All posts by Chris Cocoles

Filmmaker Vows To Preserve Alaska’s Wild Salmon

Salmon documentary poster


The following appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:


 “If you look 100 years down the road, which, to a geologist, is not much time at all, and you think about how will people look at salmon, it’s going to be viewed as one of the most incredible food sources on the planet. And it grows itself; throwing away a resource like that for short-term interests makes no sense.”

–Geomorphology professor and author David Montgomery, in The Breach

By Chris Cocoles

In his mind, aspiring filmmaker Mark Titus wanted to make a “love story.”

Except in this project, Titus’s idea wasn’t to pen a romantic comedy with a sappy feel-good story starring the Drew Barrymores of the genre; nor was it a more gritty drama with the classic Hollywood tragic-ending screenplay. In fact, the object of his affection wasn’t a human being. It was a salmon.

“This (is a) fish that’s revered, not only here,” says Titus, a Seattle resident with sentimental ties to Alaska and the salmon fishing industry, “but as I’ve come to find out, in lots of parts of the world where they’re no longer around.”

With that, Titus’s first feature-length documentary, The Breach, was born. It’s his tribute to the dwindling population of salmon, which once roamed the Atlantic Ocean in massive numbers but is all but extinct from the Eastern seaboard of North America to the European continent. The Pacific Northwest and Alaska are some of the last few regions on earth where large numbers of salmon continue to make their anadromous journey from the sea to coastal rivers for spawning.

Despite the obstacles, red flags and warning signs that seem to threaten the ongoing cycle of life and death, the fish keep coming back. Yet those who rely on these iconic and wild salmon in this part of the world wonder if it all go away in their lifetime, or at least for future generations.

Titus has worked for around four years to get his finished product done, and it clocks in a little shy of one hour, 30 minutes.

“It’s such a vast topic and there are passionate, passionate people at every turn on this topic; you can’t possibly cover it all in 90 minutes,” Titus says. “But we wanted to try and create a narrative that at least brought people in the door and gave them an emotional experience and a reason to learn more about wild salmon.”

Salmon documentary 5 Salmon documentary 2


“We’re blessed with an ecosystem that provides an abundance. And we have the ability to go in and responsibly harvest.”

–Bristol Bay fisherman Jason Kohlase

As a young college student in the Northwest 20-something years ago, Mark Titus began spending his summers working in the Last Frontier’s fish-heavy culture, first at a salmon-processing plant in Bristol Bay, then for the better part of a decade as a wilderness fishing guide in Southeast Alaska. Part of his inspiration to head north was through the writings of David James Duncan, whose homage to fly fishing, the novel The River Why, was the basis of a 2010 feature film.

“I was just head over heels in love with the land and the people; and most definitely with the salmon, especially the Chinook. As we all know, they were the most elusive, the most prized (fish),” Titus says. “It’s something that I took seriously and sacredly.”

By 2004, after studying acting and directing at the University of Oregon and the Vancouver (British Columbia) Film School, respectively, Titus began a career in the film production industry. He produced commercials for Seattle-based companies like Boeing and Starbucks, and one of his first projects was directing a six-minute documentary short called Fins, about the lore of killer whales around Puget Sound.

In April 2011, Titus traveled to Southern California for a commercial shoot and, “knowing how enraptured with salmon I was,” was reading a book recommended by a friend. Author Bruce Brown’s Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon was a major turning point. Brown’s work detailed the factors that were diminishing salmon runs around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

“I’m reading this book and going, ‘Why is this the first time I’ve read this?’ It’s something that was published in 1983,” Titus says. “And No. 2, I ran across the name of an attorney who had instant connectivity.”

The lawyer’s name was Russ Busch, whose son was a friend of Titus’s. One of Busch’s lifelong crusades was joining forces with Native American Elwha tribal leaders on the Olympic Peninsula to remove dams on the Elwha River. The damming had all but snuffed out the stream’s legendary salmon runs. Finally, a nearly 40-year fight to get rid of the two dams was coming to fruition. But by then, Busch was dying of stage IV brain cancer.

“This was April, and the dams were supposed to come out in September. And I thought, ‘I should start interviewing him immediately and maybe he’ll get a chance to see these dams come out.’ And he did,” Titus recalled.

