KODIAK — Cole Kramer was guiding his friend Chris Cammack on a brown bear bowhunting trip on the Alaska Peninsula in the fall of 2018. It was the last hunt of the season, and for Kramer, a Kodiak-based hunting guide, it was a sigh of relief. After a full season of guiding, he was finally out with a friend and was sure the trip would be fun — no matter what bears they encountered.
On their first day in a new camp, Kramer and Cammack were glassing from a hillside when they saw a large brown bear and decided to take a closer look. The area was brushy, so it was hard to approach. They stopped 120 feet away, there was a boar and sow. The bears started to walk away; Kramer roared a challenging call at the large boar. It worked. The bear came storming down the mountain toward Kramer and Cammack.
Cammack shot the bear from 14 yards. It disappeared into the brush.
It was raining and blowing and getting dark. Kramer knew he had to find the bear before its tracks vanished. They went into the bush and found the bear 10 yards away. Cammack shot the bear with two more arrows, and they watched it expire in front of them.
Cammack and Kramer flew out the next day with the hide and skull in tow. Kramer still had no idea he had just helped his friend hunt the largest brown bear ever taken with a bow and arrow.
Only later, when the skull was measured by Pope and Young Club, North America’s leading bowhunting organization, did they find that the skull was 29.25 inches wide. That is one sixteenths of an inch larger than the second largest brown bear ever bowhunted, which was taken in 2004. The Cammack’s record-holding bear hide measured 10’6’’.
“Were we looking for the world record? Absolutely not,” Kramer said. “It just so happened to be a very large bear.”
This was not Kramer’s first experience guiding hunters to record-size bears. He was also the guide for James Gabrick and Lee Lakosky, whose bowhunted bears measured at 28.375 and 28.125 inches, respectively, placing them in Pope and Young’s top ten ranking for brown bears.
Kramer, who has called Kodiak home for 17 years, runs his own guide business, Kramer’s Kodiak Guide Service.
He spends the hunting season in Kodiak’s National Wildlife Refuge, on the west side of the island, guiding hunters from throughout the United States and beyond. His clients often tell him about other hunting destinations around the world. And, Kramer, who listens, has traveled far and wide in search of hunting adventures. For him, hunting is a way of learning about new cultures around the world.
“When you’re up at 18,000 feet chasing sheep around, then you kind of find something out about yourself,” Kramer said, describing a trip to Nepal where he hunted blue sheep. In Namibia, he has hunted for plains game. In Australia, he has hunted water buffalo. Kramer has also hunted in Turkey, Spain, Azerbaijan, Mexico, Paraguay and Canada, among other places.
However, Kramer says nothing can compare to hunting Kodiak brown bear.
“Bears are a really unique creature just because of how their minds are,” Kramer said. “They’re different from a lot of the other animals. Each bear has a different attitude, almost like humans. They’re extremely intelligent. They’re very large, so they’re dangerous. There’s a certain draw to the dangers of it. It’s exciting to watch and be up close.”
“People ask — if there’s one animal you could hunt in the world — where would you go? I would just want a Kodiak brown bear tag and go archery hunting for a big bear. That’s exactly what I would want to do. Even though it’s my job, it’s what I enjoy doing.”
Though Kramer has put his clients on some of the largest brown bears in the world, he has never killed a bear with a bow. Kramer enters for a bear tag every year, but they are hard to get. In total, he has had two tags and harvested one bear, with a rifle.
“I’ve helped many, many people get their bear so it’s not like I have to kill my own. It’s got to be a very special one,” Kramer explained. The special one, for Kramer, would be an old, mature boar toward the end of its life, hopefully with a nice hide.
“It just has to be a good opportunity,” he said.
Kramer was introduced to hunting a couple years after he was introduced to Alaska. He first visited Kodiak in 1994, when he was 11 years old, to see his uncle, who worked for the Coast Guard. He immediately fell in love with the Emerald Isle.
“I ended up coming back here two or three more times throughout the course of school, but I knew I wanted to move up here probably my freshman or sophomore year of high school,” Kramer said.
Kramer grew up in Kansas and went to high school in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. No one in his family hunted. It was through his church that he got his first opportunity to hunt deer. A woman he knew from church introduced Kramer to Glen Gamel, who offered to take him out to a rifle range, then to his family farm. Gamel quickly became a mentor to Kramer, who called him “Grandpa Glen.”
Kramer’s hunting career was off to an auspicious beginning. At 14, Kramer shot his first deer. It was a 12-point buck, still the biggest light kill he’s taken. A picture of Kramer, Gamel and the deer appeared in a local newspaper, celebrating Kramer’s achievement.
“People told me I’d never find a deer like that again,” Kramer said. “That made me want to learn more about it.”
