Into the grey: Part I

30 Nov

This was taken during our last day of hunting. Everyone had decided to escape the weather and head out early. Darin and I found the weather drastically different, just on the other side of Atigun Pass and decided to hunt our way back to Fairbanks..

To me; Alaska has always held adventure, peril and danger in it’s name…but I never thought that almost becoming a permanent fixture of the tundra might ever become a reality.

My first day spent in the Arctic tundra; held plenty of excitement and wonder. Seeing animals and experiencing terrain that until only hours before were fantasy; now were  reality. Every inch held wonder and exploration, every minute seemed like hours had transpired, containing  entire epics. Each second involved witnessing something new and opened up a new level of awareness. At times I almost had to pinch myself; I couldn’t belive that I was finally “doing it”, that I was finally hunting in the Arctic!

I had a list of animals that I wanted to see on this trip and Musk Ox were definitely near the top. I was lucky enough to get to see a couple as far south as we were. We were about an hour away from Prudhoe Bay; where Musk Ox are known to like to stay. In this picture; Brandon had snuck within bow range to snag some epic pics.

That first morning involved getting camp situated and spending some time looking through glass. It was a beautiful, blue-bird day; with the temps in the high sixties and from our little knoll, visibility was literally for miles. I had never spent much time behind a spotting scope before; due to the thick and rugged terrain I am accustomed to. Open “looks” of two hundred yards or less is the norm. But knowing that I would be spending the majority of my time in an open and Mars-like expanse; I made arrangements through Vortex Optics and was set up with some high quality gear.

It didn’t take long before some caribou were spotted; nothing much to get excited over…but we were seeing Caribou! This raised the excitement level in camp by about ten notches and we all were soon straining through our optics, trying to catch a glimpse of that magnum bull we each had been dreaming about. And then there he was! I spotted a lone bull feeding along a ridge top, about two miles out from camp. Everyone was fighting to take a turn through my spotter to catch a glimpse of this monster of a bull. I finally got back behind the Viper HD; after everyone had a chance to ogle him and cranked up the magnification to see if he actually was as magnum  as I thought he was.

About five seconds worth of gazing through the dancing heat waves at his tall, wide and palmated rack was all I needed. You could read in everyone’s eyes what they were thinking but not saying: “oh man…I want a shot at that bull!” It was kind of an unsaid acknowledgement that since I was who spotted him; I got first crack. We quickly formulated a plan and before I knew it; I was on my hands and knees and stalking up on what was to me; the Caribou of my dreams!

The stalk was exciting; but ended a little over a hundred yards from the bedded bull, when the wind swirled and he stood up. I had ample chance to take a 110 yard shot at the bull…but there was no way that I was going to risk that long of shot. Just like that…it was over and done with. But we were only into the first hours of the first day of hunting! I was amped…everyone was! If this was how it was going to be; we’d all be tagging out on magnum bulls and have plenty of time to toss flies at some Arctic Grayling…Alaska is good!

But that was not how the trip would be and soon Alaska would turn her humbling, harsh and ugly side toward us.

Looking across Lance and out of the window at a small herd of Caribou. We ended up racing to get ahead and setup an ambush near a shallow drainage. Situations like this can make for an exciting day of hunting.

Looking across Lance and out of the window at a small herd of Caribou. We ended up racing to get ahead and setup an ambush near a shallow drainage. Situations like this can make for an exciting day of hunting.

The next morning we woke up to several inches of fresh snow and steel grey skies. I came to Alaska expecting snow and rough weather; so this did nothing to damper my spirit, it only fueled my excitement. We set out along the Haul Road to see what was roaming about; all eager with anticipation. We spotted small bands of Caribou; mostly comprised of cows and young bulls…but we were not seeing anything like the bull from the first day. Since Brandon, our local friend from Fairbanks had five tags to fill; we set off on several stalks and ambush setups, hoping to film our friend get the first Caribou of the trip. We of course all had our bows with us and joined in on the action; the tundra had a way of suddenly exposing Caribou that you previously didn’t have a clue existed…and no one wanted to miss an opportunity!

Setting up over a shallow drainage for an ambush.

Setting up over a shallow drainage for an ambush.

At about mid day we experienced a sequence of events that will be forever burned into my memory banks. I was to get a taste of the fabled “Haul Road-herd mentality” and witness first hand spectacles that I never dreamed I would ever witness while I was out in such vast and wild territory…let alone on any hunting trip. We were slowly driving along the Dalton Highway, eyes glued to the windows and straining to see any movement along the tundra; when we came across something that made my blood boil.

We saw a downed cow Caribou, struggling in the snow…she was turning the white snow crimson, as she struggled to regain her feet. A young calf danced figure eights around her mother and the approaching hunter; who had an arrow nocked to deliver the coup de grace.

