Alaska Short Stories

The Worst Hunter in Alaska

To all of my rabid fans of the ridiculously mundane, here is the epic novel of how this poor northern Minnesota boy became the worst hunter in Alaska.

I began reading at a very early age because my mother constantly read to my sister and me. By the time I was in the first grade I had discovered Jim Bridger, Daniel Boone, and every other explorer and adventurer of the old west. All of my heroes hunted, fished, trapped, and provided for themselves and their families. About that same time we moved into a new house across the street from two boys near my age whose father was an honest to God hunter and fisherman. He even grew a two or three acre garden, and I don’t believe they bought more than the bare necessities at the store. If it was in season, he got up in the morning before work and usually brought something home for the freezer. Naturally he was one of my heroes, but unfortunately, I wasn’t one of his favorite kids. He tolerated me enough to take me along with him and his youngest son to the river, where he taught us to catch bullheads with worms, hook, string, and a cane pole. We did learn, all by ourselves, that we could go to the nearest pasture and turn over cow pies to find the biggest fattest worms.

My main problem was, I was a city kid. We really didn’t have much money, and, until I was 11, my dad was in North Africa and southern Europe fighting a war, in Guam working construction, or on Shimya working for Northwest Airlines. Then I came home from school one day and Mom said we were moving to Alaska.

ALASKA!!! Alaska is ALL wilderness. Wild animals are everywhere. Everybody hunts and fishes up there. I wasn’t going to Alaska, I was going to heaven!

We finally arrived in Anchorage on November 3, 1952, at 3:30 pm. It was pitch black in the middle of the afternoon. The next morning I went outside and it seemed like the mountains went straight up out of our back yard. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Back in Minnesota the only hills were where somebody dug out a hole for a full basement. In Anchorage we lived off of Ingra Street and I went to Denali Elementary School. I think I walked to school backwards for the first two weeks, staring in awe at those mountains.

So, here I was in Alaska in the middle of the winter. I had to start school, there was Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Fur Rendezvous to get through, and then came May 1st. The opening day of black bear hunting. Dad and his friend, Darrell, who had two sons, Lee 12 years old and Bruce 11, decided to take us boys out to hunt bear. It was my big day. I was finally going to become a hunter. We got up well before sunrise, piled into the car and took off down the Seward Highway. Dad and Darrell poured themselves a cup of coffee from the thermos, ”sweetened” it with a shot of whiskey, and told us boys to keep our eyes on the mountainsides for a bear. We drove to Girdwood, up a dirt road that went a little ways into the mountains, then turned around and went back home.

Opening day of moose hunting. Same thing except this time we drove to Wasilla, around a couple side roads and back home. Caribou, same thing except up to Eureka, Lake Louise and home. It soon became obvious that my dad knew nothing about hunting, nor did he have any interest in getting out of the car and walking around in the woods. Heck, he didn’t even own a gun. The only way we were going to bring home any “meat for the freezer” was if something darted in front of the car and they ran over it.

I scrounged and saved for the next few months, and when I had $12.00 I talked Mom and Dad into letting me buy a gun. I had already found a used .22 rifle at the Northern Commercial Company down on 4th Avenue. I think the rifle was only $10.00 and I spent the rest on a shoulder sling. I didn’t have any ammo, but by golly, I was ready to go. Over the next few years my friends and I ran around the woods, up and down the creeks and all over the Turnagain mud flats burning up all the .22 shells we could get our hands on. Luckily none of us got hurt (at least very badly). We didn’t learn a thing about hunting, but we had a ball.

I have a few memorable stories from those years and one of the best is how I captured a black bear with my bare hands. However, I had to let go of him real quickly before he ate me.

It all started when five of us, two 12-year-olds and three 11-year-olds, somehow convinced our parents to let us go camping at Bird Creek for a week. We collected all the money we could to buy hot dogs, cookies, peanut butter and bread, and probably a whole lot of other unhealthy necessities. As back up we got three or four boxes of WW2 surplus K-rations. We could have bought C-rations for $1.50 per box as opposed to $3.00, but we liked the K-rations best because they were for the officers. And … they also contained two or three packs of cigarettes and some chocolate bars. My dad, who worked for a liquor distributor at the time, dropped us off in a 1949 panel truck with “Budweiser” written in big red letters all over the sides. This was the same truck I taught myself to drive in later that summer, unbeknownst to my dad.

