Several years ago I took one of the most monumental trips of my lifetime. My old high school buddy Derek Walton and I took an unguided float trip on the Selawik River in Alaska in search of the Arctic Caribou. We planned for a year and a half. We bought gear, read books, sighted in our weapons, picked our outfitter, and put in our deposit. We also memorized every line in Jeremiah Johnson. We hoped this would be a trip to remember.
We are shotgun deer hunters from the prairies of Iowa. We grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping, but this was a great unknown. Alaska is an unforgiving place. Mere survival can mean the hunt was a success.
Our excitement grew as we listened to live music at “Humpy’s Alehouse” in Anchorage. We felt a strange bond to the thousands who’d gone before. Hunters, trappers, and gold-crazed miners had all sat in an Anchorage pub preparing to set out into the wild expanse the next morning in search of something. We were no different. We searched for something more than what our lives had given us. Something maybe only found out in the wild places.
Before dawn, Anchorage became a memory. Then Fairbanks disappeared behind us while we glimpsed Denali through clouds. We spent one night in Galena, a former USAF base. Nothing much going on in Galena but drunken locals and hunters heading out into the bush. The DeHavilland Beaver thundered down the Yukon and lifted off into a silent expanse. The float plane purred as we turned north, nothingness extending as far as we could see. The rugged beauty unmarred by any roads or towns, nothing but the serpentine outline of a small river breaking up the landscape. As the hours clicked by, a sinking feeling danced as butterflies in my belly while civilization disappeared.
What a small world. Our pilot turned out to be Joe Schuster of Sportsman’s Air. Joe played football in the ‘80’s for the Iowa Hawkeyes and after a short stint in the pro’s quickly found his way to Alaska. I was a freshman the year Joe was a senior at Iowa and had watched him play football, never knowing our paths would cross.
Joe deftly landed in a large beaver pond, and quickly off loaded our gear onto the bank. With a shove and wave goodbye he lifted off. We stared in silence watching Joe fly away; his silver plane became a tiny blip on the horizon. We suddenly snapped to reality. The icy hand of fear tickled its way up my back as truth slapped me in the face. We were no longer the top of the food chain.
Simultaneously we had the same thought. Guns. We suddenly felt naked without them. We thumbed shells into high-powered rifles, and slammed slugs into our 12 gauge camp gun. We checked the accessibility of the pistols on our hips. It was an eerie realization that even with our obvious firepower, there were no guarantees. The weapons would only give us a fighting chance against an angry sow with cubs. The guns were the only thing that separated us from being a free meal.
Until that moment, I had only hunted or lived where guns were optional. In the Iowa deer woods, there isn’t anything that can rip the flesh from your bones and eat you. That knowledge brings a real tension to the entire proposition. Suddenly, my weapon was quite possibly the reason I would live to see my baby daughter’s face or kiss my wife again.
We set up camp on the beach near the river. That night I jumped at every slap of a beaver tail, but the games had begun. We marched tundra, found bear signs, caught Arctic Grayling, saw moose, porcupine, and eagle. We moved camp several times and glassed the distance looking for our elusive quarry. We never saw a massive herd of Caribou like they always show on TV, only little groups of 3 to 20. Once we spotted a group it was an effort to get ahead of them and wait. After some fear and trembling, we got it done. We took fantastic trophies and actually shot our Caribou at the same time. Then the work began. It took us several days to pack out all the meat, hides, and the antlers, but we accomplished our goal.
We filled our packs with all of the fresh, bloody, meat we could carry and set out across the tundra. We emptied our packs at camp and headed back to our kill site for another load. One thing not left behind was our guns. Nothing like hiking through Grizzly country with a pack full of Caribou meat to get your attention and make you appreciate weaponry!
My uneasiness about being a mid-level player in the food chain never eased. Guns in hand and on hips accompanied us everywhere. To go anywhere without a weapon felt like going naked, it just didn’t happen.
Every time I gaze upon my Caribou mount proudly hanging in my home it takes me back to the tundra. The Western Arctic Caribou is an impressive looking creature with massive antlers that leave a white-tail hunter speechless.
My hunting partner and I promised each other we’d do it again, our friendship deeper from the shared experience. Time can slip by as fast as the Alaska summer. My friend and I haven’t returned to the North Country yet. We both still dream of it, which is just fine with Alaska, because Alaska is a place of dreams. Dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered. I dream of the day I will return to the banks of the Yukon. Alaska in all of her wildness calls to me still and I know I will see her again.
If you ever get the chance to go … by all means do it, you’ll never forget it.