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Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
October 2011

The Hunt

By Ken Marsh
caption follows
Successful hunts are perfect conspiracies of preparation and good luck.

I’d arrived late in the day, after a long drive followed by a hike into the hills. By the time my tent was pitched and camp organized, little time remained for hunting, maybe half an hour at most. Already dusk rose from the ground shadows, muting the light around me and gathering overhead like campfire smoke. Still, it was worth a look; moose move on windless September evenings like this one, the kind that promise a full moon and hard frost. I thought I might spot a bull, if I were very lucky, in the meadow before dark.

So I picked up my rifle, a decades-old bolt-action Remington 30.06 purchased new with paper route money when I was a boy, and left camp, walking slowly, quietly toward a point overlooking the meadow nearby. I’d scouted the place the previous fall and discovered promising signs: moose trails worn into the duff, generations of antler rubs marking the saplings, a wallow where bulls had rolled during the rut. Drained by a brook and set in a small spot burn, the meadow was backed on its far side by a grass- and alder-covered mountainside that swept up into crags 3,000 feet high. Bulls would file down to this place from their high-country summer ranges with the cooler days of fall. On my side of the meadow, a forest of aspen and spruce stood where the burn tapered off, providing cover for moose and safe places for them to bed.

I found an opening among some charred stumps and settled in to watch. My riflescope would gather the light remaining and allow me to scan the meadow edges for a bull. Around me the country was still, the air cold and tangy with the sweet-and-sour smells of autumn-ripe berries.

A hunter remembers best his first bull moose and his last, and even as those past bulls flashed their antlers in my mind, each with a rack distinctive in spread and symmetry, a shadow in the meadow filled my scope. The shadow vanished when I lifted my head and peeked over the rifle, so I looked back into the scope and found it again – and this time recognized the smoky-gray shoulder hump and unmistakable flowing stride of a moose. At nearly the same time, I spotted the antlers.

The bull was headed for thick cover at the meadow’s edge, so calculations on its rack had to be hastily made. Pause for much more than a heartbeat and the moose would vanish, perhaps forever; shoot before determining whether or not the antler width made the bull legal – 50 inches was the minimum – and I would risk breaking the law.

I measured the antler spread against what I figured to be the foot or more of space between the bull’s ear tips. The beams were tall and the palms flared widely, extending far beyond the ears, and I reckoned the animal was just legal.

Flame shot from my rifle muzzle, blinding me momentarily. I ejected the spent cartridge and shoved in a fresh round. When I brought the scope back up, the bull appeared unscathed and had almost reached cover. At stake now was a comfortable winter of good eating – delicacies like back-strap steaks with mushrooms and Dijon, stroganoff over brown rice, and roasts braised in red wine. So with the bull quartering away, I placed the crosshairs near the top of its head, squeezed carefully, and fired again.
By the time I picked my way through the burn rubble to where the bull lay, its 52-inch-wide rack reflected the light of a full September moon.

***

Successful hunts are perfect conspiracies of preparation and chance. The best hunters, the alleged 10 percent said to consistently take 90 percent of the game, are those who prepare thoroughly to maximize their odds of success. These hunters cultivate their own “good luck” by studying the game they hunt, scouting the country to be hunted, owning quality equipment, and spending adequate time in the field hunting.

As a young man, I spent many Septembers hunting moose in the forests near my home in Southcentral Alaska. I refined my tracking skills along the way, learning not only to find hoof prints in the mud and moss, but to gauge how much time had passed since a moose made them. I learned to look for the bone-white trunks of saplings left bare after a bull scraped off the bark while rubbing the velvet from its antlers – the antler-scraping bull, and others too, usually lingered nearby. I discovered that moose trails worn along the open edges of lakes and swamps were places to watch only in the late evenings and early mornings; by day, the moose were mostly bedded out of sight in tall grass shadows and hilltop alder thickets.

I learned these truths and many others about moose in my region and eventually began bringing home meat consistently. By taking some of the mystery out of finding a bull, I’d become a lucky moose hunter. Even so, I still had much to learn. You need only butcher in the field with a 4-inch Swiss Army knife one 900-pound bull moose to ever after carry not one but at least two proper sheath knives or large folding knives with skinning blades. You need only burst shirtless once (OK, twice in my hard-headed case) from the cool September forest, your bare chest crisscrossed with devil’s club scratches and white-sock bites, because the shirt you’d worn had to be cut into strips and hung from trees to mark a route from the kill to the road. These days, I never hunt moose without bringing along a roll of survey tape for that purpose; more sophisticated hunters use handheld GPS units to pinpoint their kills.

