When The Grocery Store Won’t Cut It


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


Bouncing along the tundra behind my buddy Lew I saw his hand abruptly raise, signalling for me to stop. The snow was deep in that area, and when my snowmachine did stop, I sank down about a foot.

I quickly killed the engine, pulled off my goggles and watched my longtime hunting partner stare off into the distance. What was he looking at – a wolf, a fox, or something bigger? He turned and mouthed one word: “Caribou.” Nothing else needed to be said.

THERE ARE FIVE SHELVES in the stand-up freezer that sits in the breezeway of my home here in Kotzebue, in Northwest Alaska’s Arctic. It’s pretty big and will hold just about everything I’m lucky enough to harvest each fall. However, last season was pretty rough. Bad luck and bad weather prevented us from getting to our “secret” hunting grounds.

Unless you had a plane and two weeks to stay, it just wasn’t going to happen. Now I’m really thankful for the muskox I arrowed back in August and the ducks and swans we took in September, plus the few fish we caught. But that seems like a long time ago now.

I don’t know if people in the Lower 48 do it, but here in the Arctic we gauge time by our freezer, and I know many Alaskans who do the same. Field to fork is a way of life for most of us, and the thought of an empty freezer just doesn’t bode very well. A good year can provide plenty, a tough one not so much. It’s reminiscent of what it might have been like if you were a bad hunter back in the early days. You hunt to eat or you die.

Yes, we do have grocery stores spread out thinly across the Arctic, but if you venture in to buy meat, you’ll leave with something that probably cost you at least a month’s rent and won’t last but a couple of meals before you have to return and buy more. That is why the best shopping up here needs to occur outside, not at the butcher shop.

Alaska is known for independence, freedom and the accessible fruits of an incredible land. It’s also known for its ability to take care of Alaskans when it comes to the harvests of its lakes, streams, forests and tundra. I have said for years that this state is still a best-kept secret, even though it really isn’t. If you don’t believe me, just watch one of those reality shows that viewers are glued to. Alaska provides!

ON ANY GIVEN DAY in the Arctic you can fill your freezer with a variety of edibles that would make even the owner of the finest grocery store blush. Whether you want a variety of fish, big game or small, it’s out there, and with the right license, a little hard work and maybe a little frostbite, there for the taking.

I love hunting in the winter as much as I love hunting in the fall, and even though the cold weather can be brutal on most days, it’s still enjoyable. It’s true that the wind chill combined with super-cold temperatures can be dangerous and you can die if you’re not careful and properly prepared. But with time, you learn how to dress, how to prepare and how to succeed.

Even in the winter, January, February and March provide, and believe me, there is plenty out there for each of us. For instance, small game is abundant, whether it’s the formidable snowshoe hare that roams the frozen creek banks hiding in the densest willow thickets, or the ptarmigan that disappear with a flash of white wings into alder where the snow is so deep you can’t get to them. Both species are delicacies and there is nothing better than cooking up a few after a cold, hard day of hunting

For me, chasing small game has always been a family affair. After years of being here it’s become a tradition. My son Eli and wife Susie venture out each year with me to gather a few rabbits and birds, not necessarily to fill the freezer but to spend time together. Sometimes the harvest is more than just filling the freezer – it’s to fill our lives with happy family memories.

Fish are the same way. Since I’ve been in the Arctic, late winter and early spring have meant ice fishing. You have read my stories about the monster sheefish we pull from the ice, but it’s much more than that. Sheefish are one of the best-eating fish you will ever sink your teeth into, and on a good day you can fill many freezers with the fillets that come from them. It’s a for-sure staple that we depend on throughout the year. Nowhere else on Earth can you do this day in and day out during the cold months.

BIG GAME IS A LITTLE different when it comes to stockpiling meat.  Most Alaskans do this or try to do it during the fall, hoping to tag that big bull moose or a couple of caribou to get them through the year.

It usually works, but it’s not always a done deal due to whatever circumstances arise. The weather is the biggest culprit; here in the Arctic it’s even more of a variable. A bad wind on a given weekend has caused more empty freezers than anything else. That may sound weird or dumb, but it’s true. You can’t cross Kotzebue Sound or get across Selawik Lake in a boat if the weather isn’t at least decent. You become a weatherman as much as a hunter.

