By Louise Brinck Harrington
August 17, 2006
I heard about Bruce Johnstone before I met him. When I interviewed him for the first time and learned that he'd grown up in various fjords and bays in British Columbia and Alaska, I knew I wanted to write about him. "The Boy Who Hunted Bear" was first published in a local publication, Inside Passages, in 1993.
When Bruce Johnstone was eleven years old he went bear hunting.
The year was 1920 and times were hard for the Johnstone family, who had moved to Alaska with several children and few resources.
One day Bruce's father, whose name was Charles Roscoe Johnstone but whom everyone called "Daddy," heard that the famous Smithsonian Institute back east was paying $45 for black bear skulls and $75 for brown. Every evening 50 to 60 bears fed on the river flats at the head of Rudyerd Bay, a remote fjord stretching ten miles into the mainland of Southeastern Alaska, where the Johnstone family made their home in three cabins made of cedar shakes.
Today Rudyerd Bay is part of the Misty Fjords National Monument but back then the monument was not even thought ofit was just plain wilderness. Daddy was a hand-logger who hated civilization; whenever development (such as a cabin being built within a mile of him) began to encroach he moved his family further and further north into the wilderness.
At 60 years old Daddy could not get around the way he used to. Suffering from angina, he carried a glass vial of belladonna wherever he went and would break it and hold it to his nose whenever an attack hit.
Responsibility for the family fell on Bruce. Daddy and his wife Dora had lost two sons before moving to Alaska, one to the flu of 1919, the other to World War I. A third son was crippled by a falling tree and a fourth left with a weak heart by the deadly flu.
Though Daddy knew bear-hunting was dangerous, he encouraged his youngest son to become a hunter. One day he handed Bruce his personal rifle and said, "Here, see what you can do."
Bruce took bear-hunting seriously. He learned to develop an eye for black or brown, recognize tracks and trails and hunt slides in spring and streams in fall. He took enough bear and sent enough skulls to the Smithsonian to keep his family in food for six months!
The next fall Bruce met an old trapper who told him the territory of Alaska was paying a $50 bounty on wolves. The bearded fellow was willing to share a few tricks of the trapping trade, and the boy began to think he might- just might-be able to earn enough for the family, plus a few extras for himself.
First of all he needed wolf traps and a decent trap line gun, both of which were expensive and difficult for a boy to come by. The only gun at his disposal was an old hand-me-down, single-shot Herrington & Richardson with a broken ejector. He had to carry a piece of lead in his pocket and reload by opening the action and dropping the lead down the barrel, a slow and dangerous process.
For several nights Bruce lay awake, trying to figure out how to overcome these obstacles. Then one morning the old trapper came out of the woods. "Cuttin' down on my lines," he told the boy. "Too much work for an old manI'm wonderin' if you could use these." He held up six double spring Newhouse traps.
The boy grinned. The rusty
traps would serve his purpose just fine. "Thanks,"
he said. "Thanks a lot."
On Daddy's advice, Bruce ran his first trap line up One-Eyed Creek, a swift rocky stream that poured into the head of Rudyerd Bay and supported a healthy supply of marten and mink. (One-Eyed Creek was named for Daddy who had lost an eye to the devil's club that grew along the creek bank and poked their prickly branches into Daddy's face).The smaller animals were easier to trap and more marketable, Daddy advised, best to start with them rather than wolves.
One morning the boy set out to check his traps in the face of a cold December sun. High granite cliffs rose above the creek and windswept spruce and cedar hung their snow-covered branches into gurgling waters. For the first time Bruce noticed a natural basin that filled on the high tide and retained at least six inches of water on the ebb. A perfect spot for a wolf set!
After checking his traps up One-Eyed Creek-all of which were empty-he could not resist and began gathering supplies: wolf trap, ripe seal for bait, rocks to hold the seal in place. Twice while trying to haul in big boulders from half-a-mile away he nearly swamped the skiff. But he managed to cover the seal, set the trap with a rusty C-clamp and wire the chain to one of the boulders.
