There is a reason they are called mountain caribou and mountain grizzlies. They are not to be confused with their lowland brethren. They live in inhospitable terrain ranging from vertical mountain peaks reaching skyward to winding streams resembling blue satin ribbons meandering through rugged valley floors. There are crystal clear lakes with diamond like sparkles in the sunlight. And, there is the towering Alaska Yukon moose with antlers shining like two sheets of sun-bleached plywood in the afternoon sun on a mountainside. This is the Yukon!
While standing in the valley floor with my guide Will Schenn, we were looking at a majestic mountain caribou bedded on the top of a 6,000-foot peak above us. As he turned his head, all we could see was a tangled mass of antler points protruding from the center of his brow. Will commented, “I have never seen a shovel that large in all my years of guiding.”
We were back on our third adventure, hunting at Misty Lake with Jim Shockey’s Rogue River Outfitters. My wife Vicki, my son Bill III and I were on a third trip for a mixed bag hunt. I can never get enough of the visions of dancing Northern Lights, clear sparkling lakes, rugged mountain peaks and nature’s kaleidoscope of colors on the steep mountainsides.
Having just arrived the day prior, I was remembering an old saying, “Don’t pass up the first day what you would shoot on the last day.” For me, it is never about having to shoot something; it is more about the challenge and experience. When Will looked at me and asked, “Are you up for the climb?” My answer was, “Yes, but don’t expect me to be the first one there!”
Will told me earlier about some clients not wanting to pursue any game in difficult areas. Even though being an old fart, I was not about to miss the adventure of a vertical climb to have a chance at an awesome animal. While climbing, I would whisper to Will to stop and when ready to go, would say, “Okay.” It was like eating an elephant. Take one bite, or in this case, one step at a time.
Upon reaching the summit, two smaller caribou trotted off, which prompted the larger one to become wary. As the group began easing away to our right over the summit, Will held his hands in the air as if he were signaling for a touchdown. Caribou are curious animals and these were no different. It allowed enough time for a shot, which sent the bull caribou sliding and tumbling straight down the mountainside more than 100 feet. Upon approaching him, it was all we could do to keep him from continuing his slide once we tried to move him. Finally, we took our photos while doing our best to hold him in place. Our biggest challenge getting him to the bottom was not to become human bowling pins mixed up in a concoction of antlers and fur.
A couple days later while we were glassing for moose from a mountaintop, Billy spotted two grizzly bears down below on a sandbar. One was guarding a caribou kill while the other, a female, paced back and forth about 50 safe yards away from the boar. He stood in the river with body language screaming to the sow that you are not welcome here. Reducing the distance from thousands of yards down to 125, it was now or never as Will set up the shooting sticks. The first shot from my Kimber .325 WSM anchored the bear and insurance was added. The bruin was a chocolate brown bear with contrasting silver tips. Apparently, a pack of wolves had killed a very big bull caribou and the grizzly, being the apex predator, had claimed it as his own.
The moose that had been hanging around behind camp the day before and the day we arrived decided he did not want to be part of the table fare the next evening and left for parts unknown during the night. After a couple days of glassing the valleys for a big bull moose, Pierre Duc, one of our guides who is a Swiss immigrant trapper now living off the grid near Whitehorse, spotted our quarry across the valley on a mountainside.
We hastily devised a plan for getting close for a shot. We wrestled our way through a seemingly interwoven jungle of head-high willows which might as well have posted no trespassing signs. It was raining while we were getting in position for the stalk. We eventually spooked a cow, which turned the quarry into an apparition that wanted no part of our surprise attack. We made the seven-mile Argo ride back to camp tired and empty handed.
Will, Bob Stacey (Billy’s guide from the prior trip to Misty) and Pierre suggested we move further south for spotting, hoping to spot a sufficient sized moose to stalk. After stopping on a hillside to glass across the valley, a big bull was located immediately and it was game on. Bob and Billy were again attempting to move into position for a shot.
Finally, after an hour or so game of cat-and-mouse, the bull passed by at 70 yards. Bob was saying it was only a too-small mid-50-inch bull and not to shoot. Bob must have been psychic. As they were passing on that shot, Will and I spotted a larger moose a couple miles downriver from our vantage point. After a teeth-chattering ride bouncing down the river bottom, we were on a knoll, glassing for the massive cervid spotted earlier.
We spotted part of a white antler tip at the base of a hillside, sending Bob along with Billy off again, slowly maneuvering through the labyrinth of tangled mass, head-high willow bushes that covered the terrain. Like a couple days previously, the moose sensed something was not right when ptarmigan were flushed by the pair and the animals headed for parts unknown, with Will and me looking on helplessly.
As Bob and Billy were headed back to the Argos, Will and I spotted another equally impressive bull where the previous one had just made a hasty departure. We frantically attempted to give them hand signals, probably resembling hip hop dancers, hoping they would spot the big bull, which had seen Billy and Bob. Because we could not tell if they could see him or not, we were anxiously watching the events as they unfolded.
The big bull wanted no part of them and was turning to make a hasty retreat when they spotted him and started calling. I was frantically waving the yellow firearms case from the Argo, trying to replicate the movements of a moose antler. The moose stopped and turned, allowing Billy to fire a quick shot from his Model 70 Winchester in .300 WSM, striking the shoulder and knocking the moose down. Will and I were watching the action from about 500 yards away. We were stunned as we watched the bull get back up and slowly walk away. Two more shots and Billy had his first Alaska Yukon moose, which measured 60 inches wide.
The 14-mile ride back to camp, as the crow flies, was highlighted with flashes of color in the sky as only mother nature can create from her palette known as the northern lights. They rocked the evening with greens and purples, leaving our very tired souls feeling very much alive. It was as if a giant disco ball were spinning in the heavens. We arrived back at camp for a 1:30 a.m. dinner with a large glass of celebratory wine. We were both worn out and exuberant from the day’s hunt. Will there be a fourth trip? Who knows? But one thing is certain: Once you have experienced the Yukon, you will always want to return. Your body may leave but your mind and being will never escape its awe.–Bill Swan