Category Archives: Featured Content

Alaska Man Sentenced In Moose Poaching Violations

An Anchor Point man will serve jail time and pay hefty fines after he was convicted of poaching three moose last fall. Among Rusty Counts’ penalties: $100,000 in fines and fees, a 270-day jail term, a three-year suspended hunting license and forfeiting his rifle and ATV used to illegally kill and then waste much of the moose meat.

Here are some details from  KTUU TV;

In fall of 2018, Alaska Wildlife Troopers in the Anchor Point area say they took reports of two moose who had been shot and “very little of the edible meat salvaged from the animals.”

A photo of this incident identified Counts riding away from the scene on a four wheeler. A third moose was later found and also connected to Counts.

Counts was ultimately charged and convicted on 21 counts, including three counts of wanton waste, three counts of taking a moose during a closed season, unlawful possession of game, three counts of failing to validate a harvest ticket, three counts of failing to seal antlers, three counts of failing to report harvest, two counts of taking over limit of moose, and three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

 

Into Alaska’s Heart And Soul: The Faces Of Kenai, Kodiak NWR

Featuring a diverse wildlife ecosystem, two of Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges, Kenai and Kodiak, are featured this winter on Animal Planet’s series Into Alaska.(USFWS/LISA HUPP; BERKLEY BEDELL)

 

The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal

BY CHRIS COCOLES

Bill Leacock and Dustin Rose quietly maneuver their skiff along what could easily pass as a Norwegian fjord.

Their boat slows to a crawl; they whisper instructions to each other as they scan the elderberry- and salmonberry-lined shoreline in search of a Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge local known affectionately as Broken Ear.

As Leacock tells it, the 23-year-old sow bear “would swim from this north island to Camp Island then across the channel on to the shore of the lake. Her cubs would stay on the north island. Broken Ear would then walk over to Thumb Creek and fish all day long. In the early evening she’d return. Her cubs would come to the shore of the north island and watch Mom swim from Camp Island to the north island in anticipation. There would be an affectionate greeting and then the cubs would start nursing.”

In the moment, this place – one of North America’s if not the planet’s most rugged, remote, dangerous yet hauntingly beautiful – is Broken Ear’s home, Leacock’s office, Rose’s classroom and our public-land backyard, albeit a backyard that most Americans will never get to experience in person. 

That is illustrated wonderfully on Animal Planet’s series Into Alaska, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of Alaska’s Kodiak and Kenai National Wildlife Refuges, two of the shining stars among the state’s 16 federal refuges covering roughly 77 million acres of protected land.

“National wildlife refuges in Alaska are representative of some of what makes Alaska so special, from my standpoint, which is its wild nature, its amazing fish and wildlife resources and the connection that people have with those resources. The scope of Alaska is hard to get your head around to begin with,” says Andy Loranger, manager at Kenai NWR. 

“There are refuges literally throughout this state – from the high Arctic tundra on the North Slope through the boreal forest and encompassing several mountain ranges, coastal marine areas and islands. Every ecosystem and every biome in the state is represented within Alaska’s national wildlife refuges.”

Mike Brady, Loranger’s managerial counterpart at Kodiak NWR, has worked on refuges in Maryland, California, Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts in addition to his time in the Last Frontier. So he’s experienced wildlife conservation in all corners of America. 

“It just goes to show the dedication of the folks. I’ve moved around a lot for the service and every refuge has its own issues. But it’s really the staff that stands behind those issues working on them every day,” Brady says. “They’re super dedicated, hard-working folks and really like conservation. Whatever it is and wherever it is, they’re very dedicated individuals.”

Into Alaska showcases them, both the lifers like Bill Leacock and the Dustin Rose-types who someday might be following in their footsteps.

“National wildlife refuges in Alaska are representative of some of what makes Alaska so special, and from my standpoint, which is its wild nature, wildlife and the amazing fish and wildlife resources,” says Kenai NWR manager Andy Loranger. (BERKLEY BEDELL/USFWS)

SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA 

First things first: NWR biologists and officers don’t have the easiest of jobs. Their workdays are spent in far-flung locations away from computer screens and desk chairs, and then tedious hours are spent entering data they’ve collected. 

Often they survey salmon streams miles from any paved roads or keep tabs on anglers or hunters to make sure said sportsmen and -women are legally harvesting fish and game.

They’re working with wildlife species that have zero interest in getting national television exposure. So how much more complicated was it to agree to let a cameraperson and a producer tag along, let alone for refuge staffers to have their everyday grunt work filmed?

“It was a big unknown for us, to be frank with you, and we were hesitant for sure. But we felt that introducing the American public to national wildlife refuges in Alaska, our staff and the mission and work of the Fish and Wildlife Service was going to be worth it. That said, we were pretty naïve about what a television production would require,” says Loranger, who appeared on the show during its first month of episodes in November. 

“I think for most of us being on camera was definitely a unique experience; we’re generally not trained to do that. Some of us are a little bit more camera-shy than others. I’m an introvert. But all in all it was a positive experience for our staff, working with the TV crew on a daily basis as well as doing the interviews.”

