Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hunting with The Big Eye

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a new friend and neighbor at church and his wife invited us out to lunch at a local restaurant. I didn't know him well as he is one of Alaska's thousands of remote workers- working in a remote mine for several weeks before he gets to spend a week or so at home. I've done it in the past and its tough on family life, your social life and, especially, your sporting life.

As we discussed Evan and my recent successes, he lamented that he'd been unsuccessful so far with his limited time. We talked a little of caribou strategies and locations and after a little bit of conversation I discovered that he was an enthusiastic, but rarely successful hunter. He hunted in a style that is pretty typical for a lot of folks here in the Interior- ride a four wheeler through trails, look for animals, see none, and ride some more. He was reasonably well equipped with an ATV and a suitable rifle and some other miscellaneous equipment but nothing in the way of optics outside of his rifle scope. A somewhat recent transplant from the big woods of Pennsylvania his lack of binoculars didn't particularly surprise me.

In my youth, I hunted in a similar fashion in Tennessee. I didn't own a set of binoculars until well into adulthood or even a riflescope until college. A spotting scope was something rarely seen- possibly in magazines featuring Western hunts or maybe on the odd segment on television. Truth be told, such equipment was largely superfluous until "bean field shooting" became popular. In the thick woods, visibility was so limited that the standard open sighted rifle was more than adequate for any shooting and all but the most visibly challenged could identify buck or doe at those ranges. A spotter could have you finding deer three or four farms (if not the next county) away.

Over our meal, we made a quick plan for an evening hunt about thirty miles to our south. In the interest of time, we decided to take ATVs into the fairly well developed trail system known as "Top of the World". A BLM managed trail- the trail system makes efficient use of ATVs to move people through some mountainous plateaus while limiting habitat damage that is so typical of that form of transportation. After loading the machines and packing for a quick hunt- we were off.

We arrived at the trail head to a well established camping area in a gravel pit at the bottom of a steep trail along the Alaska Pipeline pad. There were perhaps 15 camps loosely spread over the area and several of the hunters had erected meat poles- suspiciously empty given the area and season. We climbed astraddle our machines and motored up the hill- approximately 2000 vertical feet in just a few minutes. On my recent sheep hunt this climb would have taken hours. Turning onto the first trail head up the knife edge of a ridge we climbed perhaps another 1000 vertical feet and my partner was all but surprised when I just pulled off the trail on a rocky bench and just stopped.

"What are you doing?" he queried curiously as I unpacked some of my gear.

"Glassing," I replied, "we can either hunt with our feet or our machines. But either way we can still hunt faster with our eyes." I donned the binoculars and scanned the mile wide plateau below us looking for signs of caribou. There were several parties of hunters below, we could see them on their machines cruising the trails standing on the pegs looking for caribou. Apparently, the understanding that caribou are wide ranging animals- and while possible to locate near a trail, it certainly isn't a strategy to rely on. We were buffeted by a fast moving storm that pelted us with enough rain to reduce visibility and enough wind to make the machines rock. We hunkered in our rain gear, confident the lighter skies to the south would mean a short lived storm and better weather. In about twenty minutes the rain stopped and wind died down enough to restore good visibility.

I scanned the plateau below. Nothing moving except our fellow hunters. I explained the tactic I was using to my new friend. "Scan with your naked eye- don't look for caribou. Look for things out of place- movement, odd colors, odd shapes. Then repeat with the binos- looking for something that doesn't match." I instructed. After scanning the plateau out for about a mile and satisfied that I couldn't detect anything, I handed the binos to my neighbor with instructions on their use. "After you get used to using them you'll feel naked without them on a hunt." I joked.

It was time to pull out The Big Eye. A spotting scope. I had picked one up a couple years ago and since then it became and indispensable part of my kit. As a foot hunter, I could cover more ground with the spotter in a few minutes than I could walk over all day. I began by scanning the far edges of the plateau, looking for out of place shapes and colors. Finished, I looked at the next plateau from which we were separated by a deep canyon a mile distant.

In a few minutes I found what I was looking for- a caribou. The lone bull was prancing and feeding about a half mile from the pipeline trail, on the north side of a lake. I reckoned the bull was about two miles away. I called out, "There one is. Over there." Setting the ball head lock to keep the bull in focus and stepping back to allow my companion to look through the eyepiece.

"Well I'll be..." he exclaimed, "that's just impossibly long to find an animal." He stared a little longer, switching between binos and the spotter to compare the views. "You'd never see him, even looking right at him with the binos and the naked eye- forget it." he remarked. We were both amused when another  hunter rode right past the animal on the pipeline trail without seeing it across the wide open tundra. I could see the animal's breath steam as it stared at the distant machine and snorted.

