Han’s Bears



Admiralty Island 2006


As soon as we heard the growl, Hans released the safety catch on his rifle and in the same motion, swung it from its cradled position across his chest and pointed it toward the bushes.

‘Step back… slowly,’ he cautioned.

We took two backward paces. Behind us the creek bubbled toward the inlet. Sandbars and shallows had slowed its progress giving the salmon who, fought frantically to reach their spawning grounds further upriver, a moments respite.

‘Let’s go,’ he said after a moment, and we moved into the bushes. The bear had moved off, only a swathe of flattened grass, a blob of excrement, and a smell that reminded me of wet pine needles, marked its passing.


Juneau, Alaska 1980

It had rained constantly the day I met Hans. A dreary wetness falling from low clouds the colour of ash.

The two men who came towards my boat, the Renee Blue, wore rain jackets, both were hatless. They walked carefully on the slippery, lurching dock, hunched forward, heads pressed into the wind. I looked past them towards the mountains that crushed Juneau against the inlet, but the peaks had disappeared under a blanket of soiled fleece.

When the two men reached me, the dark haired one held out his hand

‘Bucky,’ he said. The blond man stepped towards me.


‘Hands,’ I repeated.

‘Hans,’ he patiently replied. ‘Hands,’ he continued, holding up both mitts for my inspection, and then pointing to himself with a thumb… ‘Hans.’

I nodded, ‘Pleased to meet ya.’

With my friend Doug, I had just rowed a Grand Banks Dory from Seattle to Juneau Alaska, a 1,600-kilometre trip. It had taken us two and a half months, and all our money.

The dark headed man bought our shotgun and other odds and ends. He didn’t pay near what I asked, but there was little I could do, we were stony broke.

Doug worked for a short time in a fish factory, and then left Juneau for Anchorage. I stayed – first washing dishes in a restaurant, a skill I’d learned in Seattle while preparing for our rowing trip before finding work on a salmon fishing boat, the Alaska Shark. It was during this time that Hans and I became close friends.


Admiralty Island 2006

We re-entered the creek on the far side of the bushes. The water was thigh high, but our waders kept us dry until we reached the shallows. Salmon lay about us dead and dying. Others burst between our legs or swam awkwardly around us. We moved upstream tenderly, measuring every step.

A sow and two large cubs were fishing in the reeds ahead, pawing and slapping the water. With a drop of his hand, Hans signaled us to squat while he flicked on his lighter, checking the wind direction. When he was confident that they could not pick up our scent, he motioned us out of the water and on to a trail made by another bear at another time. We were only here to shoot big males.

Further upstream, we moved away from the river, climbed a steep hill dotted with hemlock, and found a log that gave us an unobstructed view over shallow rapids … a likely bear fishing spot. We nestled with our backs against the fallen log and waited. Hans pulled out a packet of Copenhagen and settled a pinch of the tobacco behind his bottom teeth. John, his hunter, chewed on a wad of Redman, expectorating a blood-colored stream every few seconds. Seagulls rode on the backs of desperately swimming salmon, pecking them to death. Bald eagles soared lazily, disinterested in the feast below. A waterfall above the rapids roared and foamed, wetting, and chilling the air, causing us to shiver.


Juneau 1980

Hans lived in a log cabin he had built on the island of Douglas. To reach it from Juneau you needed a skiff with a dependable motor. After anchoring, you still had a twenty-minute climb. To the island’s village, it was an hour trudge through the bush.

The cabin was built from unpeeled logs, roofed with moss, and stood beside a creek that thundered seaward at such a pace it was impossible to hold a conversation if you stood too near. Hans had built a primitive bridge of beach timber and ropes for those arriving from the wrong side. A dangerous crossing if you were not alert or you had drunk too much.

The cabin was heated by a cast iron wood burning stove and cooking was done on gas. There was a kitchen counter and a loft for sleeping. The walls were used for storage: a gun rack, kerosene lanterns, knives, snowshoes. Above the heavy entrance door hung a board covered in a collage of photos. The cabin was compact, ordered even cozy. Germanic! Hans was a Bavarian.

It was in that cabin that I asked him how he managed to secure the magical green card that allowed foreigners to stay and work legally in the U.S.

‘I got married,’ he answered disinterestedly.

‘What happened?’

‘She couldn’t stop fucking around. One night I caught her with a guy, and she told me she was so horny, her cunt was itching. What can you do, it wasn’t her fault she just had to fuck … That’s what I liked about her when we first met,’ Hans added quickly.

Most nights we drank in the Red Dog Saloon. It was one of those bars that inspired great intimacy or wild excess. A bar where drinkers could forget the storms that chased them from the fishing grounds; the cables that almost sliced them in two while setting a choker on a felled tree; the cold and biting wind that bored through their clothes and burned their ears and fingers as they balanced thirty feet in the air on swaying scaffold to hammer in another nail; the weather that threw their sea plane around like flotsam and forced them to fly so low they could look up at the mountains; the paperwork and office bureaucracy that choked their spirit. The bears that came so close they could smell rotting fish.

‘I came here for the first time in 1976. I was still in the army then.’

Before Hans could say another word, the bell hanging above the bar rang and drinks were served to every Red Dog customer.

When I discovered who had paid for them, I walked over to thank him. Our patron, a heavy disheveled man with bleary uncomprehending eyes only grunted and scratched his long, tangled beard when I raised my glass in salute.

‘I loved it so much that I came back to stay after I got out,’ Hans continued as if there had been no interruption. ‘No better place to live if you want to be free. Not many rules up here.’

But it was more than the freedom that attracted him to Alaska. Hans belonged to a race of men born in the wrong time. You run into them sometimes in far flung corners, surviving with seemingly redundant skills. Alaska was not only a place that offered him the freedom he craved, but it was also one of the few places left where he could live as he needed to.

At the insistence of his mother and father, Hans had studied for the mercantile trade, something more unsuitable I couldn’t imagine. After the completion of his schooling, he joined the military. He was a Bavarian, born in the site of rugged peaks and, understandably, he joined the mountain brigade. It was in the army that he learned to shoot, he was already a skilled climber and skier.

‘I trained with the S.A.S,’ he once told me modestly. I knew S.A.S. was an acronym for Special Air Service, the principal special-forces organization in the British armed forces. It is a small secretive institution that is widely regarded as one of the finest fighting outfits in the world.

A man walked into the bar. Amongst such a crowd he would not normally have been noticed, but he had a haunted unsettling look. He was after someone. He pushed roughly past people, gazing left and right. He clutched a fish gaff, its steel hook almost scraping the floor. When he turned towards us, we both held his stare. His enemy was not in the Red Dog. As he walked out, he rested the gaff over his shoulder, almost running into the night.

