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‘A Few Hours Of Pain’

This story was originally written as part of the May 2015 issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.

Perfect Capper To Back-To-Back Dall Sheep Hunts? Pursuing Caribou, Of Course
BY BJORN DIHLE

I’ve been obsessed with caribou and the tundra, mountains and forests they inhabit for as long as I can remember.
The origin of the word “caribou” comes from Newfoundland’s Micmac, or Mi’kmaq, band. Rendered by French-Canadian into the word we know today, yalipu translates as “snow-shoveler”– caribou shovel through the snow with their sharp hooves to access lichens and other vegetation. Naturally, I took it as a good omen a few years back when my little brother Reid married a Newfoundlander, who happens to be a member of the Yalipu clan.
I suggested they honeymoon in the  Arctic, perhaps follow a herd migrating from their winter grounds in the interior of Alaska to their calving grounds on the coastal plain. For some reason, they elected to go to Hawaii.
Lucky for me, I was born in Alaska, into a family that doesn’t know how to talk about much other than hunting, fishing and wildlife. In the spring of 2014 my older brother Luke came up with a grand plan of making back-to-back walk-in Dall sheep hunts and, if we had time, a caribou hunt as well.
Months before, while drinking beers and staring at maps, it seemed almost too easy. By the third beer, it didn’t even seem sporting. I suggested a handicap of some sorts – maybe attaching 15-pound weights to our ankles or something. Luke and Reid took a more irrational approach, consisting of exercising and eating healthfully. When they encouraged me to do the same, I laughed.
“Look at the toughest guys in America: Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson. Do any of those guys train? I doubt it. They just go into a room and beat up a dozen or so armed jerks half their age. Neeson once trekked across the frozen Arctic in blue jeans, fist-fighting demon wolves the entire way with zero training,” I argued.
They said something about how movies and real life were different, but it was too philosophical and went over my head.

The author and his brothers’ hunt took place in the Alaskan Interior among the Fortymile Herd, which is back on the upswing. The Department of Fish and Game estimates it numbers more than 52,000. (BJORN DIHLE)

The author and his brothers’ hunt took place in the Alaskan Interior among the Fortymile Herd, which is back on the upswing. The Department of Fish and Game estimates it numbers more than 52,000. (BJORN DIHLE)

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, we’d made two sheep odysseys, covering more than a 120 miles through some of the most beautiful mountain country in the world. At the end of the second hunt, we still had a few days before we had to return home. We left our sheep meat in a friend’s freezer in Tok and drove north into Fortymile country; caribou season opened the next day.
Willows and aspens blazed yellow and red. Valleys were filled with the smell of fermenting cranberries. Snow crept down ancient shale-covered mountains. Reid and Luke shouldered their packs and followed a faint four-wheeler trail into desolate rolling hills. There was none of the excitement I generally felt at the beginning of a hunt. I limped behind, fighting the desire to lie down in the mud and take a nap.
“You sure you guys want to do this?” I asked when I caught up. In reply, they grumbled like constipated brown bears just awoken from hibernation.
I moped along, considering adding a  little something extra special to Luke’s dinner that night – maybe some caribou pellets or bear poop. Three walk-in hunts with no rest in between had been  his idea, after all. Maybe I could find  some centipedes.
Luke gestured toward the hill. “Years ago, I met an old-timer resting there. His head was down and he had a load of meat on his back. He looked utterly spent. I asked if he was all right and he just smiled; he kind of had a twinkle in his eye, saying something  about how a few hours of pain for a winter of good eating was a good deal.”
I pushed away my evil scheming and instead recited the mantra “a few hours of pain for a winter of good eating” as  we hiked through a forest burnt to charcoal from one of the area’s many forest fires. We crossed a tussock field, gained access to an alpine ridge and climbed a scree-covered mountain. At the summit, the bleached antler shed of a large bull lay like a religious icon beneath the cold gray sky.
That evening we sat around camp, eating instant mashed potatoes and hot dogs. We’d been snowed on a few times during the last sheep hunt, but as the sun set the weather looked about as nice as it could get for September in the Interior. Shadows swept across valleys, the sun bathed the hills in golden light, and distant snow-covered mountains jutted like a carnivore’s teeth into the blue horizon.
We talked of caribou and how lucky we were to be in their country, and able to hunt them. Though we were all meat hunters, Luke wanted a wallhanger and claimed he was going to pass on any small bulls for at least the first day. Reid was hoping for a freezer trophy: a young, tender, delicious bull. I was resolved to act only as a meatpacker – my freezer was already getting pretty full with fresh salmon, venison and a sheep.

