Tuesday, August 19, 2014

To The Last Bou

Out on the tundra on the last day of the hunt.

The day had dawned on our final full hunting day in camp.  I use the term "dawned" figuratively as opposed to literally, as the sun had never set.  It was down to the wire on the two remaining caribou tags in our hunting group.  One residing in my pocket, and the other was nested in my father's pack. The other permits were already attached to carcasses of other caribou hanging in the meat shed. These specific animals would have to be processed before the day's end.

We discussed the work that lay before us and knew that if we were to fill the two remaining permits it would have to be in the morning as to allow enough time to butcher the animals before our ride back to Fairbanks landed on the runway the following afternoon.  With this in mind we set off on the tundra shortly after breakfast in search of legal caribou.

The destination was an area on the Kavik River where I had skulked around the previous day.  Not only had I seen many caribou in this area, but the tundra had somehow managed to swallow up my binoculars.  The added side mission to going to this area was to find my prized Pentax optics.

Upon our arrival I somehow managed to locate the field glasses laying in a small crevice along the bank.  Success was achieved on one goal, now it was just time to find some four-legged critters.  The problem was there was not a single animal in sight.  The caribou that had glided in small herds across the tundra the day before were now ghosts haunting some other habitat. Slightly dejected and nervous that $650 worth of tags might go home empty, we made the journey back to camp.

Noon was the deadline to stop hunting and start the butchering process.  Around 11:30 am one of the other hunters in camp called out that they spotted a group of bulls crossing the river nearly a mile from camp.  A swift glance confirmed this and we quickly set off to set up an ambush as they came out of the river bottom.

When the bulls crested the bank we were still further away than I would have liked, but in rifle range.  It was now or never.  My father laid down in the prone shooting position to my right and I threw the AR10 over my pack and sighted in on the caribou. We estimated the  distance at nearly 400 yards. After some quick collaboration on who was going to shoot which bull we prepared to fire.

Dad with his bull
Getting a clean shot on a caribou can be difficult.  As the herd moves they are constantly mingling and passing each other. There is a real possibility a hunter can hit several animals with one bullet if not careful.  When my chosen bull was finally free of the others, I settled into the rifle, released my breath and applied pressure to the trigger.  The recoil surprised me and I could feel the bolt of the rifle eject the spent 308 cartridge, slide forward, skim another off the top of the magazine and then slam it home into the chamber, ready, if needed.  I was surprised to find that it was going to be pressed into service as the bull was still standing.

The roar of my father's 300 Weatherby caught my attention as he fired shortly after me, toppling the lead bull.   He quickly informed me he felt the animals were further than 400.  I adjusted the elevation and found the same bull still standing were he was.  A second empty shell casing was ejected out of my rifle and found its partner laying somewhere in the trail through the tundra.  There was an audible slap as the round took the bull in the back rib cage.

The last bou.
My goal is always to make a clean, quick kill on any animal I hunt.  I have remorse that this bull did not fall as fast as I would prefer.  After I observed the bull lay down I crept up to him and ended the hunt as quickly as I could.  He was a large, tough old bull, and I will honor his memory with every meal he provides.

It was over.  All the caribou tags were filled.  Processing and packing for home was all there was left to do.  I had a tinge of regret that I did not take one of my bulls with my bow.  I had come to the tundra with high hopes of this achievement.  While this dream was not to come true this trip, it is only put on hold until the next Alaskan adventure.

That afternoon and evening saw five caribou processed into little white packages.  It was a marathon of cutting and wrapping that didn't stop until nearly midnight.  At the end all of us were worn out and ready for sleep.

Saying goodbye to Sue and Kavik
Our time at Kavik River Camp had come to an end.  It was bittersweet as we said goodbye to Sue and boarded the bird to take us back to Fairbanks and civilization.  I was dog tired after 7 days of crawling, walking, stalking, hauling, and processing animals on the tundra. I had not spoken to my girls for 8 days and longed to hear their voices and about their lives while I was away.

