Gulch Creek has a special place in my hunting memories. Not only was it a gorgeous game filled little valley, but it provided access to Walker Creek and Falls Creek. I killed my first big game animal, a mountain goat, my first black bear, my first animal with a bow, another mountain goat, and it was where I slept overnight without a sleeping bag for the first time and more than likely the first time that I almost died climbing a cliff. There were many of those times.
I made some lifelong friends while hunting in the Gulch Creek area sharing with them so many funny, scary or just plain life experiences. Some only hunted with me one time and gave it up, but were left with a memory of a true Alaskan adventure. Over the years my friends and I harvested eighteen goats in that area. I took six of them. Two were 9 inch “Billies” and two were with a bow so overall we experienced some great hunts.
This will probably be my last story about this area. It’s about two hunts that didn’t turn out like we had hoped. I will also share a few pictures of some other hunts in that area.
Normally I went on my goat hunt the third weekend of September and this year (1972) was no different. I had also planned a second goat hunt in October that same year which would be my first time hunting during that time frame. So, I left our visqueen shelter in place. I was hunting with two of my military friends, Carl Dever and Gil Williams and my neighbor Brian Cooper. It was the first mountain goat hunt for all of them.
It was a crisp fall morning and when we got to the swinging bridge leading into the Gulch Creek valley there was a thin covering of ice on the planks. Carl, Gil and I carefully made our way across but Brian had a fear of heights and with the ice covering it was almost too much for him. I finally convinced him to sit down on his butt and scoot across. That worked and we were on our way. It turned out to be a beautiful bluebird day. Climbing the chute to the pass went well even with the new snow from the previous week. Once we got to the top of the pass we found three to four foot snow drifts which looked problematic but we were only sinking into the snow six or so inches, so it actually made going down the glacier easier than without the snow.
Once we made it down to the collapsed shelter with that amount of snow we knew we weren’t going to be able to hunt in this valley. We prepared the shelter enough to sleep in that night and planned on going back over the pass the next morning. It got pretty cold that night using our G.I. sleeping bags. The next morning after a delicious breakfast of oatmeal, hot chocolate and coffee we packed up and headed back over the pass.
We camped at the bottom of the chute in a spruce grove, a site that I had used on a couple of our fall goat/black bear hunts. The following morning Brian and I spotted a goat on the hog backed ridge where I had killed my first black bear and my second goat. Carl and Gil stayed and glassed the other ridges from camp.
The climb went well because I had done it many times before and knew the best way to approach. We got to within a hundred yards or so of the goat and Brian made a good clean shot and his goat fell into a small gully. As we were going to recover Brian’s goat we had to cross a steep ice covered open slope. About a third of the way across, Brian froze. No one had ever stopped in a panic with me before and at one point I thought perhaps he might end up falling down the slope which would have been a disaster. I finally talked him across the slope. In the gully we were able to get the goat skinned and the meat deboned. About half way through the process I heard a lone gun shot. As it was getting late I thought maybe Carl and Gil were trying to get our attention. I climbed out of the gully and fired off a shot, then went back to work. As we were finishing up I heard another shot but chose not to climb out and return fire. I didn’t want to waste any more time. That was a huge mistake.
We were losing light so we were in a hurry to get back to our camp. We had to pack up and get out of there fast. When we arrived at the base camp Gil and Carl were gone. They left a note saying they were going for help. We loaded all of our gear along with the goat meat and cape and were quickly on our way. We were only a couple hours from the road. When we arrived Carl and Gil told us we needed to get to a phone and call off the rescue team and then told us the story. They felt because we didn’t answer their last shot that something bad had happened to us so they had contacted the authorities.
Gil had caught a ride up the road with some lady and her kids and called the Alaska Air Command Search and Rescue and told them that either Brian or I must have been hurt and needed rescued. He also called our boss and told him the story. My boss then called my wife and told her I was hurt or missing. She immediately told him that I would be really angry because I had always told her to give me at least one day before she should start to worry or call the authorities. It wasn’t even 10 PM and she really didn’t expect me until late in the night or early the next morning which was normal for me on a week-end or three day hunt. She knew I always pushed the time. I had done it many times before.
These were the days before cell or satellite phones so basically no communications. We made it to a phone and stopped the rescue that was in progress. Karen was right; I was really upset, not at Carl or Gil, as they were just trying to help, but at my boss for jumping the gun and not trying to stop it or at least waiting until morning. Gil would later tell me that when they arrived at the swinging bridge it was dark and Carl didn’t want to cross the bridge so he ended up scooting across on his butt roped to Gil. He also told me he tried to get the rescuers to come down in a chopper but they told him it was too dangerous and that they would do a ground rescue. I got home around midnight. What a crazy night!
