November 04, 2010
A walk in Fred Bear's footsteps makes moose-hunting memories to last a lifetime.
Dry Creek isn't. Its name is a trick. In fact, the entire region, at the foothills of the Central Alaska Range south of Fairbanks, is rich both in wildlife and bow-hunting history. This area, pioneered for bowhunting by no less than Glenn St. Charles, founder of the Pope and Young Club, and made famous by the inimitable Fred Bear, founder of bowhunting as we know it, is situated by Alaska standards just a stone's throw -- one long rocky ridge -- from the legendary Little Delta country.
This young bull posed for Editor Dwight Schuh, who has a knack for getting almost too close to moose.
It was at Dry Creek that Fred Bear joined with well-known outfitter Bob Buzby on numerous hunts during the late '60s and early '70s, hunting out of Bob's historic creek-side array of log cabins and wall tents. And it was here that, in 1967, Fred harvested one of the better of his eight moose taken during a long bowhunting career. Seems Fred was very fond of this spot, because he returned many times over the years to host close friends and reward coworkers for jobs well done. He really became more friend than client at Buzby's.
After a relatively short Helio Courier flight over the sprawling flats south of Fairbanks and then up a winding, steep-walled canyon, you drop down suddenly upon a short gravel runway and thud along the milky rush of Dry Creek, jerking to a halt in a very special place. A wilderness outpost hugs the creek, with Stanley Niemiec's trapper's cabin, cook shack, wall tents, outhouse, and cache of gear and supplies, ancient, old, and used. Here the air is crisp and clean -- moist as a cloud. Fishing poles on the bank await the next grayling. Rubbed spruce trees wear tufts of golden grizzly hair.
Hunting guides pan for gold in their spare time. And sparrows brave camp to scavenge meat and suet from the fresh, pink skulls of Dall sheep. Sweeping branched and palmated antlers perch in clumps of willow brush. Black bears comb over the blueberry-covered hills. Velvet-racked caribou totter over the tundra, heading who knows where. Tall, glistening moose wade lithely through spring-fed grasses into well-tracked mineral licks. And, without exception, everywhere you look, the country is splashed in the blazing colors of September in Alaska.
Fred Bear hunted many times out of Bob Buzby's camp in Dry Creek.
It doesn't take long to see that outfitters Virgil and son Eric Umphenour of Hunt Alaska oversee wonderful, game-rich country sure to quench the thirst of anyone looking for bowhunting adventure. You see, Dry Creek isn't really dry at all.
Bowhunter Editor Dwight Schuh had learned of the Umphenour's Dry Creek moose hunting operation during a brown bear hunt the previous year. Intrigued by the prospect of hunting Alaska-Yukon moose once again, and knowing that I also wanted to hunt moose and that I was something of a Fred Bear historian, Dwight invited me to join him the following September. Fortunately, it wasn't long before I was climbing into Eric Umphenour's Yamaha Rhino for the ride past Buzby's old place to our spike camp high on an exposed ridge. With Dwight charging ahead of us -- racing to the top, man against machine -- and freelance cameraman Mike Malley hanging courageously on the back of our chariot-like wagon stacked with gear, we were all thrilled to be alive and adventuring.
Eric had already selected our spike camp and set up our Alaknak tent just off the ridge top, looking like a lighthouse in the distance. Once we'd disembarked and settled in, we readied our bow gear again and set out to look for game. I had drawn a coveted caribou tag, so I was looking for two kinds of big-antlered bulls. Dwight had a moose and black bear tag.
The first couple of days, we traveled up and down the long ridge, setting up to glass from various promontories. We glassed numerous grizzlies early in the hunt, and even had a bear approaching camp the first morning before it slipped over the ridge to feed on berries the rest of the day. We glimpsed several moose, but didn't see anything worth chasing. Dwight stalked close to a nice black bear, only to have a swirling wind give him away at the last possible mo-ment. And I came close to a couple tremendous caribou bulls but was never able to quite get into range.
Bush pilots flying Helio Couriers regularly brave the short, gravel runway at Dry Creek.
One morning, Dwight and I both spotted moose in the same general vicinity, about 21„2 miles away. We figured there were three different bulls in one heavily timbered finger, so we formulated a plan and dropped down off the ridge, just hoping to get a closer look at the bulls. Perhaps one would meet the four-brow-tine or 50-inch-wide restrictions. Having seen very few moose in my life, I didn't plan to shoot unless Dwight assured me the bull was legal or I was absolutely sure the animal was big enough.