“Russ was the catalyst.”

Busch’s appearance in the film is among its most compelling moments. He was there when the lower dam was detonated shortly before his death in April 2012. “As more and more people got involved and Congress got involved, I began to see what was going on,” Busch says in the film, recalling his involvement in the case dated back to 1976. “The tribe always knew how important the dams were. I kind of realized there’s a lot of people who wanted these dams out of there.”

While Titus’s film’s name is a reference to the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, the largest such project in history and completed in 2014, it is more about a breach in the contract between man and nature, and more specifically, between man and wild salmon and their needs. In a sense, taking out the Elwha dams is a step towards patching the breach. As the river clears, salmon as well as steelhead have slowly begun to make their way back from the Pacific. While dams built along the mighty Columbia River, which flows through Washington and Oregon, have resulted in decreasing salmon numbers, as Titus says, “the Elwha is a very interesting story of promise.”

“More than had been seen in decades, but still a fraction of the over 400,000 salmon a year that used to return to the river before the dams had been built,” Titus narrates in the movie.

By the time he’d interviewed Busch and done more research, Titus was hooked and set out to make his documentary. He picked the brains of several of the Pacific Northwest’s and Alaska’s heavyweights of wild salmon conservation. Among 82 interview subjects – 22 of whom got into the finished product – is noted activist Alexandra Morton, a key source in Sara Pozonsky’s fine wild salmon documentary, A Fishy Tale (ASJ, June 2014). Also contributing were authors Brown, David Montgomery – whose work includes King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon– and Duncan, artist Ray Troll, chef Tom Douglas, former Environmental Protection Agency head Bill Ruckelshaus, and several others. They’ve all endured highs and lows on their journeys to preserve one of the planet’s great ecosystems, where in a perfect world Pacific salmon would thrive for generations as they always have.

“The common thread was, everybody loves these fish, and a lot of people felt frustrated about what’s happened,” Titus says. “What I kept coming back to was, ‘Yeah, there has been a lot of bad stuff that’s happened.’”


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“The thing about Bristol Bay that makes it so one of a kind is these large systems up here that are nonpolluted, are able to create an environment that could not be recreated by man.”

–Bear Trail Lodge owner 

Nanci Morris Lyon 

Returning to Alaska was a sentimental reunion for Titus. He learned so much about himself guiding clients for trophy salmon on the Panhandle. The filming locations in the Northwest and Alaska were near and dear to his heart. Titus was the caretaker of a wilderness fishing lodge 60 miles north of Ketchikan. One day, as a 25-year-old, he was shoveling snow and looking out over the bay.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. This is my home.’ How many Americans have that sense of place? The Pacific Northwest, these islands; this is my root source. I don’t have any desire to live anywhere else. Here I am in a place that I was in love with and where I want to fight for. I consider it my home.”

Part of that home is being threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine, which has its sights on set on Bristol Bay’s rich minerals in the form of copper ore. That the Pebble Limited Partnership’s planned open-pit mine shares the same ecosystem as the waters containing roughly half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon has had both sides dug in for a lengthy and highly publicized battle.

Interviews with Bristol Bay locals are among the heart and soul of The Breach. One fisherman, Curyung Tribal Council chief and former Dillingham mayor Tommy Tilden, was Titus’s first interview subject in Alaska. Tilden shared with Titus of taking the season’s first salmon harvested to his ill sister, who also would succumb to cancer. A tradition among Native subsistence fishermen is to share the first fish caught that season. This one had even more meaning.

“I offered her the first part of it, and the look in her eyes – that gave her life, although brief that it was,” Tilden says in the film. “But it was very moving. How do you describe that spiritual feeling that we felt? This is who we are.”

Tilden chokes up during the interview. Titus also admitted to getting tears in his eyes.

“In all the folks I interviewed and was fortunate enough to spend time with, they were not telling me because it was cute or politically correct or sounds good,” Titus says. “They’re telling me this because this is who they are. The salmon is in their blood, in their fiber, in their stories and in their culture.”