Hans had options, and therefore decisions, to make at the end of his military service. He could re-enlist, and he had the opportunity to join the S.A.S. He chose to return to Alaska.

‘Most likely be dead now if I had chosen the S.A.S,’ he once told me, and when I answered that it sounded like he had made the right choice, he gave a smile that could be mistaken for a sneer.

I could never fully explain to myself my reasons for rowing a boat to Alaska. Likely it was because the idea was impossibly exotic to a boy from a small Australian mining town, and therefore irresistible.

Hans paddled a canoe down the Yukon possibly for the same reasons, but while Doug and I organized food to be left along our route, Hans and his partner, an ex marine sharpshooter who had served in Vietnam, chose to live off the land … to pit themselves completely against nature because it was their nature.

‘We nearly starved,’ Hans admitted with another twist of his mouth.

After that trip, he went to work. In 1978, he started guiding for Bill, a craggy faced, sweet natured bear hunter.

He learned about the prodigious animals: that they ate berries, grasses, roots, horsetails, fish, black tailed deer, carrion, infant bears; that except when breeding, they are solitary creatures.

He absorbed the difference between brown and black bear: the brown is much larger, with straighter claws for digging out roots or quarry, and with a much bigger shoulder hump that is all muscle and powers him to enormous speed.

He learned to recognize whether a print was from the front or back paw, how big the bears were from the depth and size of their imprint, that their eyesight is almost as sharp as man’s, and their hearing much, much better. He learned that their sense of smell is superior to a hound dog, and that like man and the great apes, bears rely heavily on individual instruction to learn, giving them an individual character, making some good tempered, others nasty, one or two murderers.

He found out where they find tender young shoots and carrion in spring and how they hunt and fish. He discovered where they hibernate in the winter and what an exceptional memory they have. And how to guide the rich, often inept, hunters from the ‘lower forty-eight’ close enough for a kill.

‘Did you ever lose any?’ I once asked him jokingly.

‘No,’ he replied deadly serious, ‘but Bill did. The hunter took a heart attack. They had to leave him until the next day … too fat to carry out.’

In 1978 Hans went logging, and the man who taught him how to harvest the big timbers and survive was killed when a rigging strap tore. That same year Hans bought his first boat, a twenty-three-foot hand-trawler and fished for salmon on the treacherous Inside Passage waters.

Girls came by our table. Hans had a chiseled jaw, thick blonde hair, a courteous way with women. Statistically at that time in America’s fiftieth state, the ratio of males to females was 50 to 1, and given the opportunity, men generally chased women like dogs do a hare, but Hans never went out of his way. That night there was a pretty brown-haired New Zealander in the group, and he made an effort.


Admiralty Island 2006

When we got back to the beach, the tide was creeping like an opportunistic thief towards our launch. Another fifteen minutes and we would have been high and dry. Hans and John unloaded their rifles, and Hans pulled on the line that anchored the launch to the shore, hand over hand, coiling the rope meticulously as it fell toward the ground.

Nobody spoke as we motored back to the boat. Hans stood at the wheel, steering the launch through a chop that had grown to three feet. John sat on the middle seat, stains of dried red spittle at his feet. I hunkered down in the bow, trying to stay out of the wind and spray, ready to make her fast when we arrived.

Hans suddenly threw the skiff into an arc, and when I looked uncertainly over the gunnels, I could see plumes of water shooting into the air. We got within thirty metres of the humpbacks before they sounded, and then they were gone.


It had been twenty-five years since I had last seen Hans. He’d hardly changed. Still all muscle, the hair still blonde, only the gray stubbles of his five-day old growth gave an indication of his age.

He was prosperous now, an outfitter and hunting guide. His company, Southeast Alaskan Guiding, was one of the most respected in the country. He promised his clients a good chance of killing brown bear and mountain goat, the two most sought-after trophies in American big game hunting, the two most demanding and dangerous. He had an impressive success rate.

Hans transported his clients to the hunting grounds on his fifty-one-foot, long line fishing trawler, the Northern Star. I recognized her on first sighting. Not new, but immaculately cared for. Like an Eton boy amongst urchins.

The Northern Star slept five comfortably, had a stove, oven, fridge, hot showers, toilet, and a clothes dryer. A generator powered the electrics. But she was also a working fishing boat, with a satellite navigation system, depth finder, radio, and auto pilot.

The Alaska Shark, the boat I had worked on all those years ago, had a compass, charts, ruler, and pencil. Landmarks were used to avoid rocks, and you had to steer the boat yourself and shit over the side … in a bucket when the weather was bad. Even on Hans’ boat we still shat over the side. Old habits die hard.

Hans had invited me to join him on a bear hunting trip. You couldn’t turn an offer like that down, or a chance to see an old mate.


John climbed awkwardly out of the launch and onto the boat. Bad knees. He never complained, even when he was in a lot of pain which he was when his tablets started wearing off, or when Hans drove him to his physical limits. Hans had no tolerance for weakness.

It was John’s fourth hunt with Hans. It wasn’t that Hans could find him a big bear it was just that John wanted the biggest and was prepared to wait. He had already spent fifty thousand dollars, but it had nothing to do with money.

When I asked him once did, he think he was ever going to get his bear, he laughed and answered in his syrupy Arkansas drawl, ‘It’s an island. He ain’t going nowhere.’


We had been up since 4.30 and had eaten only a few mouthfuls of cereal. Hans had already begun frying bacon bits, diced potato, and a small hill of onions before John and I were out of our waders. I poured coffee, handing Hans and John a mug, before walking aft to light a cigar. Protected from the wind by a scimitar of land, the water around the boat was as flat as a skimming stone. The sun had burnt away the early morning fog letting the sky mingle with the water in a lapis lazuli of blues and greens. Outside of our cove the waves rushed by in low walls of gray and foamy white.

John was what many North Americans call a ‘good old boy,’ others a Cracker. He lived in a town that had stayed segregated until the mid-sixties: the picture theatre, bowling alley, swimming baths, and drinking fountains.

‘Even when they took the signs down that separated humanity, people still stayed on the same side of the picture theatre they always had, used the alleys they’d always bowled on, drank out of their own fountains,’ John told me with considerable consternation.

John likes to eat grits and gravy, is a member of a private business club, a solid community employer, a former marine, a Vietnam veteran. He lives in a large house filled with the grim detritus of his hunts throughout the world, calls black Americans ‘coloreds,’ and runs a well digging company started by his ‘Daddy,’ but taken to new fiscal heights by himself. At one time John employed almost exclusively black Americans, he now hires only Mexicans.

‘They’re better workers. Coloreds don’t want to work anymore.’

I was tempted to question his generalization, but he had worked himself from nothing to something without an education, and who was I to judge.

