by Matt Stansberry
We are always hunting something of our father’s, and he’s hunting too, and we’re sure we’ll know more of ourselves if we can get to him. – Michael J. Meade
We crept down the gray shore at dusk, glancing over our shoulders into the dense gloom of the forest, stepping gently on an inch of lapping ocean to muffle the sound of our approach.
The guide stopped, tucked us behind a pile of ancient logs for cover, where we could view the seal carcass two-hundred yards up the beach.
I’d followed my father to Alaska to watch him kill a bear, ursos arctic.
Prehistoric-sized animals waited in the near, dark woods. I’d dreamt about attacks. A brown sow with dead eyes and a mud caked belly standing over me, the stench of my bowels on its maw, claws pressing down on my throat.
I waited and watched with my father, for North America’s largest predator to stagger out of the Tongass Rainforest.
He struggled to carry his bear gun.
In the weeks before the trip, he still hadn’t recovered his upper body strength. He could barely shoulder the giant rifle he’d bought, couldn’t even get a shot on the paper at 100 yards at the shooting range. But he didn’t cancel the trip. He kept going to the range, the rifle’s recoil jarring the staples holding his ribcage together.
Six months before the hunt, my father complained about indigestion on the treadmill. Two weeks later, a surgeon with a bone saw split open his sternum and bypassed his left anterior descending and right coronary arteries. He spent a week in intensive care, with my mother snapping photos of him lying on his back, looking like a cadaver. He kept the photos tacked to the wall of his office to motivate him through physical therapy.
On the beach in the sliding twilight, I thought of my father’s shaky aim, and the guide’s advice.
“Your shot will be at night, and you will only see two black humps through the scope. Line up on the rear part of the shoulder, below the armpit. Don’t shoot high — don’t shoot the head.”
The second shot, hopefully, would be at the bear running away. “Aim for the tail. Break the pelvis and they go down,” the guide said. “You only have one second between your first and second shot. Force yourself to jack another shell into the chamber. If you wait, listen for a roar, I will take your second shot. Force yourself to shoot again.”
It rained till dark, and no bear showed. The tide came in, and we walked back to the small Boston Whaler skiff. We unloaded the guns and climbed aboard, hungry for dinner on the 50-foot boat, warm and well-lit a few miles away.
After the first night, the hunt settled into a rhythm of slow sunny days on the water, watching whales breach, pulling crab pots, glassing small bears with binoculars.
This ten day hunt was the longest stretch of time I’d spent with my father as an adult. I studied him closely: sitting at the dining table, chewing oatmeal, poring over an illustrated field guide from the boat’s shelf, flipping pages and not reading, not looking up. Still fiery red hair peaked out the bottom of a goofy black wool cap, but the skin hung wrinkled and loose under his eyes and chin.
The man I grew up with told hero stories. My father broke a guy’s jaw with a heavy glass beer mug for slapping a woman in a bar. He worked as a factory strike-breaker, and beat up three union picketers who tried to jump him in an alley, put one guy in traction and dragged the other guy’s face down a brick wall. One crazy night, he chased a UFO down a dark country road in his car and reported the encounter to the FAA.
I hadn’t heard any of those stories in twenty years. Part of the motivation for the bear hunt was to write new stories. The stories he told now, when we got together twice a year, were about his job, or the practical details of living with Type II Diabetes.
The poet Li-Young Lee wrote, “Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one… and soon, he thinks, the boy will give up on his father.”
When I was a boy, the phone often rang in the middle of the night. An 80-year old widow called my dad for rescue as high school kids smashed beer bottles into the side of her old farmhouse where she had raised her children and her husband had died. My dad would roar out of the kitchen with his twelve gage shotgun, running out into the dark to save her. The kids scattered at the sight of him.
I’d forgotten him. Now, what I remember more than his heroics, is that my father commuted over 100 miles roundtrip to work every day.
Decades later, he’s still selling computer network technology to the last dozen or so large companies doing business in Cleveland and carries enough insurance for our family to survive anything short of apocalypse. He spent the last twenty years turning into a piece of my mom’s furniture, into Willy Loman. Boringly fair, infallible.
