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1993 Caribou Hunt- MSDEER Read Along

Stick & String.. No Cams .. Talk traditional archery

1993 Caribou Hunt- MSDEER Read Along

Postby Stringwacker » Thu Jun 27, 2013 4:13 am

Authors Note: I would like to post some stories that promote the traditional aspects of the sport of archery; merely for the enjoyment of the reader. I hope that you find them enjoyable. Looking back, the Alaskan trips I made in ‘93,’95, and ’96 are without doubt my most favorite hunts. I don’t think I’ve ever dedicated a story to somebody, but this one goes to “Bob” our bush pilot. Being an old salt in his profession, his opinion on whether weather conditions allowed for safe travel through the treacherous Lake Clark mountain pass was sought by all his pilot peers. He was the first to tell me that in the Alaskan bush flying business that there is a saying, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots…but there are no old, bold pilots”. Ironically, Bob was killed tragically along with his hunters when his bush plane flew into a mountain; three days before I could make the next hunting trip with him. This is Alaska…it’s not for the timid.

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Alaska is the last frontier….
Alaska is over twice as large as Texas and would have land mass stretching from Florida all the way to California if placed over a US mainland map. It has the lowest population density of any state and well over 70% of the state is public land…most of it available for hunting for the cost of transportation and a license. The old west had its cowboys and modern Alaska has its bush pilots. The only real difference is one rode a horse and one flies a plane of rusted bolts…most being built over 40 years ago. Fresh paint and duct tape keeps the plane looking good and in the air…at least that was my impression when I saw them. Bush pilots seem to live life like every day is the last one.

I’m not sure how I got the idea that I wanted to undertake a ‘do it yourself’ Alaskan hunt. In reality, it really hadn’t started out that way. I had hunted caribou with bow and arrow in ‘91 out of Schefferville, Quebec with some great friends and killed a decent bull. The Quebec hunt was semi-outfitted in that the bush flight and the sleeping quarters were provided. A caretaker was also provided in the hunt package to cook and to provide assistance as needed. I suppose with this Quebec experience under my belt, I was intrigued to see if something similar could be done in Alaska. In ‘93, I was looking through a hunt catalogue from a hunting consultant and saw something that perked my interest. The recommended outfitter would provide the bush plane, a tent, all food/gear for the hunt, and fly us out of their base operation in Soldotna Alaska. Basically, all the hunter had to do was to show up with a bow, clothing, pack, and sleeping bag. I called the consultant and booked the hunt for that coming fall. We would hunt the Mulchatna caribou herd in south central Alaska which was at an all-time high during that time period. Non-residents were allowed two caribou tags and the outfitter fee was $1600 (including the flight in the bush plane) and I remember thinking that seemed to be a very good deal at the time.

I needed a hunting partner to go with and when I didn’t exactly find anybody willing to do that sort of thing around Brandon Ms where I lived. I decided to call my old bear hunting buddy, Gibbs, from Beaufort SC that I had met earlier on the Alberta hunt that I wrote about. I didn’t get the question completely out before he said…count me in. The phrase “fools go where angels fear to tread” was in my mind as we made preparations for the hunt. Gibbs had also went with me on the Quebec hunt so we knew each other well and I looked forward to the hunt; though I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. Gibbs traveled to my house in Brandon and we both boarded the plane in Jackson together.

It was a beautiful flight that travelled just off the pacific coastline all the way into Anchorage Alaska. As we got closer to Anchorage (our last stop before departing the plane for a ride in a “puddle jumper” for the last leg of our journey into Kenai), the clouds has thickened from the air. I got my first dose of Alaska as the plane broke clear of the pea soup of the clouds and I saw the horizontal rain driven by a vicious north wind. The large Alaskan Airlines plane was being side-slipped by the wind and had a hard time staying straight for the landing. I thought about the fact that I had just left the hot summer days of Mississippi a few hours earlier and was about to be thrust perhaps into a pretty hostile environment. For the first time, I felt some uneasiness about the trip. I remember thinking that I hoped the entire trip’s weather wasn’t like I was witnessing as I boarded the next plane for the final leg into Kenai.