The set would work only when bears were hibernating-there was no doubt a bear would beat a wolf to the bait. But it was late December and safe to assume the bruins had retired for the winter; besides, no sign was in evidence.
That night Bruce awoke to the sound of wolf howls. At daylight he rowed to the creek. When he saw beach crows bombarding the set, he landed the boat and began to run. Convinced he'd caught a wolf, his mind filled with thoughts of what to buy with the bounty.
But instead of a wolf, a bear cub rattled inside the trap. The boy watched as the crows quickly disappeared and the furry animal tugged and pulled on the chain. Gripping his gun Bruce considered where to place a shot.
Then something rustled behind him and he froze. Daring to turn, he smelled the sow grizzly before he saw her. He stared into the hate-filled eyes of the cub's mother!
Lowering her head, she charged just as Bruce shot from the hip. He turned-almost falling into the wolf trap himself-splashed through the tidal pool and across the creek. Though the cub started bawling, he ran until his lungs burned.
When he reached the skiff he
paused to look back. There was the sow slumped where she'd fallen.
He dug for a piece of lead, reloaded his gun, went back and found
a hole the size of his fist through the sow's neck.
That day he learned a valuable lesson: a man with a shotgun at close range (10 feet or less) need fear no animal in the woods. That night as he told Daddy the story, he ended with the conviction that he needed a new gun, or at least a new ejector. Daddy agreed, but didn't have the money.
Bruce continued trapping, sticking strictly to marten, running another line up Rudyerd River, a larger stream than One-Eyed Creek. He spent so much time tramping up and down the creek and river he learned the river valley by heart.
When he had enough money for a new gun, Daddy took him to the cannery store at Yes Bay, where he purchased a spanking-new 30-30 Carbine.
In 1922, in addition to hunting and trapping, Bruce added guiding to his growing list of occupations.
From faraway Washington State, the King County Commissioner contacted the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska. The lakes in King County were over-fished and something had to be done. The Commissioner wanted to start a fish hatchery in Alaska to supply lakes in King County. Would the Forest Service help?
By then the Johnstones had moved across Behm Canal to Ella Bay, where they built another set of cabins and Bruce trapped along the rocky beaches and boulder-strewn Ella Creek, which connected a series of mountain lakes. He got to know the woods and trails of Ella Creek the way he knew those of One-Eyed Creek and Rudyerd River.
One day a Forest Service vessel anchored in the bay. The skipper came to the cabin door, telling Daddy that the King County Commissioner was aboard and needed a guide to take him to the highest lake on Ella Creek.
Putting a hand on young Bruce's shoulder, Daddy said, "Here's your guide-the best woodsman around these parts."
So Bruce led the Commissioner and his party up the creek, through lowland muskegs, around deep pools schooling with trout and high granite cliffs. They hiked into the timberland where budding salmon berries and bushy goldenrod caused the group to marvel at the beauty. When they reached the highest lake, which was swarming with cutthroat, the Commissioner declared, "This is the perfect place for a hatchery."
Bruce earned seven dollars for the six-mile guided tour, a fortune for an afternoon's work for the 13-year-old boy!
Word of the young man who'd begun hunting, trapping and guiding at such a young age spread to the East Coast where the well-heeled Mellon family heard about him.
Again the territorial game warden showed up at the Johnstone home, telling Bruce, who was now in his 20s, that the famous Mellons were planning an Alaskan hunt and wanted him as a guide. "The catch is, you need a license," said the warden. "If you're interested I can issue an assistant's license right here."
"I'm interested," Bruce replied, "but I've been guiding for thirteen years. I want a full registered guide's license."
The warden hesitated-such a thing was not normally done-then shrugged and filled out the paperwork. He explained to Bruce that the Mellons would be arriving on the ACADIA, a chartered steel-hulled 140-foot yacht, for a month-long hunt. They would pay $35 a day.
Over the next twenty years there would be five more hunts with the Mellons, ranging from Rudyerd Bay to the wilds of Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof Islands and northern British Columbia. With each trip Bruce expanded his horizons, increasing his knowledge of the wilderness.
freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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