Accumulated fragments: The bear man of Admiralty Island: Part two

Editor's note: The information for this column comes with permission from the book "Bear Man of Admiralty Island," by John R. Howe, published in 1996 by the University of Alaska Press. All passages, exerpts and quotes come courtesy of the author.


In the spring of 1907, while rowing out of a small bay near Mole Harbor, Allen Hasselborg’s dory had a brown bear hide and a beaver hide in it that he was planning to sell to some scientists who were camped at Windfall Harbor. He spotted the white tents of the Alexander Expedition and rowed over to the beach where he met the Californians coming down to greet him. The expedition was made up of Chase Littlejohn, who had hunted bear in the Aleutians; Frank Stevens and his wife, both experienced naturalists; Joseph Dixon, a biology student at Stanford University; and Anne Alexander, the sponsor and leader of the expedition, an amateur naturalist and crack shot who had hunted big game in Africa. Alexander had formed the expedition at the request of Dr. C. Hart Merriam, the director of the U.S. Biological Survey, who, for several years, had been trying to classify the various species of North American Bears. Needing more specimens from Alaska, he had introduced Alexander to Joseph Grinnell, an ornithologist determined to secure bird specimens from the islands near Juneau. The two agreed to develop the expedition together. Grinnell would stay behind in California and serve as the expedition’s principal scientific advisor.

They arrived at Windfall Harbor in mid April but by May had only collected birds, as no bears were seen. The bears had just emerged from their dens and were still high in the mountains feeding on winter-kill deer. By the time Hasselborg had arrived they were getting pretty discouraged.

Dixon wrote to Grinnell saying, “Miss Alexander has hired a man by the name of Al Hasselborg to go with us. He is an accurate observer and possesses a great deal of local knowledge of the islands and is altogether the best woodsman that I have ever seen.”

The U.S. Government maps of the interior of Admiralty Island showed only blank space walled off by mountains rising 4000 feet from the sea. Hasselborg’s knowledge of the island promised to be particularly valuable. Allen described several lakes west of Mole Harbor that he had discovered. He said that as far as he knew no other white man had ever seen them. Alexander quickly ordered the base camp to be moved to Mole Harbor.

It took them a week to explore what turned out to be a chain of three lakes. They named the largest after Hasselborg; the second largest after Alexander and the smallest, Beaver. Later, they named the river coming out of Hasselborg Lake, Hasselborg River. In a historic crossing, Hasselborg and the expedition, with the exception of a 5- to 6-mile portage, crossed the island by canoe from Mole Harbor to Killisnoo Village.

The expedition with Hasselborg continued on to Baranof Island, Chichagof Island, Glacier Bay, the Marble Islands and, finally, back to Admiralty Island, shooting bears and birds to be taken back to California. When the expedition returned in August, Alexander ordered Hasselborg to continue hunting until October and she explained that she would need him again the following year. During the three months he had been with the expedition he had learned a lot about zoology and botany.

During the winter of 1907 and 1908, Hasselborg found a shed over on Douglas Island on Lawson Creek and built a 25-foot boat with an eight foot cabin and a small forward berth. The Ebba, named after his youngest sister, had a 7.6 horsepower engine, and would become his first real home in Alaska. He continued to work for Alexander through 1912, exploring and hunting in places as far north as Yakutat and Prince William Sound, also taking detailed notes on weather, his travel routes and wildlife observations. Then, during the summer of 1912, while hunting on the Bartlett River in the Glacier Bay area, he was mauled by a very large brown bear. The bear’s teeth had pulled a tendon several inches out and ripped loose a chunk of flesh in his right arm. It looked for a time like he might lose the use of that arm, but it began to get better and Merriam requested that he restart his hunting activities. He decided not to do so, at least for the present, and began building a small house over on Douglas Island. By the end of the year he had built a three room house with a shop.

Hasselborg’s luck seemed to change in 1914 when some of the gold mines began having serious trouble. Then a man who had promised to buy the Ebba backed out. This left him extremely short of cash. Several sportsmen who had hired him as a guide canceled at the last moment. In 1915 he finished his new launch, the Bulldogg and began to roam again. He made a 200 mile-round trip to the southernmost tip of the Southeast Alaska panhandle buying furs. Merriam had called him and asked him to get as many bear specimens as he could find. When he returned, Hasselborg decided to go back out to Mole Harbor, live on the Bulldogg, and hunt from there. While there, he cleared a site for a garden on the north side of Mole River. If he had any doubts about moving to Mole Harbor, a major disaster at the Treadmill mines made up his mind. On April 21, 1917, millions of gallons of sea water burst into the mines from the Gastineau Channel. Three of the mines were destroyed, but no one was killed. By the end of the year, Douglas and Treadwell became virtual ghost towns and Juneau was in one of the worst economic slumps in its 37-year history.

Hasselborg sold his Douglas Island home for $150, taking a significant loss. He immediately marked out a homestead on the Mole Harbor/Mole River property. Before long he was planting his first garden at Mole Harbor. By October he had harvested a bumper crop of vegetables and was full of plans for the future.

Not long after that he built a cabin on the river, late one night, in the middle of the first big snowstorm, he was awakened by something shaking his cabin. At first he thought it was an earthquake, but when he heard glass breaking, he got up and looked downstairs. A bear was trying to climb in through the window; its front paws were on the sill and its head was already inside when it suddenly drew back and disappeared. Hasselborg grabbed his rifle and rushed to the window. Even through falling snow, the moon was so bright he could see the bear standing about 80 yards away. Quickly he aimed and fired, and the bear became a still, dark mound wrapped in whiteness.

For years afterwards, he made a point of saying that he shot his last bear that night. It was only rubbing its back against his cabin, he said, that’s what woke him up. Also, he had become disgusted with Merriam; he had recently read one of Merriam’s scientific papers and believed that some of the data may have been faked. Merriam had put a bounty on brown bears of $40/skull and the bears were being killed at a high rate. Allen was concerned that they might kill off all the bears.

He was through with Merriam and through with killing bears. He would keep guiding bear hunters to make money, but he wouldn’t shoot any himself, and he would try to get along with those around his place. No one would be allowed to hunt them; Mole Harbor would become a sanctuary for bears, he decided.

• This was part two of a multi-part series. Part one ran Sunday, Feb. 10 and part three will run Sunday, Feb. 24.


1. Bear Man of Admiralty island by John R. Howe

2. Expeditions: In fortress of the Bear by Terry Wieland

3. Papers of Allen E. Hasselborg, 1899-1955 by Alaska State Library, Historical Collections

4. The Wild Grizzlies of Admiralty Island by John Holzworth


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