“Every single thing about it was authentic and that sense of authenticity was overwhelming to me. The words were one thing, but then when they bring you into their home and they show you the 40 cases of jarred salmon that include king salmon hearts, bellies, livers – the whole thing. That’s what they eat in the winter. This was no BS, man; this is the real deal. When they say they subsist on this fish – they subsist on this fish all year long.”

Throughout The Breach’s social media pages, the hashtag #eatwildsavewild is prominent.

“I think it’s a very important question: Why would I eat wild salmon when I want to save them? Why wouldn’t I want to just leave them alone?” Titus says. “It’s hard to understand without a little knowledge. If you’re a consumer and salmon is the third most consumed fish in this country, 91 percent of that is farmed. But if you’re demanding wild salmon, you’re demanding a product that by its nature needs clean, well-preserved habitat in order to keep coming back.”

In the debate over farmed salmon in open-water pens that dot the British Columbia coast and threaten Canada’s run of wild fish, The Breach points out how self-sustaining salmon runs have been over the course of time until many factors, most caused by man, have jeopardized the cycle.

“Farmed salmon need continual care and management by human beings,” Titus says. “Wild salmon don’t need any of that. They not only survived but thrive on their own when they have sufficient habitat to make babies and keep going out to the ocean and back. That’s a resource that can be sustained forever if you simply let it do what nature intended.”

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“These salmon have been feeding us, and there’s more and more and more of us on this planet, and we can’t get that in control; we better start paying attention to the refrigerator.”  

–Alaska artist Ray Troll 


This has been an eye-opening odyssey for Titus, who was hardly a novice about salmon and their importance to the culture, diet and livelihood of his corner of the world. Even he looks at these fish differently than he did all those years in Southeast Alaska, before marriage and a new career in making movies prompted a change.

But Titus dug deeper and appreciated more about the exquisite salmon-themed art of Ketchikan-based Troll; found new meaning in the writings of Duncan, Brown and Montgomery; was affected by the years of hard work that paid off for the dying Elwha River attorney Busch; marveled at the tireless crusade of British Columbia-based activist Morton; soaked in the ebb and flow of emotions for concerned commercial fishing boat crews and lodge owners in Alaska; and was inspired by tales of tribal elders and subsistence fishermen in the Northwest and Bristol Bay.

“I thought I knew everything there is to know about salmon. The vast amount of knowledge that I consumed over the course of this project, I couldn’t possibly have planned for,” Titus says. “It was almost overwhelming – there’s so much history, so much biology, historical and legal precedent. I was astonished. For me, this was like a football player interviewing Joe Namath. These were my heroes.”

Titus bought his first print designed by Troll – called Midnight Run – when he was just 19 and working a cannery in Dillingham. Years later, the two men’s worlds collided again. Troll’s artwork once told a story to its buyer. Now, that buyer was telling the artist’s story.

“It was a tremendous honor,” Titus says of filming Troll at work in his studio and showing time-lapsed shots of his art in the film.

The Breach returned to Ireland to be screened at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in March months after an earlier version was shown in Galway, Ireland (see sidebar), where it was among the top 10 picks in the Audience Award Winners category. It played the Portland Ecofilm Festival in mid-April, and by the end of last month Titus was to begin a barnstorming tour through most of May that started in New York and will end on the 20th in Los Angeles.

Titus hopes he’s told a human story about a wildlife issue and tried to keep politics away from the main arguments, as difficult as that can be in this age of Twitter feuds and toeing the party line.

“As an overarching goal, I wanted to create a story that is accessible by anybody across the political spectrum,” Titus says. “A person who gets engaged and involved in a story just because they are a human being. They want to learn more about salmon.”  ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on where you can see The Breach during its film festival tour this month, go to and sign up to the mailing list for details. You can also check out its Facebook page ( and follow on Twitter (@thebreachfilm).

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Bering Sea Gold Season Finale On Friday

Photos courtesy of the Discovery Channel

Photos courtesy of the Discovery Channel


From our friends at The Discovery Channel:



Friday, May 15 at 9 PM ET/PT on Discovery Channel

The season freezes to a halt as the dredges rush out for their final push for gold. Captain Hank Schimschat saves the day and the Pomrenke’s break records and new ground. Meanwhile, one family reunites as another family falls apart and revenge, like the beginning of winter, is served cold.


