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Little Delta, Alaska – 1958
In the fall of 1957, Glenn St. Charles of Seattle and Dick Bolding of Olympia, Washington, made their first hunting trip to Alaska. Bowhunter Keith Clemmons joined the two at Fairbanks and proceeded to the Brooks Range where they fished and hunted for ten days.
Back at Fairbanks, Dick McIntyre, outfitter and owner of Frontier Sporting Goods and Flying Service, suggested they look over an area due south in the Alaska Range. Marc Stella was the pilot when he and Glenn left in a Super Cub for the suggested country. En route, they became temporarily lost in the area of Mount Deborah, but soon found themselves flying over a beautiful valley harboring an abundance of game. Upon studying the map, it was determined they were over the west fork of the Little Delta River, and just below them was an abandoned trapper’s cabin that would serve adequately as a hunting camp.
Flying on down this glacial stream, they came upon the Portage Creek Airstrip, approximately ten miles below the cabin. This lonely landing strip had been built atop a ridge by a survey crew and would accommodate planes of fairly good size.
Thinking ahead, Marc and Glenn flew back up the river and found a short gravel beach near the cabin that would lend itself, with no small amount of work, to a landing field.
Back to Fairbanks and a huddle with Dick and Keith resulted in another flight the next day. Marc, in a larger plane, flew the group along with limited supplies to the Portage strip from which they made their way on foot to the cabin. Within an hour of their arrival, Marc flew over and, using small parachutes, dropped additional supplies, including axes, shovels, and saws for the construction of the landing strip.
The trio spent a happy week in this area and had a good supply of moose and caribou meat along with some fine antlers stacked on the landing field when Marc came back at the appointed time and found the strip to his liking.
The valley would be the location of our party along with Glenn and other friends for this hunt in 1958.
Saturday, August 16, 8 A.M.
-Am situated in a trapper’s cabin about a hundred miles from Fairbanks in the Grubstake Area of Alaska. No other person is within a week’s hiking distance since Dick McIntyre of Frontier Airways brought me in last Thursday in his Super Cub—the only type plane that could land and take off from the gravel bar left by the spring freshets along the nearby river.
Standing on the strip, surrounded by nearly two hundred pounds of gear, I watched the plane fade into the sky. I had the problem of packing a mile and a half to this cabin site, with two rivers to ford in the two hours of daylight left.
A good-sized bull caribou was at close range on the river flats and three more fed on the mountainside as I trudged off with the first load. It was soon apparent that darkness and a threatening rain would forestall plans to reach the cabin that night and I made camp about halfway there under the watchful eyes of a band of sheep lying near the top of the mountain. The next morning was bright and sunny and the move was completed before noon.
Hunting season is still four days off as I write this. When a trip is planned about this time of year my legs are suddenly too long for my desk and I usually find myself on my way several days ahead of schedule. Some business commitments in Anchorage took up some of the slack before the plane flew me into the hunting territory a short time ahead of the others.
They are due in some time today. Bud Gray of Benton Harbor, Michigan, his son Mike of Chicago, Glenn St. Charles, Dick Bolding, Bob Arvine, and Jack Albright, all of Seattle, and Keith Clemmons of Fairbanks. Keith is the holder of the first-place Alaska Moose in the Archery Boone and Crockett and Dick Bolding has the first-place caribou. Dick is on this trip to record events on 16mm color film. Keith is an expert on army survival technique with considerable Alaskan experience and has promised to keep us out of trouble and away from the squaws along the Yukon. Bud and I are especially interested in white Dall rams. The rest of the party would take great delight in topping Dick’s caribou or Keith’s moose as would we all.
This cabin was built in 1927. It is tight and weatherproof with a roof of half-round timbers leveled off with moss and covered with sheets of birchbark. The bark is weighed down by several inches of earth and gravel out of which willow brush grows to an alarming height.
