For many serious big-game hunters, killing a Kodiak bear — the largest brown bear on Earth — is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hunters often save for years and travel thousands of miles to check off this bucket-list experience.
Retired Coast Guardsman Kris Heilman is a passionate hunter who wanted to retire in Alaska because it’s a hunter’s paradise. He did just that and became a Kodiak resident in 2013. In September, he shot his first Kodiak bear, but he could never have imagined it going down the way it did.
During a terrifying ordeal, Heilman shot the bear in his neighbor’s house from a few feet away with a 12-gauge slug to the head — through a wooden door in the middle of the night during a storm.
Welcome to Alaska.
Living With the Kodiak Bear
Heilman moved to Kodiak Island at the top of 2022. “I ended up on a ship in 2013 in Alaska, and once I had come here, I knew I was going to retire here. There’s nothing that compares to it,” Heilman told Free Range American.
He had served on the Coast Guard’s tactical law enforcement team out of Miami, Florida. After retirement, he fulfilled that promise to himself and moved to a home in Bells Flats, an area about 10 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska.
“It’s just a group of houses. We have one restaurant and one little store, and then that’s it,” he said.
With approximately 3,500 brown bears living on the Kodiak Archipelago, encounters with the apex predators are a normal part of everyday life for people living on the islands.
“In Alaska, bears are something you get accustomed to pretty quick,” Heilman said. “You don’t leave the house and just blindly walk over to your truck in the morning. You open the door, look both ways, and then go.
“That’s the biggest concern all of us have here: coming around a corner and surprising a bear,” he added. “Bears also get into houses all the time. If you put a brisket on the smoker and just roll it inside your garage, they’ll rip the garage door right off.”
“Baby, There’s a Bear.”
On Sept. 27, 2022, a massive Kodiak bear made a bad decision to break into Aaron Olsen’s house; he lives just five doors down from Heilman in the small Bells Flats community.
“That night, it was really dark, really wet, really blowing hard. It was one of those classic Kodiak nights,” Olsen said during an address as he recalled the incident. “I worked that day and fell asleep on the couch. Normally before bed, I have a routine. I go through, lock the doors, and turn the porch lights on, but instead, I staggered up and went to bed at 10, which is pretty early for me. I’m usually a midnight kind of guy.”
Around 11 p.m., a bear took advantage of Olsen’s broken routine and wandered into the house where Olsen and his family were sleeping. Five of Olsen’s six kids were home at the time, along with his wife, Maribel, who was seven months pregnant.
“Harley, my lab, has a bear bark that I recognize. It’s a no-nonsense bellow, and I wake up to that bark,” Olsen said. “I got out of bed quicker than ever. I was on my feet and had a pistol in my hand. There was no doubt in my mind that there was a bear on the porch. That was immediately where my mind went.”
Olsen ran to investigate, dressed only in his skivvies and grasping his Taurus Judge five-shot revolver, which he kept loaded with .45 Colt on his nightstand. He went to the back door and tried to see out into the storm but couldn’t make out anything in the dark. He didn’t want to open the door to look out because of how his dog was carrying on; he was sure there was a bear out there.
The next thing Olsen heard over Harley’s barking was his wife saying, “Baby, there’s a bear.”
He looked back toward the bedroom door he’d just walked through, and all he could see was a massive wall of brown fur.
“That bear’s nose was at my bedroom doorway, looking right at my wife,” Olsen said.
The bear had come in through the front door, somehow bumping it closed, walked through the living room, through the kitchen, past the leftover fried chicken on the counter, and stopped directly in front of the family’s washer and dryer. It was looking at Maribel lying in bed.
“It took me a quarter of a second to decide to pull the trigger,” Olsen said.
“Don’t Hit the Kids”
Despite Olsen’s immediate decisiveness, he knew he had to take his shot carefully. He had to shoot around the corner of a bedroom where his two youngest children were sleeping.
As he pulled the trigger to send a .45 Colt round through the bear’s shoulder, his inner voice reminded him, “Don’t hit the kids.”
“When I pulled the trigger, I couldn’t see its head. I hope the first shot hit him in the shoulder,” Olsen said.
Whether from pain or fear, the bear managed to turn its mammoth body around inside the confines of the home’s tiny hallway, likely in an attempt to get back out the way he’d come in. Olsen followed the bear through his house.
“I was pulling the trigger while shouting ‘Get out of my house!’ along with a lot of logger and fisherman words that I’ve learned over the years,” he said. “There was not an ounce of fear in me in that moment. It was all business. It was just rage, the maddest I have ever been. I could not believe this thing was in my house. I was furious.”
Olsen put three of the four rounds he fired into the bear.
“A .45 Colt is not designed to bring down a 988-pound bear instantly. It is not big enough,” he said. “You need a bigger gun.”
Scared and injured, the enormous bear made a valiant effort to escape Olsen’s house. It staggered into the home’s arctic entry, a kind of 8-by-8-foot mudroom lined with shelves that the family uses as a pantry.
