Old Style Success in the Modern Day
It’s getting along in years now since I began this journey in the guide industry and when you have have been around for awhile you begin to come to some conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. If you had asked me for my opinion years ago on combination hunts I would have probably said it is mostly a marketing ploy, and honestly it still is for many outfits, since very often the real world possibilities are simply not there for the prospective hunter. Combos of all sorts, shapes and sizes are offered, but it is all pretty much irrelevant if the game is simply not available. Having hunted the Talkeetnas, the Chugach and the Alaska Range extensively over the years I can say that my experiences in the first two would leave something to be desired in regards to decent combination hunting. Not to write them off mind you, but I had over 150 days of guiding time in the Talkeetnas and saw less than 5 legal grizzly and never saw one in the Chugach during eight years of sheep hunting. This is simply not how it is in the heart of the Alaska Range West.
We started the 2017 season with two major combos on our list and the first was to be a 14 day hunt focusing on caribou and brown bear and we opted to pursue caribou right off in a location just a few miles behind our main cabin. Weather allowed us to make it in to the 3,400′ pass but it completely turned soon after. Day one of hunting saw us socked in for the most part but we did eventually get out in the evening and strolled down the valley toward a location a couple of bull caribou had been spotted as we came in. Cloud cover was still clogging the pass and we sat in the rain for quite some time, feeling like it was pretty much a wasted first day, and then the amusing happened. Somewhere close to 7 O’clock in the evening I was telling my apprentice where we could possibly see the bulls appear from (while the client covered up from the rain and wind), and as I pointed to this certain spot on the slope just behind us I said “I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pop up right there,” and lo and behold they did. The two bulls emerged behind us roughly 200 yards away and our client scrambled to get into shooting position as his scope was virtually useless with fog covering the lenses and then the automatic jammed as he tried to quietly feed a round, and it got quite comical, but fortunately for us caribou don’t panic like some creatures do and David finally anchored the bull at a little more than 125 yards.
It would be great if everything continued smoothly on this first combo hunt but I can safely say that this ended up being the worst stretch of weather I had seen in a long many years, probably the worst ever as far being socked in and pretty much continuous rain. The rain of course can be handled to one degree or the other, but there is virtually nothing that can be done when the clouds sock you in and this is exactly what we experienced in the high mountain pass. When we finally got a decent day and made a run down the valley to look for brown bear we thought we hit the jackpot when I spotted a nice bear within 700 yards of us, but a couple of problems quickly surfaced; number one an impassable gorge separated us from a straight on approach, secondly the wind was definitely not in our favor! We debated whether to run up the valley or down the valley in an effort to get across the gorge, and after starting up and liking the wind even less, we turned and began to quickly head back down the valley as we paralleled the bear’s position, but by the time we had made less than a quarter mile the wind crossing off another glacial valley crossed over and the bear quickly headed for the alders and never reappeared. Days would pass as we fought with more weather and hoped to spot a bear on the caribou carcass, but the weather turned worse, the carcass disappeared and we eventually opted to move where I expected to encounter more brown bear than in this particular location.
If hunting never had any variables there would scarcely be any animals left on the earth I am quite sure, but it is precisely “hunting” and not simply “shopping,” or “shooting” that we are talking about. I say all of this because we made our move with a few days left on Dave’s hunt and the very next day I spotted a nice bear in the early afternoon and everything looked as if it was going to be a cinch as we crawled up to 125 yards, but when the shots were fired there was plenty of confusion but sadly we eventually had to acknowledge that the bear was not hit. A might scared, but not hit. Unfortunately we would not be able to say the same thing for the events of the next day. After just an hour or so of glassing the next morning I spotted a nice bear, probably in the 8 1/2′ range and it was in what appeared to be a great location for a stalk and the wind was in our favor, so we began to hustle toward the spot where the bear was contentedly feeding on the berries. It probably didn’t take any more than an hour, if that long, and after we bumped into a black bear that was scurrying out of the brownie’s way we managed to get right into position around 100 yards out, sat down and David took his shot. The bear was obviously hit, did a roll and spin, then I took a follow up shot as it regained itself and bolted for the creek bottom. A couple of more shots were fired and we all thought it was over. I felt sure we had nailed him and it would simply be a matter of minutes before we could go admire this great trophy, but after about 3 minutes the bear bolted out of the creek bottom nearly 300 yards out and headed for the edge of the slope as I took my final shot. It had ran exactly where I would never have wanted a bear to go; straight over an alder choked 50-60 degree slope that dropped 2,500′ down to the river. It was the proverbial nightmare. My hunter did fantastic and actually found the first drop of blood and some bone and flesh, and we did a pretty incredible job of tracking the bear for roughly 500 to 700′ straight down through the jungle and then the blood began to diminish and the trail began to meander sideways across the mountainside as 10 PM brought us to the sad conclusion that this bear was not going to be recovered. It was heartbreaking for my client of course, but even more so for me in one sense because it would be the only animal I have ever had a client lose in my whole career.
