A soft rustling in the brush roused me from the state of semiconsciousness that I was trying to coax into a couple more hours of sleep. I lay still in my sleeping bag, just listening.
That’s definitely a bear, I thought, as I reached for the 10mm pistol next to my head. My ears are well tuned to the sound of nearby bears from years of hunting in Alaska. I pulled my pistol from its holster and unzipped the tent. I’d left the zipper perfectly positioned so I could open it with one hand. I’d been planning for this.
I’m gonna shoot this peckerwood right in the dome, I thought. Then we’ll finally have something to eat.
Just as I had expected, there was a black bear standing not 10 feet away. No, two black bears. My mind raced to sort out the situation. Sow and cub, I thought, as the larger of the two bears sprinted away through the dense tangle of alders and black spruces. The “cub” wasn’t really a cub but a 1½-year-old adolescent. I’d been without a substantial meal for two days, so I wasn’t in an ethical quandary about killing this young bear. But I did worry that it could make a bad situation worse.
As the younger bear lingered a few yards away, with an inquisitive—almost troublemaking—look to him, I could hear the large sow crashing through the brush around us. I centered the red-dot sight of my pistol on the bear’s forehead, pressing through the takeup on the trigger. I knew that if I killed this bear, my hunting partner Frank and I would likely have to kill the sow too. She wasn’t going to just leave. That could get dicey, considering we could barely see more than 10 feet through the brush around us. I lowered my pistol and told the bear to scram.
Then I glanced at the pile of firewood and kindling that Frank had prepared to cook the meat on. I hoped I’d made the right decision.
Hungry for the Mountains
“Eight days,” I told my buddy Frank on the phone. “We can make that work.” Due to some scheduling conflicts, I had thought we were going to have only four days, which often isn’t enough for a sheep hunt, but eight days would be plenty. We would get flown in, spend at least a day walking, have six days to hunt, and then have a day to get our asses back to the airstrip. Piece of cake.
Seventeen years of hunting sheep have educated me on the gear and food I need for a mountain hunt. But still, there was a delicate balance between what we’d need and what we might need.
On drop hunts, we’ll often leave extra food and gear at the airstrip. That way, if the pilot can’t pick us up on time, we’ll still have plenty of food and supplies. But this time we planned on covering a lot of country, so we would likely be picked up miles from where we were dropped. That meant we’d have to bring everything with us. Only items that were worth their weight would make the cut, and that went for food too. I carefully stowed seven days’ worth of meals and snacks in the bottom of my pack, plus a dinner for the first night.
The beginning of a sheep hunt is always a slog. It’s common to spend a day—or two days—covering ground just to get to where you actually start glassing. The low-country brush makes you earn every step.
This hike in was especially challenging. Swarms of mosquitoes and gnats kept us walking at an unrelentingly brisk pace—we had only one small vial of DEET.
After a several hours of bushwhacking, I heard Frank holler, “Wasps!” from two steps behind me. I didn’t hesitate, crashing through the tall grass and brush as quickly as my feet could navigate the tangle, just waiting to feel the stings of a hundred angry yellow jackets. They didn’t get me, but they did get Frank. The underground nests were like land mines, and I’d apparently stepped right on one. Frank saw the furious wasps pouring from the hole as my boot left it. He stepped onto the hole, like a soldier diving on a grenade to save his friend, shouted his warning, and then ran. But not fast enough.
By that evening, rain was beginning to fall, and we had hit our limit. We stopped to look for some flat ground for our tent, my legs cramping from dehydration and the hours spent fighting the brush.
After a good night’s sleep and a steep, alder-choked climb the following morning, we were right where we wanted to be—looking at rams.
With enough patience, persistence, and time, sheep hunting is a tough but simple affair. Rams might be temporarily unapproachable, or hidden from view by bad weather, but you simply wait until conditions change. We had the persistence, but time was not on our side.
In six days of hunting, we spotted only three legal rams. We were on rams each day, but they were never in position for a stalk. We spent half the time on our backs under the shelter of our tent, listening to the howling wind and periodic slosh of water running off the tarp we’d stretched over the tent to collect it. Defeated by the weather and circumstances, we could do nothing but face the reality that we were going home empty-handed.
It had been a slog to get into sheep country, but coming out without a ram was worse. Plus, the bugs were waiting—eagerly, ferociously—for us in the low country. If we slowed down at all, they tore into us, biting our faces, our ears, and any other exposed skin.
“Five hours without stopping a single time,” I told Frank, checking my watch as we reached our pickup point. It was midafternoon, and with several hours to wait for the airplane, we were desperate for relief from the bugs. We were near a small pond, and everywhere except where our plane would land was a thick tangle of black spruces, alders, and willows. We eventually hacked out a spot large enough to fit our two-man tent and hastily set it up while choking on no-see-ums and being gored by mosquitoes. Exhausted and sweaty, we jumped in, zipped the netting, and sat there silently.
Hurry Up and Wait
Frank’s inReach buzzed with a new message: “We can’t come get you on time. Weather.”
We were enjoying a sunny afternoon, but in Alaska it’s often the weather between you and your charter pilot that matters most. I’ve had pretty good luck over the years and hadn’t been delayed more than a day—but weather delays are common with bush flying in Alaska. Small bush planes can generally fly only through conditions in which the pilot can see—especially in the mountains. Quick-moving weather can sometimes trap a plane while it’s flying through the mountains, blocking the path ahead and sweeping in behind. If bush pilots or hunters want long careers, safety is of the utmost importance. You simply don’t fly when the weather is bad. I know of lots of hunters who have been stuck for a day or two, and occasionally even longer.
Afternoon turned to evening, and it became apparent that we’d have to wait till morning to be picked up. We tidied our tent and set up our tarp to catch rain again, as the nearby pond’s water looked brackish and not especially appealing. We’d resigned ourselves to one extra night here and had unpacked our bedding when we heard a noise in a small draw next to our tent.