I hated his job. I didn’t know what my father thought about anything that mattered to me. I didn’t know a single thought in his head.
And yet, here he was with an aching chest, withered muscles, doped down on beta blockers, pitting himself against one-ton of godlike mammalian rage.
I know exactly when the disillusion about the hunt set in. About halfway through the trip, my father and I sat unarmed on a pile of marshy reeds, feeling small and grateful for this unnamed creek, this place.
We were watching a mother bear and cubs playing together on a beach at sunset through binoculars.
In Robert Ruark’s Horn of the Hunter, he wrote “Every man has to brace a lion at least once in his life, and whether the lion is a woman or a boss or the prospect of death by disease makes no difference.”
But I couldn’t see how this bear would be my father’s proverbial lion. He’d picked the wrong fight.
The snowmelt poured off the mountain into the ocean, one of around 10,000 tiny estuaries in the Tongass National Forest, an impenetrable green tangle blanketing coast to mountain on the Southeast Alaskan panhandle, comprising one third of the World’s remaining temperate rainforest.
We were spending ten days in a plush boat with a private chef, in one of the last best places in the world. If we spotted a big male bear, my father could take a short boat ride, stalk a couple hundred yards, and shoot the damn thing. And if the kill shot went awry and the situation turned against my father, a young and capable guide would step between him and certain death.
For all of human history, men have been loved and admired for entering the realm of dangerous animals. My father, aging and broken, had battled back from the edge of death to face nature’s fury with decisive action and a well-made rifle.
He’d poured the last thirty years of his life into work, making a comfortable existence for my family. He’d spent his earnings, fifteen thousand dollars, on this moment. And I could not speak out against that.
But my father and I should have been defending those bears, not shooting them. We should have been facing down the congressional representatives signing off on subsidized clear cutting of 1,000-year old cedars to make pulp for disposable diapers.
Instead, we were tourists, extracting precious life from the wilderness. And unlike the loggers and the guides, I didn’t think we had loved or battled against this landscape enough to deserve or even appreciate the life we planned to take.
We huddled our wide shoulders together and watched the bear family walk away, and I said nothing.
The last day near dusk, we spotted a wide trail scrawled down a snowy hillside where a large bear emerged from its den. We scrambled, my father and I pulling our short fat legs into our waders and jumped into the little Boston Whaler to get a better look.
Our guide Chet Benson ran the tiller. He netted salmon in the summer, hunted big game all winter. A previous client had once bribed Chet’s way out of Mexican prison while hunting desert bighorn. Another had to call a rescue chopper on satellite phone after he broke an ankle hunting mountain goats in the Chugach Range. The rescuers threw a rope and hook down to the bottom of the canyon, and the client wrapped Chet in a body bag to keep him from freezing.
Chet could skin a bear, repair an outboard engine, and tell a story. We liked him and, naturally, wanted to impress him.
He steered the fourteen-foot piece of fiberglass over the rolling ocean that looked like heavy motor oil glinting in the setting sun. These deceptively calm waters had killed more people than the bears.
We sat shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder glassing a stretch of beach the guides called “The Boardwalk”, a long, wide gravel bar spread below a river valley that funneled all of the animals to the shore.
The guide spotted the mature boar first. It walked pigeon-toed, swaying down the beach and plopped belly down on a pile of kelp. It looked so much like a dog, holding down a favorite bone.
My old man nodded to Chet, and he pulled the skiff in shore a half-mile downwind of the bear.
I jumped out in waist deep water and held the boat steady and silently, keeping the noisy fiberglass from banging along the shoreline. My dad and Chet jumped out, and stalked down the beach toward the bear.
I held my breath, held the skiff in the clear sea-water, as they moved within a few hundred yards. Sounds far, but with the right scope you can get a 1000-yard shot no problem. They closed in for the shot. Spidery breezes crawled over my face, and I wished I was standing next to them.