Arriving into Kenai, I was a little disappointed as I guess I thought I was going to see something along the lines like the old TV series “Northern Exposure,” but instead, I found a thriving city complete with nice hotels, McDonald’s and Burger King’s, and even a K-Mart. We got our gear with no issues and a taxi to take us to the hotel that I had booked advance reservations with. The nasty weather was still as we found it in Anchorage. We checked in to find that the hotel didn’t even have television, but that was of little concern. We could finally sleep and the outfitter would pick us up the next morning to get us started on the hunt portion of our grand Alaskan adventure! As one final activity before some needed sleep, we went outside to edge of Cook Inlet and watched the beluga whales roll in the bay; massive animals that constantly blew spray and created huge waves with each turn. Mount Redoubt, with its long history of volcanic eruptions, dominated the view across the bay. Redoubt had experienced a violent eruption just 4 years earlier but it was quiet at the time we were there. As usual on these types of hunts, the events of the day made sleep elusive for me.

The outfitter was on time the following morning. Alaskan law dictates that you cannot hunt the same day that you are airborne so that meant that we would fly on the bush plane on Saturday and hunt Sunday through the following Friday morning. We would then be picked up in time for our flight back via commercial airlines on Saturday. However, despite our best plans the weather was as bad; perhaps even worse, than it was the day before. The outfitter confirmed our fears that morning when he looked at the low hanging clouds on the bay and said that it would be too dangerous to fly through the mountains with the low visibility. I couldn’t argue as the fog was terrible and you couldn’t see 100 yards across the bay. He suggested that we ride with him to go get licenses. Along the way we could stop at his home to meet his wife, have some orientation discussion, and to sign some waivers. He was hopeful that later Saturday the skies might clear and allow a late flight through the pass. It might should be explained that the typical caribou adventure would start with a float plane flight from either Kenai or Soldotna (sister cities) off the bay or one of the numerous lakes that dotted the area and fly through Lake Clark Pass.

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The float plane is the work horse of the Alaskan bush pilot

Lake Clark Pass navigates through the massive Aleutian volcanic mountain range with some of the most rugged, beautiful, and dangerous terrain imaginable. After an hour or so of flying through the pass, the rugged mountains give way to the rolling low 1500ft mountains of the tundra. This is where the barren ground caribou call home. You land on one of the many small lakes via float plane and sent up home for the week. The plan is always to hunt caribou and try to avoid the many brown (grizzly) bears that also call the area home.

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A view of the terrain of Lake Clark Pass-the photo doesn't do it justice.

The outfitter dropped Gibbs and I off at a sporting goods store and we bought our hunting licenses. I noticed a book on sale at the counter named “Grizzly Attacks!-Volume 1.” Hmmm….that uneasiness started to creep back in as I had thought of bear attacks as a rare event; yet somebody had written a book about them…. and this was just Volume 1? I put the thought aside and finished with the licenses, we got back in the truck and headed to the outfitters home.

The outfitters home was a small rustic affair. One of the things that caught our eye was that all the vases, pictures, and ‘whatnot’s’ (that what my mother would call them) were anchored with putty on the boards on which they sat. Tremors are so common in the area that residents anchor down anything that can move. The young wife of the outfitter said that would feel a small tremor at least once a month in the area! The southern coastline of Alaska is geographically unstable, resting within the ‘ring of fire’ of the continental plate shift, so residents have learned to cope with the earthquakes it brings. Some of the largest earthquakes in recorded history have happened in this portion of the world.

The outfitter went into alarming detail of co-existing in brown bear country. Brown bears are the hyped up version of the interior silver tip grizzly. Grizzly bears that reside within approximately 75 miles of the southern salt water of Alaska are often called brown bears. Their diet of abundant high protein fish makes them larger than their interior counterparts, and they have a more brownish color; though the colors can vary from bear to bear. The outfitter said that if we found a large fresh pile of dirt to quickly leave the area the way we came in; that this was the buried food of a brown bear. Like some dogs, they can be very protective of their food and will attack if they sense danger… or theft. When I asked the outfitter just how much danger (really) is involved in this trip, he explained like this, “Back home if you’re walking a sidewalk on a dark city street alone after midnight, 99 times out of 100 times another person being met on the same sidewalk will just nod his head and go along his way. However, on occasion the person you meet on the sidewalk will stick a knife in your back. Brown bear encounters are similar. Each bear has a different personality.” Geez! That removed all the uneasiness I had and replaced it with solid and unabashed fear. The fear of the large bears kicked up quite a few notches on the things to fear over!