We were all speechless. My brain; a swirling mush as I struggled to come to grips with the situation. I think it was Brandon, our very proud and pro-Alaskan friend who broke the silence: “what the f#@$% does that guy…think he’s doing?!!!” The hunter was aware of our presence, as we all gawked and hung out of open truck windows…he slowly approached and sheepishly delivered the death-blow from five yards. His partners were watching the scene from their own vehicle; almost in shame. I sensed a great cataclysm within the universe and felt a burning outrage. I fought back the urge to un-holster my pistol and exact revenge on behalf of the young calf;  who the insensitive and apathetic hunter had just dealt him his own death sentence. We sat slack-jawed for several moments; grumbling under our breath, before Brandon suddenly swore out loud and punched the gas pedal.

I almost prayed that the man  out of mercy; would fill one of his tags with the calf and craned my neck until I could longer see them anymore…just hoping that things would be redeemed. I was to find out later that they had not and the calf had been left up to the mercy of the tundra and the predators that prowled its surface.

We were still in shock and pondering what we had seen; when we suddenly came onto another mind-bendingly surreal sight. And within minutes I was to engage in what we later dubbed: “The Great Alaskan Bear Drive”…my first ever experience with stalking the Alaskan Grizzly! This story is an entire chapter unto it’s self; so I will save it for another time. I will say this though; it was something unlike I had yet to experience and will probably never experience again. It was both taxing, frustrating and extremely exciting and something that can only happen along the “great” Dalton Highway.

This was during "The Great Alaskan Bear Drive"; Brandon and I laying in ambush...as the bear uncooperatively trudges off at eighty yards.

This was during “The Great Alaskan Bear Drive”; Brandon and I laying in ambush…as the bear uncooperatively trudges off at eighty yards.

After our bear shenanigans; it was now late afternoon and a fog was settling in,which greatly limited visibility. We were all pretty much exhausted and agreed to head back to camp to recharge our batteries.

We weren’t in camp long and I had just began to hunt up some grub and kick back by the fire…when Brandon informed Darin and I that he had spotted a real decent bull, less than a mile from camp. Through the fog; I could make out a couple of faint Caribou-esqe shapes drifting along a ridge like ghosts. I peered through my binos and could make out the heavy, palmated tines of a mature bull. I’m not sure exactly how it was decided that it would be us…but within minutes; Darin and I were being dropped off a couple of miles from camp. The plan was that we would set up underneath the ridge that the Caribou were traveling on and try to set up an ambush as the bull dropped down off into one of the two basins that the ridge straddled. Brandon thought that he would direct us with hand signals; to help us get into posisiton…but within two hundred yards from the truck; it was apparent that this plan would not work…we could no longer even see the road!

We really didn’t give this much thought; because we were in full predator mode and knew what we had to do. We slogged through the knee deep snow that coated the uneven and spongy tundra. I couldn’t make my mind up if the snow made things easier or more difficult…soon the burning in my quads and hamstrings told me that the extra high-stepping was definitely much harder! We eased up the ridge face and hunkered down into what we hoped was a good ambush position. I was set up, looking down into one basin; with Darin a few yards away, set up to look down into another. The wind was picking up; which howled as it whipped razor sharp ice crystals into our faces and bounced off the GORE-TEX shell of our rain gear, making loud popping sounds. By now the fog was really settling in. About that time; I saw a small group of cows and a young bull appear from around a corner in the drainage below and bedded down in a small thicket of snow covered scrub willows; only fifty yards below me.

Darin and I watched them for several minutes; thrilling in the knowledge that if we were so inclined, we could take our pick of any one of the small Caribou band and be feasting on backstraps within the hour. At some point the wind must have briefly swirled (it had been steady blowing sideways in the opposite direction) and the lead Cow caught a whiff of our scent. She quickly rallied the troops and they trotted off another hundred yards or so; only to stop and stare intently in our direction. We knew that there was no chance that they could see us; our GORE Optifade camo made us melt into the background; rendering us invisible…but even so, they knew where danger lurked.

We waited for what seemed an eternity; hunkered down amongst the snow covered rocks. Finally we decided to keep moving up the ridge face; spread out on opposite sides, in hopes that one of us would soon spot our bull. The ridge seemed to be never-ending and the crest seemed to just keep disappearing above us in the fog. We both were in wonderment…it was only the day before, that we had charged this same ridge, hot after a band of bulls that we had spotted from camp…but we both did not remember this ridge ever having so much elevation.

Darin, struggling against the gale-force winds and trying to decepher Caribou Tracks.

Darin, struggling against the gale-force winds and trying to decipher Caribou Tracks.