I warned him, "that's a long way off for a stalk to start this late. Let's go to that knob for a better look." I said, indicating a low round knob on the near lip of the canyon between us and the bull. "Maybe we'll see something closer in."

I was somewhat doubtful of our ability to pursue the bull, he was at least two miles and two plateaus and one canyon away. About two miles by ATV and about a mile hike along the far lip of the canyon to skirt three small lakes and the attendant bogs. Even using the machines it would be a long stalk and take a lot of time. We only had a little over an hour of shooting light left. We departed our high ridge and after several minutes of riding, climbed the knob trail. This halved the distance to the bull and gave us a great chance to observe the bull and confirm we had no game closer. It also gave us good opportunity to plan the stalk in detail and get an entirely different perspective on the terrain. The route to the bull would be just under a mile and would take a circuitous route to take advantage of natural features and avoid the obstacles.

We took the ATVs alongside the pipeline pad and ditched them on a gravel siding pad where perhaps during the construction days three decades ago a generator shed or a foreman's shack had been. In the darkening gloom the alders beyond looked foreboding, but we knew from our earlier observation that they would soon give way to lower brush. After crashing 50 or so yards  through the dense alder, we spooked a flock of ptarmigan out of the edge that nearly gave us both heart attacks. We both knew how much bears love holing up in alders until night when they prowl and hunt.

Along the pressure ridge, we kept a low rise between us and the caribou. My partner, despite my reassurances that the bull would still be there, fretted about it since it was largely out of sight. We arrived at the head of a drainage that emptied a small lake and from our previous vantage point knew he was on the hill beyond. Quiet as thieves we picked our way up the drainage and after several exhausting minutes in the thickening dark we arrived at the edge and there, on the far side, was the bull. Unfortunately, at 500 yards we were spotted and the bull's breath exploded in the a visible cloud as he snorted loudly. The sound carried across the water. Crap. Busted.

We tried to retreat into the thin brush and skirt the lake to our north, despite the stealth our quarry matched our move to the south. A reverse of several hundred yards to the south and the cagey little bull matched our move to the north. While not scared enough of us to bolt and flee across the ridge, he simply was determined to keep the lake between us. On our southern feint, we stopped at the toe of a long point that jutted out into the lake a good distance, perhaps a hundred yards or so. It wouldn't put us on the far side of the lake but it just might put us within shooting distance, albeit long.

We stalked along as best we could  in the low brush while the caribou fed and intermittently looked in our direction. The light was failing quickly and at some point when we stopped moving the caribou lost visual acuity of us completely. He panicked somewhat and after several minutes of running in circles- determined he was safe enough. We evaluated our situation; more or less stuck on a peninsula sticking into the lake with a bull prancing across the water at what we reckoned to be three hundred yards. About as long a shot as I'm comfortable with. My partner's rifle was a .300 Remington Ultra (for once magnumania worked in our favor) about as flat shooting as shoulder fired rifles get. At my insistence he stretched out prone across the top of a small beaver lodge while I spotted his shots with my rifle scope. I would fire only if he wounded the animal and I was needed to prevent its escape.


I was somewhat shocked by the ferocious muzzle blast of the rifle when he took his first shot- I saw a clod of tundra fly up behind the bull and I called the shot, "High." He cycled the bolt and ejected the smoking hull onto the grass and lined up for his next shot. Boom! The rifle rang out again and I clearly saw the impact of the bullet high. He was shooting over the caribou's back as is often the case when novice hunters attempt to shoot at extended ranges. "Where are you aiming?" I queried tersely.

"I'm aiming a foot over his back!" he said quickly racking the bolt. Clearly nervous the bull would bolt.

"Aim dead on! You're shooting over his back! And while you're at it, calm down and breathe " I replied. I looked at the bull. He was standing there, clearly alarmed at the sudden thunderclaps that had echoed over the tundra. Without a visual cue he was clueless as to which way to run- so he stood there broadside scanning furiously for danger. He was puffing like a locomotive and in the chilled air his breath flashed to steam instantly. Boom! The big rifle rang our again and I saw the impact of the bullet behind the shoulder clearly through my rifle scope, shock waves rippling over his flank. I saw an explosion of steam on the far side of the animal as his breath escaped the exit would.  I ejected the shell in my chamber, there would be no need to back that shot up, as the bull fell to the ground.