My trepidations were on leaving such a ruggedly, beautiful, and wild place.  Nearly every day I saw a wolf or their tracks.  The bears were as massive as the tales, and while the mosquitoes were beyond description, I had learned to work through them.  The Alaska tundra had spoken to my hunters' soul and like a siren, called to me to stay.  I had seen the elephant. and it was as wonderful and exquisite as I had dreamed.  Yet somehow I felt a pull from 4000 miles away.  My Colorado Mountains were calling me.  Speaking to me in tones of aspens, streams, snow covered rocky peaks, and large, dangerous feline tracks yet to be found that will one day lead me to my mountain lion.

The racks of the Caribou we took during our trip.  With Sue Aikens and Rob Apgood.

Our last view of Kavik as the plane rolled down the runway.
Author's Note:  This adventure would not have been remotely possible, nor a great success, without the assistance and support of several key people.  I would like to send out a personal thank you to those involved. First my Mother and Father who have shared their hunting lives with me and this adventure.  Sue Aikens of Kavik River Camp, you are the "real deal," and one of the very few genuine people I have met. Additionally thank you for the tasty meals, hospitality, and stories.  Rob Apgood, fellow adventurer and new friend. Jennipher, although we have never met, I appreciate all you have done for me and my family.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Day Alone on the Tundra

The Poison Dart and her custom arrows on the Alaskan Tundra 

There is an undertone to this blog and my writing that I have not outright addressed before.  It is the fact that most of my hunting and outdoor adventures occur alone.  I have never been opposed to hunting without a partner, but truth be told I enjoy the solo adventures often more.  There is a sense of accomplishment and understanding of nature when you are alone in the field.  You have to rely entirely on your own wits, skills, and instincts for your hunting and safety.  Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy other hunters' company and help, but there are times when one needs to simply be solitary to hear their inner voice and reflections.

I had spent the first four days of my trip to Alaska hunting with both my father and mother.  All of us had successfully taken caribou with rifles.  Mom had even shot two caribou in the same herd, after we had completed a mile long stalk on the group of bulls.  For the last 300 yards we crawled through the tundra to finally arrived within rifle range. I was also with Dad when he shot a very nice bull with his rifle after I had failed to get within longbow range of the beast before being spotted.

Dad with his first Bou
Mom with her first caribou, and the biggest bull taken on our trip

Mom with her second caribou, shot only moments after her first

The time had come to give traditional archery caribou hunting the best attempt I could before my time on the Alaskan Tundra ended.  To do this I knew I needed to be alone to minimize scent, sound, and movement.  There are two basic ways to get within 30 yards of caribou: the stalk, and the ambush.  Caribou graze at 3-7 MPH and are in constant motion as a herd.  To ambush them, the hunter needs to stay well hidden in the front of the herd and wait for them to pass by, hopefully within bow range. It can be very helpful to sit where one group has already passed, as the next herd will take this same path based on the scent of the previous caribou.  The stalk is best done on a herd that is bedded with some object of cover nearby to approach from.  With both of these tactics in the forefront of my mind I set off from camp alone, walking along the Kavik River.  My plan was to use the concealment of the river bank for ambushes or to launch possible stalks from.

After several miles of walking, I found that I was positioned in front of a herd moving towards the river bank.  I made sure I was directly in place of where they appeared to want to cross the river.  With high hopes and rising heart rate I waited for the caribou to arrive in bow range.  All of my dreams were dashed when 300 yards out the bou started running, paralleling the river rather than crossing it.  At first I could not figure it out, everything was perfect; the wind was in my face, I was well hidden, and I had not moved.  Then I saw the wolf.  It was the same big blond wolf I had seen several days earlier.  The wolf was chasing the bou, as he too was hoping to drag down one of the tasty ungulates for a meal.  His attempt was only half-hearted and did not end up in either of us scoring a caribou.  I still could not have anything but admiration for this predator.  It was the last wolf I would see on the trip and the view was worth the lost opportunity.

