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Searching within the Archipelago.

Essay by Steve Kahn
Photographs by John Hohl

It was never about the killing.  I was drawn to any occupation that would allow me to place my boot in the track of a brown bear, listen to the bellowing of rutting moose, or curl up at four thousand feet in a shallow depression still pungent with the aroma of sheep. At one time, I had even considered becoming a field geologist, but my paleontology professor hinted I might be better at identifying live animals than ones long dead. More by luck than design, through a series of fortuitous yet minor events, I was pulled along an ever-deepening trail, toward the title of big game guide, that spring of 1979. 

Bear paw prints. Photo by John Hohl.Though my initiation had come in the mountains and muskeg of the western slopes of the Alaska Range, this season I would be searching for brown bear in southeastern Alaska.  On the commercial flight into Juneau, I listened intently to my mentor and boss, Stan Frost, describe the country I was about to see for the first time in my guiding career.  To a terrestrial nimrod such as myself, boat hunting within the Alexander Archipelago seemed as exotic as the names implied: Baranof, Chichagof, Kuiu.

Our skipper Tom Parks, who had navigated these waters for decades, exuded the confidence of a man at home in his element. Charts tucked into a newly oiled teak rack, bunks crisply folded, lines neatly coiled on deck, windows spotless, everything displayed a master's touch.  Even the coffee was percolated and poured with care.

On the eve of our first client's arrival, we sat on the hatch covers luxuriating in the rhythmic dip and sway of the ocean, while the Tiller Tramp worked against its mooring lines.  Glaucous-winged gulls peered from the rigging at the wisps of smoke spiraling up from Stan's corncob pipe. The familiar rum and maple aroma added a strange sweetness to the algae-rich air of the harbor. Tom's eyes glinted, mirroring the phosphorescent backdrop of small life forms swimming erratically in the dark water. As Tom and Stan relived their past hunts together, I felt in the presence of two sages: one of the sea, the other of the mountains. With such an auspicious beginning to our saltwater safari, I felt as if nothing could dampen the prospect of a successful season.

The following day the weather took a sour turn. Heavy rain sliced the afternoon as Stan introduced me to our hunter, who brusquely shook my hand and presented me the back of his brand new PVC-over-polyester slicker.  I swallowed hard, quietly picked up his duffel bags and deposited them next to his bunk.

"Buffleheads, aren't they?" The hunter gestured across the bow of our skiff.  My binoculars were trained on a curious brown object partially obscured in the tall grass just above the high-water mark. A stump.  Glancing over at the squat birds, the drakes with the distinctive white blaze dominating their bulky heads, I was impressed. He seemed to know ducks. Already he had identified goldeneye, scoters, oldsquaw, and pintail.  We slowly motored around the next point, my attention divided between searching the water for reefs and scanning the beach for bear.

Maybe I had misjudged his distracted stare as we chipped aqua-blue chunks from floating icebergs for our coolers, as we explored isolated bays and felt the spray of a thundering waterfall mix with the dense salt air. Perhaps it was only a matter of semantics, how he always substituted the word kill for the word hunt:  "Sure would like to kill a sheep someday." But his word choice bothered me. Kill was not the term that I immediately associated with hunting. Seek, pursue, search, yes. That the holistic aspects of hunting, the blood and beauty, the death and wonder should be reduced to such a harsh-sounding verb seemed an affront to the animals and country.

Bear near water. Photo by John Hohl.As the next stretch of beach came into view I hit the off switch on the idling Evinrude.

"Damn it, I wish I'd brought my shotgun. Those are harlequins!" His face pressed into his binoculars. "Shouldn't have listened to Stan!" His fist slammed the side of the skiff. The hollow tremor echoing from the aluminum seemed to launch him into a tirade.  It had something to do with not securing a special permit from a museum back east. "With that I can kill anything I want, anytime I want!"

There seemed little percentage in entering into a dialogue with him about the ethics of hunting. In later years, I would have done so. But then, realizing my handling of the situation could affect our relationship over the next week, I offered, "Well, you know there is a fall hunt for ducks and I'm sure you'd be able to make arrangements with one of the local guides."  My words drifted aimlessly over the ocean swells, waved away like annoying insects.

I didn't know what else to say.  At an inch over six feet, he stood a good three inches above me, his close-cropped thatch of pale brown hair in contrast to the ample spread of his belly.  I wondered how he perceived me.  With my scuffed hipboots, bent pack frame and rifle's thin blueing, it was apparent that I'd had a few years in the field, though even a full auburn beard couldn't hide the youthfulness of my twenty-four-year-old face.

