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Fresh moose steaks and onions sizzled in the pan as Barry poured healthy splashes of whiskey into our cups. “Cheers to a great hunt, Billy,” toasted Barry. “I gotta get the boys up here for a hunt someday. I wanna give them an adventure they’ll never forget.” Before the bottle was dry Barry and I hatched a plan. The following fall Barry and his two grown sons, Brian and Todd, would hunt caribou and grizzly bear.
Eleven months later, tundra tires bounced and slid to a halt beside my camp in the heart of the northern Brooks Range. Brian and Todd were electric as they crawled out of the Super Cubs. They marveled at the mountainsides like 16-years kids who were just handed keys to shiny new cars.
“This is amazing,” Todd beamed.
“I can’t believe we’re here,” smiled Brian.
We helped Curt and Isaac unload the planes, and watched as they lit for base camp. Todd chuckled, “Flying in those little planes is an adventure in itself.”
The boys were settled in camp and water was on the boil when Isaac rounded the bend with Barry two hours later.
“Am I ever glad to be here,” smiled my old friend, Barry. “What a beautiful valley!”
Barry didn’t even bother to unpack. He was ready for a cup of coffee. Coffee turned into supper. Supper turned into whiskey. He hoisted the bottle and prepared for an announcement. “This is how we do it boys. One bottle at the start of the hunt, and one bottle at the end of the hunt.” Barry poured ‘em stiff. The boys pushed their glasses against the longneck to keep their father from overfilling their cups. As the brown liquid went down, so did the sun. The warm red glow in the crisp arctic sky was much like the alcohol-induced glow I felt on my wind-seared cheeks. Barry and the boys had a long day of traveling. We were all ready for bed.
My already-wet hunting boots were frozen stiff when I crawled out of my tent at 5am to start coffee. Seated on folding stools we hovered around my tiny stove scavenging any warmth we could. The boys’ Alaskan adventure was just beginning.
A perfect lookout of the valley was just a sweaty half-hour’s hike away. We were percolating like teapots as we settled into glass. The sun had just reached the tallest peaks when Barry piped up. “I think I see a bear.”
“I’ve been staring at this valley for the last half hour, Barry,” I joked. “Either you’re seeing things, or I need to take up a new profession.” One glance through my spotting scope convicted me that I need to learn to shut my yapper. Finding consolation in the fact that it was far from the dumbest thing I’d ever said, I quickly refocused my attention on the grizzly feeding on a tundra bench on the far side of the creek before us. “It’s a pretty good bear,” I admitted. “Who’s the shooter?”
“You’re up, Todd,” announced Brian.
Todd and I slung our packs and took off. Barry was right on our heels. “I want to be there in case things get dicey in the bush,” he smiled. Brian stayed back to serve as our eye in the sky.
We hustled down to the creek as quickly as we could. We scrambled up a steep cut bank and surveyed the landscape as we caught our breath. Senses were amplified, chambers were hot, and each soft step was taken deliberately as we slipped through the willows. As we eased ahead, I spotted glistening blonde ear tips and a fuzzy hump set aglow by the sun. We quickly ducked down and got into shooting position. The setup was perfect. We were leaning over the ledge of a ravine. The bear was heading straight for us. I anticipated a shot of no more than 100 yards.
About the time we were getting nervous that something went awry, the grizzly ambled over the horizon. I could hear Todd breathing. His rib cage was flaring so wide it looked like his chest might burst. He looked like a mama Kill Deer spreading her wings as wide as she could in effort to scare an intruder away from her nest. “Just relax,” I whispered. “Wait ‘til I tell you to shoot, and kill ‘im with one shot.” Seconds later the wind swirled. “Get ready,” I said. The grizzly threw its head into the air before galloping several bounds. He stopped, stood on his hind legs, and pointed his nose to the sky. “Take ‘im in the chest,” I ordered.
“Boom!” Todd’s .300 roared. The bear collapsed, and rolled out of view.
We jumped to our feet. “How did it feel?” I asked.
