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The Ancient Game of "Hunter and Hunted"

by Marc Taylor

The Thousands That Got Away

No banking or slipping; as a matter of fact, not much jostling at all. This turbine-charged DeHavilland Otter is smooth. Four caribou hunters and enough gear for a comfortable stay in a base camp cruise along twelve hundred feet above wet Alaska tundra. The droning of the Otter’s powerful engine is barely heard by the daydreaming expeditioners as they cruise along.


Necks are strained as brown bears and caribou are viewed on the passing tundra below. The caribou, dozens in number, meander in seemingly aimless fashion toward a distant destination, and the bears forage the tundra for marmots and the plump, rain-fed blueberries. It shouldn’t be long, one hunter thinks, as he glances over at his buddy who is beaming with a wide grin from behind a camcorder – he’s recording the flight for grandchildren not yet born.

Retractable wheels on the floats give the amphibious plane the ability to take off from a hard-surfaced runway and deliver hunters and gear to an alpine lake pretty much in the middle of nowhere; or anywhere for that matter, as its fuel capacity allows travel over great expanses. You could say it’s the Cadillac of bush planes.

...if only Cadillac’s could fly.

This was turning out to be a truly memorable flight, having originated in Dillingham, Alaska. Native Alaskans consider Dillingham a large village, but to most non-natives it’s a small town at the silty confluence of the Wood and Nushagak Rivers. The village, or town, depending on your bloodline or reference of thinking, is a popular jumping-off point for the famous and the obscure bound for getaways in lavish hunting and fishing lodges, or just the humble drop-camp preferred by frugal, more rudimentary adventurers.

The panel-mounted GPS, utilized as a navigational aid by the pilot, shows thirteen minutes of flight time remaining to the lake where the hunters will spend the next week in pursuit of the ranging caribou of the Mulchatna herd. This excursion has been well planned, and most every possible detail has been thought out. The hunters, being Alaska residents, chose not to hire a professional guide to assist them in the everyday details of the hunt, but to hire an air guide in order to be put in a position where they might have a reasonable chance to contact game. It is the first such adventure for three of the hunters, but very familiar to the fourth, having hunted this herd, and coincidentally this general location on a previous, very successful caribou hunt.

The great Otter begins to descend gently gliding effortlessly over a long, placid lake in the picturesque, low mountains of Southwest Alaska. The seasoned pilot eases back on the throttle while applying flaps, and now the great amphibious plane floats mere feet from the glassy lake, its pontoons longing to settle into the icy-cold, clear water like the legs of a flaring swan reaching out for the pond. A light rain pelts the windshield.

The plane splashes down, sending spray outward and behind. In unison the hunters look around at each other and smiles emerge from previously taut lips. The last moments before landing are unusually long-lasting as the expectation of the splash always precedes the actual event with exaggerated, tense anticipation.

What was aircraft is now watercraft, taxiing feverishly toward a narrow beach made of granite and jade gravel. The coordinated manipulation of the water rudders, throttle and pitch of the prop steer the plane to the intended beaching point. The floats bump the bottom and the pilot turns his head back to his passengers – a chewed, unlit cigar juts from the side of a suntanned grin.
You know, everyone is happy when a float plane comes to a safe landing on a lake in the middle of Nowhere, Alaska.

The herd feeds lazily in and out of a broken patch of alder and willow. The migration has begun and the great bull with the torn right ear senses that the mass of bodies will continue the journey soon. For now, he rests on a mound of tussocks and lichen, re-chewing the morning’s sustenance. He is surrounded by five lesser caribou bulls, but three are not “lesser” by much.

The large, branching antlers that adorn the great bull rise nearly four feet above his head. Growing from massive bases, his main beams sweep back and up in a great arc, accentuated with wide palms and long daggers of antler jutting upward and back from the thick trunks. His sight is slightly obstructed above and forward of his nose by the two blades that split his vision. He can just glimpse the arms and hands of bone that are above his ears. They hover above him as constant reminders of the heavy weight he has been blessed – or cursed – to travel with.

