Unfinished Business: Final Bucket List For An Alaskan Hunter On The Move
PHOTOS BY PAUL ATKINS
The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
Elk, that’s it!
I think it’s time to go and chase some elk. And not just any elk; I’m talking about the big boys, the ones that dreams are made of. The ones that take years to draw the tag. And when you do, you better make it one of those elk that count – like those bulls out West somewhere, say, Montana or Arizona, where those big old Rocky Mountain types like to hang out.
“But don’t you have elk in Alaska?”
I know we do – Roosevelts – but to be honest, I’ve never hunted elk here. Yes, I’ve seen them on occasion, especially while chasing brown bears on Kodiak Island – more specifically, Afognak and Raspberry Islands – but I’ve never pursued them.
I would like to, though, especially after seeing the terrain and habitat they call home. The clearcuts, logging roads and spruce cover, combined with less than harsh weather, would make for an incredible hunt, in my opinion, especially if you’re lucky enough to draw a tag.
This all sounds fun, right? However, if I’m being totally honest, elk have never been high on my priority list of animals to pursue, until lately. I don’t know why that’s the case either.
All my friends, especially those who live way down south, are addicted to it. They say there’s nothing like it, especially on that first cool morning when you hear that first mystical bugle, while standing on a mountain breathing in all that crisp air. They say it’s life-changing and I believe them. I’ve hunted elk twice in my life, so I know because I’ve heard the call.
They’re majestic for sure, but they’re not like chasing a moose. And for me personally, there’s just been too many caribou to chase to even think about elk.
But, at least for this year, I think elk fits the bill.
ANSWERING A TOUGH QUESTION
I saw a social media post recently where someone asked, “What’s everyone hunting this year”? The question was pretty vague, to say the least, but the poster received over 200 replies. The responses included everything from elephants to a new rifle to a new wife.
I wanted to type in elk, though I didn’t. But it got me to thinking about what I would really like to do with the remaining days I have here in Alaska before moving back to the Lower 48 later this spring.
I know I’ve been lucky – blessed, actually – to live up here. It has allowed me to chase every critter, shoot every critter and eat just about every critter that I’ve brought home. I promise you that it’s been a good time.
When I finished my book a month or so ago (Alaska Sporting Journal, December 2020), I knew that I would probably never be able to top some of those hunts. Heck, I really wouldn’t want to.
I guess that’s why these days I think beyond Alaska and what life may bring once I leave here (hence the elk passage above). I may be retiring and moving on, but believe it or not, there are a few things or animals that have eluded me here in the Last Frontier.
This is probably the most underrated species here in Alaska, in my opinion. Sure, they’re rare and hard to find, except maybe if you’re a trapper. Those guys seem to gather many throughout the season, and if they’re good at it, they make it look easy.
I want a wolverine – always have – but I imagine those hopes are over. I’ve only ever seen one, but the memory of that morning is still fresh as it was the day it happened. It was 15 years ago and a long way from where I am typing this.
We were doing a September fly-out drop hunt for caribou. It was cold the day we landed on that long stretch of river; so cold the water was frozen along the shore and the rocks seemed to be harder than usual as we trudged clumsily up the bank to make camp.
We had two tents, warm bags, warm clothes and a continuous fire, but it didn’t seem to break the chill during the week. Caribou were there too, but they were tough to come by. Several other camps dotted the landscape, and it was more like combat hunting than anything else.
Luckily, we scored after some hard hiking, but it wasn’t easy.
On the last morning of that hunt, I had my encounter with the skunk bear, as the wolverine is sometimes called. I got up rather early and gathered water from an icy stream to make coffee. Once that was done, I was sitting on a cooler cooking bacon on the Coleman when I felt like I was being watched. My hunting partner was still buried in his sleeping bag, so I knew it wasn’t him. A bear, maybe? It has happened before, but when I looked over my shoulder, I saw the beast sitting not 15 yards from the fire. He looked like a dog waiting for a treat.
The wolverine looked at me and I looked at him. My rifle was leaning against a willow, but by the time I got to it the
game was up and he was headed for the tundra. I remember that big brown tail and that gnarly face peering back at me as he made his exit. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, almost surreal. It was almost as good as taking him home. Almost.
