The following story appears in the April edition of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY KRYSTIN AND BIXLER MCCLURE
It was a simple text from our friend Keith. He and his pescatarian coworker, Ray, were in route to Seward in mid-May. They have been coming to Seward annually for over 10 years and a few years ago we introduced Keith, who’s from Seattle, to the delicious peppery meat of the black bear in burger form. He has been raving about it since and always asks if we had gotten a bear before boarding the plane. Unfortunately, the last few years we had not been successful for a number of reasons.
“Not yet,” Bixler texted back to Keith.
But we were just getting into the car on a beautiful May day to do a “bear drive” and glass the many mountains around Seward for black bear. All spring long we see hunters along the Seward Highway scanning the easier mountainsides for an opportunistic black bear. We shy away from those spots and focus on a particular mountain, one that we can see from our hot tub.
We pulled to our usual turnout with a full view of the steep mountain. A few years ago we saw the largest black bear we had ever seen on this very mountain, sliding down a snowy avalanche chute. It was also the same day we were scheduled to haul our boat out to paint the bottom and we’ve been kicking ourselves ever since for not pursuing the bear. We learned our lesson.
I GOT OUT OF the car and the first thing I noticed was a moving black dot above the thickets of alder. I pointed to Bixler, who confirmed it was a black bear lazily moving along the mountainside.
“I’m going after it!” Bixler exclaimed and started putting together the hunting pack while I watched the bear. Bixler was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and I was skeptical. I asked him if he wanted to change into pants and he said no, but grabbed his camo long sleeve. I told him there was no way I would climb unless he shot the bear (I hate steep mountains) and he agreed. Thankfully, the mountain was in cell range.
I dropped Bixler off at the edge of the woods and he scampered into the forest. I drove back to our usual turnout and set up the spotting scope. With his legs of steel, Bixler climbed through the forest and skirted the tree line to a rocky outcrop. He peeked his head over the outcrop and saw the black bear asleep below. It was curled in a ball, so Bixler waited for it to move to find the head. The bear perked up and Bixler shot it. With its last rush of adrenaline, it ran into the alders before collapsing.
I heard the shot echo from the mountain and then my phone rang. An excited Bixler told me the entire story in one breath and then explained where he was on the mountain. I looked at the imposing mountainside and sighed – it looked like I would be climbing after all.
Bixler set to work skinning and butchering the bear while I navigated a sea of devil’s club trying to find the game trail Bixler had described on the phone. I found the trail, which ended at a seemingly impenetrable wall of alders. Twice I turned around while Bixler convinced me to keep going. I bushwhacked my way through, periodically calling Bixler to orient me to where he was butchering the bear.
I eventually arrived after a few hours of bushwhacking and endless phone calls and shouting to find Bixler. He had finished butchering the bear and was putting the quarters and ribs into meat bags.
We stuffed the bear into our hunting packs and started our descent. One thing about this particular mountain is that there are some cliffy sections we needed to avoid and I impressed on Bixler that we travel leftwards. Unfortunately, the alder mass made it impossible to travel our desired direction.
Once again we were in thick devil’s club and both of us complained endlessly about the sharp spines penetrating our skin. It was right here that Bixler realized his plan to wear shorts was not the best, as his legs were bleeding from scratches from this spiny plant.
We traversed the devil’s club and then stood at the top of a steep, mossy cliff. A snaking animal trail made its way down and we decided to follow it rather than fight the devil’s club. With each footstep we carefully walked downward, holding on to any branches to ease our descent. After a previous bear hunt I had invested in a pair of rubber-coated gloves that allowed me to grab devil’s club, and I was wearing them this time. Bixler forgot his and tried to avoid grabbing the plant, but I would periodically hear cries of pain as he grabbed one out of necessity.
After a final slide down a mossy slope, we made it back to the road. We emerged from the forest as another group of hunters drove by with looks of jealousy. We loaded up the bear in the car and headed home.
BIXLER HUNG THE BEAR in the garage while I snapped a picture for Keith. I heard nothing, but soon a truck pulled into our driveway and an excited Keith and Ray stepped out of the vehicle. We told Keith that it would be the freshest black bear he had ever had and we lopped of a piece of the meat and sent it through the grinder for burgers.
Bixler barbecued three bear burgers and one halibut burger for Ray (we have yet to convince him to try bear meat, but we ask every time). The four of us dined on the deliciousness as Bixler and I retold the story.
“So, are you guys going to shoot a fresh bear for me every year?” Keith asked, jokingly.
Bixler was tending to his bandaged legs while I periodically extracted devil’s club spines from my arm. We both looked at each other
“Yeah, we’ll see about that.” ASJ
Sidebar BUILD YOUR OWN BEAR BURGER
The blue cheese in this dish adds some needed fat to the black bear meat, and the jalapeno and onion add a kick. By grinding it all together, each bite has a great mix of flavors. This recipe makes at least two burgers, depending on how hungry you are from the hunt.
1 pound black bear meat
Salt and pepper to taste
Blue cheese to taste
¼ red onion
With a grinder, grind black bear meat, jalapeño, onion, and blue cheese into a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly and form into patties. Grill normally, but be sure to cook thoroughly since it is black bear meat. Serve with whatever burger toppings you like. –BM