Using my binoculars I found the entire tundra was stacked with small herds of Caribou feeding in my direction, but still several miles away.  I set up to ambush one group that had the largest bull I had seen as its leader.  I was further excited when this herd bedded down 600 yards away from me. They had chosen to lay down 50 yards from a group of willows that gave me a chance to approach them downwind and unseen.  For the next hour I crawled and crab walked the 600 yards to the willow bushes.  When I arrived I found that a small stream separated me from the herd.  I had to wade very quietly through the cold water, flooding my boots for the rest of the day.  I was still not close enough for a shot and decided to use a small rise to belly crawl half the distance to the big bull. When I was 25 yards away I could go no further.  It was time for the shot.  I knocked an arrow while laying on my back.  My plan was to wait for the bull to rise from his bed, then I would slowly sit up while drawing the bow and take my shot.  After 15 minutes of waiting it became tedious to just lay there, but I decided to wait rather than push a bad shot.  The wind abruptly shifted and I knew it was over.  The wind carried my scent to the bedded herd and they rose and quickly ran away, out of bow range.  It was difficult to come so close and then at the last minute lose it all.

40 yards out from the large bedded bull, I crawled another 15 yards closer

With determination I set up for a final ambush attempt on the next herd feeding towards the river. From watching where previous groups had passed I knew where they would cross one particular set of willow bushes.  I secreted myself in the clump of green, in a way that offered several great shooting options in different directions.  I watched with anticipation as the group of all bull caribou approached my hide.  The lead bull crossed the willow line 30 yards from where I was and then walked out to 40 yards and stood broadside.  This was it.  I knew they were not going to give me a better shot.  30 yards is the furthest I felt comfortable shooting at an animal with my longbow, although in practice I have shot 40 yards decently before.  My hunting ethics took over, and I decided there was just too great a chance at wounding the bull and not making a clean kill.  I had to let the bull walk.  It was a hard choice, as I knew he would soon be directly downwind and the hunt would be over.  True to prediction, 20 seconds later the bull signaled the alert with a raised tail and a snort, and ran back to the approaching herd.  While they never saw me, the entire group gave a wide girth to my group of willows.

A herd of Caribou crossing the river after skirting my hiding place

As I started the 3.5 mile trek back to camp I thought about the day and what I had learned about bow hunting caribou.  I had spent 5 days carrying the wooden bow and arrows around the tundra in pursuit of the bou.  Each day and stalk had put me consecutively closer in both knowledge and physicality to that realization of this dream.  I had one hunting day left in Alaska, and a decision to make: continue to hunt with a bow and possibly take home an empty $325 tag, or break out the AR10 and fill that tag with another caribou.  I knew in my heart if I had another 3-4 days of hunting I could make it happen with a bow, but with how unpredictable the bou had been in their passing I could not risk it all on one day.  The following morning would find the 308 on my back and ready for action, after sitting on the sidelines for the entire trip.

A tired tundra rat, after 12 hours and approximately 9 miles of walking and crawling after caribou
I had come to Alaska with dreams of taking a caribou with my longbow.  Those dreams have at least diminished for now.  I spent some time thinking about how much the caribou had taught me about themselves.  If I had used a rifle for both tags right away, I would have been finished on the first day of the hunt.  Setting out to take a Caribou the hardest way possible was the best thing I could have done.  The five days and specifically the day spent alone, crawling, walking, stalking, and hiding had made Alaska my caribou classroom. 

My closing thoughts this time are of a quote on reflection and learning: "Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself, and know that everything has a purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from."  -Elisabeth Kubler Ross

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bears, Wolves, Caribou, welcome to Kavik!

Arial view of the tundra around Kavik 
The item that strikes you most about the Kavik River area is its desolation of civilization.  When you fly over the lower 48 states, you are hard pressed to be find areas completely devoid of human habitation.  Low flight on approach to Kavik River Camp reveals...nothing.  No roads, no villages, the only evidence humans were ever here are old trails left by seismic measuring devices.  This place truly is one of the few lonely outposts on the last frontier.

On day one of our hunt we were greeted by thick clouds, light rain, and low fog.  It was difficult to see anything from The Perch, but we ended up trudging through the wet tundra in search of Caribou.  We found several herds moving through across the tundra fields.  Some planning put me within 150 yards as a herd moved through, but it was outside of bow range.

