In the spring of 2013, I set off from Juneau with the hopes of kayaking to Sitka and visiting the homestead of Allen Hasselborg, a hermit that had been dead for more than 60 years, in Mole Harbor along the way. It was April 20th, late enough, I hoped, for the cross Admiralty lake route to be free of ice. A blizzard—an omen that would set the tone for the next 10 days—set in as soon as I began crossing Stephens Passage. I traveled by compass and the angle of waves through eerie pea soup fog and snow.
Late in the day, the blizzard slowly died, revealing the snow covered rainforest of Admiralty Island. Flocks of long-tailed, golden-eye and white-wing scoter ducks, many who’d recently arrived from southern climes, parted atop the ocean as my kayak slid past.
In the dusky gloom in Olivers Inlet, a skinny brown bear emerged from the guard-timber, post-holed through snow, then dug in a heap of kelp along the high tide line. Silently, I glided over the water towards it. The bear paused. We studied each other. Instead of fleeing, it walked to the water’s edge, and lifted its nose to try to find my scent. The hooting of male sooty grouse echoed off the low hillsabove the inlet. I let the bear be, and began portaging kayak and gear to the northern end of Seymour Canal.
During the night, a stiff southeasterly set hemlock and spruce trees creaking, moaning and whistling. Lying in my damp sleeping bag, I thought of Allen Hasselborg. His legend had colored my adolescence with dreams of freedom, wild country and brown bears. I first read of him in Ralph Young’s book, “My Lost Wilderness”, a formative collection of stories mostly about brown bear hunting, Admiralty Island and conservation. Young, an accomplished woodsman and bear guide, inspired me nearly as much as Hasselborg. Later, I found a copy of John R. Howe’s well researched biography on Hasselborg, “Bear Man of Admiralty Island,” at a used book store. Howe offered a fascinating though more sobering perspective on the recluse.
Hasselborg, like many men and women, arrived in Alaska a few years after news of the Klondike strike had spread like wild fire. After a series of stints working at mines and commercial fishing, he became increasingly disenchanted with society. In 1904 he began trapping, living off the land and hunting brown bears, mostly for scientific collectors. In 1907 he was hired to work with the Alexander Expeditions, primarily to guide southern naturalists on their quest to find new species of brown bears as well as collecting other Southeast Alaskan fauna for science. It was good money and he enjoyed the work, even if he was skeptical of some of his employer’s theories. Hasselborg’s suspicion there was only one species of North American brown bear was later verified.
After a decade of commercial bear hunting, Hasselborg settled in Mole Harbor on Admiralty Island and began clearing a homestead. He would remain there alone, except for hunters and photographers he occasionally guided during warmer months, until a year and a half before his death in the winter of ’56.
In the early dawn, a small deer paused amidst quivering yellow grass poking through a blanket of wet snow. It watched while I filled my cook-pot at a creek, then it ghosted into the forest. The scream of a gale-force wind, a pair of shrieking yellowlegs sandpipers and a mug of hot coffee accompanied me on a walk across an expansive tidal flat. A northern harrier hawk glided and swooped along the edge of the forest, hunting for careless voles. Near the mountainside, the hooting of sooty grouse boomed over the wind. Wading through brush and deep snow, I hiked to a giant spruce tree a “hooter” was perched in. His head bobbed in the brush near the top. Knowing my shotgun, with its 20 inch barrel, would at best wound the distant bird, I passed on the shot and moved onto the next grouse. I found him in a maze of branches silhouetted 30 yards away. Back at the beach I boiled him with a bit of salt, made another cup of coffee and had a late breakfast.
Hasselborg only came into Juneau, the nearest town to Mole Harbor, when he had to. Ralph Young wrote that Hasselborg often rowed a small skiff on the 140 mile round trip errand; it was a journey that might take him more than three weeks if the weather was bad. In the spring, he’d bring in the furs he’d trapped during winter to sell, then buy a few provisions and pick up his mail. In the early fall he might show up for basic necessities and mail. Howe wrote he often stayed only long enough to reply to letters. Rowing south, down Gastineau Channel, he was soon alone again with the ocean and rainforest.
Another day and a half passed before the wind slackened and the ocean became manageable. Clouds hung low; a light drizzle and my kayak was all that upset the mirror-like surface of the ocean. A small brown bear rounded the bend, trudged along the shore, hardly giving me more than a passing glance though less than 30 yards separated us. Deer, with ribs protruding after the long winter, paused from eating seaweed and stared as the outgoing tide rushed me south. Curious harbor seals, with their large, dark, melancholic eyes, trailed behind. In the afternoon as the wind and seas grew, I passed Pack Creek and made camp next to a mink den. If the weather held, Hasselborg’s homestead was only an easy day’s paddle away.
During my teenage years I idealized Allen Hasselborg, even believing the myth he never fell during all the time he spent traveling in the woods. I, on the other hand, fell nearly ever time I stepped off pavement or a maintained trail. Hasselborg, seemingly fearless, killed more than a 100 brown bears with an open-sight rifle. He was charged several times and mauled twice. I tended to scare easy, once chambering a round in my rifle when I mistook a waddling porcupine for a charging grizzly. Hasselborg was basically self sufficient, gardening, fishing and hunting to meet the majority of his needs. Most every thing I ate, besides game and fish, came from the far corners of the earth, wrapped in plastic.