For Leacock, the Kodiak bear biologist, he felt much more comfortable in the field than when asked to amplify his thoughts back at headquarters. And he requested an intimate crew when it came to following the biologist around during bear work, keeping the entourage to just a camera operator and a producer. 

It’s not an unreasonable request, given that it’s hard enough to get close to a Kodiak brown bear, a bald eagle – in another episode Kenai warden Chris Johnson captures an injured raptor in order to get the bird to a vet for treatment – or most other animals without added distractions. 

“When they first proposed this project, we emphasized to them that we want to keep the crew as small as possible; two max. And they understood that. Bears aren’t really comfortable with bigger groups,” says Leacock, confessing that indeed the more people the safer the group is from potential bear attacks. 

Still, smaller was better in this project. Leacock was instrumental as coach for Bear Etiquette 101, starting with proper body language around Kodiak’s giant
furry superstars.

“We definitely wanted to keep the sizes of groups as small as possible. There was a difference between four people and two people,” he says. “For people who don’t know how to minimize their disturbance toward bears, it’s a challenge.”

But it’s one that by all accounts both the refuge and Animal Planet crews pulled off efficiently. 

“Bill does have this special talent and has a very calming presence. I’ve been lucky enough to go up salmon streams with Bill before and he truly is a bear whisperer. A person like myself would never just walk quietly up a bear stream yelling, ‘Hey bear! Hey bear!’” Brady says. 

“But you’d probably never go to some of the areas that Bill goes to because of the concentration of bears. But Bill is very calm and I’ve gone up to (the O’Malley River bear viewing area) with him before, and it’s just an amazing experience. He has a lot of respect for the bears and he knows what he can and cannot do. It’s not something that you can do on your own.”

Salmon like these sockeye at Kenai are such a critical part of the ecosystem and habitat of these refuges. “All these salmon coming bring in all the nutrients from the marine ecosystem,” bear biologist Bill Leacock says. “And they spawn and then they die and fertilize everything.” (LISA HUPP/USFWS)

WORKING FOR CONSERVATION 

For Kenai NWR’s refuge manager Loranger, his current love started at an early age. 

“I was always interested in science. My favorite subjects were the biological sciences. My long-term interest in conservation and the outdoors may go back to some of my fondest memories of youth in New England when Dad would take us fishing” Loranger says. “We’d round up a group of kids from the neighborhood, grab our fishing poles and head out for the afternoon or evening. We’d fish bass, sunfish and catfish until dark, or later if Dad didn’t need to get back.”

It wasn’t until late in his undergrad college journey that he had his first real experience plying the trade he’s made a distinguished run out of. He pursued and was ultimately offered an internship with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  

There, he accompanied biologists checking wood duck boxes to measure nesting success, rocket-netted and banded waterfowl on the north shore of Boston and conducted studies on river otters’ food habits. It was a life-changing experience for Loranger, who was named the USFWS Refuge System manager of the year for 2018. That volunteer work was “the light bulb going off.”

“I immediately knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.  The biologists at MDFW all advised me to go onto graduate school, and I did that. I was then able to hire on seasonally with the Fish and Wildlife Service in western Minnesota for two summers” Loranger says. “Like many people, I had a lifetime interest in seeing Alaska, so my wife and I just decided to move up before knowing for sure we had jobs. Thankfully, I was able to continue my career here with the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Loranger often makes the approximate three-hour drive between the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage. But he still makes it a point to stop along the route to take in the scenery, not unlike the tourists who flock to Kenai, which unlike most other Alaska refuges is located on the road system and offers salmon anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers easy access to its wild front- and backcountry. 

Loranger, who along with his wife arrived in Alaska years ago before they had children, can still remember his first silver salmon he pulled from the Little Susitna River. Now when he plays instead of works he can enjoy the same lands he helps protect. 

“We love these places for the opportunities they provide us. But I think what’s really important to remember is that what we have in Alaska is very unique, not only in the U.S. but globally,” he says. “Keeping these places wild to ensure that people have these opportunities in the future, so that they can be as awestruck as I am every time I’m on the Kenai River or make that stop on the drive – that’s important to me and important to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

And when you’re talking 77 million acres of federal refuge land, call it Alaska’s controlled chaos of salmon, moose, caribou, fox, lynx, Dall sheep, mountain goats, wolves and black and brown bears, among so many others. Kenai features just about all you would envision when dreaming of this state.  

“The Kenai Refuge and the Kenai Peninsula have been nicknamed Alaska in miniature because many of the state’s habitats are found here,” Loranger says. 

“We don’t have polar bears or musk oxen, but the diversity of habitats on the Kenai from the Harding Icefield, glaciers, the Kenai Mountains and alpine tundra at higher elevations to the boreal forest, riverine systems, including the world-famous Kenai River, and coastal estuaries at lower elevations supports many of Alaska’s most iconic fish and wildlife species.”

As for Brady, his nomadic rungs on the job ladder included working with condors at Southern California’s Hopper Mountain NWR, to the opposite coast studying Canada geese and other waterfowl at Maryland’s Blackwater NWR.