Here’s a sneak peek of this week’s final dives.



You can also check out our interview with Emily Reidel here.

The Breach Showing On West Coast


Salmon documentary poster


We’ll post our May issue cover story on Mark Titus’ wild salmon documentary, The Breach, in the next week or so. But if you want to see the film on the West Coast, check out this information:

I’ve been on the road a while now and it will take some time to really process all of the powerful experiences from this national tour.  The one constant throughout though are all the vibrant, passionate people I’ve met along the way across this country.  Wild salmon and the ultimate sacrifice they make by giving up their lives for future generations seems to be a unifying language and this has been profoundly special to see.  Thank you to all who have come out to see The Breach and support wild salmon on this #eatwildsavewildtour.

 We’re in the home stretch now – and have the remainder of our west coast stops ahead.  Please come out and join us for the film, great panels – and amazing wild Bristol Bay Sockeye dishes prepared by local chefs.

 I’ll be sending out one last note with details before the tour ends, but I wanted to let you know about our very special homecoming screening coming up this Friday here in Seattle. The show will be at the gorgeous Seattle Art Museum this Friday at 7pm – doors open at 6:30.  Enter on the first avenue entrance underneath the Hammering Man statue.  Ticket price will include the screening, a special Q&A panel and a wild salmon reception featuring Bristol Bay wild salmon.

 Immediately after the screening our VIP panel will include Bill Ruckelshaus – salmon champion and first head of the EPA, David R. Montgomery – author of King of Fish, chef Craig Hetherington of Taste Restaurant, Yupik subsistence fisherman Heidi Kritz from Dillingham Alaska and me.

 A delicious wild salmon reception will follow the Q&A right outside the doors of the theatre, prepared by chef Craig Hetherington and his staff at Taste.   Wine will be generously provided by Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars.

 Event Link:  TICKETS

 I want to thank our intrepid partners who have been supporting this film and this tour without fail:  The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), Tom Douglas RestaurantsVital Choice Wild Seafoods and OrganicsTrout Unlimited andOrvis.

 Also, if you’d like to listen to an interview that aired yesterday with Terry Gildea of KUER Public Radio in Salt Lake City – you can do so by clicking right here:  INTERVIEW

 And thank you for caring about wild salmon and listening to their story.  We have four shows left on this tour – Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City and Santa Monica. I hope to see you at one of them soon…



A Hunting Gem In B.C.



Northern Interior Outfitting Ltd. (NIO) is a small, personalized guide service focused entirely on quality, consistency, and dependability. Weprovide custom tailored hunting, fishing, and photography adventures in the remote game rich region of north central British Columbia. Ourterritory is located 5 hours northwest of Prince George, BC and is accessible by both vehicle and float plane. We provide an honest’ service that is all about you!

NIO conducts fair chase hunting trips for Mountain Goat, Canadian Moose, Elk, Black Bear, Grizzly Bear, and Wolf. We manage our territory carefully taking a very limited number of hunters each year. The areas versatility in hunting methods, diversity in habitat, and game rich environment offers something for everyone and we can accommodate most physical abilities. Hunting methods include 4X4 vehicles, ATV’s,boats, horses, float planes, and one foot in front of the other.  Our comfortably rustic accommodations include cabins, canvas wall tents, and mountaineering tents.

We have two large lakes spanning 10-15 miles long, an endless number of smaller hidden gems all over the territory, a productive river system, and fishy creeks. Species we target when fishing are Dolly Varden, Bull Trout, Rainbow Trout, Lake Char, and Landlocked Salmon. Fly-fishing is our passion and it is truly fantastic here, while trolling the deep waters on the larger lakes can produce some real monsters.

Come experience the difference and book a trip with NIO. Feel free to contact us anytime with questions you may have. We look forward to hosting you on your next wilderness adventure!

Experience BC with NIO

(406) 531-8441

A New Adventure? Try USFWS NWR Cabins

Photos courtesy of USFWS

Photos courtesy of USFWS

The following story appears in the current issue of Alaska Sporting Journal, on sale now.

By Susan Morse  

Mountains surround you. The floatplane that brought you has left. Civilization is hours away. The only sounds you hear are the calls of loons on the lake outside your door. What do you do now?

