Extreme Alaska Christmas Hunting

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BY PAUL D. ATKINS
You hear a lot about extreme hunting, but really, what is it? How is it defined? Is hunting a bear more extreme than, say, hunting moose?
There are many hunting situations that could be called extreme. Whether you are crawling through the long grass somewhere in Africa (more on that next month in Alaska Sporting Journal) or braving the cold temperatures of the Arctic tundra, you have to be prepared. Sometimes the urge to hunt overpowers our senses, and we leave caution to the wind. And there are those times when you go when you probably should have stayed home. Extreme is held in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes.

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LIVING WHERE I DO – above the Arctic Circle, where hunting season literally last 365 days of the year – puts me in a lot of extreme situations. I remember a few years ago when the spring Dall sheep season for subsistence hunting opened. February in the Arctic can be brutal, with temperatures registering unbelievable readings on the thermometer and making going outside hazardous to your health.

Traveling 100 miles on a snowmachine can feel like a death march, but the urge to hunt sheep and hopefully get the chance to wrap your hands around a full-curl animal overpowers any thought of danger. Then again, it’s not exactly wise wisdom.

It was cold  – 25 below zero to be exact – the morning when we decided to go, but we were going anyway. We selectively packed our gear, secured it to our sleds and left the comforts of town. The forecast called for the temperature to climb to zero, which is very comfortable for climbing mountains in search of white sheep. However, when we reached the halfway point the temperature dropped 10 degrees.

We pushed forward anyway, finally reaching the mountains just as darkness set over the river. Frozen to the bone, we finally decided on a suitable place to set up our camp, which consisted of an Arctic Oven tent, a wood stove and two Wiggy-brand sleeping bags.

Many people wonder how you could survive in these extreme conditions, but it’s possible. It all starts with the right equipment. If you want to hunt and survive in such conditions, you must be prepared. The Arctic Oven tent, which is made by Alaska Tent and Tarp, is a true wonder in itself, working in all conditions and easy to set up. It also comes with a wood stove that fits easily inside, providing warmth even in the coldest weather. I know it did that night, given the fact that we were dressed head to toe in beaver fur and had two of the best sleeping bags known to man.

This sheep hunt was a true test of the extreme, especially when we awoke the next morning to an unbelievable temperature of 47 below! We did not want to leave the warmth of the tent but did anyway, only to find our machines frozen to the point of not starting.

We knew then that we would have to wait until late in the afternoon if we planned to go looking for sheep at all. The sun is funny thing up here: even the slightest change in temperature will do wonders, especially when it clears the trees, providing the warmth needed to pull on what once was a frozen crankcase.

The sun finally did its thing and we were on our way to the base of the mountain to find our quarry. We saw one shootable ram that afternoon and were able to take him. After quickly congratulating ourselves, we headed back to the tent as fast as possible, thankful for the extra wood we had decided to cut during the day.

Not wanting to push it we left the next morning, and in all my years living here I was never so glad to get back home. After peeling off layers of frozen fleece I was still cold for a week.

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THE COLDEST, DARKEST MONTHS don’t hold a monopoly on extreme conditions. A muskox hunt near Nome proved that. It was mid-March and temps were above zero, actually quite comfortable for that time of the year.

The conditions looked great for taking a bull with a bow, and we spotted several groups throughout the area. One in particular was located in a shallow saddle that was accessible on foot after our approach. I grabbed my bow and headed to the top of a hill.

By the time we got there the weather did a 180-degree turn and a blizzard blew in. We had whiteout conditions with very limited visibility, making it a chore just to stand upright.

The bow became worthless and I traded it for the rifle my buddy was carrying. It had a subpar scope and seeing through it was almost impossible. Ice and fog had built up on both ends and I had to constantly wipe it clean. Again, extreme hunting requires quality gear, and when it’s not proven or belongs to somebody else it becomes even more difficult.

Finally, the bull I wanted appeared in the scope and I felt the recoil of the rifle and saw the bull fall. It was about a 250-yard shot, but by the time we got to him he had vanished. We desperately looked, but he was simply gone.

The weather worsened and we debated on leaving before it got really serious. I didn’t want to leave a wounded animal and knew that we had to keep searching. Back and forth we retraced the shot, and as the weather worsened I noticed a big lump in the snow. At first I thought it was a rock, but after closer inspection and a couple of kicks in the snow my bull appeared.