Bulls work their way through low vegetation on an Alaskan mountainside. At one point on their hunt, the brothers spotted 12 together. (BJORN DIHLE)

Bulls work their way through low vegetation on an Alaskan mountainside. At one point on their hunt, the brothers spotted 12 together. (BJORN DIHLE)

“CARIBOU!” REID HISSED.
My brothers quivered as a herd of a dozen massive bulls filed through the yellow, willow-covered valley below. A couple had bloody strips of velvet hanging from their 3-foot-high splayed antlers. A group of cows and calves climbed towards a plateau. All moved steadily to the northwest –they could be 30 miles away by the following morning.
A couple years ago when I last made a Forty-mile hunt, we’d hunted hard for days and only encountered a few caribou. Luke took a nice meat bull on the second to last day, while my girlfriend and I – 13 miles from the road – lucked out and got a bull with just a few hours left during the last day of the hunt. An adult bull yields around 100 pounds of meat, which made for a long and relatively brutal pack out.
Before dawn, I awoke to the eerie, beautiful howling of a wolf from the valley. Its wild and plaintive beckoning went unanswered. Soon after the wind picked up and snow began hissing against the nylon walls of our tents. Luke and I crawled out into a blizzard just before dawn.
We turned our backs to the weather, boiled a quick cup of tea and set off in the direction the caribou had been moving the night before. Shortly thereafter, we were engulfed in a white-out and platered in wet snow. We could have been walking by whole herds. We were following a network of caribou trails through the gray when Luke fell to a crouch. Kneeling on a snowy  tussock, I stared over his shoulder and saw a group of young bulls, well within range, moving parallel to us through the storm. They were all perfect, the sort of animals I prefer harvesting for maximum taste and tenderness, but there were no massive bulls. A male caribou usually reaches sexual maturity around 6 or 7 years old, which is no small feat considering that everything loves eating them. One bull was larger than the rest; Luke looked back at me and asked in a whisper what I thought.

Reid Dihle talked of encountering a giant bull moose earlier in the hunt; but alas, he was without a tag. But he managed to score his caribou bull and ensured a winter of meat like his brothers. (BJORN DIHLE)

Reid Dihle talked of encountering a giant bull moose earlier in the hunt; but alas, he was without a tag. But he managed to score his caribou bull and ensured a winter of meat like his brothers. (BJORN DIHLE)

“You’ve wanted a caribou rack for the wall for a long time,” I said.
“This is so weird,” Luke said. “I’ve never passed on an animal like that.” We trudged on in the direction where the big bulls had been heading the night before. A herd of cows and calves wended in and out of willow thickets in the valley below as the weather cleared.
We clambered up to the top of a plateau where the icy wind blew fiercely. Shale-covered mountains dusted with snow rose to the west and the north. Any other species would seek cover, but not caribou. The colder the weather, the happier they seem. A herd of two dozen milled on a nearby plateau.
Luke and I descended until we were out of sight and then used a series of ravines to make a stalk. With our hearts thundering, we peered over the edge and studied cows, calves and subadult bulls. We moved on, taking time to glass each bowl and valley. Caribou would emerge from the tundra and mountains like magic, but none were adult bulls. We even crept down on three that were sleeping and nestled in  beds on a mountainside.

IN THE EARLY afternoon we sat in a barren saddle 12 miles from where we’d left the truck. This area had always been good to us during past hunts, but both of us were questioning the rationale behind hauling a bull so far from the road, especially when we’d encountered the herd of subadult males near camp. Luke was second-guessing his decision not to shoot when I saw the red flash of antlers in the willows a half-mile away.
“There’s your animal,” I said, squinting through my scope. Amidst a dozen calves  and subadults, two adult bulls fed and  thrashed through a willow thicket. We clambered down a steep ravine for coverage. Luke tumbled and smashed his left hand. His trigger finger swelled up so badly we wondered it was broken. He shook it off and kept going. By the time we got within view of the herd they were moving away, up into the mountains.