Time would not allow for another opportunity and in one sense we could have called this particular combo a disaster, but the truth is, it was a brown bear/caribou combo and we had our opportunity for it to end in success, but bullets simply can’t be taken back and made to hit in the right place after the fact.
The next combination hunt would be the result of several years of emails and plans, and one that I had basically written off as a “could have been” interesting adventure. The British film maker Ian Harford or Team Wild had contacted me sometime several years back wanting to do a longer than normal combo hunt for many species and of course he wanted to get it all on film and one thing led to another and things eventually fell through and I forgot about it all until out of the blue Ian contacted me again this past spring and we were indeed able to nail down the details and plans for a monumental hunt. It would be a 15 day 2 hunter, 1 guide and a packer combination hunt pursuing 2 moose, 2 brown bear, 2 black bear and 2 caribou. Yes you heard that all correctly! I counseled Ian about the possibility of being successful and the real world possibility of not harvesting all of these animals, seeing few seasoned individuals in Alaska would have thought 8 animals were likely to hit the ground on such a hunt as this. Most folks would say if you get 3, or 4 you could consider yourself very fortunate. I will be honest and say that I thought they should be pretty happy if we hit the 4 or especially 5 out of 8 mark!
We arrived in camp in the late afternoon (I came straight off the one hunt and into this camp to supervise and assist my Assistant Guide Mark McGuinness) and Denali was in view as we began to spot moose, black bear, and brownies. It was pretty exciting to see a good bull close by and bears in striking distance but of course the same day airborne rule prevented any hunting until August 29th. The hunt would get underway with the weather trending downward but it would not be long before Ian had put a black bear down right out in from of our camp before we all retired for the night The guys would climb the ridge behind the camp and get busted by a brownie on their next attempt, then a little later we opted to go after a brown bear that we took pictures of within 100 yards of a bull moose we would end up pursuing later. A good climb ensued and we hoped to come out above this nice bear, but could not find it as we descended down toward the last known location, but I still wasn’t convinced that it was gone, even though we had spotted a bear higher up in the alders that we thought could have been the one we were stalking. Persisting I continued to work down the slope and we spoke of attempting to go after the moose if this bear didn’t appear and then I spotted it! Everything unfolded perfectly and Steven (Ian’s partner) was able to get into position and the bear was taken cleanly around 225 yards. We were 2 down, and only 6 more animals to go!
After taking Steven’s bear we really focused our attention on getting to the one big bull moose that was frequenting the valley. It would take a little time before the weather gave us enough of a break to go after it but we watched from the end of the bare ridge we called the airstrip and when Mark decided they would go after it, I opted to stay put on the strip to watch through the spotting scope and possibly give hand signals if needed. The bull was roughly a quarter mile away, but the guys would have to navigate through some good brush and a couple gorges to get to it. The old boy had been bedded for probably at least an hour when they started and it seemed like it took forever before I even spotted the guys coming up out of the gorge into the meadows leading to the bull, which now had a cow bedded next to him. It then took a turn where I thought the guys would end up not being able to see the bull from their position down on the level with it and for the first time in my career I was able to use some hand signals to help guide them through the right passage in the meadow and into the target zone. It was quite thrilling as I watched it all unfold, the bull bedded for what was several hours by now and the guys walking up to what looked like 100 yards but in reality was closer to 300. I was praying of course that it didn’t all unravel with a shift of the wind, or the bull simply getting up and wandering off into thick stuff, but it worked out as perfectly as one could hope for. The old bull stood up as Ian rested on the shooting sticks and took one well placed shot. As is common with the giant ungulates, the bull acted as if nothing had happened for about a minute or two, then he began to wobble slightly, then like a tremendous oak he turned and leaned his rack as he crashed to the earth with great finality. Of course the rest of this day and another day would be needed to get the butchering done and the the meat back up to the strip and thankfully it was not a two man operation as the Brits pulled more than their fair share of the load!