The ridge pole is a peeled spruce log, eighteen inches on the butt end tapering to twelve inches at the small end that supports an eight-foot overhang. The cabin logs vary from eight to ten inches in diameter and are chinked tightly with moss and dressed off neatly inside with an adz to give the walls a clean flat surface. The wood floor shows circular saw marks and was quite likely brought in by dog sled along with lumber for the window frames, the two glass windows, and the pieces of birchbark for the roof. The half-round roof timbers have the irregular scratches of the whipsaw. While the furnishings also show these signs they are smoothed off nicely by a hand plane that hangs on a wall along with other tools of the resourceful backwoodsman.
A dog sled twenty-four inches wide and ten feet long, lashed together with rope and rawhide and shod with steel, is preserved from the elements inside the cabin. A heavy sheet-iron stove with a cast-iron top serves for both heat and cooking and a trap door in the floor gives access to a storage space below.
There is no door. The shattered remains lie outside, the work of grizzly bears. Supplies left here by the last inhabitant are in shambles. Cans of food are punctured by teeth and smashed out of shape. There are brown hairs high on the doorjamb and on several trees nearby where the bears have scratched themselves. Still higher, considerably higher than my head, chunks of wood are torn out leaving the horizontal teeth marks of the foraging bears. The trail leading to the creek also shows telltale tracks of bears. Feet set down in the same place each time.
Outside, near the door and protected by the overhang, hang the tools of the trade, saws, axes, wolf and beaver traps.
Nearby are the remains of a smaller cabin and numerous dog kennels, all in a state of collapse, with decayed roofs and timbers crumbling to the ground. A food cache perched on two peeled trees too high for the grizzlies remains intact. Claw marks on the supporting trees bear witness to unsuccessful attempts to reach the food and destroy things in general.
This cabin was built for trapping in the winter and prospecting in summer. It has not been used by the owner since 1936 as the low price of furs no longer encourages trapping. It is about 500 feet above the valley floor along a rushing, icy, glacial stream. The weather is beautiful, with the landscape not yet colored by frost. A large bull caribou stands dozing in the sun on a hillside.
—Took the spotting scope and went for a hike this morning climbing the mountain back of camp. Four small caribou bulls were feeding on the hillside. Higher up I saw a ram bedded down in a lofty place. I doubt if I could get a shot at him there.
From the top of the mountain I saw the plane ferrying Glenn, Keith, and Bob into camp. The climb gave me a wonderful view of the country and helped to get my legs and lungs in shape. Saw more caribou, two big bulls and two smaller ones.
Back at camp at 5 P.M. The men were packing supplies from the river and had seen several caribou bulls en route. This evening we saw ten sheep on the mountain plus a bull and cow moose.
Sunday, August 17, 8 p.m.
—I left this morning at 7 A.M. to try to locate the big ram I saw yesterday. It was raining so I wore hip boots and rain jacket. Went farther than intended. Finally located a band of sheep about five miles from camp. In the rain and fog, I could not tell if they were rams, but believe they were since there were no small ones in the lot. Saw a cow caribou with two calves and later a nice bull.
The weather cleared somewhat as I worked my way back toward the main creek and saw about thirty sheep on an opposite mountain but not close enough to tell if there were rams. After coming off the mountains and back through the spruce, two fine bull caribou passed me at sixty yards. Back in camp at 4:30 P.M. and bushed. Hip boots are not for mountain climbing.
Bud, Mike, and Dick got in. Everybody busy erecting tents and sorting gear. Glenn and Keith are establishing a second, camp about three miles downriver where a big flock of sheep live. Glenn, Dick, and I will hunt from this camp for the first few days. My wife would love to pick blueberries in this country. Very big and very thick in places. Not so sweet as the ones at home, however.
My quarters is a pop tent. Bud and Mike bunk in a larger tent. Glenn, Dick, Keith, and Bob sleep in the cabin where we eat and relax.
Monday, August 18, 5 P.M.
—It rained all night, sounding nice on my tightly stretched tent. No frosts yet. It is like late September in Michigan. Rained off and on this morning. Keith and I packed some gear down to the lower camp and Glenn came later with a pack. Put up another tent. Glenn, Dick, and I will go down there after dinner tonight and stay for a few days to hunt. Bud, Mike, and Bob will stay and hunt from here.
