Happy Holidays from Alaska Sporting Journal! As we continue to celebrate this week, check out this feature that’s running in our December issue.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY MEGAN CORAZZA
My first memory of hunting with my dad is crying my eyes out – watching him black tape an enormous wad of toilet paper into the palm of my hand.
I was 5 years old and had just ridden 9 miles back into the mountains, clinging so tightly to the saddle horn that my palm swelled into a huge blister and finally ripped open as my horse lunged across a creek.
My latest memory of hunting with Dad is also me crying my eyes out – watching him cross a creek in front of me while my horse slipped completely on its side in the rocky gray mud and I losing my grip on the lead rope to the packhorse.
The 33 years in between those bouts of crying have been filled with a lifetime of Alaskan adventures – mostly on horseback – in pursuit of a full freezer for the winter. We’ve packed a caribou out of Resurrection Pass, ridden bareback high above the Yannert River next to pairs of swans in high alpine ponds, and had a mountain goat start grazing between our picketed horses after it followed me all the way down a ridge by Crescent Lake.
We have knocked down burnt trees with our packhorses near Tok, camped in the eerie rock formations of Knob Ridge near Dot Lake, and packed out a grizzly bear near Cantwell. I made a slippery descent from forest to popweed in Prince William Sound with my father, Rich Corazza, with a blacktail buck slung over my shoulders. He put on a pack at 65 years old and hauled a load of my bull elk meat over a ridge and down to the beach on Raspberry Island. We have broken the hitch off the truck and dragged the horse trailer along the potholes of the Denali Highway, and I have sliced through the taut forearm muscles of a 9-foot brown bear and stuck my fingers into the hot meat to warm them up as snorting horses watched with wide eyes and frosty breath.
It’s been quite a ride.
OUR DAYS USUALLY HAVE a sort of routine. Typically, I wake up to the sound of him outside the tent, calling and calling and calling – cow moose calls, bull moose grunts, an occasional chop of an axe into a stump.
I’d burrow deeper into my sleeping bag trying to get away from such unpleasant morning noises because I am so exhausted from being up all night long. During the dark hours of mostly endless nights, I could hear every twig, crackle, swirl of the river, crunch of berry bushes, and stomping of the horses – or is that the footstep of a bear?
My night terrors at hunting camp were only cured after I arrived one year sick as a dog and downed some Nyquil before putting on my dry wool socks, two pairs of long johns and a down jacket. I placed my gun and glasses right next to me and passed out.
I woke up totally refreshed.
Lately, I have discovered the magic of adding earplugs to Nyquil. The earplugs are completely effective, and this past hunting season I woke up to the sound of one being pulled out of my ear – pop!
“Do horses rifle around in garbage bags?” my friend whispered urgently.
I listened for a minute. A large animal was snorting and crunching and rattling through a garbage bag with our food in it just inches from our heads.
I knew the horse that was tied to a tree was too far away to be the culprit. I rolled over quickly and shook my dad awake.
“Dad! A bear in the food! …. Wait … Unless it’s the mule!”
Sure enough, Dad’s prized mule, which refuses to be tied up and never runs away for very long, had found my stash of Gala apples in the food bags.
The next morning we started with a cup of instant coffee covered with some powdered creamer. A report of how many moose Dad had already seen came before I put my contacts in. I furiously rubbed the fog out of my binoculars and spotted a few more before we had some instant oatmeal.
We sat around for an hour or two, enough time for me to get more and more antsy to climb a ridge, so finally we made some plans for the day. I heard of serious hunters shooting animals early in the morning, and we always shot ours in the afternoon.
OFTEN, ONE OR TWO people come with us. Usually they are friends of mine who I work to convince my dad are worthy of coming along on our trips. Regardless of their outstanding qualities, the bottom line is that they are people who are really special to me and who I want to show one of the most important parts of my life to.
Sometimes Dad gets frustrated when he tries to explain to me that what he loves is to hunt with me – to spend time in the mountains with me. I appreciate that more than he knows. Almost always, he ends up appreciating the additions to our trips. He and I fish our seine boats side by side all summer and talk on the radio umpteen times a day, so by the time we are sitting around a campfire at night in September, there isn’t much new to talk about.
A visitor, however, really spices up the northern lights, full-moon, horse-whinnying, sparks-flying evenings.
Norway, worm farming, African oilfields and Olympic ski racing have all kept the conversations flowing when there is a visitor around the fire.
I can imagine that from a visitor’s standpoint, it would be hard to believe that a moose was going to be killed. Things are pretty relaxed at camp. We feel mostly exhausted from three months at sea and motivation to hunt hard is low. We are getting our feet back under us, staring at the landscape as much as we are looking for bulls – it’s a tremendous time of transition from sea to mountain valley.