My partner was in shock, overjoyed at finding success after so much disappointment. Introduced to a new kind of hunting unique to the west, he was hooked.

"Nice shootin' partner...we've got a caribou to skin." I said as I dug my headlamp from my pack. It would be a very long night as dusk turned to dark. We had to gut and quarter the bull and then haul him out the varied terrain to the waiting ATVs and then a short ride out of the mountain to the waiting truck several miles away. The growing dark was accompanied by a cold rain.

It would be a miserable pack out.

By the time we arrived back at the camp the storm had grown into a full blown gale. Darkness, strong winds and cold rain had driven the other hunters into their tents and RVs to drink beer or coffee, tell tales or swap lies with their companions as we unloaded the meat in the dark. I wonder how many of them went to bed that night convinced there was no game there on that high plateau.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Evan, the Hunter.

After returning from my successful hunting trip, my son became pouty and sullen. I had abandoned him to the confines of school and learning while I went out and harvested game. I could tell from his disappointment that I was going to have to try to make it up to him. After chores the next morning, the family conferred and decided that we would take a Saturday trip down to the Denali area to enjoy the weather, pack a picnic, pick berries and take our Lab for a much overdue swim. Evan kept chattering about hunting for caribou so he could "do his part" to feed the family. At his insistence, I threw the hunting and field dressing gear in the back of the van to placate him. I figured that this hunting trip would be like others I'd taken him on- he'd either quickly tire of the endless glassing or back off from his determination that something should catch a bullet.

We pulled into our favorite spot at Octopus Lake (where we had camped a couple years ago) and got out to stretch after the long drive. We saw several parties of hunters working on caribou they had down and after a few moments with binoculars spotted several small bands of caribou moving through the drainage. As we ate our lunch a gunshot punctuated the fact that the caribou were still in the area. Evan was, of course, delighted at the prospect. We left the wife and dog at the van with the spotting scope. She would follow our progress down the drainage and watch the animals intermittently while she picked berries, played fetch with the dog and worked on her sewing.

I shouldered my pack and we moved out, Evan pressing ahead eagerly through the rough terrain and we followed the creek as it drained out of the lake and headed for the Gulkana some miles away. He was undeterred by bands of alder and bushwacked his way through with abandon. After a mile or so of hard won progress, I decided we should cross the creek to get on a low rise to the east that split the drainage into two irregular shaped canyons. Evan approached the water tenderly- clearly reluctant to get his feet wet. I waded out to the other side and dumped my gear, waded back and retrieved the boy high and dry. He'd only be little once and my feet would dry- eventually.

Arriving on the low rise, we pressed binoculars to our eyes and watched several bands of caribou further down the canyons as they fed and moved. Evan wanted to chase the closest group and shoot one immediately but I reminded him that chasing caribou like that was a fool's errand. The creatures wouldn't bolt and run- they'd simply continue browsing and outpace you. A much better tactic was to simply wait in ambush until one wandered close enough to shoot.

Evan's patience was certainly growing because after an hour of steady glassing I'd not heard a peep or grumble despite a slightly chilly wind and light drizzle of rain. We watched as a band of caribou had moved from one canyon to the other several times without getting close enough to launch a stalk when on the last move a small bull separated himself from the herd and began moving through the bottom of the drainage toward us. Still about a mile away we crept forward perhaps a hundred yards to the limits of our cover. With extreme patience we sat with baited breath as the bull moved to within 400 yards of us and simply stopped approaching and began feeding intently on some morsel he found growing there. Evan remarked to me in hushed tones- "I know what happens now...he's separated from the herd...that means he's gonna die, all the nature documentaries say so."

I asked him back in low tones, "Well how do you figure that Evan?"

Deadpan he replied back, "...cause we're gonna shoot him."

I informed him that he was still too far away to shoot and if he wanted me to shoot the bull he'd have to find us a way closer in. We backed slowly off of our advanced position and realized that there was no way to get off the hillside without the bull easily spotting us due to the dearth of cover available. Evan exclaimed very excitedly, "I've got an idea..." and laid out his plan.

I've got to confess its something I would have never considered in all my years in the field. We simply stood up and walked off the hill away from the bull...in plain sight. Evan had explained his plan- he didn't think that the bull would spook if he saw us walking away from him, getting further away instead of closer. Skeptical of the plan but feeling it might work we did just that- walking a quarter of a mile away as the perplexed caribou watched us retreat. I saw a couple of guys on ATVs at the top of the hill with a sense of dread. They likely thought we'd called off the stalk and would soon swoop in on their machines and shoot the bull. As the caribou disappeared from view behind a fold in the terrain Evan cried out "Let's go!" and took off for the creek at a dead run.