Unlike that bull in the burn, most of my moose have fallen with a single shot from my 30.06 Remington BDL loaded with 180-grain silvertip bullets. Some hunters swear by more powerful rifles and heavier bullets, but really, I’ve learned, there’s no substitute for proper shot placement. Conventional wisdom suggests Alaska big game hunters’ riflescopes be sighted to place bullets two inches high at 100 yards. This is because hunting over the state’s open tundras and treeless mountain ranges often calls for longer-range shooting. But for hunting in my Susitna Valley forests and thickets, where moose are most frequently encountered at close range, I dial in my rifle to punch out a dime at 100 yards. The lesson here is not to tear down conventions, but to know your game, your distinctive terrains and equipment, and to hunt accordingly.

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***

News in the Nelchina basin travels in the wind, rain, and snow. One night in mid-September, I heard wolves howling near my camp and knew the last of the caribou were passing through. Wolves follow caribou herds, picking off the straggling old, lame and unlucky; as I lay in my sleeping bag listening, a cold rain pattering against the tent fly, I wondered if perhaps I’d come too late.

Earlier that day, I’d stood on the shore of a lake near camp, watching bands of caribou, mostly cows and calves, hustle through the stubby spruces on the lake’s far side. Hoping for a bull, I let them all pass. I would settle for a barren cow, given no other choice. But a bull would provide more meat for my effort.

Next morning, the rain had stopped and the wolves were no longer howling. The temperature had fallen sharply, and I realized as I awoke that my nose was cold and a peculiar brightness glowed outside the tent. I dressed warmly, picked up my rifle, and opened the fly to newly fallen, shin-deep snow.

Alaska hunters live for September. The month, or at least the better part of it, marks our brief autumn, a season that for most of us slides too quickly into winter. That brevity has a way of heightening one’s sense of mortality. Even as we enter September’s cool days and brittle-cold nights, the willows and aspens gold against scarlet hills of bearberry and dwarf birch, it’s difficult to escape a profound sense of urgency. Time simply doesn’t linger the way it does in January’s post-solstice darkness, or during late June’s endless days. Instead, life in September accelerates, the days measured as grains in an hourglass, falling ever faster as winter’s shadow grows long and dark.
From a breezy hillside a short hike beyond camp, I scanned the country that morning for game. Nothing. Even the cows and calves had moved on. Lunchtime came and went; I grew cold and impatient. Finally, I decided to take a walk and, within a mile or so, left the open country and entered a section of broken timber. The Nelchina basin’s taiga – a botanical edge formed where boreal forests dissolve into open tundra – can be problematic to hunt. Thickets of willow and weather-stunted black spruce (a particularly tall tree might exceed 12 feet high) limit visibility, and caribou blend well into the black, gray, and white mosaics of spruce, shrubs and early-season snows.

In the timber, tracks marked the fresh snow and it was clear that several bands of caribou had passed that morning without me seeing them. Not that caribou are especially sneaky creatures, but instinct serves them well. On open tundra they tend to follow natural convolutions – subtle seams and gullies – that conceal them from distant, meat-hungry eyes. Timbered stretches hide them equally well.
I’d paused over some moose tracks, and was considering following them, when antler tines appeared bobbing through the trees nearby. Caribou. I saw them in flashes as they bounced through openings in the brush, a group of heavy-racked bulls headed east toward winter range in Canada, like the cows and calves before them. Unable to find an open shot, I chased the bulls, like a two-legged wolf, to the timber’s edge. The closest bull trotted broadside less than 50 yards away, jaw tipped slightly skyward, tall rack cradling its back. I raised my rifle, found the heart, and ended my hunt with a single shot.

After that the work began, the skinning and butchering and packing meat to camp. But it was good work, the kind that follows successful hunts and sheds warm light against the darkness of the coming winter.

***

At its most remote, Alaska resembles Stanley’s Dark Continent. The state is unfathomably huge and mostly roadless; many mountains, valleys, streams and lakes remain tucked away in distant corners, unnamed and unvisited. As hunters we are drawn to the mystique of it all, to the promise of seeking game in North America’s last, great unspoiled wilderness.

In this sense, to hunt Alaska is to embark on safari. Reaching the dream venues – places like the Brooks Range for Dall rams, the high Arctic tundras for caribou, the rocky coasts of the Inside Passage for bear and black-tailed deer, the Interior’s trackless forests for moose – requires travel. And travel over endless miles of hummocks, muskegs, bays, mountains, rivers, and interminable jungles of devil’s club and alder requires imagination, research and, often, more than a little money.

