31 August 2015

North Slope Brooks Range Caribou Part IV

When I woke the next morning I had to force my eyelids open. My head was pounding from dehydration and my body felt like it had been used as a crash test dummy. Once I fell asleep I don't think I moved for six hours. I dragged myself up and out of the bag, I heard Throc ask from outside my shelter, "Are you in there?" I said yes and he said "I wasn't sure if you were even alive".

I retold the goings on from yesterday as I got breakfast ready. He was planning on hunting the path I had taken the day prior as once you get some elevation the rocky ground becomes much easier to walk. We watched a massive blonde grizzly work the shore line across the lake. I was more than a little uncomfortable because he was working in the direction I was going to have to go to recover my meat.

Post grub up and hydration I had my rifle on my shoulder and was glassing the griz that was still going in the wrong direction. Dustin was gearing up as he was going to help me with the final 2 miles of meat recovery. I cannot say with enough emphasis how grateful I was that he was going to help. I was in pretty bad shape, knees were swelling and lower back was screaming from paying the stupid tax for killing a 'bou that far from camp day prior.

With a generalized plan formed we set off towards the north east corner of the lake and the head high willows that marked the trail towards my meat. We kept an eye on the grizzly that continued in the same direction. As the distance closed it became obvious to us that he wasn't going to alter course. If anything he had increased his pace. About 50 yards from the willows and perhaps 110 yards from the bear we stopped and yelled 'Hey Bear" and "GO AWAY BEAR" but he was undeterred. I told Dustin to watch his ears and slid the safety off the 7mm Remington Magnum. I dumped the warning shot into the ground maybe 20 yards in front of us, the mud and water sprayed into the air, the detonation shattered the air around us and echoed hard in the bowl formed by the lake. The grizzly was clearly startled as he broke from his path and charged up the hill at full speed. He looked back once, and then took off in a dead run and didn't stop. With a bit of relief we continued on our walk. we both lamented over not getting pictures of the bear though I must admit it was the furthest thing from my mind at the time.

Our route took us along the willow bottoms and creeks back in the direction I had come the night prior. In the clear light of day I was surprised at just how rough the terrain was, the tussocks on the tundra are  difficult to explain. If you try to walk on them they roll, when you try to put your foot between them they trip you or force your foot into awkward positions, twisting and turning. Some areas they are mild to moderate, in others they are exceedingly large, tall and wide and you have to really stretch it out to get your foot into the next 'safe' hole between them.

As we walked Dustin and I covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, we discussed many subjects and looked over our shoulder constantly for the big grizzly bear which was probably still running.

Once back to the meat Dustin graciously took two of the five meat bags from my pack and helped me get my pack on my back again, I was exceedingly stiff from the prior day and struggled even under the reduced weight. Before we set off on the march back to camp he snapped this pic.

I think it took us over four hours to cover the two miles back to camp. I had to stop frequently. I could feel the damage I'd done and knew I'd pushed it a little too hard. We finally made it back to camp and I got my meat hung in the willows, I started forcing water in order to begin recuperating.

In the distance we could see a storm brewing in the mountains, knowing Throc had gone off in that direction there was some concern he'd be caught in it. The visual distances on the tundra are incredibly deceiving. What appears to be just a couple hundred yards is actually over a thousand, distances you think you could cover in thirty minutes are actually well over an hour away. Getting caught in a storm on the tundra could be very dangerous.

We caught sight of Throc on a distant hill as he was glassing for caribou about three and a half miles from camp. The ominous clouds in the mountains were turning dark.

I was sitting in front of my shelter working on re-hydrating when the first shot rang out behind me in the direction of the mountains and Throc. Then another three in rapid succession. I grabbed my Kifaru pack and stripped it down to just the grab-it and put it into meat hauler mode. Ditched everything else, as tired as I was I figured with the shooting that he had a bull. Dustin took off as I was getting ready, I set off behind him by about 500 yards.

As I closed the distance I watched Dustin wave and point to the horizon on my right. I could see nothing and he was too far to hear, I'd left my glass in camp and couldn't find what he was pointing at.

Once the distance closed I could see Dustin had Throc's pack and gear. He started telling me how "He went full Alabama! Dropped his gear took some ammo and started chasing the caribou!" I laughed at that and we looked on the horizon for any sign of him. As we started walking in the general direction we thought he went Dustin saw Throc coming out of camp! He had sprinted across the tundra and complete circled us.

We met up at camp and got the story, got our stuff ready and headed off to recover the bull. Thankfully it wasn't that far away, not nearly as grueling as my own recovery and I was damn thankful for that!

We had a good time cleaning the animal which is an odd thing I suppose. I realized at the time that three dudes who had never met outside of a digital domain were now on the tundra of north east Alaska. Thousands and thousands of miles from home, laughing as we cut up a caribou, and how a shared love of hunting and the outdoors had facilitated friendships that would last and last.

30 August 2015

North Slope Brooks Range Caribou Part III

Nights on the tundra are somewhat odd this time of year in Alaska, I'm used to full dark coming long before 11 o'clock. Full on dark I am not sure was ever made though a headlamp was needed post midnight for any detailed activity, perhaps around 330 in the morning it was at its darkest while dawn came just after 5.

I set to breakfast and coffee knowing I was going to have a long day. I wanted to explore beyond the edges of the rises that we could see. My plan was to head towards the mountains, try to stick to the high country and walk the rocks where I could. Trying to hike the tussocks is a recipe for busted ankles and twisted knees. Someone said it's like trying to walk through a room filled with basketballs, an apt description indeed.