With a newfound passion, Kramer continued helping Grandpa Glen on his farm, all the while dreaming about returning to Alaska. With his parents’ blessing, Kramer moved to Kodiak a week after he graduated from high school.
Since then, Kramer’s entire education has been through apprenticeships and working with outfitters. He started as a packer, then progressed to an assistant guide, and finally passed the written and oral exams required to become a registered guide.
When he arrived on The Rock, the first thing Kramer did was call an outfitter, who took him to his camps and showed him the ropes.
“Basically, he just needed some slave labor,” Kramer said, jokingly. “But they actually helped me find a job with an outfitter Paul Chervenak.”
Chervenak is the owner and operator of Kodiak Outdoor Adventures. Kramer has worked with him since 2002.
“I’ve been very blessed to have good mentors here, Paul Chervenak and Dick Rohrer,” Kramer said. Rohrer is the owner and operator of Rohrer Bear Camp. “I’ve learned a lot from those guys. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”
In 2007, Kramer started his own operation, guiding hunting trips for goats and Sitka blacktail deer in Kodiak and bears on the Alaska Peninsula. Kramer still works with Chervenak on both rifle and bowhunting bear trips in Kodiak.
“[Bowhunting] has become pretty popular and lots of guides don’t like guiding bowhunters,” Kramer said. “Sometimes it can take a lot longer. You have to be a little more patient, wait for the right opportunities. Plus, it’s semi-dangerous to get close to bears and a lot of guys just don’t want to take the risks — which is completely understandable. But the more you’re around bears up-close, the more comfortable you get with them and learning how to read them correctly, and trying not to put yourself and your hunters in a bad situation.”
Kramer’s first bow hunting experience was with an archer who had built his own wooden recurve bow and arrows.
“It was super intense to be on that,” Kramer said, adding that bowhunting requires more skill. “It helps me become a better hunter all the way around just because it does require more patience and also learning when to be aggressive and when to be patient.”
It’s a rare moment when Kramer feels that his life or his client’s life is threatened by a bear. “I do this for a living, and I’ve only had one,” he said. “And I’m out there looking for them.”
Throughout his career, Kramer has only had to shoot one bear in defense of life. He was on a personal goat hunt when a sow charged him. He shot her when she was 12 yards away, and then again right before she got to him.
“I was hoping to get her turned with a warning shot, but that was not the case,” he said.
With bowhunting there are very close interactions with bears, with some of Kramer’s clients being anywhere from five to 30 yards away. Kramer said that the point a hunt becomes an uncomfortable encounter “would be a bear on top of you.”
“We’re really picky with what we hunt. We don’t just shoot any bears. We’re only after large mature boars,” Kramer said. His hunting trips, which usually last 10 to 15 days, often turn into prolonged bear viewing excursions.
A typical bear hunting trip consists of returning to the same spot every day, glassing the same mountainside for bears. During spring trips, Kramer and the hunters he guides sometimes spend up to 16 hours a day glassing for bears, beginning at 7 a.m. Kramer explained that once you lay a scent trail across the valley, a bear might walk across it and turn the other way.
“So we have to just stay put and use our binoculars,” he said.
“Bears are really nomadic. We could be watching the same hillside for days on days. An experienced bear guide understands that it doesn’t matter,” Kramer said. Male bears may be on the search for food or females, so it is only a matter of time before they show up.
Once a bear is killed, it must be skinned, and hunters are required to carry out the skull and hide, often hauling them long distances. A 10-foot bear hide can weigh 100 to 120 pounds if it’s dry, and much more if the hide is wet or muddy.
“My break-in was a nine-mile pack-out of a 9’10’’ bear,” Kramer said, describing the first time he ever led a successful hunt, when he was 20 years old. “It was a good break-in process, that’s for sure.”
Despite his current success, Kramer didn’t have an easy start with bear hunting. On his first two guiding trips, his clients failed to bag a bear, instilling doubt in Kramer’s mind about his budding career.
“I went though a couple hunts thinking, ‘Oh man, am I bad luck?’” he said. “It’s no fun when you’re not getting animals for your clients.”
But, things turned around.
“When you finally get on your first bear harvest, and you see that it all pays off, it’s very exciting. There’s nothing else that compares to it, and I’ve hunted all over the world,” Kramer said. “Whether you’re rifle hunting or bowhunting, it’s very action-packed to get close to a brown bear.”
Kramer’s goal is to expand his business in the coming years, with Kodiak as a home base. For now, he lives alone, but says that if a family comes down the path, that would be great.
“Kodiak is definitely home — this is where my business is. That’s not going to change any time soon. The hunting here is really special,” Kramer said. “Bears are pretty iconic.”