Now in his second tour of Alaska – he was formerly assigned to Alaska Peninsula and Becharof NWRs – Brady sees the value of learning while working with interns featured on Into Alaska. That includes Rose and Laura Bashor, who in an episode joined Kenai biologist Ken Gates and fish technician Chelsea Pardo at the Funny River salmon weir to sample data from spawning Chinook. 

“You’re preparing them for the next level, so to make them a good biologist they need to see what you do and they learn from what you do. And hope for the best when they work down the road. We all come from that intern/volunteer level and work our way up through the ranks,” Brady says. “We know what it takes, so you try to give them every available nut and bolt so they can cobble something together. Even if it’s not with the Fish and Wildlife Service, we hope they bring that conservation (approach) forward, whether it’s for a state agency, a nonprofit or whatever.”

Biologist Bill Leacock has studied bears for the last 22 years, including his time at Kodiak. “Every time I’m out there I learn something new about bears,” he says. “I wish I could climb into their head but I can’t. It gives you little glimpses of about what’s going on of what they may be thinking, how they behave and how they interact with each other.” (LISA HUPP/USFWS)

THE ‘BEAR WHISPERER’ 

In fourth grade, Bill Leacock was given a project assignment and chose brown bears as the topic. Today he has an ursine obsession. 

Years later in the early to mid-1990s, Leacock was working for the Swedish International Development Agency Lao-Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme. He had accrued a couple months of annual leave and ended up volunteering to help out George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was trying to carry out wildlife surveys in the Annamite Mountains of Laos near the Vietnamese border. 

“(Schaller) expressed a need for some help from someone that was a fluent speaker of Lao and was bush-savvy in a Lao sense,” says Leacock.

Schaller, a University of Alaska alum and revered biologist who was one of the first mammalogists to work with mountain gorillas, had a life-changing discussion with Leacock.  

“I was helping him out with some surveys up at the Laotian/Vietnamese border and was picking his brain about potential projects,” he says. 

“Oddly enough he said they were looking for two: One was the Bactrian camel in Mongolia and another one was someone to do the first brown bear project in Kamchatka, Russia, back in 1995. And I said, ‘Camels sound pretty cool but brown bears in Kamchatka sound great.’ So that’s where I really got immersed in the study of brown bears and that started in (the Kamchatka Peninsula).”

In that far eastern region of Russia – some of its protected areas might hold Earth’s most dense concentration of brown bears – Leacock was given a welcome-to-bear-research shock therapy. During a pilot trip with Schaller in August 1995, the duo was on the Vechinkya River, which flows into Kurliskoye Lake in the Kamchatka Sanctuary. 

“I’d never seen anything so spectacular in my life: salmon stacked on top of each other going up creeks that were 12 inches deep. I was just kind of thrown out there to sink or swim,” he recalls. “There were 18 bears around me and I didn’t know what the hell to do. But the odd thing was they would just look at me and let me go on my way down the stream and they would just go about their business.”

Leacock’s 22-year run studying bears took him from Russia to Alaska’s Yukon Delta NWR and now bruin-friendly Kodiak, a refuge that has pristine salmon spawning habitat and sustains 3,500 bears.

Working with Rose, a University of Idaho student, only reassured Leacock that his tireless research and admiration for these giant predators and rock stars of Alaska’s animal kingdom is his muse and likely in good hands years from now. 

Rose, who did two tours in Iraq in the military, always aspired to pursue a career in fish and wildlife enforcement but now ponders more of a research gig. He couldn’t ask for a more seasoned teacher in figuring out these fascinating and often misunderstood giant predators.

“It’s a very challenging place for a person like Bill to get around and do the work that he’s doing for everyone. Bear conservation is very important. It’s been a great history here at Kodiak,” Brady says. “We want to make sure that bear is there for the next generation and the habitat is there for the next generation. We have this giant intact ecosystem, which many other managers in the Lower 48 don’t have. We’re really lucky here in Alaska to be able to work on such a large animal on such a large canvas.”

Watching Leacock and Rose in action on Animal Planet was a reflection of one generation of conservationists mentoring the next, regardless of where the youngster’s career path takes him. Take a closer look at their bearded faces and you might confuse Bill and Dustin as father and son. 

“Even before he came up here Dustin had an intense and strong interest in wildlife in trying to figure things out and why things are the way they are. So that was really nice, but he was really new to bears,” Leacock says. “(But) he’s one of the most observant that we’ve had. He’s watching things and trying to figure things out. He was very comfortable, even though he was new in bear country.”

What also impressed Leacock about his protégé was Rose’s individuality. Yes, the rookie listened to what the veteran recommended, but Rose was also confident enough to offer his own viewpoint “and maybe challenge me sometimes,” Leacock says, a good sign that he’s well on his way to making his own mark whatever and wherever it might take him.

Bashor admits she’d never really handled a fish before meeting up with Gates and Pardo, but here was the college kid jumping into a weir with flopping Chinook and caddying Pardo as they scooped up one particularly energetic female. One of Into Alaska’s gifts is hopefully passing a proverbial torch to the next wave of wildlife working men and women. 