The next morning around 5 AM we had a recall or an alert. For missile personnel that meant we reported to the missile shop ASAP to deliver our missiles to the aircraft for loading. It was a timed effort as the Alaska Air Command was inspecting us. My job that day was to be on the flight line to make sure the missiles were in place and ready. One of the inspectors that I knew said to me, “I heard they had to send a helicopter down to pick you up this morning where you were hunting. You must really be important!” Of course that wasn’t true but rumors were flying around like crazy. That afternoon while getting a haircut at the base barber shop I heard someone say that he got called up during the night to go search for some dummy that got lost while hunting, then it got called off. I butted in and said, “That was all a mistake, no one was lost, and I was that guy!” I then said, “You’re right it did get called off.”
Thank God we now have cell and satellite phones to keep things like this from happening. That was the first and last time that anything like that happened to me.
It’s now the third week-end in September, ’73, and we’re going back goat hunting in Gulch Creek. This time I was going with two of my favorite hunting buddies Russ Langston and Chuck Berry along with Capt. Donahue, an EOD Officer and Branch OIC.
The trip in was normal and we got our camp set up at the head of Walker Creek which is on the back side of the Gulch Creek pass. I set up my new tarp for Russ and me. Capt. Donahue had a new two-man tent that he and Chuck set up for the two of them. The winds had been picking up all day and it was now starting to rain. As the night went on the wind speed increased to at least 50 to 60 MPH. Russ and I were lying on our G.I. air mattresses and the water was running through our tent/tarp. Sometime after midnight the winds broke one of our aluminum end poles so the tarp started flapping. I manage, some way, to repair it and get it set back up. It was a miserable night but we made it without getting too wet. When I got out of the tent the next morning, the rain had changed to snow. I looked over at Capt. Donahue’s tent and could see the forms of two bodies covered with two inches of snow with a three inch pool of water between the bodies. Sometime during the night the pole at the foot end of their tent had broken and that end of the tent collapsed. The end pole at their head was still standing but they only had about a ten inch area for them to breathe. They both yelled, “Get us out of here!” I said, “Don’t move I want to get a picture!” I grabbed my Cannon AE1 and snapped a few photos which were slides and turned out great. I sent them in to have prints made and they got lost in the mail so I have no photos of that scene. What a bummer! We got them out, ate a quick breakfast and packed up. We hiked over the pass in the misty rain.
As soon as we got over Russ spotted a goat that was right below us. Since he was the spotter he got the shot. He made a great shot and now he had a really nice wet goat. The weather on this side of the pass was brutal and we were all pretty wet. After some quick photos we skinned the goat, boned out the meat and quickly made our way down the chute.
Once on the bottom we would normally crisscross the stream five or six times because it was easier than fighting the alder. However, after 20 hours of rain the stream was now a raging river. The first couple of crossings went fine, but as we progressed farther out of the valley more small streams joined the river making it next to impossible to cross. We had to cross one more time to get to a trail that led out to the swinging bridge. Russ and I managed to cross with the push-back of the water at a little above crotch level, but the force was tremendous. It was all we could do to stay on our feet. The creek was now about twenty five feet wide. Russ located a twenty foot tree that had been washed down the creek. We dropped it into the water. Russ stayed close to shore and I got downstream holding the tree and Chuck got on the far side of me downstream holding on the tree also. The three of us were around six feet tall but Capt. Donahue was maybe 5’6” or so. He got in the water on the upstream side of the tree. Both Chuck and I had hold of him but as soon as the water hit his pack the pressure forced him off his feet. I had his right shoulder and Chuck had his left shoulder but we couldn’t move him so we yelled for Russ to pull us in. I will never forget the look on Donahue’s face. He knew he was going under and that might be it for him. Russ was able to keep his footing and pull the tree and us to shore. We were all soaking wet and needed to get to our vehicle as soon as we possible before hypothermia set in. I hate to think what would have happened to Capt. Donahue if we hadn’t been able to hold onto him.
Of all the forces of nature, I fear water more than any other and I have had my share of water adventures. This was my second major water incident, the first being my Eagle River crossing with Harold Sturgeon the year before. I wish I could say those were my last but those were just the start. I tell everyone to never underestimate the power of water!
I was later told by my boss, at the time, Dennis Thayer, that Capt. Donahue told him that their previous hunting trips were like Boy Scout hikes when compared to Sergeant Morris’s adventures.