Hunting with My Wife
As our 54th wedding anniversary approaches I’m reminded of the anniversary that Karen and I spent in the gorgeous Wrangell Mountains. We were high school sweethearts so we have been together a long time. In our younger years, I could never convince her to join me on a hunt. We had no relatives in Alaska so she never felt comfortable leaving our daughters. She has always been reluctant to fly in small planes for basically the same reason. In addition she has always had a full time job and vacation time was limited. Hunting wasn’t her first choice for a family vacation. However, after our daughters were grown and on their own, I finally convinced her to go on a hunt with me. She was only interested in hunting sheep and caribou. So for her first hunt, we decided to go on a caribou hunt. I personally love caribou hunting as it is a lot of fun.
She had only shot a gun on a few occasions over the years so the first thing we had to do was get her comfortable shooting a rifle. I was awarded a Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle in the .270-Winchester caliber from the Alaska Professional Hunters Association (APHA) for taking the Outstanding Animal in 1986. This is an annual award for the APHA and the gun is presented by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. My friend, EJ Hiett, cut the stock down ¾ of an inch making it a good fit for Karen and we were off to the range. I took the .22 caliber rifle for her to start off with. She was steady and shooting a good group. She changed to the .270 and the first shot was great. After that, her shots were all over the target. I watched her very closely and could see she was flinching. We went back to the .22 and she was back to the bull’s eye. We tried the .270 again with the same results. The anticipation of the shot was too much for her to shoot a good group. I knew I had to do something so I thought adjusting the trigger pull to a lighter pull might work. I took the rifle to a gunsmith and had him adjust the trigger pull to 1 ¾ pounds. The next time we went to the range we started out the same way with the .22 and then the .270. The difference was amazing. She said it startled her every time it went off but it went off so fast there was no time to anticipate the shot. After a few more times at the range she was shooting a consistent group so she was ready.
The fall of 1990 we set things up for her to come out to our Otter Lake camp on September 10th. I was to pick her up in Dillingham with the “super cub”. Otter Lake was base camp for AAA’s Western Alaska area which was 90 miles north of Dillingham. She had been to the camp a few times during the summer with me so she was familiar with the camp set up. I had set a tent up for us to use next to the cook tent so it would be close to everything. We hunted out of main camp for a few days with no luck. On day three we hiked about four miles from camp climbing into a small valley above camp. Before she arrived for her hunt I had set a tent up in the alder with everything we needed to spend the night. As we were approaching the alder I spotted a brown bear feeding on blueberries about 500 yards from the tent. She was concerned the bear was too close but I assured her he was feeding away and the way the wind was blowing he would eventually get our scent. When we arrived at the tent it had been ripped in a few places. She asked if a bear had done it and I said I didn’t think so. It really wasn’t bad at all. It did look like a bear had stood up on his hind feet and when he came back down his paw caught on the seam and ripped it in a couple places. I told her it was probably caused by the wind blowing the alder branches against the tent. I don’t think she believed me. She didn’t sleep much that night knowing there was a bear so close. I on the other hand sleep like a baby. After breakfast the next morning and no caribou in site we headed back to camp.
