Alaskan odyssey: we cheated disaster

Alaska provides hunters and fishermen with many opportunities and locations to partake in their activity. The experiences of fishing in Aniakchak Bay and hunting for rams in the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge are described.
We set out to hunt and fish the Alaskan bush, unprepared for the imminent peril of a hungry grizzly and a harrowing canyon passage.

Three Die When Air Taxi Goes Down in Yukon.” “Crash Kills Four.” “Light Plane Missing.” What had we gotten ourselves into?

My husband, Bob, and I were scanning the Anchorage paper on the eve of our departure for Painter Creek Lodge in one of the most remote areas of the Alaska Peninsula. After fishing for Arctic char and salmon, we would travel more than 1,000 miles across the state aboard a bush plane to the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle, where Bob would try for a Dall ram.

But for all of the headiness that had propelled us into this quest, the paper’s ominous headlines were quickly wilting our sense of adventure into one of impending doom.

Ken and Sis Hill, our hosts that first evening at the Snug Harbor Inn, sensed our growing skepticism.

“Planes are as common here as cars are in the Lower 48,” Sis reassured.

“Good bush pilots don’t take chances,” added Ken.

The encouragement came from two experienced pilots, but the headlines are what I contemplated as I lay in bed that night. Little did Bob and I know we were about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Fish ‘Til Your Arms Ache

The next morning we flew southwest from Anchorage to King Salmon, where we transferred to a bush plane bound for the lodge.

To my relief, the flight went smoothly and in little more than an hour we could see the modern wood and stone building sitting alone in a valley ringed by smoldering volcanoes. We had entered another world, the Alaskan outback.

The air was warm, even though snow capped the peaks around us. In the distance Painter Creek rushed across the valley floor.

That night we sat before the fireplace listening to tales of wild bears. We heard of enormous Alaska brown bears standing erect on the porch, peering through windows and terrifying everyone within, and of cagey bruins that tried to enter through unsecured doors. Bears, we discovered, were everywhere. Believe me, we were especially careful walking to our cabin that night.

The next day, guides whisked us up Painter Creek in jet boats. Spawning sockeye and king salmon dashed out of our way, flashing crimson through the clear water, while Arctic char waited eagerly for roe drifting downstream. We tied salmon egg imitations to our leaders, and caught char until our arms ached. We could hardly wait to try for salmon.

Our chance came the next day. We headed for Aniakchak Bay on the peninsula’s southern coast to fish the mouths of creeks where bright salmon rested after journeying from the sea. Pilot Joe Maxey flew us through valleys so green they looked tropical. Waterfalls spilled hundreds of feet down mountainsides.

And as we neared the coast, we saw bears lots of bears.

Joe circled the Cessna 180, concerned that two bears were lying right where we were supposed to fish. The bears looked back at us defiantly.

Joe then explained how he would “test” the beach by running one wheel lightly over the sand to see how deep a groove it made. He told of one pilot who tried landing when the beach was too soft. His plane flipped, and the tide sucked it-out to sea.

Our beach proved solid for landing, and by the time we reached the creek the bears were gone. We rigged up, and quickly learned that salmon fresh from the sea bite on almost anything. We caught pinks and chums weighing up to 18 pounds. We hooked so many fish, we didn’t even notice the bear.

But when we looked up, there he was, flopped on his belly across the stream, his huge head resting impression he was sizing us up. The giant tracks directly behind us didn’t make us feel any more secure, either. With high grass growing almost to the water’s edge, a bear could be on us in an instant.

Our bear lingered until late afternoon, then wandered into the woods. But the group of anglers that Joe took out the following day wasn’t so lucky. A bear charged them right where we’d been fishing. It scared everyone into the stream, gobbled their salmon, and ate their lunches. Then it ripped apart waders and tackle. Finally, it headed for the fishermen.

Joe fired two slugs from his pump shotgun into the bank next to the bear, by now only 10 feet away. But the bear just stood there. That’s when the anglers began pitching rocks at the bruin. Luckily, the animal turned tail and ran.

A Frightful Flight

A few days later Ed, Bob and I flew back to Anchorage. We spent the night in Palmer, then met bush pilot Doug Glenn at the airport the next morning.

