Alaska: Hunter's Challenge
A cold wind blew off the Bering Sea and swept across the western fringe of the barren Alaska Range. The air was sharp with approaching autumn, and above the ragged mountaintops scattered clouds drifted eastward. From a ridge in a vast panorama of rock I looked at the wilderness stretched before me. Here was Alaska—the continent's last great frontier.
It was the 20th of August, the beginning of the biggest and the best big-game hunting season in the United States. The day before, I had flown into Anchorage, and from there by floatplane to Rainy Pass Lodge, headquarters for the next three weeks of hunting. My guide was Dennis Branham, who with his brother Bud operates Rainy Pass in the heart of one of the finest game areas in the 49th state.
There were six in our party—John Schroeder and his son, Nick, from Milwaukee; Earl Jensen, from Seattle; Bill Vogel, also from Milwaukee; his son-in-law, Mike Finnell, from Calgary; and myself. Although we had all come primarily for the big bears of Alaska, the bear season did not open till Sept. 1, and first we wanted to hunt sheep, moose and caribou.
For sheep hunting, Mike, Nick and I, with our guides, flew out from the lodge to a tent camp at Valeska Lake (see map page 42) 3,000 feet above sea level in the Alaska Range.
Opening morning of the big-game hunting season was bright and clear. With Dennis Branham I started out for the mountain area northwest of the lake, hoping to find a trophy ram. The most likely spot to begin our stalk was the ridge which towered above camp; but because it was so steep, the only way up was a zigzag seven-mile detour around the far side of the mountain.
This was my first experience with Alaskan mountains. Hunting goats in the Rockies, I had made longer climbs to higher altitudes, but none was as difficult as this. In the Rockies of Montana there are still patches of growth for handholds at 9,000 feet. Here, at little more than 4,000 feet, there is nothing but chalky gray rock and a long drop down. The climbing is even more difficult because of hip boots—most of the guides wear them, and the hunters (particularly the first day out when they want to look as though they know what they are doing) usually follow suit. I did, and in six hours produced 17 blisters.
We reached the crest of the mountain in the early afternoon. Spread beneath us was a scene so beautiful that the long weary climb was suddenly forgotten. It seemed as though we were sitting on top of the world (see page 36) and that all of it was made of rock.
For the next several hours we prowled along the mountain ridge, scanning the peaks around us for signs of sheep. We saw none within shooting range. By 6 we were at a point directly above camp. There were only a few hours of daylight left; certainly not enough to take the long, winding route home. Our only choice was to travel straight down the steep mountain face and cut back across the valley.
We started down, following a shale slide so precipitous that we were unable to see to the bottom where it fell away into timber line. The first 20 minutes were easy going. By leaning my weight into the mountain and digging my heels into the loose shale, I found I could move with fairly good control of direction and speed.
Then, with nightmare suddenness, the situation changed. Dennis let out a shout as his feet slipped and he skidded on his back down the rock. It seemed like minutes before he stopped and twisted his head around to look up at the place from which he had slid. By now we were only about 300 yards above the first spare shoots of timber line, but between us and safety was an expanse of smooth, almost vertical rock. There was no way of getting back up the mountain, and the way down looked impossible.
Balancing on a tiny outcropping, Dennis turned around on his stomach and told me to do the same. Moving by inches and literally clawing into the rock with fingernails, we began to traverse the mountain face. Dennis moved a foot and stopped; I did the same. Thus we progressed for a few minutes while fear built up inside me. Then suddenly I was sliding straight down the rock and grasping for anything to break my descent. Three times this happened, and each time whatever projection stopped my fall was so slight I couldn't even see it.
The third time I felt I had reached the end. Over my shoulder I saw boulders and jagged rocks clustered at the timber line some 200 yards beneath me. I realized that I was at the edge of panic. For an instant I felt a desire to close my eyes and let go. But with the strength that comes from fear, I took a deep breath and moved on. My mind shut out everything but the patch of rock before me.
We were two and a half hours coming down that 300-yard slab of rock. No mountain we met subsequently was as dangerous; nor was this one really typical of Alaska. But all of the mountains were rough. The country is big and wild, and unlike some of the other top hunting areas of the world, there is no easy way to take game. If anything, this makes Alaska more desirable to sportsmen—certainly it is a challenge—but this is no place for anyone who is not in top physical condition.