The next day we headed out to my favorite spotting hill. About midday I spotted a large group of caribou, maybe 500 or so in small bands of 30 to 50 coming our way. They were out a couple of miles and the wind was in our favor. We hiked out about a mile and got set up. We were in a great position and in one of the bands there was a super bull. I felt he was a “Booner” or a Boone and Crockett record book animal, maybe 410 or so. How could we be this lucky? They all continued coming our way and it looked like it would be a 175-200 yard shot once they made it to the rolling hills in front of us. The bulls were trying to round everyone up in larger groups and by time they were in front of us there were about 100 in the band that our big bull was in. He was the dominate bull at this point and no one was willing to challenge him. As the cows kept moving by he stayed on the far side of them so it was difficult to get a clear shot. I had placed the .270 on my pack for a steady rest and we were lying behind it. I was giving her instructions and I‘m sure she thought I sounded like a “drill sergeant”. Get ready, shoot, don’t shoot now, shoot now, wait, shoot, watch out for that cow. I was excited and she was nervous since she had never shot anything other than a target and never at a moving target. All 100 caribou went over a small hill without Karen firing a shot. Then the big bull returned to take the next band from another bull. He ran by us toward the other bull and the bull turns and runs without a fight. Our big bull now has another 75 cows or so parading in front of us. There still wasn’t a clear shot but as he turns to go up and over the hill I can see that she can shoot him in the spine without hitting any other caribou. I said, “Shoot! Shoot him in the spine!” It took about 10 seconds for him to go over the hill and Karen didn’t shoot. She was disappointed and said, “I just never had a shot.” I told her she could have shot him in the back but she said I had always told her to shoot him behind the shoulder, which I had. We were both bummed but we had a great time and it was a great learning experience.
That was Karen’s last day of the hunt but I knew I would get her back next year. She was hooked on getting a big beautiful white maned bull.
We continued practicing with the .270 and talking more about shot placement. She was ready to take a caribou, but not just any caribou, she wanted a B&C record book caribou. After seeing that big guy the year before she knew what she wanted. I could only hope that I could find her a big bull.
We were hunting the Mulchatna herd and it was increasing in numbers and had the genes for big caribou. AAA had taken three B&C Record Book caribou in 1990 so it was possible. It’s now the fall of 1991. Karen had arrived in camp midseason and I had just guided my client, John Herr, on a 426 B&C Record Book caribou right out of main camp. However, the caribou had not started to move so we didn’t have many caribou around main camp. It was going to be tough if they didn’t start migrating our way. I was really busy taking care of my other eight hunters and just didn’t have a lot of time. I finally got everyone set in their camps and had two days to take Karen to a spike camp on Klutuspak Creek. There seemed to be good caribou numbers in that area.
We were losing light fast when we landed the cub at what we called Alderville on the Klutuspak. We had made it and were both excited about the area. The next day we spotted a few caribou but no big bulls. Only one more day to hunt.
It had rained during the night so the next morning it was a little foggy. We ate breakfast and I told her to stay in the tent and I would go out to see what I could spot. As I came out of the alder patch I looked across the Klutuspak and there were caribou everywhere with many more on the way. I ran back and said, “Put on your rain gear and grab your gun there are caribou everywhere on the other side of the creek.” I had everything else we needed in my pack. We quickly left the tent and made our way down to the creek. The creek bottom was full of alder and lots of beaver ponds. We had our ankle fit hip boots on so the water wasn’t a problem. As we made it up the bank on the other side we were still in enough alder to approach out of sight. The wind was blowing in our faces so everything was in our favor. We found a good place to set up and I started glassing for a big bull. I’m not sure how many caribou were around us but I knew there were at least two or three thousand. I didn’t have any trouble finding a big bull. I could see two or three that I was sure were record book bulls and I just wanted her to get the biggest. When you are in a big herd like this the problem is getting a clear shot and when they are moving or milling around you have to shoot quickly, when you have the shot. For someone who hasn’t hunted much this is a challenge. The other problem was as they were moving in front of us her guide, me, keep changing which one he wanted her to shoot. I was saying things like, the third one to the right, no no the first one in that group of four, no that one with the big wide rack. I was like a kid in a candy factory with so many big bulls. After about an hour of constant slow feeding the caribou had all passed with no shots fired.