He is a sight to behold, even for others of his kind, with a mane of pure white hair stretching from the lower part of his jaw to nearly the center of his back. The remainder of his pelt is the color of the unlikely mingling of charcoal and cinnamon.

The great bull has made this journey many times, and has rested near this very spot in at least one of the three occasions that they have traveled through this particular valley.

They wait for the mood of the herd to shift back into the travel mode. The wait won’t be long, for the tremendous herd, nearing two thousand in number, never pauses for very long. They travel at a driven pace – driven by the large pack of wolves that occasionally closes to claim the young or weak, and driven by the desire to reach the familiar fall mating grounds.
It is a yearly ritual, and the paths are ingrained into the memory of the youngest of the herd. Soon, they will lead their young, and then theirs will follow, faithfully, just as it has been for many thousands of years.

There comes the sensation of a current of water shifting, an ebb tide pulling toward the sea now, and the herd is up and moving again.

The pace remains slow for the time being as the caribou of the massive herd, half-grazing and half-trotting, move out to the southeast. A wind blows from the direction of travel, beckoning them to its source. The wind is an ally. It keeps the hordes of flies, mosquitoes, and gnats at bay, they’re unable to keep up with the pace of the animals and fight the wind currents simultaneously. The flies are ever present at this time of the year; rains providing nourishing moisture to once dormant larvae.

The herd climbs a low pass separating two mountainous ridges. A number of mature cows, their yearlings and calves in tow, lead the way. The cows are the matriarchs of the herd. In possession of the seeds of future herds as well as the knowledge of past ventures, they push through and over the valleys and tundrous plateaus of this west-central range of mountains. Press on. The clock is ticking. We have much farther to travel before we reach the wind-blown mating ground.

Bulls are intermingled throughout the herd, each attempting to keep track of a small harem of females. The largest of the bulls are traveling in the back third of the mass of animals. For them, with larger body masses and heavy antlers, the trip is more grueling. A few will fall to predators, and only the strongest, most able will reach the destination year after year. The great bull is among those at the back of the pack. With each passing year that the trip is made, he falls farther and farther from the front-runners.

A wide valley looms in the distance. The valley contains a rather large lake, stretching from the base of the mountains at the northern end of the valley to the open tundra to the south. With no current, the lake is the perfect training pool for teaching the smaller animals to swim. Many wide rivers are in the path of the herd, and the younger animals must master the art of swimming before they negotiate the treacherous currents.

At this pace, we will reach the water before dark.
A light rain falls in the valley of the lake.

The pilot climbs from an open hatch and walks the left float to the beach. There he rotates the propeller, as instructed coincidentally by the large sticker on the cowling of the plane which reads, “Rotate propeller after shutting down engine.” He then pulls up his hip- waders, wades back to the tail and with a slight tug, dislodges the huge aircraft, turning it so that the rudder-end of the floats are touching the beach just below the surface of the water. That will allow him a quick getaway.

The hunters rush to unload the gear from the Otter. The pilot passes the bags, containers, and rifles down to the float, where another hunter awaits to pass them to shore. On the gravel shore the bags are placed under a tarp to keep the rain from soaking the items that have not been waterproofed. Hunters should always expect gear to be rained on in Alaska.

“The caribou will come from the North and West”, shouts the pilot, “and can pass through here at any time”.

“How many can we expect to see?” asks one hunter, as he digs into his pack for his rain bottoms.

“Could be a couple hundred, or it could be a couple thousand. The plateau above this lake is a major thoroughfare for the herds traveling north. I’ve put lots of camps on this lake, and you should all have shooting opportunities. I’ll be back on Tuesday. Good luck!”

The hunters now scramble to erect tents in a steady rain.

The pilot, with the unlit cigar still jutting from his mouth, climbs back through the small hatch to the left of his seat. Almost immediately the engine comes to life and with one nudge of the throttle the plane pulls away from the beach and is again waterborne. The hunters are pelted with sideways spray, and the tarp flies from the gear as if blown by a gale-force wind.