The tiller of the outboard rested against my knee as if urging me to move on.  I turned the handle to the start position, squeezed the bulb on the hose and gave the cord a hard pull.  I eyed the gas tank, determining that we could cruise along another 45 minutes before making our way back to Tom's boat.

Bald eagle. Photo by John Hohl.The following day we motored around Walker Point and headed into Murder Cove on the southern end of Admiralty Island.  On one of these beaches in 1869, a party of fur traders had been robbed and killed by local natives. The stories Tom told last night were fascinating, but the duck man had spent the time doodling blue ink stars on the napkin resting on the galley table.  Now, as he stared blankly at some point just above the horizon, I glassed the first beach, thinking it could have been a morning just like this that the fur traders spent their last hours sleeping, their bodies pressed wearily into the sand.

A bald eagle glided past our skiff and landed deftly near the tip of a Sitka spruce. The hunter raised his rifle and peered through the scope.  It was odd, given that yesterday he seemed comfortable enough with binoculars, which, in this terrain, were the superior optics. Then I saw his finger on the trigger.

Stan's edict, enforced by his guides, was to always have an empty chamber until the final stages of a stalk. This policy was made clear in correspondence, pre-hunt talks and constant reminders. It could not be misinterpreted, but with a start I realized it could be disregarded. If there was ever a time to state the obvious it was now. "You know, of course, that you can't shoot those."

I half expected a comeback, an argument that eagles were mere scavengers, but the hunter only grunted and lowered his gun. I glassed the hillsides and beaches wishing I could will a boulder or hummock of grass into Ursus arctos and transform the tension I felt into relief.  The day continued in strained silence.

As we swung on anchor that night, the creak and pop of the line and waves slapping the sturdy hull filled me with dismay.  I tried to understand why I hadn't given Stan the full story. With his broad face and high cheekbones, Stan had a classical look of stoicism. How many times had I heard him reply to those guides who expressed discontent with a hunter, "Well, you don't have to marry the guy.  You only have to live with him for a week." Yes, but those seven days are made up of over ten thousand minutes. Now each one seemed exponentially longer than the one before. Yet I was determined not to complain. So I'd dropped a casual remark, the kind of offhand comment we sometimes make when not really expecting a reply, "Boy, I sure hope we see a bear tomorrow, because the hunter seems awfully anxious to shoot something…."

Puffin with fish in beak. Photo by John Hohl.“Crows, can I shoot crows?" The hunter interrupted the stillness. "No, you can't." The third day was proving no better than the previous two. Increasingly tired of his game, I had dropped all explanation or attempt at distraction. It had been the same all morning with porpoise, a kingfisher, and sea otters. No, no, no. I was considering running him back to the Tiller Tramp when just beyond the starboard gunwale of the skiff a slate-gray dome emerged from the water, then the entire head of a harbor seal. The fur of its face stretched tautly over its skull, its eyes haunted and beseeching. The hunter slammed a cartridge into the chamber and raised his rifle to his shoulder.

I flung my weight deliberately to port and began rocking the boat in order to throw off  his aim.  A series of short-crested waves from the aluminum hull rippled out over the water.  The seal was gone.  Fighting the impulse to snatch up the seven-foot oar and thwack him on the head, I commanded, "Give me your rifle." Apparently taken aback by my anger, he handed it over.  I allowed myself the brief indulgence of imagining what a satisfying splash the rifle would make as it hit the water.  Instead, I removed the bolt and dropped it into my coat pocket. Then I returned his rifle. Without a word I jerked the outboard's starter rope, spun the skiff around and headed for the bight a few miles to the northwest where Stan and Tom were waiting.

A midday return would signal two possibilities to those on board, bad weather or success.  A gently rolling swell, light breeze, and high overcast could only mean the latter. In an effort to squelch even the suspicion of celebration, I flashed a thumbs down sign as we eased our way up to the stern.

Tom led the hunter down to the galley while Stan loaded his pipe and bent his lighter's flame into the bowl with a deep pull of breath.  I sat down on the aluminum hatch farthest astern, the only access to the dank storage space called the lazarette. Stan had been slow to accept those parts of me, the guitar strummer and writer of verse, that were incongruous with his concept of an Alaskan guide. As I told my story, I wondered if the confidence, the connection I had built with this man through packing heavy loads of moose meat, fleshing hides, and climbing mountains was dissipating into the sea breeze as quickly as the smoke from his pipe. Would he think I was incompetent? Unable to handle testy clients? Stan said simply, "I'll take the hunter out tomorrow." A few beats later he added, "You can help Tom with some chores here on the boat."