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This grizzly footprint was taken just to the rear of our tent later in this hunt

After installing a dose of uncontrollable fear in us, the outfitter took us back to the hotel and said that we weren’t going to make it out that day (Saturday). He then said that we would try it again on Wednesday. He explained that he worked at the oil refinery and he could not get off to fly again until then. When we explained that our hunt had to end on Friday (due to our commercial flight on Saturday) and given the laws of no hunting on the day you fly; this was only going to allow us 1.5 days to hunt on our dream vacation. He said not to worry as that would be more time than we would need to fill our licenses! He suggested that we rent a car and go to a nearby river system filled with spawning king salmon and hunt black bear until Wednesday. I asked if the area had brown bear and he said yes… but don’t shoot them! We dismissed the idea pretty quickly as hunting around 1000 pound bears during the fish spawn was likely going to be more danger than we wanted to tackle at this point.

As we sat in our hotel room, Gibbs and I began to discuss the unanticipated delay. Including commercial airfare, we both had about $3,000 in the hunt each…a large sum of money for a 1.5 day hunt! After talking about it and becoming more upset with each passing hour, we called the hunting consultant that we booked the hunt through and asked if this sort of thing was normal in Alaska. He was adamant that perhaps we had just misunderstood the outfitter and he would give him a call on our behalf. Let’s just say that conversation apparently went very, very badly as he called us back and said the outfitter had cancelled our hunt and to try to book another flight service! The booking consultant promised that if both of us didn’t both kill a caribou that he would pay our outfitter fees in full the next year on him! Within the hour, the wife of the outfitter came to our hotel room, called us a bunch of redneck whiners, threw $3,200 cash on the floor, turned around and abruptly left. I swear…. the entire episode lastly less than 30 seconds from the knock on the hotel door to the money on the floor! The bottom line; we had lots of cash but no flight service to the Alaskan bush and we were sitting in a hotel thousands of miles from home. After the shock of the recent events had passed, Gibbs and I discussed our next move. In a bizarre twist of fate, Gibbs noticed a business card lying on a dressing table in the room. The card read “Air Adventures…Let us plan your next hunt.” It was decided to call Air Adventures late that night and a soft spoken fellow answered the phone.

John McBride, owner of Air Adventures, was everything that the other outfitter was not. A genuinely nice fellow who had a flight backlog of his own client services due to the bad weather…but very willing to help us. John knew of the other outfitter that had returned our money and said the guy was not well liked by the other flight services in the area. Our unique problem was that we had no gear as it was to have been provided by the earlier outfitter. Air Adventures didn’t supply gear (only the bush plane) but John took it upon himself to remedy the situation. A few calls to friends and a quick trip to K-Mart furnished the minimum of what we needed. We had acquired a cheap tent, a small Coleman fuel burning stove to heat water, a spoon each, and some assorted freeze dried food. We already had our sleeping bags, a water purifier, a short double barreled shotgun for sleep protection, a couple of back packs, and our takedown recurves. Finally, John gave us a small brown poly tarp to be staked out by the corners if we required assistance. A staked tarp, when seen from the air would result in a radio call to the host flight service. Client hunt locations were logged among all of them for safety…. and to avoid flying hundreds of miles to a lake that already had someone else on it. It was an effective system that allowed for some measure of communication if the best…or worse; happened. While he could not get to us the next day on Sunday because of his clients backlog, he did say we could likely fly Monday afternoon. The weather had cleared somewhat on Sunday and we were hopeful for the Monday flight. We now had 3.5 days of hunting; still not the most ideal situation.