RAMS AND ROASTS
We stayed in camp three days, and during that time I saw 24 sheep at decent shooting ranges. All but four, however, were ewes, and not one of these had a big enough curl to consider shooting.
Mike and Nick found the situation different. On the third day Nick staggered into camp after dark, weighted down by a fine full-curl ram and tales of three others as good as the one he had taken. Mike got one, too, but we didn't know it until the next day. By the time he had skinned out his ram it was already growing dark. He and his guide were about eight miles from camp on the wrong side of a swollen glacial stream. They bivouacked there rather than risk an after-dark crossing and the possibility of meeting a curious grizzly in the thicket.
They got into camp with the trophy at 5 the next morning, only hours ahead of a storm sweeping out of the north. With the ominous warning of the sky's sudden change, we hastily packed our gear and flew back to Rainy Pass.
After several nights spent in drafty tents and cold sleeping bags, the lodge looked like paradise. It is certainly not at all what hunters expect to find—or generally do find—so far from civilization. The lodge is not one but a series of several log buildings. There is a cookhouse with kitchen, freezers and dining room; a series of cabins where the guides live; and a marvelous guest cabin, with bar, gun room and, the greatest luxury of all, a bathroom with steaming hot water.
The food also was excellent. Mimi, the head cook, a spritely little French grandmother who habitually wore garish "leopard skin" leotards, produced wonderful dishes of sheep and caribou (both fine meats), but my favorite was rare roast of moose—really a meal to remember.
While Mike, Nick and I were settling down at the lodge, the other half of the party suffered a casualty in the rough terrain of sheep country. John Schroeder, after shooting a ram, broke his leg and had to be flown to the hospital in Anchorage. As he was carried into the plane, he made brave promises of coming back to finish the hunt, but it seemed obvious to the rest of us that he was through for the season.
Now that early snow flurries were beginning to cover the mountaintops and make flying through the pass dangerous, it didn't look as though I'd get in any more sheep hunting. The remainder of our safari, therefore, centered around Ptarmigan Valley, a great expanse of tundra which separates the lodge from Rainy Pass, 20 miles away. This was an entirely different kind of hunting from what we had found in sheep country. Ptarmigan Valley is about six miles wide, rimmed on either side by snowcapped mountains. Years ago, in winter, the old dog-sled trail from Anchorage to Nome passed through the valley, and its impression can still be seen in the tundra. In summer the valley is a series of rolling hills and hummocks, surprisingly like the African plains in sweeping beauty. But walking in this valley is like walking on marsbmallows. We sank up to our ankles at every step and were lucky to make two miles in an hour.
The rain, which fell without letup for almost the whole time we hunted, made maneuvering even more difficult. It also brought out uncountable numbers of huge, hungry, biting insects.
In spite of these discomforts, however, the hunting in Ptarmigan Valley was terrific. Mornings we flew out 10 or 15 miles from the lodge to Halfway Lake (see map page 42) or to one of the other small ponds scattered across the valley. Most of them were just big enough to land the Taylor-craft or Piper, and take-offs were often pretty hair-raising. From there we would walk cross-country until we found a high spot where we could stop and look over the terrain.
There are few other places in the world where as much big game can be seen in a single day. On any afternoon, Dennis and I might count half a dozen black bears foraging in the blueberries, or spot a cow moose bathing in a swamp, or a grizzly browsing in a thicket. But the most numerous animals of all are Barren Ground caribou, and there are thousands of them in Ptarmigan Valley. In late August most of them are still in velvet, and the rich, dark brown of their antlers is a striking contrast to the brilliant white of their capes. They travel in herds over the tundra, prancing and high-stepping in such a smooth and graceful gait that it looks almost as though their antlers are floating above them.
In the first few days' hunting out of the lodge I looked over at least 300 caribou and didn't find one with a head I considered good enough to shoot. For a Putnam County, N.Y. deer-stalker, accustomed to hunting a whole season just to get a glimpse of a buck, this is an amazing experience. Often I could lure a whole herd within 30 yards of us just by waving a white handkerchief and snorting on an animal call.