The visitor doesn’t know like I do, however, that on about day number five Dad will come back into camp late in the evening, swing down from the saddle with a mischievous grin and pull out a fresh heart in a Ziploc bag from his saddlebags. It is his magic.
THE WORK TRULY BEGINS when the moose is down. We saddled the horses and bushwhacked a trail to where the animal was laying. The knives were sharpened and Dad, who always takes the commanding role in the skinning and quartering of the bull, brought out the saw.
He would not be a happy hunter if there was grass or dirt on the meat. But soon came the predictable rhythm of butchering a moose – the steamy warmth of the blood if it is the same day, the cool hardness of white fat if it is the day afterwards.
We loaded the meat into six bags, wiped our knives clean and collapsed into the grass with our water bottles and granola bars. Finally, we brought the horses over one by one and heaved the quarters into the canvas panniers.
The last few years we have been working with an extraordinarily calm string of horses, with the hardest thing about it was getting a huge slab of meat high enough to slip into the bag. But in my youth it often turned into a rodeo with young, green horses.
Hooves flew, the whites of the horses’ eyes flashed around, meat bags sailed into the mossy hummocks, and there was generally no time to relax. We only took a deep breath when the string of three packhorses had made it back down three hours of muddy switchbacks, deep river crossings and fallen cottonwoods blocking the trail. More than once I got my boots sucked off in the mud trying to keep up with a young horse that knew we were headed home.
Packing a moose out of the mountains on horseback can be so much work. I think that’s why Dad only gets serious about hunting on day number five, only after we have experienced four good days of rest.
One year, he and I spent two days packing a moose out. As we rode back to camp late in the evening, my brother stood high on a rock by the tent while beaming and holding out another fresh moose heart.
“Good job!” Dad said as we sat on our tired horses. “Where’d you get it?”
“About 7 miles up the valley,”
“Oh, no …”
Dad and I sighed together, my muscles almost going limp thinking of the draining work of the next three days.
“Just kidding,” my brother cracked. “It’s right there.” He pointed across a pond 50 yards away. To our immense relief, his bull had walked right into camp.
MY DAD PUT ME on a horse at age 5, and soon I was crossing raging glacial rivers and racing across hayfields. He seemed to have no fear of what could happen. We hunted in the winter, putting ice shoes on our horses and chopping wood all night long just to stay warm.
Mine is the kind of dad who you simply just follow, because when you follow him everything is going to be OK; if it’s not, he will fix it. He had a heart attack in his 50s, and as I stood beside him in the hospital, I heard him bartering with the nurses, who told him to rest for at least two weeks.
“It’s hunting season!” he said. “How about two days?”
Three days later he asked me to do all the saddling and loading, and we headed into the mountains.
In the last 33 years, I have watched my oldest son, Mason, ride behind his grandpa through the enormous valleys and foothills of the Alaska Range, shooting spruce hens and gutting a moose. I have watched my youngest son, Fischer, sing and carry on so loudly while riding the packhorse that Grandpa turned around and gave him the moose call. Little Fischer started wailing away on the horn and a little spike bull came right out of the alders.
I have watched my father bring my 82-year-old grandfather all the way back into the mountains, all the while bundled up in a huge camouflage parka and sitting very still and rather stiffly on top of the horse.
Near the end of the ride, the saddle swung completely upside down under the horse, leaving my grandfather dangling between four legs. He shook himself loose from the saddle and crawled slowly up onto the moss.
“I just wanted to show you, little girl, how not to get off a horse,” he chuckled.
I have watched my dad love his family by bringing us along and giving us all confidence that we could do it. We were powered on by his belief in us. I am not a brave person, in the least, but I have been able to do some amazing things by being willing to follow my dad’s horse down the trail.
It’s taken 33 years, but I have come into my own a bit. I can climb a mountain and find my own moose. I can pull the trigger and secure the winter’s meat. I can even teach a friend how to gut and butcher a moose.
I leave the saddling to my dad; he is a bit picky about where the girth goes. It is still just me and him in the mountains. Other men have come and gone, even the ones I suspected would stay. I go despite his snoring; he goes despite my crying.
I believe hunting is one of the most vulnerable things you can do with another person. They are going to see what you are afraid of; how you react when you miss a chance; how you respect the lives of animals; and how you hold up after days of disappointment.
I don’t know how to hunt with many other people besides my dad. We have a hunting rhythm built up over three decades, one that is full of acceptance and free of demands. A good hunting partner is hard to find, and luckily for me I never had to go looking for one. ASJ