Written by Ted Schnack Jr.
Alaska. The Great Land. The Last Frontier. An expanse so vast you could fit Texas, California and Montana inside her borders and have wilderness to spare. She is a contrasting blend of natural wonder with gifts so grand as not to be found anywhere else on earth. In a land so raw there is an element of danger and hardcore adventure knowing its beauty can sometimes bite back. . The Adventure of Alaska has been calling hunters and thrill seekers for centuries. A call as old as time.
The lure of Alaska hooked me a young boy of about ten. A monthly cover to cover read of Outdoor magazines, my boy’s sense of adventure seemed always to hang on the tales from Alaska. From grainy black and white photos of Jack O'Connor on a forbidding sheer moonscape with a “40 Incher”, in stories with names like “The Great Rams of Lost Valley” and Russell Annabels tales of wounded grizzlies in alder patches and tales of terror.
“Let’s do Alaska, Caribou”, the call was delayed and on a scratchy phone on one of my assignments in the Middle East which had an adventure element all its own. My longtime adventure buddy Ken Larson and I had talked about a Caribou trip to Alaska for many years and it was time to dive in.
“High Adventure” would provide one thing, a ride to and from Caribou country where we would be on our own for a week for a mid September hunt for hard antlered bulls. The struggle begins much earlier than you might suspect when dealing with float plane weight restrictions and picking gear for weather ranging from buggy heat waves to hardcore blizzards.
Our first attempt out of Soldotna was stopped dead in its tracks by another thing Alaska is well known for wicked weather. Seems out of the entire region a small 40-60 knot storm spiked with rain and sleet had settled over our hunting grounds in a swirling cauldron of nastiness. For two days the storm wouldn’t budge.
Our Alaskan adventure was becoming a cheap motel room complete with, Tahitian art, cigarette burns on the Formica counters and a heater that rattled off and on about every ten minutes which we nicknamed “the Jalopy” that sounded allot like a clothes dryer full of rocks and tin cans.
Day three dawned with hope. I had seen a piece of blue in the gray skies and we got the word to scramble down to the plane docks for a slice of good weather we might be able to sneak through. Arriving at the docks the plane was idling and it was a go, the pilot nodding looking to the skies, “hustle up I think we're good but we gotta go now, this won’t last”. The float plane cleared the trees and we were finally on our way across the Cook Inlet to chase the legendary Mulchatna herd.
Michelangelo has the Sistine Chapel and God has Alaska. The country underneath was nothing short of astounding, pure, raw, wilderness. The nose of the plane bucked the choppy air heading straight up a narrow river valley and towards a mountain pass that looks to have been used as an inspiration for Lord of the Rings. A panorama of silver waterfalls, electric greens and prehistoric glaciers grinding their slow march to the sea. Impossible cathedrals of stone and ice towered into misty heights embracing both sides of the plane. We were the tiniest speck in all this grandness.
The heights drifted down into a vast vista speckled with lakes and alders, the autumn colors a pastel fire of crimson and gold in an ever-changing, ever breathing living work of art. Caribou country. Crisscrossing game trails, ancient riverbeds of life worn deep spoke of great herds. The search was on.
I spotted the first bunch, flecks of gray and white tossed across the golden tundra. Not herds of thousands that had migrated through my daydreams, but scattered handfuls here and there. The pilot said the herd had been taking a beating from wolves since they stopped aerial shooting. He added sometimes you might see fifty wolves, or ‘killing machines” as he called them in a long string dogging a herd, “takes a toll.” The grizzled face and knowing nod from our pilot let us know it was time to drop in, pointing to a small lake as he banked hard.
The roar of the plane soon turned to a soft buzz and we were alone in the wilderness. Just weeks before my every horizon was edged with razor wire and guard towers as I carried a machine gun and wore body armor in 130 degree heat. The endless land felt strange indeed and it hardly seemed possible that I was even on the same planet where I had come from. The air was cool and overcast with a blue gray windless sky. Ken and I were glad not to be setting up our eight man tent in the rain and sleet driven tundra tornado that had been pounding this area in previous days. In Alaska you can’t hunt the same day you fly and our hunt would begin tomorrow at dawn.
Up well before sunrise the blackest skies filled with pulsing stars arching shooting stars, clusters of diamond light and vastness
had us looking up with wonder. We far from the light pollution that has most of modern man ignorant to one of Gods great treats.
Wolf howls from three different directions let us know that we were not the only ones that had fresh Caribou meat on our mind. We bantered the idea if when the sun came up it would be wise to head towards the sounds of the howls if we did’nt spot Caribou from camp as they make a living staying on the herd or away as the Caribou too know how this game is played.
It slowly became light and the weather was crisp and clear and vista to vista not a cloud was to be found. We headed north to the slightest high ground for a good glassing spot. A few hundred yards from camp on a misty mirror pond were a brace of trumpeter swans. Alarmed they took flight giving us one of the frequent gifts hunters receive by being in these wild places. Never was there a piece of art created by man’s hand that could challenge the beauty of those snow-white swans flying across that back drop. I took it as an omen for good luck.