Catch Dolly Varden and sockeye salmon until your arms give out. Then spy eagles, fox and brown bears. Shove off for hours – or days – in your pack boat, returning only to feast and cozy up by the fire.

Thank your lucky stars you snagged a week’s stay in a coveted public-use cabin on scenic Kodiak or Kenai National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska.

But if you’re thinking of reserving, don’t wait. The refuges’ 22 low-cost cabins ($45 a night) typically book up as soon as they become available online, six months in advance. Summer and fall are high season, especially for anglers, photographers and hunters. The easiest-to-reach cabins go first.

“I’d love to do the same trip again, frankly,” says Steve Hartmann, who along with his brother and a friend, rented Kodiak Refuge’s South Frazer Lake cabin for a week last July.

“The fishing was excellent,” adds Hartmann, the Bureau of Land Management’s Fairbanks district manager. “We caught Dolly Varden, rainbows and hooked a few king salmon unexpectedly. They gave us quite a fight.”

Wildlife spotting lived up to legend too. “We’d take the raft across the lake later in the evening when the larger bears came out,” Hartmann says.



It’s not just Alaskans who make use of refuge cabins. Mississippi State University professors Chris Ayers and Alix Hui joined their friend Nathan Svoboda and his dog, Kio, at Kodiak Refuge’s Uganik Lake cabin last June. It was Ayers’ and Hui’s first trip to Alaska and their first time on a floatplane. They stayed three days at Uganik, fishing and hiking, then scored another first to their memory list.

“My favorite part of the trip was that we decided to load our boat and float out of the lake down the river to the bay,” says Ayers. “We had oars to help us work the rapids and rocks. The Dolly Varden and cutthroat fishing on this stretch of the river was outstanding. We used a satellite phone to call the pilot service and arrange to be picked up on an island in the bay.”

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What makes refuge cabins so popular?

For one thing, sleeping inside four walls has an undeniable appeal in bear country. For another, the warm, dry cabins offer shelter from the coldest and wettest of Alaska’s often cold, wet weather; even families with young kids stay there (Kenai cabins have wood stoves; Kodiak cabins boast oil heaters).

The clincher, says Kevin Painter, interpretive specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska region: the cabins give people a safe, affordable way to experience the 49th state’s raw beauty.

“Staying in either the Kodiak or Kenai cabins is like having your own piece of real Alaska,” says Painter. “The cabins are in places of solitude that are wild and beautiful. It is what most people think of when they envision that ideal Alaskan experience.”

You needn’t take his word for it. Sneak a peek at some random entries in Kodiak cabin logs:

August 8-11: “Incredible sockeye spawning on the N Fork inlet stream. Pink salmon coming through in waves.” – Dan Murch, Bolinas, Calif.

August 11-18 (in all caps): “I can’t imagine anything better than this place.” – James G. Miekel Pruitt

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Some cabin enthusiasts prefer it colder.

Every Thanksgiving for the past six years, Simone Owens has rented a Kenai Refuge cabin with her husband, Chris, and their son and daughter.

“We sled, we explore and ice fish on the lake,” says the Nikiski, Alaska, resident. “It’s an escape, no matter the time of year you go.”

Carmen and Conrad Field look forward to their family’s annual winter visit to Kenai’s Engineer Lake cabin. The Homer couple began the tradition when their daughter Eryn was 1. She’s now 9.

“She feels like it’s her cabin,” says Carmen. “We go every January, February or March so we can ski and ice fish. In a typical year, you can drive across the lake in your car; or pull a pulk (sled) behind skis to the cabin. That way you don’t have to hike a mile in.”

Last year the family hitched Eryn to their black Lab and the puppy pulled her on skis across the lake.



Alaska cabins attract hardy souls who are willing to rough it to experience a storied wilderness setting. If you can’t do without indoor plumbing and gas heat, it’s best to look elsewhere.

As to the area’s star attractions – the bears – not everyone spots one. But leaf through a cabin logbook and you’ll find plenty of entries from visitors who do. Most are pretty tame, and then there’s this story: A writer recounts how a “magnificent” sow with two cubs charged and backed him into the water, “popping jaws, woofing and bouncing up and down.”

