Monday morning I woke up in a Denver hotel room, by Wednesday, I was caribou hunting in the Clearwater Mountains of Alaska.
Reader beware, we did harvest a caribou, so if that's something you'd rather not read about, I'd advise not reading further.
Although my husband, Chris, and I, had originally planned a ten day hunting trip with the horses, both of our work schedules narrowed our hunt window to 4 days. Boo!
We'd just finished the Western and English Sales Association (WESA) trade show in Denver on Monday (and our All Weather Riding Skirts were voted Most Innovative Product of 2017, yahoo!), and Chris was flying out Saturday to deploy acoustic recorders to listen for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska. We only had the few days in between for our caribou hunt.
The shorter timeframe necessitated completely changing where we were going to hunt, into a much steeper area that wouldn't be suitable for the horses. Since I never pack the horses into areas I hadn't scouted (or gotten first hand intel on first), we left them home and hiked in. Sadly, this is a story largely without horses. But, it involves a horse woman, hooves, manure, and gorgeous scenery, so I thought you'd still be interested.
I never appreciated my Appaloosa, Faly, so much as when I was schlepping gear up and down those mountains on foot. God bless the horse for all they do for us. Years of riding had left me with calves like a linebacker, and those muscles made all the difference in hiking with weight, so I guess I had the horse to thank for them, too.
Here's my boy on a previous hunt. My word, the horse is a tremendous improvement over using your own legs. Not to mention I missed him like crazy when I was away from him but, alright, back to the mostly horse-less story.
Carrying our camp and all the food we'd need for a few days, we chose a ridge to aim for and hiked up into the Clearwater Mountains. The colors of the Alaskan fall swallowed us whole- the mountain sides were on fire with the red blueberry plants, the dwarf birch and willows flamed yellow, and the evergreen spruces held their green.
The fall in Alaska is a time to hunt and gather, to fill the freezer with caribou, moose, Dall sheep, ptarmigan, and grouse, and to pick blueberries and cranberries to preserve into jams and sauces. The cooling temperatures forewarned us of the long, cold winter ahead, and along with the rest of the natural world, we felt the urgency to stock up on provisions.
Hunting was often a family and friend affaire, any one of these large animals could take days to pack out of the backcountry and process, and so those who helped got a share in the meat. With just Chris and I on this hunt, I knew we were in for a ton of work and huge, heavy packs if we were successful.
Aiming for the ridge, we first had to get through the dense brush of the lowlands below. Thick alders clawed at our packs, and when they inevitably smacked us to the ground, we snacked on the sweet blueberries we landed on. As so often was the case with Alaska, it knocked you out flat with one hand, but laid you down in the sweetest, most beautiful place you'd ever been with the other. I called it the Alaska one-two punch.
After a few hours of struggling through the thick brush below, we climbed up into the alpine, on the first ridge. It's so easy to type the words, "climbed up," but really, we were on all fours, digging our boots into the side of the tundra, grabbing any plants within reach to gain purchase up that mountain. We finally cleared the low lands, and I was deliciously happy to be sitting down surveying our progress.
After lugging the heavy pack, I so admired that animals needed nothing but what they carried on their backs to survive. No tent, no extra food, no warm clothes. Not for the first time I contemplated how far we'd gotten from nature as a species, that we couldn't even walk outside without all of these things. Mind you, I'm not advocating trading in this computer for a hairy body suit, but I do sometimes wonder.
Far in the distance you can see the Susitna River cutting a wide swath through the land. This river was an old friend of ours- hundreds of miles downstream, the Susitna River delta emptied into Cook Inlet, where groups of white belugas gathered in the summer to catch fish. Chris and I studied Cook Inlet belugas, and so we had spent countless hours at the mouth of this river observing their behavior. It was comforting to see her all the way up here in Interior Alaska.
Pushing on, we traded the thick underbrush for the open alpine tundra. The temperatures never stayed warm enough this high up for large trees to grow, and the constant winds kept the plants small and low to the ground. Although we no longer had to push through brush, and the views were magnificent, we now struggled to climb this steep beast of a mountain. The old Alaska one-two punch again.
Here's another picture of me sitting down. I'm not ashamed. That mountain 'bout kilt me.
Chris is an Alaskan man through and through, and a sheep hunter to boot (i.e. crazy man). Dall Sheep live way up on the face of cliffs in the tippy top peaks of mountains, so anyone crazy enough to hunt them has to go there, too. As high as we were in the valleys and ridges on the top of this mountain, Chris normally climbed even higher to the sheer peaks piercing the sky, those only the birds and sheep could get to.