“What’s a better place than Alaska’s national wildlife refuges to introduce young people to the work that we do and perhaps spark an interest in conservation?” Loranger asks.   

“These internships are great learning and grounding experiences, and it’s rewarding for us to see a young person decide ‘This is important to me and this is what I’d like to do for the rest of my career.’” 

Broken ear – note the right side of her head – is one of many Kodiak bears that biologist Bill Leacock has gotten to know over the years. (TIP (MOON) LEACOCK)

FINDING BROKEN EAR

Leacock and Rose spot bald eagles perched among cottonwoods, streams filled with spawning sockeye and a young bear frolicking along the water’s edge. But no Broken Ear. The sow got the name because “her right ear was evidently torn in a fight with another bear at least 13 years ago, at least since I’ve known her,” Leacock says. “Her right ear is barely hanging onto her head by a thin piece of skin about half an inch wide.” 

Leacock has been around these bruins for so long he knows several of them by name, and he’s been an acquaintance of Broken Ear since first spotting the sow in 2006. 

On this day, it doesn’t appear that he’ll reunite with the old gal on this outing as he and Rose cruise back toward Camp Island after their surveying is complete. 

But then it happens. “I see her right there,” the intern says as he peers over from the port side of the skiff into the brush. Sure enough, Leacock recognizes the animal right away.   

“Yep. There she is,” Leacock proclaims as Broken Ear emerges from the bush. “She stood up and as if to say hello.”

A few yards away down the shoreline they spot Mom’s two cubs engaged in some wrestling; in other words the usual sibling horse-, er, bearplay. 

They both take a few minutes to breathe in the moment. They’re working, of course, but you get the sense on camera that they’re as in awe of what’s around them and don’t take for granted what these refuges represent. 

“Been learning a lot of about how bears behave and how to behave around them,” Rose says back at their primitive Camp Island cabin. “I’ve grown a lot fonder of bears.” 

And even Leacock and Rose can take the time to simply be wildlife watchers and admirers. In an early episode, they spy a cub – one of Broken Ears’ brood – and a fox chasing other like a golden retriever and beagle at the neighborhood dog park. Leacock leans up against the porch railing. Rose breaks out a smartphone to record a play-by-play memory. It’s the quintessential national wildlife refuge moment.

“My hope or our hope is that through this program, we’re going to be able to raise a little bit of awareness with the public about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuges at Kenai and Kodiak and what they’re all about,” Leacock says. “(Showcase) the kind of work we do and build a little bit of support for the effort we make for the landscapes and the waters that we’re trying to conserve.” ASJ

Editor’s note: New episodes of Into Alaska (animalplanet.com/tv-shows/into-alaska) air on Monday nights on Animal Planet (check your local listings), with a new episode set to air tonight. Check out the official websites for more on Kenai (fws.gov/refuge/kenai) and Kodiak (fws.gov/refuge/kodiak) National Wildlife Refuges.

Bald eagles, large mammals, salmon; these iconic figures in Alaska are all huge parts of what the state’s national wildlife refuges are about and featured on Into Alaska. (LISA HUPP/USFWS)

Jack Hernandez Sportfish Hatchery Hosts Ice Fishing Seminar

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

(Anchorage) -With many cold months ahead of us, it’s time to sharpen your ice fishing skills! Already know the basics of ice fishing and ready to learn how to use more advanced equipment? Join Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) staff at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery (WJHSFH) on Wednesday, December 12, 2018, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. for an intermediate ice fishing seminar! This seminar will be held in the WJHSFH conference room, located at 941 North Reeve Boulevard, Anchorage.

This seminar is a follow up to our November introduction to ice fishing seminar. This is a free event for all angler levels who are interested in learning about ice fishing equipment that diehard anglers typical use such as depth sounders, underwater video cameras, augers, tents, and various types of tackle and bait. Anglers will also learn about ice safety, how to read a bathymetric map to find the best spot to target different fish species, and exactly what to use for the species you’re targeting. We will highlight some lakes in Southcentral Alaska that hold stocked fish as well as burbot, lake trout, and northern pike. ADF&G staff will also discuss the current ice fishing regulations.

Advanced registration is required and space is limited, so sign up early! To register please contact the Anchorage Sport Fish Information Center at (907) 267-2218.

For those anglers who are interested in fishing but aren’t quite ready to commit to the required fishing equipment, the ADF&G offers a free rod loaner program throughout the year. During the winter, anglers can borrow ice fishing rods, manual ice augers, buckets, and scoops. For more information, please contact the Anchorage Sport Fish Information Center at (907) 267-2218.

Knock, Knock? Who’s There? This Dastardly Alaska Moose Prankster

As a kid I admittedly will plead guilty to a few sporadic cases of “doorbell ditch.” 

(You know, ring some poor sap’s front doorbell – or knock it on – then run away for your own twisted ha-ha reaction when Old What’s His Name who lives down the street angrily puts down the newspaper expecting to see the kid collecting for the newspaper subscription – of course, I had that same job as a teenager – only to find the front porch empty – all thanks to those meddling kids.)