John picked us up around lunch on Monday at the hotel and the weather was finally beautiful. We soon met Bob, our bush pilot, and I was immediately impressed. Bob had flown the mountain passes for nearly 40 years. He was semi-retired and he proceeded to go through all the safety procedures of the de Havilland Beaver float plane and demanded that we all put on our rubber hip boots in case we had to land unexpectedly. With all the extreme safety instructions, I had to ask Bob (jokingly) if he crashed a lot. He replied that he had only crashed twice in his flying career and he was able to walk away from the last one! I asked him how long since the last crash? Bob replied “13 years” and I replied back to him that I hoped his number wasn’t back up! His radio in the plane cackled with chatter for the other airborne pilots relating flying conditions over the 150 mile trip to the lands the caribou called home. A complete turn took about four hours so flying conditions could vary a great deal over that time period. Bob said the Kenai area lost several planes a year. The good news was that not all the accidents were serious, but enough to put the planes out of flying service. I’m not sure if that made me feel any better.

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This plane took us on our journey..it was crashed by another pilot a few weeks later. I saw the wings in a carport the next year!

I took the rear seat of the Beaver pontoon plane and let Gibbs ride shotgun. I had done this sort of thing before a couple of years earlier in the Quebec hunt, but you never really get used to the idea of a plane sitting on the water. With a few electric cranks of the prop, the engine came to life with the defining spit, sputter, and roar so common with these types of vintage planes. A few passes around the bay to warm the engine and we were off on our adventure!

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A photo off the planes wing as we lifted off the bay and swung to the west toward Lake Clark Pass

We passed over Cook Inlet, (some of the most dangerous ocean water in the world with 30 ft tides) and toward Lake Clark Pass that would take us through the rugged mountain terrain to the caribou hunting grounds. Marveling at the tide lands below next to the Inlet, I asked Bob, “Do you ever seen any brown bear flying around up here,?” which he looked at me and said, “Nope, I always see them down there on the ground!”

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Ocean tidelands just west of Cook Inlet

He was a funny guy with a great deal of humorous wit about him. We soon were in the pass and we began to see abundant sheep and goats on the high cliffs. Glaciers with a deer blue clear ice that was hundreds of thousands of years old were a common sight along the way.

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Glaciers were a common sight on the flight through Lake Clark Pass

The long trip through the pass was made with little fanfare, and soon we cleared the rugged peaks into the more rolling terrain of the Alaskan tundra. Bob flew and scouted several lakes from the air until we found one that had a large number of caribou in the vicinity. Bob flew low across the lake, just feet above the water, to see if the lake was safe enough to land. Soon the engine was cut back and the Beaver plane’s floats gently kissed the water of the small mountain lake and we were soon taxiing to the shore line. I found out quickly what the hip waders were for as I bailed out of the plane into the lake to secure the ropes for unloading. To say Gibbs and I were pumped would be an understatement! We were finally in the Alaskan bush country! Bob reminded us about the use of the tarp and said we would come back in a day or two just to check on us. With other hunters to check on, Bob’s comments were brief and soon his plane was back under power and leaving us behind for the next few days. I took the below picture of the plane taking off and remember thinking that I hoped I would still be alive when it came back!

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It's a odd feeling to see your lifeline to the outside world just fly away!

We busied ourselves with the chore of setting up camp. Darkness was only a couple of hours away and I didn’t even want to think about not having our shelter set up for the night. The weather was nice and I would guess (from memory) the temps might have been in the mid 40’s with a moderate wind, but we knew the night would get really cold. I had found that the campsite had been used before and there was a makeshift table of sorts that had been left by a previous hunting party. I pulled it up to the tent and proceeded to get the tent up with Gibbs help and to start unpacking our gear.

