Zero Day: The Hunt is Planned
This hunt was in the makings over seven years ago after watching a documentary on migrating caribou. I was in awe on how such a big Cervidae (deer family) could flourish in such a inhospitable environment; open tundra. I imagined how difficult it would be to get a trophy animal in such an exposed setting and I knew this was the right challenge to embark upon. I did tons of research trying to find the right outfitter to go through for this once in a lifetime hunt and ultimately decided to go through Worldwide Trophy Adventures (WTA) and Cabelas. A hunt was offered with a guarantee SCI score of 350+ on an Aleutian reindeer (non-migrating caribou). There was a catch though; this hunt would take place on the island of Umnak, known to locals as the place "Where storms are made". 60-mph plus winds, 30-degree weather, pelting ice and rain didn't deter me from my goal and the hunt was booked. Nearly a year later, the adventure begins...
Day One: Welcome to Nikolski, Alaska - Population 14; Mt. Vsevidof, and the Cabin
Our plane finally nears the island of Umnak to the welcome sight of sunshine and clear skies; a rare occurrence that the pilot continually reiterates to us. The towering dormant, glacier volcano of Mt. Vsevidof of makes an instant impression on us as we work our way along the 60-mile-long island. The plane drops lower as the pilot points out herds of reindeer, their white fur making them easy to spot from above. I do notice one other thing as we get the aerial tour, there are no trees...
The plane descends onto a gravel runway where the guides and a group of hunters on the way off the island meet us. Quickly our bags are offloaded from the plane by the crew and the other party's gear are packed back on the plane. Our attention is fixated on something else though, a collection of five reindeer racks sit neatly nearby; no doubt the other hunters- Rob, a contractor from Maine makes the first comment and states how small they seem. They seemed big to me, but my experience with big game outside of whitetail is very minimal so I don't counter him. The other guys in the group agreed with his observations, but I truly didn't mind. The other hunters claim they had to experience terrible weather and these were likely the reluctant harvests from acts of desperation to escape the elements. Our group, on the other hand, would have nearly three days of great weather to allow patience to do the job of finding bigger game. Another sight catches my glimpse as we finish eyeing the reindeer racks. It's a burnt-out plane wreckage sitting ominously next to the runway, reminding me that things could always be worse...
Our gear loaded onto ATVs and the plane successfully taking off with the other group, we make our way to the lodge sitting above the village of Nikolski, the last remaining village on the island. The lodge was quite impressive and had plenty of amenities such as Wi-Fi, a big screen tv, showers, and a kitchen staff constantly making food. As we got settled into our rooms though, Adam, our Cabelas Manager, pops his head in and tells me to pack a bag for two days’ worth of hunting. I ask why, and he states you aren't staying here, you and Rob are heading to the cabin...
A hasty repack and a two-hour scenic ATV drive later past Mt. Vsevidof, Rob and I arrive at the small cabin with our two guides, Josh and Nick. No TVs, Wi-Fi, showers, running water, or porcelain toilets here. The cabin ran off a generator which was promptly turned on as we swept away the carpet of flies from our bunk beds and floor. A stove fireplace was to be our source of heat here and sleeping bags our insulation. There was a nearby stream for filling up water and an outhouse a convenient 50 yards from the cabin. No gourmet meals tonight as hot dogs were our dinner for the night.
Rob and I made light of our situation with the guides and at least we had a fun, humorous atmosphere going for us. The cabin wasn't the lodge but it did come with a beach...
Day Two: The Search, "Not so Much", and Expectations
We wake up in the morning to frigid cold air that has taken over the warmth in the cabin that we fell asleep to. The guides, Josh and Nick, hurry to start a new fire and start back up the generator so we can warm up. We are up way too soon as there is yet another three hours before daylight. Rob was the first up and hadn't realized we weren't on Anchorage time. It was no issue though, I could barely sleep as it was, eager to get eyes on some reindeer. Nick prepares us scrambled eggs and bacon over a propane stove for breakfast. The warm food is most welcome and we discuss the game plan for the day. We will be glassing herds to the Northwest of Mt. Vsevidof and then working our way to the edge of the northern pass along the coast.
Finally, the sky begins to lighten and we hastily dress and pack gear into the ATVs. The terrain, as I would find out, made it nearly impractical to cover a lot of ground by foot; rolling hills, saturated soil, and holes would only lead to an eventual sprained ankle. Our gear packed; we were ready to roll out as the sun appeared over the Pacific Ocean.