Arriving at the creek there was no hesitation this time, he plunged into the icy water up to his waist and forged across. I followed and we made our way up the slope past the bank and hooked back to where the caribou had continued feeding. We crossed several smaller streams and rivulets draining into the swollen creek and I hate to disclose I had a hard time keeping up with Evan through the alders- his smaller body contorting as he passed easily through the gnarled and twisted branches. I hadn't heard the ATVs yet and hoped the hunters had decided this small bull was a good one to pass up. We soon topped the small fold in the terrain that had held us concealed from the bull.

There he was! Evan's unconventional approached had halved the distance to something like two hundred yards. Evan was down on hands and knees now moving over the tundra in a scramble carefully keeping some low growing foliage between him and the bull to conceal his approach. I followed the best I could. Finally arriving at the last dwarf willow between us and the bull I was quite proud- we had followed the hunter's dictum to a 'T'. If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier. Evan beamed with pride as he looked at me with a smirk..."How's that for close?" his eyes said merrily.

I looked at the bull. He was feeding unconcernedly a mere hundred yards away. I cast a glance over my shoulder to the van back at the head of the drainage- a mile and a half. It was going to be a long evening packing this critter back that far. I crept around the willow and raised the rifle. Not wanting to stand offhand and risk startling the bull but unable to assume either prone or sitting due to the sloping, tussocky terrain; I simply crouched in an unconventional position that's best described as "Rice Paddy Prone meets Saturday Night Fever." I looked through the scope at the bull- he was huge in the 6x scope at this range and wonderfully steady. I glanced over at Evan, he was practically vibrating with excitement with his fingers in his ears to shield them from the muzzle blast. I slipped off the safety, looked through the scope and took up slack on the trigger as the crosshairs found the fold of flesh immediately behind the bulls shoulder.

Boom! The gun practically fired itself as I applied the final fractional pressure to the trigger when the crosshairs found their mark. The bull staggered at the impact. The shot was too close for the kugelschlag to sound separately from the muzzle blast but the shot felt good. The bull took a wobbly step forward, a good sign. Evan yelled out, "Shoot him again!" but there was no need. He took several more wobbly legged steps before his brain succumbed to the inevitable- he was hit hard but stubbornly stayed on his feet. I explained in quiet tones that additional shooting would only frighten the animal and that he was already as dead as he'd ever get at this point. I've always hated shooting a second time once an animal has been fatally hit. Besides, where do you shoot an animal you've already double-lunged?

After perhaps 5 seconds  the bull tipped over on his nose and was stone still. I stood up and looked back at Evan- he looked triumphant and a little bit sad. I had apparently done that bit of parenting right.

"Good job Evan, that was a great stalk. You got us so close I just couldn't miss."

I approached the animal from the rear and looked him over. Dead. I took off my pack and jacket and looked at the shot placement- perfect double lung shot at fairly close range. I knew there would be a matching hole on the other side and there would be little meat damage on this small bull. We started the butchering process, intending to quarter him. I would be packing meat most of the evening, he looked like he would take at least two and likely three loads to recover. Some shooting across the drainage reminded me that other hunters were taking advantage of the herd's proximity to the road system and were busy filling their tags and freezers as well. I told Evan, "Why don't you put your yellow rain coat back on? Probably a good idea."

We had just removed the second quarter when the rumble of an approaching ATV reached my ears. Taking a break from my task, I stood up and a young man approached and introduced himself saying his partner would be here in a few minutes with a meat trailer and their caribou. He told us they'd watched the whole thing from the edge of the overlooking rim of the drainage. They'd contemplated pursuing this one when they saw Evan's yellow rain coat emerge from the brush in a totally different spot so they elected to leave us to our bull and took a cow in the next canyon. They'd thought we'd broken off the pursuit but we had appeared out of nowhere.

"That was the best strategy and stalk I've ever seen. You guys are awesome hunters! You worked in so close and smoked that guy with one shot! We'd be happy to haul that guy back to the road for you if you like." he said, much to my relief.

I pointed at Evan and said, "He's the guy who planned that one. Now if I can just teach him to shoot the big rifle and grow him big enough to pack meat,  I won't even have to leave the house." We all shared a laugh as Evan beamed proudly with the small antlers in his hand.

Days just don't get much better than this.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Scoring Fast Food...or the Caribou is Down.