As an example of the level of fitness that type of hunt requires, this summer as I was training for the Competitive Trail Ride, Chris was training for his sheep hunt. So, I'd ride Faly 10-20 or so miles, and Chris would jog along on foot. On foot, ya'll! The man inspires and disgusts me. Who in the heck does that kind of stuff? And, he makes it look so dang easy. Puke.
I digress, I guess looking at a picture of myself sitting down got me thinking about Chris' fitness. For the record, he sat down some too, and he was sweating.
Moving on. From the road, you look up at a ridge, and think, "okay, so once I get there, I'll be on top and finished." Nope. Once you climb that ridge, there's another ridge behind it, and another behind that, all of which you can't see from the road.
I don't know that there's anything so self-defeating as thinking you're almost there after a long, exhausting climb just to find out there's another peak behind it. It's also weirdly motivational, because you just can't stop. I always want to see what was on the other side of the next ridge. Story of my life.
Some hours later, we made it to the end of the valley in that bowl of mountains. We knew we were on the right track as we followed caribou game trails, littered with caribou scat, and an old shed antler. What does caribou scat look like? Well, I took you a picture to answer that very question. Horse people are really interested in poop, I've found. And hooves, but those come later.
We finally made it to the end of the valley where this little turquoise lake was our sweet reward, and we made camp right next to it.
Hello, gorgeous! The lake of course, not me.
I brought my Backcountry Trail skirt for camp. I ended up using it after my hunting pants were bloody from processing the caribou (spoiler alert, again), and to supplement my sleeping bag warmth.
After we set up camp and had a quick snack, Chris and I hiked up the ridge across from the lake to check out the next valley over. The valley was Eden, a beautiful stream flowed gently through it into a few small lakes, the floor a patchwork of lichen, blueberries, and other tundra flora. I didn't ever want to leave it.
Whenever my mother sees beautiful things, she says things like, "Calgon, take me away." I don't know what that means, but it oddly floated through my head while looking at the valley. She's got more sayings than Carter's got liver pills (that's another one of hers). Thanks, mom.
After a short glass of the valley (that's what hunters call looking through binoculars for game, so I've learned), we spotted a herd of nine caribou just below us. Holy squeal!
Almost immediately, they turned and started walking up the ridge straight for us. Of all the directions they could have chosen through the wild lands below us, I felt a pang of sadness as they marched straight toward us. We had to back up out of the way and lay down so they wouldn't see us. The picture below is a USFWS caribou picture just to show you what they look like- this is not the one we harvested.
Within a few minutes they crested the ridge, less than 150 feet from us, and I could barely breath for fear of startling them. Caribou make a distinctive clicking sound when they walk- the sound comes from the tendons in their knees rolling over the bone. They were deep chocolate brown with silver patches on their neck and backsides. They spread out in a line right in front of us, ambling, clicking, a few cows with calves and a female out front with no calf.
All the world stood still, the air lay in a cool blanket over us, the peaceful valley gurgled below. His shot rang out louder than you could ever believe, and the front caribou went down.
It was the first time I'd been with Chris when he shot an animal. As a wildlife biologist and farm girl, I'd seen my share of animals die, but for hunting, I was always there before and after the kill as support crew- by choice- packing the gear in and out on the horses, helping to process the meat for the freezer.
It was a solemn sad moment for the both of us. We said a prayer over her, and sat with her for several minutes.
We ran our hands through her thick, luxurious fur. To survive the Arctic winters, caribou have two layers of fur- a fine crinkly hair underneath, and hollow guard hairs over the top. The hollow guard hairs use the air inside of them to trap the animal's heat. They are also excellent swimmers, and these hollow hairs help with their buoyancy in the water. I'd read of Native Alaskans making caribou hide sleeping bags, and could imagine how incredibly warm they must be.
She had a small row of bottom teeth, and only a thick, pebbled, toothless pad for her upper jaw. She had toothless bars exactly where a horse does, and I remembered meeting reindeer herders from the Russian Chukotka coast who rode and drove domestic caribou (reindeer) like horses.
(Picture Credit: By Detroit Publishing Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
People have used caribou/reindeer for transportation, meat, milk, packing equipment, and clothing for millennia. Here in Alaska, people keep reindeer the way we keep horses- in fact, my veterinarian's son raises them as his 4H animal.
I'd really love to have a team of reindeer to drive, I'm just going to hope Chris doesn't read this and get wise to my plans. We have three horses, and a mule, and he still doesn't have a boat. I really don't think reindeer should count towards my equine quota.