The first herds we spotted had what I considered to be decent bulls. Josh, however, didn't agree as we glassed them. "Not so Much," he calmly stated. I'd come to find out that this would become a most repetitive phrase for the day. The day went on in the same manner. Herd after herd we passed as we worked our way up a gorgeous, rocky coastline. Josh and Nick continued to state that these weren't the bulls we were looking for. Me, having no idea what a SCI score of 350+ looked like on a bull caribou, would constantly state how I'd be okay shooting that one or this one, but Josh and Nick would not relent, a courtesy I'd later come to appreciate.
The day drug on and we failed to find any trophy bulls. We ended the day where we began, near the cabin as we have a close encounter with four gorgeous "Not so Much" bulls.
I'm quickly learning what to look for though and raising my expectations. Both bevels had to be present, a double-shovel or giant one had to be evident, and the tops had to have at least three points to each side. Hopefully more luck tomorrow as we will cross Black creek towards the other side of the island tomorrow. Dinner tonight is steak and macaroni and cheese, at my bequest.
Day Three: A Bull Named Thursday, Four Wheeling Across Black Creek, Obsidian, Lunch at The End of The World, and Our First Candidate.
We awake the next morning to the same routine; cold, encroaching air and a flurry of movement to start the fire and generator to warm the cabin. Nick and Josh work on breakfast, making scrambled eggs and bacon again. I question them about the game plan for today and they state that we will drive towards the other side of the island to swap out our ATV with another four-wheeler. It was going to be rough-riding, but Rob and I replied with confident assurances that we were up for it. We make our sandwiches for lunch and with light finally piercing the darkness of the night, we pack up our vehicles and begin the long drive to the Bering Sea side of the island. Gorgeous sun and the occasional rainy squall were the weather for the day. I did notice that the wind was forever unrelenting and I was consistently having to wear all of my layers just to ward it off. Still, the day was turning out to be the warmest yet and our confidence was high as we headed towards our destination.
After two hours of driving we make it to the stashed four-wheeler sitting idle near a coastal riverbed. We move to swap our gear over to the new vehicle, packing extremely light for the day. I leave my backpack behind and exchange it for my fanny pack and the 4K camera is stashed inside. We didn’t travel far past the riverbed before coming across our first herd of reindeer. Among them is the biggest bull we’ve seen, but Josh and Nick weren’t sold on him. I constantly exclaim to Josh that I’d shoot it, but it was his call. Josh ultimately decides that we should keep searching. My reply was, “This bull’s name is Thursday.” He asked why, and I replied with, “Because if come Thursday I’m not tagged out, he is going down.” Josh laughs at that and we continue on towards Black Creek.
We eventually make it to Black Creek, passing caribou strewn all across the low-lying coastline tundra, but we didn’t see any other bulls that eclipsed Thursday. Josh had stated that Black Creek was deemed unfordable and a previous guide had sunk an ATV at this site. It appears to be a true statement as we work our way along the creek trying to find a passable route. Josh, however, is no novice when it comes to knowing the lie of the terrain. He worked with the cattle ranch on the far Northern side of the island as a helicopter pilot and knew every ridge, draw and stream the island offered. He explains to me that Black Creek originates from an underground cavern and that we can pass it by continuing up towards Mt. Vsevidof. We do and just as he said, the water mysteriously disappears into the side of knob and we have successfully forded Black Creek without actually crossing its water.
Josh and Nick by this time had learned of my obsession with collecting rocks or sand during my travels, and had approached me the night before about a lode of obsidian that I should add to my collection. I was intrigued at that prospect and after several more hours of glassing herds with those “Not so Much” bulls, we came across a long black vein of rocks stretching from the summit of Mt. Vsevidof, no doubt a long-lost reminder that a stream of hot molten lava once flowed down this path. Nick excitedly states to me that we should go look amongst the rocks for a sizable piece for me to bring home and we quickly disembark from the four-wheelers as we become rock climbers for a brief moment, scaling the jagged, moss-covered, black rocks. Sure enough, I break a piece away from a suitable rock to find that this was indeed obsidian, or for you Game of Thrones nerds, Dragon Glass. I find a good piece and stash it away in my fanny pack. The diversion over with, we make our way back to the four-wheelers just as another squall hits, pelting our face with ice and 40 mph winds, a reminder that the weather was constantly changing and that to overdress was not a mistake.