Cliff with puffins. Photo by John Hohl.“Change your hat, change your luck," my friend Jerry liked to say.  If only it were that easy, I would flick my wrist and another hunter would appear. But no amulet, incantation, or headgear would transform him into someone else.

My view of the skiff departing into the first light of day offered no balm for my spirits. As I washed, dried, and put away the breakfast dishes, within me grew a certainty that today, a bear would slip out from the rain forest and offer itself to Stan and his hunter. Stan wouldn't see the behavior I'd witnessed. There would be jubilation, an instant camaraderie spawned by a successful hunt. The more I thought about it, the more miserable I felt.  "Not much of a guide, that Steve," people would say.  Maybe they were right. And maybe what I was seeking was not adventure or wilderness as much as Stan's approval.

But what if I lost this job? There was always my tool belt, the speed square clicking against the 24-ounce framing hammer and studs and rafters to cut, with blue dust rising from a chalkline. The carpentry I did between guiding seasons could be a full-time job. It was honest, satisfying work. Maybe it didn't matter how things turned out on this trip. I was old enough to know that every occupation has its disappointments. The biggest sin would be to allow my experience to be diminished by a man whose field of view was limited to the crosshairs of his rifle's scope.

Late in the afternoon, Stan pulled the skiff alongside and threw me a line. I tied it off to the rail and glanced at the empty floorboards at Stan's feet. No bear. In an odd replay of the previous day, Tom led the hunter below, while Stan and I stood on deck. Stan pulled apart the sections of his pipe and put in a new filter. He stuck the stem in his mouth.

"Strange duck," he began. "As guides, Steve, we don't have to put up with bullshit like this." He paused. "Tomorrow we'll make the run to Juneau and send him home."  His shoulders lifted with a breath, then settled slightly. "It's a great life we live, Steve."

He was right. Fresh air, exercise, unsurpassed scenery—we had it all. What other profession would pay me to explore new places, view wildlife, escape the crowds? I liked the job too because each day was unique, the direction it took usually dictated by weather. Adjusting my plans to wind, rain, fog, or sun strengthened my bond to the natural world, made me feel as if I were answering to a higher power. What I craved, above all, was immersion in wilderness, weeks and months at a time spent breathing in the spicy aroma of Labrador tea, tasting the tart explosion of red currants on my tongue, listening to the kloo-klok of a raven in flight. 

Clouds. Photo by John Hohl.I looked at Stan. He appeared unconcerned with the thousands of dollars he might have to refund, untroubled by an empty bear tag. What had happened between the two of them? I wanted to ask, but remembered how he had earlier requested nothing more from me than I was willing to share. A wave of relief swept over me. Not only would I keep my job, I would not have to compromise my ethics. That day, I learned to put faith in my misgivings, to listen hard that to that visceral sense of violation. I learned that unacceptable behavior is just that, and should be immediately and forcefully addressed.

"How about a beer?" Stan asked, lifting the lid on the cooler. He reached in and pulled out two Prinz Braus, and with a touch of glass, a silent toast passed between us.

Early the next morning, I asked Stan if I could row the dinghy to shore and walk around for a while. I wandered out of sight of the boat, around a finger of loose rocks, and came upon a long sweep of gravel beach.  A minus tide.  A rare glimpse of the sun glinted across the exposed round rocks, turning them into a canted cobblestone road.  As the sun's rays hit the dampest part of the beach near the water's edge, tiny spouts of water appeared.  A few at first, then dozens, then maybe a hundred sparkling geysers. The beach was alive with a pulsing rhythm. I was here for moments like these. Though I would at times be an instrument of death, I had a deep appreciation for life. As I knelt in the wet sand, the blue-green water inched up and covered the clam holes. A pair of ducks traced the shoreline's contour. They drifted a moment before they stretched and fluttered their wings, then took flight and disappeared beyond the rocky point.


Steve Kahn is a lifelong Alaskan currently enjoying a subsistence-based lifestyle on the north shore of Qizhjeh Vena (Lake Clark). His nonfiction is drawn from years of wilderness experience from the Wrangell Mountains to the Bering Sea. His work appears in Alaska, Red Mountain Review, ISLE, Pilgrimage, and other publications. Kahn is a recent recipient of a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Project Award.

John Hohl has been guiding anglers and photographers in Alaska for the past 10 years. He runs an independent guide service, Alaska Fly Anglers, with his wife in the Bristol Bay region.

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