Tag Archives: GORE-TEX

New Gear: Danner Gila Boot

8 Aug
I was so excited when the UPS driver dropped off my new Danner Gila boots, that I immediately tore open the package and put them on...even though I was wearing shorts...and ankle socks...!

They have arrived! I have been wanting to get my hands on the new Danner Gila boots ever since I started seeing them advertised earlier this year. So far they seem legit and I’m excited to put them to the test!


I’ve been on the hunt for a lighter weight boot to wear during the early seasons and may have just found the solution: the new Danner Gila.  I’ve always been a fan of Danner boots, but until recently their designs were pretty limited and hadn’t offered anything along these lines. Last year I decided that I needed a  lightweight and nimble boot, that was a bit “cooler” on the feet. Most full grain leather boots, regardless of being uninsulated or not, end up baking my feet during the warmer months. I’ve always shied away from boots that utilized mesh, or “synthetic” uppers and wondered if they would have enough support for technical terrain and be able to withstand the abuse that their full-leather counterparts can.

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The Mountain Got It’s Own Ways

26 Sep
I made camp where my legs gave out on me. It just happened to be on a narrow saddle that was the only way over the mountain and onto the nearby ridge system.

I made camp where my legs gave out on me. It just happened to be on a narrow saddle that was the only way over the mountain and onto the nearby ridge system.

For some reason Will Greer’s line to Robert Redford in “Jeremiah Johnson” springs to mind, when I think of this past opening weekend’s bivy hunt. “You can’t cheat the mountain Pilgrim. Mountain’s got it’s own ways”. It seems just spot-on appropriate.

I began scouting the higher elevations just as soon as the snow receded enough to give me access and quickly found an area that held plenty of promise and had me excited. Towards the end of July, I began climbing higher and higher up the mountain and was surprised to find plenty of Elk, Mule Deer and Bear sign. The sight of a small Elk herd lolling in an Alpine bowl one afternoon, had my hopes high and fantasies of chasing bugling bulls above the tree line brimmed in my heart.

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Cashing in on white Gold.

13 Feb

The woods give way to winter's heavy blanket. This is a prime opportunity to be out and observe a whole different side of the mountains.

The woods give way to winter’s heavy blanket. This is a prime opportunity to be out and observe a whole different side of the mountains.

“When the temperature drops, a white coat enfolds.

The mountain grows silent, cept’ for crackling ice entow.

A soft descent, whether the North Winds will blow.

Heavens wide open; to release winter’s White Gold.”

It wasn’t that long ago; that any warm feelings I held toward winter, were very one-sided. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest; I viewed the winter months as a long endurance of cold weather and fighting treacherous road conditions. To me the months of white were only enjoyable if a chair lift ride to the top of the mountain was involved and immediately followed by some high speed s-turns; with either sticks or a board strapped to my feet.

At some point I had an epiphany which helped to change my views and broaden my scope. I know that I always appreciated how the coat of white brought a different kind of beauty to the landscape…but it was shallow in depth. I really think that I can credit bowhunting for changing the way I view a lot of things about this time of year.

Nothng quite compares to a day spent afield during a sunny day during the months of white.

Nothing quite compares to a day spent afield during a sunny day during the months of white.

I’ll never forget my first season spent with a bow in my hands. It seems like an eternity ago…but I can remember it like it was yesterday. By my second weekend of being out in the deer woods; a fresh coat of snow that was two feet deep, covered my little valley. It was exciting to see the signs of my quarry’s passing; seem to float up from the ground and reveal it’s self to me. It was a whole new world from the week prior…the woods seemed silent; yet filled with new sounds. The soft falling of snow filled the air like quiet static; the metallic tinkling of ice crystals bouncing off of my clothing. The soft squish and woosh of my boots; as I still hunted along the trail. The veil had been lifted from my eyes and a new awareness was being revealed to me…there no longer was just an endurance of cold and a quick descent. This was something new and something that I’ve learned to savor.

The first snow of the season is definitely a very special thing to hunters and something I greatly look forward to. It’s a time that the animals all change their patterns and become more “pattern-able”. While for some it may not be too drastic…it means a new way of life for others. They all become more trackable; with their hooves and paws leaving their story within the layers of snow. You can often tell the time of their passing down to the minute and tell exactly their attitude or how they are feeling; just by observing the amount of snow in a track, or by the drag marks they leave behind.

Here Moose, Elk and Deer tracks cross each other on a beautiful sunny day.

Here Moose, Elk and Deer tracks cross each other on a beautiful sunny day.

I used to view the deep snow as a limitation…that was before I discovered snow shoes. To me the deep snow opens up new avenues of travel that may have not been possible; maybe even the week prior. Just pick a line and go! It’s usually that simple. Push deep and follow that herd of elk. Strap your camp to your back and access that area with un-plowed roads. They may have been lined with hunting camps during the weeks of September…but remain empty and unpressured through the late seasons. Do the ungulate populations a favor and take a trapping class. Take advantage of the predator’s need for extra calories during the cold months and help thin out their numbers by appealing to their winter-appetites. This time of year holds plenty of new possibilities; you just have to be open and embrace them.

Somehow I am constantly taken aback; how the white-coated ridglines and mountain tops seem to stand out in HD clarity and bring the lines of topography into clear focus. Everything seems to pop out at you; seeming larger and much closer. I see things much clearer these days and yearn to test mother nature on all her fronts. A tear of sadness almost forms at the corner of my eye…when the warm air currents of March sweep in…and take my White Gold away for the next seven months.

Into the grey: Part II

5 Dec
The day after our battle with the Tundra was no doubt the most beautiful day of the trip and owned one of only two; but spectacular sunsets. This day was spent recooping and included a fuel run into the nearest town, which was Coldfoot. This picture was taken by Brandon, in front of Toolik Lake and at the gateway to the Brooks Range. Photo credit goes to Sisu Productions.

The day after our battle with the Tundra was no doubt the most beautiful day of the trip and owned one of only two; but spectacular sunsets. This day was spent recooping and included a fuel run into the nearest town, which was Coldfoot. This picture was taken by Brandon, in front of Toolik Lake and at the gateway to the Brooks Range. Photo credit goes to Sisu Productions.

Continued from Part I…

Even though we were both exhausted; it was invigorating to know that we hadn’t much farther to travel and we set out with spirits renewed. I can’t speak for Darin; but my stomach was growling and I looked forward to sipping some hot coffee near a warm campfire.

We took the easiest line down the ridge face and soon were standing near the shore of the small lake. The fog only allowed us to see what it chose to reveal to us and what we thought and hoped we were seeing…was not even close to the reality. What we thought we were looking at; was the edge of a small lake, with a narrow channel that separated its shores from a slightly larger lake. We had circumvented this lake less than twenty-four hours earlier and expected to be back in camp within the hour.

For the ones who have never experienced it before; I should probably take the time to explain (or attempt to) what it’s like to walk on the arctic tundra. visualize walking on an endless waterbed; or better yet…a thin mattress that is spread out over soccer balls, softballs and baseballs…and then basketballs, covered in growth attached to the surface of the mattress. This would give you a good idea of what it’s like to “walk” out on the muskeg covered tundra. There is never a trail or length of firm ground to walk on (except for rocky areas), only endless high-stepping in between and around the tussocks, or “tundra tufts” that coat the spongy surface. That my friends is muskeg in a nutshell.

So now with that image in your head; picture how we both felt after two days worth of hiking on this strange medium. We both had trained very hard physically for this trip, during the months prior; but I’m not sure that anything short of training on the tundra can prepare you enough.

At this point in time; my short and stocky frame wasn’t treating me as well as Darin’s six-foot  height and long-legged stride was treating him. I would lose him in the fog for long periods of time;  as I slowly plodded along the shoreline. I’ll never forget how demoralizing it was to realize; that there was no “channel” between two lakes…just one long and very jagged shoreline of a single lake. I really can’t remember if the wind and icy rain had subsided by that point…but I recall a deafening silence that amplified my own thoughts into audible conversations with myself and with my God.

On top of the world in the Brooks Range. Darin snapped this pic of my on our last day of hunting. This was my most favorite area of the entire trip; I didn't want to leave.

On top of the world in the Brooks Range. Darin snapped this pic of me on our last day of hunting. This was my most favorite area of the entire trip; I didn’t want to leave.

I have a very deep and personal relationship with my creator and it is a habit of mine to “chat” with him as a friend; while being out in the mountains. I always ask for a “pure heart” and for my “hunting instincts, wits and senses to be sharp and keen”. I never presumptuously  petition God for a notched tag; only that “if a shot opportunity presents it’s self; please make my shot be true and grant a clean kill”. My ongoing conversation on this day, was going nothing like that. I found myself clearing my conscience of my many slights against him and asking “to keep a level head”. I knew that the panic that was on the edge of my subconscious; the questioning of one’s self that you will often have, when getting off track in a strange area…was a vice that I could not afford to give into. No good would come of second guessing decisions made at this point. The only right course, would be to stick to what my instincts told me and never waver, never stop. No matter how exhausted or hungry or uncertain I was…to stop would be to grow cold and sleepy; to sleep would be to die.

When we had first arrived at the lake shore; Darin had asked me what time it was. I stopped and peeled back my sleeve to gander at my trusty Suunto. I was shocked to report to him that it was almost nine o’ clock. “Five hours!” Darin’s voice rose in protest. “We gotta get going!” he said as he spun on his heel and trotted into the fog; disappearing almost instantly. Since arriving in Alaska; time had taken on a new meaning. With the sun starting to set sometime around eleven o’ clock and finally disappearing behind the mountains around two in the morning, only to rise a handful of hours later…time almost had no meaning. The very slight difference in light suddenly became apparent to me. I did not want to spend the night out there. Since I had only planned on a quick stalk; I had left most of my gear in Brandon’s truck. I did have a little water, a little food, a head lamp and a means to start a fire…but where was I going to find firewood? Where would I find shelter?! I turned back to the shoreline and continued on behind Darin’s tracks in the snow.

I hadn’t made much progress; before I felt my legs give the tell-tale signs that they were on the verge of cramping. Five plus hours of almost continuous travel without stopping to rest and refuel; was starting to tell on me. I slowed down my already slow pace; to that of almost a crawl. I finally gave in and stopped. I drank a gulp or two of water and then pressed on. I hadn’t been able to see Darin through the fog for some time; but every now and again, Darin would shout a questioning: “Luke?” into the grey curtain that stood between us. I would holler back: “yeah?!” and after he was assured that I was still on his trail; it would be back to the same dull and endless track.

Darin standing on the edge of the grey curtain. This was a day that we were stuck at camp; towards the end of the camp. This was a thick fog that came in from the Arctic ocean...it was nothing compared to our day spent lost.

Darin standing on the edge of the grey curtain. This was a day that we were stuck at camp; towards the end of the trip. This was a thick fog that came in from the Arctic ocean…it was nothing compared to our day spent lost in “the grey”.

I had been inching along, immersed in my own thoughts and in my now hours long convo with the Man Upstairs…when suddenly the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had the sudden feeling of panic and deja vu…I spun around and looked towards my back trail. The spooky feeling of deja vu kept haunting me and then I envisioned a pack of wolves or a Grizzly materializing out of the fog. I then thought of the movie “The Grey”; that I had watched a short time before. I chuckled to myself and wondered “why did you have to watch that movie?!”…although my chuckles held no true humor.

It was about that time that I heard Darin shouting at me; but this time his voice sound strained and carried a tinge of worry in it. I couldn’t understand what he was asking of me; so I shouted back to him. This time his shout rang though the fog with a definite edge to it. “CHECK YOUR GPS!” I immediately dropped my pack and started to rifle through it; looking for my Garmin. Once I found it and turned it on; I worried that with the thick fog cover, it might not be able to get a signal. It was only the day before that Brandon had warned to not trust your GPS entirely. “A GPS doesn’t always work right up here…sometimes they can act screwy” he had cautioned. When the screen remained blank; with just a black arrow indicating where I stood…I started to curse myself. I had neglected to purchase any Alaska map software and my plan of “dropping pins” would not work if I had also neglected to actually carry it out. I enlarged the screen to view the one pin that I had dropped the day before; when we had left the truck to stalk our first big bull. I refused to belive what I was seeing; the GPS was telling me that the sight of our first stalk, was several miles away, in the opposite direction that it should be. I almost tossed it into the fog. I wanted to scream with outrage. I scrolled over to the compass function and I immediately wanted to scream once more; the direction that I knew in my heart should be West and therefore the direction of the road…read as “South”.