“Pssst!” Frank hissed, a stern cue to shut up and listen. Another snap, close. Then the pattering of feet running off through the moss-covered thickets. “Freaking bear for sure,” Frank said, unimpressed. “Now we’re gonna have to deal with them all night—great.”
We casually sorted through the food we had left, joking about having to ration. I’d brought only seven and a half days of food, and we were at the end of day eight. Here’s what I had left in my pack: the remnants of two small bags of trail mix, several scraps of jerky, more than a dozen coffee singles, and some Liquid I.V. Frank had one homemade dehydrated meal (turkey dinner with stuffing) and two granola bars (the shitty ones that always get passed up until the end of a trip).
We joked about roasting the pair of swans sitting on the pond as we split Frank’s last dinner.
It had rained most of the night, and every bit of clear water we could get was a blessing. The hundreds of mosquitoes that rested in suspended animation on the lining of our tent roused as soon as we did. I was back in the tent quickly, boiling water on my stove by reaching through a small opening in the zipper at the bottom of the bug netting as mosquitoes swarmed the netting around my head.
Our hopes for an early pickup that morning were dashed when we got another message: “Zero visibility in town.”
Now we nervously nibbled at what little food we had left and continued checking the weather forecast, which didn’t look good.
The boredom became excruciating. Trying to sleep was the only way to pass the time. During the hunt we had been burning thousands of calories per day, and we were exhausted, yet the opportunity to rest was agonizing. What our bodies really needed was food.
Sometime that morning, we heard a branch snap nearby. I opened the tent just in time to see a flash of black through the thick tangle of saplings and small trees. “Black bear,” I said, relieved that at least it wasn’t grizzlies stumbling across the tent every few hours. Still, a curious black bear can—at the very least—damage critical gear or tear up a tent. We didn’t have problems with bears during the night, but every few hours in the morning and evening, they’d start poking around camp.
Frustrations built inside that little tent as the weather refused to relent and thousands of mosquitoes droned on in the bush, just waiting for us.
A steady rain set the mood for the second day. The pattering on our tent made me want to dive back into the ignorant unconsciousness of whatever I had been dreaming. “Still socked in,” came the latest satellite update. This wasn’t good news, but knowing was better than simply wondering. Meanwhile, we’d gotten messages from other hunting buddies in different places—some of whom had been told to expect to wait an extra week beyond their pickup dates.
“We’re gonna need to kill something to last a week,” Frank said bluntly. The hunger was starting to hurt. Now when we talked about killing the swans, we weren’t joking. We didn’t see or hear them on the nearby pond anymore, but we knew there was at least one common loon around. In Alaska, it’s legal to kill animals for food in an emergency situation—any such kill must be reported and the meat must be salvaged for consumption. We grimly formulated a plan to use the rifle to head-shoot any bird we could find and use an inflatable bedroll to paddle out and get it.
We also decided that the next bear that came by and gave us a chance would get a bullet. Frank even gathered wood and kindling for a cooking fire.
We weren’t starving to death—a human can survive for weeks without eating—but our situation was becoming more serious. How should we balance the effort to find food with the need to rest and conserve energy? The real danger was not true starvation but the effects it might have on us. People make desperate decisions and take unnecessary risks when they’re starving, and we couldn’t let it get to that point. The mental challenge was equally brutal: We might be home by the end of the day, or we could be stuck for another week.
We were creeping into territory that most people don’t experience in modern American society. We’re accustomed to having plenty of food whenever we want it. Our days aren’t overshadowed by the uncertainty our ancestors must have felt: How would they get their next meal?
The next morning was even cooler, and I was already thinking about meat on the spit when I drew iron on the black bear near the tent. It wasn’t worth the risk, and I didn’t want to deal with two bears if I didn’t have to. Begrudgingly, I scared the young bear away and hoped I wouldn’t come to regret that decision.
Coffee was a poor substitute for breakfast after the adrenaline wore off, but it was about all we had. We were going on three days without any real food. Strangely, I didn’t really feel hungry anymore—just weak and tired. I knew that was a bad sign. Bugs be damned, we needed to eat something.
Fortunately, the cool morning had calmed the swarms of mosquitoes, and to the limited extent that we could move through the thick trees and brush, we went out in search of food. We had seen berries nearby, and we could go check the pond. We found that our loon was gone, and we couldn’t even scrounge a red squirrel. I had been bushwhacking and climbing alpine ridges for a week before this, but now walking just a few steps left me dizzy and out of breath.
We found some blueberries, and as Frank grazed, I carefully dropped berries into my coffee cup. I craved sustenance, even if it was just a few mouthfuls. When my cup was topped off, I devoured them, feeling a burst of energy almost instantly. As the day warmed and the bugs began their assault, we retreated to the tent to wait for any news.
“I don’t feel so good,” I told Frank. Even sitting up was an effort, and I couldn’t think clearly. “You need to drink something,” he told me. I forced down some Liquid I.V., but it brought little relief. The vast landscape was our prison, the tent was our cell, and the bugs were our ever-vigilant guards. And then, just as our hunt was beginning to turn into a survival situation, we got a message from our charter pilot: “We’re going to come try to pick you up.”
The next thing we knew, the drone of the bush plane drowned out the hum of mosquitoes.
“I brought a sleeping bag in case we can’t get back out,” our pilot said in a chipper tone. “It’s pretty dicey, but we should be able to make it if we hurry.”
Instead of asking our pilot if he’d also brought food, we used all our energy to quickly load our gear into the small plane. With the bugs behind us and a hot meal ahead, we hadn’t even left the ground before one of us piped up: “We’re definitely coming back next year.”
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