Like I had mentioned before; we were all exhausted from two days worth of stalking caribou, out on this alien terrain called muskeg. Legs burnt out from high-stepping the uneven tussock and energy drained from the lesser amounts of sleep that comes along with the blessings of a midnight sun. Along with this; I had one more grueling stalk under my belt than my companion did; since Brandon and I were the only ones who chased a seven-foot bruin, only two hours prior. I had been exhausted from the moment I had left the truck and set off on the snow covered tundra. My legs were on fire and weak before I had even traveled a hundred yards…you can only imagine how I was feeling, now another quarter of a mile along and several hundred feet in elevation higher. But I am stubborn and am never quick to admit defeat; “I can’t” is not in my vobaculary…I kept on; content to stay at a slow pace, with a small shadow of worry haunting my subconscious.

We pressed on through the thick fog and sideways blowing snow (which by now had turned to a pelting rain/snow mix), for another hour or so before we finally topped out on “flat ground”. Our eyes could only penetrate a hundred  yards or less, through the curtain of fog. At this point; we had lost sight of each other several times as the fog swirled and enclosed us. I began to angle in the direction that Darin had been traveling and caught a glimpse of him shrugging deep into the hood of his Stormfront jacket and briefly raise his binoculars to his eyes, only to let them fall a few seconds later. Now that we were on top of the ridge; unspoken questions brewed within both of us: “Were had the bull gone? How was it that we had traveled so far before finally gaining the ridge crest….and why does everything look so different than before? Where are we?!”

As I was slowly making my way toward Darin’s position; I glimpsed what at first appeared as a cluster of small rocks pushing through the snow. A brief moment later I realized; I was looking at my very first group of Ptarmigan! I had dreamed for a very long time of blunting a Ptarmigan and cooking it over an Arctic campfire. My focus quickly turned to the white and black birds before me and I could already taste my first coal roasted Ptarmigan breast.

After discovering that I had lost the end cap to my rangefinder and it was frozen inoperable; I greatly wished that I was clutching my longbow instead of the Bowtech that was in my hands. My range finder would not give me an accurate reading and with a combination of my exhaustion and squinting through the hard blowing rain and ice crystals…I was having a very hard time estimating the range of these little birds. I crept a few yards closer and guessed that I was standing at somewhere close to fifteen yards; I adjusted the yardage on my HHA single pin sight, for fifteen and drew my bow. I took aim at a Ptarmigan whose head was overlapping the breast of a companion and touched the trigger of my release. An instant upward explosion of the twenty or so Ptarmigan ensued and they disappeared into grey veil like magic. A large grin split my wind burnt face; as I walked the measly six paces to where I should have had two dead Ptarmigan for my trouble…only to find vacant avian beds and the trough my arrow had made in the snow. Recovering my arrow I discovered that I had misjudged the distance by almost ten yards and shot over the top of my birds and just short of a few others. Nuts! If I hadn’t been so numbed by my exhaustion and the elements; I might have felt stronger emotions, other than the dull indifference that was slowly enveloping me. The numbness didn’t allow me to quite grasp the predicament that we were in and I was soon back to trudging along on the spongy tundra.

You can see how hard it was to get ones bearings in the thick fog and see more than seventy yards in either direction.

You can see how hard it was to get one’s bearings in the thick fog and see more than seventy yards in any direction.

Darin and I took a brief moment to discuss matters; taking turns yelling at each other over the howling of the wind. We were both puzzled as to where the bull could have gone. We had crossed a couple fresh sets of Caribou tracks; one set belonging to a large bull…but it was a mystery where any of the Caribou had gone. Well; not too much of a mystery, since our visibility was so limited. Our bull could have been bedded down only seventy yards from us and we wouldn’t have been the wiser. At this point we both agreed that we had come too far to turn back towards the road and that we should keep heading in the direction of camp…which we estimated was less than a mile away. We trudged on for what seemed hours and finally were looking down at a small lake that we “knew” was only a quarter of a mile from the road…and therefore a short distance from camp. But…we were soon to find out that we were sadly mistaken.

Click the link below to read part II and to see if we ever survived the fog and made it off that blasted, snow covered tundra.  https://watchyourbacktrail.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/into-the-grey-part-ii/

Bundled up like a snowman and squinting against the freezing rain. This was taken moments after I missed my shot at coal roasted Ptarmigan breast.

Bundled up like a snowman and squinting against the freezing rain. This was taken moments after I had missed my shot at coal roasted Ptarmigan breast.

Looking at the Brooks Range, just North of Atigun Pass. This is near Toolik Lake and not far from where we were camped.

Looking at the Brooks Range, just North of Atigun Pass. This is near Toolik Lake and not far from where we were camped.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: