Well, it’s been a busy fall so far. I was lucky enough to draw a walk-in Delta sheep tag, and my wife drew a cow moose tag and a Kenai Mountains caribou tag. Add in a late-drawing Nelchina caribou tag for my buddy, and we’ve been pretty busy. As a little bit of background, my wife and I are relatively novice hunters. We’ve done a fair amount of grouse hunting together, but prior to this year neither of us had actually harvested a big-game animal. I have done a fair amount of backpacking, but my wife had never backpacked except for a cabin to cabin trip on the Resurrection tail from Cooper Landing to Hope a couple of years ago. As soon as the tag results came out, I started working on getting in shape and coming up with a plan for trying to make the most of a one in a lifetime tag. I decided to have my younger brother come up and join us for the sheep hunt. As a young college kiddo, I thought he’d be great to have share the loads in the packs. While I ended up short of what would probably be considered ideal by most people, I have lost and kept of 15 pounds since then.
Fast forward to August…
My wife and I picked up my brother from the airport late at night on August 6th and spent the night in Anchorage. This was his first summer trip to Alaska, so I was excited to make the drive to Delta during the daylight. We left Anchorage early in the morning on the 7th. It was a great drive. We got to where we planned on hiking from, divided gear amongst packs, and headed off down the trail. We were excited to have a chance to see the pipeline, as it was a first for all of us, and we couldn’t resist stopping to take a picture.
After hiking for a couple of hours, we set-up camp near a nice water source, made dinner, and crashed.
On the morning of the 8th we woke up, broke camp, and ate a quick breakfast. We had a long way to go so we got a move on it. We covered ground pretty well and made it to the major stream crossing of the trip by lunch time. I think the thing I was more nervous about crossing the creek than any other part of the trip. After doing some scouting, we found a safe spot to cross, and made it across with no difficulty.
Once across the creek, we had a light lunch, dried some damp clothes and tried to find a trail up the other side. After a fair amount of looking we started uphill on what looked like a decent trail. Well, that trail slowly but surely disappeared and pretty soon we were busting alders and not in a great mood. We worked hard at covering ground for about 4 hours before we finally saw what looked like a faint trail going uphill in the distance. When we got to the trail, we jumped on that and were able to cover ground more efficiently. As the evening wore on, we started looking for a water source, which proved difficult. We passed on some questionable ponds in favor of gaining more elevation and we were glad we did. As it got late, we settled on a campsite for the night. This was going to be our slice of heaven for the next couple of nights.
The following morning (the 9th) we woke up and took stock of how we were doing. My wife was doing ok but was pretty worn out and my brother was having difficulty with his hiking boots and bad wear on his feet. Knowing that we had to be back at the trailhead no later than the morning of the 12th, we decided that it was probably a good idea to scrap getting any further in looking for sheep. I had a registration caribou tag in my pocket, and we were seeing plenty of caribou from camp:
We spent the day drying gear around a small fire, eating berries and climbing hills and glassing the surrounding country. It was a great day. We saw dozens of caribou, the first big moose I’ve seen in Alaska (between 60-64” is what my brother and I got on him using a 10” head as an estimate) and another 7 bulls ranging from spikes to nice bulls pushing 50” with 3 tines. We also saw a fair number of caribou and started to put together a plan for the morning. We were generally at the head of the valley and we saw caribou move through moving East-West in the morning. We decided to glass from a ridge until we saw them starting to come down and then we’d make our move and get ahead of them. We slept well the night of the 9th and were excited to get up and try to find a caribou.
We woke up early on the morning of the 10th and got to our ridge. We quickly saw a couple of cows with calves but no bulls. We kept watching until my wife finally spotted a small group of about 15 caribou at the very bottom of the valley. We hustled quickly about 2 miles down the valley and found a couple of caribou moving towards us around a small pond. A curious cow and calf started cautiously moving towards us and closed to within about 30 yards. While they were moving in, a nice bull appeared behind them. I started slowly trying to move for a clear shot on the bull, but the wind shifted and he caught my scent and started moving nervously away. I was within 250 yards, but he never presented a shot that I was comfortable with so I had to pass, and I don’t regret doing so. It was an exciting morning with my wife and brother and we made our way back to camp for lunch and to rest up to hunt the evening. I was lucky enough to find two small sheds during the hike back up that my brother was really excited about. I think he’s planning on making a coat hanger out of one and a key rack out of the other (they will definitely be unique at the University of Illinois). While we were resting in camp making lunch, a very curious cow caribou came running right over the closest ridge and ran right towards our camp and finally stopped at about 25 yards and just spent time checking us out. She finally decided that she had seen enough of us and trotted out of camp like nothing had happened. We regained our ridge and prepared for the evening. The caribou continued their pattern, however we were unable to find any bulls that evening.
We woke up the morning of the 11th and repeated our usual pattern of glassing from the ridge. We were unable to put together a successful stalk, so we broke camp and started the hike out. Now, on the way in, it had taken us almost 7 hours to get from the creek crossing to our campsite due to the lack of trail. On the way out, with a trail, it only took us about two and a half hours. As soon as we crossed the creek (and therefore left the legal hunting area for my caribou tag) this small (but tasty looking) bull caribou ran right up to check us out.