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We rushed to get everything up and all gear unpacked by dark that afternoon

Gibbs and I working together made short work of getting everything ready for the next morning’s hunt. I remember feeling rather cold as just a few days before it had been in the mid 90’s back home and the transition to colder weather had been a rapid one…apparently a little too rapid for my body to adjust. As soon as I could, I crawled into my sleeping bag while Gibbs sat on the ground outside the tent and glassed the hillsides for caribou. Gibbs was wondering perhaps if I was sick, but busied himself with his endeavor. Perhaps after about 30 minutes, I heard him call out my name and he said that I needed to come out and look at the caribou. I crawled out of the nice warm bag, (I actually felt better after getting my core temperature back up) and sat outside with Gibbs. On the adjacent hillside of the small lake, a band of perhaps a band of about 20 barren ground caribou feed quietly on the lichen of the tundra. One of the caribou had better antlers than the others, and Gibbs quickly named him “Crooked Top” due to his unique antler formation. Soon after, another real nice P & Y class caribou appeared and headed right down the hillside and around the end of the lake we we’re on! Unbelievably, the caribou walked right up to our campsite and passed within 30 yards of Gibbs and myself!! We had our bows ready, but it was an illegal animal due to our flight a little earlier. We let the record class animal go by us without a second thought and Gibbs and I discussed just how many people would have passed on such a “gimme”….a hundred miles from nowhere. We looked forward to the next day and we retired to the warm sleeping bags for the early morning start the next day.

The next morning we arose in the early twilight and I immediately missed my routine cup of coffee. As I mentioned earlier in the story, our original plans had been to have the first outfitter provide the food. In my haste to get all the food at K-Mart in Kenai, I had made the conscious thought that we could skip breakfast in favor of two freeze meals a day; (lunch and dinner) but it was definitely an oversight on my part for forgetting the instant coffee. While those who haven’t developed the caffeine habit may not understand, it’s hard to underestimate how much a hot cup of brew means on a cold survival hunt if you’re already accustomed to an early morning kick start! Gibbs and I suffered each morning and laughed each day about how our body was going through detox! Our only drink was filtered lake water through a Sweetwater purification system. After a couple of days, I would have paid anything for a caffeine soft drink and a Snicker bar!

Gibbs headed out with his vintage Bear Kodiak takedown recurve and I took my Jon Boyles bow that pulled 72 pounds. Gibbs bow was shooting 2117 Easton shafts and mine shot the 2216’s of the same brand very well. We both were shooting Zwickey Eskimo two blade broadheads. Both of us had left the cedar arrows at home given the constant rain that we had expected. By the time the trip ended, both of us decided that sunshine was a rare luxury; something that could have been sold by the quart if available! It rains all the time in Alaska.

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A nice photo of Gibbs....a super great guy!

After reaching to summit of the hill across the lake, Gibbs and I headed in opposite directions. I planned to follow the hillside adjacent to the drainage that formed the lake we landed on, while Gibbs went the other direction. I was seeing some caribou on the distant hillsides, but nothing close. I was seeing brown bear tracks scattered among the abundant caribou sign; something that kept me on edge as I travelled up the drainage. The terrain had many cuts and the alders provided a great deal of cover for both predator and prey. For the first time in my life, I had conflicting feelings about which role I was playing…..

I had cautiously made my way up the drainage for quite a ways when I finally spotted a real gagger of a ‘bou feeding just 85 yards above me on a bench. Frankly, I had no idea what a world record caribou was, but I was thinking this one might be it! The wind had picked up terribly late that morning and I suspect it was 35 miles per hour at the time I began the stalk. The wind made for an extremely easy stalk and I merely ducked down out of sight below the bench. I circled it on the downside of the bench (out of sight of the animal) until I thought I was close enough. After going as far as I dared without another peek; I eased to the top of the bench to see the caribou feeding unaware of my presence a mere 25 yard from my position! I took a deep breath, raised to my knees with a nocked arrow, took careful aim at the animal’s chest, and took the shot. The arrow was caught by the 35 mph crosswind and wound up passing three feet in front of the animal’s nose! The caribou noticed something was wrong, but had not heard the twang of the bow. I nocked another arrow and held several feet behind the hind quarters of the ‘bou and shot again. This time I had the windage right, but the arrow sailed harmlessly under the animal’s chest! The animal put its nose to the air and gaited off in that indignant posture that caribou are well known for. They seem to be a bit snooty as they run off. It’s just something that you have to watch to understand.