OK, so I was a creepy kid. I’m sorry! So shame on you, Alaska moose, for pulling the same prank on an unsuspecting Anchorage couple (see video above). Here’s KTVA’s Cassie Schirm  with more on this (not so) little rascal, which understandably provided a bit of a fright given that Alaskans are still recovering from last week’s powerful earthquake, though in typical Last Frontier-tough fashion they’re bouncing back quickly:

After checking on their dogs and looking out the door to find nothing, Stultz assumed some neighborhood kids were playing a prank.

“We were thinking kids coming through playing ding dong ditch or maybe a neighbor coming through. We had no idea,” Stultz said.

So they checked their security system and were surprised to see a moose caboose.

“We had this nice moose behind waiting for us right here,” Stultz said. “And he decided to back up right into it and that’s how he got our doorbell.”

 

There’s got to be a good Knock/Knock joke to come from this.

 

Low Chinook Totals Expected In 2019 On Stikine, Taku Rivers

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is making its 2019 salmon run forecasts, and the numbers don’t look good for two Southeast Rivers. Here’s the ADFG release on the Stikine and Taku Rivers:

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced today the following information concerning the preseason forecasts for Chinook salmon returning to the Stikine and Taku rivers in 2019.
The 2019 preseason terminal run forecast for Stikine River large Chinook salmon is 8,250 fish.

A terminal run forecast of this size does not provide an Allowable Catch (AC) for either the U.S. or Canada as the forecast is below the lower end of the Escapement Goal Range (EGR) of 14,000 to 28,000 fish.The 2019 preseason terminal run forecast for Taku River large Chinook salmon is 9,050 fish. A terminal run forecast of this size does not provide an AC for either the U.S. or Canada as the forecast is below the lower end of the EGR of 19,000 to 36,000 fish.

Due to the very low forecasts and recent poor runs to these transboundary rivers, all salmon fisheries in Districts 8 and 11 will have extensive conservation measures in effect through the duration of the Chinook salmon runs in 2019.  

Here’s a little more detail from the Homer News: 

“It’s been trending down for quite awhile,” said David Harris, area management biologist for Juneau for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fishers division. “Hopefully things start to improve.” …

… While the numbers are lower than usual, they are an increase from last year’s predictions, which forecast some of the lowest figures since the mid-1970s. In 2018, ADF&G expected only 4,700 chinook will spawn on the Taku River and only 6,900 chinook were expected.

“The forecasts are much improved from last year, but they’re still among the worst,” Harris said. “They’re probably the second worst ever.”

 

 

Dallas Seavey Exonerated By Iditarod Committee After Dog Doping Investigation

(DALLAS SEAVEY)

Our former cover subject and Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey was the subject of a dog doping scandal uncovered in the 2017 Iditarod during drug testing.  Seavey proclaimed his innocence when the news broke, and months later it appears Seavey, a four-time Iditaord winner, has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Here’s what Seavey said in the press release:

“I greatly appreciate the Iditarod resolving this issue thoroughly and definitively as well as their acknowledgement of the difficulties this has caused both myself and the greater mushing community.”

“Since my grandfather’s participation in the inaugural Iditarod, the Seavey family has cumulatively competed in the 47 Iditarod races. I look forward to many more years of involvement in the Last Great Race!”

Here’s a little more from the Anchorage Daily News: on the idea that someone else may have drugged the dogs: 

“We met with him multiple times and there was (sufficient) evidence to conclude he didn’t have anything to do with it,” Mike Mills, the president of the Iditarod’s board of directors, said in an interview.

“… There’s no wrongdoing with Dallas that we found. He had no knowledge. It’s a hard situation to untangle, but we’re comfortable that we made the right decision.”

So who drugged the dogs?

“We’re convinced we’re never going to figure that out,” Mills said.

 

 

 

ADFG Names Acting Commissioner

New acting commission Doug Vincent-Lang. ADFG file photo

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: 

Vincent-Lang is a veteran of the department with more than three decades of experience in wildlife research and management. He previously served as Division Director for Wildlife Management, Special Assistant and Assistant Director to the Division of Sport Fish, and as a research biologist.

Commissioner Vincent-Lang earned a B.S. degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a M.S. degree in biological oceanography from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

‘Just The Way It Goes Sometimes’

Photos by Paul Atkins

The following appears in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 

BY PAUL D. ATKINS 

Dang it,” I whispered as Lew made his way around the corner where I was standing. The big bull moose – the only one we’d seen in like, forever – had disappeared into the willows and was gone. 

“How can a bull that big, with such a huge wingspan and massive body, vanish so easily?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” Lew said in a frustrated tone. 

But he did vanish, leaving us with nothing but a trail of river water and some mighty big hoofprints in the soft gravel we were now standing on. Choosing to chase him was a decision we had to make in only seconds to decide, but it made sense. Moose meat is much better than bear, even though we had a good bear coming towards us from the other direction. I guess it’s just the way it goes sometimes.

 

I’VE HAD TO MAKE a lot of those last-minute, split-second decisions throughout my time here in the Arctic, moments I’ve wished I was somewhere else rather than where I was. I’ve lost count, actually, of all the times I went left when I should have gone right, but, oh well, hindsight is 20/20, as the old saying goes. It’s also hunting and I’m reminded of it quite often, especially when the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 rolls around.

