Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
The Land Will Always Win
Hunting caribou in the Talkeetna Mountains
At five thousand feet above sea level, the vast terrain of wind-blown rock, craggy grasses and arrogant spires fell under shadow. The sun breached across the western horizon. Following its passing like a wary gang, cloud cover appeared in the east. “It might rain on us tonight,” I said to my wife as she filtered water from a clear stream exhaling from the gut of the earth. We continued to set up camp. Tent staked. Sleeping bags rolled out. Camp stove gasping under the small pot of roiling water. I turned once more toward the horizon line and embraced the silence of distance. A shallow east breeze, saturated with the attitude and vapors of descending winter lashed itself to my exposed skin. I knew then, the color of the sky.
I set to planning this trip months before our arrival. My wife had been successful in drawing the DC590 caribou hunting permit. While she was born and raised in Interior Alaska, this was to be her first experience hunting big game. Anywhere. I had done enough research on this permit prior to us both applying that I knew it would be best for us to be flown into an area. I had done some work with Fish and Game on a few drainages within the hunt area and I had an idea of where to begin. I also spoke with several people who have had this hunt before and took their insight into account. This hunt area is located in Game Management Unit 14B. The expansive hunt area is located about 60 miles north of Anchorage and is largely in accessible by road
Planning a hunt is difficult. Especially in Alaska. I’ve learned not to take lightly the fact that the landscape is daunting. If you’re not prepared, you could easily end up in a situation you don’t want to be in. Given this was to be my wife’s first big game hunt, I wanted to be sure we were both safe and we had everything in line before stepping foot in the hunt area. I don’t feel it necessary to launch into some diatribe about hunt preparedness. However, for those who would like more information, I’ll leave a few links at the bottom of this article.
Fall is my favorite time to be in Alaska. The seasonal rush of anglers is past. My freezer is typically full of salmon fillets. If summer wins the race of anglers, then fall is the medal of the hunter. My family hunts for food. A true trophy to me is meat in the freezer – not necessarily antlers on the wall. And I was pleased to accompany my wife on her first big game hunt. I accepted the fact that my role in her first hunt was that of advisor. Lead her through the process of learning the firearm. Study shot placement. Animal anatomy. Habitat. Terrain. Gear selection. Let her pull the trigger. Show her how to process the animal. Care for the meat in the field. A true honor.
Some say in fire, some say in ice
I awoke to the sound of a thousand nervous arms beating thin layers of linen against the wings of blind locusts. A deep rush of cold penetrated my body’s core. The invisible force of wind seemed directionless. A strong gust from the east, followed by a slow lull, then an even stronger gust from the west. How much more intense the sound hunkered down inside a thin tent that has given itself to the force of the outside. Despite being positioned in a low spot against a hillside, the thin fabric was no fortress against what dark breath swirled around. I raised my head and looked at my wife. To my surprise, she was sleeping soundly.
I’d like to believe that I am man enough to admit when I am wrong. As we were preparing for this trip, I kept trying to stress to hear that we need to keep our gear to a minimum. Bring only the essential items that could get us through a four-day timespan. Maybe more if we got weathered in. For the most part, we had everything we needed. I thought we over-packed. But the one thing that kept her comfortable that night is something I suggested she not bring.
We lived in Fairbanks for several years before moving farther south in the state. Fairbanks can get cold in the winter. Really cold. People are regularly seen wearing fur in the winter. Early on during our stay in Fairbanks I trapped a few beaver. After having the hides tanned I had a couple trapper hats made from the beaver pelts – one for me, one for my wife. We wore them a lot during the winter months in Fairbanks. I had to change a tire one time when it was about 40 degrees below zero. That hat kept me so warm that when I was finished changing the tire, I got back into my truck, took my hat off and wiped small beads of sweat from my brow.
When she told me she was going to pack her beaver hat on this hunt, I laughed. “You’re not going to need that,” I said. “It won’t be that cold.”
Watching her sleep soundly that night, wind pushing our cheap tent side to side, me wearing my synthetic winter hat, and then realizing snow had begun to sneak its way into the tent through a mesh vent, I vowed to never again question her judgement.
Morning came. Not a breath of wind. I woke her when I unzipped the front door and lumbered out to start the camp stove. I needed coffee. I brushed the fresh snow away from the ground, put my boots on, body aching from a lack of sleep. I knew with the coming sun, what snow remained on the dry blades of grass would soon disappear. As I waited for the pot to boil I shared with her the story of my night. I may have exaggerated a few details here and there. Something about lying there shivering. So cold I couldn’t move. Her waking the next morning to see my eyelids frozen shut. But ultimately, the day begin with me admitting she was right to pack that beaver hat, and stating the first thing we were going to do when we got back to town was to go buy a decent tent. Ready ourselves, should we again catch a small glimpse of a frozen world.