The first thing Ed and Doug did was hurl all our unnecessary gear onto the grass. Clothing, rods, even our hardsided gun case bit the dust. But when Ed tossed a tent inside the four-seat bush plane I got suspicious.

“What’s that for?” I asked

“Emergencies,” he grinned. I didn’t like the sound of that, but because our experience with bush flying had been relatively fright-free so far, I didn’t give it a second thought. Minutes later, we were off on our 750-mile airborne journey north to the Brooks Range.

It was late August, autumn in the north. country, and the earth was splashed with vibrant shades of gold and green and cranberry. The farther north we flew, the colder it became. Sun and blue sky disappeared, replaced by a heavy layer of clouds. We had planned to stop in Fairbanks to refuel, but when Doug tried to contact the control tower for landing instructions he discovered the radio wasn’t working.

Chaos followed as Ed and Doug flipped every switch in the cockpit, attempting to jolt the radio back into operation. Because so many people use planes for everyday travel in Alaska, a nonfunctional radio would pose obvious problems at most airports. But at Fairbanks, this was a worry of the first magnitude. Unlike most Alaskan airports, jetliners land at Fairbanks. And with no radio contact and plenty of low, heavy cloud cover, we had no idea if any other aircraft was near.

“Look out the windows for planes!” yelled Doug.

We peered in every direction, hoping no plane was headed our way from behind the dark clouds, and knowing that even if we saw one it might be too late to avoid it.

The wind whipped the plane to and fro. Snow and sleet slashed angrily as Doug wrestled the craft to the ground, then taxied to the tower to explain why he’d landed ‘without clearance.

Our panic had been restrained during this little escapade because we thought the control tower would pick us up on their radar. But we thought wrong. When Doug identified himself as the pilot of the Cessna 180 that just made the unauthorized landing, the air traffic controller said, “What Cessna 1807”

Before we could take off again, the weather worsened. The sky darkened and an unsettled front battered Fairbanks with snow and freezing rain for several hours. Meanwhile, Doug fixed the radio and refueled, and when the sky showed signs of clearing, he decided we’d try for Fort Yukon, 200 miles to the north.

The clouds had broken, but the choppy air caused the plane to toss around like an amusement park ride. Doug followed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline north. When we spotted the Yukon River, he veered east toward Fort Yukon under a sky that had suddenly blackened.

Now the weather turned really ugly. With the cloud cover at 200 feet, our plane scudded along scarcely 100 feet off the ground. Sharp blasts buffeted us and sleet pinged off the windshield. When the engine skipped a beat so did my heart. Ed turned to Doug and said, “What the hell was that?”

Doug looked worried. “I don’t know, but I don’t like it.”

Thanks to the marvels of modern electronics, I shared in that anxious moment through my own set of headphones. Luckily, the engine only hesitated once, and Doug soon decided it was just the carburetor icing.

Now we had a different problem. Though Doug could hear the Morse code signal from Fort Yukon, visibility was so poor he couldn’t locate the tiny settlement. We were almost out of fuel, and things were looking bleak. I’d wanted adventure, but this was more than I’d bargained for. Doug muttered, “Fort Yukon, Fort Yukon, where are you?”

I searched the gloom, hoping to see something … anything. “What’s that?” I pointed to a dim, ghostly blob through the clouds. “Fort Yukon!” cried Doug.

I’d spotted one of the radar dishes that dot the frozen north, part of the Strategic Air Command’s Distant Early Warning System. I was so happy when we landed I would have gladly spent the rest of my life at Fort Yukon. But I didn’t get my wish.

From the ground we could see clear skies to the north, so Doug decided to make a run for it. We refueled and took off again, gluttons for punishment.

The snow-clad Brooks Range towered ahead, bathed in golden light.

Doug climbed to 6,500 feet, the altitude we’d need to clear the pass into sheep camp. As we climbed higher the temperature dropped further still. Soon we were all bundled in sleeping bags and jackets in the heaterless cockpit. As a distraction, we eyed the Dall sheep watching us from cliffs nearly brushed by our wingtips.

The sheep held our attention until we were smacked by an arctic blizzard roaring through the rugged peaks. Bush pilots rely on their eyes, landmarks and lightning-fast reflexes to get the job done. In a raging snowstorm, however, they must operate on sheer nerve alone.

