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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p157  Chapter IX
Hunting and Shooting in Alaska

It was formerly the custom to order naval officers on a variety of duties in other departments of the government, some of which, like the Coast Survey and Lighthouse Service, were instructive and personally beneficial. In the former a young officer had far more responsibility in handling ships and in navigation than in the regular navy, and it was an excellent school.

Along our coast-line the more refined work was generally assigned to trained civil assistants, but in Alaska the naval parties did every class of work.

We started from the very beginning by measuring our own base, establishing our geographic position astronomically, then doing the primary and secondary triangulation, hydrography and topography, and all of the work required to complete a finished hydrographic chart.

There was a great fascination in the field work of surveying in Alaska. The life in the open, the constant hazard and adventure, the ever-changing interest, the diversity of sport in fishing and shooting, and the glorious mountain climbing made the whole entrancing. And all of this was in the midst of the most wonderful, beautiful and diversified scenery, supplemented by a bracing climate, which, though there was a great deal of precipitation, was exceptionally healthy.

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 p158  I am speaking of southeast Alaska, the fringe of the coast, with its outlying islands, from the southern boundary in latitude 54° 40′ N. to the Alaska Peninsula, where the climate is largely affected by the Japan Stream, just as Great Britain is affected by the Gulf Stream, and where the winter is not so rigorous as it is in the interior.

The average temperature of Sitka, in latitude 57° 30′ N. is about the same as that of Washington, D. C., only that of Sitka is more equable. Woolen clothes are comfortable the year read, and while it rains a great deal, one becomes accustomed to it, learns to work out-of‑doors and keep dry, and rarely suffers from a serious wetting.

It is a singular thing that though it rains almost every day in southeast Alaska, under cover it is very dry, and game will keep for days if hung in the open air, under shelter. If it had to be kept for a month or longer, it was easy to find the end of a dead glacier, prepare a small chamber and cache our game and, for that matter, our eggs, butter or anything else that is usually preserved by cold storage.

While we had the necessities on board ship in the shape of staple foods, we still depended largely on foraging for our meats and fish, including clams and crabs. Deer were very abundant; at times we had grouse, ptarmigan, plover, ducks and geese, and as for fish — no one who has not been to Alaska can conceive of the variety and vast quantity which can be taken almost anywhere. Salmon choke the streams in the spawning season; trout are in every stream and can be taken in unlimited quantities; halibut, cod, sea‑bass, herring, shrimp, crabs, clams and many other varieties may be obtained easily when wanted.

 p159  One Hundred Trout in Two Hours Just one reference to catching trout with a four-ounce casting rod: — two of us, casting with artificial bait, took one hundred and twenty-three trout in two hours. They weighed, all told, three hundred and seventy pounds; the smallest was one and three-quarters pounds, the largest four and three-quarters pounds, making the average about three pounds. We fished about two hours and did not keep all of our fish. This record was entered in the ship's log.

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In the summer the sun remains above the horizon from eighteen to twenty‑two hours and even at midnight there is still ample light for work or recreation out-of‑doors. Inasmuch as our working hours ended at six P.M., we still had several hours of daylight left, which we often utilized in whipping some inviting trout stream, of which there would not be infrequently be several in our immediate vicinity.

Salt-water fish abounded in quantities everywhere. All that was necessary was to drop over the side of the boat a lure made of lead and keep it in motion by jigging it on the line. In a very short time enough fish could be taken to feed the ship's company. On one occasion, in less than half an hour, two of us took one thousand four hundred pounds of halibut, using artificial bait, or the lead lure which had been molded on board ship.

Delicious clams may be found on the beach at low tide almost anywhere, and several varieties of crabs may be speared when the surface of the water is smooth enough to see them in shallow depths. In fact, Alaskan waters teem with life, and the fisheries constitute the greatest wealth of the country, far exceeding in value the mining industry or any other.

Foraging for our table was incidental to our field  p160 work, and we soon learned several new methods of taking game, other than by shooting it. For instance, in many of the glacial valleys there are immense gravel and boulder beds extending for miles from tide-water to the head of the valley, covered with rank grass and vegetation, and drained by swift-running streams, clear as crystal.

Here many aquatic birds, including ducks and geese, make their nests and raise their young. The mergansers, in particular, favor such places, especially when, as is often the case, there are a number of small lakes or ponds, scattered about. While the merganser is a fish duck and not over-palatable when grown, the young, about the time they are beginning to fly, are fat to bursting, not at all fishy, and very good eating. In order to catch them we would spread an ordinary fish seine immediately below a sharp bend in the stream, with the foot just under the surface of the water, and an ample belly or bag held open by the current.

