A random video of an Alaskan hunting trip somehow loaded in my browser last week. Funny how something so random can elicit such profound memories and feelings of regret for times past. From the time I was born I was outdoors, hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, swimming, skiing, skating, on and on and on. There was a hunting guide, pilot, game warden and archery business owner all in my immediate family, so my options as a youngster, were plentiful.
The memories that particular video unearthed were quite specific. It was of a fall trip to the North Slope of Alaska in the mid 1980’s with my Dad, my best friend and his Stepdad; who was, coincidentally, my Dads good friend and coworker. The Dalton Highway, or Haul Road as most refer to it, is the only road that far north as it parallels the Alaskan Pipeline to Deadhorse. -Prudhoe Bay- These days the road is well traveled and maintained to a much, much higher standard. In those days only official vehicles could travel north of the Yukon River, -later, Dietrich Camp, about 120 miles further North- which provided for a much more remote, isolated feeling, especially as a 11-12 year old.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had recently been reading some books about Cavemen and hunting Woolly Mammoths, but I just recall this feeling like we had warped back 20,000 years in time? Animals of all sorts were teeming everywhere I seemed to look. Bears, Caribou, Moose, Wolves, Foxes, all sorts of birds including large flocks of Ptarmigan, their foliage mid season, a patchwork of white, red, and brown, Marmots, Parka Squirrels, even Musk Ox, looking ancient indeed, but most of all, lots of Caribou with their half bloody velvet hanging in pieces from their crackling antlers. It was all so surreal. A visual sense of nature in an untamed environment of wonder.
The only hunting that was allowed was archery. Turns out the Dad’s were pretty shitty bow-hunter’s, not that hunting Caribou out in the open is easy, but still, there was no chance of success in this sense. But we did enjoy success on the river. First, my friend and I happened upon a smallish creek that was teeming with Arctic Grayling eager to attack just about any dry fly floated on the surface. A couple days later, camped next to a much larger river, we struck it rich with some Arctic Char, a feisty game fish similar to Steelhead or Dolly Varden. Basically, a 12 year old fisherman’s dream.
After what seemed like the 30th failed stalk on Caribou, my friend and I decided to break off on our own to try to get within bow range of some of these creatures. They watched us on our first try, run across the tundra about a mile to a small creek that allowed us to get out of sight, then pop out about a half a mile in front of 7 nice bull’s. Along this little band of ancient rocks, the remains of some million year old underwater mountaintop, we hid ourselves using our best guess judging the Caribou’s movement. About 30 minutes later, as a fog bank rolled in off the distant Arctic Ocean, these animals approached our little nook in the limestone, two of which bed down not 25 feet away. We couldn’t wait to brag, our Dad’s watching from the truck a mile or so away, as the fog finally became so dense, all sign of humanity washed away, the sounds of clicking Caribou, for about 30 minutes, all that remained.
The peace was disrupted by the growl of some distant trucks Jake Brake, followed almost immediately by a few taps on my father’s horn. Walking back I remember quite well a brief moment of panic come over me for no reason. A fear of being lost in this visual soup, maybe? The sensation passed with the rumbling of another Northbound Rig, reminding my brain that the hidden highway was still actually there, a half mile West, despite our irrational fears otherwise. Although I’ve visited similar environments over the years, none have imprinted my memory with such reverence and peaceful fear. It was like we had experienced a time and place incomparable and indescribable to our friends? It was like we had, for those couple hours, if not several days, walked in the shoes of our tribal ancestors: the Woolly Mammoth and Saber Toothed Tiger hunter’s, living and learning far from the cave.