Ed grabbed the topo map. With clouds obscuring most landmarks it was hard to decide which drainage led to the pass. “I think that’s it,” Ed said, pointing to a narrow gap in the mountains.

“Think?” said Doug, looking nervously at the map on Ed’s lap.

“Yeah, it’s hard to say in this storm, but this sure looks like it.”

Now the wind was howling, slamming our plane back and forth, up and down. On our right a sheer rock wall loomed a few yards off. Things didn’t look any better on our left. And in front of us, I saw nothing but fog and driving snow.

“Is this it or not?” Doug was clearly worried.

“I think so,” Ed replied. “Look for a small lake. Up there.”

He pointed, but we couldn’t see a thing. The wind screamed and the drainage twisted without warning. Doug reacted instantly. He pulled back hard on the stick and the plane went into a vertical climb, then looped backwards, G-forces pinning us to our seats. This might have been the pass, but from what little we could see, it may also have been a box canyon.

Two more times Doug tried to get through. Two times he pulled out as the canyon narrowed, threatening to crush our tossing craft. The third time my nerve deserted me. “Let’s go back!” I yelled. I didn’t know where, I just wanted out of there more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. Doug agreed, and we surrendered to the storm.

That’s when I found out why Ed packed that tent. Doug landed the plane on a dried-up riverbed next to the Chandalar River, where we would spend the night. In the frigid darkness, both Bob and I were convinced that if the storm didn’t lift, it might very well be our last night on earth.

Burglarized By A Bear

The next morning brought better weather with it, at least it seemed so from the ground. When we reentered the range, however, the raging storm met us once again. Twice again Doug tried to shoot the pass. Twice more he retreated. Bob and I exchanged glances and clenched each other’s hand, fully expecting our lives to end as we swooped by just inches from unforgiving rock walls sheathed in ice and snow.

But the third time, when we’d ventured farther up the narrow canyon than ever before, the clouds lifted for an instant. One minute it looked like we were flying into a sheer rock face. The next we saw a small lake glittering through the canyon’s narrow neck. We were safe!

Doug nosed the plane toward the lake and we passed out of the hellish whiteout into calmer skies. Within minutes we were setting down in another riverbed at Marlin Grasser’s hunting camp in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The wind was brutal, but neither Bob nor I minded because hundreds of Dall sheep grazed on the slopes around camp. “Ewes and lambs,” said Ed. Under Alaskan regulations, we couldn’t hunt the same day we flew in, but we didn’t mind. With all of the sheep around camp, we thought finding a ram for Bob would be easy.

For the next three days we climbed with guide Jimmy Cameron for 10 to 14 hours at a time, but never saw a legal ram. Jimmy thought he knew why. He pointed to prints in the snow. “Wolves,” he said. “If Dalls get a whiff of wolf, they’ll clear out of the area.”

We never spotted any wolves either, but we saw fresh sign every day. We found several young rams that had been killed by wolves, their carcasses barely touched. Don’t let anyone tell you wolves take only the old and crippled. These rams were in the prime of life. Grizzlies ran amok here. We scared a sow and her cub from under a creek bank. Angered because the youngster wasn’t running away fast enough, the sow batted him with her paw. He rolled up the hill like a small, fuzzy bowling ball.

Another day Jimmy jumped a huge blond boar. The bear ran across my path 25 yards ahead, a startling encounter because I didn’t have a gun and Bob was well behind me. At 100 yards the boar stopped, stood on his hind legs and whuffed. His face and paws were dark chocolate, and the wind blew his long golden hair so it glimmered in the sunlight.

On our fourth day in camp, with two hunting days remaining, we finally caught up to our rams–42 of them. It was too late for a stalk, so we hiked the five miles back to camp so we could get an early start at dawn.

We found them again the next morning. They’d moved about a half-mile and were now bedding and feeding on a snowy slope. We were two miles away, and had to hike down the mountain in full view, sneak around a bald knob to get behind their position and climb up to a vantage point at their rear. When we reached the top, we stumbled upon a couple of ewes feeding. They saw us at once and could have blown our entire stalk, but they held their ground. We had no choice but to lay down in the open and hope the rams would eventually feed to us. We lay motionless on the frozen ground-for an hour before a small ram appeared. It was followed 15 minutes later by a larger one that caught Bob’s eye. He belly-crawled for 30 minutes up the slope for a better shot, lined up the ram 250 yards away and dropped him with one shot.

