“You guys are crazy,” bush pilot Van Hartley growled as Roger Iveson and I unloaded the last of our gear and then started doing cartwheels in the mud — as best as two guys in raingear and chest waders can in a driving rain and six inches of mud.
But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were overjoyed. We’d been on the river for two weeks, and had each killed a caribou. Van had met us at a predetermined point nearly 100 miles downstream to pick up the caribou. After we’d loaded the meat into the plane and climbed in, Van said, “What do you guys want to do now? Head back to town?”
Even though rain had fallen hard for 10 days straight, the river had risen three feet, and all of our gear was a muddy tangle, we would not be deterred. “No, take us back where we started,” Roger and I agreed. So that’s what he did, and that’s where our cartwheeling celebration took place. Maybe we were crazy, but we were back on the tundra with 10 more days to hunt!
People often ask me, “Dwight, what is your favorite hunt?” My stock answer has always been, “The hunt I’m on at the moment,” meaning regardless of where or what species I’m hunting, if I’m in the field with a bow in hand, I’m quite happy. So that seemingly flippant answer holds a lot of truth.
However, in writing a feature for Bowhunter’s 45th Anniversary issue recently, I reviewed dozens of hunting logs and looked through photos from hunts over the past 40 years, and I concluded that if I could do only one hunt each year, it would be a hunt in the Far North. It could be for moose, caribou, grizzlies, Sitka deer, or musk oxen…doesn’t matter. I might be crazy, but as long as I’m somewhere on the tundra, muskeg, or Arctic mountains, I’m a happy camper.
Maybe most important, it’s the first style of hunting I read about as a young boy, so it’s planted deep in my heart. Jack O’Conner probably lit the spark as he wrote about hunting sheep, grizzlies, caribou, and other species in Alaska, the Yukon, and northern B.C.
Many of his hunts took place in the 1940s, when access was a serious obstacle, so O’Conner’s hunts were often 30 and 40-day affairs, mostly by horseback. Essentially, he and a guide would head into the remote wilderness with a string of horses and a fistful of big game tags, and would not emerge until the tags were filled. Imagine!
In the late 1950s, John Jobson, Camping Editor for Sports Afield magazine, hunted the Yukon three years in a row. On most of these hunts he killed Dall sheep, mountain caribou, moose, and grizzlies, and each year he wrote full-length features on each species. These hunts lasted upward of two months each.
There were many others, of course, but these are the ones who laid the groundwork for my dreams and goals. Even in the first and second grade, I thought, That’s what I am going to do! With a foundation like that, is it any wonder that hunting the Far North would be my favorite hunt?
One thing that fascinated me was that these guys often hunted territory that had never been hunted. In that sense they were truly pioneers, and that was the biggest appeal to me. To think they trod in places untouched by modern hunters seemed like the ultimate thrill to me.
And, in fact, that has not really changed. Many Far North hunting areas have vast blocks that rarely if ever see modern hunters. Several outfitters in The Northwest Territories, Yukon, and B.C. have told me their concessions contain several thousand square miles they never touch.
In that kind of setting, you often can hunt for two weeks or more and never see another hunter, except those in your own party. And to top it off, you’re often hunting animals that have never seen or smelled a human being. With conditions like that, why wouldn’t the Far North be a favorite hunt?
Some years ago, Cameron Hanes, an experienced ultra-marathon runner, said, “Dwight, you can fake your way through a marathon, or even a 50-miler, but you can’t fake it through a 100-miler. You’d better be prepared, or you won’t make it.”
That’s how I perceive the Far North hunt. It’s never just a marathon; it’s a 100-miler. You simply cannot fake your way through to the end, and if you try, you could face some serious consequences.
The pure isolation is one reason. Whether you reach your destination by bush plane, horseback, raft, boat, ATV, or shanks’ mare and backpack, you could end up dozens or hundreds of miles from the nearest road — and the nearest help.
On top of that, you can count on horrendous weather. You WILL get hit with torrential rain, heavy snow, high winds, fog, and more, and these will alter the course of your hunt. On more than one occasion, my two-week hunts have turned into three-week affairs. Count on it.
Given these realities, your clothing, gear, communications systems (satellite phone, SPOT device, etc.), and contingency plans must be airtight, or you could be in trouble.
Is this a shortcoming of Far North hunting? Far from it. In fact, I consider this the ultimate appeal. I like expeditions — prolonged events that test preparation, stamina, commitment, and knowledge. To me, hunting is all about determination and self-sufficiency, and no other place in North America brings those qualities to maturity like the Far North.
The big game alone would make Far North hunting my favorite because they’re all big, and in some cases dangerous. Who would not be awed by an Alaska-Yukon bull moose weighing 1,200 pounds or more? More than that, during the rut these bulls are fearless, and they will come after any other moose — or hunter — who invades their territory. It makes for a thrilling, and often scary, experience.
As does hunting brown and grizzly bears. Well, this generally involves less action, because big bears are few and far between. But when you do see one, it’s a sight you won’t forget — 1,000 pounds of fur, teeth, and claws. And then you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to get within bow range of that killing machine?”
Caribou may be the most affordable, and in ways the most spectacular northern game. Few sights compare to that of a bull caribou on the skyline. Plus, in my opinion, caribou are the best eating of all big game (except during the rut).
If these aren’t enough, you can try Dall sheep, musk oxen, or Sitka blacktail deer on Kodiak Island. They’re all unique to the Far North, worthy of “favorite hunt” status.
All of the above are well and good, but are they really the ultimate test for a favorite hunt? Not necessarily. Since my first big Alaskan hunt with Roger Iveson in 1993, I have been on more than 36 hunts in the Far North, many of them standard guided hunts of 10–12 days; several of 16 days; and a half-dozen, do-it-yourself adventures longer than 20 days.
Some of the longer hunts were planned, while others were mandated by blizzards, fog, equipment breakdowns, you name it… Regardless of circumstances, to me the ultimate test of enjoyment — the definition of favorite — is my attitude at the end. Have I had enough, or do I want to stay for more?
In reviewing all of my Far North hunts, I have never wanted one of these hunts to end, nor have I wanted to go home early. On numerous guided hunts, I’ve seen other hunters fill their tags as quickly as possible, and then call in a plane to take them home immediately. I have never understood this. Why go to the effort and expense of reaching a remote and beautiful destination if you just want to go home?
Maybe you don’t need to do cartwheels in the rain and mud to celebrate, but that response pretty well summarizes my view. No matter the circumstances, life in the Far North is nothing but good. Call me crazy if you will, but that’s my definition of a favorite hunt.