Hans and John would check their rifles, working the bolt actions, rubbing them cautiously with lightly oiled rags, caressing them tenderly. Then we would dress. My attire consisted of three sets of long underwear, three pairs of socks, pants and thigh-high waders held up with string tied to my belt, stout gloves, woollen cap and rain jacket. I looked more like a butter bean than a hunter, but I thought that better than being cold. John and Hans always dressed much more lightly. John always wore camouflage.

After we dressed, the necessities were assembled: binoculars, the heavy night-vision scope, headlamps, knives. The launch was pumped free of any water, and the outboard motor's tank filled with gasoline. Bullets and tobacco were essential.

‘Did I tell you I have a business in India?'

‘No, John,' I answered, as we sped out into open water. The passage had calmed, and we raced over waves so gentle they resembled freshly whipped cake batter.

‘I have a foundry there.'

I waited, understanding that timing was important in John's stories.

‘I met an Indian man on a plane, trusted him, and we took it from there.'

‘Was he trustworthy?'

‘No, but my new partner is!'

Hans had decided to hunt Moon Cove. We had been there before; there was no cover and no high ground to get out of harm's way, if it came our way. We were forced to crouch among the tidal rocks choked with mussels, amid salmon corpses, next to a creek that rushed violently into the sea.

Before we landed, Hans motored slowly back and forth, scanning the beach with binoculars, looking for the best place to land without disturbing the sows and cubs that were already feeding along the creek's banks. It was low tide, cloudless, and a full moon was expected. It would be a long and bitterly cold night.

 

WE NESTLED INTO the rocks, rubbing our backs against the mussels, trying to find angles that would give us comfort. Across the creek, sows were feeding with their young. It was the gloaming and we waited for the moon, watching their silhouettes dip into the water. Hans pulled out his night-vision scope, set it carefully on a rock and scanned both sides of the creek. The moon came up and the cold set in. John and I squirmed and wiggled, trying to stay warm; Hans remained as still as the rock he was squatting on.

‘Never did tell you about the tigers, did I?'

‘Give me some of your Red Indian,' I answered, peering warily into the dark for large shapes, before stuffing a ball of tobacco in my mouth.

‘Them ol' boys were man-eaters.'

I spat thickly, the red liquid running down my chin. Nausea came on almost immediately; my head began to spin. The tobacco was too strong, but I had set my mind to continue chewing.

‘We captured two of them, and we was walking through the jungle looking for the third when he came charging out of the undergrowth.'

‘You were on a trophy hunt?'

‘No,' answered John, mildly annoyed that I had interrupted his story. ‘I was doing a favour for the National Geographic. They wanted to film the capture of these old tigers that had been eating some of the villagers, and they asked me to go along to protect their people: two ol' girls, both about twenty, and the cameraman.'

I nodded, raking the tobacco off my gums, trying not to swallow any of the amalgam left wallowing like swamp water in my mouth.

‘That ol' tiger came charging straight out of the bush. It was only 'bout ten feet away when I shot him. Them armed guards they sent with us already dropped their rifles and ran. So did the cameraman. Can't blame him though...I suppose.'

‘A man-eater?'

‘That's what they say.'

‘What about the assistants?

‘Those two ol' girls couldn't even talk they were so scared.'

 

THE NIGHT WAS so still that a whisper sounded like a shout. Hans threw us an annoyed look and then changed position, turning to face across the creek. A new bear had joined the others.

The gender of a bear is extremely difficult to determine, and almost impossible in the dark. Hans was concentrating on the new arrival, changing the focus of his night-vision binoculars, adjusting the range, repeating the procedure, and then repeating it again.

‘Can't see their balls,' John whispered to me. ‘They don't hang down. A sow looks just like a boar. Usually a lot meaner, though.'

Another bear moved in from our left. Hans and John noticed her only when she was almost on top of us. I became aware when Hans and John swung around to face her. She caught our scent and moved back over the tidal rocks and along the beach.

I was caught unawares again, when a full butter-coloured moon rose over the island's high forests and lit up the beach and creek like church candlelight.

Noiselessly, a new bear broke out of the forest. It was long, lean, and Hans needed less time in the better light to see that it was a boar. It played at the water's edge on our side of the creek, rolling rocks, splashing the foam with its paw, lifting a salmon out of the water only to let it drop back again.

‘Too small,' Hans growled, and turned his attention back across the creek.

‘Let's get a closer look.' They moved, stopping behind a large boulder directly across from the bear. Hans set his night-vision scope on the rock and began his study. Small dark clouds appeared, blocking out the light, drifting away again, as if playing hide and seek with the moon.

