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Rifle Magazine
October - November 2001
Volume 2001, Number 0
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 5
On the cover...
Cover photo John R. Ford-Whitetail Deer, Mike Barlow-Elk, Gary Kramer-Black Bear and Cape Buffalo.
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Sprawled on a resilient carpet of tundra, its pleasing, faintly acrid aroma lingered in my conscience as I drifted into sleep. A few hours later, awakened by a slight breeze, I rose from my bedroll to make sure the Piper Super Cub was turned into the wind. The night was warm and clear with a faint pastel outline of the Brooks Range visible to the north. Twilight appears to last forever this far north, and sunrise and sunset carry no special meaning for bush pilots in Alaska. Civil twilight, when the sun is less than 6 degrees below the horizon, and nautical twilight, when it is 12 degrees below, are a more accurate assessment of the degree of darkness.

The preceding day I had flown north from my cabin on the Arctic Circle, searching for new, virgin, game-rich valleys. Any level river gravel bar over 300 feet long or a ridge top offering 200 feet with a slight gradient could serve as a landing strip. In over 12 hours of flying, I had seen hundreds of head of game: moose, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep, black and grizzly bears, but access to the country had been limited. I had touched down on a number of tiny makeshift strips but had found nothing offering any margin of safety. In fact one patch of tundra that appeared to already have two aircraft tire tracks on it proved to be so rough I would not have been able to take off again had there not been a stiff breeze. The tracks turned out to be well-worn, parallel caribou trails.

I had flown until well past sunset and then, running low on fuel, had turned south toward home. Passing Rabbit Mountain, I glimpsed a relatively long, smooth section of tundra on a bench near the summit and decided to drop in and get a few hours sleep. The brilliant, multihued tundra was in full display of autumn colors and fortunately held no hidden surprises for a tired pilot. I taxied the plane between two clumps of alder bushes, which could serve as tie downs in case any unexpected winds developed, and unloaded my sleeping bag and single remaining fuel jug. Using a small Svea stove, I heated supper before lying down for a few hours rest.

The breeze that had awakened me didn’t appear too ominous; however, living alone in the wilderness teaches one to be cautious. I knotted a rope around the base of each alder then passed them though the wing tie downs before crawling back into the sleeping bag. Somewhere far below a faint chorus of wolves began, and green ribbons of the aurora undulated overhead as I again drifted off to sleep.

I spent a number of years exploring interior Alaska in this manner, searching for hidden pockets of game - secluded valleys with previously unhunted moose populations, isolated uplifts with grizzlies foraging in berry patches and Dall sheep feeding on the steepest slopes. In the valley where my wife and I built our cabin, black bears were so prevalent they were daily visitors. Everywhere she went, whether hauling water or picking berries, she carried her little BSA .308 carbine. Our two children were small, and black bears had the unnerving habit of sitting and watching them from just inside the timber, sometimes becoming brazen enough to challenge us. Like the bears themselves, our offspring learned to rapidly retreat behind mother’s legs when summoned. The unwavering muzzle of a .308, backed by the firm, resolute gaze of a protective mother, served to intimidate many a bear. On occasion, when an individual bear became too aggressive, I would confront it with my Winchester Model 12, a single round of No. 6s in the chamber backed by a magazine stuffed with Brenneke slugs. I dealt with a number of threats, feints and close-range charges, but as soon as any blackie would back down and turn to retreat, I would unload the bird shot into their rear end. For a number of years afterwards, when fleshing black bear trophies taken by hunters in my camp, it was not at all uncommon to find No. 6 pellets under the hides.

The vast, remote interior of Alaska is unlike anywhere else I have ever hunted. During the short, cool autumn, when summer’s hordes of insects have vanished and the willows, birch and tundra are in full possession of their fall palate of colors, there is no more beautiful place on earth. By degrees, up to six minutes per day, summer’s unrelenting light wanes, darkness returns and again the Northern Lights illuminate the sky.

Bears can be seen voraciously feeding in berry patches, the sweet fruit adding layers of fat to sustain them throughout their long winter’s sleep. Bull moose are wandering in search of willing cows, thrashing trees and brush, like a boxer using a heavy bag, preparing for upcoming battles. The hollow crack of massive Dall sheep horns colliding resounds in upper valleys along with the syncopated clicking of a thousand caribou hooves as they migrate from their summer calving grounds toward their winter range. Cyclones of Sandhill cranes soar upward, calling for all to join them in their annual southern migration. Wedges of geese, so high they are barely visible to the naked eye, follow the same airways. It is an all too short, ephemeral time of beauty, wonder and magic, and as winter intensifies its grip on the Arctic, fall migrates toward lower latitudes.

Six hundred miles to the south, the rugged, mountainous spine of the state, the Alaska Range, curves and fades into a tail called the Alaskan Peninsula. This narrow, 500 mile long, seemingly inhospitable spit of land separating the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, then became our home. After years of living, trapping, hunting and guiding throughout the state, we were inexplicably drawn to this virtually treeless, windswept country. A land of superlatives, it is truly one of the world’s premier game fields. It is home to the world’s largest population of brown bears, the world’s largest moose, the largest caribou, the largest staging area for migrating waterfowl plus is home to a quarter of all the world’s wild salmon. Approximately every 40 miles an active volcano, permanently mantled in snow, towers above the myriad streams and rivers that wind through the damp rolling tundra.