‘Whites don’t want to work either,’ he suddenly added, expectorating pink into a plastic bottle that he used when sitting at the eating table.


How did it work out with them rich Mexicans?’ John suddenly asked Hans, pawing his white beard. Perhaps his recent reference to his own preferred work force had jigged a memory, encouraged the inquiry.

I cocked an ear. The Mexicans John had referred to were Han’s last clients. I knew they had been a handful.

There were four of them, two hunters, Maria and Jorge, Jorge’s twenty-year old son and the boy’s best friend. The boys were what Hans called observers… not armed. Hans had hired his first hunting boss Bill, as an assistant guide.

‘Fuck, they made a big mess. The whole time I was always cleaning up after them guys.’

John laughed and reached for his Red Indian.

‘I got business down in Mexico. Them boys are good folk, but when they got money other people look after them.’

‘Fucking messy, that’s all I know. Bill would get back with Jorge and the boy before us and cover the galley in pancake makings. Shit, that’s all they could fix.’

‘Like I said,’ John answered, spitting discreetly into the bottle.

‘Couldn’t Bill cook?’ I asked, sticking my head inside the cabin, the sweet smell of frying onion wafting through the cigar smoke.

‘Bill’s been married too long. You forget how when you got a woman doing it for you all the time,’ Hans answered, snarling, stirring the onions and potatoes, and sprinkling on parsley until the food seemed to be covered with freshly mown grass.

‘And you wouldn’t want to go near the toilet. Always full of shit.’

‘Did you get ‘em a bear?’ I asked

‘No, I got Maria close to a couple of good bears, but he was always dreaming, and he wouldn’t listen. I told him, you’re a lawyer, when I want some legal advice I go to you, when you want to shoot a bear, you listen to me … but he wouldn’t.’

‘Maybe he didn’t understand you,’ I ventured.

‘I speak enough Spanish.’

‘And Bill?’

Hans gave a guffaw.

‘They got attacked. It was just getting dark when a big sow came around the hill. The boy saw her first. He told me he yelled out ‘BEAR’ three times before Bill and Jorge saw her and then she was almost on top of them. They just managed to turn her back … Bill shot a couple of times into the ground in front of her. Said she was close and moving so fast he had to do it one-handed. Jorge shot too. He did good, a lot of our hunters would have shot the bear or ran. The boy ran. Can’t blame him though he didn’t have no gun.’

Hans reached for his mug that he had placed beside the stove. The sneer that I knew was a smile broke across his face. He sipped cautiously, although the coffee must have cooled to tepid.

‘The next day another big sow came at me and my hunter.’ Han’s voice shook with mirth. ‘She had to climb over a log to get to us. Even when I put three or four shots into the water around her, she still wanted to charge. Stood in the middle of the creek turning around and around like a fucking spinning top. Bad bears last hunt.’

Hans threw another frying pan on the stove, broke six eggs, smothering them with pepper. When the eggs were served along with the potatoes, bacon and onion, the talking ceased, and we shoveled voraciously.

‘They were always back before dark after that,’ Hans snorted suddenly, again sneering grandly.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Bill, Jorge and the boy. The boy told me Bill don’t see too good in the dark. Better we come back to the boat.’

‘How old is Bill?’ I asked.

‘More than seventy!’


It was our habit to sleep after eating, rising after a couple of hours to eat again, usually soup or cold cuts, and prepare for the night’s hunt. Hans and John would check their rifles, working the bolt actions, rubbing them cautiously with lightly oiled rags, caressing them tenderly.

Then we would dress. My attire consisted of three sets of long underwear, three pairs of socks, pants and thigh high waders held up with string tied to my belt, stout gloves, woolen cap, and a rain jacket. I looked more like a butter bean than a hunter, but I thought that better than being cold. John and Hans always dressed much more lightly, John always in camouflage.

After this solemn affair, necessities were assembled: binoculars, the heavy night vision scope, head lamps, knives. The launch was pumped free of any water and the outboard motor tank filled with gasoline. Extra bullets and tobacco were essential.

‘Did I tell you I have a business in India?’

‘No John,’ I answered. We were speeding out into open water. The passage had calmed down, and we raced over waves so gentle they resembled freshly whipped cake batter.

‘I have a foundry there.’

I waited, knowing that timing was important to John’s stories.

‘I met an Indian man on a plane, trusted him, and we took it from there.’

‘Was he trustworthy?’

‘No, but my new partner is!’


Hans had decided to hunt Moon Cove. We had been there before. There was no cover and no high ground to get out of harms way if it came our way. We were forced to crouch amidst salmon corpses, amongst the tidal rocks that were choked with mussels, and next to a creek that crashed violently into the sea.

Before we landed, Hans motored slowly back and forth, scanning the beach with binoculars, looking for the best place to beach without disturbing the sows and cubs that were already feeding along the creek’s banks. It was low tide. A cloudless night and a full moon were expected. It would be a long and bitterly cold evening.


Juneau, 1980

I left Alaska after the salmon fishing season ended and returned home to Australia.

Alaska was still a frontier of sorts, and frontiers make alluring promises to young men. There’s something grander, more spirited. Nothing mundane. I couldn’t get the infinite, enduring land, or its people out of my head. I was back before the Alaskan spring of eighty-one turned to summer.

A small Irishman offered me a job on his boat fishing for king crab in the Aleutians. Rough, cold work, but I could earn $30,000 in a two-month season. The boat ran aground on the way up to the fishing grounds.

I hung around Anchorage, working here and there, before hitching a ride to Skagway and catching the ferry to Juneau. I met Hans in the Red Dog the day I arrived.

It was crowded but the crowd had changed. Cruise ships had discovered Southeast Alaska. The bar was full of picture snapping tourists.

‘The first ship came at the end of spring,’ Hans told me as we drank our beers, huddled together like settlers under attack, cringing from the inessential noise and levity.

My money was getting low, I needed a job, a place to stay.

‘I got room up at the cabin.’ Hans invited me without a moment’s hesitation.

It was the night my cigarettes ran out. I was crawling around the cabin floor on hands and knees sifting through anything that might hide an errant smoke, almost mad with anxiety, when we heard a single pistol shot.

‘Bruno’s back.’

The shot was their signal.

Bruno was Hans’ Bavarian friend. They had met in Alaska and only later discovered that they had been in the same military unit.

Bruno and I teamed up and found a job relocating timber for a cabin up bush. The owner flew us in and landed on a nearby beach. Alaskans did that as a matter-of-course. Wait for the right tide, inflate your tires to the maximum, not worry about a few jolts and bounces, keep a sharp eye out for particularly large logs and boulders that you might have missed from the air. Get the hell out before the tide comes back. After that job, Bruno and I became permanent partners and found more work with a small construction company run by a courteous, fair-minded, and scrupulously honest man named Dave, whose beard and long, slightly stooped gait put me in mind of Abraham Lincoln. He paid us fourteen dollars an hour. Grand money, but we gave him his money’s worth.