The author (left) and his brother, Luke, celebrate a successful family hunt for a nice bull in the Interior. (BJORN DIHLE)

The author (left) and his brother, Luke, celebrate a successful family hunt for a nice bull in the Interior. (BJORN DIHLE)

“Looks like they’re gone,” Luke said.
“Leave your pack with me,” I said. “I bet you can get within range.”
Witnessing Luke making a stalk is a  bit like watching the elk-hunting scene in The Last of the Mohicans. I have trouble walking up a mountain, but Luke is able to run without breaking a sweat. In a blizzard, he disappeared out of view, taking a direction he hoped would allow him to cut the herd off. By the time he was at the same elevation, I was feeling a little bad for encouraging him on a  wild-caribou chase.
He belly-crawled through snow to  the draw he was hoping the animals were following; I waved my jacket over my head and signaled the caribou were further away. By now the herd knew something was up and the alpha cow was steadily leading the rest higher up the mountain.
A moment later, a flock of ptarmigan, already in their white winter plumage, exploded into flight at the hooves of the cow. Startled, she ran in the opposite direction, towards Luke. The two big bulls, twice the size of every other caribou, followed. When Luke saw antlers bobbing against the horizon, he stripped off his shirt for a rifle rest. My first thought was, “damn, he’s even whiter than a halibut’s belly,” but as minutes elapsed, I began wondering how long it was possible to lie half-naked in a blizzard without becoming hypothermic. At the crack of the shot, one of the bulls keeled over. Twenty minutes later, sweating and out of breath, I climbed to the bench where Luke sat  shivering next to a magnificent caribou.  I passed him a couple jackets and gradually he warmed up.
“What a beautiful animal,” I said as I rested my hand on its warm body. For more than half a decade, the bull had wandered the Interior wilderness, hunted by wolves and people. He’d survived weeks of minus-60 temperatures during the winters and hordes of biting insects during the summer. He was an expression of the land itself.
He was perfect.

“THANK YOU, GOD; thank you, caribou,” Luke said. We butchered and began the long haul out. Late in the day, we encountered Reid hiking across a tussock field. He relieved us of a significant amount of meat and, together, we busted through a valley of willows and climbed up to the top of a plateau. Still 6 miles from the road and without enough time to get out before dark, we buried the meat in a rockpile.
We sat nearby, enjoying a peaceful  evening and the pleasant scenery. Reid regaled us with a story of a bull moose he’d encountered; it had antlers wide enough to lie down in. Moose season opened the next day. Thankfully, none of us had a tag.
“This couldn’t get any better,” Reid said, watching the sun glow on the tundra.
“Yeah. Unless that young bull you  were hoping to get ran by right now,” Luke said. Less than a minute later, the clacking of tendons and thunder of hooves startled us.
“You got to be kidding,” I said as three young bulls stopped 40 yards away and stared. Luke and I began laughing, but Reid was all business. He grabbed his rifle and in a few seconds assured that he’d have delicious eating for the year to come.
“He’s exactly what I was hoping for,” said Reid, kneeling over the caribou. We gutted him, then broke his brisket and pelvis, propping open the rib cage with a stick so he would cool quickly.
After covering the caribou in  spruce boughs, we hiked across the  darkening tundra towards camp. Scattered groups of caribou slowly came in and out of view along ridges and plateaus. That night we feasted on heart and instant mashed potatoes. Tomorrow would be a brutal pack out, but what’s a few hours of pain for a winter of good eating? ASJ

The author’s brother, Luke Dihle, overlooks their camp. It had been his idea last spring to chase caribou after back-to-back walk-in Dall sheep hunts. (BJORN DIHLE)

The author’s brother, Luke Dihle, overlooks their camp. It had been his idea last spring to chase caribou after back-to-back walk-in Dall sheep hunts. (BJORN DIHLE)

School Of Hard Knocks

The following was originally featured in the February 2016 issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.

A Ketchikan Deer Hunter’s Harrowing Fall From A Cliff

BY JEFF LUND

Once a tooth fragment falls out of the hole in his gums, doctors can take the next step. But it will take some time until oral surgeons are able to drill the posts in Jesse  Knock’s maxilla to secure three new front teeth – maybe six months. In the meantime he’s getting to know his dentist, oral surgeon and facial anatomy pretty well.
The novocaine is wearing off, so his face is back to symmetrical and he’s easy to understand, even with the gaping hole in his smile. He’s told the story about his opening day mishap more than he’d like in the six months since it happened, which makes sense. Who likes telling a story about how he or she almost died during a solo hunt?

Jesse Knock, an experienced hunter, was tracking down a blacktail deer in this rugged terrain near Ketchikan when he lost his footing on a ledge. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever see his family again. (JESSE KNOCK)

Jesse Knock, an experienced hunter, was tracking down a blacktail deer in this rugged terrain near Ketchikan when he lost his footing on a ledge. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever see his family again. (JESSE KNOCK)

He’s to the point now that when asked, “What happened?” he says something about an accident while grocery shopping.