The second day found us following the Kavik River in search of caribou.  I spotted a single cow crossing the river and moving towards us.  I tried to position myself for a possible bow shot but she was running, and it was not feasible to get in front off her.  Shortly after she passed me I figured out why she was running: there was a black wolf working down the river bank.  It was the first wolf I had seen in the wild and it was a majestic sight.  I tried to grab my camera for a few pictures of the critter but he disappeared into the willows just a hair before I could get any images of him.

Wolf track found along the Kavik River
Further exploration of the river banks revealed three beautiful Caribou bulls bedded a short distance from the trail.  We snuck into position for a shot, but found the bulls had started feeding and were now further out in the tundra.  They were estimated to be 300 yards away with no hope for a stalk with the bow.  We were left with only a rifle shot and I took it, downing the best bull of the three.  I could have easily filled my second tag on the spot as none all of the remaining bulls ran at the sound of gun fire.  I choose to reserve that tag for a bow kill, but should the end of the week arrive with an empty license, that could be revised.

Me with my first caribou
Walking up to the bull we got our first introduction to caribou anatomy.   Their fur and features are softer than the animals we are accustomed to.  They have a quaint look about them that is reminiscent of Santa's reindeer.  It looked like I had just shot Donner or Blitzen.  My evil side contemplated telling my young 7 year old daughter how Saint Nick was now minus one sleigh puller.

I decided to quarter the caribou on the spot, sending my hunting partner back to camp for help. Knowing that bears were a problem in this area, I kept my eyes on the horizon looking for one that might be coming in for an easy meal; the fast food version of McDonald's on the tundra for them. While one prepares for such a possibility, you never really expect it to occur.  Sue Aikens arrived during the quartering processed and yelled for me to look towards the north as she was still approaching the kill sight.  When I did I found there was a grizzly bear running towards me, and the pile of coveted meat.  I am sure he hear the rifle shot and while a danger sound to some animals, it is the dinner bell to some of the predators.  Fortunately the bear decided he was outgunned and moved off as Sue and other hunting helpers arrived at the kill sight.  It was a new experience, butchering an animal in a rush, while under armed guard.

Grizzly Bear tracks found along the Kavik River
The next day I returned to the kill sight area and found all the bones and offal gone; completely consumed or cached within 24 hours.  While I was there a blond wolf came in and inspected the area. He was much larger than I expected and I was able to observe him for several minutes.  Sadly I was too far away for any decent photographs.  Later I would get within 100 yards of him, but he started running long before I had any chance of capturing him with my camera.

Last thoughts are from the movie, "Dances with Wolves."  Being on the Tundra 197 miles north of the arctic circle reminded me of a line from the film: "I've always wanted to see the frontier...before its gone."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On to Kavik

The Cessna Caravan ready to take us to Kavik
If you have never flown on a light aircraft in Alaska, I hope you have the opportunity at some point in your life.  If you are one who has the innate fear of flying already ingrained into your mind, it can be a harrowing experienced.  When we departed Fairbanks in the Cessna Caravan it was under IFR conditions, which translates to Instrument Flight Restrictions for non-piloting folks.  To put in more simpler terms, the pilot can't see anything, and some soul in a radar tower is guiding you via radio to make sure you do not crash into a mountain or other Aircraft.

Quick pose before climbing into the plane
As we climbed to altitude the sky turned into a thick white soup that completely blocked any view of the ground.  This continued for most of the flight, besides the occasional glimpses of the rugged terrain below.  About 40 miles from Kavik River Camp the pilot dropped the Caravan below the clouds and flew below them with a view of the tundra.  While the tundra was an awesome sight, it was daunting all the same.  There was water everywhere, not only lakes and streams but the ground itself was saturated with water.  I was happy I had brought two pairs of boots, but determined to make the best of the wet situation all the same.

River views just before landing at Kavik
Flying through clouds
Landing on the runway was rough and the sound of gravel under the planes tires was a new experience in flight for me.  After unloading the plane we were given a quick tour of camp by Sue Aikens, and an introduction to tundra safety.  We were warned about the bears and to keep our eyes open and aware of our surroundings, even while at camp.  I knew she was not joking when she showed me repairs to buildings from when grizzlies had come through the walls in search of food.