At the end of the first week I held the uncontested title of chief animal caller, but I was also the only one who hadn't taken a trophy. Finally Mimi decided to do something about it. At breakfast on the seventh day she gave me a gold bracelet inscribed "This too shall pass" on one side and "Nothing is impossible" on the other. We had no sooner left the dining room when we spotted two dark specks on the side of nearby Round Mountain. Caribou on this mountain are rare, but there were two that morning and in the glasses they seemed better than any we had seen in the valley.
We headed for them on foot. By 11 we had worked to a point on the mountaintop above the caribou and started the stalk. When we got close, a series of hills and gullies obscured everything but their antlers. Neither was a record but both were superior. The larger of the two looked just right.
I crept downhill to within about 50 yards of where they were grazing, then stood up fast, sighted quickly on a patch of shoulder and fired. The animal vanished, then came loping over the top of another hillock. Just as I started to level my rifle at him again Dennis yelled, "Don't shoot. That's the other one." The second caribou, bewildered by the sudden loss of his companion, trotted in circles around the hill, stopping periodically to stare at us.
The skinning was finished by 2 in the afternoon. With what I could pack in a single trip, Dennis estimated he could get the rest of the animal down the mountain in two hauls. From there we could hike to the lodge and drive the tractor back to bring out the meat. He felt I'd be safer waiting for him on the mountain while he took the first load down. He left with instructions "to keep my rifle loaded and my eyes open." This was all I needed for a case of jitters.
The peculiar terrain of Round Mountain made it impossible to see much more than 50 yards in any direction. We had passed a lot of fresh bear sign on the stalk up, and the scent of a freshly killed animal combined with the abundance of blueberries made the area particularly attractive to undesirable visitors. I decided if I sang and made a lot of noise I would scare off anything that might wander by. The problem was that I can't sing, and anyway I couldn't remember anything but the first line of On Top of Old Smoky. For the full time Dennis was gone I paced a sentry's circle, shouting that at the top of my lungs. By the time Dennis returned I could greet him with only a hoarse croak.
We were back in camp by dark and spent the rest of the evening toasting the trophy and Mimi's good-luck charm.
Two days later, however, I saw a caribou which made mine look like a baby. He ambled out of a cul-de-sac and down to a stream not more than 1,000 yards from where Dennis and I were sitting at the edge of Ptarmigan Valley. His head was immense, with double palms and a spread and thickness of astonishing proportions. The wind was blowing from him to us, there was ample cover for an easy stalk, and the caribou had evidently decided to spend the rest of the day at the stream. Everything was perfect, except for one fact. I had already taken a caribou. Technically, the Alaska license permitted three, but morally I couldn't justify shooting a second one. There was only one legitimate reason to do so—if this animal was the world's record.
For hours Dennis and I studied his head, mentally measuring it by Boone and Crockett Club standards. This is more difficult than it sounds, because the world record caribou is not necessarily one with the biggest head. It is determined by a complex point system in which more than 40 different measurements are evaluated for the final score. A head which nets 350 points qualifies for placement in the record class; the world record itself is 474 6/8 points. Ours would have to beat that score to win the prize.
In the pouring rain, eaten by bugs, we peered through our glasses and added, subtracted, divided and then started all over again. "That left beam should go to 60 inches," I said to Dennis.
"Umm. Right one too, probably," he whispered back.
"Let's call them both 60 even. What about the width of the top palms? Think they might make seven inches?"
CONSCIENCE AND CARIBOU
All the while, the caribou continued to browse, never once looking in our direction. Finally I wiped the mist from my binoculars, squinted at the antlers again, and with one last, wistful look at the caribou's beautiful head decided not to shoot. It was a hard choice to make.
It turned out, however, to be the right one—for my conscience and, unexpectedly, for Bill Vogel. That night we described the caribou to him. From its description and location, Bill felt certain it was the same animal he had stalked twice before. Next morning he located it, still waiting exactly where we had left it. The head he brought back was not the world record, but it was nevertheless the finest caribou taken out of Rainy Pass in several seasons.