The turbine-charged engine screams as the Otter races away from the beach. In less than one hundred and fifty yards it is airborne. The hunters stand in the rain, entranced by the power and beauty of the craft that has transported them to this remote destination. There are very few who do not stare in awe when the aircraft that is your sole connection with civilization leaves you... alone, on a beach, in the middle of Nowhere, Alaska.

And the pilot, experiencing “just another day at the office”, will be home in time for supper with his wife.

Tents are finally up and gear is for the most part dry. It’s a bit late in the afternoon, so the boys get to making individual suppers. The usual freeze-dried dinners, with maybe some jerky or a handful of nut-and-granola trail mix on the side. The rain subsides for a while and the hunters remove themselves from the tents to examine the hunting area from the perspective of new arrivals.

The view from outside the tent is breathtaking at the least. Nishlik Lake, reflecting the sky’s light like a mirror, stretches before them to the south, with mountains reaching right into the water on the western shore. A wide shelf of tundra is on the east, with a ridge that stretches the length of the lake, but inland from it nearly a mile. Runoff streams feed the greater body of water from springs that seep from mountainsides. Mighty aquifers that supply them run deep and cold beneath the earth’s crust. Surely that is where life began – from the purest of the planet’s sources.

All rain has ceased, but the clouds still loom overhead. The hunters emerge in turn, having stowed gear within tents and readied sleeping bags and mats for the chilly night ahead. Very little is said as each hunter turns in a complete circle, taking in the full beauty of his surroundings. The silence was deafening, and then a lake trout breaks the surface of the mirror to grab an unfortunate fly. “I can have him in one cast!” boasts one of the hunters. “Somebody get a fire going, would you?”

Not five minutes following the first disturbance, the surface of glass is broken again, this time by the fly on the end of a cast fishing line. The nymph sinks very slowly, being held in suspension by tiny air bubbles trapped within meticulously placed hairs.

A lighted wad of duct tape is placed beneath a loosely placed pile of damp driftwood, and fire is born.

The sight of the foreign, tantalizing imitation is too much for the dark brown adult female trout, which blasts toward it with one mighty whip of her tail. The hunter, turned fisherman, whips the rod toward the dark gray sky at the vibration caused by the fly being jerked from its descent. The fight is short lived, and there is succulent, steaming flesh of fire-roasted trout being pulled from pin bones not an hour later.

The hunt is already successful, and the hunters linger by the light and warmth of the fire until late in the evening.

The leading caribou of the herd reach the near shore of the lake that splits the wide valley. Without hesitation, they descend the shallow bluff surrounding the water’s edge, which is guarded by thick alder growth. Wide, cloven hooves create churning white water as the surface of the placid lake is shattered like glass. The water is cold, but its chill is unnoticed by the densely coated caribou, whose hollow hairs lend buoyancy as powerful legs gyrate to propel the animals forward at a pace envious to even an Olympic swimmer.

The tumultuous roar of splashing water is replaced with nearly dead silence as the last of the thousands enter deeper water. In the darkness of night all that can be heard is labored breathing and the occasional baying of some of the younger animals, frightened by their first experience of near weightlessness. Having no firm purchase beneath their hooves is a foreign feeling, but they simply follow, doing as the rest of the herd does. This long twilight swim will be a valuable lesson to those younger ones, although there is no strong current like exists in the dangerous rivers ahead.

From his position in the rear third of the vast swimming mass of animals, the great bull can see only bobbing heads and antlers surrounding him. The darkness of night has taken the valley, but a single bright light is visible at a great distance to the left, far across the body of water. The strange light is ignored by all as they continue the crossing of the lake. They swim on for nearly forty minutes.

On the far shore the leaders are emerging from the water. After vigorously shaking to remove the excess weight, they plod on, through the ring of alders to the relatively smooth tundra above. Here they will rest the herd and gather strength and nourishment for the days of travel ahead.

The great old bull, having dragged himself up the bluff, is winded from the long swim. The years weigh heavy. There was a time when the exertion of the journey was a mere afterthought, but now, at his advanced age, the bull questions his ability to keep up the feverish pace to the mating ground. He meanders toward a shallow gully where he intends to rest for most of the night.

