Kodiak Moment

Why is an Alaskan hunter gunning for a giant bear - in a Phoenix strip joint?

He spent years writing his own letters to Bush Co. owners and attorneys; his files contain copies of the few responses he received. He says he's called the Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. And he's made four trips to Phoenix to visit his bear and seek its return; once he searched the bankruptcy files for legal word on the bear, and once he confronted the Bush Co. manager and attorney.

Prove it, they told him. Prove that it's your bear.

"I remember that guy," says Dan McCauley, a Phoenix lawyer who represents Richard and Andrea Gates, the Bush Co.'s current owners. "I told him to go to bankruptcy court and prove it to the court."

Tony Fabriger: "I never thought I would have to hunt that bear twice."
Jack Satta
Tony Fabriger: "I never thought I would have to hunt that bear twice."
The Kodiak brown bear was big enough to be a trophy. Here, an Anchorage taxidermist works on the mount.
courtesy of Tony Fabriger
The Kodiak brown bear was big enough to be a trophy. Here, an Anchorage taxidermist works on the mount.

McCauley says Fabriger, who showed up at the club in January 2000, never produced any kind of paperwork documenting ownership.

"I guarantee you unequivocally, if he had shown me documents at the time that showed he owned this piece of property, we would have given it to him," McCauley says.

Now, McCauley says, the same is still true. If Fabriger can prove to the bankruptcy court that he is the rightful owner and the court erred in conveying the bear as an asset, "I'll give it to him," McCauley says.

It's likely Fabriger will finally be able to do just that.

Antonin "Tony" Fabriger was born and raised in Czechoslovakia. He eventually became a coal miner.

But he really wanted gold. So, after moving to the United States where he worked in the automotive business, he drifted north, to Alaska, where he hoped to mine gold. (There are many small gold mines, primarily placer operations, and family gold miners in Alaska.)

"I always wanted Alaska," he says, his slight accent giving away his European upbringing. "I'm a guy who likes the outdoors. And when I came to the United States, I said I wanted to dig the gold."

In 1984, he found himself in Fairbanks, working as an auto mechanic. He soon got a better job in Anchorage.

"I just stayed there and started hunting and fishing," Fabriger says. "I never did dig gold other than a little panning."

Fabriger had been an avid bowhunter since 1978. He lived in Portland, Oregon, then, and the owner of a Volkswagen he'd done a tune-up on offered to teach him.

In 1986, Fabriger put in for the Kodiak Island bear hunt and was thrilled when he won a spot.

"I just wanted the challenge," he says.

The trip, which he made alone when a friend backed out at the last minute, cost him about $1,500, he recalls, for outfitting and travel to the island, about 250 miles south of Anchorage. He was 38 years old and in excellent physical shape.

Fabriger took enough gear for a three-week stay, and spent the first few days hiking from his base camp to other parts of the island, looking for the elusive bears. He saw plenty of deer, fox and eagles, among other wild creatures, but no bears.

On the sixth day, he finally got what he'd come for.

Later, once he got the bear hide back to the town of Kodiak where it was tagged by state game officials and a "sealing certificate" was issued, he found out the animal was of trophy quality. The skull measured out a bit more than 18 inches long and more than 11 inches wide.

But first, he had to get the bear out of the rocks.

Fabriger says he spent hours trying to skin the bear in the rocks. He gave up when it got dark.

The next day, he hiked for several hours to reach a cannery where he borrowed a portable winch from the watchman. He headed back to the bear the next morning but broke the winch when he first tried to use it. Back to the cannery. Fix the winch. Back to the bear.

By this time, Fabriger says, dozens of eagles -- he counted perhaps as many as 40 -- had moved in and stripped most of the meat off the carcass. He'd slit the hide open so that the birds, which he'd seen eagerly hovering, wouldn't damage the hide.

When he got back to the bear the second time, "he was numb as a rock. It took two days of hard work to skin the bear."

Finally, he rolled up the hide and tied it with ropes to carry it back to his base camp, six miles away.

Only it was too heavy to carry. (Later, he found it weighed 179 pounds.) He made it about 100 feet, he says, and decided "this was not going to work."

So he rolled it downhill, all the way down the slope to the beach, about a half-mile away, carrying it over rough spots.

Several hours later, he was back at the cannery again, this time to call his pilot to pick him up, with the hide, at the beach. Except the weather was terrible, raining, snowing, 60-mile-an-hour winds. He couldn't get through to the airport, and the pilot wouldn't have flown, anyway.

So, despite the cannery watchman's warnings not to go out in such foul weather, he borrowed a small open skiff with an outboard motor. Fabriger says he was in a hurry to get the hide somewhere it could be refrigerated because he hadn't done a very good job scraping the fat off and salting it. He was afraid the fur would fall off.

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