Adventure In The Far North

 

by Jim Taylor

September 24th, 2006

 

 

 

It began in the winter of 2005 with a series of emails between friends, one of which lived north of the Arctic Circle in the Alaskan village of Ft. Yukon. We were discussing visiting him and helping him with the gathering of a winter’s supply of firewood and then hunting bears and wolves. We all agreed it would be a great adventure and began to make plans for the trip. It was already deep winter in the Arctic with temperatures warming up to only 35 below zero, so our plans were for the trip to take place the following year.

In the beginning we had several guys who were going to go with us who later had to drop out. One had a car wreck and while thankfully he was not hurt, it also wrecked any chances of him going along. Others had various things come up that kept them from going. That’s life. The crew that ended up making the trip consisted of myself, Tom Lindner, Tom Peterson and Bryan Pettet. Bryan lives in Alaska and was working as a Missionary to the Athabascan Indians in the Ft. Yukon area. 

Over the course of the next months we began to gather the gear we would need and to make lists of what we would have to take. Our hunting area would be the Yukon Flats, an area of 10,000 square miles with fewer than a thousand inhabitants and less than 60 miles of roads. That most of the roads are in and around Ft. Yukon may give you some idea of how isolated this area is. Many rivers and streams cut the land. From the air it is somewhat reminiscent of the Mississippi delta country. The only way into it and the only way to get around in it is either by boat or by air. It is remote enough that once out in the bush a person is literally on their own. We had to cover all bases and make sure we had enough provisions, medical supplies, camping gear and any other comforts we wanted before we left. 

During the winter of 2005 and the spring of 2006 I purchased items that were on my list; insulated long underwear, rain gear, rubber boots, and other items of clothing that would be needed. One of the guys, Tom Lindner, was put in charge of getting the menu together. Our plan was to fly to Fairbanks and buy our final provisions there. Since Fairbanks had a Sam’s Club, Tom visited the local Sam’s Club and drew up a menu, noting the various items we would purchase at the store in Fairbanks. We also ordered enough MREs to use as a noon meal. We could throw these in our backpacks and take them into the field with us as well as using them in camp.

In the spring of 2006 we went online and researched airline tickets. Eventually we found round-trip tickets to Fairbanks at a decent price. We would be going right at the end of the tourist season, which may have helped some. I had stayed in Fairbanks before so I called a motel that I was familiar with and booked rooms for all of us. I spoke with the motel owner and told her that we would be going hunting and needed to store some of our stuff with them while we were out. She was very kind and told me that would not be a problem.

We also went online and purchased our hunting licenses and tags. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game website was easy to use and we had no problems getting the tags and licenses. Since we were non-residents we could not get tags for Grizzly without hiring a licensed guide, so we elected to hunt Black Bear and Wolves. Bryan was an Alaskan resident and would have a Grizzly tag should we run into one. 

In June we shipped our camping gear to Alaska. Bryan would be taking care of it and bringing it with him when we met him in Fairbanks in August. We shipped the ammo for our guns at the same time. 

I had chosen to take my old Model 71 Winchester .348, my Freedom Arms 454 handgun and my Ruger .22 Single Six. The Single Six would be the “emergency/survival gun”. I had a small backpack made up that contained one complete change of clothes in waterproof bags, fire starter, 2 space blankets, a folding saw, nylon line, some basic medical supplies and the .22 sixgun and ammo. It would be my “go-to-hell” bag. If something bad happened on the river, if I could make it to shore with that bag I could survive. Or so I hoped.

The Yukon River on which we would be camping, traveling and hunting is the 4th longest river in North America. It can be a treacherous river with a current that runs at 8 knots. It is up to 20 miles wide in places, being a “braided” river with numerous channels and islands. For the uninitiated it is hard to determine where the main channel is located at times. We had life jackets and all the safety gear, but if something happened and we went into the water it would not be good. Besides being a swift river, the Yukon River is mainly from glacial runoff and is pretty cold. But I wanted to be prepared as well as I could for any eventuality. 