Dave worked us six, sometimes seven days a week, ten hours a day. Light was precious in Alaska and when it was there, you used it. There was little time for socializing, little strength. I rarely saw Hans.

When we did meet up it was usually at Louie’s, a cinder block bunker in the village of Douglas, across the channel from Juneau.

Louie’s sold only bottled and canned beer. It had a pool table, a jukebox full of country music, and plenty of hard liquor. If you were thrown out, it was a long way to the next bar.

It was on a Sunday, God’s Day, but nobody I knew had a god. Louie’s was seething with irreverence. Hans and Bruno whispered together in German. When they spoke to me, they would sometimes forget, and I had to remind them that I didn’t understand.

‘I tried to ignore him, but he walked across the road to get me.’

Only took me a few hits.

‘A Tlingit or Haida?’

‘How the hell could I tell the difference.’

It was a disease in Juneau, in any community with a large displaced, indigenous population. When men have nothing to do, they drink and fight … certainly when they come from a warrior tribe. The women are no better or worse.

Hans had a scowl that could wither most men, and I was surprised that the guy hadn’t noticed. He must have been too drunk.

We were on our third beer when they started playing Bombs Away. A man who worked with Hans placed a shot glass on the floor and dropped a dollar bill beside it. Other men walked over and dropped dollar bills on top of the first.

The first man had trouble holding the quarter between the cheeks of his arse, dropping the coin a number of times before securing it. He waddled the five requisite paces to the shot glass, relaxed his cheek muscles, and let the coin fall. It missed the glass by inches, and then the next man took his turn.

‘Lucy pulled a gun on Bruno,’ Hans whispered to me as I was preparing to take my turn, making sure the coin was fitted as tightly as possible.

It was already September, early evening, the lights had been turned out in the bar and the shot glass filled with over-proof rum and lit for effect. After taking careful aim, I dropped the quarter into the glass, allowing the blue flame to envelop the coin, embracing it in death throws. And then it was dark.

‘Was she drunk again?’ I asked Hans, collecting my dollar bills, and returning to my barstool. Hans nodded, looking sideways at Bruno who was in earnest conversation with a fisherman who lay across the bar as if it were a woman he was romancing.

‘What did he do?’

‘He had to hit her. She was going to shoot.’

Bruno turned towards us, smiling nervously. Brown chewing tobacco clung to his bottom teeth, making them seem uncared for.

‘You two are going to kill each other,’ I said, but Bruno just smiled nervously.

Lucy was an Inuit with a pretty, round-face, and hair so black it appeared blue. She was as sweet as you could wish until she was drinking. I believe Bruno loved her.

I counted fifteen participants in the last game of the night. There were no women but that was not unusual.



We worked into the winter. Until the snows became so thick, the air so chilled and the ground so hard that we became redundant. We had dug, tore down, carried, and stacked, painted, and built until we all had cash in the bank. It was Hans’ idea to head down to Costa Rica. He had read an article in a National Geographic about that Central American country. A democracy with no military. One that provided free education to all children until the age of twelve and medicine to those under ten. It had exceptionally beautiful women. It sounded like paradise.

Bruno and I were thirty feet in the air, working from a single twelve by two plank nailing facing along a side wall of a two-story house, our hands so cold they felt brittle enough to break, our noses and ears burnt red from wind strong enough to blow a meter snow drift against the house. We worked only the one day before demanding proper scaffolding.

‘I didn’t think you two were frightened by anything,’ Dave yelled up from below. I believe he was disappointed in us.

‘You coming to Costa Rica?’

‘No,’ Bruno answered, the wind muffling his reply. He spat an arc of brown tobacco juice before repeating it, shaking his head at the same time. ‘I’m staying with Lucy.’


Admiralty Island, 2006.

We nestled into the rocks, rubbing our backs against the mussels, trying to find angles that would give us comfort. Across the creek, sows were feeding with their young. It was the gloaming and we waited for the moon, watching their silhouettes dip into the water.

Hans pulled out his night vision scope, set it carefully on a rock, and scanned both sides of the creek. The moon came up and the cold set in. John and I squirmed and wiggled trying to stay warm. Hans remained as still as the rock he was squatting on.

‘Never did tell you about the tiger, did I?’

‘Give me some of your Red Indian,’ I answered, peering warily into the dark for large shapes before stuffing a ball of tobacco in my mouth.

‘That old boy was a man eater.’

I spat thickly, the red liquid running down my chin. Nausea started almost immediately, and my head began to spin.

‘We was walking through the jungle when he came charging out of the undergrowth.’

‘You were hunting for trophy?’

‘No,’ John answered, mildly annoyed that I had interrupted his story. ‘I was doing a favour for National Geographic. They wanted to film the capture of these Indian tigers that had been eating the locals. They asked me to go along to protect their team … two old girls … both about twenty, and a cameraman.’

I nodded, raking the tobacco off my gums, trying not to swallow any of the amalgam left wallowing like swamp water in my mouth.

‘That tiger came charging straight out of the bush. Only about ten feet away when I shot him. Them armed guards they sent with us dropped their rifles and run. So did the cameraman. Can’t blame him though … I suppose.’

‘A man eater?’

‘That’s what they say.’

‘What about the assistants?

‘Those two old girls couldn’t even talk they was so scared.’


The night was so still that a whisper sounded like a shout. Hans threw us an annoyed look and then changed position, turning to face across the creek. A new bear had joined the others.

The sex of a bear is extremely difficult to determine, and almost impossible in the dark. Hans was concentrating on the new arrival, changing the focus of his night vision binoculars, adjusting the range, repeating the procedure, and then repeating it again.

‘Can’t see their balls,’ John whispered to me, ‘they don’t hang down. A sow looks just like a boar, usually a lot meaner though.’

Another bear moved in from our left. She was almost on top of us before we noticed her. She caught our scent and moved back over the tidal rocks and along the beach.

I was caught unawares again when a full butter-colored moon rose over the island’s high forests and lit up the beach like candlelight.

Noiselessly, another bear broke out of the forest. It was long, lean, and Hans needed less time in the better light to see that it was a boar. It played at the waters edge on our side of the creek, rolling rocks, splashing the foam with its paw, lifting salmon out of the water, only to let them drop back again.

‘Too small,’ Hans growled and turned his attention back across the creek.

‘Let’s get a closer look.’

John and Hans both moved, stopping behind a large boulder about thirty meters downstream. Hans set his night vision scope on the rock and began his detailed study. Small dark clouds appeared, blocking out the light, drifting away again. Playing hide and seek with the moon.