I was just recovering from my week of on- again/ off- again foul weather sheep hunting when one day at work my frequent hunting partner Dan came by my desk and asked about a weekend trip on his new boat. It sounded marvelous frankly- cruising the lakes looking for caribou or moose with a fishing pole in the water and a cup of coffee in my hand. All the while kicked back behind the console with a canvas top and Buddy Heater if the weather went south. It took me all of five seconds..."I'm in." I replied.

Dan arrived at the appointed time of 0'dark hundred and I quickly loaded my gear and away we went. We stopped off at the gas station and I fueled the boat and the truck while Dan went for coffee and doughnuts. A few adjustments to the tie downs and windshield cover and away we went  in Dan's big Dodge truck pulling the boat. We had a great trip down the highway and spotted numerous animals milling in the dawn light near the edges of the highway including a caribou who ran directly down the road in front of us for a half mile before veering off into the brush. It just felt like a great day to be hunting and I could taste success in the fall air.

As we turned down Denali Highway, the mists began burning off the numerous pothole lakes and patches of blue sky shown through the intermittent gray as the sun began its creep over the horizon. As we motored down the narrow and twisting highway we conversed about the coming fall season and goals we had for hunting as well as observing the changing fall colors of the blueberry bushes and willows. As we passed the boundary marker that announced we were now entering a "Subsistence Hunting Area" and validated the numerous tags we carried, I casually looked west at a rugged mountainside covered with several rocky benches and intertwined patches of moss...and caribou.

"Bou out the port side Skipper!" I announced and Dan quickly slowed the truck and pulled off the narrow shoulder. Finally feeling the momentum of the ponderous boat subside and the truck roll to a stop we jumped out to see the animals. This was ridiculous. We weren't even hunting yet. I had mixed feelings, this wasn't much of a hunt if we connected here on these caribou but then again- I had plenty of air in my freezer at this point.

"What do you think?" I queried as I heard Dan stuffing shells into the magazine of his rifle.

"I'm gonna put one in the freezer!" he answered and started across the road to line up a shot. Its illegal to shoot from, across or to a roadway in Alaska but you don't have to be very far from it to be legal in this location- just off the driveable surface. Dan stepped a couple dozen yards off the road to be on the safe side as I was foraging in the cab of the truck for my rifle shells and hurriedly playing catch up at this point. I had been caught unawares and this seemed almost surreal given the effort I'd expended the week prior for a mere photograph of a sheep, a mile away, through a spotter.

I was midway across the road when Dan, several dozen yards across the other side,  pulled up his rifle and fired offhand at a nice plump cow caribou at the edge of a small stone ledge- perhaps a hundred yards distant. I was trying to do too many things at once and this event was unfolding at high speed- running, observing, the animals, loading the rifle, watching Dan in the brush. I glanced up at the crack of the rifle and saw Dan's caribou fall headlong off the ledge. The sharp crack of the kugelschlag indicated the round had struck bone and the reaction of the animal indicated it was stone dead, even in mid fall.

The small band of caribou now exploded into action.

Finally drawing up to Dan I looked up the hill, the caribou were running confused- dodging left and right, pouring up the narrow approaches to the ledges and back down the far sides. Sometimes with herd animals a hunter is often confused by looking at the mass of animals rather than individuals and I fell solidly into the category at this time. I raised the rifle and looked- the crosshairs wobbled with my ragged breathing. I probably hadn't drawn a single breath since rounding the truck and burning lungs demanded air, right now. Animals were piled thick into each other and it was entirely possible to shoot through one and kill or wound one behind it. A disasterous situation.

Its funny how at times like this you mentally do the strangest things. I can only imagine that what I had practiced took over on autopilot as the hunter's dictum ran through my mind- If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier.

Closer? Unlikely given the speed at which the animals were moving away. Steadier? That I could do and plopped down on the rough gravel and assumed my favorite of all shooting positions- sitting. I looped up in the sling and drew tight as the animals finally slowed on top of a rock ledge at a distance we would later measure with a GPS as 255 yards. The caribou were still ganged up as I started tracking them through the crosshairs. A nice, fat cow caribou stood out in this small band but I held fire as I could see the legs of another caribou behind her. This was finally slowing down to a pace my brain could handle. The animals traversed the ledge south to north, headed for the lee of the drainage and safety.

"Got one picked out?" asked Dan. Obviously wondering if I was here to hunt or just watch with my mouth agape.

Through the scope I could see a phenomenon that I had observed countless times with all sorts of quadrupeds. Because ungulates have eyes on both sides of their heads they don't see particularly well forward or rear and since they have such limited depth perception with their visual arrangement, they almost always do the most peculiar thing. After an initial burst of speed when startled and a short mad run, the animals will simply stop to look around and see if they are pursued...generally broadside.

