A Polar Bear Hunting Adventure To Remember

 

Happy Thanksgiving from Alaska Sporting Journal! It’s probably cold or wet (or both where you are this holiday). So bundle up and enjoy this tale from yesteryear on an Air Force veteran’s memory of polar bear hunting in Alaska (available in the November issue of ASJ):

BY CONRAD JUNGMANN JR. 

In March 1963, memorable and life-changing events were unfolding across the globe. Martin Luther King Jr. was campaigning in Birmingham; the Beatles were releasing their debut album; still eight months before his fateful trip to Dallas, President John F. Kennedy was peacefully meeting with Central American leaders in Costa Rica. 

In Alaska, Cold War tension nearly went “hot” several times as U.S. and Russian military planes infringed on each other’s airspace. And at headquarters for the Alaska Air Command, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Col. George T. Boone and his hunting partner Bill were busy packing for a once-in-a-lifetime polar bear hunt.

“I had just finished my MBA at Northwestern and, at first, I did not want to go up there, but it turned out to be one of my favorite assignments,” recalls Boone, now 84, who arrived at Elmendorf in 1961 as base chief of transportation. He would eventually serve 26 years in the military.

“Hunting and fishing became our passion. Together, Bill and I bought a Stinson aircraft with a 190-horsepower engine to give us access to good hunting and fishing areas. We hunted moose, bear, sheep, caribou and goats. Hunting polar bear was something we always talked about doing,” he says.

But there is nothing easy about hunting the Arctic giants – or at least was up to 1972, when sport hunting was banned. Access to polar bears is greatly affected by shifting ice conditions and unpredictable, sometimes violent weather. To add to the complexity, polar bears are wanderers. Sometimes travelling in pairs – but mostly alone – they move constantly with the northern ice flows and traverse hundreds of miles at a time in a continual quest for food. 

The best time to hunt them is in the late fall and early spring, when the bears are concentrated where seals are abundant – near marginal ice edges and pressure ridges. Even though recreational hunting using aircraft was common from 1951 to 1972, very few had success on their own.

“We had been up in the Nome and Teller Mission area looking around and quickly realized that there was a lot we did not know about polar bear hunting,” Boone says with a laugh. “Everything was white as hell for as far as the eye could see, and our compass was useless that far north. To navigate, you just about always had to follow a coastline or a river. We nearly always carried two 5-gallon cans of gas – just to be sure. Our aircraft also had a built-in survival kit that could keep you going for a week or two in case of an emergency. Most people have no concept just how hostile it is up there.”

Terry Debruyne/USFWS

 

IN 1963, 20 TROPHY-HUNTING polar bear pilot and guide teams were operating in Alaska; three of them used the Teller Mission as base camp. Most airplane hunting targeted the Chukchi-Bering Sea bear population, which was shared by the United States and the then-Soviet Union, which banned polar bear hunting in 1957. Kotzebue was the major hunting hub in Alaska, but guides were also working out of Point Barrow, Point Hope, Wainwright and Teller. 

Regardless of where they started, polar bear hunters had to go a considerable distance out across the ice sheet before getting a chance at a bear. According to historic Alaska Department of Fish and Game records, average distances in miles that bears were killed from shore by airplane hunters at primary hunting bases included 118 from Kotzebue, 86 from Point Hope, 87 from Teller, and 54 from Barrow.

“After we found a guide outfit that we trusted, we flew to Nome and met him and his partner at the North Star Hotel,” remembers Boone, although he could not recall the guide’s name. “From there we flew in their two aircraft north to the Teller Mission, where the guide had rented us a couple of cabins for the night. Being in the military, I had government-issued Arctic clothing – everything from mukluks to world-class parkas – and even insulated underwear. Even with all that on I remember it was still cold – very, very cold.”

Today, as it was 55 years ago, Teller remains a remote and treeless Inupiat Eskimo village nestled on the lower spit that extends north into Port Clarence Bay on the Seward Peninsula. 

The 60 or so families that make up the permanent resident population rely on subsistence hunting and fishing to survive. Harvesting whales, walrus, seals and polar bear is something their ancestors have been doing for as far back as anyone can remember. Polar bears, or Nanuuq as they call them, are significantly important, both spiritually and culturally, to this indigenous community.

“The guide and his assistant really seemed to know their work – no fooling around, all business,” Boone recalls. “They thought we would find bears far from shore where the ice was moving, so at daybreak the next morning, I got in one of the Piper Super Cubs with the main guide and Bill got in the second aircraft with the other.”

Common procedure in those days for hunting the northern ice sheet was to use two ski-equipped light planes flying together. One would land and create a runway on the ice before radioing to the second that it was safe to touch down. 

On long flights, like some of the ones from Kotzebue to beyond the International Dateline, one aircraft would simply fly cover for the other and perhaps carry extra gasoline. More frequently, both aircraft would carry gas reserves and each would transport a guide and hunter.

“We followed the frozen coastline north because it was the only way to navigate,” Boone says. “As soon as we made it to Tin City (radar station), we veered east out over the ice sheet to search for open water. Eventually, we crossed over the Diomede Islands, and it started to look very promising for bears.”

TWENTY-FIVE MILES FROM the mainland and in the middle of the Bering Sea, the two isolated Diomede Islands symbolize the official boundary between the United States and Russia. The eastern one, Little Diomede, contains a village of about 80 people living in roughly 30 clustered dwellings on a steep hill on the western coast. 

One of the world’s largest walrus populations migrates through each spring, and its harvest is so important to the community that they have adjusted their school schedule to accommodate it. A steep grade from the shoreline rising 100 feet in elevation levels off to a flat plateau on top of the 3-square-mile hard and cold granite rock.