The flight to Fairbanks began in Tulsa, OK. Checking the firearms in proved to be a “no big deal”. Tom Lindner and I flew together and had our rifles and handguns in one case. When we checked them in the guy at the airline counter spent some time talking with us about his hunting and shooting experiences. TSA was not a problem either. 

It is over 4000 air miles to Fairbanks. It was a long flight in a plane that was fully loaded. We arrived about midnight, picked up our rental car and made our way to the motel. The next morning bright and early we found the Sam’s Club and purchased the provisions we had listed. We found almost everything we wanted. Having the same stock numbers as the stores in the lower 48 States sure simplified things. I had expected prices to be higher, but overall they were only about 10% higher than in our local area.

That afternoon Bryan arrived and that evening Tom Peterson flew in. We were all together! The next morning we were up early, loading the trailer for the next part of the trip. Bryan brought our gear that we had shipped earlier and along with what we brought with us on the flight up, we had quite a load. It began raining while we were loading, a sign of things to come. As we were loading our gear I asked Bryan, “Where’s the ammo?” and he got a funny look on his face. Oh oh. Here were thousands of miles from home and no ammo!! Fairbanks has some good gun shops, however, and with a little work we secured ammo for all our guns. 

Lesson: Take your ammo with you.

Once we had all our supplies and the trailer was loaded we drove out of Fairbanks heading for Circle, Alaska. Circle is the End of The Road. Located about 70 miles south of the Arctic Circle on the Yukon River, it is a popular stop for those who are traveling the river. It is one of the places where goods destined for the interior villages are shipped from. Items can be trucked to Circle and then loaded on barges for the rest of the trip. It is either that or air freight. It is about 150 miles from Fairbanks to Circle. The first 60 miles or so from Fairbanks are paved with the rest of the road being dirt. The last 20 miles into Circle can be quite rough and muddy (depending on how the weather has been). It took us about 4 ½ hours to make the trip. The road winds up over some high, beautiful mountains. When the sun hit the slopes that were covered with fireweed it looked like the peaks were on fire!

Arriving at Circle we pulled the boat from its mooring and loaded our gear into it. We did not have much of chance to look around Circle since we wanted to head north on the river as quickly as possible. Not that Circle is all that large. I believe it has a population of 60 or 70. But it is always interesting to see how folks live in harsh climates like the far north. Once the boat was loaded we buckled on our safety gear and headed out. It was cool on the river and I was glad to have my rain gear on as it served as a great windbreak. 

We had traveled for some time when a long low ridge came up in front of us. It had something up near the peak and I inquired what it was. Bryan said it was an Indian grave. The river had several channels running off to the east, parallel with the ridge and I asked if he had ever hunted that area. He said, “No, but I have wanted to.” and turned the boat in that direction. We went up the channel, which was a quarter mile or more wide, for a mile or so until we spotted a nice landing. Pulling into the shore we got off the boat, retrieved our guns and set out to see what it looked like.

We met back at the boat after 15 or 20 minutes and all of us agreed that the signs were good. There were bear and wolf tracks in abundance, the landing we were on was easy to reach and had a good camping spot. The decision was made, “This is it!”, and we began to unload the boat. While we unloaded and set up tents Bryan cut firewood and by the time we had the camp together the fire was going and we were looking forward to a meal. Checking the time we were surprised to find it was about 9 PM! Being so far north, the sun does not set like we were used to. No wonder we were hungry! The sun not setting “normally’ (like it does in the lower 48) messed up not only a person’s internal clock, it also messed with their sense of direction, since it was not in the “normal” location in the sky.

Our camp was set up with the “kitchen” area about 50 yards from the sleeping area. No food was taken into the tents. All this was a precaution against bears. It was interesting the first morning to see a large wolf track right on top of our boot print, not 30 yards from the tents.

While the rest of the guys were hunting one of us stayed in camp to guard against predators. During the week were in camp I saw only one other person, a native named Dennis who came up the river in his boat. He saw me in camp without a boat there and stopped to see if everything was OK. He was looking for a moose and I told him of a spot where we had jumped one. He thanked me and headed on up the river. I don’t know if he got one or not. I did hear a rifle shot a day or so later, up the river from us, but quite a long ways off. 