Amazingly, a few hours later, we had located two of the bulls on the edge of the timber. We looked them over very closely but still couldn't be sure that either was legal. Once the bulls moved on, we heard some clatter deeper in the timber and caught sight of what appeared to be a cow and calf. Because I couldn't hunt as long as Dwight and had to fly out first, he was dedicated to getting me a moose or caribou. I followed his experienced lead, knowing that he'd try his best to get me into position for a shot. I figured if I could keep Dwight in sight, I'd have a great chance at taking an animal.
Quickly, we circled into the wind, hoping to get ahead of the bulls, but during a sudden rain shower, we lost track of the big animals. Just as we were about to head back toward camp in fading daylight, Dwight caught sight of one bull standing in the timber a couple hundred yards away. Once more we circled ahead to get the wind right, and this time we set up and called.
I stood against a trimmed-out spruce, Mike Malley set up his camera on a tripod behind me, and Dwight set up to rake the brush with a moose shed. Dwight loves to call moose, and that evening he showed me why. Even though the rut had not begun, within minutes of Dwight's nasal pleading, I had six bulls moving about the timber around me. Two bulls chased each other in the distance. One bull stood his ground at about 40 yards. Two more passed by within 15 yards. And another, maybe the only legal bull, came in behind me and to the right, about 20 y
ards away, never offering a shot.
The only other time I had hunted moose, during the rut in Alberta, I had been very intimidated by their size and demeanor. But this time, I was determined to stay calm, stand my ground, and just let the animals move about me as though I were part of the scenery. After this amazing close encounter, my confidence grew, and as we trudged back toward camp, I began to feel very good about our chances.
The following day, we spotted another good-looking bull bedded in a high, brushy bowl about three miles away. We planned our stalk and spent most of the day negotiating difficult terrain. Finally, we arrived at the location, but the bull had moved. We discovered him once more, but after studying him for quite some time, Dwight wasn't sure the bull measured up. Not wanting to give up without a closer look, especially after such a long haul, we decided to stalk the bull in his bed.
In this photo of the Dry Creek base camp, you can just make out the white wall tents in the timber and the gravel runway across the creek.
But before we could get started, the bull stood and moved down a willow-filled creek bottom and disappeared. Having never seen him leave the creek bottom, we deducted that he must have bedded back down. So we split up, and I stalked into position for a possible shot while Dwight moved down the parallel bank in hopes of getting a good look at the bull and giving me a thumbs-up.
As luck would have it, during the heat of the afternoon, the bull had bedded back down -- right in the middle of the creek. Dwight had to creep almost on top of him to get any look at all. I was in near-perfect position when the bull heard something or caught a whiff of something he didn't like and charged up out of his bed, right in front of me. I was still looking for Dwight's okay when the bull would have no more of me and sauntered off, holding his head high and tilted back slightly as though to give us a good look. "He looked like a legal bull when he was going away," Dwight said, half jokingly.
I felt silly to have stood there with a bull broadside at about 15 yards, but no matter how far we'd come, I was not going to shoot unless I was certain. As we trudged back toward camp high on the ridge, this time I wondered if I'd get another opportunity.
But the next day, Eric Umphenour's sharp eyes turned up what appeared to be a very nice bull bedded in some brush about three-quarters of the way to the timbered spot where we'd had our six-bull encounter. When this bull got up and moved across the open tundra, we got a very good look at him through the spotting scope. I'll never forget the way the long strands of velvet hung off the many points of his rack and fluttered in the wind. He looked majestic, and I thought he was the biggest bull I'd ever seen. The decision to go after him was easy.
This time, Eric powered the Rhino to a high hill overlooking our approach and guided us into position. Knowing full well where we'd last seen the bull, upon arrival we were puzzled by our inability to see him. How could a bull like that just disappear? Eric seemed comfortable on his hilltop lookout, but we were perplexed. Surmising the bull had somehow gotten up without our notice and moved out of view, we decided to move on. But Eric didn't budge. So we moved back to our original vantage point, looking down from a small hill into the brushy flat where we'd last seen the bull.
Because we weren't having any success with hand signals, Dwight decided to hike back to Eric's lookout. And when Dwight returned, all he could say was that the bull hadn't moved. So we waited. The bull was still somewhere in the island of brush below us, and we could almost visualize where he must be, but we just couldn't see him. At one point, we all heard an audible clunk, but still no moose materialized.
The peaks of the Alaska Range towered above our spike camp.
Then, as afternoon turned to evening and we began to realize that our time was running out, Dwight moved off to the right to get a slightly different look, and he soon caught sight of an antler top. The bull had been bedded right there in front of us all afternoon. Sometimes you just need to change your perspective.