“Good.” We checked safety and hurried ahead.
I expected to see a mass of fur in the dry run below, but it was as empty as my expression when my wife first told me she was pregnant and that the baby was due during sheep season. I glassed Brian up above. He held his arms open wide. He knew less than we did.
I picked up the meager blood trail with Todd and Barry on either flank. As usual, the bear followed the thickest cover and headed toward the creek. “Be ready,” I whispered. “This bear’s gonna be alive when find ‘im.”
Stopping at the creek, I noticed willow tips shaking. I pointed it out to Barry and Todd. With their rifles shouldered and my video camera rolling, we took one step. Suddenly the beast erupted straight for us! “Take ‘im!” I urged. My clients must’ve been drawing careful aim, as I was beginning to secondguess my decision to film rather than shoot. Just then their rifles boomed and the bear went down.
“Oh man! What a rush!” shouted Todd. “He didn’t even think about it! As soon as he saw us move, he was comin’!”
Barry smiled and shook his son’s hand. “Just think,” he smiled, “this hunt’s just gettin’ started.”
We woke the next morning to snow and brutal cold. Poor visibility kept us in camp. We were eating supper when a chasm in the clouds revealed a band of a dozen or so caribou two miles away. I scrambled to find them in my scope. “There’s a couple shooters in there,” I said, as the next wave of clouds wiped our visibility away. “It’s a long shot, but the weather seems to be improving. We could hike over there and hope to get lucky.”
Barry and his sons conferred and agreed to give it a shot. An hour later we were post-holing in shin-deep snow toward the saddle where we last saw the bulls. We were panting like overheated hogs and sweat rained down our faces.
The snow was still falling, but the ceiling had lifted by the time we reached the saddle. The caribou were gone, but their tracks were steaming hot. We followed their trail as it side-hilled around a sizable mountain. Visibility varied from 800 to 50 yards and nightfall was approaching. We had all but circumnavigated the mountain when I spotted a lead-colored mass through the snow. We slipped to within 200 yards and prepared Brian for a shot. A sudden swirl of the wind sent the bachelors scurrying up the mountain in a jumbled mass.
“Don’t shoot!” I ordered. “Wait for them to separate.” Finally, at 275 yards, one of the better bulls slowed, stopped, and looked back. “Pick a hair and squeeze it slow.”
Brian’s shot was true. The bull dropped instantly. The rest of the herd bolted and was quickly swallowed by the snowy haze.
“Great shot, Brian,” congratulated Barry. “Now the work begins.”
In 20 years of guiding, I’ve never carried a compass or GPS. This was one of those times I wished I did. I knew I could eventually get us back to camp, but unless the visibility improved, we would have to follow a series of drainages to find the tent. As we trudged through the snow, and shuffle-stepped down the slippery mountain, I was happy to see far enough to locate landmarks near our camp. Even in our direct line, the packout was better than four miles. It was after midnight when finally dropped our packs beside our snow-flattened meat tarp.
Weather on the third day was still lousy. Brian and I made a great chase after a big grizzly. We followed him for miles up into the high country, but it appeared as though he was heading for his den. We eventually gave up and returned to camp.
The sun was out in full force on Day 4. Drinking coffee, we spotted 2 good bulls bedded on a high mountain peak two miles above camp. They rose to their feet just before noon and started feeding down our side of the mountain. The four of us saddled up and struck out.
In an hours’ time we were lying prone, 400 yards from the bulls. We waited until they fed to within 150 yards. “I’m on ‘im,” Todd assured me as the biggest bull stood broadside.
The shot was perfect.
Back in camp that night the sky was clear, the sun was setting, and spirits were high. Breaking his own rule, Barry divvied out small rations of whiskey. “Here’s to a great hunt so far,” he toasted. “I’m proud of you both, but now it’s the old man’s turn behind the trigger!”
