I sat alone in my office contemplating my wife’s suggestion to take my two sons along on my next hunting trip to Alaska. The trip would be unlike anything they had ever experienced. Alaskan weather can stress even the most seasoned hunters and we would be traveling to the Brooks Mountain Range where the weather can be very unpredictable.
I was retiring from my job of 40 years and wanted to do something, not just with my sons, but for them–something unequivocal and unforgettable. An experience that would help them grow as men and help them prioritize their lives to what is most important.
I had traveled to Alaska for most of the past decade, with the last several years hunting with Deltana Outfitters and my long time friend and guide, Billy Molls. This combination has proven very successful, having taken a record book bear on the peninsula and a good Dall ram in the Brooks Range. The Brooks Range is where we would be this year, hunting caribou and grizzly bear.
We arrived in camp and, after meeting with old friends and introducing my sons to everyone, got our paper work done, packed and went to the air strip. The flight would take about 45 minutes into the mountains. Curt knew from experience the boys would appreciate the low flying scenic route and I, on the other hand, had Isaac, Curt’s son, take me up high and head straight to camp.
The morning broke crisp, clear and sunny. I remember us being there long enough to fatigue my arms from glassing and watching my sons as they took everything in. I could see they were relaxed, yet anxious at the same time. I knew Billy had been in this position a hundred times before, but seemed jubilant over having the challenge of three hunters with one guide.
I pulled my binos up to glass and immediately picked out a bear moving up the drainage. The adrenaline was already flowing when I said, “Billy, I got a lone bear coming up the valley.”
We had already decided that Brian was first up on caribou, so Todd was first up on bear. Billy began the process of getting a new hunter ready to move out. It would not be easy; the bear was at least 1 1/2 to 2 miles away and the morning air would be tricky.
Billy decided to leave Brian at our current position to observe as our hunt unfolded. I would go along for an extra set of eyes and backup, if needed. Billy led us across the tundra on a course to intercept the bear that took us about 20 minutes. With the bear now out of sight, we were as close as we dared go. Billy had a pretty good idea where the bear would show up, so he got Todd ready. I was set up to their left, taking in the whole hunt. These are the moments in your life when you remember every small detail. This is why I came here with my sons.
The bear crested the bank of a little sub drainage and started down a 15-foot slide. Billy let out a little bark to get the bear’s attention. The bear stopped and stood straight up about 80 yards away. Billy gave Todd the green light and the Winchester roared. The familiar thump was loud as the bear collapsed into the drainage and out of sight. Todd was overwhelmed with excitement as Billy and I congratulated him.
After what was several minutes, we made our way cautiously toward the bear and, as we peered into the drainage, we saw what all bear hunters dread–nothing! Immediately, Billy took charge and recounted everything in order and, after getting some help from Brian on the glassing knob, we knew the bear had headed down the drainage to the main river. After about 50 to 60 yards we came upon some blood, but not nearly what we would expect–especially with the bear hit in the chest—even though their fur can sometimes soak up a fair amount of blood. We continued the pursuit and after another 20 yards or so, were standing on the riverbank. We were all surveying in, around and across the river intently when Billy said, “Todd, get up here beside me, I see the bear!”
I moved with purpose, positioning myself for a shot if needed. Billy had spotted the bear on the other side of the river and gave Todd the OK to finish the job. Before he could get the shot off, the bear decided it would come to meet us! As soon as it started towards us, Todd hit it as it entered the river.
The next day as we were eating breakfast, we spotted a group of about 20 caribou approximately two miles from camp, migrating through the valley. The only problem we saw was if they decided to take the wrong fork in the road and circle around the mountains they were approaching. If they did, we would be putting on some miles to head them off. Guess where our herd of caribou went?
Brian was up for the first caribou, so he followed Billy with Todd while I brought up the rear. The trek was a test of endurance and will and it would all be for nothing if the caribou rounded the mountains before we did.
As we rounded the mountains we had to unexpectedly scale a pretty steep slide to get a view of where the caribou would be, at least we thought. As we gained a vision of the valley, we saw nothing. The herd must have doubled back or worse, climbed high and bedded down. We had just about completely circled the mountain to where we could see the camp again and still no caribou. They must have gone up.
The boys and I stayed put and waited while Billy scouted. It was snowing hard and we were glad to get a short rest. Billy had been out of sight for about 15 minutes when he reappeared a couple hundred feet above us and began to anxiously wave for us to follow. We had just reached Billy when he approached Brian and began the process of getting his hunter ready. It was obvious he had indeed found the caribou!
Billy was going over the next steps with Brian when he jerked his head to attention, looking up the mountain. Then he jerked back and ordered us to “get down.” The caribou were sky-lined and moving to our left and upward. While Todd and I lay motionless in the snow, Billy moved Brian quickly into a good shooting position. The caribou were moving, but Billy reassured Brian they would stop for a look back and that would be his opportunity. Brian’s patience was being tested as he waited for the bull Billy had picked out to clear. We heard Billy say, “Take him now!” and Brian’s rifle immediately came to life. We heard the “crack and thump!” and the bull went another 40 yards and gave up his life.
After having spotted the first two days’ trophies so close to camp, we decided camp was as good of a place as any to set up and glass from. We ate, got seated and proceded to hunt with our binos. I remember thinking this would be pretty nice–have a cup of coffee, do a little glassing, talk a little, another cup of coffee…pretty nice.