OPENING DAY
Ketchikan is a thin strip of humanity that lines the western shore of Revillagigedo Island in Southeast Alaska. Mountains rise from the sea almost immediately, not in a menacing way  like a fjord, but treeless alpine and sheer rock cliffs are visible from the grocery store.
Knock was up there before the season opened; he scouted, filmed and photographed blacktail deer.
“I saw three deer the week before and one really nice four-by-four. I went back up to the same spot on opening day, but they weren’t there.”
The mountain was wet and slick and fog made visibility poor, but it relented intermittently and provided Knock the opportunity to continue the search.
“I went to the top of the spine where I thought they were at and was cooking breakfast under a tarp and a silhouette popped out below me. I worked my way down the ridge. The fog kept moving in and out, but when it cleared I saw them right below me.”
He had an easy shot, but no way to retrieve the deer.  “I watched them for probably half an hour, filmed them and  decided I wasn’t going to shoot because I didn’t want to just foam at the mouth and do something stupid.”
As the fog continued to lift, he searched for a safe passage.
“I found a gully and a ledge and it looked doable. I thought,  ‘If the 3-point stands up, I’m going to shoot it,’ and then he stands up like I asked him to; it was weird. He gave me a perfect broadside shot and I dropped him right there.”
He put on his crampons, grabbed his walking poles and started toward the deer.
“I just had a weird feeling – just a cold, ‘this ain’t right’ feeling. I was going to give up and go around, but I took three more steps…”

GETTING TO ALASKA

Knock grew up in the town of Toutle, Wash., in the southwestern part of the state. He shot his first deer, a Columbian blacktail spike, with his father when he was 13.
He moved to Alaska in 2010 after one of those Alaskan epiphanies people from the Lower 48 have when the Last Frontier gets ahold of them for the first time.
“I thought, ‘How can I move up here?’” He went to school for fish culture and ended up getting a  job at a fish hatchery on Etolin Island, north of Ketchikan.
“I talked to the boss on Tuesday and moved up on Friday.”

Despite crampons and walking poles, Knock’s footing was no match for slick Alaskan mountainside. (JESSE KNOCK)

Despite crampons and walking poles, Knock’s footing was no match for slick Alaskan mountainside. (JESSE KNOCK)

It’s safe to say he’s never going back.
“I like how everything is slow-paced. Down south every- thing is so fast; it’s a race. People take their time here; it’s meaningful. Where I grew up, you’d hike back in 13 miles and you’d still hear people bugling for elk.”
His first kill in Alaska was a black bear on Etolin Island and since then he and his bow (and rifle on occasion) have put down enough game to fill a wall in a Cabela’s. But his favorite is hunting deer in the remote alpine.
“I could just hunt August blacktail. There’s nothing like waking up above the timberline. It’s just so crisp and clear. You look forward to that the whole time; you have such high hopes, and when you get what you came for, you’re sad it’s over. Killing is just one small part of it.”

 

THE FALL
“I broke free and I slid down about 20 feet on my stomach. I ended up coming off a small ledge and onto another slope.”
Knock broke fingernails clawing against the side of the mountain, but it was of no use.

Jesse grew up in southwest Washington and had an early passion for hunting blacktail deer. When an opportunity knocked (pun intended) to move and be a part of Alaska’s unlimited hunting possibilities, he jumped at it. (JESSE KNOCK)

Jesse grew up in southwest Washington and had an early passion for hunting blacktail deer. When an opportunity knocked (pun intended) to move and be a part of Alaska’s unlimited hunting possibilities, he jumped at it. (JESSE KNOCK)

“Once I got to a certain speed, I knew I wasn’t going to stop
unless I hit a rock or a tree.”
He went off another ledge, a real one.
“I had a couple seconds while I was free-falling and thought,  ‘Wow, this is it, you’re falling.’ When I hit, I hit on my back with my pack on, and the force was so great it rolled me and I hit my face on a rock. I woke up just being wet, wondering why I was wet, not knowing what was happening.”
His front teeth were shattered and his face was “pumping blood.” He pulled a shirt from his pack and tied it around his head to staunch the flow of blood from his mouth. With no cell phone, he was on his own.
He breaks from the story.
“It’s hard.”
He pauses again, then continues.
“I started to come to grips with death. Thoughts of family, my daughter and my girlfriend popped in my head and I thought, ‘Man, I need to get out of here.’”
Knock started up toward the trail on a severely sprained ankle that wouldn’t require surgery, but put him in a walking boot for over a month. (His deer was later recovered by a friend.)
“I wanted to get to the trailhead to where I could bleed out or pass out and someone would find me.”
He made it to a vacant U.S. Forest Service cabin, so he continued down the mountain toward Ketchikan, where he encountered a pair of hikers.
“They looked at me and were terrified.”
Incredibly – not to mention irrationally – Knock convinced the couple to continue their hike and help him on their way down.
“I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to burn their time with my accident. I told them, ‘You guys do your hike and on the way back down, let me use your shoulder.’”
They continued, and Knock made it another 200 yards. The adrenaline leaving, he started to feel the damage done to his ankle from the fall, and the subsequent hike.
Two nurses from Washington on a summer internship were next to encounter Knock. The nurses immediately provided care.

