“It must be a poor life that achieves freedom from fear.” - Aldo Leopold
Afognak Island rests 40 miles off the Southern coast of Alaska. There are no stores, restaurants, or entertainment, and the number of permanent human residents totals just over a hundred. It’s cold and quiet and just about as far off the grid as one can get. As you’d expect, with minimal human development, the small land mass is also home to a sprawling assortment of wildlife. Seabirds. Deer. The pristine surrounding waters contain a variety of salmon and the thick woods inland shelter the majestic Roosevelt elk. A hunter’s dream.
In October 2017, Steven Rinella, renowned author, speaker, conversationalist, and hunter, set out with friends to track elk on the island. Exhausted after a successful hunt, the group hung hundreds of pounds of elk meat high up in a tree before heading back to their campsite several miles away. They returned a day later to retrieve it. Again tired, needing the energy to haul the meat back to camp, they sat down to make lunch. Nothing fancy, just sandwiches. Unfortunately, lunchtime was suddenly cut short.
Afognak island is part of the Kodiak archipelago, the home of the namesake Kodiak bear. Kodiaks aren’t timid like black bears, and while they are smaller than polar bears, they can still grow to over a thousand pounds, are stronger, have larger claws, and are explosively fast. When contested, a polar bear will give up a fresh kill to a Kodiak every time. This is the type of bear you should least want to encounter. Unfortunately for Steven and his friends, one had found them.
The bear rushed in from Steven’s backside, making him the last to realize what was happening. He froze in total panic as it got within a few feet of his head. Steven’s friend, Janis, scrambled, and instead of picking up the pistol he had set on top of his backpack, grabbed his walking stick and hit the bear over its head. Fortunately for the group, their chaos and confusion spread to the bear, causing it to run off. If there had been the slimmest change in circumstances, it would have killed Steven, probably Janis; maybe all of them.
The encounter on Afognak has no troped lesson attached. It’s not about being a patient hunter or knowing when to pull the trigger. It’s not about never letting your guard down. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that life can thrust you into situations you can’t fully prepare for because you truly have no idea how you’ll react. When Steven recalls that day, his words exude an undiluted reverence for nature. But his humility, always evident, is even more pronounced. He doesn’t hide the scars left on his psyche and he candidly shares his personal embarrassment. There he was, an expert life-long hunter, and his mind shut down when his skills were needed most.
Experiences like the above are difficult to fully appreciate because modern life sterilizes fear. Steven Rinella touched on that idea several years before the incident while presenting on hunting and conservation:
I re-read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. He said “It must be a poor man who achieves freedom from fear.” And, thinking about that quote, I was thinking about when I was a little kid, going down into these ravines we’d hunt and just being terrified of it getting dark. Now, for anyone’s that ever sat in the woods and watched it get dark at night, you know everything gets its chance to be a bear. You know, all night, there’s a stump that’s clearly a stump, it’s just a stump, but at 6:15 that thing is A BEAR.
I’m so happy for those feelings now, of being scared, that it’s just come to be that I feel that hunting thrusts us into all these situations that we just don’t get in our normal life anymore.
Everything gets its chance to be a bear. That’s true. But remember that that includes bears too.
“To sit in a tree and watch the coming of dawn is a strange thing. As soon as you can see the ground with any detail it seems that you’re twice as high as you thought you were. Tree stumps go through brief periods when they look like people. The root wads of overturned trees look like bears. You can’t tell whether the trail you’re sitting along passes through a large meadow you should have noticed earlier or just a slight opening in the trees that you wouldn’t have noticed earlier. But as the light comes up enough to make out the individual leaves on the ground, you realize that you’re only as high as you thought you were. The stumps go back to being stumps, the root wads back to root wads. The trail begins to look like how you remembered it.” - Steven Rinella
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The Meat Eater podcast episode where they recount this story is a nail biter. So good.