I watched through binoculars. The bear pushed its snout down into the pile of seaweed, didn’t look up. It was a chocolate brown bear with dark, nearly black fur around its ears. It had a blonde diamond patch of lighter fur on its forehead, dipping down its nose.
Chet and my dad crouched and stopped, moved forward again, ten more yards. They crawled toward the bear, impossibly close, within fifty yards. My dad knelt, steadied his rifle and fired.
He missed, shot over the bear’s back.
I sprang into action at the gunfire. I had to witness whatever happened next. I pulled the boat ashore, heaved the anchor into the rocks and ran down the beach towards my father and Chet.
The bear looked up, groggy and confused. It started toward the forest. Chet yelled “shoot that bear!” and my dad took another shot.
That bullet broke the bear’s neck, dropped it in a somersault as it tried to escape into the trees.
I ran up out of breath. The bear lolled on its back, forepaw waving limply in the air, still trying to run.
Chet fired into its hump with his .416 and it shuddered once, stopped moving. He bounced a rock off the bear and it didn’t move. Dead.
Everything my dad had worked for had collapsed in a furry heap.
Chet left us to grab the skiff. My dad and I piled our bodies on top of the dead bear. We wanted to be close to it, to hold it. The idea of a grizzly bear is a very abstract concept, and we felt compelled to press ourselves against flesh and blood – the actual.
We didn’t say anything for what felt like several minutes. The bear felt like a giant dog, wet nose and paws still warm. I set a camera on timer, and we posed on top its body. We grinned, and I think we both hoped we’d done the right thing.
Now, in the photos I took of my father, he seems to me almost ready to cry, a sad smile on his face. The big beast’s nose is down in the rocks, and my dad is hugging its huge ribs. He looks like a man who got what he asked for, and isn’t sure whether or not he’s happy with himself. The bear lies sprawled, like its spilling across the beach. It looks like an accident.
Then the guide and captain came and posed the shots. The four of us grabbed a corner of the carcass and wrestled that goddamn bear into a more flattering position. It was the heaviest lifting I’d ever tried to move. The bear was placed so that it seemed to be smiling, propped upright over a piece of driftwood. My father, posed behind it, looked younger and more confident.
The bear taped out just under nine feet, what guides and guided would call a “representative animal” which is code for adequate, but no trophy.
If the bear would have been closer to ten feet, I would have written a different story. If it would have turned and charged into hail of bullets and dropped at my father’s feet, I would have written a different story. I would have written a sentimental hunting magazine article about a father surmounting great odds to do battle with nature, wrestling with death itself.
Instead, I’ve relived this hunt for a decade, struggling to make meaning of this dead bear.
I love my father, for his wildness, and for being the rational, sturdy man holding the cables of our family together. I love him for taking me along on his maybe misguided quest to find some kind of validation or approval by hunting a huge, dangerous animal. And I love him for those short minutes in the dark when we were saddened and humbled by that bear’s death.
My dad fully recovered, said he’s done hunting bears. He had a rug made, and kept the skull on his desk. We haven’t hunted much since that day, and I’ve had three of my own sons in the interim. I named my first born after my dad.
I don’t know what my boys will think about the time on the beach in Alaska when his grandpa shot a grizzly bear.
I think about this quote from Ruark:
You are not shooting to kill. You are shooting to make immortal the thing you shoot. To kill just anything is a sin. To kill something that will be dead soon, but is so fine as to give you pleasure for years, is wonderful. Everything dies. You just hasten the process… I can understand killing something that you want so badly that you are willing to go to weeks of trouble and great expense to collect it, so that you will have it and enjoy it and remember it all your life.
I don’t know what I’ll do, when my sons are bored of my old exploits, and I am the one who will have to go find a new story.
Matt Stansberry is an Ohio-based author focusing on natural history and biodiversity. He lives on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, south of Cleveland with his wife and three young sons and writes essays about the wildlife of the industrial Midwest. Belt Magazine published a collection of the first volume of essays titled Redhorse Volume 1. Follow him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish and find his other work at matthewstansberry.com.
Artwork by David Wilson www.downpourcreative.com