Hunting The Arctic Is A Way Of Life

Photos courtesy of Lew Pagel and Paul Atkins

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

BY PAUL D. ATKINS 

The Arctic. I’ve lived here a long time. 

This has become my home, and to be honest the last 20 years have flown by faster than I could have ever imagined. Sometimes I think back to the old days when I first arrived and wonder if I’m any different now than I was then. I know more and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been a part of some of the most incredible adventures, stuff you could only ever imagine. I’ve been lucky in the joys and discomforts. But I have changed and I see it every day.

IN THE EARLY DAYS, I looked at Alaska as one big vacation. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. Each year was different and when I arrived back each fall it felt like I was going on an extended trip of a lifetime. I was able to work, make some money and as a teacher,hopefully make a difference to those students who greeted me at the door each day.

The hunting was a byproduct of that, and to be honest it was the reason I came all those years ago. After my first year, there was a writer who wrote a story for an Alaska newspaper that detailed, in his mind, why young teachers come to the state. 

The author’s belief was that we came to get residency, then hunt for a couple years and leave. He didn’t believe it was just to teach school, and for some he was probably right, but not all. The story was actually a slam job and I was featured in that piece – without my permission, of course. He wrote, How dare we come up here and do this?  

Well, like many, I’m still here doing what I love – both at work and play.

It takes time to figure things out when you first come up here. For years, I didn’t understand the resident versus nonresident caribou/moose problem either. The locals didn’t like nonresidents coming up here to hunt and take caribou and moose. They felt those animals belonged to them and them only. Nowadays I can see it, especially when I come home empty-handed due to the herds going in a different direction or the lack of time or a plane ride and the always-prevalent unpredictable weather. You want to blame it on something, and why not those who don’t live here? It especially feels that way when you see them hauling in caribou after caribou. 

So now, after living here for such a long time, I can see the conflict. Even though I do not condemn those who do come north – not at all – I can see where the locals are coming from. 

I see it these days too with the young people. There are those who come north to teach school or work in this part of the world. They remind me of me when I first came. Eager as they are – and I don’t blame them – they just want to be a part of it all and share in those experiences. 

They want to get out every weekend, get their first moose, caribou or bear and do whatever it takes or go wherever they need too in order to get it done. 

I was the same way, and, in the end, I guess things don’t change that much. What goes around eventually seems to come back and start over again, no matter the season.

 

I REMEMBER MY SECOND year here in the Arctic and the need to buy the latest and greatest in gadgets. Usually it starts with getting that first snowmachine, because to really “enjoy the country,” they said, “you need to have a snowmachine!” 

Winters are long here, but all the snow and ice allow you to get out of town. You can hunt, camp, fish, explore – whatever you want to do.

It was sound advice, so I called Nome and ordered that first sno-go. I went and picked it up at Northern Air Cargo, as did other teachers who had ordered theirs as well. 

It was like high school all over again as we compared each other’s machines and argued about who had the better sled. I still see this today with the younger guys, but modern machines are a little different. I would say they’re better and a heck of a lot more expensive than those in my early days.

Next on the list was to buy a boat. Everyone needs a boat, or so you think. But it really does make sense. To get anywhere from Kotzebue during the summer and fall months you have to cross water, especially if you want to get where the bears, moose and caribou are; that is, if they do decide to show up at all.

But these days I’m a lot more laid back, or maybe I’m just getting old. I still hunt as much as ever, but I’m not chomping at the bit or discouraged if I don’t score every time out. I’ve done it already. I’ve taken my share and experienced just about everything you can here in the north. 

I know this sounds cliché, but it’s more about the experience and the adventure these days than anything else. I find myself looking elsewhere for the thrill and adventure.

And one rush that hasn’t gone away is my desire to chase bears – grizzly bears, that is. No matter whether it’s in the fall or spring, I love being around them. I love looking for them; I love finding their tracks and ultimately I love killing them. 

This is man against beast in its purest form. It’s dangerous too. At any moment things can go wrong and you could end up in a situation you don’t want to find yourself in. I’ve been in a few.

THIS YEAR, WITH BAD weather and warm temperatures plaguing us most of the spring, my good buddy and hunting partner Lew Pagel and I decided that if we were going to bear hunt, we’d better go before the ice completely dissolved. 

Like a hundred times before we headed north into bear country with our machines and a sled. Was it the same place as the previous year? Maybe, even though we knew that it would be hard to top the big bear that Lew took in the same vicinity (Alaska Sporting Journal, March 2019). Oh man, was that a monster! But we knew there were more and all we needed to do was look.