My first fly-out, do-it-yourself drop hunt ended the same way. A few days before that fateful day, we flew north to a place that is well known throughout this region, the infamous Kelly River. 

It lays about 90 miles north of Kotzebue and was once known as the premier spot for hunting moose, bears and caribou. It was on everyone’s hit list in those days, and if you wanted a chance at all three species, then the Kelly was where you went. It was also the first time my wife Susie went with me. 

We had a great time, even though the rain poured for most of the trip and finding a piece of dry firewood was next to impossible. We hunted hard, glassing and searching every day for what would be hopefully my first moose. Like all hunts in Alaska we had choices to make, whether right or wrong. The biggest were, where should we go and in what direction? 

We decided to hunt north of camp and searched from a small hill that gave us the best advantage. It was futile and in the four days we were there we didn’t see anything except for mosquitoes and an awful lot of blueberries. 

But as it seems to go in these scenarios, on the day we flew out, which was the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, we saw from the plane what we had missed. Immediately we knew we should have turned our attention south. Three big bulls with massive headgear were feeding in the low-lying willows not far from camp, within easy packing distance of the plane. Crazy, right? Just the way it goes, I guess. Chalk that one up on the learning curve.

MY HUNTING PARTNER LEW Pagel and I have experienced this more times over the years, choosing to hunt this river drainage over that one, the far mountain instead of the closer one. Now, I’m not complaining; we’ve had good luck more times than not. But many of those decisions were based on weather more than anything else. 

Like today, for example. The wind is killing us – it’s blowing 30 mph and whitecapping Kotzebue Sound. Sure, we could risk it, and in my younger days I probably would have. But not today – too dangerous. Many will go anyway and get wet, as well as risk swamping their boat, or worse. So here we sit waiting, watching Weather Underground on our phones and hoping. It’s like being in purgatory. 

Just recently Lew and I were hunting bears in a prime spot that we’ve hit many times before. It’s legendary for big grizzlies and one of those places with muddy sand bars deepened by bear tracks and half-eaten dead fish laying everywhere. It’s a great spot if you want a grizzly; this is where you go.

We eventually made it there in the boat and camped at our normal spot, one that we’ve used for years. Our plan was to grab a quick MRE and then boat upriver that evening to sit and wait. Unlike most hunters who come north and stay for a week or 10 days, we only had the weekend, so our plan was to get in and hunt hard. 

The weather was great – no wind or rain – making for one of those perfect evenings when bears like to make their way to the river for supper. The fish, flopping and going crazy in the current, were a blessing too: big multicolored chums slapping constantly – creating the proverbial bear dinner bell – and trying to get to who knows where.

We took the ride upriver, made landfall and anchored up. It was primetime  for us too and we were ready. In no time we had a bear swimming the current towards us. He was further up than we were, but the current was pulling him towards a small island 300 yards away from where we sat watching. 

Lew asked me if I wanted to move the boat to the south end of that island. I looked and yes, there was a perfect sandbar that actually provided cover and would make for an easy shot from that distance. I hesitated, thought it over and finally said no.

Looking back I should have said yes. I just didn’t think he would come directly at us. I figured he would go the other way into the wind, but I was wrong, and my decision proved to be one I would regret, especially after getting a closer look at the size of this grizzly. He was huge, but with my indecision it was too late to move. The sound of the motor would have ended our hunt and he would have left in a hurry.

We watched and waited as the big bear headed straight for the sandbar. “Damn,” I whispered. For a moment I contemplated wading to the spot, but I knew the current lay deep in a small part of the river and my hip boots weren’t up for cold water, and neither was I. All we could do was watch and hope. 

He kept walking without a care or scent we were there, stopping here and there to dig at a dead fish. I had brought both my bow and rifle on this trip. From where we were he was 334 yards, too far for either. Finally, he walked along the sandbar, which would have been an easy 30-yard bow shot. But I wasn’t there to make it. All we could do was watch as the bear turned north and walked out of sight. 

“It’s just the way it goes sometimes,” I told Lew.

WE FELT EMPTY AND decided to float downriver back to camp, but like all things in the Arctic, when dusk approaches weird things can happen. After pulling anchor, we began to drift, using a wooden pole to keep us off the bank and out of the willows. 

Looking ahead I could see him – a big bear walking the edge of the bank looking for fish, stopping and posturing like he owned the place. No doubt he was big, but not as big as the one we had just left and the one I was still thinking about. Could it be that two bears were within a short distance of each other? 

In Alaska you can shoot from a boat or raft, as long as the motor is off. Our motor was off with me scrambling to find a good rest for a shot. I finally achieved a decent rest on the back of the swivel seat and peered at him through the scope. I needed him to stop, and not only would he not stop but he began to run towards something to his left. 

I raised my head to look and could instantly hear Lew say, “Sow with cubs.” Boars will eat small cubs, and these were small and so was the sow. The big male was trying to catch one of the cubs and the sow was attempting to warn him off in another direction. She did a good job as they played getaway in the willows. It was utter chaos! Bears were darting in and out of cover in every direction. I slipped the safety off the 7 Mag and waited for the big guy to stop, but he would not. 