I remained squatting behind cover, watching the bear Hans had considered too small with fascination, feeling much alone. Without warning my bear sloshed into the creek, pushing rocks playfully in front of him. I could see him clearly. Lean, but heavily muscled. I was sure he was big enough for John.

The bear suddenly turned and came slowly towards me, breaking the water like a sturdy tugboat. I moved behind another boulder, picked up a rock and cursed that I was not armed. The bear got to within ten metres before he turned, grunted, and disappeared into the shadows on the other side of the creek.

Hans and John returned with the news that their bear was a sow.

‘What’s wrong with your shoulder,’ I asked when I noticed Hans rubbing it.

‘Popped it.’

Hans began to study my bear again with renewed interest when I told him how big he was in silhouette. He watched him for an hour, straining at times to catch sight of him in the darkness of the woods, before again proclaiming him still too small.

‘If you had seen him side on,’ I whined, but Hans couldn’t be convinced.

We waited until the tide arrived, bubbling about us, carrying with it weed and dead salmon, and then we stepped cautiously over the partially submerged rocks toward our anchored boat.

A medium-sized bear suddenly came out of the woods, grunting and belligerent.

‘Side by side,’ Hans ordered. To a bear we would appear as one and therefore large and possibly dangerous. The bear hesitated, grunting in confusion before ambling casually away. He remained a short distance from us, grazing on salmon, intermittently lifting his head.

‘That’s one bear that ain’t scared of us,’ Hans remarked casually, lifting his shoulder horizontally as if it were a hinge that had rusted in place.

‘Rocks are slicker than owl shit,’ John uttered, seeming not to hear Hans, instead concentrating on his struggle to scramble into the boat. When we started the motor the bear raised his head again, and then we lost him against the fathomless darkness of the forest.


Juneau, 1981

Hans and I left Juneau on an Alaskan ferry on a bitterly cold January night with snow falling consistently and heavily. Once the lights on the docks faded, our way was marked only by the white drifts along the beaches. When I raised my eyes to the forest, the trees, too fragile to support the snow, appeared as a lightless void. When we rounded a point, turning south into Stephen’s Passage, the wind blasted us, throwing the snow horizontally, and then I saw nothing.

In the morning I walked out onto the wet decks. The snow had stopped, but a heavy fog concealed the shoreline. Grey disturbed water rushed past us. I tried to recall my rowing trip along these waters, straining to see the forest, to summon back the anxieties and jubilations brought on by almost constant rain, bullying waves, wind, mammoth tides, subtle enduring hunger, blistered hands that had to be coaxed open on cold mornings, sightings of Humpback whales, bears, porpoises, sea lions, bald eagles. A killer whale so close I could almost reach out and touch it. Mountains topped like cake frosting. Rushing, falling streams that burst suddenly into rainbows. The deer I needed two shots to kill and the fishermen I shared her with. The Haida Indian who threatened to scalp me.

The trip that took me two and a half months in my rowing boat was expected to take thirty-six hours on our Alaskan ferry. I overheard Hans telling two men that I had rowed a boat to Juneau, but I just couldn’t imagine it.

When we arrived in Seattle, we boarded a plane to San Francisco where we planned to meet our buddy, Jack. As the plane banked, the destruction wrought less than two years earlier by the eruption of St Helens, a volcanic mountain that was part of the Cascade Mountain range, spread under us. The initial explosion that had the destructive power of 150 atomic bombs had killed every living thing within 230 miles. Green was appearing.

Mt Rainer at 14,410 feet, the largest mountain in the state, and part of the same mountain range, came into view. Its base had fused with the clear blue sky so that only its glacial and snow-covered upper slopes were visible, giving the impression that it hovered.

I had read that to reach the summit took three days of climbing, also that two or three climbers died each year trying. I nodded toward the mountain as our plane dipped, giving us a better view. I knew Hans had fallen through two crevasses before reaching the summit. I waited for recollections, a sense of pleasure, pride, even awe to emanate from the sighting.

‘I shit on top of that mountain,’ was all he said.


We met Jack at the bus station in the early evening. It had begun to rain, increasing as the night wore on, and our bus had to plow through flooded roads before reaching the border town of Mexicali the following morning. Sun gave us a hopeful salutation as we alighted.

Before crossing into Mexico, we convinced Jack, who wore his hair in a long ponytail, that the Mexican authorities wouldn’t let him through because he resembled a hippie.

‘They hate hippies, Jack.’

‘Yeah, even if they do let you through, they’ll probably shave you first.’

Without letting us know, he went straight to a toilet and cut off the offending tail.

We bought third class tickets on a train to Mazatlan and settled ourselves in a seething carriage, surrounded by people who carried their possessions in bundles. A large family sitting across from us kept chickens in a cage next to their seat.

It was a trip of days, and we numbed our senses with cheap mescal, celebrating in its euphoria, suffering its hangovers, travelling through an endless desert decorated with bare hills the colour of milk coffee, sweating and stinking, understanding nothing that went on around us.

Jack was an Oregon lad. A Goose Bay boy who escaped a youth gone wrong. Drugs and a life running wild with rough boys had nearly finished him, but he got himself to Alaska and started again.

When I met him, he was living in a tent at the foot of the mountains that hemmed Juneau in against the sea, working in the building trade, putting something behind him. He was sweet natured and as gentle as you could wish in a man. Now that he had cut off his ponytail, he looked like Prince Valiant.

The train stopped at a station in the middle of a white emptiness, and women in long dresses and shoeless children offered tortillas and pieces of fried meat covered in dust. The sun was unsparing. My thirst was ferocious, but the women had only warm Coca Cola and other violently colored soft drinks for sale.

‘Hey guys, this is really something,’ Jack said, stepping off the train to pay for a tortilla, trying to start up a conversation with a pretty Indian girl, making her giggle.

Mangy dogs the colour of the desert snapped at each other as they fought over scraps that fell from tortillas passed through the windows. More families carrying bundles climbed awkwardly onto the train.

On the morning of the third day, workers hosed the toilet – just a hole in the train floor – free of shit and piss that had spread like confetti.

We pulled into Mazatlan.

From Mazatlan we took a bus through the night towards Mexico City. Hans wanted to continue overland through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. I was against it and Jack backed me. We had no desire to travel through wars to get to paradise.

Before we caught our plane to Costa Rica, we wandered out of the airport looking for a bus that would take us into the city. For fifteen minutes we watched a drunk, bare-chested, remarkably elegant man stand in the middle of a five-lane highway and fight cars with his shirt. ‘Ole,’ he would shout as one sped past his improvised cape. ‘Ole, ole.’


Alaska, 2006.

The footprints on the beach were eight inches across and deep.

