Fly-in hunts are a great way to hunt Alaska. You get away from the crowds. You have two options, a drop-off do it yourself hunt, or a guided hunt. Of course the guided hunt is three or four times more expensive. Either way you get to see and hunt areas that only a few do. The population of Alaska is about 10 times what it was when I first arrived so getting away from the crowds is more important today than it was back then. There are many great APHA guides to choose from and many good flying services in our State. Come hunt Alaska!
1967 was my most successful hunting year, so follow two naive young men on their first fly-in hunt for moose and caribou.
It was mid-August, 1967. Gary Wadkins and I had just returned from a successful backpack sheep hunt in the Chugach Mountains. I had taken my second ram and Gary his first.
During an appointment at the Elmendorf Air Force Base payroll office Gary met a clerk who had just returned from a fly-in hunting trip where he had taken a caribou. He told Gary his boss, Master Sergeant Jim Matheny, had a Cessna 180 on floats and was working out of Lake Louise which is about 170 miles northeast of Anchorage. He was flying hunters in on the weekends and was going to take leave for the month of September. He was giving a military discount so we gave him a call to find out how much it would cost. He told us he could fly us into an area called Fog Lakes for $200 to $250 total if we kept the weight down. Fog Lakes is located between the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Mountain range. The price didn’t sound too bad. Money was always tight but we felt we could handle that amount. I had never thought much about a fly-in hunt but, Gary on the other hand, really wanted a moose. He was getting out of the Air Force in the spring and was headed back to California so this would be his only opportunity at a good moose.
Jim Matheny became a guide after he retired from the Air Force and sadly later died in an airplane crash. We met Jim at Lake Louise early on a beautiful September Saturday morning. I must say both Gary and I were really excited about flying in a small plane and of course the hunt itself. When you fly out you are really in the wilderness, cut off from the road system and truly on your own.
After a smooth take-off, our adventure was on. It was only a 30-40 minute flight. About 25 minutes into the flight I looked over at Gary and he was looking really green. Both of us were stuffed in the back seat with gear all around us. I still don’t remember why one of us wasn’t in the front seat. Of course it was extremely noisy so I yelled, “Are you alright?” Gary shook his head no and then started heaving. He was really trying to keep the vomit in his hands. I tapped Jim hard on the shoulder. He turned around and saw Gary and yelled, “Why didn’t you guys tell me you get air sick?” He opened his front side window and immediately the wind swirled and the barf flew everywhere. I started gagging but somehow kept myself from throwing up. We only had 5 more minutes before we landed so I guess it could have been worse. After we landed Jim was really upset with Gary. He said he had airsick bags behind the seats and would have given us one if we had told him we might get sick. We unloaded everything and cleaned everything up using the lake water. Gary hung his wool shirt on a nearby tree and never wore it the rest of the trip. It was not a good way to start his hunt.
The scenery with the Alaska Mountain range in the background was magnificent. We packed everything up on a small hill overlooking the lake and set up our visqueen shelter, right out in the open. I don’t know why people do that. I learned on later hunts that in Alaska you always camp in the alder or some other brush to protect your camp from the wind. With one little storm this hunt could have turned into a disaster.
We had no stove or lantern so we built a fire to heat up our C-rations. Sometimes we just ate them cold as we had done on our mountain hunts. This was a real no frills hunt. I would never consider or recommend this type hunt now-a-days for anyone. I guess then I was just young and dumb.
Around 6 on our first morning, still in our sleeping bags, I spotted a small caribou bull coming by our open door visqueen shelter. I grabbed my 300 Winchester Magnum that was laying beside me and shot him while in my sleeping bag. My 180 grain Winchester Power Point put him down instantly. We started laughing and I said this is going to be fun. It wasn’t a very big caribou in fact, in the guide business we would call him a “super dink” but I had my first caribou. We got dressed, took pictures, skinned the caribou and hung the meat on an old meat pole that someone had used in the past. It was an easy 50 yard pack. Man, this was a great way to start a hunt.
We hung around camp the rest of the day spotting and just getting familiar with the area. There was a hill about a mile and a half east of the lake. Since we hadn’t spotted any more caribou around the lake we decided to go that way the next morning.
Day two was another beautiful day. We packed a light pack and took off toward the hill to the east. About half-a -mile from camp we crossed Fog Creek and immediately jumped two bull moose. I raised my trusty 300 Winchester Magnum and shot the largest. It was just 10 a.m. and I had my first Alaska moose. He was a 48 incher and is the only moose that I have ever personally taken. I couldn’t believe how big his body was and he was a small guy. We took pictures and got busy skinning and quartering. We decided that since we were in the spruce trees we would go ahead and hang him in the trees for a few days. It took both of us to hang the quarters to where the bottom hung about eye level. It took us most of the day and we got back to camp right before dark.
Day three we woke to the same weather. We again headed back toward the hill. When we passed by the hanging moose we noticed one of the hind quarters was missing. We looked all around the surrounding area and didn’t see anything. We looked real close for drag marks but couldn’t find any. We spread out further and I found it about 30 yards from the meat hanging tree. It had a couple big bites out of it. We took it back and hung it back on the stub that it was hanging on before. The bear that took it off the tree must have just bite into it and lifted it off of the stub without breaking it and then carried it in his mouth. The quarter weighed at least 100 pounds. That was a big bear!! I was praying he didn’t come back.