Four rams are on the mountain across from us. Two of them are either full or almost full curl.
Twilight here is between 8 to 9 P.M. Daylight about 3:30 A.M.
Got back from lower camp and had lunch. Bob went to the river for water and came back reporting a bull caribou on the opposite side. With the opening date a full day away it was decided to make a stalk and shoot a blunt at him for pictures. Dick and I both went in over our hip boots crossing the river. He got the camera set up on a knoll and the bull lay down. I made a stalk to within twenty-five yards and grazed his side with a blunt arrow. Should make a fine picture. A red fox ran up the creek bed as we sat on the hill to rest.
Tuesday, August 19, 8:30 P.M.
—Dick, Glenn, and I came down to lower camp last evening. Went south in the mountains this morning. A fair-sized bull caribou came close and we got pictures. We saw many cow and calf caribou and four sheep. Also a cow moose and some ptarmigan. Had a feast of blueberries and got back to camp about 4 P.M.
Glenn got in from our hunt earlier than I did. Bud and Mike had paid us a visit reporting many caribou and a moose. All hunting starts tomorrow. Dick and I will scale the mountain nearby and see if we can find the rams we saw yesterday.
Friday, August 22 (Missed two days)
—Wednesday morning Glenn woke us up (Dick and me) at three-thirty. Left camp at 5 A.M., headed for the top of the mountain. Got there at nine and located a large flock of sheep, probably sixty or so with one small ram in the lot. We spent three hours photographing and observing them. It was a warm day. At one-thirty we stretched out in the sun for a nap. Woke up at two-fifteen and sighted a ram a short distance down from the top about a third of a mile away.
We mapped a plan for pictures and the stalk. The ram was feeding on a grassy ledge and could be approached from above. We moved in to 200 yards and Dick took pictures. He moved to 100 yards and set up for more pictures of whatever action would follow. I went in behind a ledge about fifty yards from the ram to wait until Dick flashed a signal that he was ready. In the meantime the ram lay down looking out over his domain. He was somewhat concerned about a gopher that had been whistling at us.
Dick took some pictures, wound the camera, and signaled that he was ready. I stalked to a small ridge above the ram. Crouching low, with my hat off, I could see the ram through a crack in a rock. He had either heard or winded me and got up, turned my way, snorting softly. Then he pranced a bit, turned again, and came a few steps closer facing me at a slight angle. I raised up into full view and shot at about twenty-five yards. The Razorhead from the sixty-five-pound Kodiak bow went in near the back ribs and out through the opposite hindquarter.
The ram dived off the ledge, walked across some shale, and lay down in the buckbrush. He got up immediately, however, and walked out of sight around a ledge. I went in above and saw him lying below. I tossed a small rock down and he tried to get up but toppled off the ledge and rolled down the shale slide for about 200 yards which finished him. Not a big ram, nor heavy horns, but a full curl showing eleven annual-growth rings.
As in the Yukon two years ago, we have to cross a glacial river to reach the sheep country. In the morning the water is low and hip boots do the job. We leave these by the river for the return crossing in the evening when the water is higher and the boots not quite high enough. Between the current and the boulders it is difficult to keep one’s footing. Coming back on opening day, Dick lost his balance and went down. Being an agile young fellow, however, he was able to keep the camera pack and precious film topside until he regained his footing.
Jack and Bob packed the sheep meat into camp, Dick and I following down the mountain behind them. When we came in sight of the river, Jack and Bob were swimming in the ice-cold water.
Got back to base camp last evening in time for a banquet and reunion. Some of the party have had shooting at caribou, but no hits. Plenty of big bulls around. Glenn watched a grizzly eat blueberries all yesterday afternoon. The bear was a beautiful creature still in sight on the mountainside as we came upriver last evening.
Up at four-thirty this A.M., 7 A.M. now.
Bud and Glenn have gone to the lower camp to try for a ram Glenn has been watching. Bob went to the airstrip to take mail and a grocery list to the plane expected in today. Dick and Jack picked blueberries for pancakes. A wonderful day. Bright and clear. Temperature just right for a much-needed bath, washing of clothes, and a general reorganization program plus a little rest. Have been climbing mountains for four days now and need this lazy day. May go down to Camp 2 and join Bud this evening.