Hunters here frequently step off passenger jets at regional hubs – Dillingham, Yakutat, Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and others – and onto small commuter-type flights (Alaskans call them “puddle jumpers”) to remote villages and outposts. From these isolated communities, hunters may climb into even smaller planes, chartered in advance, or perhaps riverboats, for further 50-, 100-, or 200-mile shuttles into the backcountry. For many, even that won’t be the final destination; as the engine hum of the plane or boat fades into the distance, some hunters turn to long, hard climbs into the heart of the country, where the big grizzlies den, or the Dall sheep feed, or where the mountain goats await. Get this far and you’ll have traveled back in time. You’ll experience complete wildness, and get a sense of North America as it was before Lewis and Clark, or even prior to Christ and the Crucifixion.

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You’ll see that reaching Alaska’s hinterlands is rarely easy or inexpensive (hunters seeking Dall sheep, grizzly bear or moose with a guide may spend $10,000 to $20,000); weather is always a complicating factor and, in this age of rising fuel costs, gasoline in the Bush is a particularly precious commodity. But for many hunters, getting there is half the battle. For the rest of us, it is half the charm.

***

Your hunt began two days ago, at a port along Alaska’s Southcentral coast – someplace like Whittier, Cordova, Valdez, or Yakutat; or perhaps a venue much farther southeast, out of Ketchikan, Petersburg, or Craig. You stepped into a friend’s open fishing boat (really an oversized dory) and, framed by the world’s most exquisite scenery, traveled the coastline in a rare stretch of still weather and sunshine. Already a dozen black bears have shown themselves, trundling along remote mountainsides, out of reach. Even so, you’ve found sport in the searching and finding, in the visual pursuit. You’re aware, of course, that spotting bears is only one phase of the game.
Around mid-morning on your third day, a coal-black silhouette appears on a mountainside high above you. You raise your binoculars and feel your heart speed up; a tickle flutters in your chest as you realize that this bear is a possibility. The animal is meandering north along the mountainside, stopping to feed and sun as it makes its way casually toward a shallow ravine a half-mile or so beyond. That ravine is your key; it will provide you a pathway up the mountain to an open bench the bear must cross, and allow you to stay out of sight as you move. Now the real stalk begins.

Soon you’re scrambling up a fan of broken shale – it’s like climbing a mountain of poker chips – your lungs heaving as you suck thin air. Your sprint will take you 2,500 vertical feet up from the beach, beyond a belt of hemlocks, through barriers of clutching alders and clawing salmonberry brambles, and finally into broken alpine tundra. If you’re lucky, if you’ve been quick enough and quiet, and the wind hasn’t betrayed you, you’ll reach the bench first.
You’ve heard of more creative stalks. A friend once recounted the time his father climbed after a large, berry-feeding black bear on a Kenai Peninsula mountainside, only to have his approach blocked by a flock of wandering Dall sheep. Figuring the bear would flee if the sheep spooked, your friend’s father reached into his pack and wrapped himself in white toilet paper. On hands and knees he crept unnoticed by the feeding sheep and, without further incident, killed the bear.

You’re exhausted by the time you reach the bench at the top of the ravine, your thighs worn from the fast-paced climb. Worse, there’s no bear in sight. Not to worry, a little rest will be good, allow you to steady your breathing and better place your shot when the bear does arrive.

But the bear does not arrive. You wonder if perhaps you’re too late, or maybe the bear changed course for, an hour later, the animal has not appeared. Still sweating from the climb and feeling a little defeated, you figure it’s time to descend back to the skiff.

You’ve started picking your way down the mountain, wondering what might have gone wrong, when a strange feeling makes you stop. You turn to look back up the mountain and, by god, there the bear stands, so close you could hit it with an easily-chucked stone. You’re startled, and for an instant you hesitate. Then your body acts, even as your mind looks on, as in a dream.

The first shot sends the bear tumbling toward you down the slide, and you figure that it is dead, your hunt over. But it catches itself suddenly and springs with incredible agility to all fours. Your second shot is a reflex directed at the fleeting target that vanishes too quickly into thick brush in the center of the ravine.

Stillness.

There’s nothing to do now but wait. Wait a half hour or so, like the professional hunters in Africa do for lion and Cape buffalo, for the animal to weaken. Wounded bears are best approached with backup, but you’ve done this before. Stay sharp and calm, work slowly, and you’ll be OK.
When the time comes, you are locked and loaded, wondering. The blood spoor is easily found and, to your relief, the trail is short. The bear is lying dead in knee-high grass. Your shots were solid and now you may savor the afterglow, as would a mountain climber on reaching a summit, or an athlete scoring a winning goal.

Later you will linger in the sunlight on a boulder above the beach while a friend climbs another mountain for another bear. Rufus hummingbirds will flash among the salmonberries and you’ll watch a pair of black-tailed deer feed along the base of a mountain. The air will smell strikingly fresh, slightly fishy, as it always does near the sea. And in the skiff, the bear’s meat and hide, rolled and tucked out of the sun, will mark a spiritual gain snatched from an intangible passing.


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