A brown bear fishes for salmon on Chichagof Island.

A brown bear fishes for salmon on Chichagof Island.

The legend of Hosea Sarber

I learned of Hosea Sarber as a teenager when I picked up the gem of a book “No Room For Bears” by Frank Dufresne. Sarber features in a number of the stories, the most harrowing of which is about him hunting down a supposed man-killing brown bear on Admiralty Island. Before I delve any deeper in this story, it’s important to note that in all my research I’ve only found evidence of one person dying due to bear-related injuries on Admiralty Island, and that victim shot the bear first. In contrast, each year around 50 reported brown bears are killed by trophy hunters on Admiralty. Dufresne, a seasoned outdoorsman and once the Director of the Alaska Game Commission, had incredible respect for Sarber’s competency in the rainforest, particularly with bears. Without using those exact words, Dufresne basically describes Sarber as the ultimate Southeast badass.

Sarber was born in Indiana in 1897, when thousands of starry-eyed hopefuls were stampeding north in search of gold. He was blinded in one eye as a small child—he’d later be renowned for his marksmanship despite this handicap. He came to Alaska as a young man, not inspired by dreams of gold or striking it rich in some other resource-based industry, but by the desire to hunt the last real frontier. He became a well-known game warden, and he’s one of Southeast Alaska’s most famous bear guides, along with the likes of Allen Hasselborg, Ralph Young and Karl Lane. Some say he killed more bears than anyone else in Alaska. In the article “Self-Loaded Gunnerman,” F. Wallace Taber notes that Sarber killed seals primarily for their blubber. He used it to manufacture highly efficient poisonous wolf bait, which he used locally and shipped all over the country.

Sarber’s story, though less well known than that of the hermit Allen Hasselborg, is easy to romanticize. A one-eyed paramount predator revered by other bear guides and hunters is a story in itself, but two events make his life the stuff of legend. The first is how he reputedly hunted down Admiralty Island’s only man-killing bear in written history. The second is his mysterious disappearance.

In 1929 Jack Thayer, a timber cruiser, was killed by a brown bear in Eliza Harbor on southeastern Admiralty. His companion, Fred Herring, stated that the two came upon a bear some 15 or 20 feet away. Herring immediately ran and, then, heard a shot (the bear supposedly stood up at close range to get a better look at what all the hubbub was about) while he was on his way to climb a tree. The injured bear attacked Thayer before disappearing back into the rainforest; Thayer died hours later from his wounds. Anyone who knows anything about bears cringes when they hear this story—the two did everything wrong. If they had remained calm, I’m willing to bet the bear would have never attacked.

A year later Sarber went to Eliza Harbor and the site of the mauling to see if he could find the bear that killer Thayer. Reportedly he was almost immediately charged by a large, enraged bear; luckily he had the foresight to climb atop a windfall. Of course, according to the story, he killed the bear with one shot. He said the bear had a scar on his shoulder that could have been made by a bullet. This could be true, but most older males are pretty scarred up from fights with each other. I watched one big male this summer on Admiralty that had numerous one to two-foot-long scars on his shoulder and abdomen, the most vicious of which was on his lower stomach. Another’s face looked like it had gone through a blender. Another was missing an ear. Another was missing most of its nose…and so on.

In 1952, Sarber went missing, maybe on Admiralty or Kupreanof Island. He was 55 years old. Ralph Young, famous bear guide of Petersburg, wrote in his great book “My Lost Wilderness” that it was the only time he knew of Sarber walking into the woods without his rifle.

Perhaps someone has more information on the man and his fate? If you feel like it, please email me.

• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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