I tossed the GPS back into my pack as Darin was shouting back for some sort of reassuring news. “IT DOESN’T WORK!” I yelled back. “WHAT?!” Darin replied. When I once more repeated myself; there was no answer, only silence. I could only imagine what Darin was thinking at this point; and now my prayers were focused around him, asking God to “help Darin keep his cool…please don’t let him panic. We both need to make it home.”

The anger that I was feeling towards the GPS was steadily turning into something else. I felt a fire burning within me. I refused to admit that we were lost and was determined to listen to my instincts; no matter how the situation seemed. But first; I needed to rest and refuel. I found a knee-high “tundra tuft” that I figured would make a comfortable stool. I shrugged out of my pack and dug out a granola bar. “YES! You need to refuel…” I thought to myself as I savored the peanut butter flavored morsel. I found some chocolate-peanut butter “malt balls” that I had been hoarding; which were frozen solid. I sucked on one and pondered the situation while it melted. It was hard to fathom that we had gotten so far off course. It was obvious that the lake we had been following was not the lake we thought it was; “but where the heck did this lake come from?” I had been all over this area only hours before and did not remember seeing a lake of this size. The only answer that made sense; was that we got turned around once we topped out on the plateau. I knew in my head where the road was and where the oil pipeline was; we had crossed neither. The road and the pipeline intersected and then veed away from each other. Our camp was situated off the road and along one leg of the “V”; which meant that we had traveled a lot farther parallel to the pipeline then we had realized. How much farther; I had no idea. I just knew that we had been traveling continuously for hours, in our pursuit of the bull that had gotten us into this mess.

The glorious day after. By ten a.m. the majority of the snow had melted off and you could see for miles once again...a stark contrast to the day before. Something unique to Alaska is the extreme changes of weather on a daily and some cases; hourly basis.

The glorious day after. By ten a.m. the majority of the snow had melted off and you could see for miles once again…a stark contrast to the day before. Something unique to Alaska is the extreme changes of weather on a daily and in some cases; hourly basis.

Once I had sucked my water supply dry; I once again buckled on my pack and set off. I was feeling an overwhelming loneliness and needed the revitalization that the sight of another human would bring. I tried to pick up my pace; but if I went any faster than the slow and steady pace I had been traveling in, I would feel my legs burning with lactic acid and fatiguing at a rapid rate. Darin would offer encouragement from time to time; always through the grey curtain, never within my sight. I asked him if he could see the end of the lake or if he could see the road; he answered in the negative. I had been lost in my thoughts and moving forward in the same, slow death-march cadence…when it became apparent that I was hearing…”something”. I hollered at Darin: “do you hear that?!” “Be quiet….listen…”, was all he said. We both stood there, straining our ears, both isolated from each other by the grey curtain. It became apparent that what we were hearing; was a truck on the highway. Every time I turned my head to better hear and attempt to gauge its origin…it would sound like it was coming from a different direction. This went on for quite sometime; catching the sound of a truck  every so often, stopping and desperately straining to hear…hoping for a solid direction, or confirmation that we were on the right course.

Finally I was rewarded by the sight of Darin; standing still with his head cocked to the side as he struggled to pin-point the location of another truck. I kept on until we were standing side by side. This was the first time we had laid eyes on each other for several hours. He wanted to know what I had been doing and what had taken me so long. “What do you mean? I only stopped for no more than ten minutes…!” He informed me that he had been waiting there close to forty minutes and that he had begun to worry about me. His longer legs had afforded him a considerable lead over my short tree trunks that had been propelling me along at a snail’s pace.

We could hear another truck along the highway and both agreed on its direction. We set out with renewed vigor; knowing for once that our instincts had been true and we had to be close to salvation. I tenaciously kept stride with Darin; ignoring my weakening legs, not wanting to be left alone in the fog again. Every once in a while we’d stop to listen and gain a little more certainty in our course. And then finally! We heard a truck and this time it sounded closer and more definite than ever before. As we stood, straining our eyes…I caught a glimpse of something moving; just a little forward than were the sound seem to be emanating from. I could make out a black shape; steadily moving horizontally across from us…and then “hey! There’s the road…RIGHT THERE!” I shouted involuntarily. A wave of relief swept through my body; while at the same time it seemed that my legs would collapse beneath me. Only a fraction of a mile away; stood a beautiful black line, bisecting the infinitely white scene before us, into two distinct planes. Those last few hundred yards felt like miles and once we reached the road’s embankment; we both collapsed onto the snow.

