The Armchair Outfitter

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Trip of a Lifetime: Part 2

December 10th, 2007 · 4 Comments

- by Jim Overman

On September 6, 2003, a lifetime of dreaming and over two years of planning came together to mark the start of “The Trip of a Lifetime.” As I left the Tallahassee, Florida, airport, I reflected on what had gotten me to the point where I was actually on a plane headed to meet some of my best friends for our great adventure. The plan was to go on an unguided combination caribou, moose, and black bear hunt while fishing for fun and survival. We would take a series of commercial flights to Anchorage, Alaska, then a smaller plane to a village on the south-central coast, and then a floatplane to an area where the mountains meet the tundra. We would set up a tent camp to hunt and fish for 10 to 12 days in the heart of grizzly country. The “completely unguided” part was starting to sink in, and I was torn between excitement and apprehension. The apprehension quickly disappeared as I saw the first of my hunting partners in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, airport. I knew we had put together a well-rounded team of six of the most trustworthy and talented men I know. We had spent two years obtaining the best equipment and supplies available, so now was the time to enjoy it all.

We arrived in Dillingham, Alaska, about 4:30 p.m. local time and met with the air taxi service to arrange our next day departure to the campsite. Most of our luggage had already arrived, but one bag of clothing and one gun case were delayed somewhere between Atlanta and Anchorage. We were very fortunate that our game plan included an overnight stay in Dillingham in case of luggage or travel delays. We had planed on purchasing a few items at a local grocery and were not surprised to see the high cost of about $100 for two small bags of groceries. Another hunting group was also in the store. They had not done their homework and had planned on buying all of their food in Dillingham. They were quite shocked when the cashier told them the bill was $ 2,550.00 for two normal-sized carts of food. We then went to a local café and enjoyed a relaxing dinner that was priced at three to four times the cost of the same food in Georgia. Just as we were about to complain about the price, we noticed that the sky had exploded into a brilliant sunset on the banks of Bristol Bay. As the sun faded behind the mountains we would be crossing the next day, we knew the reason everything was so expensive…it was worth every penny.

The next day three of us flew out of Dillingham in a 1941 model Grumman Goose to Lake Aniak, located almost 200 miles and over an hour and a half of flight time from the nearest village. Some of the guys on the trip asked why I had chosen an air taxi service with such an old plane, but I just responded, “It has not crashed yet, so it must be O.K.” As we were flying across one of the many mountains, we spotted a large grizzly. Even from the safety of the plane, it was quite impressive. The pilot then made a sharp turn through a narrow mountain pass, and the Aniak River appeared with the crystal-clear water of Lake Aniak at its head. The lake is about five miles long and over a mile wide, surrounded by mountains on one end and the tundra on the other. The excitement was overwhelming. We flew around the lake twice and chose our campsite at the base of a mountain between two ridges and next to a small stream that flowed into the main lake.

The pilot returned with the other three guys later that afternoon. We completed the camp setup and inflated the boat with several hours of daylight to spare. While we were preparing dinner that evening, a majestic bull caribou appeared on a ridge only 500 yards from camp. This bull would have been easy to hunt that afternoon, but due to laws that do not allow hunting the same day as travel by air, we were left to observe as he fed over to the end of the valley. We enjoyed a hefty dinner and planned our strategy for the next day. We would split into three groups, with one group going after the bull with a bow while another group headed across the lake to hunt the upper end of the valley. The third group headed to the base of the mountain to hunt a draw that we had observed by air the first day.

That first day of hunting was successful: Bill harvested the bull we had seen the night before. It was a very nice bull that weighed somewhere around 500 pounds. The task of recovery turned out to be even more difficult than we had anticipated. The area in which the bull was down is about one mile from the lake and on a ridge surrounded by a combination of thick alder bushes and open swampy meadows that are full of “frost heaves.” Frost heaves are mounds between one and three feet in diameter that are all covered in blueberry bushes. These blueberries bushes make for good eating but terrible walking. Between the mounds, the ground is either rocky or a very soft spongy soil that gives way with every step. Needless to say, we spent most of the first day recovering the bull.