I found camp to be one of the best hunting accommodations I have ever had.  Running water, hot showers, electricity, excellent cooked meals, and even a washer and dryer were on hand for use.  If you are wanting to go the Alaskan tundra, I highly encourage you to consider Kavik River Camp as your destination.

The camp has a ladder to the top of one of the sleeping trailers that is commonly revered to as "The Perch." Sue warned us that said ladder was not OSHA approved and climbing was at our own risk.  This is the place to climb up and glance at the surrounding terrain.  On my first visit to The Perch I saw a grizzly on the Kavik river that flows next to camp.  He was majestic to see, but a vivid reminder there were big bears nearby.

Views from the Perch 

Alaska has a law that does not allow a person to hunt the same day as they fly.  This resets everyday at 3 AM, and theoretically a person could land at 2: 59 AM and then hunt at 3:00 AM.  We unfortunately landed at 3:15 PM and had to wait for 12 hours to begin our hunt.  I have high hopes for Caribou and great stories as I prepare for the hunt of a lifetime.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Have to Catch A Bush Plane

Scenery Along the Dalton
I do not have much time to write this morning as the mad exodus of the  hotel room and packing are under way.  We have a strict appointment with Evert's Air Cargo at 1:00 PM to fly to Kavik River Camp, where the real Alaska adventure will begin.

The last few day we have been primarily performing the usual touristy attractions.  My hopes are that within 24 hours we will be prowling the tundra in pursuit of heavy antler-clad caribou.

At the Dalton
Yesterday we made a run up to the start of the Dalton Highway.  Those whom watch the Discovery show, "Ice Road Truckers,"  will recognize this as the 400 mile long road to Prudoe Bay.  We completed the first 80 miles of the section of the road called the Elliot Highway, which is paved.   Paved is a lucrative term as compared to the lower 48 states.  Many repairs due to frost heaves and wash outs where visible, along with sections of gravel combined with blacktop.  All considered, it was a pleasant drive and a great chance to see the forests of Alaska.

It was also impressive to see just how fast civilization ended north of Fairbanks.  Once we were about 5 miles north, the power lines stopped and with that nearly all the homes.  Every home after that point lived entirely off the grid, complete with outhouses, solar panels, and softly humming generators. For the next 75 miles we counted only a handful of these outposts.  It is hard to describe just how deserted this road is; you have to venture down it to truly appreciate it.

A relic left rusting along the Dalton.

A sign found inside an outhouse at a small store along the Dalton.
During one of our stops near the pipeline we encountered our first bear!  It was a black bear and just as the ones I am familiar with in Colorado, he was very shy.  I could not even bring my camera up before the coal black beast disappeared into the bush, never to be seen again.

At the Alaskan Pipeline.
We made several stops along the road to try our hand as fishing for Grayling and Rainbow Trout.  It also was an excellent chance to test out our waders and newly acquired plethora of bug gear.   The Grayling could not be found, but each of us managed to land a few tiny Rainbow.  It reminded me of home, and if I did not know better I would thought I was somewhere in the Colorado high country.

Mom fishing 
With the bug gear we found out several key factors.  With simply a headnet, gloves and a raincoat, one can survive the hoards of mosquitoes with no repellent applied.  However, if you expose any skin, they will find it and give you no mercy.  As a test case we used one of our Thermacells while I was rigging the fishing poles.  After several minutes of running, nearly all the mosquitoes disappeared in the area around us.  It was shocking how effective it was!  Thermacells get a solid ACHL endorsement.

I was sad that we could not venture further up the Dalton Highway.  We ran out of time for the day, and I was already stretching our rental agreement pretty thin, if not already broken.  As we drove back to Fairbanks, I thought about the days to come.  We had seen the forest, it was now time to experience the tundra.  I felt prepared to conquer the bugs as we had proven our gear and fortitude while fishing.  I am excited for this next portion of the Alaskan adventure to begin.