But it won’t be long before the herd will be moving again...

The scent is heavy. And it’s close.
The predator creeps forward in the dark, remaining out of sight and downwind of the advancing herd. Nearly one hundred twenty pounds of ferocious muscle and energy crouch cocked like compressed spring steel, waiting for the perfect, opportune moment to pounce. The distance to the prey is only forty yards, and the musky scent fills the nostrils of the fierce leader of the resident pack of the valley of the lake. She waits patiently for the others to reach their ambush points.

Her hair is coal-black with intermingled gray and silver. Hot breath escapes her partially opened mouth to the cool night air as the moment nears. Steely yellow eyes pierce the darkness, selecting the most vulnerable of the herd. A large male is selected.

The caribou had come ashore not far from her dug-out burrow, alerting the pack with the splashing of water as they waded to the rocky shore. Although nearly a pitch-dark night, she saw with perfect clarity that they were worn down from the long swim. They sat silently, waiting for a signal from the pack leader. She bolted toward the dry stream gullies downwind of the great mass of caribou, and the seven adults of the pack followed closely behind. “What easy pickins,” she thought.

This has been a very productive valley. The resident pack of wolves has ambushed caribou near this spot on many occasions over the last eight years. They lay in wait as the prey closes the distance to an unknown kill site, then strike the weakest of the herd. Usually, the kill is made quickly, the vulnerable throat of the unlucky caribou ripped out with one clench and twist of powerful jaws. Of course it doesn’t always turn out as perfectly as it sounds.

Once, as a much younger and less experienced member of the pack, she was nearly trampled by a young bull caribou when an improperly calculated leap for the throat yielded only an ear. The bull was nearly brought to the ground, but struck out with a hoof, thumping the young she-wolf sharply in the ribs. The very fortunate bull ran to join the herd as she recovered her wind. Yes, the bulls are often more dangerous than the cows, and are usually avoided unless injured or obviously easy prey.

Fortunately, another, more skilled wolf of the pack managed to bring down two large cows, providing nourishment for all of the pack. A young calf returned to find what had become of her mother, and they devoured the young one as well, allowing the youngest of the pack to make the kill.

Life for all is full of such lessons, whether you are travelling through, or hunting in, the valley of the lake.

The great bull rests in the gully with his legs tucked beneath his massive belly. Soon, he should rise to graze a bit – to gather nourishment for the remainder of the trip. The desire to rest is stronger now than the desire to eat. That’s not a very desirable state, given that caribou are perpetual foragers, resting only to digest the most recent meal.

But everything is not right on this cloudy, dark night.

The bull hears a rustle off to his right and with that, he realizes that he should not be this far from the main part of the herd. But it’s too late. The rustling reveals a shadow, and the shadow becomes a charging wolf – ears laid back and running low to the ground.

The bull struggles to rise to his feet, but is slammed in the side of the head by the full-on charge of the large, black she-wolf. Her long canine teeth bury deep in the neck of the great bull, initially not a killing grip, but she quickly changes her grip to clasp his throat firmly in her powerful jaws. The bull is lying on his left side, having been bowled over by the impact of the wolf. He strikes with his right forefoot, but the wolf twists sharply to avoid his kick, ripping his jugular vein and tearing his windpipe. Just then, another impact – to his belly – and there is a burning sensation as a second wolf rips his belly open.

The bull still has his vision, and can see caribou running by him in the dark. He can see the steely dark eyes of the wolf as she clenches tighter to get a better grip on his tender throat. He feels her hot breath on him, and hears the low, hungry growl as she holds him, urging him to expire.

He obliges, and the pack of wolves renders the once great bull to a pile of stripped bones and torn hide in the matter of an hour.

High fog blankets the Nishlik lake valley as the hunters emerge from their shelters. A hasty breakfast is prepared of dry cereal and granola before gearing up for a day of hunting caribou.

The hunters pair up and move out over the gravel bar to an obvious trail leading to the tundra above the lake. Lungs burn from the initial climb, which is near vertical for the first few hundred yards.