Then she gathered up her cubs and continued upriver.

The writer, “Daddy O,” took it all in stride. “Five days without a shower must (have) convinced her I wasn’t worth eating.” ASJ

Editor’s note: The author is a staff writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System. For more info on the USFWS and its refuges, go to and You can also contact  Vanessa Kauffman at the Division of Public Affairs  at or (703) 358-2138.


Ultimate Survival Alaska Contestant Killed

Photo courtesy of Wild Survival Alaska/Discovery Channel

Photos courtesy of Ultimate Survival Alaska/Discovery Channel

In March, we profiled now three-time Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey, who has also been one of the mainstays on the National Geographic Channel series, Ultimate Survival Alaska. 

The show just completed its third season, but a real-life tragedy struck this week when season 2 contestant Jimmy Gojdics (sometimes spelled Gaydos) was found shot to death at his Fairbanks home.

Here’s the Fairbanks News-Miner with details:

Alaska State Troopers received word of the shooting at 3:06 p.m. at Gojdics’ home on the Old Elliott Highway behind the Silver Gulch Brewery. Gojdics was “suffering from apparent gunshot wounds” when troopers arrived. He was pronounced dead after being transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, according to a troopers news release. 

The case is under investigation as a homicide, said trooper spokesman Tim Despain. He said Monday afternoon that he doesn’t know if there are any suspects in Gojdics’ killing. Gojdics’ body is being sent to the State Medical Examiner. 

Originally from upstate New York, Gojdics had no family in Fairbanks but many friends, according to his friend, Janine Carlson. Carlson knew Gojdics for about 12 years and said he was known for his wide-ranging interest in building things, from skyscrapers in New York to canoes and rafts in Alaska. People in Fox sometimes saw him driving a Russian Ural motorcycle with a sidecar or a carriage drawn by horses that shod himself. He loved traveling and people from other countries, and he spent winters in South America as much as he could, Carlson said.

“Everyone was his friend and he met someone everywhere,” she said.  

National Geographic Channel’s website says he had worked as a fisherman, horse wrangler, blacksmith, forest service firefighter, river guide and wilderness guide.


Living With Anchorage Bears

A neat interactive map was put together by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on bears living within Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage. Here’s the report and map:

During the summers of 2012 and 2013, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists tracked nine Anchorage bears (six black bears and three brown bears) using GPS collars that included a video camera. The resulting footage, combined with the location data, has provided some amazing insights into the daily lives of urban bears.

This project is a collaborative effort between research, management and education staff and has helped us better understand the habits of Anchorage’s urban bears. The data will help guide our urban bear management efforts as well as educate the public about bears.

We are sharing some of the data from the Anchorage Urban Bear Camera Collar Project through a story map about Anchorage bears. You can explore location data and video from the project by clicking on the map image below. Anchorage contains some areas of excellent bear habitat. Our urban bears find a variety of natural foods to eat, including berries, fish and vegetation. Unfortunately, however, Anchorage’s bears also have easy access to human sources of food including garbage, birdseed, pet food and livestock, which can lead to conflicts with humans.

Bears are opportunistic in their feeding habits. ADF&G biologists learned from this camera project and other research that even if people keep bear attractants out of reach of bears, we will likely still have bears occasionally traveling through our neighborhoods. But the bears wouldn’t be seen as frequently, nor return often looking for human food sources such as garbage or bird feeders. Managing bear attractants is one of the best ways to minimize human-bear conflicts.

The data from this project were collected for research purposes only, and will not be used to write citations.

Just because you see a blank space on the bear story map, it does not mean that bears did not visit those parts of town. All of Anchorage is considered bear country. These data are from 2012–13 and include only nine bears, which is a small sample of Anchorage’s bear population.

To learn more about coexisting with bears, visit

Read more about the project in Alaska Fish and Wildlife News, and watch some of the video compilations produced by ADF&G. See urban Anchorage from a bear’s perspective!


When Polar Bears Were Hunted

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The following story appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal. Photos courtesy of Paul D. Atkins, the Steve McCutcheon Collection and Wien Collection of the Anchorage Museum, the Boone & Crockett Club, 

By Paul D. Atkins

The phrase “cheating death” is often overused here in Alaska, but to the guides, outfitters and hunters of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, it was an everyday occurrence, especially in Northwest Alaska.