We spent the next few days fishing and waiting for more caribou. The fishing was incredible for lake trout, arctic char, and arctic grayling. The char and trout made great table fare, and we had them for at least at one meal per day. The taste was only surpassed by the aggressive nature of the fish and how hard they fought once they were hooked. I honestly can’t say how many fish we caught, but I am certain it was in the hundreds.

Our most exciting moment of the trip came on day five. On the previous day, Bubba had harvested a bull caribou on an open meadow across the lake from camp. (By the way, he shot it while not wearing any pants, but that is a story for another day.) That night the carcass was hit by what appeared by the size of the tracks to be a black bear. On the afternoon of day five, Bubba and Paul setup on a long ridge 250 yards from the carcass hoping to get a chance for a trophy black bear. As the afternoon faded, three grizzly bears appeared out of nowhere. The hunters did not have a grizzly tag, so this was not a welcome site. It appeared to be a large (over 1000 pound) female with two 400 – 500 pound “cubs.” The main problem was that the cubs were walking down one side of the ridge, and the sow was on the other side, with the hunters in the middle. To make matters worse, the big bear was between the hunters and the boat. Paul called on the radio to inform the rest of the group of their situation. It was like a scene out of a movie; we could clearly see the big bear with the naked eye at over one mile away. We watched through spotting scopes as the two hunters crawled their way off the ridge and closer to the boat. When the hunters stood up to make the last few hundred yards to the boat, all three bears instantly saw them, and the two younger bears stood on their back legs for a better look. It was scary to me, and I was in camp watching helplessly. When the hunters returned to camp, they had a new understanding of how it feels to be the hunted.

The high temperatures were in the mid-to-upper 60’s and the lows were in the low 40’s for the first half of the trip. That dramatically changed, however, to lows of single digits, with three mornings of 15 degrees or less inside the tent. I harvested a nice bull on day nine. I waited until the end of the hunt hoping to take a true trophy, and the wait paid off for me. The group harvested a total of five caribou, and we could easily have taken more, even though the main migration did not take place until we were leaving. We did not see a legal-size moose, but we did find the rack from one and we brought it back home. We shot ptarmigan (a grouse type bird), caught fish, watched several bears, saw over a hundred caribou, shot at a fast-moving wolf, and had a LARGE animal of some type walk though camp one night. We ate blueberries until we could not eat any more. We met a couple of other hunting parties on the lake that were very jealous of our camp and that we had a boat with a motor and a gas-heated camp shower. We were the most successful and comfortable camp on the lake.

I could write a book or two describing each one of the individual hunts and of all the sights and sounds. We took over 1100 pictures, but none of those could ever do “The Trip of a Lifetime” justice. With this in mind, we have decided to do it again in the Fall of 2008.


Tags: Dream Trips

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Greg // Dec 12, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Whoa, whoa, whoa…so this Bubba wasn’t wearing any pants when he shot this caribou? A man named Bubba wandering through the wilderness pantsless with a rifle…

    I think the caribou made a wise choice by electing to be shot as that seems to be the least unpleasant fate available to it under the given circumstances.

    Hi, Jim!


  • 2 Pages tagged "black bear diner" // Jan 23, 2008 at 8:45 am

    [...] bookmarks tagged black bear diner Trip of a Lifetime: Part 2 saved by 1 others     ninja8111 bookmarked on 01/23/08 | [...]

  • 3 Bryce Stanfield // Aug 3, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Jim, you lucky b******. (I mean that in the nicest way). When I was a boy I went to Alaska when my dad worked on the pipeline. It was an exciting time. Great adventure you had; now tell us the story about Bubba with no pants.

  • 4 big29fan // Feb 7, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Great story and a great adventure!

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