It was then that Lew touched my shoulder and pointed downriver maybe 200 yards. Four more bears had made their way to the river – one on our left and three on the right. It was a “bears gone wild” episode and we sat there in awe of the show! For most this would be a sight to see, and believe me when I say it was. I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to just slip the safety back on and watch.

And so we did. We watched until dark as bears growled, chased each other and fought like crazy. We watched them pull fish from the water, devouring them as fast as they could, all the while eyeing each other from a distance. It was an incredible evening and not something we wouldn’t soon forgot. 

Many might think this way: “Well, you didn’t get a bear.” No, I didn’t, but that evening we got a lot more than that. This was an Arctic adventure like no other and a front-row seat in Bear 101 class. I guess it’s just the way it goes, but sometimes that way is good enough. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting, and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.

Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s A Scare For Your Holiday

Photos by Larry Hatter

Happy Thanksgiving. Rather than bore you with feel-good stories about turkeys or family fun, here’s a terrifying encounter for some caribou hunters on Alaska’s North Slope that is appearing in the November issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY LAWRENCE E. HATTER 

Memories of the hunt have a way of fading like the colors of fall as Old Man Winter approaches, but some are indelible. 

I’m confident as I stand in the barren land north of the tree line; no sun shines as brightly as one setting somewhere beyond the Chukchi Sea. I can also attest to this: There is no sight more blood-chilling than a large, male grizzly thirsting to gorge himself upon human flesh.

Such was the scenario unfolding before our little group of hunters who had made the long trek to the Brooks Range in search of the ever-wandering caribou herds. An orange- and red-glazed North Slope, once alive with hundreds of the nomads, had grown silent with the dusky evening’s approach. 

There was no sign of life in the drainage presently, except four weary hunters on their way back to camp and one skulking assailant concealed a mere 20 yards distant in a stand of buck brush. The only sign of his presence was the autumn breeze caressing the bronze-colored hair adorning his shoulders and a set of expressionless eyes fixated on our every movement. 

THE TRIP INTO THE North Slope had been without incident. Our final destination was a several-hours’ flight from the Dalton Highway and likewise if we’d originated from Kotzebue. This was as far as removed from the modern world as any of us had ever dared wander. 

That afternoon, as we prepared our quarters for the week, we paid little heed to an inquisitive grizzly skirting the rim of the basin we’d chosen for camp. After all, this was his country and this far from civilization, he likely had never encountered a human being. It was only natural to investigate, then push on in search of some blueberries or a straggling caribou.

 The evening passed quickly and we rose the next morning with all the vim and vigor that typically accompanies the first day of a hunt. Overnight, a heavy fog had blanketed the tundra and visibility wasn’t at its peak. Regardless, we anxiously donned our gear and headed afield.

As is common with an initial foray into a new area, we spent that first day acquiring a feel for the territory and making our share of blunders. I vividly recall being perched upon an outcropping that overlooked the Noatak River. I was so deep in thought as I looked out over one of Alaska’s most remote landscapes, I completely ignored the telltale click-clack of caribou hooves behind me. 

When I finally came to my senses and glanced over my shoulder, I saw only the tops of several sets of antlers cresting out of sight. I made a feeble attempt to scale the ridge and hopefully find the group of bulls in view, but as everyone knows, you can’t catch caribou once they are ahead of you.

A large hummock approximately a half-mile behind camp was our rendezvous that evening. Everyone had seen caribou from a distance but had failed to connect for one reason or another. After a brief discussion, we made the decision to head toward camp. All our stomachs were grumbling in anticipation of a few meager rations after a long day afield.

Author Larry Hatter during a less stressful moment.

 

MIDWAY BACK TO CAMP, the well-defined caribou trail we were following came to an intersection, which resembled a ptarmigan track. On the off chance we might yet encounter a caribou before dark, we agreed to briefly part ways. I would take the left-hand spur and Jim the right. My brother Miles and father would continue on to camp. 

A brisk, five-minute walk found me ascending the last few yards of a knoll that afforded a commanding view of the valley. It appeared I wasn’t the only hunter with an interest in the view from this location, as evidenced by several piles of decaying wolf scat. 

As I turned to scan the direction of my ascent, the sequence of events that unfolded can only be described as surreal. An ominous figure had appeared on our back trail and was moving in our direction with fevered intent! 

His nose clung to the soil like a bloodhound, inhaling every ounce of human scent the dank earth could afford him. His intention was clear. He meant to overtake my companions as they marched toward camp, and with the amount of ground he was covering with each stride, it would only take seconds!

At that point my senses had slowed to a gel-like state. I remember cold sweat kissing the hairs on the back of my neck. My heart pounded so loudly that it was almost inaudible when I yelled, “Grizzly!” Unfortunately, my scream was choked by an overwhelming state of panic and the garbled concoction that emerged didn’t carry much discernible volume.