So here we were, five pre-teen yahoos a couple miles up Bird Creek, running around the mountainside and eating. By the third day most of the good food was gone except for a few cookies. We were about a mile from camp when we decided to go back to eat. I think we all remembered those cookies at the same time because we all took off running for camp. Luckily I was the only one who had started to have a growth spurt and was able to take the lead.

Just before our camp was a stand of tag alders about 30 yards thick with a zig-zag game trail through it and our camp on the other side. Lee and I had pitched our tent right at the end of the trail. What I didn’t know was that Lee had been hiding food in our tent. As I went charging to the end of the trail I looked through the alders and saw the big black butt end of a bear sticking out of the tent and blocking the path. I started digging in my heels and shouting, “BEAR BEAR BEAR,” but all four of the guys behind me just kept on pushing and the bear was frantically trying to back out of the tent. There was nothing for me to do. I planted both hands on the bear’s butt, vaulted over him, and headed for the creek. When I got to the other side and looked back all the guys were gone except Bruce, who was about 30 feet up a tree. Then I realized that I had run all the way across Bird Creek, and my feet weren’t even wet. I swear that’s true! Now I had a choice, walk two miles to the bridge or wade back across. This time my feet did get wet! When we finally all got back together I learned that everyone made it past the bear because the bear was still tangled up in the tent. Also, as three of the guys were racing for the hills, the bear went shooting right through the middle of them at least twice as fast. I think we scared him worse than he scared us. The bear must have thought those three guys were running from the same thing that had scared him.

For the next year or so we had a few more fruitless road hunts. Sometimes we would just walk around the woods hoping to bump into something. Then came opening day of moose season, 1955. Dad, Darrell, and a friend of theirs, L.G., planned a three day camp-out hunting trip at Moose Pass. What better place to find moose than a place called Moose Pass? Bruce, Lee, and I got to tag along. While setting up camp late in the afternoon before opening day, of course the adults discovered some things they had forgotten. And they also needed ice for their drinks. So Darrell took us kids and headed to the small general store in the tiny community of Moose Pass. When we returned a couple hours later, Dad and L.G. were sneaking around and whispering like they were hiding from something. Apparently they had decided to “scout out” the area and came across a cow moose, which L.G. shot. There were a couple of problems with this. It was about four hours before the season opened, and it was a cow in a bull only area. That could have turned into a very expensive hunting trip, so there was only one thing to do. We all took off to pack the moose back to camp when another major problem arose. They couldn’t find it. They had shot it in an area that was overgrown in grass about six feet tall. I finally literally stumbled over it about two hours later.

So, they (referring to the so-called adults in our group) were getting ready to dress the moose out when somebody discovered we had neglected to bring any pack boards. I was selected to go back to camp and get them. When I returned, I found out I had missed quite a show. Dad was quartering the moose, but everyone else was lying around in the grass at least 30 feet away. They were all howling with laughter as they filled me in about what had happened. L.G. shot the moose through the head, and as it lay there for several hours, the gases built up so that it was pretty bloated by the time we found it. Dad said, “I’ll take care of that,” took a thin-bladed boning knife and stabbed it into the moose’s side. This, of course, released a thin stream of putrid green bile, under pressure, right into Dad’s face. Instead of jumping out of the way, he tried to stop it with his hands, which left him covered head to toe and smelling horrible. Darrell and L.G. said that when Dad took off his glasses, around his eyes was the only clean area on his body.

Soon we had four pack boards loaded up with moose and were headed back to camp. By this time it was completely dark and we had nothing but starlight and a flashlight to light the way. I had already made the trip twice so I was chosen to lead the way. The problem was a stand of devil’s club, a tall plant with 1-inch thorns on its stalk and the undersides of its large leaves. Because I had already stomped a path through it twice, I had no problem going through a third time on the way back. None of the “adults”, though, would set foot in them. They insisted on going around, and we ended up lost in the woods. So even though we had started only about a half mile from camp, after wandering around until 3 am, we were all pooped. Finally we dropped our packs, and Darrell and I went to find the camp while the others rested. Turns out we were only a couple hundred yards away. I built up a fire while Darrell went to get the others. Dad and L.G., still sneaking around like a game warden was going to jump out of the bushes at them, loaded the moose meat into the car and headed to a cold storage locker … and Dad to a much needed shower.