A party of men would go quietly to the head of the valley, keeping away from the stream, and when a mile or so above the net, begin beating the land on each side of the stream by forming a skirmish line or cordon. By making a lot of noise they would start the ducks down‑stream. Most of the old ones would take to the air, but would occasionally alight and try to lead us away by pretending to be wounded. The young ones would go flopping down the stream, the flock rapidly increasing as the beaters advanced, until sometimes there would be as many as a couple of hundred of them.

If all went well, when the flock turned the sharp corner in the swift current, they would be arrested by  p161 the net, and many would drift into it where they were easily caught. In the confusion of the moment, quite a number of those that did not enter could be killed with poles kept in readiness for the occasion.

Wild Duck Captured by Hand It seems a preposterous statement, but I have actually captured full-grown wild ducks in the open with my hands alone.

At the mouth of the Nushagak River, Bristol Bay, north of the Alaskan Peninsula, the heavy seas have thrown up a barrier of high sand-dunes, which protects a large area from the sea and affords an ideal nesting ground for several species of ducks, geese and other migratory birds that breed in the Arctic and sub‑Arctic latitudes. It is sandy, fairly level, and drained by a network of small, shallow, fresh-water sloughs, the shores of which are lined with a heavy growth of grass and aquatic plants.

I happened to be there when the young mallards were apparently a week or ten days old, and in attempting to catch some in a dip‑net for examination, I noticed that the old one would play the broken-wing game and go flopping along down the slough in an attempt to lead me away from her young, which in their turn would quickly hide themselves in the grass. The old one remained within fifteen or twenty yards of me and with no special purpose in mind, I ran after her, when she at once dived. Since the water was only a couple of feet deep, and clear, it was no trouble to overtake and run alongside her as she swam under water in plain sight. At the limit of her breathless endurance, she could come to the surface, but on seeing me near would immediately redive and continue her under-water flight. After two or three such laps, she would become tired out and turn into the grass and  p162 weeds to hide. Then, as I was directly over her, and only three or four feet away, by jumping quickly into the water and making a grab, I was occasionally able to secure her in my hands.

There was really no particular object in doing so; only the opportunity offered and I took advantage of it. It seems all but needless to add that she was invariably tossed into the air so that she could return to her young.

Later in the season, when the young geese were nearly grown and were almost ready to migrate to the southward, many of them would find their way from the brush to the immense open flat beaches, where the receding tide would leave endless small pools and miniature streams which drained them. Here the different broods, each accompanied by the two old ones, would collect in flocks of varying size. For some reason they had almost no fear of human beings and could be approached fairly close, especially if a little cover offered itself. If they had not been startled, it was possible to kill all one required with a few well-directed strokes of a stick.

Put to Flight by a Quack One of the funniest and most singular experiences occurred to one of our party because of our propensity to capture the young birds.

It was nothing uncommon to see and even meet the Alaskan brown bears on the south side of the Alaskan Peninsula, for in those days this section was unfrequented, there were no settlements, and very few Indians there. Hence the bears and other game were not so afraid of human beings as they are where contact has taught them that mankind is their most deadly enemy.

It is true that in the early days when the whites  p163 first visited the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains, the grizzly would frequently attack a man. But when firearms were introduced, and these bears learned that man was an enemy to be feared, they ceased to attack, and almost invariably decamp at the sight or smell of him. There may be exceptions, but even the grizzly in these days rarely ventures voluntarily to attack man, while a hundred‑odd years ago, say at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, just the reverse was the case. There are numerous records to show that grizzlies were then to be feared when met in the wilds. The brown bears of Alaska resemble, and have many of the characteristics of, the grizzly.

On this particular occasion one of our party had caught a young mallard, a gentle little creature, and stowed it away in his shirt, where it seemed to be perfectly happy and contented. Resting on the side of a small knoll, he became aware of the fact that a large brown bear was coming directly toward him down wind. These bears will not attack man unless they have been wounded or are protecting their young; but in this case the bear could neither see nor smell him, and since he had no rifle, he was thinking desperately what method of procedure he might follow in case the bear should make up its mind to show fight. Never dreaming of the part the little duck might play, he arose quietly to see how far distant the bear might be, and to his surprise found it only thirty or forty feet away, standing perfectly still and gazing at him, apparently unperturbed.

