Alaska Short Stories

The Worst Hunter in Alaska – Part II

At the end of part 1 I had just done one of the stupidest things in my whole life. After shooting myself in the leg, I was on and off of crutches for two years or more. I was also in and out of the hospital, undergoing several surgeries, including amputation of the toes on my right foot. Because my toes turned black and looked just like the results of frostbite, my surgeon, Dr. Mills, used photos of them in an educational slideshow. My one claim to fame is that generations of Alaskan schoolchildren were traumatized by seeing my toes amputated! Forty years later my granddaughter saw the slideshow and said she recognized my foot.

My leg was pretty much ruined from the knee down, walking was painful, and running around the woods had lost its appeal for me. Eventually, though, my interest in hunting was renewed when I made friends with a bunch of guys who were into archery. It sounded like fun, so I borrowed a bow and learned to use it. I guess I had a knack for it, because before too long I was entering target competitions and winning. Naturally, I thought I should join my new friends and try my hand at this way of hunting. If you thought I was bad with two good legs and a rifle, you should have seen me with a crippled up leg and a bow and arrows. I must have sounded like a bulldozer going through the brush trying to get within 40 yards for a shot. I am certain I spooked off three moose, and there were more that I heard running away but never saw. I was within easy range of two beautiful bull caribou twice but never took a shot.

I had two good friends—Russ, my best friend, and Bud, a really good friend (who also had two beautiful sisters, hence the “really”). Bud was an animal in the woods. He only hunted with a bow and arrow, and was almost always successful. He would chase down a moose and not hesitate to shoot it even though he was five miles from camp. He once ran through a whole herd of caribou until he could shoot the lead bull, which had a trophy rack, and he then hung that rack in his bedroom. When Russ and I went over to flirt with his sisters, Bud insisted on showing it to us and bragging about it. We decided we had to do something to shut him up, so we found a guide who would fly us to and drop us off in the middle of a caribou herd for four days. Our plan was to find a caribou with a bigger rack than Bud’s.

The pilot dropped me off first, with the gear, and then went back for Russ. I was almost finished setting up camp when the plane returned, but instead of landing, it started buzzing the trees just a little ways from camp. I thought the pilot was trying to signal me that there were caribou so I strung up my bow and went running over. I didn’t see any sign of caribou but I did notice a place where the ground was all torn up and some spruce trees knocked over. Russ was at the camp when I got back and I asked him why he didn’t come to look for those caribou they were buzzing. He said those weren’t caribou, they were three grizzlies, a sow and two grown cubs. The pilot was trying to scare them away from camp, but all he did was enrage the sow. Those bear hung around our camp, just out of sight, the whole time we were there. We spotted them every once in awhile just heading into the bushes, but luckily, they left us alone.

The next morning we decided to go off in different directions to scout the area and find where the caribou were hanging out. It wasn’t even light yet and all I could see was shades of white, black and grey. I was walking into a patch of what I thought was white lichen on the ground when a shadow swooped about six inches over my head, giving me quite a start. It was a huge snow owl and I thought it was after me for some reason. All of a sudden the ground around me literally exploded, scaring the ever-loving crap out of me. I had wandered into the middle of a bunch of ptarmigan, who were starting to get their white winter feathers. The way I figured, the owl was after the ptarmigan, and my presence spooked the owl, who then spooked the ptarmigan, which in turn almost gave me a heart attack.

That’s all the wildlife I saw for the next few hours until I was just able to make out a small lake through the trees with a moose on the far side eating off the bottom. I scrunched down and began the stealthiest, quietest, stalking job of my whole life. I was almost up to the side of the lake when I chanced a peek around some bushes, and that dumb moose still had his head in the water. And he hadn’t moved! I stood up to get a better look and discovered I had done the best stalking job of my life on a stump. It was about the time Russ and I had agreed to meet at camp, so I headed on back.

Russ had found the caribou hanging out in a wooded area about a mile from camp. We ate a peanut butter sandwich and took off to find our world-record caribou. About half way there a cow and calf came up behind us and just kept following us. We didn’t want them to spook the herd so we shouted and waved our hats, but they just came closer to see what we were. Eventually they wandered off and we continued on our hunt. Coming up on the area, we could see a bunch of caribou milling about in the trees when, sure enough, that cow and calf went charging past us and spooked the herd. We tried to chase them, but it was soon obvious we weren’t going to catch up. Heading back to camp, I purposely steered Russ to the place where I had spotted my “moose in the lake.” When we got there I ducked down and said, “Look!” Russ got all excited and said, ”Let’s go get him.” I told him that I was too noisy and he would have a better chance on his own. He took off sneaking through the brush while I sat there and snickered. Pretty soon I heard “#%@+#$ you Beatty!!” When he returned he didn’t say a word to me, just stomped off back to camp. I thought it was quite hilarious.