Men risked their lives, fortunes and namesakes to venture on and above the pack ice in search of the infamous and most glorified predator of all – the mighty polar bear.

This was a time when Alaska was new and uncharted for the most part, a time when the great gaming lands of the Arctic were unspoiled and plentiful. Like Africa in its glory days, Arctic Alaska was full of big game during this era, and there were liberal bag limits and few regulations. Those thrill-seekers who wanted adventure got it, and if you had the financial means to do so, then searching for the iconic white bear was at the top of your list.

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NOT MUCH WAS written about polar bear hunting, especially those hunts that took place here starting in 1952 and ending in the early 1970s. Stories passed down from generation to generation and those told in biographies are about all you can find these days, if you’re lucky. But if you were to pick up a Boone & Crockett record book and turn to the section on the subject, you would find a list that isn’t too long, but is full of bears that came from this region of Alaska.

Kotzebue, where I live, is located on Alaska’s northwest coast, 33 miles above the Arctic Circle and about 200 miles from the Russian border. Most residents are Inuit Eskimos, the great people of the north known for their subsistence lifestyle and masterful skills on the ocean and rivers that flow through this part of the state.

It was during this timeframe when Kotzebue became known as the polar bear hunting capital of the world. Men from all parts came north to pursue Nanuk – as the bear is known in the Inupiaq language – and find adventure in one of the most remote places on earth.

Bears were plentiful too; so much so that the current No. 1 and No. 2 record-book animals were taken on the same day by two hunters from totally different walks of life. Of the approximately 141 bears listed in the book, an incredible 72 came from this area. Many more were never entered, and if you talk to the old timers who were here at the time, some of those bears were records too.

Stakes were high in those days. Hunters who came here wanting to fulfill their dream risked it all, whether it was climbing into a Super Cub for an all-day ride with the chance of running out of fuel or braving the extreme cold, which were both detrimental to their success.

Wien-Destinations-Kotzebue  Front Street   Arctic Adventures Club

WHAT ABOUT THE guides? The polar bear hunters were led by a special group of men. Guides were brave souls who loved what they did for a living and the challenges the Arctic brought them. They were hardcore men who were all excellent pilots, blessed with the ability to fly in all kinds of weather conditions; plus they had the eyes of eagles.

These guides knew the land from top to bottom, but more importantly they knew ice and how an ocean can freeze and refreeze again and again. They could spot tracks from the cockpit of their plane, and some were so good they could tell you how big the bear was from the air before they even saw it in the flesh. Guides valued their reputation of being able to put their clients in a position to take a good bear, no matter the cost.

Sometimes, those costs were high. Losing planes to open leads in the ice or having a big boar do what it wasn’t supposed to do and charge the hunters or the plane itself were all common pitfalls. Close calls were the norm, but most survived; it was classic Arctic Alaska toughness!

Polar bear 2

A TYPICAL POLAR bear hunt, if you could call it typical, wasn’t much different than any other guided big game hunt up here today. But in those days there were 737s and no Alaska Airlines, and all flights in and out of Kotzebue were through Wien, a major company of the day. Hunters arrived at the airport, where they met their guide and were then taken to a hotel, or, in most cases, a cabin located along the beach that was owned by somebody in town, if not by the guide himself.

Most hunts started in early April and took place on the pack ice between Kotzebue and the eastern border of Russia. In preparation for the hunt, guides would load their Super Cubs with plenty of fuel, gear and their client. Gear was just as important then as it is today, and the ability to survive in all conditions was always a concern. Big heavy parkas lined with fur, mukluks or boots, plus sealskin mittens were the norm for both guide and hunter, in addition to the big rifles cleared of oil and able to function in cold weather.

The majority of hunts were conducted using two planes, one serving as a spotter and the second to place the hunter in a position to get a shot. This sometimes became tricky and dangerous, especially when leads would open up in the ice after landing, leaving the group scrambling before the plane and men were sucked under. Scary times!