Just after breakfast we located 20 bulls boiling over distant saddle into the same drainage from which Todd took his bull. We hiked several miles to find them bedded in the middle of a wide-open basin. With the wind to our liking and no way to approach them, we decided to wait them out.
We finished eating our lunch when the mob sprang to their feet and fled pell-mell in the direction from which they had come. “There’s got be a wolf or a bear around to scare them like that.” As I scanned the area for the culprit, I noticed a golden eagle swooping down. After a couple passes I raised my binoculars to investigate.
“It’s a wolverine!” I shouted, watching the king of the weasel family lying on his back, angrily swiping at the eagle each time it dived to with inches of its deadly claws. “Today’s September First,” I noted. “Wolverine season is officially open!”
“Well, why are we still hear talking about?” smiled Barry.
We hustled down one hill and up the next. At 300 yards the wolverine stood proudly above and stared down on us. We piled our packs to give Barry the elevation he needed for a rest. “Hold for 270,” I instructed as Barry dialed the turret of his .375 H&H.
The boys and I were held in suspense as the senior member of our party took careful aim. “Boom!” the magnum bellowed.
“You hit ‘im!” Brian shouted in disbelief.
“Nice shot, Dad!” cheered Todd.
Barry was all smiles and he rose to his knees. “Never in my life did I think I’d have an opportunity like this,” he beamed. “I’ll burn my caribou tag on a wolverine any day.”
Wolverine skinning 101: Watch for scent glands. I was in the middle of some longwinded story when my razor-sharp knife sliced right into the male’s anal gland. The stench wasn’t as offensive as a skunk’s, but it certainly made me quicken pace for the remainder of the job. The easy pack back to camp made wonder if I could make a career out of offering wolverine hunts.
Snow and poor visibility consumed us once again the following morning. Luckily we located a large herd through a break in the fog and made another hail Mary stalk.
This time it was Barry who connected on a fine bull.
With his grizzly tag on his caribou, we packed back to camp. Once again it was after midnight when we returned.
It snowed so hard the next day we never left camp. The following day it was snowing even harder. Barry and I took it in stride, but the boys weren’t saying much. When I asked them if they minded if I did an interview with them on camera, Todd flatly refused. Brian replied, “I don’t think you’d like to hear what I’d have to say. This is worse than boot camp. At least there I knew I’d get a hot shower and a warm bed every night.”
I later asked Barry, “Did I do something to offend the boys?”
“No,” he said. “They’ve never experienced anything like this. They’re out of their comfort zone.”
When the snow finally quit the next morning, we started clearing the runway using our Rubbermaid tote as a shovel. The boys’ attitudes and outlooks improved incrementally as we made progress. We scooped snow for two days before we finally achieved the specs Curt described to me via satellite phone. I called base camp that night. We were first on the docket the next morning.
The sun was hours from cresting the mountains as we sipped the last of our coffee. I smiled at the boys. “As soon as you guys get in those airplanes and look down on this place you’re gonna miss it.”
“Nope,” they agreed. “We’re happy we experienced this, but we’ll never do this again.”
The planes arrived and circled overhead sometime later. “We’re gonna have to land with a tailwind,” said Curt. “Sorry to tell you this, but we’re gonna need another 50 feet cleared down the tundra.” It wasn’t the news any of us wanted to hear, but by early afternoon the job was complete.
Mine was the last flight out. The sky was clear and moon was high. We landed in base camp just before midnight. For me it was a long month in Brooks Range. I was ready for a hot meal and hot shower.
The four of us flew back to Anchorage together the next morning. We sat outside for supper together at The Lakefront. As we watched floatplanes land and take off, I asked the boys, “So, was I right? Do you miss it?”
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” smiled
Brian, “but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Todd nodded. “Without a doubt, this was the greatest adventure of my life.”
Barry didn’t say a word. He just sat there and smiled.
Billy Molls is an Alaska registered big-game guide, author, public speaker, and producer of The Modern Day Mountain Man DVD series. For more information about hunting with Billy, books, DVDs, and other services, go to www.billymollsadventures.com.