Now we had to move quickly. My heart began to pound as we slipped down the small brushy hill and crossed the open tundra. We set up at the end of the brushy finger where the bull lay, figuring we were within 100 yards. The wind wasn't quite right, but it was the best we could do, so after trimming a few shooting lanes, Dwight began his nasal cow calling. Immediately the bull grunted and rose from his bed, but we still couldn't see him. I expected the bull to walk right to us, but he held his ground in the security of the brush, and after about 20 minutes or so, he seemed to be moving away.
"He's leaving," Dwight whispered. "C'mon. Let's go. We've got to press him." So we ran toward him along the marshy edge of his bedding area and literally ran right up to him in the brush. He had begun to circle into the wind, and his antlers looked massive as he pushed through the willow brush in front of us. Quickly, we dropped back out of sight, and Dwight set up to call and rake the brush.
Figuring to shoot from my knees, I settled into a little hole in front of a bush and waited for the bull to step out into the clear. He sauntered into the open and approached to about 35 yards, but he faced me as he postured and waved his long-tined rack, shimmering with loose velvet. He looked like a creature from a far different time, and I knew he was the right bull as soon as I saw him. But the look in the bull's eyes and the cool draft on the back of my neck told me he wouldn't come any closer. And when he turned slowly to his right, I knew he was about to leave.
Rushing to full draw, I remember seeing the bull begin to quarter as I released. The arrow felt good, but I remember being surprised to see the shaft strike the bull high at about mid-body. Immedi-ately, the bull crashed off through the brush, and I felt overwhelmed by the moment as myriad thoughts raced through my mind.
"What happened?" asked Dwight, as he rushed back onto the scene from his hiding spot. "Did you get him?"
Cameraman Mike Malley didn't like what he saw from the camera's perspective -- and I wasn't sure, either -- but as I stood there shaking, we all heard the deep gurgling sounds of a hard-hit moose.
"You got that bull!" Dwight said confidently. "I've heard that sound before..." Sure enough, just a few minutes later, as Mike rewound the video for a second look, Dwight called me to the edge of the willows where the bull had disappeared. The big bull had gone less than 80
yards -- the arrow had indeed hit high but angled forward and exited the chest on the opposite side. I'd been blessed beyond my wildest dreams. After all, I would have shot any legal moose, and here we were, celebrating over a truly special bull. At that time, I think we all realized how fortunate we were to be in Dry Creek, and I think we all felt a little bit like we'd walked in Fred Bear's footsteps and that perhaps he was watching over us.
Here Editor Dwight Schuh and I pose with much more moose than I deserved. We certainly were bless-ed in Dry Creek.
Author's Notes: As we began to take photos of my bull, the lights from Eric's Rhino came bobbing over the tundra. That night, we dressed-out the bull, de-boned, and stowed about half of the animal in game bags. The other half we covered with hide and brush. We left the antlers and cape for the following morning but took the prime cuts of meat back to camp. Eric brought out the rest of the bull the following morning, where it hung on the camp meat pole until the first available flight out. The Umphenours own a packing house, so meat and trophy care is absolutely first-rate.
Eric Umphenour later scored my bull at 4975„8, by SCI standards. It measured slightly over 57 inches wide. Fred Bear's '67 bull was very similar, and it scored 4945„8 SCI.
I carried a 60-lb. Mathews Drenalin and well-built Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 250s tipped with Rocky Mountain Ti-100 broadheads. Nikon spotting scopes, binoculars, and rangefinders proved very important on this hunt. I wore a mix of clothing in Realtree patterns and good waterproof hiking boots from Vasque.
While I did not take a caribou on the trip, I did see some stunning bulls. Dwight stayed on after I left but did not take a moose on his own. However, he did discover a nearby moose hots-pot...but that's another story in the making. To organize your own Alaska-Yukon moose hunting adventure in Dry Creek, contact Virgil or Eric Umphenour at Hunt Alaska, 2400 Davis Rd., Fairbanks, AK 99701; phone (907) 456-3885; fax (907) 456-3889; www.huntalaskawithus.com. Virgil's daughter, Shelbie, does much of the hunt coordination, and she can be reached via e-mail at Shelbie@ak.net /firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a closing note, considering that you hear so many horror stories about air travel and late-arriving, damaged, or lost luggage, I owe a shout-out to Northwest Airlines (Minneapolis to Fairbanks leg), Alaska Airlines, and Wright Air Service for their special care of a misplaced backpack. The good folks at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game proved tremendously helpful as well (www.adfg.state.ak.us).