For some reason the little duck quacked just at this moment and to his infinite joy the sound seemed to surprise and frighten the bear beyond measure. Instantly the bear took flight and made top speed until it  p164 reached the fringe of the woods that lined the shore, where it promptly disappeared. I repeat in all sincerity that this is a true story, as are the others concerning natural history.​a

Once, in Alaska, I was using a deer call which simulates the bleat of fawns in distress, and to which both bucks and does will respond, when I became aware of the close approach of what I naturally assumed to be a deer. The only evidence I had was the slight noise behind me, made by its contact with the vegetation. Since the forest was unusually thick in that direction and a quick shot might be required, I waited until I estimated the creature's distance to be twenty yards, when I rose, gun at shoulder, for a snap-shot.

Imagine my surprise to find that my visitor was a bear which had been stalking me, thinking from the call that I was a fawn. If I were startled and surprised, I had nothing on the bear, which wheeled and made for cover through a small alder swamp, leaving a well-defined trail where it had knocked down or broken the limbs of a number of small trees.

While our ship was surveying in the vicinity of Peril Strait, which separates Baranof and Chicagof Islands, we learned to know some of the Indians at the village of Kilisinoo. Sometimes, when off duty, or when my work required climbing to the tops of some of the mountains that lay along the edges of the navigable waters, I would employ some of the Indians to accompany me as packers, or as guides to point out the best trail. In this way I became well acquainted with them, particularly with one or two who spoke English fairly well and had a common-school education.

 p165  The Bear of "Haunted" Bay It is difficult to draw an Indian into conversation. He may answer questions and volunteer certain information, but he is reticent when it comes to entering into any general discussion or expressing his views, particularly when he thinks you might not agree with him.

One of them whom I knew rather intimately and whose confidence I had won would talk freely at times. One day I asked him the translation of the Indian name, Saouk, (pronounced Tsar‑ook), which was applied to a little bay in the north end of Baranof Island. He said it meant "Haunted" or "Spirit" Bay. In further explanation he stated that it derived its name from an old she‑bear that lived at the head of the bay. She was invulnerable, and had been shot several times by bullets which had had no effect, and each time she had been shot at she had started for the hunter and driven him away. This yarn made but little impression on me for I knew the Indian's superstitions and credulous nature.

Some months later our work took us to Saouk Bay. One day three of our men returned hurriedly and somewhat excitedly to the small tug anchored offshore at the head of the bay, and stated that a brown she‑bear with a large cub made for them and chased them, compelling them to take to the boat, since they had no firearms.

Recalling the Indian's yarn, but still skeptical, I took a rifle and started ashore to investigate. Keeping under cover and noiselessly approaching the place indicated, under the guidance of the men, I saw the old bear about fifty yards distant, sitting in a stream and fanning out salmon to a three-quarters grown cub on shore.

 p166  Then, fully impressed with the idea that she would run when she saw me, I ran hurriedly out of the thicket in order to startle her, and yelled "Shoo!" or "Scat" or something equally foolish, at the top of my voice, expecting to see her and the cub take to the tall timber in double-quick time. She did nothing of the sort. She got up out of that stream and came right for me, while I continued to yell at her, wave my arms and dance about, making myself as conspicuous as possible. I had kept her well covered, and when there was no room for doubt that she intended to attack, I had no option but to kill her.

Then the mystery was explained. We naturally supposed the cub would make tracks up the mountain, but instead it dragged itself laboriously by its front legs alone. Its hind legs were paralyzed, or else it had a broken back. So after all it was a case of defending her young; otherwise I have no doubt whatever that both she and the cub would have run at the approach of man.

In skinning and cutting her up we found three smooth-bore leaden bullets that had struck her ribs or other bones. These bullets had evidently been fired by the Indians and, missing a vital point, had become encysted.

Brown Bears as Ship's Pets There is a common belief on the part of some that neither the grizzly of the United States, nor the brown bear of Alaska can be tamed, that they never lose their viciousness and ferocity. I know but little of the grizzly, but I am led to believe that they and the Alaskan bear have many characteristics in common and are not very dissimilar in their traits, as already stated.

But this I do know, that there is not the slightest  p167 difficulty in taming the young brown bears, and they make interesting and gentle pets up to the time they are grown. One day in Juneau, the capital of Alaska, my attention was directed to three very young brown bears in a caged window. As I approached them the owner warned me to be careful. He said they were savage and in a constant rage, pacing up and down the cage, and, small as they were, might inflict a painful wound. It didn't take a minute, on closer inspection, for me to see that the little fellows were all but starved, and I inferred correctly that their restlessness and apparent antagonism were due more to hunger than anything else.