The firearms we had with us were as follows: Bryan carried a Hamilton Bowen-built .500 Linebaugh revolver and a Ruger Model 77 in .458 Lott. Tom Lindner carried a Ruger .41 Magnum sixgun and a Marlin 1895 .45-70. Tom Peterson carried a Remington .30-06 and a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson. And I had the Model 71 .348 and the 454 Freedom Arms. The handguns were worn all the time. The rifles were kept within close reach.

The Yukon Flats is a rough country to hunt. The brush is extremely thick. In most places you could not see game if it was within 30 feet of you. There are several ways of hunting bears in it. The most productive I believe would be baiting. Since we had not gotten bait permits we did not try that. We hunted the drainages where there were good sign. We also tried calling. I am sure now that we had bears on us several times. We just could not see them. The grass in the drainages was often higher than our waists. A bear on all fours would be nearly impossible to see. On several occasions we hunted the length of a drainage only to find fresh bear tracks across our tracks on the return! Once we had yipping and howling answers to our calls, but no wolves came in. They sounded like coyote pups. Since there are no coyotes in the Yukon Flats there was only one answer as to what it was. And while we did not get any game on this hunt I have to say I would do it again in a minute, even if I knew the results would be the same. It was just incredible being in that big, wide country!

It rained nearly every day. Some days it only rained for a few minutes. Other times it rained most of the day. The rain gear was one of the more used items of clothing that I took. It did not get as cold as we were prepared for, the lowest temperatures being in the high 30’s. But it was wet, even when it didn’t rain. I wore the rubber boots more than my regular insulated hunting boots.

Some of the more useful items included: Deet – the bugs were thick! Mosquitoes, no-see-ums, gnats, black flies and a few white socks were always around. Baby Wipes were very much appreciated. A multi-tool was kept in my pocket. These were used every day, several times a day. 

After 5 days of hunting we broke camp in the rain and loaded the boat, heading back south to Circle. It was a cold, wet trip. At Circle we visited the Circle Washeteria. Here one can get potable water, use the Laundromat and take a hot shower in the coin-operated shower. It was a great place to visit after a week in the bush! We also visited the General Store and bought goodies. Prices were high, but not so bad when you consider how hard it is to get goods into someplace as far from everywhere as Circle is. Gasoline was only $3.60 a gallon at Circle. That’s about $2.00 a gallon cheaper than it was at Ft. Yukon.

The trip back to Fairbanks was uneventful. We spent a couple days sight-seeing in Fairbanks. Anyone heading that way, be sure to visit the Museum of the Far North at the University in Fairbanks. We spent a half a day there and did not see it all. It is well worth the time.

We also visited some great gun shops in Fairbanks.  If you are ever there, drop in and visit these guys:

Alaska Guns & Ammo
308 6th Ave.
Fairbanks, AK 99701
(907)-452-3652

Arctic Gun Works
1307 Kalakeket St.
Fairbanks, AK 99709
(907)-452-4438

Down Under Guns
318 Driveway St
Fairbanks, AK 99701
(907) 456-8500

Alaska is a grand country. A Do-It-Yourself hunt such as we put on is a lot less expensive than going with an outfitter. However, the chances of you scoring game are higher if you use an outfitter so you have to decide whether it is worth the investment or not. Also, there are some species of game that those of us from out of State cannot hunt without a Guide. But still, if you choose to put it together yourself, you can have a wonderful time. We did. I believe I speak for all of us on this hunt when I say, “It was a Grand Adventure.”

Jim Taylor

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

Packing the trailer in Fairbanks.

 

 

On the road to Circle.

 

 

Fireweed on the mountains.

 

 

End of the Road.

 

 

Loading the boat at Circle.

 

 

Bryan Pettet.

 

 

Camp on the Yukon River.

 

 

Around the campfire.

 

 

Hunting a drainage, note the thick brush.

 

 

Wolf tracks on our tracks.

 

 

Jim Taylor - in the bush.

 

 

The grass in this drainage was more than waist high.

 

 

The Washeteria at Circle.

 

 

General Store at Circle.

 

 

Sunset on the Yukon.