After a couple hours of glassing horizons we saw a herd of about100. Ken had won traditional “rock…scissors…paper” and he was first up. They were on the move, quartering towards us and looked like they would pass in range. This was going to be one of those times to sit, settle in, and wait for them. I could see several set of antlers as the herd strung out across the horizon. We both were glassing hard looking for the best bull when Ken whispered “Last Bull… I am going to take the last bull…range him.” It was my job to keep track of the biggest bull and call the shot, “right about 400”. Ken, a jet pilot has ice water in his veins and a golden trigger finger when it comes to rifle shooting. A solid boom rocked the air followed by the tha-wack of a good bullet strike anchoring the bull on the spot.
Caribou country seems at first glance a little like the windy and open antelope country back home. It is an evil mirage. I was looking forward to hunting flat ground for a change as most of my hunts back home are steep and high altitude leg burners and lung scorchers. I was loaded with hind quarters, the rack, my rifle and miscellaneous gear. After falling to one knee for the umpteenth time, I knew the muttered warnings I had heard from those before me, “You’ll see that tundra’s tough”, were ringing true.
We staggered into camp, dropped our packs and plopped to the ground. It had been twelve hard hours since a cup of coffee and a granola bar. Tired, satisfied, aching bodies and hungry guts. The Czars of Russia would never sit to a finer meal. Our dining room decor was supplied by God and he had surrounded us with his finest art and decor. The special of the day were fresh Caribou tenderloins cooked in back strap tallow with Spanish spices. Our table linens a carpet of moss, silverware; grubby fingers, dinner attire; dirty camos. A desert of fresh fat blueberries and a swallow of Yukon Jack, the final touch to the perfect, priceless meal.
Three days passed and we saw a few hundred Caribou. It was becoming clear what we had been told at the docks that the bigger bulls were still hanging up in the hills was true. We were seeing Caribou which is always encouraging but everything we saw was small, cows, calves and raghorn bulls.
After a fast start we were running short of days. Hard-looking a herd of about 200 a mile away we were hoping one of the small bulls might sprout something of interest. but nothing garnered a second look. After about an hour it was getting late in the day and it was time to hunt our way back to camp before dark. We looked back several times hoping some new Caribou had drifted in. Last chance and last look before we would forever lose sight of the herd I saw four white specks coming through a small fold in the land. Four good bulls and one really stuck out. Game on. He looked spectacular, his white mane blowing in the wind, the slash down his side jet black making a dramatic contrast to his ivory markings, nose tilted upwards to balance his amber long tined rack. He was just what I was hoping for. Classic Alaska.
I really wanted that bull but we were having trouble coming up with a plan other than hoping they came our way. A mile of dead flat was going to be a problem. After milling about in random directions the herd sort of cooperated and started angling to the side of us strung out in a steady walk. We would try and cut them off and hope to get close enough for a chance. We had a lot of ground to cover and would have to move quickly before they were long gone or darkness put an end to it all.
There was no place to hide so it was time for a trick. I bent over and held onto Ken’s belt as he walked upright to give the illusion of a four legged creature. I had no idea if it was going to work, but soon found out that walking upright through the tundra is a sidewalk stroll compared to bending over in a half crouch Kens muddy heels my only guide. But it looked like we had found a little magic and were actually were getting closer. Another hundred yards or so and I just might get a chance. Ken whispered that they were getting spooky and we were about four hundred yards out. It was the moment of truth. A rush of shooting sticks, scope caps, a deep breath and the solid thump of my Dads “aught-six” put the bull down. A few primal whoops for joy as we made our way to the downed bull.
He was a beautiful bull and just what I had been dropped into the middle of the Alaska wilderness for and easily the best bull we had seen all week.
The gathering dark hustled us through the pictures and cutting. We had found out slip by stumble how tough the tundra was and knew a loaded pack in the dark would be a new game I didn’t want to play. Under the best conditions a daylight struggle likens to crossing a sea of half rotten pumpkins covered with day old waffles and tangles of dead grass, but at least you can kind of plot a way. Taking a heavy load at night would be a new nasty so we had to move quickly. Still filled with adrenaline I decided to tackle hind quarters, the head and cape as I am a firm believer to make the first load the toughest one while you are at your strongest and still pumped with adrenaline.
The plan was to get just to get a mile or so back to some small trees and some high ground to cache some of my bull in a less convenient place away from roaming critters, hungry crows and eagles looking for an easy meal. It didn’t feel too bad for the first few hundred yards as I will still in a state of “hunter high” that the animal I had come so far for, waited so long for and finally saw in a slim chance spot was actually on my pack.
But then the true torture began. The heavy load and the tundra was killing me one stumble at a time. I kept willing myself on “just keep moving”, like I had done countless times before but I could feel my body breaking down. With all the falls the top-heavy y load had shifted and the load was pulling and twisting sideways. There was no place to set the load down in the sloppy tangled mess to regroup and ever hope to get it to my shoulders again. I'll never know how I made the last couple of hundred yards to the small trees. But that load was truly a “back breaker” that I am reminded of to this day.
Camp broken down, the plane packed, the throttle full forward and we were off. As Alaska drifted by below and the plane banked hard I knew Alaska's call of adventure would call me back again. Until then my day dreams will be filled with visions of Alaska and white maned bulls standing strong in an Alaskan wind.