Monday, February 13, 2012

Bears: Hunting, Cooking, and Coexisting

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Although there is no black bear hunting season in Alaska (they are considered a pest species), my husband and his friends tend to hunt them around Memorial Day.  The idea is that the bears have shed 1/3 of their body weight in hibernation, so they are lean and hungry.   People who ask, "Aren't they greasy and gamey?" may be thinking of fall bear, since during the summer, bears prefer to eat fish, which imparts a flavor, and are consuming 20,000 calories a day to fatten themselves up for warmth and calories during hibernation.

I enjoy target shooting, but have never hunted myself, just baited a bear stand.  So the following description is a wife's version of a husband's hunting experience.

The neighbors who own a seasonal hunting/fishing cabin fly in a group of Anchoragians for a long weekend of hunting.  During the week before the hunting weekend, Bryan and the hosts bait several hunting stations.  The rule is that these locations have to be at least one mile from any habitation (which isn't hard to do in Alaska) and, since bears tend to be solitary and roam over large areas, the stations are about a mile from each other, too.

Each wooded setting has a tree stand, like a wooden or metal tree house15-20 feet up that overlooks a lightly cleared area marked by two long logs positioned like a V to encourage ingress and egress of bears from a predictable trajectory.  In this V, Bryan and his hunting buddies dump a huge pile of popcorn which they drizzle with molasses or syrup.  Then, around the popcorn, they pour Karo syrup, so visiting bears will step in it and carry the scent away with them to attract other bears.  To me, the whole thing seems like shooting big fuzzy fish in a barrel.  Each stand also has one or two motion detector cameras.  Each day, the guys drive their guy vehicles (ATVs or traxtors or Argos, depending on how soppy the bogs and low areas are) to each stand and check the food supply and photos to get an idea of the bear population that survived the winter and is now up and about in that vicinity.

The hunting transpires at night.  The guys head out around 5 or 6 pm and are dropped off in ones or twos at each stand and remain until about midnight.  Because it will be a long, cold, quiet night, each man brings, along with his rifle (usually a .338 or larger caliber) a chair, blankets, book, snacks.  The first two nights Bryan saw nothing but hunting owls and scavenging grey jays.  The third night, because they were skunked the prior two, the party remained out all night.  Bryan  heard a shot from one of the other stands at midnight and another around 5 am.  In the morning, Bryan picked up the other hunters and transported the bears, one at a time back to the hunting cabin on a plastic sled.  They estimated that one was a 3 year old and the other about 6, each about 300-400 lbs. 
It is disconcerting to see a bear being skinned.  Lying down, with its legs all akimbo, it looks like a man in a costume.  Since Bryan was the youngest, and the newest Alaskan, he was designated "assistant skinner" to the two hunters who actually shot them.  For his labor, he was given a haunch which he wrapped in a muslin bag and brought back to me.  You should have seen the bloody interior of the kayak!!!  One of the hunters decided to keep the skin and have it  prepared for mounting.  I didn't see it, so I don't know what it looked like, but the other was shedding and unattractive. 

We chopped a roast off for one meal that was delicious.  I braised it first and then cooked it in a pressure cooker for 20 minutes with red wine, onions, garlic, and Italian herbs.  It smelled fabulous and was fork tender.  The leg bone was too long for any of my pans so I tried a dry rub and slow oven.  However, since the meat is so lean, I have concluded that bear meat benefits from wet cooking and that's what I'll do from now on.    

Living where we do, I have a healthy respect for bears.  I can't stand little collectibles that depict them as cute and cuddly cubs wrapped around coasters and napkin holders.  Only occasionally do we see bears around the cabin but we see their tracks and scat and and game trails all the time.  Obviously we have moved into their neighborhood!  Every time we engage in some noisy construction project, a day or two later, a big pile of scat has marked the spot, indicating that a curious bear surreptitiously checked it out during the middle of the night.  The two behaviors that have made quite an impression on me have been their absolute silence in transit and their astonishing speed and agility in climbing trees (black bears, not brown/grizzlies).  Several bear hunters tell of bears climbing up their bear stands!  The interaction with humans that surprise me relate to their omnivorous nature.  Bears will chew on plastic gas lines and eat snow machine seats.

The two hunting/fishing cabins on our lake see much more bear activity than we do, perhaps because they are closer to the creek (which has salmon, trout, and grayling).  Both owners are very careful about burning or carting away trash, dumping water far away and covering up windows with bear shutters (plywood) to leave few inducements to bears, which are  curious and clever creatures that have learned that cabins often have food. If you have ever had campsites raided by clever raccoons that were able to open your coolers and tents, picture that, but 100 times bigger.  One summer morning after arriving at our cabin when we didn't have as many storage buildings, we awoke to find bear prints all over a marine cooler we had left on the back porch(with food in it).  One evening we heard the bear bells ring on the burn barrel lids.   I had put garbage out that morning but neglected to burn it in the rain.  A black bear was rooting around in it.  I learned that lesson! On Alaska cabins, you can see tooth marks on the porches, scratches high on the posts, and occasional snatches of bear hair where they scratched their backs against a corner. I have seen pictures of one cabin totally trashed when a bear got in through a window.  In fact, when our friend landed (his plane) and walked up the path with his gear, the bear poked his head out the window to see who was coming!   On another occasion, a group of tired hunters was sitting around a fire after having butchered and wrapped the meat when another bear wandered into camp, probably attracted by the smell of the blood.  Bam.

When we hike through the woods, for example to visit a neighbor or to go fishing at the creek, we go armed with a gun and bear spray.  I'm told that bear spray is more reliable, which I can certainly understand for someone startled by a bear and not very familiar with firearms.  Just make sure you don't spray into the wind!  If it isn't windy, our best defense is probably talking so the bears can move away from us and toward food that doesn't talk - like the rich array of fish and berries in the area.  When fishing, my husband tends to favor deep pools but I like to walk along the bank following bear tracks to points where they entered the water.  That's where I have found currents that bring the salmon, trout, and grayling close to shore. From these markings, too, we can infer the size of the individual bears, and how recently they preceded us, like when, on returning to our departure point, we see that their footprints lie on top of ours! 

I don't walk in fear of the bears, but I don't take them for granted either.  Just as it is prudent to lock your car and house doors in the city, it is prudent to lock and load in the woods of Alaska.  We aren't all that high on the food chain here.  

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

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