The next morning we headed back to where we had seen the caribou and were happy to find another herd, this time with two huge bulls. We had decided that I was to get the first shot. Instead of approaching directly from the open, and risk spooking them off, we circled around through the bushes. We came to a small pond, about 25 yards across, and there was one of those large bulls, just standing, an easy 30-35 yard shot. I had just come to full draw and was about to release when he turned his head and I saw one of his racks was broken off about half way up. That ruined everything so I didn’t shoot. We were still stalking when a small bush plane buzzed the herd at tree top level. They all took off at a full gallop and we never saw them again. We found out later that it was a guide from Gunsight Mountain Lodge who obviously wanted one of those trophy bulls for a client.

Russ and I split up again to see what we could find, and when it started getting dark I headed back to camp. An hour or so later when it was almost pitch dark, I heard a faint sound off in the distance that sounded suspiciously like a human voice. I fired off a round from my .44 magnum and pretty soon Russ made it back to camp. He got all indignant when I said I’d heard him hollering “Help!” Anyway, he’d seen a caribou, but couldn’t follow it in the dark. We would have only a few hours to find it the next day, because the plane was picking us up at noon. The next morning we did find his caribou, a small bull, and got it back to camp just in time. That ended our “Great Trophy Caribou Hunt.”

Later that winter, Bud and I, with another friend, Pat, decided to take Bud’s 1949 military surplus Jeep up to the Monument, a hill about 15 or 20 miles back from Eureka, to get some caribou. The temperature was about -25°F, and it got down to -40°F at night, but we had arctic gear and were just fine. We reached the top of the Monument a few hours before sunrise and tried to snooze a little. When the sun started to come up it was like another world. The ground was covered with frost flakes about as big as quarters, and when the sun hit them they sparkled like diamonds. Off on another hillside a wolverine went loping along until he was out of sight. It was one of the most amazing scenes I’ve experienced in all my time in Alaska. What followed, though, was unfortunate. We saw three caribou running at full gallop off in the distance, and then we heard snow machines. Two of them came over a hill, running the caribou to ground. As the caribou stood there gasping for breath, they were shot and dragged off. That’s when I first began to hate snowmachines.

We spent that night in a cabin at Tazlina Lodge and first thing in the morning we headed up to a place called Sourdough on the Richardson Highway about 30 miles south of Paxson. I should note here that every time we came to a patch of ice, be it puddle, creek, pond, whatever, Bud would stop, get out and jump up and down on it to make sure it would hold us. He did this even though everything was frozen, and the high temperature was only -25°F. Our route, on an old track that had been blazed through the trees by the army for some kind of winter training about 25 years before, led us to a small mud hole about ten yards across and frozen over. For the first time in two days Bud decided he was confident that all the below zero weather had frozen everything, so he drove right out onto it. We all started scrambling to get out as the water came pouring in. Apparently the pothole was formed by a spring that was bubbling up and keeping it from freezing solid. We were pretty much in a panic to get our stuff out of the jeep before it sank when we realized it was floating. A chunk of ice had broken off and lodged between the wheels of the jeep, trapping a bubble of air, and the jeep was just bobbing around in the water.

Being the clever, outdoorsy, sourdough types that we were, we assessed the situation and decided we could simply winch the jeep out of the pothole. We dragged the cable out and around a stand of black spruce, but this only pulled the trees over and the jeep was still in the pot hole. Next we drove a 1” x 4’ steel bar into the frozen ground, which produced the same result. There was nothing within the length of the winch cable that could create a sturdy enough anchor to pull the jeep out. We decided that Bud and Pat would hike the several miles to the highway and hitch-hike to Paxson where they could get a wrecker. I stayed to keep the ice from freezing the Jeep into the pot hole. As I was wandering around the Jeep, daydreaming and smoking a cigarette, I saw a huge bull caribou with a monster rack just moseying across the trail, about 25 yards away. It would have been an easy shot with my .44 magnum, but I thought, “No, I’ll get it with my bow.” Unfortunately, the string was frozen the full length of the bow, and by the time I got it strung, the caribou was out of sight in the trees. I tried tracking him down but no luck. Bud and Pat got back a few hours later with a wrecker and pulled us out. By then it was getting dark so we found a place to build a couple fires and camp. Pat decided he wanted to sleep on a nearby lake so he could spot any caribou crossing it as the sun came up. The problem was both Bud and Pat only had old army surplus mummy bags good to about +10 degrees. I had a nice warm bag good to about -40 degrees. Being an idiot, I agreed to swap sleeping bags with Pat. What the hell, Bud and I would have fires after all. After freezing for an hour or so we gave up and moved into the jeep where we could keep warm by turning on the heater every half hour. Pat enjoyed a warm night’s sleep on the lake in my sleeping bag, but saw no caribou when the sun came up.