—Just got back to base camp. Dick and I hunted downriver this afternoon. Ran into a big bull caribou but he outwitted us. Got to Camp 2 at 6 P.M. and went up on the plateau and saw the same bull but he won this time also. Back in Camp 2 at eight. Bud was in. He and Glenn told of an interesting experience with a grizzly. Came on him while climbing for a sheep. He was eating berries and paying no attention to them. They took pictures of him at fifteen yards. Had sheep for dinner, the best of all meat, and then came back to main camp after dark. Short of sleeping equipment and tonight is the coldest yet.
Sunday, August 24
—Hunted yesterday morning along the trail to Camp 2. Be-fore I left, Jack reported a hit on a caribou bull. Bob brought news to camp that they found it dead 300 yards away an hour later. A very nice animal with a fine set of antlers. Roasted sheep ribs last evening and had a feast. Wind blew hard last night. Just finished breakfast. Blueberry pancakes, bacon, and eggs, plus quarts of coffee. Will hunt upriver this morning and stop at base camp.
Monday, August 25, 4:30 P.M.
—In base camp. We started up here from Camp 2 yesterday morning. About halfway Dick and I jumped a medium-sized bull caribou. He ran out on the dry river bottom but made the mistake of stopping to look at us at about forty-five yards. My Razorhead took him through both lungs. He staggered for a minute then crossed part of the river and expired on a small rocky island.
About this time our plane came in on its biweekly trip. The pilot saw our kill and took the news into camp. Keith and Glenn came down with packs and the meat is all sacked now and hanging at the cabin. Part of Jack’s caribou was sent into Fairbanks when the plane went out.
After the packing job, Glenn, Bud, and Keith established a high camp on a spur of the mountain by base camp. I stayed here at base camp last night. Had a lazy morning and then took a hike with Keith up the valley where he saw the big grizzly several days ago. Shot at some ptarmigan and saw bear tracks along the way. Sighted a grizzly high on the mountain ahead of us, but did not try for pictures because of a wind blowing up the valley. The grizzly hunting season does not open until September first.
Back to camp and roasted sheep ribs for lunch. Spent the afternoon doing pictures, camp chores, and watching game.
Five big bull caribou have been feeding on a mountaintop north of camp all afternoon. At the moment there are five bands of sheep within sight, totaling seventy-five animals. As near as we can tell, all are ewes and lambs. We wonder where the rams are and hope they will show up later.
This is lush country. The caribou are sleek and fat. Small islands of willow are beginning to turn yellow and the buckbrush is blushing orange.
Keith is cooking more sheep tonight. Mike and Jack have gone down to Camp 2. We expect them back soon.
Dick and I plan to get up early tomorrow and go up Grizzly Valley. We’ll take a lunch and perhaps top over and come back one watershed west where a band of sheep are feeding now.
Weather has been wonderful. Never below thirty degrees at night. Days around sixty and seventy degrees, about half cloudy and half sunshine. A little rain occasionally, like Florida. A quick shower and then sunshine.
Bud and Glenn came in at 8 P.M. Bud was packing a beautiful sheep head he had shot yesterday morning after a most difficult stalk up between the mountains opposite Camp 2. A great head with full curl and wide heavy horns. The plane had brought some refreshments and there was a celebration broken only by details of the stalk. Glenn also scored on a caribou bull that he classified as eating size.
Tuesday, August 26, 8 P.M.
—Slept late this morning. After a blueberry-pancake breakfast Dick and I went up Grizzly Valley and ran into the black grizzly we saw yesterday. Ran about a hundred feet of film on him in poor light. We were about to move closer by circling a ridge when the wind changed and he left the valley. We saw a herd of caribou, eight or ten bulls, four of them with massive antlers. Hunted them the remainder of the afternoon without success. It started to rain and we got wet before reaching camp.