To test my theory, I prepared a pan of warm milk and took it, with a basket of huckleberries, to the cage. In five minutes I had all three scrambling over me in their energetic efforts to fill their empty stomachs, and with no more antipathy or fear than a child would have shown.

As a matter of fact I purchased the lot and they made delightful ship's pets during the several months that we kept them on board.

The killing of big game is distasteful to me, and I would not kill anything unless it were one of the big cat family, or some animal that is dangerous and destructive to human beings or the larger wild animals. In my younger days I was not so deeply impressed with this idea as I am now, and killed a great many deer. While it must be admitted that the sport of it was the dominating reason for shooting them, still they were all used for food, for it was sometimes necessary to replenish our supply in this way.

One afternoon in the Yangtze Valley, not far from Tung‑Liu, China, another officer and I killed thirty-p168three small deer. They had herded down into some abandoned and submerged peanut fields to feed on the ruined crop. For some reason we were unable to purchase any meat, and as we had three or four gunboats, and no other means of obtaining meat, we landed a number of men to make a deer drive. Some of the men had guns, but the captain of one of the gunboats and I got nearly all the deer with our shotguns. These little deer will lie as close as a rabbit and one can almost step on it before it takes flight, so shotguns are very effective. During this drive a couple jumped simultaneously from under my feet and I got them both, one with each barrel.

Mistaken for a Seal While there are a great many wolves in some parts of Alaska, we did not come in contact with them very often, so from my own knowledge and experience I can not say under what circumstances they may or may not attack human beings. But this is what happened on one occasion.

I had walked alongshore from Yakutat Bay, near Mount Saint Elias, to Dry Bay, some sixty miles to the southward, accompanied by one of our civil assistants and a couple of Indians. We camped each night and walked throughout the day. I was so tired from carrying a heavy load and making a hurried trip, that when an opportunity offered, I sold my rifle in order to lessen the load on the return journey.

The first part of the return trip lay along the outer ocean beach, which was hard sand and good going in comparison with any other travel on foot in this part of the world. In order to select a camp site and have it ready, I went alone ahead of the party a distance of four or five miles.

I had noted a number of female hair seals hauled  p169 on the beach and, in observing their actions, noticed that they made a hollow booming sound by striking the hard sand with their flippers. Whether or not it was the breeding season I do not know, but it seemed to attract the bull seals, who would assemble in the water near the females, from three to five strong, and give vent to their feelings by barking or bellowing.

I had arrived at my destination and was tired. I had on clothes which slightly simulated the color of the hair seal as I lay at full length on the sand. Without any real expectation of decoying the bulls, I struck the hollowed palms of my hands together in an attempt to imitate the sound made by the females.

To my surprise, several bulls took notice and came abreast of me in the water, but showed suspicion and did not attempt to land. I realized this, and to give them a surprise and scare, I suddenly jumped up and yelled at the top of my voice. If they were surprised, far more was I, for a gray wolf had been stalking me and was within ten or fifteen yards of me when I jumped, apparently at the psychological moment. Under the conditions, he had possibly mistaken me for a seal, on which the wolves feed and it might have been serious, had he attacked while I was lying down. The intervening open space between the sea and the timber was, say, a couple of hundred yards, but I estimated that in spite of his excessive speed he must have touched the sand at least a couple of times in his wild flight for cover when he realized the true state of affairs.

Thayer's Note:

a As I input this little story, I was irresistibly reminded of the somewhat similar tale told by Alexander Pope, In Imitation of Chaucer:

Women ben full of Ragerie,

Yet swinken not sans secresie.

Thilke Moral shall ye understond,

From Schoole‑boy's Tale of fayre Irelond:

Which to the Fennes hath him betake,

To filch the gray Ducke fro the Lake.

Right then, there passen by the Way

His Aunt, and eke her Daughters tway.

Ducke in his Trowses hath he hent,

Not to be spied of Ladies gent.

'But ho! our Nephew,' (crieth one)

'Ho!' quoth another, 'Cozen John;'

And stoppen, and lough, and callen out, —

This sely Clerk full low doth lout:

They asken that, and talken this,

'Lo here is Coz, and here is Miss.'

But, as he glozeth with Speeches soote,

The Ducke sore tickleth his Erse-roote:

Fore-piece and buttons all‑to-brest,

Forth thrust a white neck, and red crest.

'Te‑he,' cry'd Ladies; Clerke nought spake:

Miss star'd; and gray Ducke crieth Quake.

'O Moder, Moder,' (quoth the daughter)

'Be thilke same thing Maids longer a'ter?

'Bette is to pyne on coals and chalke,

'Then trust on Mon, whose yerde can talke.'

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