Fred Bear's Guide.
Fred Bear once called him "the world's greatest hunter", likely because he led Fred to places few bowhunters had gone, and to deeds few bowhunters had dared. He did it with such skill and confidence that some of the hunts were famously captured on film. He is Ed Bilderback, guide and hunter extraordinaire.
Perhaps you've seen Ed. He's the man beside Fred when Fred took his world record Brown Bear in 1961. The images of that hunt have been made famous by the film "Kodiak Country: An Archery Adventure In Alaska".
In the thrilling and now familiar scene, Fred and Ed crouch behind a large boulder beside an Alaskan river as a monstrous brown bear walks by at less than 20 feet! The bear turns and looks toward the hunters at one point, but continues walking. The tension is incredible the first time you watch this sequence, especially since it was filmed long before the age of video. When the bear gets past the hunters, Fred delivers a perfectly placed arrow from his recurve at a range of 20 feet.
Although Papa Bear has long been gone, passing away more than a decade ago, Ed Bilderback still thrives as spry senior citizen in the tiny coastal town of Cordova, Alaska. The 74-year-old still fishes commercially for salmon with his boat the Valiant Maid, the same craft that ferried Fred Bear on hunts almost 40 years ago.
As a matter of fact, if you watch the film "Kodiak Country", you will get a good look at the Valiant Maid as it appeared in 1960 and '61. You'll also see a much younger Ed Bilderback in classic captain's hat, the kind some weekend sailor from a suburban Chicago sailing club might wear, conferring with Fred and company in the galley of the boat. The hat was a prop the film crew had carried and insisted Ed wear. It's a joke to Ed. "That darn hat," the unassuming Bilderback still says today as he watches the film.
It was a cool, rainy fall day when I visited Bilderback on the shores of Prince William Sound and toured the small Cordova harbor where the Valiant Maid rested in port. The boat celebrated its 50th birthday last summer, and also celebrated a lifetime of adventure with Bilderback at the helm. Bilderback calls the boat his faithful companion.
"Faithful?" I asked.
"She's outlasted two wives and a whole bunch of girlfriends," Ed told me with a twinkle in his youthful eye. "That's pretty faithful, wouldn't you say?"
Bilderback isn't a particularly tall man, not long and lean in stature the way one might imagine Daniel Boone (though Ed's great, great, great, great grandfather is immortalized in a village statue back East and spoken of in the same terms as the frontier scout). Nor is Bilderback hulking or mountainous as one might picture a guide that could pack a world record grizzly hide and head on his back over uneven terrain. Rather, the outdoorsman is average in size, about the same as my own 5' 10" frame, yet the man is impressively economical in movement, especially considering his age, and as nimble as a cat on the docks and decks around the Valiant Maid.
Bilderback appears the same way in his lifestyle, focused, yet economical. To conduct our interview, he picked me up in a late model compact car, drove me down to the docks to see the Valiant Maid, then visited his simple house in Cordova where he served herb tea, introduced me to his small dog (a Jack Russell terrier named Nugget) and walked me through memories of Fred and company.
Ed doesn't make a big deal of knowing Fred Bear, it seems just another of the adventures of a lifetime of adventures. One can see Ed's pride in the photos and letters he has saved and in the prominent place Fred's signed portrait occupies in the house. Looking at Fred, I had to ask if he was really as lean as he looked in all those pictures. Bilderback laughed and concurred. "I saw Fred come out of the shower on one of our trips and I had to laugh," Ed chortled. "He was so white he looked like a skinny ghost."
Ed got to spend a lot of personal time with Fred, not just during the three years that he guided Fred in Alaska, but he also got to know Papa Bear in places like Fred's deer hunting grounds in Nebraska. Ed enjoyed telling how the first time he went bowbunting in Nebraska with Papa Bear, Fred was still in the car in the morning sleeping when Ed shot a big mulie just a few minutes hike away. He says with a laugh that he didn't waste the opportunity to rub it in.
Ed can also recount some of the stories Fred told him, like the time Papa Bear and company went hunting in the region of the Amazon River, shooting toucans and monkeys with their bows. When the guides abandoned the hunters after a couple of days, the hunters were forced to shoot their own food. When asked how toucan tasted, Ed responded, "A heck of a lot better than monkey!"
Ed Bilderback is not short on sense of humor. He calls wild sheep the best tasting meat in Alaska, but says the problem is that once you get a sheep home, everyone wants a taste. Ed solves the problem by harvesting an old goat and marking the packages "sheep". "When anybody asks for sheep I give them that. Next time, they say, 'I don't want any of that sheep, it's too tough!'".
Ed isn't strictly a hunter. He has fished to supplement his living for many years. When locals are asked about Ed Bilderback, you're as likely to hear about his fishing crew as anything else. It seems that every summer Ed takes on a crew of young women to help pull his salmon nets, and the oft-time bathing-suit-clad crew make quite an impression in the busy-little Cordova harbor.
