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Little Delta and Brown Bear – 1959 part 1
During our hunt last year, in this magnificent hunting area, we had talked of returning. To share with other friends the beauty of late August and early September in a fantastic country, not yet spoiled by too many people.
Some of us arranged to leave earlier than the rest for another hunt of a different nature. We were to meet the Alaskan brown bear on the beaches and mountains along the coast of Prince William Sound. This was another first and we had no idea of the interesting experiences in store for us.
August 20, 1959, 6 A.M.
—Seattle, Juneau, Cordova, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and to camp here in the Grubstake Area on the eighteenth.
Found camp in fine shape; the only disappointment is a new tarpaper roof on the trapper’s cabin we use. We had repaired the door last year. Left it closed with crosscut saws nailed across with teeth exposed in an effort to discourage the bear who had demolished things last year.
Being thwarted, and his anger aroused, the grizzly went through our picturesque roof of logs, moss, birchbark, and sod. Not content to leave by the same hole, he smashed the door down from the inside after punching holes in all of the canned food with his teeth and destroying any other items that drew his attention.
McIntyre had the new roof installed two weeks ago. One-inch boards with tar-paper. This one will not hold bears either. When we close camp we plan to make a high cache outside and leave the door open.
Aside from this everything is the same as last year except that the season is not so far advanced. Blueberries are not plentiful nor are they entirely ripe yet. There has been no frost and the heavy summer rainfall has made the country lush and green.
Glenn St. Charles, who organized the Archery Division of the Boone and Crockett Club, flew in on Saturday the fifteenth along with Bob Arvine and Jack Albright who were with us last year. Newcomers are Bob Kelly and Ross McLaughlin also from Seattle plus Russ Wright from Grayling. These men and the rest of the group, in addition to nearly three thousand pounds of equipment and supplies, were flown in by Dick McIntyre.
Our old airstrip was one and a half miles from our base camp. Mac made a new one to ferry in the lumber and roof materials. It is short, limiting its use to a Super Cub, with large, low-pressure tires. This airstrip is only one half mile from camp which is a big improvement.
The advance crew set to work preparing the base camp and establishing Camp 2, located three miles downriver. This is a four-tent complex complete in every detail and eliminates the three-mile daily hike for those who wish to hunt this downriver area and the salt lick nearby.
Last year the packing-in job was quite a backbreaker. Ross McLaughlin brought in a rig called the “Merry Packer” which is a sort of wheelbarrow with handles at both ends and a wheel with a low-pressure tire in the middle. The wheel is driven by a gas engine and V-belt to a gear-reduction unit to the wheel. Two speeds are available by changing the belt to different pulleys. A lever on the handle operates the clutch. It will carry seven hundred pounds and comes apart to carry in the Super Cub.
First impression was that the Merry Packer would be useful only on fairly level terrain. Actually it will go almost anywhere, through muskeg, over rocks, and up and down the mountains.
I met Judd Grindell from Siren, Wisconsin, on the eighteenth and Mac flew us into camp that evening. Yesterday we looked the country over and tried our office legs on the mountains. Some charley horses interrupted sleep last night.
Hunting season opens today. Judd plans to hunt down toward Camp 2 along the mountainside. I think I will go up Grizzly Canyon where Dick and I saw so many caribou and two grizzlies last year.
August 20, Evening
—Went about a mile up Grizzly Canyon this morning and saw a good caribou bull a short way up the mountainside. He was near a creek lined with willow brush that provided a fine approach. A good wind was blowing with some rain and sleet mixed in.
The bull was feeding in the open about thirty yards from the creek. Because of wind direction, I was forced to take to the open and stalk through the low buckbrush on hands and knees. At forty yards I released an arrow with an experimental head on it. An exact replica of the Razorhead but larger, having a blade and insert width of one and one half inches. With the feathers wet down the arrow went in right and low, going through a rear leg just above the knee. He ran about 400 yards down the creek, crossed it, and expired on the hillside. The femoral artery had been severed.
Judd came in sight saying he had watched the whole episode from across the creek through his binoculars.