That is what happened to us last fall. I’m not complaining, as we were lucky enough to take a muskox early, but those vacuum-sealed packages are long gone now, which left the freezer a bit empty.

Lucky for us, though, seasons are still open now for certain animals, even though the recent changes in policy concerning different species have brought inconveniences to all involved. Yet we still have those that we can hunt to provide the nutrition that our family and many others depend on.

Moose are still available through a federal permit, and if taken on federal land it’s perfectly legal. Even though I don’t like to shoot cows, either sex can be harvested during this time frame. This year I’ll look for a cow if that is what it takes to fill Lew’s shop and our freezers. Winter is a great time to take a moose or any big game animal. Easy access and snow makes the process that much cleaner.

Caribou are available too, but in this case only cows are open right now.  Hundreds, even thousands, of caribou roam the snow-covered tundra in and around Kotzebue. With a little work and time they can be had with a few short hours of spot-and-stalk hunting. There is nothing better than fueling up the snowmachine, attaching a sled and then heading into the unknown in search of these magnificent creatures.

Dressing for the occasion can sometimes be the toughest part. When you’re layered up underneath a heavy parka and then try to get a rifle sling over the top of it all can be frustrating.

Searching the barren landscape for caribou requires a good set of eyes and a good set of binoculars that hopefully won’t frost over. This last hunt we were on required just that.

WITH OUR FREEZERS EMPTYING, Lew and I both needed meat. Granted, we had fish and a variety of small game, but the muskox was long gone and the need for red meat burned in each of us. The news of caribou crossing a nearby peninsula fueled that fire, and even though it was cold at 20 below zero, there was no wind. It was time to go.

Daylight this time of year is a pleasant sight and relief for those who live this far north – Kotz sits just shy of 67 degrees north. The addition of eight minutes a day of light doesn’t sound like much, but over time and a week or two, it makes life here that much more enjoyable. 

You can’t see anything on the tundra until the light comes, which occurs around 11 a.m. and lasts until about 4 p.m. this time of year. It’s short window, but it’s a short ride to the hills behind town to hopefully find our quarry. We were about to test that theory.

I met Lew at his house at noon, and we were packed and headed to the tundra soon after. It wasn’t long before Lew spotted dots in the distance to put us in business. We were not the only ones out trying to gather meat; many others had been doing the same (or at least had been touring the vicinity), judging by evidence left across the tundra. The caribou were nervous from the sound of snowmachines and the sight of headlights cruising along the hills. They were no different when it came to us.

We inched towards them and like most of the small herds located here, they headed out long before we got to them. You can shoot subsistence caribou from your snowmachine if you like, as it’s perfectly legal here in Game Management Unit 23, especially when you need meat and are trying to fill that freezer. I’ve done it and it has worked well, but the problem is it’s hard to get close.

The herd we were looking at had 40 to 50 animals in it, but when we got close they were gone. We slumped our shoulders and began looking for the next batch. We had rounded a bend into a small narrow ravine when Lew stopped his machine and raised his hand, mouthing the magic word: caribou.  They hadn’t noticed or heard us coming and were digging through the snow looking for something to eat. We were lucky.

Without wanting to alarm them, we grabbed our rifles and eased off our snowmachines. The dense wall of willows lining the low ravine gave us cover and kept us out of sight of the small herd. The snow was deep and each step was a challenge as we moved forward. With Lew dressed in his snow camouflage and me right behind we pushed forward without alarm.

Like all moments of truth intersect, we got to a spot where we could go no further. Lew set up and was ready to pull the trigger. Determining a cow from a bull can be tough this time of year. Bulls have lost their antlers, but they’re bigger, and with a good set of binoculars you can see their undercarriage pretty easily. Cows usually still have their horns but are much smaller and identifiable. I watched as Lew picked out a cow, and with the boom of his rifle, saw the caribou drop in its tracks. We had meat without having to take a number at the meat counter!

The rest of the animals scattered, as expected, stopping a few hundred yards away to look back in disbelief. I tried to find one in my scope, but the shot would have been iffy and I didn’t want to wound an animal. We had freezer supplies, and that’s what we were after. I knew that tomorrow was another day, and if we needed more, we could venture out and do the same.

The Alaskan Arctic provides all year with an abundance of food for those who live here. Shopping for groceries is boring for some, but for us in the far north, finding what you’re after is a challenge that it is about as fun as it gets. Bon appétit! 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