The land will always win. I begin each day of any hunt with this in mind. Day one was no different. After coffee and breakfast, we loaded our packs and headed north to where the land arched. The hope that something lay beyond the bent back.
The ground was soft. We walked into the sun. Ankle bending tufts of grass adjacent to talus hillsides made for a slower pace than I prefer when walking in open country. Stop to hydrate, take a moment to glass distant ridges. Listen to ground squirrels banter like front line chefs as they hastily sank into their burrows. Several burrows had been dug out by the arms of a brown bear. The evidence was clear. Looked like someone tossed a small stick of dynamite into the earth. I carried my .338 win mag hoping to get a shot at a nice brownie. It was fall. I assumed they’d be deep in the valleys gorging on salmon. But you never know.
We spotted caribou from the air the day before. Small bands a few miles away from where we landed and set up camp. Caribou are seemingly constantly on the move. Just because they were there yesterday doesn’t mean anything. I’ve spent hours glassing open tundra, searching for caribou. I’ve watched hillsides lay devoid of life for hours suddenly come alive with a dozen caribou. Been left dumfounded as if witnessing a street magician make the ace of spades materialize in a broken window during a riot. I’ve learned to never be surprised by caribou, and to never stop looking.
The first three we spotted that morning were feeding in a small ravine. Shadowed grey figures. We had stopped to drink from our water bottles and down some granola. I spotted them when I paused to admire a raven circling not far from the ground 150 yards from where we stood. The black figure addressed the morning with a sound best described as water slowly dripping into a shallow pool. Careful words bent and swerved high above tree line, faded fast against the open sky. Everything is a language, so too a bird that hungers.
We listened. Dropped down and used the terrain to edge closer to the quarry. All the while the small band seemed unaware or our presence.
We closed the gap to about a hundred yards. The marksman’s optimal range. Shed the packs, found a solid rest for the rifle. I glassed the animals. One small bull and two cows. She readied the firearm against her pack. “Hold up,” I whispered, and hunkered down next to her. It was a roll of the proverbial dice. Day one. Maybe an hour into the hunt. I’d seen bigger bulls from the air the day before. I considered the thought of winter’s meat. A short pack back to camp. Job done. And we discussed the animal and the situation. Clear shot. A comfortable 100 yards.
I didn’t want her to shoot. But I didn’t tell her that. I told her hunting is enraptured in decision making. Told her, “It’s up to you.” She paused. I could feel her reluctance. Secretly I was pleased. She wasn’t ready for the experience to end. Nor was I. We took a break. Talked more about the situation. Watched the trio feed in the shadowed valley.
I crawled up a small knoll which would give me an opportunity to glass distant country. Watched the raven vanish silent over a ridgeline. I lay prone atop the small embankment and brought the set of binoculars to my eyes. The sun. And endless expanse before me like some unimagined heaven. A brief scan of the terrain through eyes of glass. I stopped midway down a ridge a thousand yards or so beyond. At first glance, his velvet covered antlers shining like the metal of an ancient machine were difficult to comprehend. A mirage of antler mass and body, drowning itself in the morning sun. But there he was. Surrounded by a half-dozen cows. The mountain giant. The distance great. A difficult trek.
I edged back to my wife who at that time was laying in the sun with her head on her pack. Eyes closed.
I tapped her on the leg. “I’ve got your bull.”
A pursuit in the range of animal time is counter to the demands of the wall clock, measuring accomplishments in minutes and hours. And I’m guilty of moving too fast at moments when I should abandon ephemerality and adopt the pace of wild things.
We slipped away at a reasonable clip. Bodies arched like some half-hewn hunchback. Appealing to any form of natural element to shroud our mobile frames. The wind was in our favor. The bull with his morning harem bedded down mid-ridge. We’d stop now and then, glass his demeanor. Our goal was to reach the top-end of a hillock just south of the bull where she could set up for a shot. That was our best option for cover. What nothing between he and the small rise in the earth was the carapace of open ground, a space where two cold figures moving forward would appear as bright as flames. Not worth the risk. They’d spot us for sure. Rise up. Vanish over the ridgeline.
We dropped our packs. Belly-crawled up the light slope. She worried the stock of her .270 against a solid rest on ancient rock. Found closure. Rest the butt end against her shoulder. Chambered a bullet. Flipped the scope covers open and took aim. The earth could feel her breathe. “Relax,” I said, gaging the range from bullet to flesh. “He’s right at 250 yards.”
Comprehend the moment before the firing pin strikes the primer. Frees the bullet from the casket of brass. To the shooter alone belongs the want and the reason, the emotion and the strain.
The click of the safety. I watched her finger fall against the curve of the trigger. “Take your time,” I whispered. Full broadside. Clear shot. I position the binos against my eyes.