“It was thrashing around in there, but he couldn’t get out. Somehow that door ended up closed,” Olsen said. “He would have left if he could have, but that stupid door shut behind him.”
Because a wounded Kodiak bear can be far more dangerous than an uninjured bear, Olsen saved the last round in his revolver, just in case the bear tried to leave the pantry.
“I could hear him breathing. The girls could hear it in their room, too,” Olsen said. “I kept yelling at the girls to stay in their room. I did not want them coming out of that doorway.”
“It was thrashing around, trying to get out every once in a while, and it had evacuated its bowels on the carpet,” Olsen said. “He was scared.”
Calling for Backup
While Olsen kept a close eye on the injured bear, his wife called 911. His son Jeimie also managed to reach Olsen’s father, who lived next door some 200 yards away. He and Olsen’s oldest son, who had been staying with his grandfather, managed to get all five children out of the house through their bedroom windows.
“At this point, I think I’m going into shock. I didn’t know that everyone was safe yet. I didn’t get the stand-down order until the trooper showed up 15 minutes later,” Olsen said.
News travels surprisingly fast on sparsely populated Kodiak Island, even in the middle of the night. Several houses down the street, Heilman’s wife got a phone call about the bear.
“One of my buddies got a call and was going up there [to the Olsen house],” Heilman said. “His wife called my wife because she didn’t want him going alone, so she woke me up.”
Helman grabbed his Remington 870 Tactical shotgun and a handful of Winchester XP 1-ounce copper sabot slugs and headed up the road to his neighbor’s house. Heilman said he has relied on the slugs for hunting, and they leave the muzzle with an intense 2,489 ft-lb of energy.
“When I showed up, the bear was sitting right behind the front door, and there’s a glass window in the door,” Heilman said. “You could just see it sitting there with its head moving up and down like it was either licking its wounds or eating something, I’m not sure which.”
He relied on his experience serving on a tactical law enforcement team when he was a Coastie to put down the big bear inside the Olsen house.
“I initially thought, ‘How do I know there’s nobody else in this house?’ It was dark and pouring rain, and I was about to send a slug into somebody’s home,” Heilman said. “That was my main concern. As far as knowing how to put a round through a door, I had been a breacher before, and it really wasn’t much different than that.
“I was about 10 feet from the door, and I timed the shot for when its head went below the glass. I wanted to shoot through the wood part of the door, not the glass. When I shot, it shook the whole house.”
The copper slug hit the mark, traveling under the bear’s jaw and through his brain.
“After I shot, we moved up to the door and shined a flashlight in there,” Heilman said. “We could see it laying there motionless, but we wanted to give it plenty of time. The last thing I wanted to do was go in the back door and be in the living room with an injured bear. That’s why I made a choice to shoot it right through the door instead of going in there with it.”
How to Extract a Half-Ton Kodiak Bear From a House
When everyone was confident that the big bear was no longer a threat, they moved inside to assess the damage and figure out how to extract the huge dead animal from the family’s pantry room.
“The whole house smelled like a bear. It had basically rubbed dirt and mud all over the place — up on the back of the couch, on the walls, everywhere,” Heilman said. There was also a healthy amount of blood and bear feces.
Removing a half-ton Kodiak bear from a pantry room is no easy feat. It took four grown men to move the carcass just a few feet away from the back door, so they could get it open. Then they had to use the local tow truck to haul the carcass out of the house.
“They actually just winched it up on the back of the tow truck to take it over to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” Heilman said. “It was easier just to hang it up like you would a car and tow it to town.”
In Alaska, bears killed in defense of life or property belong to the state. That means the bear’s hide, claws, and skull belong to Alaska, not the homeowner or the shooter. The law is designed to discourage people from shooting a bear unnecessarily and then trying to make a DLP claim.
The bear Heilman shot through Olsen’s front door weighed 988 pounds and had a 27-inch skull. For perspective, a 28-inch skull is considered a “record book” bear, and a 30 12/16-inch bear holds the Boone & Crockett World Record.
A New Kodiak Bear Hunter Is Born
The Olsen family has since cleaned up the mess and is recovering from the harrowing ordeal. They are thankful that, despite the danger and chaos of that evening, everyone was safe, and the bear didn’t do any significant damage to their home.
“He didn’t even knock a picture off the wall,” Olsen said.
While Olsen said he had never been interested in bear hunting before, ever since a rather large one barged into his home in the middle of the night, his attitude has completely changed.
“I am now of the mindset that I do not want to hunt bears in my house, but I will not be caught flat-footed again,” Olsen explained. “I went out, and I bought a 12-gauge Benelli M4. I went and got my registration tag, and I’m looking. I want that rug. You don’t get to keep the hides from self-defense bears, but I aim to get one.”
This article has been updated from the original version that incorrectly stated Heilman moved to Kodiak Island in January 2022. He has been a resident there since 2013.