‘He was down here last night. He’s probably not more than a few hundred yards away, sleeping the food off.’

‘How big?’ I asked.

‘That’s a big bear. Got to be more than nine and a half foot.’

‘Come back tonight?’ John asked.

‘Or we can hunt him now. Be in his territory though. Have to be quiet and real careful.’

It was steep and John’s knees were no good. I thought he would decline, but he just nodded. We moved off, step by measured step.

After we climbed off the beach, we lost the sun, and the trail became slippery. Moss enveloped every fallen log and vines crossed the trail like the rungs of an endless ladder. Each time we broke a twig underfoot, Hans would turn and glare.

The bear was easy to follow in the beginning. It had skidded down to the beach, scraping the vegetation away, leaving a wide muddy trail. As we climbed, it became more indistinct, multiple tracks appeared. Hans followed the freshest with little trouble, checking every mossy glade, squatting, waiting, and listening, peering behind every broken spruce, hemlock. Shadows jumped out at us. The woods were so thick and tangled he could be anywhere.

As we crept higher the footing became more difficult. John was breathing heavily. He had stripped off his jacket. Sweat dribbled down his face, which had turned red as a peach, before disappearing into his dank beard.

Hans held up his hand and we stopped. He pointed ahead and above us. I was ordered behind a tree and told to keep watch to our left. John shouldered his rifle.

‘If he comes, he’ll come fast, so be ready to warn us.’ I nodded.

‘Bite your thumb,’ John said, almost in a whisper.

Hans picked a blade of grass, placed it between his lips, and imitated the distress call of a black tailed deer – a high pitched whistle, desperate and morose.

Nothing! He repeated the call. We waited. Seconds seemed like minutes; minutes seemed much longer.

‘Let’s go,’ Hans indicated with a hand movement.

We climbed onwards to the top of the ridge, only 1,500 feet but it had taken us two hours.

Hans stripped off his pack. We did the same and followed him along the ridge spine, creeping, bent double. Suddenly Hans straightened and I knew we had lost the bear. We walked another twenty metres to his sleeping den; a circle of worn earth, at the base of a tall spruce, littered with branches and faded needles. The bear had given himself a view overlooking the incline we had just climbed. You could still smell him.

‘Probably watching us the whole time,’ Hans said admiringly, working his shoulder, trying to lift his arm a little higher than the last time.

‘What did you mean by ‘bite your thumb?’ I asked John as we walked back to retrieve our packs.

‘It keeps ya concentrated. An old boy told me that when I was a kid. It’s the pain that does it.’

When we got back to the beach, John began to knead his knees, rolling around the caps with the palm of his hand as if they were rubber balls on a hard floor.


John clamped his mouth against his pain and began to shake his head.

‘It’s hunting otherwise it would just be killing.’


Costa Rica, 1981:

Paradise took us in different directions. Hans and I were laid low for a time after eating bad chicken in Mexico. Jack got a head start. I can’t remember her name.

After we recovered, we took off for the beach, an eight-hour bus ride over gravel and through dust. First climbing upwards from the capital built on a fertile plateau, before crossing the roof of the country – a swathe of land gouged by deep ravines and draped in delicate chilling fog. Cattle could be spotted grazing in the mist, a farmhouse perched defiantly on an apex of land, a rancher leaning forward over the neck of his wet, steaming horse as it negotiated the rough terrain.

Then we wound downwards towards the furnace of the Pacific.

At Manuel Antonio, our hotel rooms were on the cusp of a white sand beach and surrounded by jungle that was home to remarkable birds that woke us each morning with a chorus of ebullience. It cost two dollars a night.

Each morning and evening we frolicked like seals in the pristine, treacherous sea, and ate fresh fruit or fish caught that same day, while white faced monkeys played in the trees above us. Girls were as plentiful as any young man with a minor talent for seduction could dream of, and cigarettes cost thirty cents a packet. Cold beer even less.

I should have been content, but I was soon looking for something more. I had no intention of staying in Costa Rica, no idea why I hired a Spanish teacher and began laboring over impossible verbs in a San Jose hotel room – a small searing box with only an iron bed, an old peeling cupboard, and single bulb dangling from the ceiling like a garroted fox. No fan. No real idea why I limited myself to two days a week on the beach, joining Hans and Jack only at the weekends and then not at all.

The National Geographic magazine had been passed around and other friends arrived from Alaska. One of them, Richard Beamlander, a tough, pony-tailed free-soul not unlike Hans and Jack, went down on the fishing trawler Camelot within a year of returning to Alaska.

Hans swears that the last time he saw me I was walking off with a girl the colour of ebony, and it may have been so. The boys left Costa Rica after three months to go back to work. I found work panning gold and stayed for two and a half years.


Alaska, 2006

‘Ain’t everybody can make fireflies with his piss.’

‘We’re running out of time,’ I answered, standing beside John, and pissing into the dark waters, making my own fireflies.

‘We’ll get him, if not now another time.’

Hans grunted, getting our attention, sounding like the bears we were hunting. ‘What do you want to eat tonight?’

‘Ribs, if there’s any left?’

‘Get the potatoes out, Wayne,’ Hans ordered, shaving his words of any sort of civility. I tried to remember if that was the way he addressed people in the old days. I grunted back just as rudely.

Hans had a barbecue set up on the aft deck and the ribs were soon cooked. We tore at them, unwilling to talk until our plates were clean.

‘Good,’ John finally said, and then reached for his Redskin.

Hans grimaced and rolled his shoulder.

‘Any better,’ I asked.

‘Nope, hurts like bitch.’ It must have because he still couldn’t lift his arm higher than the shoulder. Sometimes I would watch him rotating it, trying to get some flexibility, shutting his eyes against the pain, not making a sound.

‘Do you remember how much cocaine was around in the old days?’ Hans suddenly asked but what brought him to that question, I couldn’t say.

‘Alaska was the first place I ever tried it,’ I answered. ‘My boss gave me some.’

‘When you were washing dishes in that restaurant?’


‘She was a hard bitch.’

‘Carried a forty-four in her purse,’ I answered.

Hans seemed momentarily lost in the past.

‘Shit, a lot of boats I worked on I would have to clear the powder off the radar screen when it was my watch.’

‘You worked on boats after Costa Rica?’ I asked, cleaning off the table, starting the dishes which, I had taken as my task, because Hans did most of the cooking. I noticed the cast iron frying pan that I had left soaking after the breakfast I had cooked, was now sparkling.

I smiled because I remembered Hans’ snarling complaint.

‘You burnt my frying pan.’

Everything in its place and a place for everything and make sure it was spotless. Only one way to do things, just one.

‘Some,’ he finally answered, ‘then I trapped for a while: martin, mink, wolf. Used to average about $130 a pelt.’