My family’s 40-acre homestead, situated in the heart of the peninsula, has been our permanent home since 1986. Unlike the wooded interior, there are no black bears, due to the dense population of brown bears, and, unfortunately, no Dall sheep. Distances and logistics are still formidable and the weather less forgiving, but the hunting, for the most part, is remarkably similar. Moose still reside in rich, random pockets and caribou, like caribou everywhere, wander where caribou wander, verifying the Inuit quip that “No one knows the ways of the wind and the caribou.” As in the remainder of the Far North, bears can be found in sweet, lush berry patches during the late fall, but here there is so much high-protein food easily available that bruins wander virtually everywhere during the summer and grow to sizes unheard of in the interior of the state. While a respectably sized male grizzly may reach 600 pounds, a trophy brown bear can top 1,500 pounds!

My favorite, pewtery old FN .30-06 and my wife’s petite .308 BSA Royal that had served us so well in the remainder of the state, still sufficed on peninsula moose and caribou; however, they seemed a bit light for use on prehistoric-sized, up-close-and-personal brown bears. The synthetic-stocked MK X Mauser actioned .458 Winchester I had previously used when guiding for Kodiak Island and coastal brownies became my daily all-around rifle. I acquired a Marlin .45-70 for my wife, Rocky, which I shortened to an early version of today’s guide gun, and then loaded it with a stiff charge of Reloder 7 and hard cast 405-grain bullets. Bears in our yard are still a common occurrence but, as incongruous as it may seem, the oversized brown bears proved to be a lot more congenial and respectful of us than the smaller black bears.

Our two children, Taj and Tia, managed to grow up without being eaten and are now capable hunters, trappers, guides and pilots themselves. When guiding bear hunters, my son Taj uses a .458, similar to mine, with 400-grain Kodiak bullets and a Mauser actioned .30-06 with 180-grain Scirocco bullets when guiding sheep and caribou hunters in the Brooks Range. My daughter Tia carries a Remington Model 700 that was given to her by Yuko Sato, a Japanese client. Chambered for the unappreciated, and vastly underrated, .350 Remington, Yuko had used it to take a monster 10.5-foot Boone & Crockett boar with a single, well-placed shot. With 250-grain North Fork bullets its performance in the field is virtually indistinguishable from a .375 H&H. Tia uses it for nearly everything on the peninsula (beware the hunter with one gun) but uses the classic .270 Winchester Model 70 with 130-grain Nosler Partitions for all interior game. Growing up, having to hunt for a living has impressed upon both of them the singular importance of an accurately placed first shot. No amount of hypervelocity, excessive bullet diameter, engraving nor gold inlays can substitute for it.

During the short few decades I’ve spent wandering our 49th state, I have naturally witnessed change; however, in comparison with those I have seen in other states, they have not been all that dramatic. Compared to Africa, the world’s other great game field, they have been minuscule. Alaska has had a relatively slow, stable population growth centered around its major towns. The vast majority of it is still roadless wilderness with limited access.

The biggest changes I have seen, especially as they affect hunting and game populations, is the rapid proliferation of small flying businesses, or air taxis, that cater to non-resident hunters, and the deleterious effects of the state’s dismantling of guide areas. Because flying is expensive and access areas are limited, virtually all these operators, no matter what their advertising says, are competing for the same game, in the same areas, with predictable results.

For all its extensive wilderness, Alaska has exceedingly low densities of game animals per square mile, especially when compared with deer populations in the Lower 48. A small number of hunters, using the same area during a season, can seriously reduce the local game populations. Even the seemingly endless migrations of caribou can have the best bulls picked out in a relatively short period of time when every guide, outfitter and air taxi operator licensed in the area is dropping off hunters ahead of you.

However, experiencing the mystery, magic and allure of our last frontier is still feasible, with the potential for exceptional trophies, for those adventurous souls unintimidated by hard work and willing to pay for it, either by retaining the services of a reputable guide or by going to the trouble, expense and effort to find their own way off the beaten path.

Those contemplating a do-it-yourself style hunt must realize that once you leave the road system in Alaska, you are 100 percent on your own. If you get into trouble you can only rely on yourself to get out. The Alaskan wilderness does not suffer fools. As John Krakauer’s national best-selling book Into   the Wild so well illustrates, over-confidence and arrogance are incompatible with wilderness. A careless slip of a skinning knife or a sprained ankle that would only mean a slight discomfort in the whitetail woods can be a death sentence in Alaska. So can a blown-down, leaking tent and wet sleeping bag. If your inflatable boat is punctured, a bear gets your food. If you come down with appendicitis a week before your bush plane is due, then you are in real trouble.

I have seen all these, and more, happen to the unprepared. This is not intended to discourage anyone, as the vast, untamed wilderness of Alaska is still out there, offering its secrets and rewards to those willing and able to meet its challenges. I think the poet Robert Service said it best:

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless, And the rivers all run God knows where. There are lives that are erring and aimless, And deaths that just hang by a hair. There are hardships that nobody reckons; There are valleys unpeopled and still There’s a land - oh it beckons and beckons, And I want to go back - and I will. Some say God was tired when he made it. Some say it’s a fine land to shun; Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it For no land on earth - and I’m one.

American Rifle
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