As a horse girl, I just had to take a look at her hooves. She had four "toes", that looked like a large split hoof in the front, and two higher up dew hooves. They were smooth, hard and concave, and you know I was sitting there thinking Pete Ramey would probably love to see these. I'm actually going to send these pictures to him :)
We soon got to work stripping the hide and quartering. Most of my experience butchering animals comes from necropsying dead whales (a necropsy is an animal autopsy). Chris and I specialized in marine mammals- specifically whales- and I'd necropsied grey whales, beluga whales, harbor seals, and sea otters. When these animals washed up in Alaska, we often helped with the necropsy investigation to figure out why they died.
Caribou are part of the deer family, and whales are descended from a deer-like animal, believe it or not. Ten million years ago, the ancestors of whales were small animals with hooves, that padded around lagoons and ate vegetation. Today's whales still carried the multi-chambered stomach like other ruminants, and dissecting the caribou wasn't all that different from dissecting a whale.
(Image credit: Getty)
It took us a few hours to get her field processed. The ravens overhead wheeled and circled, cawing in excitement for the scraps they'd soon get. They were telling for all the world to hear that something delicious was below them, and I worried their noise would attract other, much bigger, predators.
Once the caribou was tied off in game bags, we ferried her higher up on the camp side of the ridge, in a spot we could see from our tent below. As we were making trips back and forth, I was tentative to walk back by myself to the remains to grab the last few bags.
"Honey, do you think it's alright for me to walk back over there? Do you think there will be bears?" (He was busy positioning the bags for maximum air flow to cool the meat).
"No, I don't think so. I mean... there shouldn't be... I guess there could be... Just look."
Now you see, Chris had been a brown bear guide out at Katmai for ten years. All those iconic pictures you see of bears catching salmon in the waterfalls? Those are most likely taken out at Katmai. It's been estimated that there are 90 brown bears within a 1.5 square mile area there. A brown bear is generally bigger than a grizzly bear, because they live nearer to the coast, and have better access to food. That's right, bigger than a grizzly.
(PC: Lisa Hupp/USFWS)
So, he lived in a cabin right there with them for years, and encountered dozens of them every day, so the man has a pretty good handle on bear behavior. Not to say he was casual about them, because I think that term denotes a negligence that absolutely isn't him, but he was way more comfortable around bears than I was (hence that conversation, "just look..." yeah... right, you look).
I hated to leave the caribou unattended up on the ridge, but we couldn't bring her to camp without risking attracting bears.
All of the field work had left both of us tired and blood-stained. We washed up in the alpine lake, and took off our stained clothes to leave in a bag on her shore. I was glad I had brought my Backcountry Trail skirt, to change into, the waxed canvas kept me dry against the wet tundra, and the cotton flannel liner was so cozy.
I love sleeping on the alpine tundra. Nothing is softer than that spongey moss covered ground. The wind whistled by the tent, and the water lapped the edge of the lake. I couldn't believe we'd hiked up and gotten a caribou on day 1, but we had the tired bones to prove the tremendous effort. Me sitting down again. Don't judge.
The next morning we started our descent down the mountain, with more than 100 pounds extra weight than what we'd hiked in with. I was dang determined to bring the hide and antlers out. The antlers were just coming out of "velvet," a soft tissue that covered and fed the antlers until they hardened in mid-September.
The females don't grow the large antlers that the bull caribou do, but I was proud of them. I never understood people who won't save antlers or horns because they weren't big enough. The animal fed you with its life, what in the world is there to be embarrassed about? I wanted to keep every piece of her that I could.
The trek down really was a TREK... ALL THE WAYYYY DOWN. Oh man, my pack was heavy and wouldn't cooperate. And, that mountain was definitely steeper going down than it was coming up. I know you think it had to be the same, but I'm telling you, it was steeper heading down.
The pictures make it look easy. That brush was over our head, and I spent most of the time sliding down on my rear. I wanted to attach a rope to the packs and send them down ahead, but Christopher said no way. I deferred to his experience, but I may yet bring a rope next time...
I'll tell you what, horse girls make good caribou hunters because we have strong legs. Riding my entire life had left me with super woman calves and they were what saved me carrying that pack. I wished for my horse every step of that trip, and praised his name for every mountain he'd packed me up and down.
The next two days we spent cleaning and cutting up the meat. I scraped, salted, and froze the hide for the taxidermist, unless I could find some time and cow brains to do it myself.
Finally back home, with it all done, I had time to reflect on the previous weeks of travel and hunting.
From the first moment I saw her, Alaska laid my heart wide open. Alaska nourishes my soul with her stunning beauty, and my body with the life that teems with her. Turn your eyes almost anywhere, and you can feel the rugged wilderness unfolding the tight corners of your heart. I just can't get over this life here in Alaska.
I don't know that I can convey to you the simple, whole, satisfaction that comes from living here, but I can try with these short stories.