I tracked the mature cow and watched as she stopped on the ledge and looked around oblivious to our presence far down the hill. I also watched as the caribou behind her moved clear, providing an ideal, if somewhat long shot. Although it takes some time to write, the actual event took less than 10 seconds in reality. I evaluated- the crosshairs were marvelously steady with the rifle locked in with a taut sling and my forearms firmly on my shins and knees. The distance, albeit slightly longer than I normally like to shoot, was well within the capability of myself and the rifle. I looked carefully, flicked off the safety and took up slack on the fine trigger.

I applied the final fractional ounce to the trigger. Boom! The rifle cracked and I rocked back in recoil. I clearly heard the sound of bullet striking flesh, what the German hunters refer to as the kugelschlag. As I brought the rifle out of recoil I cycled a fresh cartridge into the chamber. I quickly found the ledge again in the scope but I couldn't find the cow again. The herd continued moving north and was soon around the ridge and out of sight.

All business, I calmly asked Dan, "Where?"

"Down!," he replied, "She flopped backwards at the shot and hasn't moved."

I scanned the area through the scope where I believed the caribou had fell, watching for the cow to recover from the initial shock and run off. Many hunters who follow up on game too quickly are surprised when their animal jumps up and runs off as they approach unprepared.

Nothing moving. I was nervous that one of the caribou now putting distance between us was carrying one of my bullets.

"Let's go," I said and we got up and started our climb up the hill. We quickly reached the base of the ledge that Dan's bou had tumbled down. The ledge was perhaps ten feet high and the cow was piled up right at the base. She had never felt the impact at the bottom. His .300 Winchester with a 150gr. bullet had hit the cow at somewhere near 3000 feet per second velocity at 100 yards. The impact force had broken the onside shoulder turning the shoulder blade fragments into secondary projectiles through the lungs. The bullet had punctured both lungs as well and still had plenty of momentum to completely shatter the offside shoulder and punch a large exit wound. Death had been instantaneous. We moved the cow onto a flat patch of ground on the steep hillside, marked it with flagging and got our bearings to continue up the hill to where mine hopefully lay.

We spread out about 50 yards apart and worked our way through the shin tangle and rocky ledges. We went up the steep hill slowly and looked out the ridge- there, perhaps 500 yards away, the rest of the herd had stopped and watched as we made our way up. I had just looked back and thought that I had surely went too far and passed the caribou in the brush. I also had the nagging voice in the back of my head- wondering if I had just wounded the animal and it made an escape as we had climbed up here. It had certainly taken long enough, perhaps ten minutes, to get here and the terrain had enough variation that a discreet escape unseen by us approaching from below would have been possible. I looked at the distant herd, watching for tell tale signs of a seriously wounded one- they all moved with the grace and posture that caribou normally display.

I pushed on and climbed a small, rocky chute to the next rocky ledge to get a vantage point to scan the brush below. The stones had been freshly dislodged as caribou had recently scrambled up this access to the bench above- a good sign. As I pulled myself over the edge of the ledge there was my caribou, stone dead where she fell. I felt a rush of relief as I examined the animal with the distinctive smaller velvet covered antlers. She was in excellent condition, plump and healthy- prime sustenance and wonderful table fare for my family this winter. I examined the wound- the bullet had entered just behind the shoulder, penetrated the vitals and after rolling her over saw it exited high lung through the ribs. Death would have been exceptionally quick and given the myriad of ways caribou die out here in this harsh land- maybe merciful to an extent since old age is not one of them.

While the act of killing isn't something I particularly enjoy, I do take great satisfaction in being proficient at the task. If I cause an animal's death, I strive to do so with minimal suffering. I reflected for a moment here on the mountain with my animal- the caribou had went from alive and living free to quite dead in mere seconds. I wondered a bit about my own eventual death. Would it be as merciful or as quick? After seeing my father's lingering and prolonged suffering bout with cancer my views on death had perplexed me somewhat over the last year. I tired of such melancholy and dark thoughts in such a beautiful setting. Dan rounded a point a short distance away and we had lots of hard work ahead to do given our unexpected and quick success.

"Hey Dan...she's over here. Down in her tracks..."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Weather's Remission.

continued from "Sheep Hunting...Weather's Finale"

On Thursday morning, at about the second pot of coffee and something like the twenty-fifth check of the NOAA website the change occurred. It took me a minute to pick out the small change after days of viewing it with the same repetitive forecast that accompanies these huge, slow moving low pressure systems.

