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'First Wilderness': The luckiest bear on Kodiak Island

  • Author: Sam Keith
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 7, 2014

Fans of the popular Alaska book "One Man's Wilderness" may be curious about how its author, Sam Keith, and its subject, Dick Proenneke, first met. Both men died in 2003. Ten years later, Keith's son-in-law, children's book author and illustrator Brian Lies, discovered an unpublished manuscript by Keith in an archive box in the family garage. Forty years after it was written, the story of Keith's Alaska experience is recounted in the memoir "First Wilderness," published by Alaska Northwest Books. Here's an excerpt:

Dick materialized out of the mist. He was standing up facing the bow, rowing the way Johnny did with a pushing of his shoulders.

"Thought I smelled coffee," he greeted. "I got McCullough's bear all staked out. I think we ought to spend the night on that bluff at the head of the bay and surprise that old bruin when he takes his mornin' stroll."

"Don't you ever sleep?" queried Big John, mopping at his glasses.

We spent the day watching the mountains, washing clothes, and eating more than we needed. Mac kept a stubborn vigil with his binoculars and muttered several times about there not being a bear in the whole damn country.

In the evening, when it was still light, Big John rowed us to the head of the bay. "I think you guys are nuts," he said. "You'll be shaking like hounds passing peach pits by morning. You should have brought some gear."

"McCullough don't want it to be easy," Dick said.

"Damn right," agreed Mac. "This ain't no Boy Scout troop."

Big John shook his head. "I'll pick you up for breakfast," he said.

We had foolishly left our sleeping bags aboard and brought along the canvas tarp instead. Dressed in heavy parkas, we figured we could sit on the tarp, wrap it around us, and tough it out until daylight. Another mistake was not wearing our hip boots. To get to the bluff we had to cross a stream that was over our shoepacks. Dick just slipped his off, peeled off his woolen socks, rolled up his pants, and waded across. We did the same thing. The chill stabbed up though the soles of my feet and out the top of my skull.

"Cheese and crackers!" Mac gasped. "I'm with a couple of damn fools."

We walked barefoot over the icy mud. I had to give Mac a lot of credit. He was a tough bird. His veins stood out like blue ropes against his white, skinny legs. He cursed Dick for ever talking him into such nonsense. My feet were so numb, I could hardly feel them, but once I dried them off in the brown grass, pulled the woolens over them, and tugged on the packs, they tingled delightfully under the leather.

We spread out the tarp atop the bluff and lay back looking at the stars.

"More than one way to skin a cat," Dick said. "We can't stalk one up within range so we'll try an ambush."

And there we waited for the dawn, listening to the squalling of the foxes and the splashing of the land otters in the creek that flowed below us.

Several hours passed. Even with the tarp hugged around us and our bodies close together, I had the shakes. I couldn't control the shudders that rippled all through me.

My teeth clicked. I was miserable. If I felt this way, I thought, what about Mac? He just shook beside me and said nothing. He'd gone into a sulk when we said he couldn't have a cigarette.

About 3 a.m., it began to lighten.

Frost silvered the grass around us and glinted on the canvas. Our breaths steamed. The bay was emptying. Rivulets ran out over the sand past the blocky buttes and trickled into puddles, and then on past the kelp litter and clam shells to catch up with the fast ebbing tide.

With the coming of light, the tidal flat awakened. A few gulls sailed, while crowds of them waded in the shallow puddles that shimmered among the islands. A shabby fox moped along the beach edge, nosing here and there. Loud whistles shattered the air with a piercing abruptness. A pair of blackish birds, smaller than crows, teetered on a rock pile. Their long red bills and bright red eyes demanded a closer scrutiny. They walked over the rocks as if they wore flapping overshoes. I recognized them as oystercatchers, but I was too chilled to be excited.

I looked again at a margin of brush I had looked at only seconds before. A bear was growing out of it! He moved massively, like a monstrous raised turtle, slinging his forepaws in looping, pigeon-toed strides. His sloping hindquarters shuffled along behind as if they had difficulty keeping up with the rest of him. His shoulders bulged with crawling movements, and he swung his grizzled head from side to side as he came. Now he stopped to turn at a driftwood log with a raking of claws, examined it as if not really interested, and came on tiredly, leaving his crooked trail in the silt.

"Mac. Mac," I whispered, "look. . . . "

The bear was less than 200 yards away and drawing closer.

"God! God Almighty," breathed Mac.

"Take him," Dick hissed, "take him now."

"I got to -- get rid -- get rid of these goddamn shakes," quavered Mac. "I got to --"

"Down on your belly and bust 'im."

"I'll miss him. Christ, I'm shaking so much that the rifle's got joints in it." In desperation, Mac crawled back from the bluff edge. He was doing deep-knee bends, swinging his arms across his chest, and jogging his legs up and down.

"C'mon," Dick whispered sharply. "This ain't no gym."

"A little closer," begged Mac. "I don't want to miss. Christ, even my words are shaking." The night chill not only shook his body, it had shaken his confidence. The rifle trembled in his hands as he crawled like an infantryman through the frost to the birch clump.

"Now. Now," urged Dick.

I waited for the shot to crash.

It never came. Suddenly the bear swerved and with an incredibly quick motion crashed into the brush. Mac whimpered and cursed. Dick looked at me. He took a deep breath and swelled his cheeks as he blew it out.

"That's one lucky bear," Dick said.

I thought Mac was going to cry.

For more information, readers can visit samkeith.net or "First Wilderness by Sam Keith" on Facebook (where Sam's daughter posts photos, recipes and stories from and about Sam and Dick). The book is available statewide at local bookstores or through online retailers.

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