By this time the bear had cut the distance between he and his prey to a mere 50 yards and with the attack imminent was at a full charge! Once more I mustered what saliva my suddenly parched mouth possessed and with every last bit of breath I belted out, “Grizzly!” This time my cry rang out like a beacon and froze both men and bear in their tracks – no more than 30 yards apart.

As I stumbled off the hillside, I fully expected the bear to turn and run. But to my astonishment, this wasn’t the case. Even though he was aware we had detected his presence, he merely crouched as low as possible and slunk his way into the brush beside the trail. He remained motionless until I reached my bewildered partners.

Action must be taken decisively in a situation such as this. Our first move was to gain some elevation and distance between our adversary and us. This was easier said than done; as we moved so did the bear, his head tilted and ears pinned. When we paused he instantly found a small impression to obscure himself. 

For the next several minutes we waited anxiously. The brute would raise his head slightly to gauge whether we were still staring in his direction, and then he would quickly recoil when he saw the whites of our eyes. If there was any question before, there was none presently. 

We were being hunted!

 

AFTER MAKING A CAREFUL circle around the situation, Jim finally caught up with us from the flank. Considering he carried a grizzly tag and we had a problem bear in need of immediate attention, it was quickly decided he would take the animal. 

I remember the bruin watching Jim intently as he made his way into shooting position, carefully calculating his next move. But his lack of urgency would cost him his prey and his life. 

The rifle cracked, the bear rolled, only to rise once more in a frothing rage! Instinctively we reached for our weapons, but a follow-up shot rang out from Jim’s 7mm Mag and the threat was neutralized. 

I still ask myself questions about the events of that day and, I suppose, the answers will always remain in doubt. Was this the same bear we had seen circling our camp that first evening? Had he waited patiently for our group to separate, before executing an assault? Did he have a taste for man flesh? 

In my mind, that scenario doesn’t seem likely, but then again, most details of this story are an anomaly. 

In retrospect, I believe he had never encountered men before, knowing only that these gangly creatures were well below him on the food chain. More than likely, he was just another predator hastily filling the fat reserves necessary to see him through another harsh Alaska winter. 

I know only one thing with certainty: The bloodshot eyes of a salivating grizzly will remain etched in my mind long after the Arctic sun has turned his withered bones to dust. ASJ

Editor’s note: Larry Hatter and his brother Miles run guided trips for Miles High Outfitters in Grangeville, Idaho. They offer big game hunts for elk, mule and whitetail deer and predators. For more, check out mileshighoutfitters.com or call (208) 739-0526.

Save Bristol Bay Wants Alaskans To Keep Fighting

The following press release is courtesy of Save Bristol Bay:

Dear friends of Bristol Bay:

Some of you might be wondering, how did the results of the midterm election change our ability to protect Bristol Bay from the proposed Pebble Mine?

Before diving into what’s new, here’s what’s unchanged: Most Alaskans, from across the political spectrum, recognize that constructing a massive, permanently damaging mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery is a culturally senseless and economically irresponsible idea.

Still, this election will have implications for our work. First, we will soon have a Governor for whom Pebble’s CEO himself campaigned. Second, despite truly incredible volunteer-driven efforts of its backers, Ballot Measure 1, which would have protected wild salmon habitat statewide and provided a higher standard that Pebble Mine would have had to meet, failed to get the votes that were needed to be put into law.

While disappointing, the fight is far from over. We’ve always known that the path to protecting Bristol Bay needed to be multi-pronged, and the ballot measure was just one of several strategies.

The silver lining? In speaking with thousands of Alaskans leading up to the election, one thing became and remains crystal clear: Alaskans agree protections for wild salmon are needed – especially in Bristol Bay. It’s in how we implement these protections where we disagree. On election day, we learned that the ballot measure wasn’t what Alaskans wanted. But we also learned in the process that, with respect to our salmon, we have more in common than we differ.

Regardless of who is in office, our community of Bristol Bay advocates continue to hold the power of shaping a fish-filled future for Bristol Bay and Alaska. But our power is in numbers and we need you to stay with us.

With new leadership, our ability to demonstrate continuous, wide-spread public opposition to the ill-conceived Pebble mine proposal is more important than ever.

A key way you can help ensure this is a success is simply to stay informed and to participate.

Do you use social networks? Please follow us. The updates and calls to action we post to our facebook page and send out via email truly make a difference for this campaign. It may seem insignificant to send an email from one of our automated forms to a decision maker, but they each make a difference. We’ll never waste your time or ask you if it isn’t truly important.

Ask your friends to get involvedFor many in the Lower 48, helping to protect Bristol Bay can be as easy as signing our pledge and responding to the quick and easy requests we send out in our emails. An informational video of what’s at stake and short pledge are available for you to share on your social networks or through a quick email at this page.

Have an idea or a question? We always welcome thoughts from our community. Call our office any time (907-770-1776) or reply to this email.

Together, we will ensure the fish-based cultures and jobs of Bristol Bay are protected. Thank you for your support, and we look forward to continuing to work along-side you in 2019 and beyond.

Sincerely,

Team SBB

P.S. Show your support with a ‘No Pebble Mine’ sticker! Order one here.