We were just a little above the creek bank in a bunch of small hummocks so I couldn’t see where they were going. We got up and started easing our way further up the hill and there they were. Some were lying down, some were still milling around but they had all decided to stop for a rest. I immediately start glassing for the big guys. Most of them were in the middle of the herd which wasn’t going to work. I did spot a really nice bull lying on the outer edge of the herd. He was lying with about 50 cows and some young bulls. He was really high and wide but the top points were not real long. He had really long bez and looked to have a double shovel. I told her this would be a really nice caribou for her. She said, “Is he a B&C? You told me earlier two or three were B&C, is this one of those?” I told her I’m not sure but he is really a nice caribou, the only problem he has is the top points aren’t very long. He will be close to B&C. I think you should take him. We belly crawled to within a 150 yards and got the .270 set up for a shot. We waited until he got up. It wasn’t but about 15 minutes or so and a couple of his cows got up and started to feed. They were feeding toward another group. Our guy got up and started walking toward the feeding cows. He wasn’t going to let any of them get away. I told her to get ready. He was slowly walking broadside and I told her to take him. She whispered I can’t shoot him while he walking. I said, “He’s walking slowly so go ahead and shoot!” She starts whispering, please stop, please stop and the bull stops. She pulls the trigger and the 150 grain Nosler Partition finds its mark and the bull does one small circle and is on the ground. One shot and he is dead. We will find out later that it was a heart shot. As we approached this magnificent bull I started to grin as I could see the massive double shovels and 61” beams. This guy just might be the B&C she wanted.
We celebrated and took pictures. It had turned into a beautiful day. God is good. As we were capping and skinning she told me she was afraid she might feel remorseful but she didn’t. It was a great feeling knowing she had accomplished what she had set out to do. I was one happy husband. I packed the meat, cape and antlers to a flat spot about 200 yards from the kill site. I told her to stay there and I would hike back to the spike camp and fly over and pick everything up with the cub. I took me about 15 minutes to get to camp and about 10 minutes to get the plane ready and fly over to get her and the caribou. That afternoon we packed the camp up and flew back to base camp.
That evening after dinner we measured her caribou. It scored 405 2/8 B&C and after the 60 day drying period it scored 403 2/8 making the B&C Record Book. AAA took six B&C caribou that year. To date she has the only B&C Record Book animal in our family.
The next day the weather had changed. We were in a storm with winds gusting to 50 MPH and raining hard. The hunts were over and all the hunters were to be picked-up that afternoon. I told everyone to be ready but I was sure that Freshwater Adventures Flying Service wouldn’t be coming because of the weather. We were all sitting around listening to the radio and playing cards when all of a sudden the roar of an airplane over the tent startled everyone. I told everyone to wait and I would go up to see who it was. I jumped on the camp 4-wheeler and proceeded to the lake. It was still raining and blowing hard. I knew I couldn’t fly. It was the Grumman Goose from Freshwater Adventures. The “Goose” is an old WWII eight passenger amphibious aircraft. As it stopped at shore the door opened and there was Phil Bingman, the owner and pilot for Freshwater. He was a great pilot and had been flying in the area for at least 35 years. I said, “What are you doing here? I heard on the radio it is blowing 45 gusting to 55 mph in Dillingham!” He said, “It’s straight down the runway and I knew it would be straight down the lake, so no problem!” I said, “Hey man my wife is going on this plane! Is it safe?” He grinned and said, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t!” I told him alright I’ll go get everyone. I headed back the ½ mile to the camp to get their luggage and to tell them to come on. Everyone loaded up and I kissed Karen good-by and they were on their way. Karen told me later that was the roughest flight she had ever been on and when they got to Dillingham, one of our clients, got down and kissed the ground. It must have been bad.
What a fun and special time Karen and I had. Now that she had her caribou it was time for the challenge of a Dall sheep.
Karen knew that sheep hunting required you to be physically fit and made sure she was up to the challenge. It was now August, 1997 and she was ready for her sheep hunt. All we needed was for a few things to work out. I would have to wait until my client had harvested a ram and then get Karen into camp. She and I needed at least 4 days and I had to be at our Western Alaska camp on August 26 so it was going to be tight no matter what. My partners were in agreement about taking Karen into our area as she had helped us so much in the business and this would be a way to say thank you.
