Searching for Velvet on Barren Ground
I watched as the Super Cub approach the grass strip in Delta Junction, Alaska. Flaps down and low on the throttle the plane appeared to float more than fly. I looked away from the plane to inspect my baggage one last time before the flurry of packing began.
The scream of full throttle snapped my attention back to the plane, which was now banking hard left away from the runway. The plane was only a hundred feet off the ground and my heart stopped as the pilot fought to avoid a stall and turn toward safety. The flock of geese that was scattering just as dramatically gave clue to what had happened and I swallowed hard at the realization that I was next in the passenger seat.
The Super Cub circled, set up on its approach once again and was able to get all three wheels on the ground without further event. The pilot taxied to the pick up spot and was immediately out packing my gear. “We need to hurry – weather moving in,” was his only comment.
As we taxied to the end of the strip I asked about his encounter with the geese. “Happens all the time,” was the response I got.
“So it’s not a big deal?” I asked hopefully.
“Hell yeah it’s a big deal, you almost got a front row seat to my demise.” With that he punched the throttle, I said a prayer and we were flying in to the bowels of interior Alaska.
I had waited two full days for my ride to caribou camp thanks to low clouds, buckets of rain and the fact that I was the last of a group of five to be flown in to the field. By Alaska standards two days really isn’t that bad. The problem was that after months of anticipation, minutes seem like hours and the time passed slowly. Add to the situation that daylight started and ended in the middle of the night, and days started to feel like weeks.
Of course just how intolerable the wait for the bush plane is depends in large part on your pilot. Our group had hired an outfitter who partnered with the most gracious bush pilot in all of Alaska, Gary Hall. While I watched my companions leave civilization one by one I sat on Gary’s front porch drinking fresh brewed coffee, eating roast beef and cucumber sandwiches and enjoying varied conversations with his equally gracious wife, Lori. I expected to have to wait; I didn’t expect to wait in such luxury.
As we left the Tanana Valley and climbed in to the mountains of the Fortymile region I tried to recall all that I had learned about the area prior to the hunt to keep thoughts of goose dodging out of my mind.
Technically described, the interior is the area south of the Arctic Circle, north of the Alaska Range, west of Canada and east of 154 degrees west longitude. It’s huge. Denali National Park is a small part of the interior and alone it is the size of Massachusetts.
The Alaska Range sprawls south of Fairbanks; this impressive geological feature includes North America’s tallest peak, Mt. McKinley. The interior is home to the famous Wrangell Mountains and the Yukon River flows westward across the region from Canada to the Bering Sea.
Almost hidden amidst the iconic landmarks of the interior is the Fortymile region. Tucked between Fairbanks and Canada, this area is home to the Fortymile caribou herd. The herd numbered in excess of 500,000 animals in the early 1900’s. Since then the caribou have ranged in population from less than 10,000 to the current estimate of just over 38,000 animals. In 1995 the Fortymile Planning Team was initiated and since then the herd has been intensively managed to accomplish a population target of fifty to one hundred thousand caribou.
A crackling in my headset brought me out of my transcendental review of interior stats and Gary asked, “How you feeling?” I thought hard before answering. In addition to being exceedingly competent; he had also proven to be quite a jokester.
“Ah, ok I guess.” With that the plane was turned on a wing and we were doing a tight circle over a jagged granite ridge. “Can I ask why you are trying to kill me?” The words had to slip past my stomach, where it was firmly lodged in my throat.
“Look out the window dummy.” I did my best to focus on the swirling ground beneath and realized that two giant bull caribou were standing on top of the ridge. “What are they doing way up there? Looks more like sheep country than caribou fields.”
Gary laughed and responded, “You have no idea what you are in for do you?” He added an exclamation to his comment by pulling out of his spin and diving off the backside of the mountain toward our landing strip in the valley below.
The hunt was a drop camp arrangement. Our outfitter, Richard Gardner, provided access to his guide area, arranged a bush flight to the field and provided all required camp supplies; but all the work in the field was up to us.
As I made my way to camp I immediately recognized that my gesture of waiting to fly in last was much less a sacrifice than I had originally thought. I was able to get to camp before opening day and while I enjoyed Lori’s hospitality my companions had been hard at work constructing camp throughout two days of miserable weather.
The smartly constructed wall tents puffed white clouds of smoke from wood stove pipes and the smell of beef stew was in the air coming from a tarped cooking area. I’ve set up enough camps to know they had been hard at work, and even if I hadn’t, the tired expressions and glossy eyes would have given it away.
Richard was in camp when I arrived making sure we were settled. Everything to that point had gone exactly as he said it would and camp was exactly how he had described; tucked neatly in to the head of a valley to stay out of the winds with equipment that was either new or very well maintained. I was curious though – normally chatty and lighthearted he was not talking much and seemed to be concerned about something.
In an attempt to get him talking I suggested that the country was certainly unique for barren ground caribou. Richard seized the opportunity and replied, “We hunt tough country that happens to be on the migration route. Not many people get to hunt caribou in country like this.” I could tell there was a “but.”
“Normally this area would be covered in caribou right now, but…” I knew it. “This year we’ve had more rain than we’ve seen in over 50 years. It has the migration completely fouled. I flew over this valley last week and there were caribou everywhere, but it seems they may have moved on.” This certainly explained the worried look and quiet disposition.
“Good luck guys, I’ll be back to check on you.” With that he was off to the landing strip and we were left to our hunt.
The first day of hunting produced one caribou sighting. The second day passed with no better result, as did the third and then the fourth. Worse than not seeing caribou was seeing unimaginable amounts of sign, it was clear that in the very recent past the area had been infested with animals. After four long days the group had accumulated over 300 hours of hunting and only put eyes on a few dozen caribou.