I set my rifle into the ancient caribou rack we found at our campsite as I prepared to leave. The size of the bulls antlers had set my imagination on fire, excitement built as I cinched down my pack. I kept my PSK, camera equipment plus rain gear and puffy, otherwise I was running light.

The glassing point from camp, as the crow flies, was four miles. My round about route to make walking easier was about six miles.This land is quite deciding, the distance that you think you see is double in actuality. My journey to the spot where I wanted to glass from can be be as seen below.

 Some of the pictures I took on the hike out.

The bull below came through just after noon. It might not look far but he was well over 1,000 yards from my position. He fed down around and below the dome I was glassing from and out of sight, but it would not be the last time I saw him that day.

Cropped way in...

Having spent several hours glassing from the southern end of the dome I traversed it to glass the northern areas.

From the northern end of the dome I saw a black dot about two miles out from my position, this is what it looked like without magnification. It's in the very center of the picture.

This is after magnification.

I watched him for nearly an hour. He was holding there and feeding without a care in the world. He was on the next knoll over, two miles out and if I put a stalk on him I'd be dropping into the valley out of his line of sight. The wind was in my favor and it looked good with the exception of how far I was from camp. My best guess was it would be a six mile pack out across the tundra back to camp. I'd had such a grand day and I was feeling well, I smiled as I'd made of my mind to give it a go. I radioed Dustin and let him know what I was about and set off in the bull's direction.

It took nearly two hours to cross the valley, I made time by counting paces, 100 at a time and then a breather for a minute or two. The terrain is very deceiving, far more rugged than it appears. As I started up the knoll towards the bull, not knowing if he was still there I found my heart pounding. If he was still in the same general vicinity I was less than 200 yards away. I unbuckled the waist belt on my pack and loosened the shoulder straps in case I needed to drop it quickly. In full on stalk mode I made my way up the hillside.

 Now I wish I'd had a camera man with me but I didn't. As I neared the top of the rise I could see antlers from time to time against the skyline but they looked different than what I had seen from a distance. I figured there were two bulls on the other side of the rise. Heart rate accelerating I inched further up the hill.

As I neared the crest I peeked above, sure enough there were two bulls. The closer of the two wasn't the one I was after, the bigger one which is the same one I'd glassed much earlier in the day was about 170 yards from my position. I eased my pack off while laying nearly flat on the ground. Laying the pack flat on the ground wasn't going to get me high enough to take a shot. I stood it upright and placed my rifle on the top between the frame supports. The rifle slid easy into my shoulder as I brought it to bear on the bigger bull. I slipped the safety off as I exhaled, he was quartering slightly away, text book position. The cross hairs settled in, I was aiming rearward to take both lungs but exit behind the offside shoulder. At 2.2 pounds the trigger was crisp, the rifle bucked, I cycled quickly and got back on target for a follow up. He spun in a circle, blood ejected from his nose and mouth, I thought about a second shot but after seeing him hit so hard I put the rifle back on safe and watched as he turned and with an unexpected amount of energy lurched off the back side of the knoll and out of sight.

I started breathing again and radioed Dustin to tell him I had my bull down.

I was both happy and sad, nearly a year's worth of planning and anticipation and I'd punched a tag on my first day of hunting. I was grateful for the gift, saddened by the end and elated at the journey that took me to this bull's side.

It was exactly 3:10 in the afternoon when I walked up on my bull, having left camp at 6:20am that morning it was already a long day. Knowing it would be longer still I set about cleaning the caribou. A task that would take three hours to complete. I was six miles of rough country from camp after having walked at least eight miles to this point. I didn't photograph cleaning and butchering the bull. Bloody to the elbow in grizzly country while alone wasn't a comfortable place to be. I used my Ulu and a havalon to clean the animal, taking every pound of meat including the rib me. I laid it all out on my tyvek sheet as I cut it free. I deboned it as I went.

Three hours later I started putting the rapidly cooling meat into my meat bags, using five of them. Putting them in my pack with my other gear I found I couldn't life the pack while standing. I had to sit on the ground, strap in, roll to my knees and get one leg under me while using my rifle to help get vertical. With gear I believe I was around 170 pounds on the Kifaru Duplex. It was all I could do to stand. Knowing how tough the country was I wanted to get all of it as far as possible if not all the way to camp. I was so far away I made it clear I didn't want Dustin or Throc coming out to my location. I shot it that far from camp, I'd walk it back.

I tried walking 50 paces at a time, counting them off and forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other. If you've ever walked the tundra, especially with a super heavy pack you know exactly the kind of special hell this was. At times I would bend and slide the pack up, resting the upper part on my rifle, this took the weight off of me for a few minutes then I'd start again. I left the kill site a little after 6pm, by 10 I was nearly out of gas. Darkness was coming, the terrain wasn't getting better and camp looked as far off as it did when I started back.

A group of cows came through at one point, giving me a moment to just stand and rest as I watched them.

By 11 I was done, I'd covered slightly more than four miles with 170 pounds on my back and couldn't continue. I had been stopping more frequently and on two occasions caught myself falling asleep standing up. I decided I had to get back to camp but I wasn't going to make it with the meat. The wind had picked up, the temperature was dropping fast. I lowered the heavy pack at a shed laying on the tundra, tucked the bone white antlers around my pack and set off in a straight line to camp. All I could think about was crawling into my sleeping bag. It was a struggle to stay on my feet. A little after midnight dark was upon me, not a full dark but a deep twilight and the sun had fallen behind the hills. A cold was creeping into my, driven by the wind, I found my feet unsure and I stumbled several times before making it to the lake. Up the hill to my tent with graying vision, each boot fall a struggle to pick up to make another. Weakly a grin spread across my face, I shed my boots and crawled into the slick bag and immediately passed out.

To be continued...