By Joseph Robertia
When it comes to hunting, there are several “must dos” — from familiarizing yourself with the habits and habitats of the target game to knowing which type of firearms and ammo to use, and how to use it, in order to successfully bag the beast sought.
After a spring brown bear hunt earlier this year, Clifford Hugg, of Soldotna, discovered one more thing to add to that list. He learned the hard way that it is imperative to individually mark all luggage — including the container with meat or trophy — when traveling after a hunt, and not just rely on a baggage claim label.
“It was a weird, weird deal,” he said of events that began back in May, when most of the state was still blanketed in snow from a late winter that seemed reluctant to give up the ghost to spring.
Hugg had hunted bear in the past — including two black bears locally and a brown bear on Kodiak, but none as challenging as his spring Shishmaref bear.
“The guides had been after this bear for seven years. They called him ‘The Edgewalker,’ because he would spend a lot of time on the edge of this 4,000-foot drop. Last year, it was just his prints along the edge, but this year he was right there,” Hugg said.
The same weather that made the start of the hunt horrible eventually worked in Hugg’s favor to bag the bruin.
“It started as a terrible hunt. With the late winter, it was cold and blowing and snowing for five days, but then it cleared off in this perfect, blue-sky day. We came up on the ridge and there he was, breaking through 3 inches of crust,” Hugg said.
Before the bear could make an escape, Hugg lined him up in the crosshairs of the scope atop his .375 Winchester Model 70. He felt the curve of the trigger on his cold fingertip, exhaled, and then smoothly squeezed off a shot.
“He just fell over in his tracks,” Hugg said.
As Hugg got up to his prize, he was even more ecstatic.
“It was just beautiful. It was big, the hair was golden-tipped. It was just gorgeous,” he said.
The bruin skinned out to a rug of around 8.5 to 9 feet, and he put the hide into a well-used Rubbermaid tote for transport home. It had some old writing on it, including an old address of the hunting guide, in Nome, on the side. Hugg checked it in at the airport for the flight home with a baggage claim label attached specifying a Kenai destination, but on the flight home, something went awry.
“When I got off the plane, it didn’t get off,” he said.
That was May 17, a Friday, and Hugg’s wife, Sondra, said her husband was beside himself when the bear hide didn’t show up in Kenai.
“He just kept hoping it would be on the next plane, then the next one. He was devastated,” she said.
Since fly-out bear hunts can range from $12,000 to $16,000, the Huggs weren’t about to give up on finding a hide they had spent so much time and money to get. They began calling airlines and airports, and the following Monday drove to Anchorage to talk with airport officials and managers of Era Aviation.
“No one knew what happened to it and we did what they said. We filed lost claim tickets and we called the (Alaska State) Troopers and (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) to report it as a theft. We even asked the Anchorage airport for permission to review the surveillance footage to see if we could find out what happened,” Sondra said.
Time ticked by with no leads. After 12 days, as a last resort, the Huggs decided to post a reward for any information leading to the retrieval of the hide. They believed someone, somewhere, knew something.
As it turned out, they were correct.
“We sent out a flyer — with a $1,000 reward — to all the airports along the way, and it was found within 10 minutes,” Hugg said.
According to Hugg, a cargo clerk — who wished to stay anonymous — working at the Kenai Municipal Airport made a few calls and was able to track the lost container to Nome. The Huggs suspect that, as can be the case with mail, packages, groceries and other cargo flying to and from varied communities in the state, sometimes things get intermixed.
“Somehow it got in with the mail going to the villages, even though it had a baggage label on it — and still did when I finally got it back — it went to the old address, which was in Nome, on the side of the tote,” he said.
What was left of the hide in Nome was not a pretty sight, and an even-less pleasant smell after nearly two weeks.
“It stunk so bad someone had put the whole thing in a plastic bag. It was totally ruined by the time I got it. The hide was rotten and the hair and claws were falling out. It was a sad end to that hunt,” Hugg said.
Given the winter conditions, the hide was frozen by the time it got back to town, and the guide didn’t salt it for preservation, Sondra Hugg said. Only the skull, claws that are now being made into a necklace, pictures and memories are what Hugg has to remind him of that day on Shishmaref. If he were to do it all over again, or if he goes on another hunt in the future, Hugg said that are things he’ll do differently. He advises other hunters to also learn from his hard lesson.
“Next time I’ll be using a container with one of those plastic windows on the side where I’ll have my current address in addition to the baggage label. I’ll also watch it get on the plane or pay a ramper to watch it get on the plane,” he said. “And if anything goes missing, I’ll post the reward the first day. Had I done it with this hide, I could have saved it.”