Polar bear 4

Even though the sea ice spanned hundreds of miles, it was a very competitive time for most outfitters who were all in search of the same thing. It was, of course, a much different time than today, but that is how it was done. Bears still had to be tagged and only one bear per hunter was allowed. Big crowds would gather in front of town when a plane landed, all wanting to see another great bear.

It was a glorious time, to say the least, an era that we will never see again. Polar bear hunting was closed after ratification of the Marine Mammal Act of 1972. Even though there are still plenty of polar bears, only Alaska natives can hunt them now. Occasionally, these days, when the sun is high in the sky and the ice is deep, a lone wandering bear will stroll into town, usually lost, but still a cause of great excitement.

On a final note, most of the men whose names we see in the record books today are gone, and, sad to say, most of those great guides are also no longer with us. They are mythical ghosts who are as much a part of the Alaskan culture as anything we are known for.

Alaska is affectionately called The Last Frontier, and never was it a more fitting description than in the heyday of polar bear hunts. So the next time you’re in a sporting goods store and you see a mounted polar bear, take a look at the fine print and you’ll know what I mean. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins’ soon-to-be-published book, Legends of the Ice, which will detail more of this amazing time in Alaska, features stories of the great guides and hunters and more photos of the time.



The Breach Salmon Documentary Heads Out On Tour

Salmon documentary poster


Our cover story for the May Alaska Sporting Journal is a profile of director Mark Titus’ fantastic documentary about wild salmon, The Breach. Titus announced the following stops as his film will screen throughout the Lower 48 over the next month:

First stop is the Dubuque International Film Festival this Thursday throughSunday.  The Breach is nominated for Best Documentary and we couldn’t be prouder to be screening in Iowa. 

 Our #eatwildsavewild tour then begins this coming Saturday the 25th in New York.  Every stop on the tour will have a Q&A with special guests and a surprise giveaway, and a reception immediately following the Q&A featuring local chefs preparing Wild Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon.  

 Here is the final schedule with all the links to get tickets.  (GET TICKETS).  Go out and get some…

 New York, NY – 04.25 6pm – The Rubin Museum of Art – 


Panel to Include: Chef Tom Douglas!  All the way from Seattle…


Boston, MA – 04.26 – 2pm-  Theatre 1- 


Washington D.C. – 04.28 – 7pm – Goethe-Institut – 


Raleigh, NC –04.29 6pm  The Rialto Theatre – 


Miami, FL – 04.30 – 630pm –  O Cinema – 


Chicago, IL – 05.03  12:30 pm – Gene Siskel Film Center – 


Minneapolis, MN – 05.06 7pm  Showplace Icon Theatre — 


Denver, CO – 05.07 630pm  Landmark Mayan Theatre -— 


Boulder, CO – 05.08 – E Town Hall – 


San Francisco CA – 05.12  530pm – The Bay Aquarium – 


Berkeley – 5.13 630pm – Brower Center/Goldman Theater – 


Seattle – 05.15 630pm  – Seattle Art Museum (SAM)  – 


Portland – 05.18 6pm – McMenamin’s Kennedy School – 


Salt Lake City – ****Special Additional Screening**** 05.19 – Utah Film Center Tickets forthcoming from Utah Film Center


Santa Monica, CA –05.20 7pm – Cross Campus – 

Deadliest Catch Premiere Tonight


alaska_cover (2) AS-4-14-cover-small


Our friends at the Discovery Channel provided us a sneak peek for tonight’s season premiere of Deadliest Catch, which we’ve featured with two cover stories in the last year:

Tuesday, April 14 at 9 PM ET/PT on Discovery Channel
A Brotherhood Tested: King Crab season arrives along with a new set of challenges, and every fisherman must lean on their Bering Sea brethren to survive. A 12 million pound bump in bairdi quota means that a quick and speedy king season is the only way to succeed, driving captains to do whatever it takes to get the crab. The Hillstrands send off the fleet with the biggest Time Bandit fireworks show in history, while a risky Northwestern prank goes awry and Wild Bill battles monstrous waves on one engine. Meanwhile, Captain Keith retaliates after a betrayal, the Coast Guard responds to a fallen deckhand, and the Cornelia Marie is stuck at dock with a blown motor.


Here a couple links to sneak peeks for tonight’s episode: