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by Tommy Lecroy
It is mid-September and a light rain is falling as Karen and I leave Fairbanks for Anchorage. The highway is a brilliant corridor of colors and shapes. Fall is beautiful but short this far north. We are going on our first Alaskan fly-in hunt and we are both excited and apprehensive.
Karen's father, Hubie, has flown in from Washington D.C. to meet us; we are going to spend one night in Anchorage before flying out of Hood Lake the next morning. Six hours after leaving Fairbanks, we arrive in Alaska's biggest city. While driving in the traffic of Anchorage, it's hard to believe that just a few minutes flight time will put us in some of the best wilderness hunting this country has left.
Hubie is already in our hotel room and checking over his gear to make sure nothing was lost or forgotten. He is a little uneasy about his rifle, as it was tossed around on three different flights. Seeing the size and construction of his rifle case (it was built like a tank), I feel sure he has nothing to worry about. Because the next week will be a diet of freeze-dried foods and MRE's, Hubie treats us to seafood and steak dinners. In bed by 11 o'clock and of course too excited to really sleep, I go over our equipment list in my head, fearful we have forgotten something we just can't do without.
The alarm goes off at 6 a.m., and we are dressed and ready for breakfast (pancakes at Gweenie's Restaurant) by 7 o'clock. These pancakes are the best, light and fluffy, and they don't soak up the syrup like a sponge. We inhale a short stack with hash browns, down our juice and head out to Hood Lake. It is located a stone's throw from the Anchorage International Airport and is the busiest float plane lake in the world. We are booked for an 8 o'clock departure with Ketchum Air Service. After Hubie endures a quick briefing on non-resident hunting regulations, we meet Larry, our pilot, and begin loading our gear into the De Havilland Beaver. We are restricted to 125 pounds of gear per person and each backpack and bag is weighed before loaded on the plane. Ten pounds over our weight and something has to go... but what? We can't spare food, shelter, fuel or clothing. The supreme sacrifice: our campstools are left behind.
We are finally loaded and cruising out onto Hood Lake for takeoff. Larry does a few laps in the Beaver to warm the engine, pushes the throttle forward and we glide into the clear morning sky. We fly out over Cook Inlet and head southwest toward Lake Clark and Buck Mountain, the site for base camp. We fly over immense mudflats and a string of offshore oilrigs as we head toward the mountain pass that leads to Lake Clark. The sun is shining as we enter the pass and we feel like we are viewing a National Geographic movie. Huge glaciers fill entire valleys, waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet, wild rivers, and snowcapped peaks on both sides of the plane as we continue through the pass. About an hour later, we fly over the glacier-fed, emerald green waters of Lake Clark, heading for Buck Mountain.
We circle Buck Mountain 45 minutes later trying to decide on which of the many lakes to land. We pick one about a mile south of the mountain and Larry slides the Beaver in for a landing and taxies up to the bank. We unload our gear and find a protected campsite behind an alder thicket. We set up camp quickly, taking advantage of the good weather, check and lay out our gear for the morning's hunt, eat dinner, and crawl into our sleeping bags.
Morning breaks cool and sunny, a beautiful day in this part of Alaska. After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, we make plans for the day's hunt. Karen and I will walk north toward Buck Mountain and Hubie will go east to a high ridge and glass the backside for game. We all leave camp around 9 o'clock and agree to return by late afternoon. Karen and I walk about a mile to a lake below Buck Mountain and stop to glass the countryside. On a ridge some 400 yards away are two caribou, but I can't tell if there are two cows or if one is a bull. Luckily, we are down wind, so we approach them using a ridge between them and the lake as cover. We make it to the ridge undetected and ease up over the rim to glass them again. They are still there and it is a cow and a young bull. They are moving along the ridge about 200 yards out and heading for an alder thicket. Backing down below the rim of the ridge, we continue around the ridge, making a circle and coming out ahead of them.
We lose sight of the caribou as we enter the alder thicket and cautiously glass the ridge as we come out into the open. They are lying down in an open area between two alder patches. Once again, we circle around and come out less than 100 yards above them. It is a large cow and a one-year-old calf. Not what I want, but both are legal. It starts to rain and Karen and I stand in the alder thicket trying to decide if we want to shoot a cow. I put the crosshairs on her a dozen times but something just won't let me pull the trigger. The rain stops and they are so close to us I could hit them with a rock. No sense in wasting anymore time, we decide to wait for a bull; we leave the cow and calf to graze on the ridge. As the sun begins to dry us, we make our way back to camp. No one gets a caribou that day and we go to bed planning the next day's hunt.