Two and a half miles to the west, Big Diomede marked the beginning of what was the Soviet Union and is today the Russian Federation. After World War II, the native population was forced off the island so it could accommodate a military base. That base was fully staffed when Col. Boone and his hunting party flew past it in 1963. Both islands are thought to be one of the last exposed portions of the Bering Land Bridge. Together they form the southernmost boundary of the Chukchi Sea and the beginning of good polar bear hunting.

Most guides in those days would fly 200 or 300 feet off the ground, searching for bear tracks in the snow. Once found, guides would judge whether the animal that made the track was of trophy size. If so, and if snow and light conditions were good, the track was followed until the bear was found.

“Close to some open water where the ice shelf had broken off we spotted some nice bears hunting along the open water,” says Boone. “We were a long way out and in Russian territory. My guide picked out a landing spot behind some big ice chunks about a quarter mile from the bears. It looked smooth from the air but it wasn’t. The ice was very rough under the snow. After we stopped, we stamped out a runway with our snowshoes so Bill and his guide could safely land. It was very cold work. After we were all together we started working our way towards the bears.”

 

POLAR BEARS HAVE NO natural enemies, and it’s easy to see why when considering that mature males weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds and are 8 to 10 feet in length. The largest can weigh more than 1,600 pounds. Big bears mean big appetites, and ringed seals, walrus and beluga whale are the bear’s main sources of food. 

“They’re not scared of a damn thing,” says Boone, who was about to find out from really close up. 

“The ice was pretty broken up and there were plenty of blocks 5 to 8 feet high, so it was easy to traverse through the area without being seen by the bears. After what seemed like forever, the two bears suddenly appeared about 100 yards in front of us, 20 yards apart. We got as near to them as possible and then made our shots. I took a shot with my Winchester Model 70 in .300 H&H and thought I hit him, but he came toward us rather than run away. I took a second shot and dropped him for good. Bill always used a .30-06 for everything we hunted and he and his guide kept working through the ice pack. About a half-hour later, he too got his bear. Bill got the smaller of the two bears. His was about 5 or 6 inches shorter than mine.”

The colonel grins when telling this story. His bear was just 2 inches short of 10 feet.

 

DURING THIS PERIOD, POLAR bear hunters were required to report kills to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, although many subsistence hunters did not. According to the 1963 official “estimated” harvest report, only 138 polar bears were taken from the Chukchi-Bering Sea population that year. Just 188 were harvested statewide. So this was a unique experience for Boone. 

“The guides then really went to work, with us helping. They did not mess around. They had all the necessary equipment in their backpacks – knives and saws,” Boone says. “In no time, we had the pelts removed with the skull still in place, all rolled up and back at the aircraft.”

“We had to sit on top of the bear hides on the way back to Teller. Daylight was just about gone when we got there, but our work was done. I always regretted that I had no pictures of the hunt, but the guides probably wouldn’t have messed around with cameras anyway.”

 When the hunting party arrived back in Teller, Native Alaskans removed the fat with traditional crescent-shaped ulu knives and delicately skinned the feet and mouth. 

“The Natives seemed to know what to do. They cleaned up the hides, scraped the fat off, and prepared everything for the trip back to Nome,” Boone says. “The next day we flew back and shipped the hides to Jonas Brothers Taxidermy in Anchorage to be made into museum-quality rugs.”

Today, polar bears in Alaska are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts. They’re managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with the Alaska Nanuuq Commission. 

A limited subsistence harvest is still permitted, but sport hunting is prohibited. All aerial hunting has also been banned in Alaska since 1972. Today, the worldwide population of polar bear is estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000.

The days of polar bear hunting are mostly over, but for Boone, it was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. 

“There is no doubt that the polar bear hunt was my greatest hunt in Alaska. I would have extended my stay for another year, but the 9.3 earthquake of 1964 put an end to that plan,” Boone says. “After that, my wife said it was time to leave Alaska.” ASJ

 Editor’s note: Conrad Jungmann Jr. was introduced to Col. Boone after he purchased the polar bear rug described in this epic hunt. A lifelong outdoorsman, adventurer and writer, he lives in the Seattle area with his wife and three children. Conrad just finished writing his first novel, Edge of Redfish Lake, a mystery-thriller set in the commercial salmon fisheries of 1980s Alaska.

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COL. BOONE’S AIR FORCE ODYSSEY

George T. Boone began civilian flight training in April 1953 and purchased his first aircraft the same month. He received his civilian pilot’s license in October 1953. He began U.S. Air Force pilot training in September 1954 and was awarded his wings as a single-engine jet pilot in August 1955. 

His military career covered 26 years, during which time he piloted single-engine jet and reciprocating-engine aircraft, multi-engine jet and -reciprocating-engine aircraft, single-engine float and ski-equipped aircraft, plus aircraft with combinations of jet and reciprocating engines.

 In 1972 Boone was the USAF test pilot on the Boeing 747 and Douglas DC-10 experimental tanker program. Following his Air Force retirement in 1980, he managed Illini Airport and Flight Service in Urbana, Illinois. In June 1982, he became the director of Monroe County Airport and concurrently served as a pilot for Indiana University and Great West Insurance Company. 

Boone has been an active pilot for 60 years and currently owns and operates a Cessna 170B. He has logged over 6,000 hours as a civilian pilot and was an USAF Command Pilot, and in July 2013 the FAA gave him the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for over 60 years of accident-free piloting. CJ 

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