“Wow, did you hear those wolves howling last night around eleven or so?” asks one hunter as he pants to catch his breath.

It was really eerie, wasn’t it...? They were certainly excited about something,” answers his buddy.

“Maybe we’ll get a shot at one this week. I would really love to take home a wolf hide, but they say you can’t really hunt them, because they’re just too wary.”

“They know we’re here, and will probably move out of the area to keep us from even getting a glimpse of them, but damn, you’re right, it sure would be nice to get a crack at one.”

As the two hunters top out on the tundra above the lake, they spot at least a couple dozen seagulls and ravens off in a gully about three hundred yards distant. One hunter glasses the group of birds, noticing that they are gathered in not one, but four areas within the gully and are hopping and flapping about in what appears to be an excited fashion.

“They’re feeding on something, I can see bones scattered here and there. Let’s go check it out.”

The hunters are walking over spongy tussocks covered with patches of ripe blueberries broken by areas of smooth, gray colored moss and lichen. The walking is very good, as walking in Alaska goes, and then it gets much better.

At the top of one of the many mounds that roll gently over the entire length of the valley, they walk upon what appear to be cattle trails – many of them. The trails run as far as they can see over the tundra from one far end of the valley, through it, and then converge at a low pass to the north. The trails rise and dip with the lay of the terrain, sometimes criss-crossing, sometimes running parallel, but always running in the same general direction. There were literally hundreds of trails embedded in the earth before them.

“My God... how many caribou would it take to make a trail system like that?”

“There must be thousands and thousands of caribou moving through this area, but where the hell are they? We haven’t seen anything stirring except those birds.”

“Let’s keep going to see what those birds are so excited about.”

Long moments later, the two hunters top the last rise between them and the scene of carnage that has captured the attention of the ravens and seagulls, which take flight at the approach of the two intruders. There before them are the carcasses of four caribou, three of which are bulls – very large bulls judging from the size of the antlers that lay attached to bright pink dismembered skeletons. There was hair, hide, blood, bones and viscera scattered over the entire gully. There had been a major feast here, but not by the two-legged predators who stand in awe and wonder at the scene.

After taking a picture of the killing ground, the two hunters removed the antlers from the carcasses of the three bulls, and attached them to pack frames for the walk back toward the camp. The antlers were massive, and reached high above and forward of their bodies.

Later that evening, at the hunting camp, the four hunters share the day’s experiences. The scene of the four slaughtered caribou being described in detail, as the hunters pored over the trophy caribou antlers recovered without the firing of even one shot.

The other pair of hunters had not traveled far from camp, choosing a ridge that provided a good vantage point over the entire valley. Anything that moved for miles around could be spotted, but only the movement of the opposing hunters was noted.

There were only the trails left by the thousands of caribou that covered the valley on the night before – the thousands that escaped the jaws of the hungry residents of the valley.

But the hunting week was young, and there would be many shooting opportunities before the Otter arrived to carry the four hunters back to their lives and families. The two-legged hunters would create their own individual killing fields, and everlasting memories, as stragglers to the herd would filter through the valley of the lake in hopes of catching up to the main herd – the herd of thousands... that got away.

The black she-wolf stands outside her burrow scanning the valley floor for movement on a misty, dreary day in the valley.

A large bird lands quietly at the far end of the lake, and then departs with a buzzing sound, circling once before climbing away, into the clouds. She waits patiently for the next herd to pass.

The herd of thousands is growing bigger still, as three smaller bands of caribou have joined the main body of animals since the crossing of the lake. The matriarch pushes across a large river, and nearly the entire herd remains intact. She and the other adults have succeeded at imparting upon the younger members the necessity to keep moving at all cost toward the wintering grounds.

As they pause on a misty afternoon, she hears the sound of the thunder sticks carried by the two-legged predator. She quickly gets the herd moving again toward safer pastures. Their movement is perpetual, as it has been for thousands of years.

Marc Taylor is the author of Hunting Hard in Alaska.  This story is an excerpt from an upcoming book in the Hunting Hard series which is scheduled to hit the shelves by spring/summer 2005.

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