On the morning of the fifth day I was behind the glass at 4 a.m. I looked out across the barren ground and could feel its emptiness. There was simply nothing there. My feet were blistered from endless miles of roaming and it seemed on the rare occasion I did see a caribou it was in the area I had just left. On this day I sat, watched and hoped a caribou might come to me.
I turned my focus to the ominous dawn. Angry clouds engulfed the high peaks and the thunder that rumbled through the valleys left me with an uneasy sense of vulnerability. Fall had come early and though it was only August the tops of the mountains were already white. My fingers that were used to east coast heat and humidity stung from exposure. I raised my binoculars and resumed my futile search.
When I couldn’t take it anymore I placed the binoculars in my lap, rubbed my eyes and tried to focus through the fading light on the same rugged expanse I’d been looking at for 16 hours. It had begun to feel like I was looking at a painting. Except for light and shadows nothing changed; there was no movement, there was no noise, there was no hope. It was 8 p.m. and though I had several hours left until dark, I held little hope that I would see a caribou.
As I sat lamenting a hunt that seemed to have gone terribly wrong, a single bull emerged from the timber across the valley from my vantage point. His long horns inspired me and his lazy demeanor gave me hope. Though close to a mile away, I shouldered my rifle and began the long hike that would hopefully put me in front of the bull.
The valley was shaped like a giant horseshoe. I was on one side, he was on the other. At the head of the valley was a saddle that led to a large drainage thick with spruce that offered protection from the human hunter. It was clear he was working his way to the saddle and if I was unable to get their first, my likely one and only chance at a bull would evaporate.
The mountain was steep. What wasn’t rocky was thick with blueberry and dwarf birch. My ankles ached from stumbling through fields of basketball sized granite and my quads burned from wading through waist high bushes that literally grabbed my legs and stubbornly refused passage.
Despite his lethargic gate, it was clear he was covering ground more quickly than I. My saving grace was that he took every opportunity to rub his antlers in a thick crop of alder or on the trunk of a black spruce. His efforts to expose horn from underneath velvet allowed me to gain ground I was losing and distracted his attention from my less than stealthy approach.
As I neared the head of the valley I realized that the funnel that looked tight from a distance actually provided plenty room for a caribou to pass out of range. I was using a 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. I had enough energy to 275 yards, but there was at least twice that distance for the caribou to move through the saddle.
I belly crawled the last 100 yards, moving only when his head was down and his focus was on thrashing alder. I settled in to the last bit of cover before the valley opened up to short grasses and ultimately solid granite. I ranged a spot at 250 yards and then tried not to focus on the endless opportunity the bull had to travel on the far side of that mark.
I turned my focus to the bull and watched as he effortlessly navigated terrain that bruised both my ego and my body. What appeared lazy from a distance now looked proud, even cocky, up close. He swaggered more than walked and he held his head at the perfect angle to display his large framed antlers.
As I lay in wait the sun dipped below the clouds, yet stayed just above the horizon. The world was lit with the golden hew of evening light and the subtle reds and yellows of the barren ground exploded in to a neon swirl of fall color. Heavy dew added an animated sparkle to the landscape and a rainbow stretched over the bull and ended, of course, where he had first appeared.
Now past the distraction of bushes and trees he walked with purpose toward the saddle. The good fortune of the evening held and he passed on my side of the ranged mark. I settled behind the rifle, focused through the scope and allowed my subconscious to take over trusting it would know best when to pull the trigger. The bull stopped just before the steepest part of the head wall that led to the saddle, and safety.
I couldn’t tell if it was coincidence or intentional defiance when the bull looked in my direction, seemingly right at me, and stood stark still. The rifle recoiled and the bullet struck with a thud. The bull continued to stand, unflinching, and left no doubt that his desire to live was infinitely stronger than my desire to kill him. He lay down on his own terms and expired as the sun set behind the horizon and the barren ground returned to shades of grey.
“Doug, was that you?” I was in a valley not far from camp and the other members of my party had heard the shot. “That was me, mind bringing some meat packs and saws?”
The group assembled around the bull and celebrated our collective success. We had all hunted diligently – I was just the one who got lucky. We worked until midnight quartering and caping; then returned to camp exhausted in the best way possible and collapsed on our cots.
Once more I sat on Gary’s front porch; this time enjoying strong coffee, sweet pastries and the company of Lori. We were waiting on the bush plane, rather the weather…again.
Much to our surprise the buzz of an approaching aircraft interrupted our conversation. The clouds looked too low for safe travel and the plane approached from an unusual direction; the landing strip was right at the edge of a forest and the plane seemed to be coming from that direction.
The plane exploded in to view right at tree top level a literal blur – in part from the full throttle and in part because the plane was partially consumed by clouds. The plane bent in to a crabbed approach and within seconds of us seeing it the Super Cub bounced on the runway. It was the bush plane version of a hockey stop.
I looked at Lori and asked, “Does Gary’s occupation ever worry you?”
She calmly answered, “You get used to it.”
We met Gary at the tie-downs. He explained that the clouds were getting lower as he got closer to the landing strip and it was a race that he won by seconds. Richard had been with him but his plane was not quite as fast and he was forced to turn back and find an emergency landing strip. That night at dinner, once everyone had safely returned to town, Richard explained that the clouds got so low at one point he considered landing in the Tanana River.
I asked, “Richard, wouldn’t that be a crash, not a landing?”
His matter of fact response was simple, “I would have survived it. In Alaska that’s a landing, not a crash.”