I remained squatting behind my rock, watching my bear with fascination, feeling very much alone. Without warning, the bear sloshed into the creek, pushing rocks playfully in front of him. I could see him clearly. He was lean but heavily muscled, and I was sure he was big enough for John.

The bear suddenly turned, wadding slowly towards me, breaking the water like a steaming boat. I moved behind another boulder, picked up a rock, and cursed that I was not armed. Hans and John crouched thirty feet away, their backs towards me. I waited. It got to within ten metres before it turned, grunted and disappeared into the shadows on the other side of the creek.

Hans and John returned with the news that their bear was a sow.

‘What's wrong with your shoulder?' I asked, when I noticed Hans rubbing it.

‘Popped it.'

Hans began to study my bear again with renewed interest when I told him how big I thought it was in silhouette. He watched for an hour, straining at times to catch sight of him in the shadow of the woods, before again proclaiming him too small. ‘If you had seen him side on,' I whined – but Hans couldn't be convinced.

We waited until the tide arrived, bubbling about us, carrying with it weeds and more dead salmon, and then we stepped cautiously over the partially submerged rocks toward the anchored boat.

A medium-sized bear came out of the woods, grunting, belligerent. ‘Side by side,' Hans ordered. To a bear, we would appear as one, and therefore large and possibly dangerous. The bear hesitated, grunted and grunted again, before ambling casually away. He remained a short distance from us, grazing on salmon, lifting his head intermittently, challengingly.

‘That's one bear that ain't scared of us,' Hans remarked, lifting his shoulder horizontally as if it were a hinge that needed adjusting.

‘Rocks are slicker than owl shit,' John said, seeming not to have heard him, concentrating instead on his struggle to scramble into the boat. When we started the motor, the bear raised his head again, and then we lost him against the darkness of the forest.

‘In the morning we hunt Black Deer Creek.'

John nodded before finishing his whisky in one gulp and heading below to sleep. A light breeze rocked theNorthern Star like a cradle.

 

THE FOOTPRINTS ON the beach were eight inches across and very deep. ‘He was down here last night. He's probably not more than a few hundred yards away, sleeping the food off,' Hans said.

‘How big?' I asked.

‘That's a big bear – got to be more than nine and a half foot.'

‘Come back tonight?' John asked.

‘Or we can hunt him now. Be in his territory, though. Have to be real quiet and real careful.'

It was steep, and John's knees were no good. I thought he would decline, but he just nodded. We moved off, step by measured step.

After we climbed off the beach, we lost the sun and the trail became slippery. Moss enveloped every fallen log; vines crossed the trail like the rungs of an endless ladder. Each time we broke a twig underfoot, Hans would turn and glare.

The bear was easy to follow in the beginning. It had skidded down to the beach, scraping the vegetation away, leaving a wide muddy trail. As we climbed, it became more indistinct; multiple tracks appeared. Hans followed the freshest with little trouble, checking every mossy glade, squatting, waiting, listening, peering behind every broken spruce, hemlock. Shadows jumped out at us. The woods were so thick and tangled, he could be anywhere.

As we crept higher, the footing became more difficult. John was breathing heavily. He had stripped off his jacket; sweat dribbled across his face, which had turned as red as a ripe peach and disappeared into his beard.

Hans held up his hand and we stopped. He pointed ahead and above us. I was ordered behind a tree and told to keep watch to our left. John shouldered his rifle.

‘If he comes, he'll come fast, so be ready to warn us.' I nodded.

‘Bite your thumb,' John said, almost in a whisper.

Hans picked a blade of grass, placed it between his lips and imitated the distress call of a black-tailed deer. A high-pitched whistle, desperate and morose.

Nothing! He repeated the call. We waited, seconds seeming like minutes.

‘Let's go.' Hans indicated with a hand movement.

We climbed onwards to the top of the ridge: only 1,500 feet, but it had taken us two hours.

Hans stripped off his pack; we did the same and followed him along the ridge, creeping, bent double. Suddenly Hans straightened and I knew we had lost the bear. We walked another twenty metres to his sleeping bed at the base of a tall spruce, a circle of dirt littered with branches and faded needles. The bear had given himself a view over the incline we had just climbed. We could still smell him.

‘Probably watching us the whole time,' Hans said admiringly, working his shoulder, trying to lift his arm a little higher than the last time.

‘What did you mean by "bite your thumb"?' I asked John as we walked back to retrieve our packs.

‘It keeps ya concentrated. An ol' boy told me that when I was a kid. It's the pain that does it.'

When we got back to the beach, John began to knead his knees, rolling the caps around with the palm of his hand as if they were rubber balls.

‘Disappointed?'

John clamped his mouth against his pain and began to shake his head. ‘It's hunting; otherwise it would just be killing.'

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