‘How long you say you were married?’ Hans asked me, taking the beer I offered.

‘Want a beer, John?’

‘Sure Wayne.’

‘Twenty-two years,’ I answered, grabbing another two beers from the fridge.

‘I got married in 88 again, only lasted a few months though. Hans was shaking his head in exasperation. ‘They just want to change ya. Marry ya because they like what you are and then they want to change ya.’

‘Shit, I’ve been married four times, ain’t nobody ever changed me.’ John spat slyly. Country was playing on the radio, sad and sentimental. We finished our drinks in our own company.


It was an eight-and-a-half-foot bear. Huge, but not the nine and a half John wanted. Still, he was considering it. We sat on a high promontory, hidden amongst stunted trees that hung over and downwards towards the river below watching him fish like a bent old man. He slapped at the salmon, sprung onto their backs, crushing them into the sculptured stones, clamped their heads under his paw, gnawed at their meat, crunching their bones so loudly we could hear it above the rattle of the river. While we watched the big male feeding, another young bear came shuffling along the trail. It turned and retreated when it spotted us.

John told me that one time the local paper had published photographs of him on an African hunt. Since then, he receives hate mail from all over the country.

I studied him as he studied the bear. Too heavy. That’s why he’s got bad knees. He’d disagree with me most likely, because John was someone who had most answers, liked the centre stage, was good on it. He was a kind and decent man, not one you should hate, even if you couldn’t abide trophy hunting. Besides, it’s pretty handy to have men around who can still face down a charging tiger.

‘Nope, he ain’t big enough, still got some more growing to do. Anyway, we got two more days.’

Hans had played no part in his decision.

That night it was an extra big tide and Hans decided to moor the skiff in a small bay filled with hidden, hazardous rocks. We dropped John ashore with the rifles, night vision scope and binoculars. Hans and I alighted on a rock already surrounded by sea. While I held the skiff straight against the current, Hans rigged the anchor that rested on the bow with an extra line, set the motor in reverse, turned off the gasoline, and let the skiff power towards deep water. The motor cut out more quickly than he had anticipated. When he pulled on the line the anchor fell into shallow water.

We waited too long. We had climbed down off a high bluff and crept through long grass amongst the bears. Hans thought he saw a big one but wanted to be sure. While I held his rifle, glancing nervously towards the trail coming out of the woods a few metres away and towards the milling bears thirty metres ahead of us, Hans peered through his night vision scope, readjusted it, and peered again.

‘Let’s go. It’s late. I don’t want the tide to run out on us.’

But it was a long walk over rough terrain back to the skiff and John couldn’t move quickly enough. The skiff was high and dry when we arrived.

Hans was mad. Madder at himself than anyone else. He wasn’t a man who liked mistakes, especially his own.

‘Let’s move into the woods and light a fire. We’ve got five hours of waiting,’ Hans yelled. It had started to drizzle.

‘Just give me a minute.’ John answered, falling to a sitting position on the nearest rock and rubbing his knees violently.

Hans misunderstood him, thinking he said no, and still furious, he turned to me and growled: ‘Let’s get this skiff straightened out.’

It was perched like a bean on a pole, but the wrong way for the incoming tide to pick it up gently and float it away. We turned her, but she was heavy, the footing slippery. When she started going, ten men couldn’t hold her. She raced down the rocks and dropped towards the water, catching the motor as she fell, buckling it.

We crept back through the night on the auxiliary outboard, a four hp which was barely strong enough to push the skiff past the silhouetted bays and headlands. The weather was mercifully gentle.

‘We’re finished,’ Hans told us, after checking the damage on our arrival back at the Northern Star. ‘The motor bracket is fucked, and I can’t fix it out here.’

It meant the last day of hunting was lost. I nosed into the fish box on the aft deck pulling out three cold beers, recalling the unfair surliness Hans had shown John: a good client, one doing his earnest best. I expected more words to be exchanged, but John understood that it was all in the game and accepted the decision laconically.


We sipped the beers slowly, beaten by the bad luck and exhausted by the entire hunt. We had been chasing bears for thirteen days and nights. Now we allowed it to take hold.

‘We’ll get him next time,’ John suddenly said, and Hans raised his beer can in a weary salute.


Hans pulled anchor hours before dawn, allowing John and I to sleep. When I woke, I made coffee and began cooking a breakfast of eggs, bacon, onions, and potatoes, heedful that Hans’ pan stayed as unblemished as a celibate bride.

‘Tired,’ I asked, handing Hans more coffee.

I was sitting beside him as he guided the Northern Star through the calm channel. The steering was controlled by the automatic pilot, taking the need away to physically hold the wheel – unless, of course, an obtuse log floated under our bow, or a yellow tangle of kelp swirled towards us threatening to entangle the rudder … or the boat was pulled off course for some fathomless reason.

Hans shook his head, but his pallid face was channeled with weariness. The lines splayed deep and true away from his sunken eyes. He was tough and he never let on, but it was plain to see he was buggered.

He had to be. In two weeks, we had averaged five hours sleep a day, sometimes we slept as little as three. There were the ice-cold winds, rain, heavy seas, the bears that came at you from all angles, the waiting. And Hans had the added responsibility of finding the big one and protecting us.

Then as if my insinuation needed time to fester and become even more painful, he boasted, ‘This is nothing. When I started out in 1989, we only had a skiff to get around in.’


‘I had a partner in those days. We hunted out of tents. Sometimes we’d rent a plane to drop us off in the back country. When it rained it was miserable. No dry boat to come back to, no steaks, no whiskey or wine to drink. One hunting trip I couldn’t get out for two weeks the sea was so high. I lived off mussels. I know every way to cook mussels. This is nothing!’

‘When did you buy this boat?’ I asked, acknowledging my mistake.

‘We had another boat before, but after the partnership broke up, I got this one. That was in ’92. She’s a real beauty ain’t she?’

‘Yes, she’s a real beauty,’ I answered, ‘because she was.’

‘Two more bank payments and I own her completely.’


Shortly after we docked at Douglas Harbor, Hans floated his skiff onto a trailer, hauled her out of the water and drove her away to be repaired. He had new clients in five days and parts would assuredly have to come from Seattle. His arm seemed worse.

John had already left for his world of well digging and responsibility. ‘Got to go to Mexico next week,’ he told us before climbing onto the dock, ‘India next month.’


‘I’ll go to a chiropractor tomorrow,’ Hans informed me when I inquired. He was up early, and when he returned from his appointment, he told me the shoulder would need an operation.


‘I haven’t got time until the mountain goat season is over in December.’

It was October.

We cleaned the Northern Star the same day with spit and polish, Hans’s arm in a sling. He was meticulous. The stove scrubbed with a steel brush, every port hole blemish free, every crumb lifted from the floor. You could lick the toilet, running your tongue under its lip and survive. Then he started on the motor.