The next morning, Darrell was checking out the mountains with binoculars and spotted two grizzlies in a saddle between two mountain peaks. It looked like a sow and a full grown cub. So Darrell and I decided to go up after them. We were making good time and were about three quarters of the way to the top of the saddle when we came to a rock face about 40 feet high that seemed to go on forever in both directions. We decided to climb straight up the cliff with me in the lead to see if it could be done. (Does anyone see a pattern here?) It was an easy climb and I made it up to within two feet from the top. I was pretty much spread eagle and reaching for another hand hold, but had to duck under a tag alder that was growing out of the rocks. As I pushed up, the barrel of my rifle hooked an alder branch. I tried to scoot down and the butt of the rifle hooked another branch. I couldn’t go sideways in either direction. I was stuck. It took Darrell 20 to 30 minutes to go around the rock face and unhook me from the alder. By the time we got to the top of the saddle the bears were long gone. We looked around for awhile and then started down at a place where it appeared there were a lot of snow slides. It was a wide smooth swath of short grass, and very slick. We both started sliding right away but Darrell just sat down on his heels and skied down so I followed suit, using my rifle butt for balance. It was great! That hill must have been 1500 feet high and we made it down in minutes. The only problem was a creek right at the bottom and I was going too fast to stop. Fortunately it was a small creek so when I hit it I was able to vault over to the other side. We had our pack boards so decided to go and retrieve the rib section of the moose that we couldn’t pack out the night before. I said I would carry the pack and as we were heading back to camp we ran into another hunter. He asked Darrell if we had seen anything, and Darrell said, “No, not a thing,” as I was standing there with a pack board full of moose meat. Darrell tried to recover by stuttering, “Oh, we just found this that somebody abandoned back there.” The guy just looked at us and walked off.

That ended my big bear hunt; next came my epic sheep hunt.

The last day began with the adults drinking coffee, laced with whiskey, around the campfire. Bruce, Lee and I decided to do some more hunting and took off down the trail. Besides, our parents didn’t know we smoked yet so we needed an excuse to get away. We soon came to an old gravel road that paralleled the highway for 2 or 3 miles and ended about 100 yards from the base of a mountain (or large hill). Standing about 100 to 150 yards up the hill were three Dall sheep, one a full curl ram. Ordinarily a sheep hunt begins by spending the first day climbing up a mountain to where you think the sheep are, only to find that they are on the next mountain over. So you run down the mountain, climb up the next one, try to sneak close enough for a good shot and at the last second the sheep spooks and takes off. If you’re lucky you finally bag a sheep and only have a two or three day pack to get it out. Here I was, wandering down the road and spotting a legal ram about 150 yards up a hill just daring me to shoot it. I took careful aim, elevated a little to compensate for the uphill angle and squeezed off a shot, which hit about a foot low. In two seconds those sheep were clear out of sight. Thus ended my one and only sheep hunt.

The next couple of years were totally uneventful. We ran around all of “the best” places within 200 miles of Anchorage with nothing to show for it. Then I turned 16, got my driver’s license, and was given a .22 pistol for my birthday. Two weeks later a friend and I decided to drive to Silvertip Creek up in Turnagain Pass to hunt moose. Our plan was to get there before sunrise and hunt the area before the moose bedded down later in the day. Three flat tires later we finally arrived, around noon. We had a few hours to kill and there was a very threatening trash can in the camping area where we were parked. So naturally I whipped out my new .22 pistol and blasted it. After a few times of doing that the gun went off in the holster and I blasted myself instead. I felt an intense burning flash of heat all the way down to my ankle. The bullet had torn up the artery in my lower leg. We applied a tourniquet and headed for Anchorage, 88 miles away. Breaking all the speed limits, we made it in about an hour, but by the time we got there, gangrene had already set in. This resulted in a long hospital stay, with multiple surgeries. Needless to say, it also temporarily brought my hunting adventures to a screeching halt.

Thus ends part one of The Worst Hunter in Alaska.

Although he was born in Minnesota, Bill Beatty called Alaska home for 40 years. Now retired and reluctantly living in Washington state, his greatest fear is that his obituary will read “former long-time Alaskan.” He insists he still is, and will always be, an Alaskan!

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