In the morning trees danced wildly in the wind—paddling to Mole Harbor and Hasselborg’s homestead was out of the question. Instead I examined Stan Price’s dilapidated shacks, floats and logging boom at the outlet of Pack Creek. Two northern harrier hawks, the male smaller and almost white, glided with an enviable levity on the wind. Off the spit on a small treeless island, a group of seals were hauled out. In a month and a half Pack Creek would attract upwards of two dozen bear viewers a day. Twenty miles north of Mole Harbor, Price and his wife were some of Hasselborg’s nearest neighbors for more than 20 years.
In the afternoon, after looking for wildlife in snowed-in Windfall Harbor, I paddled along the shore through sleet and whitecap waves. An avalanche, sounding like the engines of a passenger plane, swept down the mountain and poured into the ocean in front of me. Near hypothermic, I made soup and a hot drink before lying in my sleeping bag, smelling mink musk and listening to trees moan and waves crash deep into the night. Hasselborg rarely bothered with tents, instead relying on lean-to shelters or just sleeping out when he was in the woods.
At first light I launched the kayak and continued south. Chirping land otters swam over to investigate, then made faces and snorted. Multitudes of deer, many large bucks with antler nubs just beginning to bud, grazed seaweed and lay resting on gravel beaches. About seven miles from Flaw Point and the entrance to Mole Harbor, the north wind began blowing hard. A humpback whale lunge fed along the cliffy shore I was paddling, mandating a 10 minute break pinched in sloshing waves against a kelp adorned rock wall.
On Buck Island I waited for the gale to die, but it only grew in its ferocity. Hundreds of black turn-stone sandpipers and harlequin ducks perched on rocks in the lee of the wind. Thirty or more harbor seals bobbed off the southern tip of the island. During the night, the croaking of migrating sandhill cranes echoed over moaning trees and crashing waves. They were on their way north to nest and feed in the Arctic, a journey their kind had been making for more than ten million years.
In the morning the wind was still howling. I crossed a spit connecting Buck Island to Admiralty Island during low tide and followed two deer feeding along the edge of alders. I cast for dolly varden for a while but had no luck. Thinking I heard a grouse or two hooting over the wind, I climbed an icy ridge above Buck Lake. Fresh bear tracks wended through the snow. The second bird I found was close enough to shoot. I spent the rest of the day eating grouse, mumbling to seals and birds and trying to stay warm in the piercing wind. After consulting my marine radio and hearing the weather was suppose to stay nasty for days, I resolved to walk to Mole Harbor the following morning.
A giant humpback whale frothed the waves as I trudged along cliffs. A seiner was anchored in the protection of Mole Harbor. More than a dozen deer fed along the edge of the forest, sometimes beneath the orange flagging marking a marten trap line. Canadian geese, wigeon, mallards and green-winged teal, their calls sounding like laughter, rested and fed along the tidal flats. I followed an old set of bear tracks up Mole River towards Hasselborg’s homestead.
Around a bend, a large “No Trespassing” sign was nailed to a tree. Half concealed in the brush beyond was the cabin of the current owner of the homestead, complete with the necessary assortment of blue tarps. A cracked coffee cup left out from last summer or the summer before rested on a stump. Hasselborg spent five years clearing two acres to plant a huge garden. Almost a century later, I couldn’t distinguish the land he cleared from the surrounding forest. His cabin and shed were long gone. Standing on the gravel bar, with snowy unnamed mountains towering over the forest, listening to Mole River glide by, I was overcome with the feeling I was invading the solitude of a ghost. I turned and followed the river back to the bay.
Instead of returning to Buck Island, I post-holed in deep snow through a forest of red cedar and shore pines to Lake Alexander. As I expected, the lake was frozen; a portage across the island to get to Sitka was out of the question.
In twilight, along game trails above the lake, I followed the tracks of a large bear. His prints were so fresh I half expected a confrontation. Kneeling, I examined the bones and hair of the remains of a deer he’d paused to smell. Rising, I hollered out to let him know I was near. The booming of grouse echoed off the hills and ridges.
In the summer of 1954, Hasselborg left Mole Harbor and Admiralty Island forever. In Juneau he took a taxi to the airport, riding in a “hell cart” (automobile) for the first time. He flew to Washington D.C.—flying was also a first—to visit family he hadn’t seen for 50 years. He took a train south, bought a small boat and set out on a 700 mile journey to the island of Sanibel in Florida. He attempted to live like other retired folks, but was overwhelmed by the humanity, heat and the lack of wildlife. He returned to Southeast Alaska in the summer of 1955 and was admitted to the Sitka Pioneer Home. Six months later, at the age of 79, he died and was buried above Sitka Sound.
The following morning rain and snow fell through the boughs of old growth spruce and hemlock rising into churning mist. A red breasted sap-sucker woodpecker thumped on a dying tree as the hooting of a grouse grew deeper. I replaced the slugs in my shotgun with number 2 shot when I spotted the bird, puffed up, high in the maze of branches of a spruce tree. At the echo of the shot, it plummeted into the brush. Holding the bird’s warm body, I thanked it for becoming my food and watched the luster of its plumage fade. Through breaks in the trees, the frozen surface of Lake Alexander and Beaver Lake glowed white against the darkness of forest. I listened to the wind making the trees thrash and moan. At that moment, anonymous deep in the forest of Admiralty Island, I felt I was the nearest to understanding Hasselborg as I would ever be.