"Rain, with low lying clouds and decreased visibility in the Eastern Mountains" became instead, "Partly Cloudy with clearing in the afternoon and increased chance of rain in the evening". In other words- sloppy just became partly sloppy.

Before my browser could fully load the page I had already cut and pasted the forecast into a text message and forwarded it to my partner. We had a single day left to hunt and it appeared that our weather lock down was being given by a rogue high pressure system that moved farther to the East than anticipated and would (at least temporarily) push the low pressure monster back over the mountains into Prince William Sound. I received a text from my partner almost immediately- "Tomorrow? What are you thinking?". I replied, " Day trip- pack light, essentials only, hike fast for search and destroy. Leave at 7a, back at dinner."

The reply came back quickly- "Cool."

As we motored south down the highway toward the mountain valley that held our hunt area the weather forecast didn't look accurate as the wipers slapped in rhythm on the windshield. Looking to the north, behind us, the sky was clearing with some blue patches showing so there was some validity to the premonition of the weatherman. As we parked the Jeep, the rain had slackened and we were able to begin our climb in rain gear to protect us from the water pouring off the foliage we had to pass through.

We had packed light- I only had my pack, rifle, spotter, rain gear, lunch and a few survival essentials along- probably a pack weight of 15 pounds total including my heavy tripod. My partner had packed similarly and we moved quickly up the trail toward the tree line. I was weary from the earlier excursions this week but I quickly had the soreness hiked out of my muscles and we broke treeline sooner than expected. We had covered five miles and several thousand vertical feet in just over two hours. We were moving fast over the broken terrain in anticipation of finding the broomed ram still hiding away in the cliffs at the head of the drainage. After being burned earlier in the week, we kept one eye on the weather, and as we gained altitude we could see the dark clouds of the low pressure system being held at bay on the summits of the mountains to our south. Once our current high pressure passed to the east, this system would reclaim the mountains with a vengeance.

Moving through the rock fields we spurred the cries of hoary marmots, collared pikas and ground squirrels (all preferred food for grizzly bears). Each made a distinctive noise that signified their intruder alert for their colonies. As we crossed the high tundra to our over watch for the ram we found our resident caribou- still parading around like an energetic pony. Apparently he was living in anticipation of the coming rut. Every few hundred feet we would slow and scan the surrounding hillsides for any sign of sheep. The sky now perfectly clear, the sun grew intense and hot. Remembering our frigid and soaking experience earlier, I had only a wool watch cap in my pack- my beloved baseball cap forgotten at home. I was going to get a sunburn in one of the weirder twists in my hunting career.

After a hard slog to 5500', we approached the ridge summit cautiously and peered over. We were both giddy with anticipation to see the ram in his favorite spot- hanging out with his two youthful sub legal buddies munching a favored plant that grew on the benches there.

The ram that wasn't there anymore.

We looked very hard and over the next couple of hours picked apart every glen, glade, nook, cranny and crag with the spotter; desperate to get a look at the broomed ram. What we found was disheartening- all the sheep were clinging hard in the escape terrain. The steepest, most difficult and inaccessible parts of the mountain. Ewes, lambs, young rams- stuck on pinnacles and spires looking watchfully over the drainage below. But none was the mature ram or his two partners, they had vanished in the rising mist.

As we picked our way off the mountain the high pressure that gave us such fair weather was starting to wane and the first clouds off the storm began to pour in over the high passes. By the time we reached the jeep a light drizzle started to fall. I had been on one of the hardest and most rewarding hunts of my life despite not harvesting an animal. I was ready to call it quits and give my battered body a rest and turn my attentions to caribou season now starting to pick up in earnest and look for moose in the lowland bogs in order to put some delicious meat in the freezer for the winter. By the time we reached my home, the view south was a solid wall of cloud and rain and wind. We had spent the only precious clear hours of the early season where we wanted to be- on the mountain among sheep.

Sheep season was over for me. It was my first experience seriously chasing sheep but it would not be my last. My partner and I are already discussing next August's foray to chase rams among the clouds.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sheep Hunting...Weather's Finale

After donning what was left of our dry clothes and shaking out our rain gear we began to pack up our camp. Few people have any realization exactly how much a wet camp weighs in comparison to a dry camp but on your back it feels like several hundred pounds of water trapped between the layers of your high tech, gossamer fabrics. In reality, it's probably about 15% more weight due to water. After packing up everything the best we could in the drizzling mist, we began the long descent.