A shift in the hunt took place after taking Ian’s bull as Steven decided one bull was enough and he was more interested in us making the move to get into caribou country and hopefully Ian could still manage to get a chance on a brown bear in the area we wanted to take them to for the caribou. It was a nice hot spot that had yielded tremendous rams, brown bear and caribou were almost always present. Yet before any move would take place Steven would nail a very nice black bear as we all started into the tents to retire the very evening we got the moose meat up to the strip, and thankfully after more prayer (at least on my part) Steven actually found the big black bear down in the middle of an extensive alder thicket.
The move worked out very smoothly for once and we managed to get myself, Mark, Ian, Steve and Dan the cameraman all into a high mountain camp near 3,800′ elevation and within minutes of being on the ground 2 good caribou bulls were spotted. Steven also saw a grizzly as he flew in and we all crawled into the tents that night with quite a bit of expectation that the next day would bring some good hunting. Little did we know!
Keep in mind that we were all pretty happy with how the hunt had went already, and everything seemed pretty much like icing on the cake from here on out, but we were about to get a real treat! We spotted caribou quickly the next morning but the small group next to our camp was missing the obvious bulls, much to our dismay. It would take a little time but we spotted one of the bulls as the small group headed further down the valley, joining up with a dozen or more cows and smaller bulls. The one large bull stood aloof from the herd for more than an hour before it came down the slope toward the bottom of the creek and disappeared from our sight. We waited for awhile but eventually we decided to head down the valley to see what we could see and this is when it got interesting! Shortly into the walk Steven spotted a brownie high up on the left side of the valley, close to 1,000′ above the creek bottom and so the talk began. Options were discussed between pursuing the bull, or the bear, but the bear was so high everyone thought the caribou would probably be the better option, so we continued on down the valley watching all the while. Within a half mile or so we spotted the larger bull, along with another bull sporting long beams but light on the top, yet Steven was expressing interest in taking the smaller bull with Ian purposing to take the larger, since a double looked very attractive on what would be the 12th actual day of the hunt. Everyone thought the bear was still a little high and the bulls looked like the easier option, though we discussed the fact that the bear would likely spook out of the country when the shooting started, whereas we knew the caribou would probably ignore it.
The decision was made to go after the bulls and once again I sat with the spotting scope to watch as the guys moved several hundred yards on down the creek to get into position. Then the tide turned as the brownie quickly began moving down the mountain, and within 15 minutes the bear was in shooting range! a few minutes later it was within 300 yards from my position and the guys had of course seized the moment and crossed the creek, getting within 150 yards or less when Ian took his shot, and several more as the bear barrelled down the hill wide open before rolling to a stop! Congratulations were in order and all of that good stuff, but we took little time in taking advantage of the situation. As we imagined, the bulls (barely 600 yards away from the action) did not panic, but continued with their feeding. Mark and the guys promptly crossed the creek again and got into a position a little more than 400 yards out and proceeded to harvest both bulls for what would certainly be a first in my career, three Alaska big game animals harvested in less than 30 minutes and less than 700 yards apart!
Due to weather and the need for the guys to get back to the UK in time for a hunt show that coming weekend, we opted to not pursue an eighth animal, and we joked about the odds of everyone booking a combo now having other worldly expectations, but regardless it was proof in my mind that the combo potential of the Alaska Range West is something to be reckoned with!