We are lucky. The next morning is sunny and cool -- another good day. Karen decides to stay in camp while Hubie and I go hunting. Hubie goes back to the same ridge he hunted the day before. I decide to walk back toward Buck Mountain but continue farther out to the north side of the mountain. I walk for an hour before I stop for a break. I can still see camp but it's a good three miles in the distance. I'm just about to eat lunch when I notice some small spots on a slope in the distance. Caribou!! They are lying down in the open just below an alder thicket. It's so far away that I hesitate to approach them but decide to go ahead. Once again, I use alder thickets and ridges to get as close to them as I can. I make it about halfway when I stop to glass the area again. There are eight caribou in the group and at least two big bulls! I continue to use the alder thickets as cover as I make my way closer to the resting group. There is a small creek lined with alders about 300 yards from them and then nothing but open tundra. That is as close as I'm going to be able to get.
Just as I crossed the creek, the biggest bull gets up and begins leading the herd away. If I'm going to get a shot, it's now or never. There was a smaller bull walking beside the bigger one, blocking my shot. I'm excited and nervous as I take aim at the big bull. My plan is to wait until the big bull pulls ahead of the smaller one and then fire. Time seems to stand still as I wait and then fire. He goes down; I jump up and begin running toward him. The rest of the herd runs a short distance and looks back to see why the bull isn't following. He tries to get up and I place a shot behind the front shoulder to put him down. I approach slowly and admire the beautiful bull. As I'm looking around to see where the rest of the herd went, I notice something lying on the tundra about 30 feet away. It's the smaller bull that had been walking beside him. Shot through the neck; he must have dropped stone dead, but I never saw him fall. Obviously, I had not let him clear the big bull before I fired. The bullet went through the smaller bull's neck, hitting the big bull's hindquarters, and shattering his left leg. There I am, having never bagged anything bigger than a rabbit before, with two caribou down in one shot.
It is mid-afternoon and at least a two-hour walk back to camp. I decide to field dress the two bulls, drag them into the alder thicket nearby and return in the morning with some help to pack out the meat. Field dressing the small bull and dragging him into the alder thicket is easy. The other bull is a different story. He must have weighed 400 pounds; it's all I can do to drag him three or four feet at a time. I continue to drag and rest until I finally have him pulled up in the alder thicket. I place sticks in the body cavity to allow the carcass to cool during the night and then gather my gear and head back to camp.
It takes me two hours to get back to camp and I'm so tired and thirsty I can't even tell Karen and Hubie my story until I have some water and a little rest. They can't believe I have shot two caribou and that they are so far from camp.
Karen and I leave the next morning with the necessary equipment to butcher the caribou and pack them back to camp. About half the way is rough walking over marshy areas and then we hit a ridge that is dry and easy walking. We are nearly to the alder thicket where I have stashed the two bulls when I see something lying out in the open just below the thicket. I take a closer look through the binoculars and much to my horror there lay my trophy bull just about where he fell the day before. Grizzly! That is the only critter big enough to drag that caribou out of the thicket. Karen and I look the area over very carefully, because we figure the grizzly is probably in the thicket guarding 'his' caribou, and ready to charge anything that tries to move it.
We approach the alder thicket slowly with rifles ready, but no bear appears. The bear ate the back, ribs, and mauled the hind and fore quarters. The bull is eaten in two except for a thin strip of hide. We drag both halves about 30 yards from the thicket so we can watch in all directions while we salvage what meat we can. I had not gotten my photo with the bull the day before and now all I can do is get a shot of me holding up half a caribou. Better than nothing, but not what I had hoped for. We are able to save the chewed up hindquarters, shoulders and some of the neck. I cape out the head in the hopes of mounting it and then saw off the antlers. We have the meat all bagged up and ready to go.
Now for the smaller bull. We just know that the bear has dragged him off and devoured the entire thing. Once again, we cautiously approach the alder thicket and, much to our surprise, the small bull has not been touched. We drag him out in the open and quarter and bag him up.
It soon becomes apparent to both of us that we have more bags of meat than we can possibly get back to camp in one day. But how do we keep the bear from stealing the meat that we leave behind? The closest tree of any size is at least 400 yards away across the creek. We have no choice; if we want to cache the meat in a safe place, the tree is our only hope. We load up half the meat bags on our pack frames and head toward the tree. It is all I could possibly carry and I'm amazed at how much weight Karen is toting. We drop the first load at the tree and return to the alder thicket for the other half. We can just barely carry the load and have to help each other get the packs on our backs. Finally, all the bags are at the base of the tree and I climb up about 12 feet and pull the bags up after me. Karen hands me the bags and we manage to get them secured in the branches of the spruce. After a water break, we load up the remaining bags and start toward camp.
