When the two boats finally cast off the ropes and left the dock at the Homer, Alaska harbor, you might say the people on board were a bit excited. It was a dream come true for six of them, all combat veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. They were about to embark on a five day bear hunt/fishing trip hosted by Alaska's Healing Hearts Foundation, an organization that makes many activities available to veterans. The adventure was made possible by the generosity of Mike Flores, who owns Ninilchik Charters. Mike, who has two sons active in the U.S.Marine Corps, made his two boats available for the trip.
One of the troops had been to Alaska before, the other five had not. Before the boats left the dock, one of the veterans said, "I can't believe I'm in Alaska. If the trip was cancelled right now, I'd still be happy." They came from Kentucky, Texas, Washington, California, and two rom Oklahoma.
The plan was to anchor the boats together in a sheltered cove each evening, and hunt and fish during the day. The boats, the 48 foot Arctic Sundy, and the 53 foot Arctic Endeavor, easily accommodated the six warriors and seven crew that included captains, deckhands, guides, cooks, and whatever else needed to be done.
Several bears were spotted, but all were far from the beach and high up on the slopes. Typically, after an arduous climb through steep terrain and dense brush and blowdowns, the target bear disappeared before the hunters could maneuver into shooting range. However, Trevor Phillips, a US Army Veteran and Purple Heart recipient, managed to take a fine six foot bear. With help from his hunting partner and one of the deckhands, he skinned the bear, quartered it, and transported the meat to the beach. They, and most of the other hunters, finally made it back to the boats by 2 am. All of them returned wet and tired, but upbeat and ecstatic about their first Alaska experience.
Fishing was outstanding. Everyone caught halibut, cod, rockfish, and yelloweye during the adventure. When it was time to leave, everyone expressed their disappointment at having to depart. New friendships were forged, and the troops came away with memories never to be forgotten. Besides the hunting and fishing adventure, the outing allowed the veterans to share stories of their past. Because all of them understood the rigors of combat, they had a special sense of camaraderie, which is critical to helping them deal with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Said one, "this trip allowed six of us to come together and communicate in a fabulous wild setting. None of us knew each other. Now we're bonded as extended family."
This was the fourth annual black bear Hunt offered by Alaska's Healing Hearts, a non-profit foundation based in Wasilla. Composed of a nine member board, all are volunteers. There are no salaries or administrative expenses. The bear hunt is just one of many activities offered in Alaska. Funds come from private donations, sponsors, and fundraising events. Donations can be made on the Alaska's Healing Hearts' website.
Many individuals and businesses helped make this trip possible. Mike Flores of Ninilchik Charters provided the boats and crew, Land's End Resort in Homer and Inlet Tower Hotel in Anchorage offered free accommodations, Inlet View Cafe in Ninilchik offered free meals, and Cabela's in Anchorage offered merchandise and had a meet and greet for the veterans.