Like death or taxes; one of the things you can expect to encounter along the Haul Road; is the infamous "Ice Road Truckers". In our case these truckers were our savior; as they called us like a lighthouse beacon cutting through the fog, back to the road. Here one of the flock is ascending Atigun Pass.

Like death or taxes; one of the things you can expect to encounter along the Haul Road; is the infamous “Ice Road Truckers”. In our case these nefarious truck drivers were our savior; as they called to us like  lighthouse beacons cutting through the fog and directing us back to the road. Here one of the flock is ascending Atigun Pass.

It was overwhelming to finally have something concrete and real before us. For the previous seven hours or so; it was nothing but an endless and featureless landscape that was all-encompassing; melded with feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. To finally achieve an end to that madness; is indescribable.

We laid in the snow for only a few minutes; prattling on how we both couldn’t belive that we had finally made it. Even though we had overcome the first major obstacle; I knew that we weren’t “out of the woods” quite yet…we still needed to get to camp. About then I realized that an icy chill transmitted by the snow; was steadily seeping into my bones and making my body stiff. I sat bolt upright and mumbled something about “we can’t stop…we need to keep moving..”, as I shakily stood up. After glancing at the hill that arced away to our left and disappeared into the fog…once again a perplexing puzzle presented itself…for neither of us could remember any hills near the vicinity of our camp. We were about to scramble up the embankment to the road top; when I happened to glance once more up the hill. The fog was shifting and moving about like an oil slick in a tidal flat. With the movement of the fog; a dark object was steadily becoming visible. I asked Darin what he thought “that” was…but before I even could finish my question; “what…the…heck?! That’s our camper! That’s our camp!!!” escaped from my mouth.

We scrambled up the embankment and suddenly our feet were lent wings. As I power-walked up the hill; I couldn’t help but be reminded of the long treadmill-esqe “fast tracks” found in every major airport. By now it was closing in on eleven thirty and the veiled sun was starting to set; causing the available light to darken into another shade of drab. We had been battling the vertigo causing fog and snow-covered tundra for over seven hours. With the sensory depriving conditions and continuous travel through a blank landscape; to us it may have well been seven days. We had entered a grey purgatory and had finally escaped.

Darin soaking in the veiw from camp; with a renewed outlook on things.

Darin soaking in the view from camp; with a renewed outlook on things that can only come from overcoming a great trial.

As we rolled into camp; I saw the figures by the campfire suddenly stand up  from their chairs, almost in disbelif…like they were looking upon creatures of the netherworld. The burning anger that had been fueling me onward; was still burning strong and I lacked the desire to speak. I kept on until I reached the door of our camper; almost leaping up the stairs. I could hear Darin telling a little of our story as I changed out of my sweat soaked gear and into some warm and fresh clothes. As I emerged from the camper; all traces of adrenalin were now vacant from my system; I almost lacked the strength to descend the steps. I staggered  past Darin on my way to the campfire; catching my toe on a rock and almost tripping over some piled firewood. The faces looking at me through the light and smoke from the campfire were blank and featureless. My newly made friend  Lance, helped me into a camp chair and asked me if I was hungry, almost like a worried father would dote on a wayward child.

I replied in the affirmative and shortly afterward; was handed a can of Nalley’s and a plastic spork. As I dug into the coal-heated can of chilli…I wondered if anything had ever tasted so good. No one interrupted me as I hunched over the can and  shoveled spoonfuls into my face; like I expected someone to take it away from me. Once finished; I leaned down and set the empty can on the ground, closing my eyes as I melted back into the chair. The silence was suddenly broken by Brandon softly saying: “we were worried about you guys.” While lacking the strength to reopen my eyelids; my reply came in the form of a sigh: “yeah…we were worried to.”

The day after our experience in the fog; was spent as an "active rest" day and a re-fueling run. We stopped along our into Coldfoot to do some shed hunting in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Here Brandon is pulling a fast one on me; he's playing moose with two "moose sheds"; that were actually pieces of wood. Ah, the good times!

The day after our experience in the fog; was spent as an “active rest” day and a fuel run. We stopped along our way into Coldfoot to do some shed hunting. Here Brandon is pulling a fast one on me; he’s playing moose with two “moose sheds”; that were actually pieces of wood. Ah, the good times!

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.