The wind blew the rain hard against the tent. The constant 10-15 mph speed made the drizzle seem like it was coming down in torrents. It always sounds worse inside the tent when it’s raining and this time was no exception. During the night, the wind had upended two of the stakes, pinching the sides of the tent’s outer shell against the inner. As a result, water seeped in, covering the floor and soaking our sleeping pads. Alana and I were camped 12 miles in the Valdez Creek mining road. We had walked in yesterday and were going to continue hiking an additional ~11 miles to the East Fork of the Susitna, where we would blow up our rafts and float the 18 miles or so back to the highway. I had drawn a tag for caribou in the area and had brought the rifle along, in hopes of coming home with more than we had started with.
We had done a longer version of the same trip the previous year. Following Ed Plumb’s report, we set off to more or less mirror his route. Starting on the mining road, we hiked along the high tundra among alpine lakes to our put in near the headwaters of the East Fork of the Susitna. We saw plenty of curious caribou along the way, both during the hike and along the river. Even with the presence of our dogs the caribou were interested in us, coming closer to check us out. I wanted to check the area out again with the intention of hunting, which is how we found ourselves back.
Off down the trail once more, into the wind and rain. We were planning on walking about 2 miles further, where we’d diverge from the trail and make our way up a low pass into the alpine. Last year, we hadn’t seen caribou until entering another valley so we were pleasantly surprised and not at all ready when 2 cows, each with a calf, came into view just around a bend in the trail. I took my pack off and fussed with the straps, trying to be quick yet quiet and get my rifle set. The group had seen or heard us in the meantime and retreated over a small hill into the brush. I edged up to the small hill, looking over but seeing nothing. I returned to Alana and our packs, getting everything set, only to see the caribou return to the same spot as before. This time I was ready and had one of the cows in my crosshairs. About 120 yards distant, well within range, but I did not pull the trigger. Hesitant with the calves and perhaps waiting for better options? I’m unsure. Nonetheless, soon they were gone once again, heading through the brush and up the nearby slopes out of range.
Walking further, we passed two more groups of caribou while on the trail, neither within range. Pushing past the brush, we followed caribou trails up the slope and into the tundra. As we crested the ridge and looked beyond, we saw another group of caribou, 3 cows and a bull. Out of range, we sat behind some rocks and watched them feed for a few minutes, before they continued over the horizon and out of sight. We would continue to see small groups, popping up behind small outcrops of land, as we continued to make our way across the tundra. We were in our version of No Man’s Land in terms of hunting. At about our midway point of the trip, I was unsure what the pack out would be. We could retreat down our path the 2 miles, rejoin the trail and float the creek for a few miles. But we would have to take out before rougher water and either walk an additional 6 miles of trail or leave the trail and travel the mile or so in the brush to the river. Alternatively, we could continue on our route, hiking 5-6 more miles until the river and then floating out. Both seemed difficult.
We were edging along a hillside toward a set of alpine lakes when I once again spotted antlers, about 100 yards ahead below the next fold of the land. We got down on our packs and I inched forward with my rifle. The wind was not in our favor, with the caribou downwind of our position, but they did not indicate they had noticed us. It was a mixed group of bulls and cows, some very large in size. I watched through my rifle scope as more emerged out of the fold of the land, moving parallel to us, feeding on the slope above. I was in a decent position for a shot. Wanting to improve it, I slowly made for a small outcrop of grass, where I could have a better posture for a shot. However, just as I began to move, I bumped the stock of the rifle on a rock, creating a loud enough noise to alert the caribou and send them running hundreds of yards away. I put my hand to my forehead, laughing at my stupidity. We watched them continue on and join another group about a mile across the valley.
Another opportunity presented itself not long after, as we walked above a collection of alpine lakes. 2 cows and a bull sauntered below near the lake’s edge. The cows caught wind of us and bolted off, down the pass and out of sight. We could not see where the bull went, only to find him walking about 150 yards above us moments later. I had him in my sights, clicked off the safety and hovered my hand over the trigger. He quartered towards us and my finger touched the trigger, only to come off a moment later as he turned uphill and vanished out of sight. Hesitant yet again, and again the same result.
We continued over the pass, following caribou trails through the brush to a vantage point above the East Fork valley. We spotted a group of 3 caribou below about a half mile distant. Just beyond there was a brown blob. I moved the binoculars over to find a sow grizzly standing on her hind legs, looking in her direction. Accompanying her were not one, nor two, but three cubs. She dropped back down and continued feeding in the area. The wind wasn’t in our favor once again and upon catching our scent, the caribou took off…right into the bears. They screeched to a halt, turned around and ran the other way as fast as they could. The bears paid them no mind and continued to feed on the dense blueberry bushes. We debated what to do, whether to stop early and camp high or continue down to the river and float on. Not wanting to stop so early in the afternoon or be by the bears, I elected to continue on.
Giving the bears a wide berth, we went down through the brush to the river, following caribou trails when we could. Initially, I was hoping that we would find caribou along the river. But now having reached it and having passed so many caribou I was less optimistic. Nothing seemed to change that sentiment as we continued. Alana spotted one caribou that I gave a brief stalk before losing it in the dense growth of dwarf birch. Spruce trees began appearing and we found ourselves back in the forest once again. Instead of caribou, moose lined the banks. We saw 4 in our hour of floating before stopping to camp. Trumpeter swans flew above with their young as we settled in on the small sand bar that would be home for the night.
Low clouds and more rain greeted us the following morning. We could not see more than 100 ft or so beyond the river, the mountains above and land beyond obscured by clouds. We set off on a frigid, uneventful 12.5 miles of floating. Trying to cling to any warmth, we paddled against strong headwinds and rain showers. No other mammals made themselves known, only a golden eagle and a few other smaller bird species.
The trip felt like an Alaskan safari. Caribou, bears, sheep, moose, porcupine, a golden eagle, bald eagle and more. Not to mention the multitude of berries. A plethora of life in a beautiful setting. But like our trip last year, constant wetness and a sense of cold was the price. What a utopia this area would be with just a little sunshine and dryness. We left with no meat but plenty of lessons and lingering questions. What’s the right distance for a pack out? When is it worth stopping and looking around further? I have no doubt that I’ll be returning to this area again. Perhaps the next time I’ll have better luck at convincing a caribou to come home with us.