In the morning, we went our separate ways, Bud and I with our bows and Pat with a little .219 caliber single shot rifle he had restored. When we all returned to the Jeep later that afternoon Pat showed up with a wolverine and a story. He had been following a caribou, with that little bitty .219 rifle, looking for a good shot. He finally got to a clear spot and was braced up against a tree getting ready to squeeze off a shot when he heard a huffing sound behind him. He glanced back and saw a wolverine loping towards him, following in his tracks. Pat said he didn’t even think, he just twisted and shot over his shoulder (a single shot, remember). Luckily he hit the wolverine right between the eyes, killing it instantly. If he had missed, there’s no telling what damage that wolverine might have done. By the time Pat was finished telling his story, it was getting dark so we headed on home.ucm-320-x-180-bear-1

You might want to keep in mind that we were all pretty much sleep-deprived after running around for three days with very little sleep. About half way home, around midnight, one of us brainiacs said, “Are you sure that wolverine (which was in the back of a small jeep under all of our gear) is dead?” We started imagining that thing regaining consciousness and springing out of the back in a fury, ripping us to shreds. I loaded up my .44 magnum, but that didn’t make us feel any safer. Finally we pulled over by the Victory Bible Camp turn off, unloaded all our gear from the Jeep, dragged the wolverine out and made sure it was dead. I still kept my .44 loaded and in my lap, though, just in case.

A month or so later a couple of friends (Jim and Mel) who were newly arrived from Montana decided they wanted to go on a caribou hunt. Seeing as how I had lived here over 10 years I was looked on as the “expert,” but what follows could be viewed as a primer on how to get yourself into trouble in Alaska. Jim and I had pretty good arctic gear, but Mel had to scrounge stuff up from other friends. Basically he was totally unprepared for what we ran into. We didn’t check the weather forecast, but it was pretty nice in Anchorage, so off we went, driving all night to Paxson. When we arrived before sunrise, we discovered the temperature had dropped to more than 50 degrees below zero, with a stiff wind blowing. After breakfast at the lodge, we decided to drive a ways down the Denali Highway to see what we could find. Considering the weather conditions and the fact that the highway is closed and not maintained in winter, this really wasn’t a very smart decision. But off we went anyway. After about 15 or 20 miles we came upon a small herd of caribou on a hillside just off the road, and Jim took off to get one. Mel and I watched the show from the warm truck as Jim ran up the hill and the caribou ran away from him.

After a few minutes Mel decided to see if he could get a shot. Several caribou came close, and he got off three shots, but he was shivering so much he couldn’t aim straight. He wasn’t gone long, but when he got back to the truck he was almost hypothermic. I had to open the door for him, help him in, take off his gloves and coat so he could warm up. In the meantime, Jim had been chasing caribou all over the hillside with no luck. He fared a little better, with his arctic gear, but was still too cold to get a good shot.

Deciding we’d had enough of this nonsense, we tried backing the truck out onto the highway only to discover the emergency brakes were frozen solid. The truck was going nowhere, and our options were limited. We couldn’t build a fire, because there was no firewood in sight. We couldn’t flag down a passing vehicle, because there was no traffic — we were 20 miles down a closed road in a remote part of Alaska in the middle of the winter. We could either walk or figure out how to unstick the brakes. Out of desperation Jim started to rock the truck from forward to reverse. After a tense few minutes one rear wheel broke loose enough to move the truck, but the other one stubbornly stayed frozen. We limped down the road for about a half mile, hoping the tire wouldn’t blow, before it finally broke loose. I don’t think any of us realized at the time just how dangerous this situation was, but looking back on it, we were pretty lucky to make it home from that trip!

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With the exception of a few half hearted efforts, my hunting experiences were interrupted by college and marriage. Once I got those out of the way I started thinking again about becoming a great hunter. Or at least a somewhat successful one. This newfound interest sparked when I renewed a friendship with a guy I knew from the late 50s, also named Bill. He was born and raised in the Aleutians and had been hunting and fishing his whole life. He taught me stuff about hunting I had never even thought about. We did have some success, but that led me to an insight and a major change in my life.

It all came about when we went blueberry picking at Hurricane Gulch with a couple female companions. Late in the afternoon, Bill spotted a bull caribou up on the mountain, and we decided to go after it. We hustled on up, sneaking the last 100 yards or so, and got within about 50 yards of a beautiful, big, mountain caribou. The rifle was empty, and searching our pockets, we could find only one bullet. Bill asked if I wanted to take the shot, but I really didn’t want to. I even felt a little sad that Bill had found that bullet. I think I realized right then and there that I wasn’t a hunter and I didn’t want to kill anything anymore. Not that I was any good at it in the first place. Anyway, Bill shot the caribou and as we walked the last few yards to where it lay, all I saw was a big beautiful animal that had been alive and majestic just seconds ago. I still like eating wild game, and I like shooting at tin cans and targets, but that was my last hunting trip.

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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