We continued on and as we broke out of the spruce trees we climbed upon a small ridge. There were game trails everywhere. We headed northeast on the most traveled game trail. We were now about two miles from camp. We spotted a lone bull caribou coming down the hill that we had been watching. It was Gary’s time to shoot so we made our stalk. We worked our way through the lower brush and got within 200 yards. Gary got set up for the shot. He was using a Remington Model 700 in the 30.06 caliber. This gun had a steel butt plate and kicked worse than my 300 magnum. It was not a fun gun to shoot and Gary sometimes had problems flinching. He shot twice and the caribou didn’t seem to be hit and was moving into the brush so I shot him with my 300 magnum and down he went. We made our way to the caribou. He was a beautiful caribou and knowing what I know now would have scored around 275 B&C points. We took pictures like I was the one who killed the caribou but as we were skinning him we found another bullet hole a little further back so Gary had hit him and I basically just finished him off. We decided to take pictures of Gary with the next caribou. After we finished skinning and quartering we decided to just spend the night there. We had brought a small piece of visqueen that we could use to lay on or cover us. We were in a good area to sleep under the trees. We built a fire and roasted tenderloin. I will have to say it was not tender and had a distinct smoky flavor but still tasted fine. Sometime during the night we were awakened by a pack of wolves howling. It sounded like 8 or 10 of them. The sky was sparkling with stars and the long high-pitched howl actually sent chills up my spine. I love that sound! At first they seemed to be quite a ways off but they seemed to be traveling and getting closer. We were camped only a hundred yards or so from the main trail. The next thing we knew they were running by on the main trail. They were making lots of different noises like yelps, growls, nips and howls. We both had our guns ready and then the noises stopped and that was the last time we heard anything. They must have gotten our scent and took off. I have never since worried about wolves when I was out and I’m sure I didn’t have anything to worry about then. However, it was an exhilarating experience.
Day four we decided to go further back in the valley on the main game trail. We walked and glassed for another mile. We sat down and started glassing the far hillside. Gary spotted a huge moose lying right below a big willow patch. I looked over, found it and got out my little 18x Mayflower spotting scope. It was a big moose. The biggest I had ever seen. I told Gary I thought he was too far from camp. He said, “I know he is, but he is really a beautiful moose and I would love to shoot him.” I told him it had to be close to 5 miles from camp. He agreed but said we could do it. That is when I probably made my worst hunting decision ever. I agreed and we slipped up to about 150 yards of the moose. He stood up and Gary made a good shot and he was down. When we got to the moose I couldn’t believe how much bigger his body was compared to the 48 incher that I had killed. The moose was a beautiful 60 incher. I started thinking, what did we just do. I knew Gary couldn’t carry a hind quarter of a moose this size, he only weighed 130 pounds himself. I now know that the hind quarter would have weighed right at 150 pounds. It was 11 a.m. and it took us four to five hours to get everything done. I loaded up a hind quarter and Gary took the antlers and a game bag of back straps and tenderloins. We were only a couple hundred yards off the main trail and it was a good walking trail with a small downward slope and lots of places to stop and rest. We did that many times over the next two days packing out both of the moose and the caribou. It was a brutal two and half days but at 23 years old, we did it. I told myself I would never agree to shoot another moose 5 miles from camp again. My friends and I came back to Fog Lakes two more times and we killed a moose 4 miles out but there were four of us to pack it. I never did that again either. We decided two miles from camp was max. In the guide business I told our guides one mile max unless you know I can land the “super cub” close by. It was way too much work for what you get.
On our last hunting day we stayed around camp. Around 10 a.m. we spotted a nice caribou walking towards our lake but it would go by on the other side. We had brought a small two-man raft that we kept by the shore. We launched the raft and discovered a two-man raft is really only big enough for one guy. We sat where we both could paddle. Gary had his legs across the tubes and he sat against my legs. The lake was about a half mile across and when we reached the other side our legs had gone to sleep so we could barely get out of the raft. When we did, we laid there for 5 minutes before we were able to walk. The caribou had passed us so we had to hustle to catch up. The wind was in our favor so we made a successful stalk and I shot my second caribou. He was the biggest and scored 335 B&C. After pictures we skinned and quartered him and packed him back to the raft. We placed the meat in the bottom of the raft and sat on the meat. Even overloaded the trip back was better. We left the meat at shoreline since we were to be picked up the next day.
It was Sunday morning and Jim arrived around 10. We had broken down the camp and had packed about half of the meat down to shore. We loaded as much as Jim would let us and he was off. He came back close to noon and loaded us and the rest of the meat. After being a pilot and flying with other flying services I know we were overloaded. We had a good flight back with no air sickness problems. Jim charged us $105 each for our trip. We could hardly believe that it was cheaper than he quoted.
Once back to Lake Louise we loaded everything into my yellow 59 Ford station wagon as they were called then. Everyone who saw us said we wouldn’t make it back to Anchorage but the good Lord was with us and we arrived safely. The back tires did sometimes rub the top of the fender wells when we hit big bumps.
1967 was a great hunting year for me. I shot a sheep, two caribou, moose, another mountain goat and my first black bear. All of this for a $7 license fee. I think it’s still possible to accomplish this feat today but you would have to be very lucky with permit drawings, spend big bucks and spend way more time than we did. I loved Alaska then and I love Alaska now. God has blessed me with quite a life.
What a hunting year!!