Vanished: Bear Trails: Stories of hunting bears on Kodiak Island
By Darrell Farmen. Publication Consultants, 224 pages, 2019. $19.95
People in Alaska these days have mixed feelings about bear hunting. Hunting for moose and caribou remains widely accepted, even as the outdoor activities of many Alaskans have trended more toward recreation than consumption. But bear hunting sits in a murkier area. Ask a random sample of 10 Alaskans what they think of it, and you’ll likely hear 10 different and widely divergent opinions. It’s one more way in which longstanding Outside attitudes are slowly taking root here as well.
This wasn’t always the case. In 1953, when Darrell Farmen first came north to work as a packer for a guiding company, shooting a bear wasn’t controversial. This is important to remember, because despite having a limited potential readership due to its topic, his newly published memoir about his half-century of bear hunts is worth visiting for a variety of reasons.
“Vanished: Bear Trails” is Farmen’s account of his experiences helping paying customers bring home a hide, and I have to say that despite never having felt the urge to go bear hunting, I quite enjoyed it.
Like many of us, Farmen came north looking for adventure, and likely had no idea he was setting his life’s trajectory in the process. He arrived in 1953, while Alaska was still a territory, and took a job as a packer on Kodiak Island. This meant he did the grunt work. He carried the loads.
Farmen spins some good stories about these adventures. Much of the book covers individual hunts he found memorable. They’re tales of dealing with a landscape difficult to navigate, and the always precarious weather conditions found on Kodiak. In fact, generally speaking, the kill scenes are fairly brief. It’s the time spent in the country that matters, and Farmen is quite adept at describing it.
“The Dog Salmon flats were wide and flat with numerous small channels winding toward Olga Bay,” he writes at one point. “Dog salmon spawned in them and small ponds the streams created on the way to the beach. There were scattered clumps of willow and alder, but most everything was covered in grass from waist high to over your head. It was tough getting around, but trails mashed down by bears helped a lot.”
As one could imagine, this is the sort of foliage that even bears the size of those found on Kodiak could easily melt into, leading to fairly sudden encounters. This happened from time to time, but never ended badly. At least, not for the hunters. These firsthand accounts give readers a sense of what it’s like to be out in the field where, if you put on a dry pair of socks before setting out for the day, “fifteen minutes of walking would cure that defect.”
Part of why this book works for those of us who aren’t drawn to the pursuit is Farmen’s style. There’s little to no machismo in his writing. He doesn’t present himself as some brave conqueror of the savage beast. It was a job, albeit one he enjoyed immensely. And so we are placed in his shoes, going places like Green Point where, he tells us, “there is a narrow seep emptying into the creek that must be stepped across. It looks innocent but is armpit deep.”
The book has a feel of oral history to it. Farmen’s writing comes across more as a man telling stories than writing them for posterity. And he doesn’t embellish either. In fact, when he does start talking anything up, it’s someone else, not himself. A rare trait in any era, much less today’s world, where social media has nearly all of us enhancing our experiences.
One of the best chapters isn’t about bear hunting at all. It tells the story of Charlie Danielson, an aging Swede who jumped ship in Alaska around 1900 and eventually found his way to a remote spot on Olga Bay where he lived alone for many years, never even visiting the town of Kodiak. Farmen’s admiration for this pioneer from the gold rush days is evident, and by including this story, he reminds us that white people’s arrival in the far north is still a fairly recent event.
Farmen also openly discusses a couple of things that would be pretty troublesome today. At one point he was told to go shoot eagles that were supposedly preying on birds and fish. And later he spent a period killing seal pups for furs. By modern standards, this would be both objectionable and illegal, but it’s important as always to remember that we shouldn’t judge the past by the present. In both cases, Farmen explains his later regrets, reminding us that people can and do change their views on things over time, and that we learn the drawbacks of activities that we engage in without thinking. This should also remind us that someday things we routinely do will be judged harshly. So we’d best not rush to anger. These things aren’t always predictable, and a half-century ago, animal rights was a fringe idea at best.
Farmen could have easily left such details out for his own sake, but by including them he’s helped readers get a better feel for the time and the people involved than would come from less-personalized accounts. And so this book becomes an important piece of Alaska history. Perhaps not what Farmen set out to accomplish, but something he’s provided regardless.
Mostly, however, these are good hunting tales. They evoke a time gone by and a place no longer quite the same. Farmen had the wonderful fortune of spending much of his life outdoors, and even when he was beset by foul weather, difficult terrain, voracious insects, failing equipment, tumbledown cabins and more, he clearly loved what he did.
“Even with all the problems,” he writes, “we lived a good life and while it might blow, rain or snow, when a clear day came along the country was a thing of beauty!”