It was the same in his house: a wooden building shaped like a magician’s hat, perched on a hill, overlooking the Gastineau Channel and across to Juneau and beyond to the mountains. He had decorated harmoniously with skins, guns, books … everything in its place.

When we finished cleaning the Northern Star, Hans took to his office, locking himself away like hermit, filling in the reams of paperwork needed to clear his next group of hunters heading for the Alaskan wilderness. Paying bills, answering email enquiries, returning telephone calls, listening to his answering machine, reading his faxes. All done fastidiously.

‘None of that shit in the old days,’ I remarked when he came down.

‘Hans just shrugged: ‘Let’s get a beer at Louie’s.’

I nodded but was unable to stop a bout of melancholy. We had both accepted some measures of responsibility for our success, traded some freedoms. But it was better than depending on others for your livelihood or growing old poor.


People greeted Hans warmly as we walked through the door.

‘How many bears you kill?’ a big man demanded in one of those loud, proud, American voices that carry to far corners. Everybody waited for Hans’ answer.

I walked ahead, leaving Hans to explain why his hunter refused good bears. I ordered two beers. The waitress nodded, taking time to draw on her cigarette, balancing it neatly on the edge of an ashtray that overflowed with butts, exchanging a word with another customer, and nodding again when yet another ordered a scotch and dry. It had been an eternity since I had been in Louie’s. I wanted to wallow. I was in no hurry.

I looked around so slowly that at times I caught the eye of other drinkers, earning a nod, a grin, a bleary confused look. Except for the flat screen television hanging in the corner, and the stuffed dogs head on the wall, Louie’s hadn’t changed much. Same picture of Egan, the first Alaskan governor, above the cash register. The same old brown carpet we played bombs away on. The dark wood booths named for American cities that gave you a hint of privacy in the improbable circumstance you were with a girl. The jukebox loaded with country and rock. The pool table on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped bar that was the staging area for the roughest fights. The comely stink of generations of smokers and drinkers.

It still seemed to be filled with patrons who belonged to an age where technology and timidity had not usurped a strong back, deft hands, a practical mind, a laconic acceptance of life’s incidents and escapades. Braces worn over checked shirts, beards that take a half a lifetime to grow, woolen pants tucked loosely into turned down rubber boots, were all still the fashion.

‘That’s Gus, the toughest dog in town.’ Hans told me, sitting on the stool next to mine. I glanced up at the dog again. Gus looked like a cross between a Labrador and a mountain lion.

‘He was shot three times. Once with bb pellets, a second time with a shotgun, and the third with a nine-millimeter pistol. Nothing could kill him. Well, except for getting old.’

The waitress brought us two bottles of Labatt’s, ice cold.

‘When he got shot the third time, a Navy Seal friend of ours awarded him the Purple Heart he won in Granada. They even had a ceremony.’

That’s what they admired up here … dogs who could be shot three times and survive. Well, that’s what I admired too.

On my second visit to Louie’s, I walked in alone. A Labatt’s was waiting for me on the bar. In Amsterdam, my home for decades, that sort of recognition had taken years. It was early and clients were sparse, only the young woman who poked unsuspecting customers in the buttocks with a wooden ashtray shaped like a penis offered a distraction. Everybody was still alive, I pondered, barely noting the squeals of distress from impaled drinkers. Everybody was still in Juneau … almost. Jack had married late, had a successful building company and was a happy man. Sadly, for me, he had given up drinking alcohol. Bruno was working on the Alaskan ferries, a top job people told me. Dave Richards, my old boss had brought up two daughters, and still had the same lovely wife. Lucy had committed suicide.

‘Where’s Hans?’

‘He’ll be in later, mate.’

‘He’s a good man.’

I nodded in agreement.

Hans arrived with Carla, a petite, pretty schoolteacher with coal black hair. The young, drunk woman had long ago been carried out over the shoulder of her equally drunk boyfriend. Louie’s was filling.

I settled down to drink with Hans and Carla at an elevated round table next to the jukebox. Pat, Louie’s new owner, came over to say hello. He was heavy and moved awkwardly. Years before he had been dropped from a five-story building while on a training exercise with the fire brigade. His mate had died trying to save him. I heard that there were people who called him Splat, but never to his face.

Other men greeted us. Big, rough, sweet for the most part. Some seemed only to mumble, others made stories out of a sentence or two and yet others were as lyrical as courting pigeons, describing moose hunts along flooded rivers, storms that buckled boats, a wolf that was shot and the big trouble it brought.

The jukebox played a sad country song and a middle-aged couple started slow dancing: ponderous and tender.

Carla told me about the other Alaska, the one filled with soccer mums, fast foods, conservative politics and values, church on Sundays in one of the fifty that had set up shop in the valley outside of town. She talked about a town that had become riddled with middle-American anxieties and demands.

I learned from her that two thirds of Juneau’s inhabitants worked for the government, and that it was impossible to walk downtown in summer because of the tourists gorged from the cruise ships; that the Tlingit and Haida still drank and fought as a matter of course, had trouble with the police… just like old days!


Wayne Chan was looking for a beer. He had no money. Only a temporary condition he assured us. He claimed to be Irish, Scot, German, but mostly Tlingit. A bear claw and an array of animal teeth hung from his neck, his ears. His hair that was held back with a bandana, reached to his shoulders. His leather jacket was fringed. Nobody blinked when he pulled out a Gurkha knife as long as his forearm from the folds of his shirt, proclaiming he was not frightened of anything. Wayne stayed in our company until our immediate generosity faded and left with no hard feelings to try his luck at the bar. We left to the sounds of rock and revelry. Louie’s trembled.


It was sunny the day we motored out of the harbour to hunt goats. There was a light frosting of snow about the mountain peaks, the channel was beguilingly calm. Hans held the wheel, his strong jaw poking outwards in concentration as he programmed the GPS, only grunting when one of his hunters sat beside him and tried to start a conversation.

I was unneeded and walked to the aft of the boat, lighting a cigar, relishing the warmth and familiar smell of the smoke in the sharp, icy air. Alaska was not the frontier I had left all those years ago, Juneau not one of those far-flung corners.

Long ago, Hans had told me, ‘No better place to live if you want to be free. Ain’t many rules up here.’ Well, that wasn’t the case anymore. Alaska, certainly Juneau, had tried to corner and tame men like Hans.

Douglas was still a haven of untamed spirit and Louie’s was its spiritual heart. Hans knew this. He suffered the burlesque and bureaucracy of Juneau, pushing against it at times for the sport, he stayed living amongst and drinking with the Douglas boys and once he motored out of Douglas harbour … he was still free.


The End.