The ride over was fast. The snowmelt had softened the trail, eliminating most bumps and those bone-jarring slams that only a rough and hard trail can provide. 

Cruising along I began to think back to all the trips and times I’ve crossed the Kotzebue Sound. It has to be at least thousands, whether by snowmachine or boat, or occasionally by plane. Most of those times resulted in an adventure of some kind. Most had successful results. 

I thought back to my first trip and how in awe I was of this country. It was what Alaska was supposed to be – the real Alaska that I was in the middle of. I still feel that way, but these days, with the knowledge of every nook and cranny in the backcountry, it’s habit more than anything.

All are pretty much etched in my mind. Is there anything new out there? Probably, but it’s more about the travel and getting into places that maybe you haven’t before. So my mind wanders.

Lew and I made it to the sunny slopes of the various hills that line the Noatak River drainage. It was a beautiful day, the kind that is perfect for this time of year: bright sun, soft snow, a hint of chill in the air and no wind. A win-win situation for a couple of veteran bear hunters. 

As usual we found a place to stop and glass. It was perfect. We could see forever and even though I hadn’t looked through a pair of binoculars in some time, the clear images of snow mixed with spruce and rocks were easy on the eyes. We were looking for tracks of a recently exited bear from his den. It was fun sitting there with my good friend. We talked as we glassed, reminiscing on past hunts and game camps that we have shared. It’s the way it should be.

“Remember when we camped right over there, and that big moose strolled into camp?” 

“Yeah, that was a hell of a day.” 

“How about that muskox you shot standing on that far hill; he went, what, 15 yards after you put an arrow in him?” 

“Yeah, I think so.”

These are the moments you remember and cherish. 

AS WE SAT IN the bright sun Lew said, “Uh, look at that. There’s a bunch of caribou over there on that far ridge.” 

“Where?” I replied. 

“On that far hill to the left.” 

I rested my elbows on the front of my snowmachine and peered off into the distance. I couldn’t find them, even though I knew they were there. Back and forth I looked until I did see something. But it wasn’t caribou; it was a bear. 

“Where?” Lew asked. I pointed toward the ridge on the right.

I’ve made a lot of plans, as without a good plan you really are just shooting in the dark, literally. We decided to move to a higher spot and get into position to look down on the bear. 

The problem was once we got there the bear wasn’t. He had simply disappeared. It reminded me of previous seasons, when, no matter the species, the animal we had seen and were after had vanished. 

We circled back, went up, down and everywhere in between. I got off my snowmachine and glassed and thought I got a glimpse of something, but it ended up being a muskox in a place where there shouldn’t have been one. 

We looked at each other and it got me to thinking about previous encounters I’ve had with these incredible animals. Finally, the ox had had enough, and he went his way and I went mine. 

After Lew left and I sat and watched, it wasn’t long until Lew came back to let me know he had found the track. The bear was a lot lower than we thought, but now we were in business. I followed my friend as he followed the track. It was a big one and I knew that this was going to be a big bear. 

You always wonder about these things: What lies ahead and how will the ordeal eventually play out? Like all my encounters with big game over the years, I was nervous and excited at the same time. If you’re not, then you shouldn’t be out there to start with. For me, after all these years, it never gets old.

THE WARM SNOW WAS soft and melting underneath. My machine started to heat up, especially when we crossed barren tundra fully exposed to the sun. Luckily it was just a short patch and we were back in the snow before long. We eventually caught up with the big boar, and I could tell from a distance he was a good one. 

We got close and I turned off my machine. I walked in his direction and lucky for me the bear stopped to check me out, giving me that split second of a chance. Like a thousand times before, I don’t remember aiming or feeling the rifle slam into my shoulder, but the shot was true and the big bear was down. 

I’ve taken several bears over the years and been lucky on moose, numerous muskox and more caribou than I can remember, and one thing never changes: the thrill of bringing one of them down. It’s a surreal moment as you shake trying to regain some kind composure, realizing that what you just did is truly special, whether you’re trying to fill the freezer or your soul.

This is something that I will miss most about this place and times like these. To be honest, I don’t know if I will ever be able to feel it elsewhere.

The bear was as big as I imagined him to be, and Lew agreed as we strolled up to have a look. We had done this so many times it seemed like second nature, but it really wasn’t. We laughed, high-fived and tried to hide our amazement at such an event. 

It was a great day in the Arctic, in the sun, and in a time where we were lucky enough to do the things we do. 

The far north has been a blessing. 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.

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