Alaska Raw, Part 7: The geometry of hunting in high wind - Must Read Alaska
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Saturday, December 7, 2019
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Alaska Raw, Part 7: The geometry of hunting in high wind

Previously, Bob Sr. was getting close to realizing his dream of a big bull caribou, guided by his son. For the first time the men had moved up on a group of several, selected one, and took the first shot which apparently misses.  True to form, the difficult Alaska weather can have unpredictable effects. Here, the wind makes all the difference, again.

By BOB LACHER

I thought perhaps my dad had hit a lung and the beast would bleed out and topple over shortly. I watched in the glasses for blood. Nothing. It was a clean miss…and my father is a good shot.

This surprised me. He chambered another, made doubly sure of his well cradled aim… and sent the 180 grain .300 Win Mag bullet to flight. Nothing was falling. We were both stumped.

He racked up another. My father had been aiming for  a neck shot, the same shot he always takes on big game. About this time we both thought for a minute about how hard the wind was blowing in a direct cross, still 35 to 45.

We both had an “ah ha” moment and talked about the conditions, deciding to put the crosshairs on the absolute leading edge of its chest hoping the wind would carry the round back 16 inches and punch the lungs, a bigger target. He let fly round number three. The bull flinched visibly through my glasses but looked generally unruffled.

On a hunch I thought it may have been a gut shot. Maybe the wind and the lead required was much greater than we had thought, and the bullet pushed all the way back past the lungs. It had. After some rapid strategizing we both agreed that maybe aiming a foot in front of the animal would be just the thing.

But the wind was gusting and very hard to gauge. By this time most of the cows and the smaller bulls were dashing around and smelling trouble, looking for an exit but they had no idea where the shots were coming from. My heart was racing and I was thinking for sure we were going to fuck this up.

The bull stood fast, stunned, with a gut shot stomach. Dad took careful aim and sent round number four down the barrel. In the glasses I saw the big bull finally sacked to the dirt with a little puff of red mist coiling above its back and then settling over it. It was a lung shot, catching just a little shoulder on the far side, blowing out a bit of bone which provided more knockdown shock than pure lung would.

Oddly enough, as much as we hunt, neither my father nor I had ever tried to work a bullet to its mark in that heavy of a direct crosswind. The numbers were off our mental charts. We may take crosswind or quartering wind shots in 10 or 15 mph autumn breezes out shooting at moose or sheep…sure. But nothing that ever required this geometry. I looked over and saw my father begin to breathe again.

He had been more and more pissed off with each squeeze of the trigger, cursing his marksmanship and being way too hard on himself. Getting repeatedly horse kicked by the big gun did him no good either, his bones being a little less resilient than at a younger time. It was a great father-son moment, rich in memories that will be with me long after he is gone.

After the congratulatory exchanges the three of us hustled over to see just how nice the bull was. We would perform the “Ground Check,” a term we try to utter without the smug chuckle of success, but can’t seem to manage without the gloating. The cameras came out, as did the ear to ear smiles. Everyone busted their best antler poses several times and then a few extra. We laid down some proofs of finally being in control of something in this world, which is especially rewarding since one usually has so little control of anything.

Knives followed the cameras, as they always do. The smell of blood soon hit our nostrils, a universal signal to the primal synapses of hunters that it was time to let down, time to come off high alert, time to allow the big fat pulse in your neck to tuck itself back into your chest. It’s the smell of success, and if there were a ceremonial chant or song or dance to be laid down, or a shaman to summon for blessings, now would be the time to conjure whatever spirits made such bounty possible and give thanks to the Meat God.

One caribou was enough for us even though we had tags for three. Our cargo load was bloated as it was, given how much extra support gear and fuel we like to have along when going to high risk, far off areas like Unimak.  One of us also needs to save room for a very large walrus head that weighed as much as a hind quarter of caribou. The next morning we broke down camp and piled both birds chock full of gear, meat and antlers.

Unimak is not a place to lounge around after you get what you came for.  I had briefly thought about hiking into a hot springs that was several miles to the south of our camp, and there was also an incredible waterfall close by that needed further exploration from the ground, but beating a path ahead of the next weather front trumped all of that.

To the northeast the weather looked manageable and we set off for Cold Bay to refuel and do some flight planning for home. We made the 40 minute flight to Cold Bay with the gorgeous green rolling hills and plains of Unimak fading behind us. We regretted every minute of retreat. I wondered if I would ever see such a unique landscape again.

With the fueling done and our wallets thinned we pointed back up the beach, plugging away low and slow for two hundred miles back to where the walrus head was stashed. As we approached the GPS coordinate, we sized up the wind direction and made a couple of low passes over the windswept tire marks we had left there just a few days before.

Getting the airplanes down this time was simple. Everyone was paying sharp attention. We located the stashed walrus head and carefully wrapped and double wrapped it in large garbage bags to try to seal in the stench.

I moved some gear behind my seat and made a spot for the one hundred plus pound head and tusks and we loaded and re-launched. It was afternoon and we had enough time to make it back home, but it would be getting dark toward the end. We wanted to clear the mountain passes with some light in case the ceilings were low or it was raining or snowing in the mountains.

On the way back I was really hoping to find another walrus. The wind had been blowing onshore for several days making the chances much better. Anything dead and floating comes ashore eventually. Another hour and another 80 miles up the coast I spotted a big brown lump grounded just above the receding tide.

As our aircrafts approached closer I could see in the distance something was moving in the mass. It was a walrus alright, with one long tusk intact and the other a broken off stump just barely showing color.

The walrus was dead…the movement among the mass was a big brown bear. I could see the bear clearly now, its face a bloody mess all the way back to its neck. It was busy eating its way past the front flipper and into the shoulder of the walrus. I slowed the airplane up as I went past thinking for sure the bear would move off.

Frank and my father were in contact by radio and pulled up to a higher altitude and began circling. They were not keen on landing given the fading light and wanted to keep moving. We talked back and forth a bit about letting the bear have this one and the shortness of time.

Just about convinced, I thought once more about how seldom this sort of opportunity presents itself and decided to take a closer look. Frank decided the opposite and made a few more circles above, agreeing to wait and see if I got the plane down OK and what the bear was going to do.

The scene had all the makings of a Quentin Tarantino slasher movie so it was hard to resist watching from above.

On Sunday, Part 8, and final thoughts from the author.

Alaska Raw, Part 6: We close the distance on the giant caribou bull

[Read: Part 4: Beach landing in a howling gale]

[Read: Part 3: Bent wing and dead walrus on the beach]

[Read: Part 2: No way to land an airplane]

[Read Chapter 1, Part 1: A caribou hunt with my father, Unimak Island, 2004]

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

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