There are other game animals that I would like to have taken as well. Bison is one, but as I’ve written about many times before, getting a bison tag has eluded me for the last 22 years. Maybe one day, but it will probably have to be down in the Lower 48 and not in Alaska.
I did have a chance once in Montana. I was bowhunting mule deer in September and the guy I was hunting with asked if I would like to hunt buffalo. I jumped at the offer. Bison are only wild in certain places, with certain herds spread out across North America where hunters can take a bull on a tag. However, there are places or ranches that have them and whether they’re wild or not only pertains to how you look at the situation.
Yes, these animals that I hunted were fenced in, but if you know anything about buffalo, a fence only does so much. We set up a blind, with me and my buddy seated snuggly inside and waiting.
The herd finally came, but there were just too many bodies. As you can imagine, chaos ensued. It didn’t allow for a shot, and what I thought would be a slam dunk actually turned into a fiasco. Getting trampled or gored or dragged off in a pop-up blind wasn’t my idea of fun. Maybe next time.
I haven’t dealt with much with these predators, but would have liked too. And it’s not that I didn’t try. Wolves are funny creatures, more cunning than anything else and you don’t really hunt wolves on purpose, or I didn’t anyway.
You would think that living here I would have been covered up with them, but I haven’t. I can remember every wolf encounter during my time in the Arctic, but I can also count those on one hand. Most of those times were while I was doing something else.
We were hunting sheep during subsistence season way north of my Kotzebue home base. I had just finished eating lunch with my buddies when I decided to glass a ridge behind us. I caught movement of something traveling single file across its edge. I thought at first it was caribou, but when I motioned to my friends to look, they immediately told me they were wolves! We were off and when it was all over, we had six of the seven roped to our sleds. It was a very weird experience.
The other time was while on the infamous “kidney stone” hunt (Alaska Sporting Journal, April 2020). While flying to camp we spotted a few from the air. We never ran into them on the hunt, but they were cool to see.
The last time we saw wolves was when my hunting partner Lew and I were floating the Kobuk River one summer. We were camped on one side of the river and the pack was cruising the shore on the other. They were howling and going crazy, trying to see if we were something they could eat. It was a long night.
Over the years have been plenty of other exciting moments, especially here in the Arctic. Being chased by bears; run over by caribou; reaching down into the cold water of Kotzebue Sound and pulling a giant sheefish from the icy depths and wondering if it was worth my frostbitten hands.
Speaking of fish, there is one that I would still like to cross off my wish list. I’ve never caught a king salmon. Crazy, right? Many of my friends have and those who live down along the Kenai do it on a regular basis. But not me. I’ve tried, but no luck. Maybe someday on a return visit.
I guess if nothing else I would also like to chase spring bears one more time. Over the years it has become common practice for Lew and I, but with him moving and me alone up here for now I don’t know if it will happen or not. I hope so and if not, then that is OK. We have had enough experiences to last a lifetime.
But it would be great to once again cut a track with my friend and find what’s at the end of it. I can still picture each of those past hunts – from what we said, to what we did and, ultimately, the thrill and joy we had with each one of those bears. Many can’t comprehend that, but it’s true. It’s been a lifetime of adventures.
I guess in the end everyone has something different on their list. My good friend and fellow writer Scott Haugen found his new joy with hunting waterfowl. As with all his other outdoor activities, he loves it and could do it all the time if the season allowed. That’s what it’s all about.
I look forward to hunting deer as well. Many people back home in Oklahoma can’t believe that I do, especially when they can just step out their back door and practically hunt whitetails from October until January.
But as they say up here, you can hunt moose, caribou and bear anytime you want! I know, but sometimes change is a good thing and having a new list or a new quarry is what keeps us going. That goal is something to make us feel alive and keep us wanting more. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s had hundreds of articles published on big game hunting in Alaska and throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. His new book Atkins’ Alaska is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and everywhere good books are sold. It can also be ordered through his website, paulatkinsoutdoors.com and if you want an autographed copy, contact him at paul@ paulatkinsoutdoors.com. Paul is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.