Our gentlemen’s hunt was soon disrupted with Billy asking, “Hey Barry, do you want to see something funny?” I replied, “Sure.” Looking through the spotting scope to our northeast were two beautiful bulls, as high on the mountains as they could get. I looked at Billy and let out an outburst of laughter. We both knew our relaxation was over, and I wasn’t sure if Todd wanted a bull that badly, but we all packed and headed to another adventure in a matter of minutes.
It took us the best part of an hour to make the trek to where we set up and waited for the bulls to come down a little. The trip was a couple miles across the tundra, gradually climbing up the drainage. When we finally reached our intended spot, we were ready to shed some layers only to put them back on as the cold wind coming off the mountains quickly cooled us.
Todd and Billy were in perfect position, but had been lying on the side of the bluff for quite a long time. I was concerned that Todd had gotten cold and stiffened up. However, as the moment of truth came closer, I once again saw faint little beads of sweat on his forehead. The bull moved 10 to15 more yards and I heard the familiar, “Take him Todd!” Todd’s rifle again came to life with the now familiar “Crack…Thump!” The bull collapsed on his legs and never moved again. The mountains came to life once again with the sound of human laughter and jubilation. For the third time, in as many days, I felt the warm flood of joy only a father can understand.
Day five began calm enough and, after some breakfast, we started glassing. It wasn’t long until we spotted a good herd of bulls about 2 1/2 miles away, high on the mountains.
Billy believed they would head our direction, eventually. Brian still had a tag, but insisted I be up for this one. Leaving camp, we retraced our steps of two days prior where Todd took his bull and ended up going past that point to a little bluff overlooking the valley. From there, Billy figured the bulls would funnel past us with about a 300- to 400-yard shot.
We reached the bluff and were there for about 45 minutes watching the herd of bulls. They were bedded and quite content, but at 700 to 800 yards. I told Billy I didn’t feel comfortable taking a shot, though I would at 500 yards or so. After a brief conversation, Billy took off to see if we could find a way to secretly close the gap. He was gone about 20 minutes when he returned looking a bit frustrated. He looked at me and asked what had happened because the bulls abruptly got up and left as they came. To that I replied we had been behind the bluff the whole time and the wind was in our face to boot. We surmised at that point something had to have spooked them. After about five minutes of glassing, Billy spoke, “I see the little culprit!” There was a wolverine moving several hundred yards above where the bulls had been bedded. They must have winded him. Well the caribou hunt quickly turned into a wolverine hunt. Wolverine was legal to take on September 1st, and it was September 1st!
As we crossed the 500-yard mark, Billy said he thought the wolverine saw us and we needed to set up for a shot. It would be awkward. We were moving down a steep slide and the wolverine was several hundred yards away and steeply above us.
I got into position as best as I could, but no matter what I tried I couldn’t get the butt of the rifle on my shoulder. Billy was anxious for me to shoot, and I remember saying to him that I needed a couple seconds to get prepared to get hit on the head by my scope. Ready, aim, crack, whack, thump! I made the shot, and got hit solidly on the head! Jubilation erupted as the event became a reality.
It took us the best part of a half hour to reach the wolverine, but it sure was worth it. I never imagined I would ever get the opportunity to take one, and it came in such a peculiar way. It was another lesson when hunting that you need to be prepared for the unexpected.
The day ended peaceably enough, but the weather had taken on a different crispness and snap to it. We were in for some Alaskan weather…real Alaskan weather!
The next day was rather uneventful, with the most noticeable event being more snow on top of what we already had. Around 6 p.m., we spotted caribou coming up the valley about three miles away. It looked like an average group of bulls, but we had weather coming in which made the bulls look significantly better. In all my years of hunting in Alaska, I had never taken a caribou.
We decided to try to intercept the herd. If they kept moving our direction, we should meet up with them about 1 1/2 miles from camp. Of course they did not keep moving. The bulls bedded down, putting them at least 2 1/2 miles from camp. As late as it was, we couldn’t wait. We needed to push the hunt if we had any chance. Closing the distance quickly, Billy picked out the best bull and I put him on the ground with two shots. We were now in ultra fast mode as the snow was coming down, and it would be a long, cold, wet walk back with a caribou in tow.
The next two days were quite an experience by any standard. Two weather fronts had collided and built a weather trough with the Brooks Range taking the brunt of it. It wasn’t exactly a storm for the books, but it was nasty by any measure. The wind had picked up to a steady 40 mph while dumping 16 to 20 more inches of snow. It was approximately 48 hours before we emerged from our tents that now looked like igloos. Dealing with that kind of weather is more mental than physical. This is where your outfitter, and especially your guide’s experience, are critical. They know how to react to the weather, when to lay low and when to move quickly.
The way the storm was blowing, I thought our pull-out day was in jeopardy, but on the eighth day the weather began to subside. The big problem, and I mean big, was that we had about two feet of snow where we needed a 600-foot runway for the plane the next day and there were no snow shovels in camp. The best we could muster was our kitchen tote and we all took turns filling and dumping that tote for two days–kicking, digging and throwing snow to produce a respectful runway.
On our pull out day, we anxiously awaited the sound of the Super Cub coming over the mountains. The sun was up, the sky blue and there were three hunters and one guide ready to get out of the freezer–and yes, we ran out of coffee the day before.
After shuttling us one by one back to base camp, I believe that last evening was one of the most joyful relaxing times I ever spent with my two sons. The jubilation of men having conquered something, done something unequivocal, unforgettable, and memorable. Our relationship would be forever changed. I thanked God and went to sleep.–Barry C. Barton