The crack of gunpowder ignites the dead air. The force of explosion rattles in my head. I witness a brief breath of dust and pebble exhale just shy of the body. “You shot low,” I said, voice as hurried as a low voltage sting. The bull flinches. His cows take note. She chambers another round. “Aim a bit higher this time,” I say. “Just below the top of his back.” She fires again. The shot screams wild. Dust and stone pop high over his back. He begins to move. Arches up toward the crest of the ridge. His cows follow suit. Like a slow decision, he fades over the ridge. Unscathed. The ringing in my ears. I turn to her. She drops her forehead to the ground. In that moment, the great nothing. Dark. Silent.
Failure is a beast of burden. I saw it in the way she let the rifle slip from her hands. A million pound stone.
“This isn’t over,” I told her. “We need to move.”
She said nothing. Grabbed her pack, shouldered her rifle. We moved. Forward. Toward the top of the ridge the band descended. We didn’t talk much. What few words I spoke seemed clichéd and without impact. It’s okay. Everybody misses. Nerves. “Buck fever.” Whatever. Shake it off.
We reached the point on the ridgeline where the bull had stood. I surveyed the ground looking for any indication that a bullet had made contact. Hair. Blood. Nothing. Again, we shed our packs, dropped down and belly-crawled the top of the ridge. I peered over and could see the band feeding in the gut of the deep valley below. A patch of green grass next to a shallow pool. A steep, rocky slide down a thousand feet to where the ridge parted ways with incline and leveled into flatter land. I ranged the caribou. 500 plus yards. Her bull raising his head now and then. About 200 yards below us, protruding out of the scree slope like some deformed figurine, a rock outcropping on an otherwise bare slant, pillars in the wind.
We made our way down. Slow. Despite the fact that with each step rocks echoed beneath our feet, the animals below never took note. She found a comfortable rest. I ranged the bull. “A little over 300 yards,” I whispered. She chambered a round. I heard the click of the safety release. She took aim. Heavy breathing. The pillars. The verdant green below amid a landscape of otherwise muted tones. Don’t shoot until you’re ready. Calm down. He’s not going anywhere. Words existing only in my mind. “Where should I aim?” Her voice seemed a foreign stranger. “Top of his back above the shoulder,” I reply.
She squeezes the trigger.
I could see the impact of the bullet part the hair on the bull. Blood began to appear against the white underside of the animal. “You hit him!” I shouted. The bull stutter-stepped, looked up and around. The shot grazed the brisket. “Aim a bit higher and fire again.” The trigger, the crack of the rifle. Another miss. The bull spun a 180. Head high. Still broadside. “Shoot again,” I said. She pulls the bolt, a spent casing twirls and falls. She slams the bolt home. Readies herself. Finger against the curve.
Success in preparation perhaps can be best measured in the dichotomy of things taken and things left behind. I knew right away the chamber was empty. The firing pin tapped air like a blindfolded drunk swinging a hammer. Pull another round from your pocket and put it in the chamber. Mindscape chatter again. “Where are the rest of your bullets?” In your pack?! Behind us on top of the ridge? I spun my head around like some fool driver who scans the aftermath of a traffic accident and the barrel of my .338 practically sucker punched me in the eye. I’d forgotten it was there.
I shed the firearm from my shoulder. We exchanged rifles like awkward friends gifting fruitcake. The clip was full. Four rounds. She steadied herself again and chambered a round. During the exchange the bull began to distance himself further from us. I ranged him. 350 yards. Downhill. A long shot.
She took aim. The caribou must have seemed small within the confines of the scope.
Aim at the top of his back. She knew the drill.
The jaw-breaking crack of the rifle was followed by the tell-tale thud of bullet hitting flesh.
I watched as a slow trickle of blood exited out the side of the bull. A perfect double-lung shot. The large bull danced a moonshine waltz, faltered and fell.
Knives. Bone saw. Validate harvest ticket. Pictures. Blood. Bone. Game bags. Three-and-a-half miles to camp. Rise up out of this valley with over a hundred pounds of success strapped to our backs. Under heavy load, even the slightest rise in the earth seemed like the arrival of an uninvited houseguest. And the path to the top of the valley was an onslaught of a thousand souls.
The experience, the authentic reward. To learn to absolve oneself of the obligation of minutes and days and exist momentarily in the enormity of the landscape. Observe. Listen. Never left to want to alter the definition of things wild against the rubric of human ego. To endure. Pursue. To take aim and fire. To miss the mark. To never give in. To be humbled, and to give praise.
This hunt took place in 2015 in the Western Talkeetna Mountains in Unit 14B. It was the DC590 draw permit. More information here on this permit hunt. .
More information on hunting in Alaska – including trip planning.
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