By Bob Robb
Like too many clients, the dudes from Wyoming were a little full of themselves. You know the type — “We shoot pronghorn through the eye at 400 steps,” and “After you’ve rodeoed on the back of a bucking bull, what’s there to be scared of?” — that sort of stuff.
Alaska Master Guide Jim Boyce was taking them on a boat-based spring black bear hunt on Southeast Alaska’s Kuiu Island, and I was along as the assistant guide/chief cook & bottlewasher. Jimmy, a former navy SEAL with two Vietnam combat tours on his resume, was his usual calm self. “No worries, boys. The weather’s supposed to be good, and the bear’s are out.” We set off on Gunsmoke, Jim’s 36-foot cruiser, with the inflatable Zodiac in tow.
The way we ran these hunts was simple: cruise the beaches in the big boat, glassing for bears on ocean-facing beaches, where the surf surge can be big but no other hunters go simply because it can be really tricky getting a skiff in there on the tide surge. The big bears know they’re safe here, and come out of the thick old growth forest to root among the kelp for sand fleas, which they love as much as chocolate bars. Once you spot a big bear, you anchor the main boat, hop in the skiff, motor in, land and anchor, hop out, shoot the bear, whoop it up, skin him out, return, make cocktails, and enjoy the evening. Simple…until it’s not.
Today it was not.
By and by we spotted a huge old boar, motored in, and beached the skiff. My job was, in part, to monitor the tides, which are massive here. In this case we beached at the middle of the low tide. This day, in about three hours the tide would rise about seven feet, meaning it would cover up about 50 yards of what was now exposed beach. To make sure we could retrieve the skiff, the skiff anchor was tied to the bow with 15 feet of rope, but there’s also some 200 feet of rope tied to the bow. So we anchor, then haul the rope with us up to the tree line and tie off.
That done, the four of us make the stalk, and there’s the bear, maybe 50 yards upwind as we lay on the rocks and watch him dig sand fleas. He’s a giant with perfect hair, so the client – the one who shoots pronghorn in the eye at a quarter mile – goes prone, settles in, and touches one off. He hits the broadside bear in the back foot. The bear races off into the old growth. Shit. So off we go, trying to find the trail, which is virtually impossible in the old growth since there’s little blood. After two hours I grab Jimmy and say, “Bro, we gotta get back to the skiff, the tide is up.”
It’s an Oh Shit moment when we get back to the beach. We’re late. The tide is indeed up, and the surge is lifting the skiff up maybe 10 feet in the air, then bombing it down onto the rocks. Jim and I race to the water and jump in, grabbing the skiff between surges, and while I am hanging on for dear life, he jumps in and tries to get the motor started. Up it surges, and when it comes down, it sucks me under the boat – my pants are ripped to shreds on the rocks and Jim flies down and cracks two ribs on the motor – while the clients are trying to take video of this. “Getinthefuckingboatrightnow!” I scream at them. The Zodiac is full of water, but thankfully is designed to float when full, and the dudes jump in – I may have helped them a bit too forcefully – and we float off the rocks, the waterlogged motor still not firing.
Gunsmoke is anchored about a half-mile offshore, and we’ve floated away from the jagged rocks. That’s the good news. The bad news is the motor isn’t working, Jim’s working the only paddle we have, and the 7 knot tide is taking us in the opposite direction of Gunsmoke. The dudes think this is some sort of Scout-o-Rama or something. Trying to sound calm, cool, and collected as I grab the top of the battery box to use as a makeshift oar, I look at the boys and say, “Gentlemen. The tide’s going the wrong way. See that out there?,” I say, pointing to the open ocean. “The next stop is Russia! So bail this skiff out like your life depends on it. Because it does!”
Somehow, we made it back to Gunsmoke, got the dudes dried off and fed, and when they hit the sack, Jimmy and I went on the back deck, where we did some serious damage to the Stoli bottle. Next day we go back, and somehow Jim – a true bear hunting savant – finds the dude’s bear a mile from the beach hunkered down under a log and dispatches it while I take both clients on a little jungle boogie – read that: death march – up and down a devil’s club-choked hillside as we “looked” for the bear.
Had the skiff been destroyed on the rocks, it would have been Gilligan’s Island for us.