The breeze that had awakened me didnt
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
mothers 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 summers
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, summers 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 winters 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 worlds premier game fields. It is home to the worlds largest population of
brown bears, the worlds largest moose, the largest caribou, the largest staging area
for migrating waterfowl plus is home to a quarter of all the worlds 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 familys 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 wifes 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 todays 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 Ive
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 worlds 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 states 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
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.