With that close encounter a disappointing memory, I reversed my route back to camp and made a freeze dried meal. It wasn’t too much later that Gibbs showed up and told me he had shot ole Crooked Top! Unfortunately, he had made a bad hit commonly referred to in the sanitizing phrase ‘a little far back.’ I immediately thought about the brown bear tracks and began to worry about a bear getting on the animal. We didn’t wait too long before we went after the recovery of the animal with a couple of packs. Fortunately, the animal had expired quickly and we made fast work of deboning the animal; making sure that Alaska’s ‘wanton waste’ laws were not violated. The animal was likely 400 pounds and I suspected it would score P&Y. It was a hard pack back and though Gibbs took the heavy part of the load, I took head, antlers and cape that likely weighed 60 pounds. It was glad to see the small mountain stream where I threw ‘beaver fever’ concerns to the wind and sucked down the cold mountain water.

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A much needed cool drink of water in the Alaskan bush country!

Back at the camp, I was amazed as Gibbs carefully caped the hide to perfection. He had done an excellent job with the bare minimal tools that we had. Gibbs had found an old saw blade in the dirt and actually used it to cut the antlers loose from the skull.

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Gibbs caribou which we had seen the day earlier... and named him "Ole Crooked Top"

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Gibbs bull after a very good caping job

The meat cooled quickly in the windy cold air. We placed the meat in some pillow cases that we had bought in Kenai to act as game bags to allow the air to circulate. Ironically, we had just finished the task when Bob circled the lake, saw the pillow cases, and landed. He congratulated us and took the meat and placed it in the belly of the pontoons of the float plane. Given the late hour, he was off again. He would place the meat in cold storage in Kenai to be ready for us on our return. I couldn’t help but notice a nice set of moose antlers strapped to the struts of the plane as he departed. That was the last time we saw Bob and his plane for 5 days……

The next morning was much like the first; though the wind was much stronger throughout that night. Gibbs had noticed a couple of bands of caribou cross a trail in the drainage, near a fork, not to too far down below the camp. Having already taken a nice animal, Gibbs suggested that I get there very early the next morning. It was an easy walk in the predawn darkness. Though I had yet to see a bear; the thought was definitely on my mind as I made my way down the drainage with the aid of a flashlight. It was easy walking and I got to where Gibbs told me to go rather quickly. I was still fairly dark when I got to the fork in the drain. I immediately searched for a good ambush spot as the shadows started to give way to the predawn light. I noticed a small clump of spruce very near the drainage and I went over to get a better look. I was thrilled to discover that the small stand of spruce was extremely dense, but when I squeezed through the outer edge, I found myself in a small clean opening with a heavy spruce top and well defined outer edge. It was the perfect ambush spot and I broke off a few branches to be able to shoot out of it. I remember thinking it was like a small tent. I sat down in the newly found ambush spot that was very dark due to the heavy cover that surrounded it. As it began to get light, I focused my attention out to the tundra and watched the hillside closely; hoping that a band of animals would come down the mountain for a close shot. As it got fairly light outside, I just happen to look at my feet. There, at my feet, was a solid base of hair….brown bear hair! The chilling thought hit me that I was in a bear’s den!!!! Needless to say, I shot out of there like a cannon…. wanting no part of the bears reaction when he return to find an intruder in his home!

I immediately went back to camp and hunted around there the rest of the morning. At lunch I discovered that I actually had shorted us a day of freeze dried food. I just told Gibbs that we would eat a ½ pack each on the last day to make it last. In addition, blueberries were everywhere and we could use that as supplemental food. The caribou had moved a bit in the last 48 hours and both Gibbs and I were seeing fewer animals. That afternoon, I climbed a high point, pulled out a paperback, and read the afternoon away; keeping a careful eye for any band that I might could put a stalk on. I saw very little. The wind was just awful and I noticed the clouds were thickening. I groaned silently as the sleet started to fall and I dug out my rain wear. We were back to true Alaskan weather. The wind was at a gale with strong powerful gust and I began to worry about our flimsy tent that we had. I called off the hunt a little early. I noticed it was getting darker much earlier than the day before. (Alaska loses 9 minutes of daylight daily in late September)

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My last 'real' afternoon of hunting. The lake shown was our landing area and campsite. Note the clouds moving in on the horizon!