On the same day I shot a moose. Just after landing in Ptarmigan Valley we spotted an antler reflecting sunlight from the dense foliage at the base of the north mountains. An hour later we were on the high, south bank of Happy River, a fast glacial stream which separates the tundra from the slopes. Through the spotting scope the single antler we could see looked good. But the country it was in didn't.
"Not worth it," Dennis said, "unless we get a better look at the whole head."
"Let's call him," I suggested, and pulled out another of my strange collection of calls. Dennis found himself a couple of sticks, and the two of us crouched behind a bush, banging on the sticks, bugling on the horn and periodically grunting and groaning like sick cows. The scene was so ludicrous that half the time we were laughing too hard to control our moose music. But whatever it sounded like must have reminded the old bull of something, because finally he pulled himself to a standing position and gave us a perfect view of both antlers. Immediately we started in on Boone and Crockett mathematics again.
"Good one," Dennis said, and I said, "Let's go."
We crossed the Happy River, then fought through a stretch of alders and cottonwoods, waded another river—invariably every river I crossed in Alaska was two inches over my hip boots—and finally came out at the base of the mountains. We didn't expect the kind of country we found.
The brush, which in our glasses had looked two and three feet high, was anywhere from five to 11 feet, all of it grown into a tangled wall. The slope was only reasonably steep, but visibility was zero. We had a rough idea of where the moose should be but were forced to zigzag to make any progress. Several times we came upon patches of grass, but these, like the brush, grew over a maze of dead and broken limbs.
"We probably stirred him up with all that calling," Dennis whispered. "So don't be surprised if he comes barging out on top of us. They can be mean when they want to be."
Suddenly the dense thicket broke abruptly onto another grass patch. Immediately there was a snort and a loud breaking of brush. Dennis yelled, "Here he is," and I flung up my rifle and fired. Everything happened in a matter of seconds, but I remember the form of a huge brown animal, the heavy sound of his hoofs and a tremendous thrashing of brush as he disappeared into the thicket.
The shot was a mistake. We had not been charged, as I had thought in the moment of Dennis' shout. We had stumbled unexpectedly almost on top of the moose, and in his surprise the animal ran for the nearest escape. But my firing had been reflex, triggered by the tension of the stalk, and the shot was poorly and hastily aimed. Though we searched the area for the next several hours, there was nothing to indicate that the moose had been hurt. When finally we had to abandon the search or not make it back to the plane before dark, I left with the terrible feeling that I had wounded an animal and failed to recover it.
There was still a little daylight left when we got to the plane, so to put my mind at ease Dennis flew over the area and circled it low. About a mile from where we had hunted I spotted another flash of light down in the thicket. It was too much to hope that this was the same moose. I pressed my face against the glass for a better view. It was my moose. He was lying down in the side of a brushy culvert and across his back was a dark stain. It didn't make me feel any better to think of him suffering through the night.
The next day we went back. The moose was still there. Although it was unlikely that he would move, we dared not take the chance of alerting him into another disappearance. The stalk was even more difficult than the day before; the wind was against us and the brush worse. We came at last to a hill about 70 yards from the animal, the only place which seemed high enough to see over the thicket for a shot. From this position all I could make out was part of his back.
"Take a shot," Dennis whispered. "There's no other way to get closer without putting ourselves right in his path."
I fired at the ground in front of him and the huge animal let out a grunt and clumsily staggered to his feet. As his head came into view between the trees I fired again at the neck. He went down, then started up once more. Our sole objective now was to end his misery as quickly as possible. We each fired a shot and then started moving in, using the scraggly trees as cover. When we were about 20 feet from him, he got up one last time and lunged toward us, swinging his ponderous head and snorting. It took two more bullets to kill him. The moose proved to be a record-class trophy, but instead of elation at such a prize I still felt miserable about the way I had gotten it.
There were several days yet to go before the opening day of the bear season, and we already had all the other game we wanted to hunt. We decided to spend these days fishing. Besides being in one of the finest game areas in Alaska, Rainy Pass Lodge is only a 20-minute flight from half a dozen excellent fresh-water streams. In fact, many sportsmen come to Alaska each year just to fish and never even bring along a rifle.
