From the bookshelf: Kodiak's famed bears get fitting tribute

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005


  "Kodiak Island and Its Bears," By Harry B. Dodge, III

"Kodiak Island and Its Bears," By Harry B. Dodge, III

Kodiak Island and Its Bears: A History of Bear-Human Interaction on Alaska's Kodiak Archipelago

By Harry B. Dodge III

Great Northwest Publishing and Distributing Company Inc.

$49.95 (hardcover); $27.50 (softcover)

For many people, the name "Kodiak" is inextricably linked with bears — great big brown bears. For a century, Alaska's largest island and its archipelago have been a mecca for big-game hunters worldwide seeking trophy bruins.

Harry Dodge III has spent 30 years on the island working as a biologist, hunting guide and, more recently, an organizer of bear-watching tours. Now he has incorporated that experience into "Kodiak Island and Its Bears," his first book.

Subtitled "A History of Bear-Human Interaction on Alaska's Kodiak Archipelago," it is almost two books in one. Dodge devotes the bulk of his narrative to biographical sketches and anecdotes about more than three dozen men distinguished by their prominence and good reputation in the early bear-guiding industry. The other hundred-odd pages beginning and ending the book follow the checkered relations between brown bears and humans through history from prehistoric times to the present.

Other authors have published some of this material in the memoirs of individual hunters or guides and in natural histories of bears, notably Larry Van Daele's recent compact and informative tract, "The History of Bears on the Kodiak Archipelago." What sets Dodge's book apart is its well researched, insider's view of the professional bear-hunting business and the diverse personalities that made it legendary.

Although the book focuses on Kodiak, it serves as an interesting case study with implications for hunting issues in other parts of the state. In fact, the men profiled often worked or lived in other parts of Alaska, influencing guiding throughout the region.

For example, several were from the Kenai Peninsula, including Homer's Guy Waddell, Ninilchik's Fred Kvasnikoff and Cooper Landing pioneers Luke Elwell and Fred Henton.

Dodge pulls together many threads, adeptly discussing anthropology, ecology, fisheries, economic pressures, hunting regulations and the variable course of public opinion. In the 1950s and '60s, he says, there were serious discussions about the merits of exterminating all of Kodiak's bears. Although his sympathies clearly lie with the wildlife, he offers even-handed descriptions of conflicts between bears and ranchers, salmon fisheries and, more recently, deer hunters.

But he reserves his special focus for commercial big-game hunting. He traces its development late in the 19th century from the background of subsistence, commercial meat, pelt and personal-use hunts, then goes on to trace its ups and downs throughout the 20th century as guiding became a sophisticated, tourist-oriented business. He includes plenty of hair-raising anecdotes about adventures in the field and details about trophy animals that found their way into the Boone and Crockett record books.

"... Alaska held a mystique to adventurers," he writes. "Kodiak and its bears promised hunters the experience of a lifetime."

Kodiak guides hunted with celebrities such as Roy Rogers, Hank Williams, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy's son) and sundry business tycoons and foreign royalty.

They stand out themselves as a fascinating cadre of rugged adventurers who prized knowledge of the land and the ethics of a fair chase. From diverse backgrounds, they included Natives, immigrants, prospectors, fishers, pilots and even one legislator. Far from trigger happy, many became champions for bear conservation and an inclusive wilderness ethic.

"... The field of pleasure and satisfaction the sportsman can achieve from well managed hunting trips is particularly unlimited if he will avoid 'awarditis.' After many years of outfitting and guiding, I guess if I had to make a choice between Award or Fun hunters, I'd put my laurels on the fun hunter and urge others to give more thought to enjoying the little pleasures of camp life," Dodge quotes guide Hal Waugh as saying.

Supporting their efforts and hunts were family and friends. Many guides married into each other's families and trained future partners and competitors. Even four-legged sidekicks contributed, such as the trail horse that detested bears so thoroughly it would track them down for the reassurance of watching its owner shoot them.

The book's greatest asset is the wealth of background information and anecdotal detail Dodge brings to the text.

From the numerous quotes, careful footnoting and extensive bibliography, it is obvious he did his homework. Beyond researching literature on the subject, he includes much original material gleaned from interviews with family members of guides past, plus his own recollections of master guides he worked with during his own apprenticeship. This gives the biographical material, especially, a personal and lively aspect.

Complementing his text, Dodge includes a selection of black-and-white hunting photos and old advertisements from vintage periodicals and family albums.

The book's greatest liability should have been easy to avoid. It lacks good proofreading. Typos, misspelled names, repetitions, contradictions, wandering commas and minor errors of fact (e.g. putting the Russians' arrival in Alaska in the wrong century) slow and annoy the reader.

Despite those glitches, "Kodiak Island and Its Bears" is a labor of love chocked full of interesting stories and useful information for anyone interested in bears, Kodiak or big-game hunting in Alaska.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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