“Bear Man of Admiralty Island”

Chapter 1: Hasselborg’s Domain

Allen Hasselborg came into Juneau only a few times a year. To visit him, you had to go by boat seventy miles south to his homestead at Mole Harbor, a secluded bay near the middle of Admiralty Island. Even when you were safely past the reefs at the mouth of the harbor, if the tide was low, a mile of shallow water still lay between you and his cabin. So you anchored up and cut the engine and the island came out to greet you with the liquid, spiraling call of a varied thrush, the salty stench of seaweed, the dark green forest looming behind the beach.

Seymour Canal, Admiralty Island, Alaska – looking north toward Mole Harbor

As you rowed in to shore, you would become aware of Hasselborg standing waiting for you at the edge of the water, a rifle cradled in one arm. The rifle made you nervous, especially if you hadn’t met him before. Though he owned about a hundred acres at the head of the bay, everyone in town knew that all of Mole Harbor was Hasselborg’s domain. Back in the 1920s the U.S. Forest Service had tried to evict him, and he responded by firing across the bow of a Service boat as soon as it entered the bay. More than twenty years had passed since then, and Hasselborg was well into his sixties, but he still wasn’t someone you wanted to bother. “We showed Allen Hasselborg great deference,” a friend once said. “Everyone did, of course. His was a personality that demanded respect.”

Though of medium height, he had the broad shoulders of a woodsman and thick legs of a mountaineer–a good-looking man (women remembered that), with a full beard, ruddy cheeks, a slightly aquiline nose, and hazel-green eyes that pierced right through you. “His face was kindly, but with a peculiar alertness, a certain air of questioning as though he was waiting our next move, or perhaps watching for a mistake,” one visitor recalled. Usually he’d be wearing an old round-brimmed canvas hat, a frayed cotton shirt patched at the elbows, and baggy pants tucked into black rubber boots.

Allen Hasselborg, Admiralty Island, 1925.

If you come on any kind of government business, you knew you were in for a hard time; you did your business right there on the beach and were glad to finish it and leave. If you told him you were a scientist, your knowledge would immediately be put to the test. If you were out hunting, you were sternly informed that no hunting was allowed at Mole Harbor. More often than not, if you passed inspection–especially if he knew you–Hasselborg invited you back to his cabin.

So you followed behind him along the beach to the mouth of Mole River, feeling loud and clumsy behind his quiet, graceful stride. All the while you kept a sharp eye out for his bears. Everyone thought of them that way–as his; he had names for most of them and wouldn’t let anyone hunt them. Especially during the summer, when salmon were spawning in the river, they were around all the time. No matter how many brown bears you’d seen before, it was always unnerving when one came ambling along the riverbank or plowing toward you through the tall grass in Hasselborg’s meadow with the flowing grace of a cat. You didn’t even want to think about trying to outrun them, and when they raised up on their hind legs to look around, it was all too easy to see how big they were. Some of the males at Hasselborg’s place stood well over eight feet tall and must have weighted about a thousand pounds. It didn’t help much when he dismissed your concern with a wave of a hand. “That’s Dark Pants,” he told one anxious visitor, “he lives here.” To him, the bears at Mole Harbor were just big, unruly pets–interesting and entertaining, but mostly just a nuisance when they dug up his potatoes or trampled other vegetables in his garden.

Brown bear, Admiralty Island, photograph by Allen Hasselborg

His cabin came into view around the first bend in the river. Visitors were struck by how tiny it looked with Mt. Distik rising thirty-eight hundred feet behind it. Twenty by twenty-five feet, it was one room with a lean-to shed. You went in through the shed, a workshop cluttered with boots, pack frames, axes, traps, outboard engines, and all the other well-worn tools and equipment of a self-sufficient homesteader. Hasselborg showed you in with what one visitor described as “the grave courtesy of a king ushering a subject into his castle.”

Inside, everything was neat and clean. “Often men who live alone are prone to sloppy habits, but not Allen,” recalled Amos Berg, a photographer from Juneau. “He was fastidious. His clothes were neatly patched, washed and clean. Every few days he trimmed his whiskers. He scrubbed his dishes in hot water.” Each corner of the cabin had a specific function, as if it were a separate room in a much larger house. Visitors were required to follow a strict protocol. “One simply was not allowed to eat [one’s] stew in the living room,” one woman remembered. What Hasselborg called the “living room” or “sitting room” was an old easy-chair in front of the cabin’s only window, which looked out on Mole River. The “kitchen” was to the right of the door as you came in: a cupboard, a table with two chairs, and a wood stove with pots and pans hanging on a wall behind it. To the left of the door were more shelves and a small table that was the “washroom” or “gun room,” where he kept soap, a wash basin, a towel, medicine, chemicals, firearms and ammunition. The “library”–shelves stocked with dozens of books–was just past the “sitting room.” Along the back wall, a narrow stairway led up to his sleeping loft. Ralph Young, a bear hunting guide, once sneaked a look at the loft and saw an enormous bear rug on the floor, one of the biggest he had ever seen.

Brown bear, still from movie by conservationists guided on Admiralty Island by Allen Hasselborg.

If a visitor could stay for a while, Hasselborg made tea, and before long there would be some good conversastion, though it always took the host a while to get going. “He wasn’t real talkative, but he would answer you, even talk at length when you asked him things,” said Stan Price, who knew Hasselborg in his later years. “He was courteous but stern and distant, well-spoken but not talkative,” another acquaintance recalled. He spoke quietly and precisely, occasionally gesturing with his hands, rarely laughing or smiling, though when he did, it was enough to crinkle the skin at the corners of his eyes.

“He talked about everything from the origin of the Latter Day Saints and the relation of the Essenes to pre-evangelical Christianity to the present day sea weed industry in Japan and political conditions in modern Europe,” a college professor wrote soon after meeting Hasselborg for the first time. “His information was not pedantic or strained; it was as modest as it was accurate. He had an unusually retentive memory and possessed the rare ability to use the knowledge which he had accumulated through years of reading… He seldom makes general statements without specific examples to back them up.” “It was a joy to talk to this self-educated man on almost any subject, because he had been an extensive reader,” another visitor, a Harvard student, recalled. “His knowledge of Shakespeare was phenomenal.”

Dean Goodwin, a pilot who for many years flew mail to a cannery near Mole Harbor, often wondered how much Hasselborg’s books weighed. “He had literally hundreds of pounds of literature on botany and geology. He was well-educated, very well-educated. It made you wonder. I remember one time talking to him and something came up about water flow and he got out this old chunk of pencil and a piece of paper and did mathematics in a few minutes that it would take me a half hour do to with an adding machine.”

If the conversation warmed up, Hasselborg would get out his tin box of old photographs taken back when he was hunting bears for the Smithsonian and guiding scientists and wildlife photographers. He liked talking about bears and politics but not about his family or why he came to Alaska. To some extent, that was typical of an Alaskan: when you came the great distance up to the country, by choice or necessity, you left some of your past behind. Yet Hasselborg was so mysterious, so impressive somehow, that for a while he was rumored to be the son of the Scottish lord who led the first pioneers into Minnesota. “There is a tradition in Alaska that I am the lost son and heir of the Earl of Selkirk,” he remarked in a letter to one of his sisters, “and I am expected to always deny it!!?”

John R. Howe at Hasselborg Lake, Admiralty Island, 1986.

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