“It’s made me think about more than just filling the tag and actually coming home. It knocked some sense into me,” says Knock, who went mountain goat hunting shortly after his brush with death in the field. “This place is no joke.” (JESSE KNOCK)

“It’s made me think about more than just filling the tag and actually coming home. It knocked some sense into me,” says Knock, who went mountain goat hunting shortly after his brush with death in the field. “This place is no joke.” (JESSE KNOCK)

“It’s weird that that’s who I (saw),” he said. “They were awesome.”
Knock used a cell phone to call Ryan McCue, a friend and owner of RDM – a local business that does flightseeing and floatplane charters. The rest of the fog burned off and McCue was landing his tiny tourist helicopter on the mountain within an hour.
Knock spent the day in the hospital and was released.
“Everything worked out – how I fell on my backpack and  the chute that I went down – that I only went down the 10-foot one. I still can’t believe it. It’s weird to me. I’m not that lucky.”

GETTING BACK
The proximity to Ketchikan makes the DG006 mountain goat permit highly sought after – one could literally walk from the cruise ship docks to the hunting grounds – but only 15 are issued annually. Knock was one of them.
He was probably not mentally ready to get back into the mountains for deer, but sitting on such a coveted tag was more than he could take. So two months after his fall, he was after mountain goat – an animal notorious for finding the most ridiculous of places to live– within a few miles of that slope that almost claimed his life.
“I was limited on mobility, and I honestly wouldn’t have gone hunting this quick if I hadn’t drawn that tag. Once I get something set in my mind, I have a hard time getting it out.”
Knock knew he couldn’t go full tilt to fill the tag, but mixed in with dramatic monoliths and steep chutes of the island are flat bedding areas relatively close to the trail, and plenty of goats.
Knock, his girlfriend Ashley Butler and his buddy Beau Dale spent three days chasing a big goat that was eventually shot by someone else. Butler shot a buck and packed it out with Dale. Knock stayed behind and ended up seeing a friend hunting the same mountain.

The weather was warm and clear – rare for early October – but he was short on time. If he didn’t fill the tag on this trip, he would have to wait until the end of the month when the weather was sure to have deteriorated.
“I had one more day to hunt and I was definitely not mentally ready to do the end of October hunt in the snow,” he said.
They hiked along the finger of a ridge and walked up on a sleeping goat at 30 yards.
Dale had taken Knock’s bow when he hiked out, but Knock had his .270. He hesitated.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to shoot him, then he winded me. He looked at me and the entire year flashed before me and I decided, ‘Yeah, I want him.’”
The goat was on the edge of a cliff. Knock fired. The goat rose, but rather than rolling, jumping or falling down off the ledge, it ran uphill – rare for a wounded animal – and died on the trail.
Redemption.
It took 11 hours to pack out.
“I couldn’t walk for two days after that,” Knock said.

MOVING ON
It’s the nightmare of every outdoorsman and family member –an emergency. But you can’t think about it. Plan for it, sure, but when you’re side-hilling alpine, you can’t assume you’re going to fall. You hold on, get tough and make it work. There is inherent risk in some of the most rewarding activities.

Somehow after the fall, Jesse managed to hobble back to the main trail and did his best to move forward until two off-duty nurses appeared and helped treat his injuries. (JESSE KNOCK)

Somehow after the fall, Jesse managed to hobble back to the main trail and did his best to move forward until two off-duty nurses appeared and helped treat his injuries. (JESSE KNOCK)

In a society that is increasingly encouraging lives with training wheels and bubble wrap, there are those who continue to pursue what makes them feel alive.
Knock’s passion for alpine hunts hasn’t waned in the least. After the successful goat hunt, he and his family filled five blacktail buck tags during the rut.
“They are already asking me, ‘When can we go hunting again?’ My girlfriend is so supportive,” he said. “She lets me do everything I want to do. She feeds the alpine obsession all year round.”
As Knock puts more months between him and the accident, he moves forward with fresh perspective.
“I’ve hiked in steeper stuff (than where I fell). It’s made me think about more than just filling the tag and actually coming home. It knocked some sense into me. This place is no joke.” ASJ

 

Editor’s note: Jeff Lund is the author of Going Home, a memoir about fishing and hunting in Alaska and California. For details, visit  JeffLundBooks.com.