We are carrying 75 to 100 pounds of meat apiece across rough terrain, so we have to stop about every 200 yards to rest and drink some water. Nearly dark and three agonizing hours later, we are almost to camp. We literally stagger into camp and collapse in a heap in front of the tents. Our backs hurt and shoulders burn from the load, but we are done for the day. It sure feels great to get half the meat to camp. Half! Good Lord, that means we have to do the same backbreaking trip tomorrow. We are so tired that we eat very little and go straight to bed.
Morning finds us sore and hungry. Karen picked some blueberries two days previously so we have a huge breakfast of freeze-dried eggs and blueberry pancakes. Karen's dad offers to help us pack in the last bags of meat but we feel he should spend his day hunting and besides, it is our caribou (Karen's by association and not choice), so it is our job to get it to camp.
The bugs that morning are horrible. All the stories we have heard about the Alaskan bugs are proven true. The flies fly in your nose, eyes, ears, and cover your hair. The ones that fly into my eyes are the ones I curse at repeatedly, only to have them burrow deeper into the corners of my eyes. Karen says that if the bugs don't let up soon, they will drive her insane and she will return to camp, sit in the tent the rest of the day and not come out. I tell her that surely once we reach the ridge the wind will be blowing hard enough to keep the bugs at bay. I have no idea if this is true, but I know I don't want to tote that meat back to camp by myself.
The wind is blowing stronger on the ridge and the bugs are gone, or at least there are a lot fewer of them. We make it to the meat tree and everything is just how we had left it. I climb into the spruce and cut down the bags. We reluctantly load the packs and they are just as heavy as the day before. Once again, I'm amazed at the amount of weight Karen manages to carry. We make it back to camp in three hours and begin constructing a large rack of alder branches from which to hang the meat to cure. The rack is about 15 feet from our tents. We are certain that nothing will bother the meat that close to camp. After another exhausting day, we eat a dinner of freeze-dried chili con-carne and collapse in bed.
The night is quiet; only a slight breeze and no rain. I'm so tired that I can't sleep, but from the sounds coming from Karen and Hubie, they are having no trouble at all. At one point when I'm in that state of half-sleep, I think I hear a slight 'plop'. Leaning out of the tent, I flash a light toward the meat rack and can't believe what I see. One of the bags is blowing in the breeze, EMPTY! I yell for Hubie to grab his rifle. We both jump up with flashlights in hand, wearing nothing but our underwear, and begin scanning the area.
Some 20 yards out I see three pairs of eyes staring back at me. Two pairs are smaller than the third. At first I think they are wolves and then I realize they are probably a sow grizzly with two yearling cubs. The eyes whirl around and with one loud "huff," they are gone. This all happens in a time span of a few seconds. No one fires a shot; we just stand there amazed they came right into camp, gnawed the bottom of the meat bag out, let the meat hit the ground (the 'plop' I heard) and ran off with it. We both realize that these guys had done this trick before and are quite good at it. We hang a candle lantern from the meat rack and hope that it will keep them away for the rest of the night.
We arise to yet another beautiful day. Our thieves have not returned. We eat breakfast and start planning our day's hunt, confident that our meat cache is safe during the day.
Karen decides she is going to stay in camp. Hubie wants me to make a big loop around the base of Buck Mountain and see if I could drive some caribou closer to camp. As Hubie is telling me his plan of attack I notice something about a half-mile out walking across the tundra. "Hubie, do you want a caribou or a grizzly?" "Why?" he asks. "Because I think I see a grizzly." A quick look through the binoculars proves it is a grizzly, and a big one. We quickly forget all about caribou and begin planning on how to approach the grizzly.
Hubie will circle around and head him off while I make my way to a little knoll about 400 yards from camp. I walk across a low marshy area below the knoll, and lose sight of the bear for about three minutes. I make it to the top of the knoll and begin looking for the grizzly and Hubie. I see neither. Where is Hubie, and more importantly, where is that bear? There is an alder-filled ravine just below the knoll that continues up toward the high ridge east of camp. I turn to look up the ravine and the grizzly appears out of nowhere running fast along the alders. His head is held high and is swinging from side to side as he runs past me, plunging into the alder thicket. No time for a shot and I sure don't want to take the chance of wounding him. Right after the bear runs by, Hubie appears and decides to walk about 100 yards above the ravine. I will cut through the alder thicket below the bear and walk up the other side. If the grizzly is still in there, maybe we will get a shot when he comes out. He never did. Two ptarmigan fly out of the thicket several hundred yards above us. The grizzly is using the thickets as cover while heading toward the ridge east of camp.