The sheep was a real trophy: 37 inches around the curl and a 31 -inch tip-totip spread; a full curl and huge bases to boot.

That night we went to bed, tired from the 12-hour stalk but happy, the cape from Bob’s sheep soaking in a nearby spring. Bears were the last thing on our minds.

The next morning when Jimmy told us the cape from Bob’s ram was missing, we thought he was just kidding. Unfortunately he wasn’t. The big boar had run off with it.

That night the grizzly came back. This time, he ripped the meat tent to pieces and ran off with most of the camp’s meat. Though it wasn’t the most prudent thing to do, Bob had placed his ram’s horns inside our tent for safekeeping. Late into the night, we heard the bear approach and begin snuffling outside our tent. As the huge animal walked a foot away from our cots, just a thin wall of canvas separating us, we could feel the ground tremble. Hearts racing, we braced for his claws to tear into our tent, but the bear suddenly lost interest and wandered out of camp.

After all of our trip’s excitement, it was a nice change to find the flight out uneventful. There was one more breathtaking moment when our jetliner flew close to Denali, presenting us with a view of the unimaginable beauty of its jagged, snow-covered peaks. Our adventure was finally over. It had been the adventure of a lifetime, the ultimate Alaskan experience. If we could have planned each and every hair-raising moment, it couldn’t have been more memorable.

Alaska is bear country. It’s estimated that 100,000 brown, black and polar bears make their home in the state’s mountains, forests and tundra plains. Although close encounters with bears are rare, maulings do occur. Being able to interpret bear actions, and knowing how they will likely interpret your actions, can substantially reduce the risk of running into bear trouble when hunting and fishing in their territory.

Camp Precautions

* Like humans, bears travel on trails and roads. Bear trails are often found along salmon streams, berry patches and in saddles on ridgetops. Bears typically step in the same places on trails, leaving staggered oval depressions. Set up camp well off and downwind from routes they may be using.

* If you smell the decomposing carcasses of animals or see scavengers congregating, you may be approaching a bear’s food cache. After eating their fill, bears will often cover remaining food with branches and forest litter and bed nearby. Grizzlies have been known to aggressively guard their food caches, so avoid the area and never set up camp near these locations.

* Food and garbage are equally attractive to a hungry bear, so it’s important to keep your camp as free of food odors as possible. Cook downwind from your tent, wash all dishes, burn all garbage and pack out what can’t be burned. Do not bury garbage. Bears have a keen sense of smell and are great diggers. Store food, fish and game meat well away and downwind from camp, hung from a tree branch at least 10 feet off the ground. If no trees are available, store the meat in airtight or bear-proof containers. Never store food in your tent. Avoid cooking smelly foods such as bacon and smoked fish, and keep food odors off your clothing.

Close Encounters

* The best way to steer clear of a violent confrontation is to avoid startling bears, especially those that are feeding and sows with cubs. As you travel through the woods, make noise, talk loudly or hang a bell or other noisemaker to your pack. If possible, travel with your back to the wind.

* If you do encounter a bear at close quarters, remain calm and identify yourself. A bear that stands on its hind legs is most likely trying to determine what you are. Wave your arms and talk to the bear in a calm voice.

* Never imitate bear sounds and movements or make a high-pitched squeal.

If a bear stands its ground and makes a series of “whoof”‘ sounds and/or pops its teeth, the bear has determined that you are a threat. Try backing away slowly in a diagonal motion, but if the bear follows, stop where you are. Never run away. Bears will chase fleeing animals and can reach speeds of 35 mph. They will also often make bluff charges to within 10 feet of adversaries.

* If a bear actually makes contact with you, fail to the ground and play dead. Once your threat to the bear is eliminated, it will likely lose interest and move on. Bears may also be repulsed by human odor.

* It is legal in the state of Alaska to shoot a bear in self-defense, as long as all other means of protection have been exhausted. Twelve-gauge shotguns loaded with either No. 00 buckshot or rifled slugs, or a rifle larger than a .30-06 have proven effective against bears. Heavy handguns such as a .357 or .44 magnum are better than nothing, but are no guarantee against a large charging bruin.

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