He hung out broadside at about 45 yards for 3 minutes while we watched him, took pictures, and generally swore at him for being on the wrong side of the creek J. We finally had enough of watching him and set off on the remaining hike out. We tackled the last 8 miles and were back at the car late in the afternoon for the drive home.
While my sheep hunt might not have been successful, I am incredibly glad that I drew the tag. It provided great motivation to get in shape, and the chance to spend 5 days alone in a part of Alaska that I’ve never been to with my wife and brother was priceless. While I wasn’t able to harvest an animal, it was a hunt that has left me with many memories that I will not forget.
After being back at work for a couple of weeks, I had to take my brother back to the airport on Friday night 8/24. My buddy had just recently drawn a bonus Nelchina caribou tag, so he decided to head up for the weekend to see what he could get done. We left the Kenai Peninsula after work and headed North. After dropping my brother off at the airport, we drove past a fairgrounds full of wet people and continued towards Paxson. We finally stopped and spent the night near Tangle Lakes. We woke up the morning of the 25th and started seeing single caribou quickly. All of the animals we saw were either female or too hard to tell so we had to pass on them. We covered ground looking for a suitable spot to unload the wheelers or start hiking. We saw the majority of our animals pretty high up so as we started to descend towards the Susitna, we decided to turn around and head back towards McClaren Summit and to start hiking from there. On the way back however, I spotted a small group of caribou with a couple of bulls in it. My buddy was quick to take the opportunity to harvest a small meat-bull. He set to work quartering it, and I hiked back to the truck to receive my pack to haul out quarters. While he was working on his caribou the group of caribou started to re-congregate around him and other hunters started to put stalks on those caribou. It was a nerve-wracking experience to say the least, as my buddy was on the ground out of sight between the hunters and the caribou. Fortunately, when the caribou saw me coming with my pack, they dispersed without incident. If we ever do that hunt again, there will definitely be surveyor’s tape and hiking poles with me and I will be wearing blaze orange like back in Wisconsin. We didn’t get any pictures of his caribou, but it was a great trip. We made it back home and had the caribou wrapped and in the freezer by about 2AM on the 26th.
After my buddy’s caribou hunt, I started preparing for my wife’s upcoming Chena cow tag. Things were going very well and I was enjoying the chance to relax. Then a surprise: my buddy called me late Tuesday night to say that he had shot a rare legal Kenai moose (it has been sealed at just a hair shy of 54”). We worked late into Wednesday morning getting his moose quartered and hung, and spent all evening Wednesday and Thursday dealing with neck meat, ribs, backstraps and tenderloins. We were all planning on leaving Friday night (before Labor Day weekend) for my wife’s Chena tag. Well, with the weather being warm, he stayed home to tend to his moose. My wife and I were also unable to leave Friday as planned, as my dog had a large abscess on his face that required a surprise Saturday morning visit to the vet.
After getting the dogs squared away, we were able to leave at about 1 PM on Saturday afternoon. We drove without any of stops and pulled into a spot to sleep in her permit area at about 1:30 AM Sunday morning. We woke up Sunday and started covering ground. We worked the road hard and when that wasn’t productive hiked numerous trails but didn’t see any animals. By the middle of the day, the sun came out and it warmed up to the point where it was time to take a break from looking for a moose. We spent the day catching numerous grayling on just about every fly in the box. I even had a couple take the float above the nymph.
We hunted the evening with no success and decided to enjoy a trip to the hot springs to relax. We went to bed knowing that we had to make something happen Monday morning or we would run out of time before we had to go back to work.
We woke up Monday morning planning on heading to an area with decent visibility to glass trough and headed out in the truck. Now, to this point, in more than 700 miles of driving we had only seen one moose (a cow at Turnagain Pass) and didn’t think we’d see any moose close to the road. My wife was still in her crocs and her gun was in its case in the back of the truck. Less than a mile down the road, I spotted a lone cow. My wife jumped out of the truck, grabbed her rifle (a Smith and Wesson .270 I-Bolt shooting 150 grain nosler partions), and headed into the woods (after slamming her thumb in the car door). I moved the truck down the road and made sure that there was no signed private property near by. As I was heading back to her, I heard a shot and I hustled back to where she was. The moose seemed un-fazed by the shot, and I hadn’t been watching to see where she was hit. At this point my wife was a little rattled and she hollered back to me to ask what to do. I asked her if she hit it, and she said that she thought she did but she wasn’t sure. As she started to move to get in position for another shot, she turned to ask me if she should shoot it again. When she turned back, she couldn’t see the moose anymore and she shouted “I think it got away”. I was elated and told her that it didn’t get away, that it had fallen down and that she should start moving cautiously towards the moose. She did and found the cow down. While the shot was a little far back, it worked very well with almost no meat damage. She cut her tag and we took a minute to take a picture with the first big game animal either of us has ever taken.
This was our first big game animal and it was very hard work but we got her quartered and got everything (ribs, quarters, neck meat, backstraps, tenderloins and heart) loaded into the truck. I used a Havalon knife for the first time and was completely sold on it. We made the long drive back down to the peninsula, got the moose hung and made it to work on time Tuesday morning. The moose is now all in the freezer and we’re getting caught up and ready to take a stab at filling her Kenai Caribou tag this weekend. It’s been a fall so far, and I can’t wait for her caribou hunt and getting to hunt more grouse soon.