We cannot head him off and realize he has skillfully slipped by us. I'm really disappointed because that bear would have made Hubie's trip complete. We wait for about an hour just in case he is still hanging around the alder thicket. Hubie decides he will see if he could get within range of some caribou that he had seen the day before. I head back to camp, since neither one of us want to leave Karen in camp by herself with fresh caribou meat and grizzlies around. I need to move the meat into a tree in order to keep the bears away from camp.
We find a large spruce about one hundred yards below camp and begin hauling the meat bags to it. We work most of the afternoon and finally get all seven bags some 15 feet up in the spruce. I even put my caribou rack above the meat bags and secure it to several branches. No doubt about it, we won't have to worry about wolves or grizzly bears getting our meat again.
After a little break, Karen and I decide to clean up a bit in the lake below camp. The water is cold, real cold, but it feels good to get several days of dirt off and change clothes. For dinner that night, we fry some caribou backstrap, covered with brown gravy and rice. It is tender and delicious and almost makes Karen and me forget how much trouble it had been to get to camp. When we go to bed that night, our sore backs and shoulders bring back all too well the work we had done for the meat we had eaten for dinner. We awake to fog and drizzle. The worst weather we have had the whole trip. It is Friday and our last full day to hunt. Weather permitting, Larry will return in the Beaver on Saturday to pick us up.
After breakfast I check on the meat. No problem. It is safe and sound way up there in the spruce branches. It is noon and the rain has not let up. We are all getting tired of sitting under the tarp with nothing better to do than to kill flies. I finally decide to go out in spite of the rain and see if I can find any caribou. I walk around the ridge east of camp and stop to glass the area. I catch some movement out of the corner of my right eye. On a low sloping ridge some 200 yards away is a dog-sized animal running toward the alder thickets. It is a wolverine! He continues down the ridge at a loping gait and straight into the alder thicket. Just like that he is gone. I watch for at least an hour but never see him again. I stay out in the rain for several more hours before heading back to camp, anxious to tell Karen and Hubie about my wolverine sighting. When I get back to camp Karen asks me if I had seen anything. "Nope," I say. "Just a wolverine." Their jaws drop. Needless to say, I continue to remind them the rest of the day that I had seen a wolverine. It is still raining that evening during dinner and continues all night long. We feel sure that we are not going to be leaving in the morning.
When we get up Saturday morning the fog and rain are worse than the day before. Unless the fog lifts by mid-morning, Larry won't be able to come get us. We begin carrying gear down to the lake just in case Larry is able to fly in later that day. Hubie and I are carrying a load of gear to the lake and pass by the spruce tree where our meat is cached. We are shocked to see lower branches broken off and claw marks all around the bottom of the tree. Worse yet, one large sack containing four smaller bags of meat is gone. I'm furious! All that work, all the effort, all the sore muscles and now all we have are three small bags of meat!
We are ready to leave. We are tired of fighting the bears and losing. After several minutes of badmouthing carnivores in general, we pick up our gear and begin our trek to the lake. About halfway there we hear a plane. No way, we think. It is still foggy here; Larry couldn't have flown in this. About then the big blue and white De Havilland Beaver roars out over the lake and makes a big circle to land. We begin running with our gear down to the lake to meet the plane. He lands on the other side of the lake and taxies across. Hubie is already standing on the bank and says he will help load the plane if we will take down the tents. We brake camp in record time and haul everything down to the lake. Hubie and the pilot load the plane. We go back to the spruce to retrieve what is left of our caribou meat. I climb the tree, cut loose the remaining bags of meat and lower them to the ground and then drop the antlers to Karen. We are glad that this will be the last time we will have to carry the meat and happy we will not have to worry about bears tonight. We manage to stow the meat in the pontoons of the plane and pause for a few photos before taking off.
We all climb aboard and buckle up. Larry starts the engine and moves the plane out into the middle of the lake. We make a big loop to the end of the lake, turn into the wind, and Larry skillfully pushes the plane into the air. What a relief and disappointment all at once. Larry swings out over the tundra where Karen and I had labored for days getting our caribou back to camp. It seems so small from the plane. The trip was over but the adventure will never end!