The initial terrain was waterlogged tundra interspersed with rivulets of water recently deposited on the mountaintop now headed for the seas. Walking across boggy tundra with a heavy load is exhausting for those who haven't tried it but after a couple of miles and  roughly a 1000' feet of fall in elevation we came the steepest part of the descent- an 800 foot drop in as many horizontal feet. A fall here would entail a long tumble to very nearly the bottom of the mountain. We adopted the mantra "slow and safe" before we started down the broken shale face, now slickened by the rain. If the temperature had fallen another ten degrees and resulted in a light snow or ice storm this face would be suicidal to descend.

Things were going pretty well with all things considered- we made good time attempting to beat the setting sun prior to getting to the final part of the hike, a descent through a thick black spruce forest interwoven with impenetrable bands of alder. Navigating past a scree chute, I planted my outboard trekking pole and as I transferred my weight from my foot to the pole the dreaded happened. The pole collapsed and folded under me. Suddenly I was caught off balance on a steep slope with a 60 pound pack on. I was exhausted from several days of hiking and little sleep. I reacted the only way I really could and I sprawled out on the rocks rather ungracefully and attempted to catch myself on something solid before gravity took over and pitched me headlong into the misty abyss below.

My right hand found a jut off rock just as I started to slide and I managed to dig my pack in as well. Thankfully my unintended momentum stopped and for the moment I was safe. I noticed a tremendous pain in my thigh, I had fallen rather hard on my right side and my thigh had impacted a sharp piece of granite protruding from the face. That hurt. I quickly assessed my condition and determined the bone probably wasn't fractured but I did have a small cut and a rather large scrape on my leg that burned like fire. I would bleed a little but I'd live. I managed to work my way to safety where I could rest and regroup with my partner who lagged several hundred feet behind me for safety since we didn't want to fall into each other or dislodge a rock onto the hunter below. Already I had noticed several rocks plunging at high speed from his struggles and I had sent more than a few bouncing down myself.

We at last came to the large rock ledge where our descent transitioned from open cliffs and high alpine tundra back to the forested slopes. We had about a mile to go and about 1500 feet to descend back to the highway where our vehicle was parked. It was 8:00p and we looked like we had just been on a forced march. I had a visible limp from my swelling thigh and my partner's boots had stretched to the point he had to walk gingerly or the whole boot would roll under his foot causing a fall. We drank some water and powered down a couple of candy bars each. We had descended below the thick cloud layer and looking up the sky and mountainside were just a huge wall of grey water trapped in the atmosphere.

I transitioned my trek poles for my rifle. I did this for a couple of reasons- first, encounters with bears would be at rock throwing distance in this thick wood and (maybe not so obviously) walking through the alders and spruce with a rifle barrel sticking two feet over my head would ensure a lot of snagging and fighting an already heavy pack down the mountain. I tightened my straps and found the faint line of the trial in the now darkening forest and plunged in.

I wish I could say our descent down the mountain was a graceful walk down a thin line of a trail through the brush, but it wasn't. The trail was little used and had the habit of vanishing in the brush periodically. We were so tired and exhausted we just plowed though. Like human bulldozers, we knew the way was down and as long as the next step was lower than the first we pressed ahead. Every contact with the trees or the tall alders would dislodge hundreds of collected raindrops and it would pour down on us, soaking us to the bone despite our raingear. Not that it mattered, despite temperatures in the mid 40s we were sweating heavily under our heavy packs; when we stopped in a thicket the prevented the breeze from moving through we steamed profusely. After two hours of this hellish hike we emerged out of the trees, just a few hundred feet from our vehicle. We were battered, bruised, exhausted and soaked, but we were down. It was 11:00pm.

The next day I awoke to the smell of strong coffee permeating the house. My wife had let me sleep in and it was 10:30, hours later than I usually sleep as an early riser. I tried out a few moves while still horizontal. Yep, everything hurt. Despite weeks of training the only thing to prepare you for sheep hunting was sheep hunting. I managed to stagger downstairs and filled my mug with coffee. I looked out the window at the torrential late summer Alaska downpour. The Granite mountains, normally visible from my home, were just a mass of cloud and water. I checked the NOAA site and a couple of FAA Weathercams in the hunt area from my PC. No break in sight in the forecast and just a gray blur on the webcam from the thick fog. That set a pattern that would repeat itself for several days. Drink coffee, watch rain, check forecast (no change from 30 minutes ago), send email to my partner back at his home, restlessly read a magazine, drink coffee, watch rain...you get the idea.

Then on Thursday, after checking the weather for the fourth or fifth time that morning, I noticed a change in the forecast...

to be continued.