Ed has also developed more diverse pursuits that combine his skills with wild animals. One of them is making several short videos with his small dog, Nugget. Basically the series include "Nugget Does Halibut Fishing," "Nugget Does Moose," and "Nugget Does Brown Bear," mostly these are single-scene, hysterical vignettes of Nugget nearly getting his butt kicked by the species at hand. The dog always escapes with his hide intact, however. Now in retirement, Nugget has written a new book, Ed tells me, called "Dogs and Bears" by Nugget.
I first learned of Bilderback through a pair of brothers, Pete and Bob Anderson, that help make up the local color in Cordova. Pete introduced me to Bilderback. Brother Bob was a game warden in the region for years, and got to know Bilderback quite well. He provided some interesting anecdotes about Bilderback's exploits that you'd never hear the modest hunter tell about himself.
Like the story Bob Anderson told me about trapping wolverines, the animal the natives call "devil bear," and one even wolves fear. It seems one day in Cordova, Bilderback asked warden Anderson if he wanted to see some wolverines he had trapped. Anderson had seen dead wolverines many times before, but as a conservation officer he was always interested in checking a catch. When Bob got to the Valiant Maid and was shown the inside the boat's hold, there was a wolverine held alive and unharmed. When asked about this feat, the modest Bilderback explained that he had figured a live wolverine was probably worth a lot more than a dead one was. Over the years he sold several to zoos. "Ed was the only man I knew who could bring back a wolverine alive," Anderson noted.
Bob Anderson was also in charge of paying off a bounty on sea lions in the old days when the mammals were believed to hurt salmon stocks. Bob describes Bilderback and his friend Harley King as a pair who were unequaled when it came to bringing back their quarry, especially when it came to sea lions. Ed and Harley brought in sea lion pelts by the hundreds in those days. No one else was even close. When I asked Ed where Harley was now, he told me that their partnering days had ended when a berserk man went postal in a small town where Harley and his wife were snowmobiling. Unarmed and wounded, Harley told his wife to run while he tried to distract the gun-bearing whacko. His wife escaped but Harley paid the price by taking a bullet in the head.
Ed's reputation as a hunter followed him to Hawaii a few years later when he pulled anchor on the Valiant Maid and boldly headed across the broad Pacific to try his hand in the tropics. Prices for Alaskan salmon had gone in the tank back then, so Ed figured if he could get his boat to Hawaii, he could fish commercially for the abundant species found there. Ed and the Valiant Maid made the crossing, but the commercial fishing stocks and market in Hawaii weren't what they were in Alaska. Needing another livelihood, Ed found it in sea turtles. Biologists wanted to study the turtles, but nobody knew how to find them and trap them. Most of the turtles being caught for research were drowning in the nets set for them. Ed not only figured out a way to trap large numbers of turtles, but he figured out a trap that kept them alive, as well. According to Ed, the biologists paid him well for his work.
In the meantime, Bilderback and his wife took up bowhunting on the Hawaiian islands, becoming exceptionally proficient at harvesting local game. Ed's bowhungting tally from records he kept in those years show he took 164 pigs, 166 sheep, 17 goats and two pheasants flying while living on the islands. (The resident wildlife are probably still looking over their shoulder for Ed Bilderback.)
Ed developed a friendship with one of Fred's closest friends, Bob Munger, over the years.
As Munger followed Papa Bear around the world on his bowhunting expeditions (Manger would later write a book called "Trailing A Bear") he would correspond with Ed, keeping him appraised of their travels, successes and failures. Bilderback calls Manger "quite a bowhunter" though Munger always hunted in the shadow of the ubiquitous Fred.
Munger was a part of that famous spring hunt in Alaska that producedF red's world-record brown bear. He hadn't been along six months earlier when Glen St. Charles and Russ Wright had accompanied Fred and Ed Bilderback on the Valiant Maid. On that hunt, Fred had shot a much smaller brown bear, and though the hunt was also captured on film, it was in much less dramatic fashion.
Ed never could get Fred Bear to come visit him in Hawaii, though the two remained friends until Fred's death. Fred kept Ed on his mailing list to receive photos and journal notes from his many hunts. Being called the world's greatest hunter by the likes of Fred Bear would be more compliment than many could handle, but Ed Bilderback meant more than that to an ambitious Papa Bear. Ed came along at just the right time in Fred's career, and though he guided Fred for just three years, they may have been the most important bowhunting years in Fred's very public life. Bowhunting was young then, and Fred was not only laying the foundation for himself and his company, but for an entire industry. Ed Bilderback showed Fred what could he done.
Ed says that when Fred insisted on paying for trips to Nebraska and elsewhere he always told Bilderback, "We really underpaid you for those hunts."
Ed laughs and adds, "I always told him, 'Hey, It's never too late!'".