Landing the Taylorcraft on a small lake, we could walk less than a mile and find ourselves in a fly fisherman's dream world. Rainbow trout are more numerous here than sunfish at home, and even the smallest ones I took were bigger than any I had ever caught around New York. In a half-mile stretch of water, from a dozen pools along the shore, we took and released more than 30 trout. Grayling were even more fun to catch as far as I was concerned. They sometimes have a habit of leaping straight out of the water and trying for the fly on the plunge back down. Hooked, their runs are fast, often erratic, and generally wind up in a series of acrobatics.
These fishing jaunts always produced enough fish for a big breakfast at the lodge, and on opening day of the bear season Mimi sent her charges off stuffed with trout, grayling and steaming-hot biscuits.
For brown bear hunting Bud flew Earl and Mike to another Branham camp down on the Alaskan Peninsula. The rest of us were interested in grizzly and remained at the lodge.
The technical difference between an Alaska brown and a grizzly, as far as hunters are concerned, is determined by geography. This probably doesn't make much sense to a lot of bears, but over the years there was so much confusion about correctly classifying browns and grizzlies that Boone and Crockett finally ruled any brown bear taken within 75 miles of tidewater was an Alaska brown, and those taken beyond 75 miles were
grizzlies. There are subtle but recognizable differences between the two when they are set side by side; and without doubt an occasional brownie must find himself on the wrong side of the 75-mile line. As a general rule for classifying the two species, however, this one is probably as good as any. For my part, I wanted a grizzly with a passion, perhaps because I had hunted them hard and unsuccessfully in Montana.
The day before the season opened, John Schroeder arrived back at the lodge from Anchorage, his broken leg encased in plaster from foot to thigh. At the hospital he was given a pair of crutches with sharp-edged springs on the ends for walking over snow and ice, but these, we were assured on the side, were strictly to keep up his morale. There was little chance of his walking around on dry ground, let alone on snow. In the excitement of his arrival and the anticipation of the next day's bear hunt, we sat until late into the evening recounting our adventures, describing our trophies and the abundance of game we had seen in the valley. Maybe it was the talk or the Scotch, but John sat back in his chair and secretly started to plot how he, too, could do some hunting.
After we left camp the next morning, he acted. He cut apart a pair of waders to make a waterproof cover for his cast, got a guide to hoist him into the back of the caterpillar tractor and set off across the tundra. In the evening, when we returned to the lodge after an unsuccessful day, John was still gone. As we stood around the fire mixing drinks, we heard a shout from outside. Over a nearby hill came the tractor, groaning under the carcasses of two caribou and a beaming though bedraggled John, waving a crutch and shouting at the top of his lungs. He and the guide had driven the cat to the side of a hill and waited, not talking, not moving, in the steady downpour of a typical late-summer Alaska day. Eventually a herd of caribou wandered by, and John, stretched across the back of the tractor, had braced his barrel on the seat and taken aim. When he fired, not one but, incredibly, two animals dropped.
Later in the trip, when a moose browsed out along the rim of the lake on which the lodge was situated, John spotted it from the window. Grabbing up his crutches and rifle, he hobbled to the shore and fired across the water, dropping the moose. He didn't get a chance at bear, but in spite of his broken leg he managed to go home with three of the four big Alaska trophies.
HAPPY RIVER, ANGRY BEAR
My chance at bear came on the other side of the Happy River, the one place in Alaska I had hoped never to see again. Late one afternoon we spotted an enormous grizzly moving toward the remains of my moose kill. I wanted him even if it meant going into that thicket again. But the next morning what had seemed like a good idea was beginning to pall. One of the guides had flown over the kill and confirmed that the grizzly was on it. He was as angry as a bear can be because in the surrounding brush three other grizzlies and a black bear were waiting for a chance to move in.
I was scared. But in an all-male camp I couldn't very well play the fainthearted female now. Against my better judgment, I smiled cheerfully and said, "When do we start?"
The answer was: right away. While Dennis got his gear together, I persuaded Mike Finnell, who had flown back from the peninsula with Lew Wright, a friend of the Branhams, to come along as an extra gun. There was something comforting about our being three, instead of two, against five bears in all that brush.