We arrive at Derby Point an hour later and the view was, to say the least, breath-taking. A tall cliff-side view of the Bering Sea and the Four Sisters (four volcanic islands) towards the West stood on the horizon. Sun beat down upon us again and I had to ask Josh and Nick if we could break for lunch here, it being 1pm already as it was. They eagerly agreed, perhaps waiting for Rob or I to be the first to ask the question for the better of an hour. I break out my roast beef and egg sandwich and park my tired legs at the edge of the cliff. Nick sits down next to me and exclaims that I should be taking tons of video and pictures here. I asked why and he replied with, “Well, there’s only ever been one other hunter here and maybe like five other people.”. “You mean over the past year,” I asked. “No,” he explains. “In all of man’s history. This is the end of the world!”. I smiled at that and brought out the cameras to take some pictures of the area. It might not be the end of the world, but it certainly was the end of the civilized world of America.
We make our way back from whence we came in the afternoon, the riding was not pleasant. Constant dips and hidden draws kept testing the limits on my back as we’d get slammed forward and backward while on the vehicles. I’d imagine Rob was having as much pain, if not more by this point, but if he did, he didn’t show it. We came up to the first herd of caribou where the bull, Thursday was. We glassed him again for about a half hour, and I pestered the guides again about shooting him, but they did not yield to my requests. I reminded them about my wanting to duck hunt for a few days before we left the island and Josh confidently replied that there would be plenty of time for that. My confidence was lacking though, we had only seen this one decent bull after covering so much ground. Maybe there wasn’t any trophy reindeer on this island after all…
We swapped the four-wheeler back for the ATV and began the long drive back to The Cabin. I was barely paying attention as we drove, but the tops of a tall set of antlers fixated my gaze as we neared the last crossing along the path to The Cabin. Josh and Rob were transfixed on some young bulls directly on our path as I excitedly exclaimed about the tall antlers I was staring at. They did not move though and I was certain I was just staring at the remains of a dead reindeer. However, as we continued the drive a rather large herd broke from a steep draw where I had seen the antlers. Last to appear was, without a doubt, the biggest bull we had seen thus far. Now I understood why Josh and Nick had been having us hold back from shooting anything thus far. We glassed him for about a half hour as the sun began to set. Josh decided we wouldn’t pursue him tonight and that the caribou would likely bed down near this area. We’d get another good look at him the following morning instead. As we neared The Cabin an excited thought began to race across my mind; this bull was a trophy, there was no question, but would Josh and Nick let one of us shoot him?
Day 4: Pay dirt
After eating a dinner prepared by Josh consisting of pork chops and instant mashed potatoes, we settle in for bed. Before I fall asleep, I overhear the guides discuss the bull we just saw and Josh says that if we find him again, he thinks someone needs to shoot it. Before I close my eyes and drift away to dreams, I know who is going to take that shot...
We awake the next morning to the sounds of howling wind and rain pelting the side of the cabin. It would seem we were about to experience our first taste of foul weather during our stay. I rush outside to brush my teeth only to become soaked from the stinging rain. It was still another hour before first light so I could only pray that the weather would yield before we left...
The light came slower today due to the thick cloud cover, but the rain had seemed to cease for the time being. We used it to our advantage to pack up the ATV and clean the cabin, it was to be our last day here since we had run out of food (having only packed for two days). Coincidentally, lunch was to be candy bars, a soda and a bag of chips.
Finally, after saying our "tearful" good byes to our home the past few days we headed out in search of the bull we had seen last night. Almost immediately we notice several herds as we approach the first crossing from the cabin, very near to where we had seen that bull last night. We glass and glass each herd, but he was not with them. Josh is convinced we had not found the correct herd and we continue in a different direction towards the coast. We didn't travel far before we stumbled upon him. True to Josh's word, the herd had barely moved 200 yards from where they were last night.
There was a silent question that hung amongst us as we glassed the giant caribou again, who was going to take the shot. I knew the answer as I nudged Rob on the shoulders, "You better shoot this trophy or I will." He smiled back, "Man, I don't know..." I replied, "Biggest bull we've seen yet and I'm not as picky so if I have to settle for a smaller one, I don't mind, go for it dude." That was all the cajoling Rob needed as he took his rifle out of his gun case, chambered a round and made his way over to Nick who was set up about 120 yards from the reindeer herd. Josh grabbed the tripod and handed it to Rob who quickly propped up his rifle with it and after a quick adjustment, he took aim and let a bullet rip. The big bull crumpled to the ground and Rob had his first trophy reindeer dead on the ground. Congratulations were exchanged as we jubilantly headed down to begin taking photos and field dressing the giant bull.
So, with Rob's reindeer freshly caped and an extra 100lbs of meat and antler sitting in the back of our ATV, we ventured forth to find the next big bull.
To be continued in next week's Bellevue Herald-Leader...