Keith got in at the same time with a big smile on his face and a spent arrow in his hand. Said he had shot a monster caribou just a short way from camp. More celebrating and rehash of Bud’s ram stalk which was worthy of note. He shot the sheep from four yards! Bob Arvine acted as signalman from a high point, directing Bud during the two-hour stalk. Much of the time Bud was in plain sight of the sheep but was able to remain undetected by careful movements and with the aid of his camouflage suit complete with hood. After the breathtaking circuit within view of the ram, cover became available to make the close approach.
The plane is coming in tomorrow at noon to start hauling meat to Fairbanks. Plan to get pictures of packing Keith’s caribou out to the airstrip. My caribou, Jack’s, and Bud’s sheep are already hanging on poles at the strip.
Thursday, August 28, 6 P.M.
—We spent most of yesterday taking pictures and packing Keith’s caribou in. A monster bull. The picture will tell the story. Packed meat and things to the airstrip. The plane did not get in as planned, so Dick and I hunted down to Camp 2. Back here at seven-thirty for a full meal of caribou tenderloin, onion rings, french-fried potatoes, and trimmings.
Got up at five-thirty this morning. Dick and I went about three miles up Grizzly Valley hoping to see the bear and caribou. We saw neither. We climbed the mountain at the head of the valley, hoping to drop down below, but ran into bad weather, snow and zero visibility, and, rather than take a chance, turned back. Tomorrow is our last day. The plane will be in on Saturday morning.
Friday, August 29, 6:30 P.M.
—The hunt is over. Bud, Mike, and I got up at five and went hunting. Located two good bull caribou upriver about two miles. Back for breakfast and Bud and Mike elected to go after them. Right after breakfast Jack went for water, came back in a rush reporting three caribou bulls coming down the riverbed. A big dash for equipment and we headed for various places on the river. I stayed up on the bank to direct activities. Bud, Dick, and Mike melted into the willows in a bend on the river.
The three bulls came lumbering along and ran into a downwind from Bud and Dick. Bud shot two arrows about sixty yards. One struck the horns of one and they all made off. Never saw them again.
I dismantled my pop tent and packed gear, washed socks, and then went hunting with Dick. Saw one lone bull caribou and that was all. Bud and Mike are still hunting as Keith prepares dinner.
This was an unusual hunt in many ways. The best of it was that we had no guides. This makes for much greater freedom and provides opportunities to exercise one’s own initiative. All decisions are your own. You plan the day, find your own game, and make the approach. If the stalk is successful there is greater pride in accomplishment. If it is a failure there is only yourself to blame.
Saturday, August 30, 8:30 A.M.
-A rather drowsy gang this a.m. A great celebration took place last night to mark the end of the hunt. There was a shooting match in the rain, by gas lantern, at 11 P.M. Keith was the winner, being the first to extinguish the flame of a candle. The bush about camp bloomed with arrows this morning.
Up at 5 A.M. Bud and Mike went hunting. Back now eating another breakfast and hoping the plane will get in. Very wet and dull early today. Sun is shining now and the scope is on a half-curl ram on the mountain across from us. To date I have seen just two legal rams, the ones Bud and I shot.
I am slowly beginning to reach some conclusions about hunting sheep. I realize that it is dangerous to form opinions based on limited experience and may later wish that I had not said that sheep are ‘stupid, but I think they are, and feel the same about mountain goats. Both make great trophies and while there is considerable physical exertion and much excitement connected with hunting them, when rams are located in rough country, it is not difficult to get quite close to them.
Of course I may not be giving these majestic creatures their due. It just might be that if a white-tailed buck were on a ledge on the side of a rough mountain, and the hunter had big rocks for cover and quiet footing, the buck could be approached closely, also.
Most likely, however, the smart whitetail would bed down on top where he could see his enemies. The weakness of sheep and goats lies in the fact that they do not expect danger from above and the hunter who knows this can bag fine trophies with bow and arrow.
Chapter 6Little Delta Alaska - 1958
Fred Bear and company arrive at the Little Delta River for a 2-week Alaskan excursion full of camaraderie, caribou, and sheep. Void of any guides, the hunting company must follow their intuitions and navigate the lush terrain on their own.