We crossed the Happy River and started on the same route we had taken to the moose. Along the way Dennis gave us a few words of encouragement: "If you see a bear—and the only way you'll see him is if he stands up or you bump into him—shoot."
"How can we tell if he really means business or is just curious?" I asked.
"If you see him, believe me, he's seen you first," he whispered. "Don't ask questions. Shoot!"
I think we would have fired at a falling leaf. Now Dennis, who usually moved so fast it was a race to keep up with him, tiptoed through the brush in slow motion. I kept walking up his heels, and Mike kept stepping on mine. Each time we stopped to listen we were all breathing so hard we couldn't hear anything else. Twigs snapped in my face, but I was so keyed up I didn't even blink. Finally we reached the little hill where I shot at the moose. There wasn't a sign of life anywhere.
After an eternity of waiting, we heard the cracking of bones and other sounds of a bear at dinner. Dennis got out his movie camera and started setting the lens. In sign language, I got across the idea that I couldn't care less about pictures at the moment. I wanted that other rifle around if we found ourselves with a grizzly on our hilltop.
Then something black moved above the line of brush. My safety went off—and on again. In a triple whisper we said, "Black bear." The grizzly had evidently gone for water and the black had moved in. Fifteen minutes later we saw the black run off up the mountain in the peculiar loping gallop of a bear in a hurry. He had either winded the grizzly or us.
I sighted for the hundredth time down the barrel. Nothing happened.
It was a full 40 minutes after the black bear left that we saw the grizzly. He was on the kill again, stretching leisurely, with two inches of mahogany fur visible above the horizon of brush.
My heart turned over. Now the minutes dragged, and still we waited, three people hypnotized by a strip of fur. At last he moved, and a target-size mound of velvet came in sight. I drew in my breath and fired.
The bear disappeared beneath the horizon; then, standing on his hind legs, he threw his entire body into the air. I fired again, this time at the backbone. Again he disappeared, and again he rose above the brush, flinging his forepaws outward before he fell for the third time. There was no further movement. The noise of the shots still echoed across the mountain. Motionless, we stood watching the place where a giant had reared toward the sky.
Then we did a foolish thing. Without thinking we plunged headlong into the thicket. As I jumped off the hill, from the corner of my eye I saw a small tree shimmy above the brush. "He's over there," I shouted, pointing to our right. "Don't be silly," Dennis called, "that bear's dead."
"No! I saw it move. He's still out there."
We stopped, and humoring a woman's whim, started walking abreast, slowly and with caution. We'd gone no more than 30 yards when directly before us another bush quivered spasmodically and was still. For an instant we were frozen in our steps. Then, realizing the helplessness of our position, we ran. On the top of the hill we huddled back to back, expecting the bear to come crashing out at us any minute.
"Guess he wasn't dead after all," Dennis said finally, and when I could speak I said, "No." The three of us lit cigarettes and smoked them, and then we lit some more and smoked them. We whispered about what to do next and finally decided to separate, each covering about 10 yards of brush until Dennis reached a fir tree about 25 yards away. Every step was a nightmare. As Dennis neared the tree, Mike and I closed in on either side. Dennis climbed the tree, called down that he thought he saw something, and fired. We moved forward again. Then Mike shouted, "Over here," and we heard his rifle go off.
The bear was dead. He had been dead long before we left the hill the second time. But in the moments before he died he had made one last effort to strike back. Retracing his path, we realized that our own haste in rushing into the thicket had turned him in our direction. This carelessness had taken us within 10 feet of disaster.
He was a trophy of magnificent proportions. The hide squared out at more than nine feet; his skull, on which a record is determined, qualified him well within the record class; and the pad on his hind paw was a startling 8½ by 12 inches in area.
I will not hunt another grizzly, because now I have shot one; but I class this animal with only two others—the elephant and the African buffalo—in the aristocracy of big game. I don't know if it is the size or the danger of the beasts which make these three so memorable. But I do know that in my encounters with each, more than in any others, I have been conscious of an absolute experience, an intense, consuming, dramatic involvement which demanded and received greater concentration than I have ever felt anywhere.