The snow had completely covered him by the time we got there. Getting him out of there was a different story. The snowmachines and sled we were using were not up to the task, especially when it came to a 1,000-pound muskox.

We had to leave him, but luckily I had my satellite phone with me and could call for help once we got back to camp. A sat phone is an expensive piece of gear, but when you hunt in the extreme it’s a must.

Also, a good reliable and functional GPS that you know how to use needs to have a place in your pack, no matter what the conditions are. Both will save your life and give you peace of mind on any adventure. I’m just glad I had both or there’s no telling what might have happened. We were fortunate to get the muskox back home the next day.

As usual, I was never so glad to see my family.

Deer hunting can also be a tough matchup with the extreme. Whether you are hunting mule deer in Montana, whitetails in Kansas or blacktails on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, all scenarios can result in death for hunters.

Long before I could afford a GPS, I was hunting deer on the south end of Kodiak. Most hunts are conducted from a big boat, where each day you take a skiff to shore and then hunt from there.

Bears are legendary there, and the worst thing that can happen is to get caught after dark because you can’t find the rendezvous point. Having a couple of deer strapped to your back makes it even worse. Luckily, we weren’t far off and it was a clear evening, which allowed us to see the boat. Scared in the extreme with nothing to rely on is a whole different story than having some form of technology.

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SO HOW EXTREME IS hunting today compared to 10, 20 or even 30 years ago? We still go to the same places, for the most part. We still pursue the same big game and we still hunt in all kinds of conditions.

Or has the climate made it more difficult to get things done? Is it drier, colder, warmer? Are there more roads? Can we go further than we did before? Most hunters will probably have different answers to all these questions, but if there’s a sure thing in all this, it’s that the men and women who ventured out years ago were true outdoors masters. I wonder sometimes how those legends of the past did it, especially when factoring in the presence of bears.

I love bear hunting and have hunted the spring grizzly season in Alaska for the last 20 years. Each one is as exciting as the last, giving wonder to what the early days of April bring. Cutting a track from a fresh-out-of-the-den bear is truly special, and seeing a big boar cruising the white tundra can be an incredible sight. But the hunt itself can be very extreme.

I don’t really believe in global warming, but something is happening. Each year is different, even though the ocean ice seems to be just as thick as the year before. A few years ago we were hunting a drainage in the western Brooks Range. I glassed what I thought was a very big bear about a mile off. However, in order to get to a place to stalk the bear we had to ride our snowmachines to the base of a hill.

The only way to do this was follow a frozen creek for about a mile and then hopefully get off and make the stalk. As I eased along on the slick ice trying to get across, I felt a crack and before I could even hit the throttle I was going under.

As I sank, I scrambled over the top of the cowling and was able to get out. All you could see was the front of my snowmachine sticking out of the ice. Luckily, I was with friends and we pulled it out.

Once we were on solid ground the machine miraculously started! We continued the hunt but never saw the bear again. It was truly extreme and very wet.

I’ve also had some extreme moose hunts. Again, success was due to primarily having the right equipment. One such investment is an inflatable raft. Moose hunting always involves water, and to find the big bulls it usually means getting wet.

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A good friend of mine shot a tremendous moose a few years ago. We actually had two caribou down and were in the process of getting them cut apart when we saw, in the distance, a big old massive bull walking straight towards us. We quickly waded a creek, crossed some swampy tundra and found ourselves peaking through some sparse willows. The bull passed within 100 yards and Garrett let him have it.

So, here we were with two caribou and a 62-inch bull moose down within 50 yards of each other, and it was almost dark. We quickly took a few photos, removed the guts and peeled back the skin. It was a lot of work, but with a good set of knives and reliable headlamps we got it done. The problem now was the fact we were 2 miles from camp in some of the most bear-infested country in the Northwest Arctic and we were covered in blood. Was this suicidal or extreme?

We didn’t see any bears on the way back but noticed some awfully big tracks. The next morning, we inflated the raft and pulled it upriver closest to where the moose and caribou were. After eight exhausting, half-mile-long trips each, we had the meat, horns and gear back at the raft. The sight of us loaded down with meat and antlers coming down that river had to be something else.

I’ve taken other extreme moose. Sometimes it’s happened in the most willow-choked tundra imaginable, where mosquitoes are so thick that you can’t see in front of you. And it’s also happened in deep, cold snow that makes you want to crawl inside the moose to keep warm while field-dressing it.

All these experiences were extreme, but I would do them all over again and again. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an author and outdoor writer 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.