We ate our last full bag of freeze dried lasagna that Wednesday afternoon. It was a miserable night that followed. We found out later that the winds were estimated at 65 mph resulting in some of the worst weather the locals said they had seen in 50 years in September. Our tent was in extreme danger of collapsing as the tent poles had inverted inward. We had to get out with a flashlight in the driving sleet and high winds late that night to fasten a guy line into the exterior tent poles; so that we could pull them out against the brute force of the wind. This accomplished, we went back inside only to have the top portion of the roof of the tent to be constantly pushed down to smack us every few minutes with a gust of wind…after which; the top would spring load right back up. Gibbs and I discussed what the plan might be if the poles eventually broke under the force of the extreme wind. We reasoned that the only thing we could do would be to stake the four corners and try to get under the tent (on the ground) if the tent was demolished. Thankfully, the small discount tent held up throughout the night with the help of the bracing line we put up. However, it wasn’t going to stand up to much more abuse and the wind was still gale force. We found the next morning that the tents fabric was ripping and that only the brown tarp that had been given to us as a ground signal… was keeping us dry in one corner of the tent.

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A view of the tent under the brown tarp

That Thursday morning our mood had changed from enjoying a great adventure to more of a survivalist posture. The winds, while still high, had thankfully subsided somewhat. The clouds were extremely low and threatening. We did manage to hunt a bit further out in some new areas in the spitting rain but the caribou had for the most part, migrated away from the area. I did have an opportunity to shoot a small bull late in the day, but decided to pass given the return bush flight that was scheduled for the next day. Gibbs and I both met back up for lunch and we began our half rations of the last bags of freeze dried food. We had both lost some weight and the half rations weren’t going to help. We both were became painfully aware that we could no longer hear the drone of overhead passing float planes as they shuttled other hunters. We were hopeful that the weather would improve by tomorrow (Friday) for our pilot Bob to pick us up. That afternoon, we spent as much time on all fours picking blueberries as we did hunting. It would have been comical to watch; but was necessary given our predicament.

We finished our last 1/2 bag of freeze dried food that evening. With caribou hunting no longer the goal of the hunt, we turned in very early. The winds had picked back up but still nothing like it had been the night before. Sometime in the middle of the night, I became conscious of Gibbs elbowing me in the side. I heard him say. ”Mark, wake up…listen!” As I went from a slumber to wide awake in 2.3 seconds, I could easily hear the heavy breathing of a bear just outside the tent next to me. About that time, I could hear a can tip over (later we discovered it was our Coleman fuel). Gibbs had brought an abbreviated version of a double barreled shotgun with four rounds. Gibbs immediately loaded the gun in the dark, unzipped the front of the tent and fired a round up into the darkness away from the bear. The shot was ear splitting and it rang off the mountains around us for quite some time. Thankfully, the panting was gone when the ringing stopped and we had no more trouble that night; though sleep wasn’t really possible. I was glad the caribou meat was gone as I didn’t want to contend with the bear for the balance of the trip.

The next morning was our pick up day (Friday) and though the visibility was still low, we were hopeful that the plane could make it back to pick us up. We packed up most of our gear, except our bows and tent, in case the plane appeared. Throughout the course of the day, we stayed around camp and ate blueberries in hopes for a plane…that never came. We still didn’t hear the sound any planes in the skies above the clouds; indicating the fact that the bush planes were being delayed again. We knew from past experience that when this happens, the trips become backlogged and it takes a while for them to catch up. The lack of evidence of air travel just meant the delay was going to be longer…even when they resumed flying. Nothing in Alaska runs on time. We spent that day doing very little and the only thing working overtime was our digestive tracts trying to handle all the blueberries we were ingesting. This created special problems that can be left to your imagination. Let’s just say that toilet paper was like gold; and that too eventually ran out…