I decided hunting Young Creek was the best place to take Karen. We did a lot of climbing and looking but we could only find one legal ram. We worked around and got to within 250 yards of him but Karen said he was too small. I told her for her first ram any legal ram would be great. This one was 34” or so and just barley legal. She said, “I’m only going to shoot one, so 40” or nothing! You made me this way!” We passed on him and said maybe next year. For someone afraid of heights, she did great on the climbs and we had fun enjoying the beautiful Wrangell’s.
We have had many wonderful anniversary celebrations but one that was special for me and I hope for her was her second sheep hunt in the Wrangell’s. Our anniversary date is August 18th. Only eight days into sheep season. That has always cut my sheep hunts short and even as a guide with clients I made it home all but one year. In West Virginia August was a great month to get married with no hunting or anything like that. Knowing what I know now, I would have gotten married in July. That would have worked out better for sure.
The first year we went sheep hunting it was after our anniversary but the second one worked out to where we were in Young Creek again. My hunter that year was Jerry Lawson and he had shot a beautiful 37 ½” ram on the first day of his hunt so I had plenty of time. We were celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary. The weather this year was different with lots of clouds and rain. We made our first climb to where we could get a better look at the valley. I spotted two rams at the head of a smaller valley or draw. One looked like a really nice ram. It was snowing at the higher elevation and raining on us. I had set up a space blanket to keep most of the rain off of us. It wasn’t a fun day. Karen jokingly said, “Most husbands take their wives to Hawaii or some place exotic for their anniversary, not on a sheep hunt!” I told her she was special and a sheep hunt was better. That evening after a wet and tiring day I picked some wild flowers and put them in a glass and set them on the make shift table. I cooked some filets and we had a glass of wine and enjoyed a candlelight dinner. I thought it was pretty special to be in the most beautiful mountains in a small tent with my beautiful wife. “It just doesn’t get any better than that.”
The next morning we went back to the valley where I had spotted the two rams. They were now on the front slope just below the ridge. One was for sure a deep full curl and the other was broomed a little on one side. I decided we could go back into the valley and climb and come out right above them for a shot. We would be out of sight the whole time. The climb was going great and it started raining a little and the clouds were moving down. As we got higher it started snowing and snowing hard. It was now difficult to see even 50 yards so I got out the space blanket and we covered up. It had been snowing for an hour or so and it was now about 5:00 pm. The clouds were below the ridge that we needed to look over. It was only 200 yards to the top if you could see it. We were wet and it didn’t look like the snow was going to stop or the clouds going to lift so I told her we needed to back off and go back to camp. I knew if we stayed we would end up sleeping out without anything and I didn’t want to put her through that.
When we got on the bottom I looked up and it had stopped snowing and the clouds had lifted a little. I told her to stay there for a second that I wanted to see if the rams were still there. I climbed a couple hundred feet on the other side and I could see the two rams laying in the grass about 100 yards below the ridge we were going for. Too late to do anything now so we went back to camp. The next morning it was still raining so we packed up and flew home.
It was a wonderful anniversary and a great hunting experience. It could have been even better with a beautiful ram but that is why they call it hunting. That next year one of our hunters killed that ram that we were after and he was 40 ¼” so the year before he was just about 40” so close but so far away.
In 1999 Karen got drawn for sheep in the Tok Permit area. She was so excited, however she knew the wear and tear of sheep hunts. After her last sheep hunt, her doctor told her no more sheep hunts because of a knee problem. She, however, didn’t listen to the doctor and we tried one more time. The third time is a charm, right? On our trip to Tok in the cub, she got motion sickness (first time ever) and actually looked green. Took a while for that to wear off. We then began our trek in. Nothing seemed to work, high water, bad weather, time, etc. No sheep was taken. She told me that she guessed it wasn’t in His plan for her to get a sheep and that was okay with her.
We have some great memories and I’m so glad I got to share my hunting world with her. Thanks Kar for those great hunting adventures. I knew you would love it.