Update from the McClure family:
” Lynx Bixler McClure. He will be out fishing in no time.”
BY KRYSTIN AND BIXLER MCCLURE
“You should go after them. That caribou herd can’t be more than a few miles away.”
“No, I don’t think I’m in a position to do that right now,” I replied to the two hunters who had stopped to ask what I was glassing for with my spotting scope.
They kept encouraging me to run off through the tundra and I kept saying that I couldn’t. It was only when I turned and they saw my protruding belly that they realized why.
I was eight months pregnant when we decided to fill our Tier 1 caribou tag. This far along, I look like a beach ball with legs but am thankful that my camouflage pants still fit with the help of a BellaBand. I’ve spent my entire pregnancy asking my doctor a slew of odd questions about snowmachining and fishing.
Sometime around month seven, I waddled through a group of shocked fishermen to turn in a coho for the Seward Silver Salmon Derby during a particularly difficult fishing year. When I proposed the idea of a low-stress camping and hunting trip to my doctor, his response was, “All you need to worry about at this point is driving the Seward Highway.” Bixler and I loaded up the four-wheelers and a slew of outdoor adventure gear and hit the road around 5 a.m.
The Tier 1 caribou hunt can be notoriously stressful, what with jumpy, competitive road hunters. Since I was not in a position to do any sort of competitive hunting, we opted to wait a bit later in the season and make having fun the focus of our last trip north before we become parents to a little boy this month.
We hit the Denali Highway early to a bluebird day and with the tundra robed in fall colors. Friends had pointed us to an unimproved trail at a turnout, which we scanned for as we drove down the road. While they said very few people knew about it, it seemed that everyone else on the highway had discovered the trail. The turnout was full of trucks and campers with trailers when we arrived. Would this become another competitive caribou hunt this late in the season?
It was Bixler’s turn to shoot a caribou since I’d bagged a big cow after last year’s frustrating hunt. He wanted to look for a caribou with a nice rack and scout each and every four-wheel drive trail to make sure they were “pregnant wife-approved” before I took off onto the tundra.
Since we were early, I told him to go for it, despite the ring of cars in the turnout. Our plan was that he would be back by 3 p.m. unless he found something worth going after, or to call me on the sat phone if there was an emergency.
I dropped Bixler off and watched as he four-wheeled across the boggy tundra, listening to him hoot and holler before his cries of joy were lost in the wind. I drove down to the Tangle Lakes BLM campground to gauge the campsite situation and to turn the truck around in case I had to head back towards Paxson to get cell service if Bixler did not return by 3.
I returned to the turnout and saw a few four-wheelers and side-by-sides come off the trail empty-handed. Most of the occupants loaded up and left immediately, but the couple I was parked next to stayed to make an early dinner and strike up a conversation.
They had met Bixler on the trail and informed me of the same caribou situation I had heard from the Nelchina herd hotline: the caribou were widely scattered and hard to find.
While they made dinner and we chatted, I set up my spotting scope to glance at the hillside far off the road. Sure enough, there were some 15 caribou, including two large bulls with pronounced racks. I told the other couple about the herd and they said they had been watching them along the ridge all day. I was slightly sad that Bixler wasn’t viewing them from my vantage point.
Meanwhile, the ATV trail ended abruptly and Bixler found himself wheeling over willows and along eskers back along the valley floor. He spotted three cows and decided to pass on them, as he wanted a bull instead and opted to head back to the truck.
When he finally spotted our large white truck in the distance, the hunters who had stopped and were convincing me to climb after the caribou had passed and I was just leaving the turnout. I told the couple enjoying dinner that if Bixler came back to let him know I was just down the road getting cell service to check my messages. Meanwhile, Bixler was hoping that I would stay in the parking lot because he needed the truck in sight as a means to find the trail out.
I drove down the road 4 miles with no messages, indicating an emergency situation. I sped to the turnout on the gravel road and found it full of cars again. All the people had binoculars on the hillside and were engaged in excited conversation.
I asked the couple what was going on and they said, “Someone is pursuing that herd you saw earlier.”
“What is he wearing?” I asked as I frantically set up the spotting scope to scan the hillside.
“Dark green camo,” replied another onlooker. “Wow, does he move fast!”
As soon as I heard the “moving fast” part I knew it had to be Bixler. Sure enough, while stopping to locate the actual trail, Bixler had spotted the same herd and, having the wind to his advantage, decided to move on one of the big bulls.
I finally spotted Bixler as he was racing through the willows. He paused and we all heard a single shot fired. The animal went down so quickly that there was speculation about whether he’d dropped one of the big bulls. Most of the onlookers sat and waited as Bixler ran back to his ATV and wheeled back to the truck.
“Wow, your husband is a badass,” said the woman of the couple. “If you get too excited, I’m a labor and delivery nurse, by the way!”
I laughed and the other nearby onlooker asked what he was doing. I told him that Bixler was coming back to get me to help with the butchering process. He looked at my large size and offered a simple response.
A HERO’S WELCOME
Bixler arrived back at the turnout and gave a thumbs-up. The crowd cheered as he rode over to unload my four-wheel drive. Inspired by Bixler’s hunting prowess and his active pregnant wife, a few of the onlookers started loading up to pursue the same herd, which had moved to the other side of the ridge.
I hopped on my four-wheeler and followed Bixler along the muddy trail. He stopped at a difficult stream crossing and rode my four-wheel drive across so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I followed him over willows and tussocks and opted to park my vehicle in line with caribou – about a mile away – to avoid bouncing over the tundra. Bixler continued to ride, getting within a few hundred yards of the caribou while I walked. Thankfully, there was only one slight uphill section.
“Wow,” I said as I spotted Bixler’s downed bull. Compared to our past caribou, it was huge. While it didn’t have the arm-span antlers of a trophy bull, it did have probably one of the most beautifully curved racks I’ve ever seen. The hide was thick and spotless. Bixler’s shot made the field-dressing much easier.
We skinned and butchered the caribou. I took a few breaks here and there (Bixler was forcing me to hydrate frequently), but pulled my weight to finish cutting up the caribou.
We kept the head and hide for a European mount and baby blanket, respectively. Bixler managed to carry that, along with all the meat, in two loads down to his four-wheel drive. Carefully, we ratcheted the entire animal onto his vehicle. I walked ahead to find his trail through the boggy parts, carrying the clean gear, but soon Bixler found his trail and was wheeling excitedly to my
parked four-wheel drive.
With a load on my back and a big baby inside, my hips started to hurt, so Bixler parked his four-wheel drive and grabbed my pack. I followed him out just as the sky turned to dusk. One of the previous onlookers had been watching us, making sure we made
“I was going to ride in and help you if you didn’t make it out before dark,” he said as we unloaded our meat. He and the other couple in the turnout had tried to jump the herd from the other side of the ridge unsuccessfully. The tough tundra terrain had bogged down their four-wheeler and none of them particularly wanted to continue on foot that late in the day.
The other couple stopped in to congratulate us as we started to peel out of our bloody camouflage clothes. When the sky turned pitch black, we said goodbye to everyone and headed to the campground, which had a nice table to hang our meat.
That night in the tent before we crashed from exhaustion, Bixler turned to me and said, “Honey, you are one tough cookie.”
“Thanks. Our poor kid has no idea what he is getting himself into!” ASJ