Saturday morning the weather was worse and it was raining again. Neither of us got out of the tent that morning and we spent our time talking about how much (and what) we were going to eat when we got back. I found out that in my mentally exaggerated state of starvation that I really wanted a Kentucky Fried Chicken ham breakfast biscuit more than anything in life at that moment; though I couldn’t remember really having thought they were anything special in the past. It’s funny how the mind works. We both passed jokes about how our Alaskan Airlines flight was boarding and how we might not make it. I did have serious concerns about my wife having plans to meet us at the plane in Jackson that evening…and for us not be on it. I also thought about the fact that I wouldn’t be showing up for work Monday and what would my employer think. Also discussed was whether the airlines would honor our missed flight and not require us buy another ticket home. The day passed slowly and our concerns lengthened with the growing shadows of the afternoon. It was a long day of solitude.

The weather looked a little better Sunday and we were hopeful the plane would come get us. We could hear an occasional flight overhead through the clouds and our spirits were good despite being terribly hungry and wet. In an odd twist of fate, when I was shooting my bow with Judo’s to pass the time, I stumbled upon a ptarmigan sitting on a rock; the first I had seen on the trip. Let me state with absolute clarity that an Alaskan grouse that is big as a banty hen looks like the holy grail of all food after eating blueberries (only) for a few days! I eased as close as I dared to the bird and took what seemed like the most important shot of my life. I shot a bit high but the judo smacked the poor bird in the head and I finally had a meal to eat. Gibbs and I were ecstatic and I told him that I shot for the head to save the meat. I think he actually bought into it. We boiled the bird in lake water, with no seasoning, but it was the best meal I had that week. We even drank the water it boiled in. It sure tasted better than lake water by itself!

We expected to spend another night as the afternoon wore on. The weather was still cloudy and the wind was anything but calm. However, I was the first to hear a drone in the distance and both Gibbs and I stopped talking to intently listen. Soon Bob came flying low across the tundra and made a couple of passes around the lake, set his wings in the wind like a mallard and glided into the lake. I can’t remember what he said when he pulled up, but he obviously needed us to load fast as light was fading. We loaded up as fast as possible and when we landed the bay back at Kenai, darkness had already taken over the landscape. It was a close call to having to fly the passes in the dark or sit down on a lake for the night. We eventually were taken to the hotel where we re-set our flight reservations for the earliest flight out. (3am the next morning!) We then called a taxi and went to the local seafood restaurant and spent money like drunken sailors!

As final commentary on the hunt, we both lost a lot of weight on that trip. I had lost about 12 pounds…and Gibbs had lost much more; somewhere around 15 if memory serves me. It was a very tough hunt but I vowed next year to return with a better tent and gear designed for that type of element. After all, the booking agent owed me a hunt as I didn’t kill a caribou! The booking agent honored his word and I went on his dime the next year. Maybe I can write a story on that trip at another time and tell you more about Bob’s ill-fated last trip.
Last edited by Stringwacker on Thu Jun 27, 2013 4:31 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: 1993 Caribou Hunt- MSDEER Read Along

Postby gtk » Thu Jun 27, 2013 11:39 am

Wow.. Thanks for sharing.

I now see how people can get into trouble very easy in Alaska. One forgotten thing could spell disaster !

I don't know how anyone could sleep in a tent out on the tundra, with no protection at all from bears. I would be a nervous wreck !
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Re: 1993 Caribou Hunt- MSDEER Read Along

Postby Stringwacker » Thu Jun 27, 2013 4:34 pm

gtk wrote:Wow.. Thanks for sharing.

I now see how people can get into trouble very easy in Alaska. One forgotten thing could spell disaster !

I don't know how anyone could sleep in a tent out on the tundra, with no protection at all from bears. I would be a nervous wreck !


Yes...the fact really hits you when you realize just how far away you are from anything. The nights in the tent you almost dread; only comforted by the fact that since they are two....you likely have a 50/50 chance in case of the worst case scenario!
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Re: 1993 Caribou Hunt- MSDEER Read Along

Postby gtk » Thu Jun 27, 2013 5:18 pm

Stringwacker wrote:The nights in the tent you almost dread; only comforted by the fact that since they are two....you likely have a 50/50 chance in case of the worst case scenario!

Yeah. 50% chance you can outrun the other guy :)
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