Alaska is still an unconquered land. It is wild and rough and dangerous. Statehood has given it the badge of belonging but nature has placed it apart. There is adventure for the sportsman here, richer and more fulfilling than anywhere else on the continent, but it is not given away cheaply, either in money or in effort. It must be earned—but it is rarely forgotten.
After the hunt Alaska adventurers Lieut. Colonel Lew Wright of Des Moines (left), William D. Vogel of Milwaukee and Michael Finnell of Calgary relax with the author over cards and conversation in September sun.
BASE FOR SAFARI WAS RAINY PASS IN HEART OF BIG-GAME COUNTRY
RAINY PASS LODGE
ARRIVING BY AIR AT SHEEP CAMP, HUNTERS START TO UNLOAD FLOATPLANE ON SHORE OF VALESKA LAKE HIGH IN ALASKA RANGE
FIRST TROPHY of hunt taken by the author, shown above with Guide Dennis Branham, was Barren Ground caribou.
HUNTING AREA ranged from rolling tundra of Ptarmigan Valley to rugged mountains at sheep camp on Valeska Lake, 50 air miles northwest of Rainy Pass Lodge. Map shows places where author shot caribou and record-class grizzly and moose.
OLD DOG TRIAL FROM
ANCHORAGE TO NOME
THREE MILE CREEK
RAINY PASS LODGE
SPINNING FOR RAINBOW TROUT IN STREAM NEAR CAMP, AUTHOR WEARS HAND GUN FOR PROTECTION FROM BEARS
PRIZE OF HUNT for Writer Kraft was a record-class grizzly with nine-foot hide, here being stretched on lodge for drying by Dennis Branham and Mike Finnell.
WHAT YOU NEED FOR AN ALASKA SAFARI
The best guarantee of a successful Alaska hunt is a good outfitter. To choose a reliable one (the 49th state does not require guides to be licensed), begin inquiries a year in advance and check all references. Average daily rate for an outfitter is $150—high, but game and weather in Alaska can be dangerous, and you'll want a good man with you. The fee covers all living and hunting expenses, local transportation—usually by small plane—and exclusive services of a guide for each hunter. A nonresident big game license, including permits to take caribou and one brown or grizzly bear, costs another $146. Round-trip air fare (first class) from New York to Anchorage is $547.97, from Los Angeles to Anchorage $383.53. Excess baggage should be sent by air at least six weeks before the hunt.
The Branhams recommend a .300 H&H Magnum as the best single weapon for Alaska hunting. Its trajectory is flat enough for long shots on sheep, yet the loads are powerful enough for big animals. Fit it with a shoulder sling and bring along cleaning materials to protect it from rain. A telescopic sight is valuable mainly for sheep hunting. I used a 2½-to 8-power BALvar 8, but a 4-power scope is adequate. Choose a good detachable mount so you can switch to iron sights quickly. Most guides carry 20-power spotting scopes, but binoculars are still essential. My Bausch & Lomb 7 x 35s weigh 18 ounces and are exceptionally sharp in poor light. Ammunition can be purchased in Anchorage—the best place is Van's Sporting Goods on Fourth Ave., which also carries fishing tackle, local flies and outdoor gear.
Be sure to bring a pair of hip boots. Those with canvas uppers are less cumbersome than rubber ones; with either kind, make sure they fit at ankles and heels, because you will do a lot of walking—in 16 days of actual hunting, I covered more than 160 miles on foot. If your camp has electricity, a cheap hair dryer ($3.98) is excellent for drying insides of waders and boots. Take along a waterproof parka with hood (the kind made for skiing is lighter than conventional hunting parkas and, I think, more comfortable), at least three pairs of wool pants, several sweaters, insulated underwear, and leather gloves to protect hands in brush and on mountains. Since small planes are the usual means of getting around, travel light. I found two soft-sided nylon cases ($12.95 each) were no heavier than duffel bags and easier to pack and handle.
The Branhams will make an 800-foot, 16-mm. color movie of your trip with copy, titles and sound for about $500 complete. They will also ship trophies C.O.D. from camp to taxidermist. My bear hide, caribou head and moose antlers cost $165 to ship to New York. The bill for mounting is still to come, but exclusive of taxidermy, the 20-day hunt with transportation costs about $4,500.