Alaska: Hunter's Challenge
A cold wind blew off the Bering Sea and swept across the western fringe of the barren Alaska Range. The air was sharp with approaching autumn, and above the ragged mountaintops scattered clouds drifted eastward. From a ridge in a vast panorama of rock I looked at the wilderness stretched before me. Here was Alaska—the continent's last great frontier.
It was the 20th of August, the beginning of the biggest and the best big-game hunting season in the United States. The day before, I had flown into Anchorage, and from there by floatplane to Rainy Pass Lodge, headquarters for the next three weeks of hunting. My guide was Dennis Branham, who with his brother Bud operates Rainy Pass in the heart of one of the finest game areas in the 49th state.
There were six in our party—John Schroeder and his son, Nick, from Milwaukee; Earl Jensen, from Seattle; Bill Vogel, also from Milwaukee; his son-in-law, Mike Finnell, from Calgary; and myself. Although we had all come primarily for the big bears of Alaska, the bear season did not open till Sept. 1, and first we wanted to hunt sheep, moose and caribou.
For sheep hunting, Mike, Nick and I, with our guides, flew out from the lodge to a tent camp at Valeska Lake (see map page 42) 3,000 feet above sea level in the Alaska Range.
Opening morning of the big-game hunting season was bright and clear. With Dennis Branham I started out for the mountain area northwest of the lake, hoping to find a trophy ram. The most likely spot to begin our stalk was the ridge which towered above camp; but because it was so steep, the only way up was a zigzag seven-mile detour around the far side of the mountain.
This was my first experience with Alaskan mountains. Hunting goats in the Rockies, I had made longer climbs to higher altitudes, but none was as difficult as this. In the Rockies of Montana there are still patches of growth for handholds at 9,000 feet. Here, at little more than 4,000 feet, there is nothing but chalky gray rock and a long drop down. The climbing is even more difficult because of hip boots—most of the guides wear them, and the hunters (particularly the first day out when they want to look as though they know what they are doing) usually follow suit. I did, and in six hours produced 17 blisters.
We reached the crest of the mountain in the early afternoon. Spread beneath us was a scene so beautiful that the long weary climb was suddenly forgotten. It seemed as though we were sitting on top of the world (see page 36) and that all of it was made of rock.
For the next several hours we prowled along the mountain ridge, scanning the peaks around us for signs of sheep. We saw none within shooting range. By 6 we were at a point directly above camp. There were only a few hours of daylight left; certainly not enough to take the long, winding route home. Our only choice was to travel straight down the steep mountain face and cut back across the valley.
We started down, following a shale slide so precipitous that we were unable to see to the bottom where it fell away into timber line. The first 20 minutes were easy going. By leaning my weight into the mountain and digging my heels into the loose shale, I found I could move with fairly good control of direction and speed.