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.
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.
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!
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!
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.