In the afternoon I hunted toward Camp 2 along the hillside to look down into the spruce bottoms by the river. Two full-curl rams and a smaller one were halfway up the mountain across from me. I watched them with the glasses for some time until they went out of sight. Got one more glimpse of them about a mile and a half from me. They seemed to be feeding along the river. I rushed down there only to see them take off over the mountain on the other side.
Also saw about twenty-five caribou, mostly bulls.
Judd came in just at dark lugging the heart and liver of a fine big bull he had shot up near the head of the canyon. A great start for our meat supply on the first day in a bowhunters’ camp.
While we were hunting the rest of the gang put the final touches on Camp 2 and brought the balance of supplies from the airstrip in on the Merry Packer.
Friday, August 21, Evening
—Mac brought in Dick Bolding early this morning. We went down to the natural mineral or “salt” lick near Camp 2 and built a photographer’s platform in the edge of the spruce and a shooting blind near the lick.
I took a hike across the mountain. Made a stalk on two caribou bulls but was thwarted by Yukon gophers (parka squirrels) that are here by the thousands this year. During the warmer part of the day, it is almost impossible to make a stalk with those rascals whistling their alarm signals.
Knick Knickerbocker of Charlottesville, Virginia, came in this afternoon. More charley horses last night but getting into shape even quicker than last year.
August 22, Saturday Evening
—Dick set up his camera on the platform this morning and Knick went into the blind. Three caribou came in but did not come close enough for a good shot. They also saw a cow moose and a porcupine.
Russ Wright went to pick blueberries and took his bow along. Shot a fine young bull caribou close to Camp 2. Should be good and tender. Mac flew most of our meat in to the freezer at Fairbanks.
I went on an exploring hike back into country where Dick and I had hunted last year. Whistlers again prevented a successful stalk on a caribou bull of good size. Had some fun with four sheep. I slid most of the way down a shale slope to land at the bottom within fifteen yards of them. There was one small ram in the lot, not of legal size. We looked at each other for a few seconds and then they made off up the mountain. Later I saw several more sheep but they were all ewes and lambs.
It cooled off toward the end of the afternoon—too cold for the whistlers and I ran into three caribou, two cows and a calf, while making a stalk on a medium-sized bull. I got within fifteen yards while the cows fed on the grass and the little fellow nuzzled his mother.
Camp 2 is operating full time now. Five of us here. Glenn and Ross have established Camp 3 about two miles upstream from the main cabin. This is for sheep hunting later.
August 23, Sunday Evening
—Did some work around camp this a.m. Knick went up to the plateau but reported no game in sight. Judd came in at noon with the news of two caribou bedded down. Said he was going to go back and try for a shot when they got up to feed. He glassed the mountainside where I had seen the caribou and found a small bull moose on the spot. Jack decided to try for him and left at once. Bob Arvine, Dick, and I loaded Russ’s caribou and camera on the Merry Packer and came back to Camp 1 where we had some pictures to do and some things to take back to Camp 2.
Judd came in about 6 P.M. saying he had been progressing well with the two bulls when Jack came along stalking the bull moose and spooked them away. He was foiled again when Dick and I barged out into the clearing nearby and scared six caribou bulls he had been stalking.
Jack and Bob Kelly came in a little later, Jack brandishing a bedraggled arrow with which he had killed the moose Russ had failed to reach. Glenn and Russ came in from Camp 3. Glenn had killed a small bull caribou.
Monday, August 24
—Still raining and has rained all night. We have had only one clear day up to now. Temperatures steady between forty and fifty. No frosts. Moose and caribou antlers are all in the velvet—last year at this time about half of them were rubbed off.
Dick and I had planned to hunt on the way down to Camp 2 this morning but the rain changed that. Stayed here in Camp 1 instead and just finished masterminding the film we will make on this hunt.
Bob Kelly and Jack are warming up the Merry Packer to bring Jack’s moose in. Judd went to Grizzly Canyon about 9 A.M. and Dick and I are going back to Camp 2 when the rain lets up.
Judd came in at 9 P.M., soaked. Had made a good stalk on a very large bull caribou but he was too cold to shoot accurately.
Tuesday Evening, August 25
—Since it rained all day yesterday we didn’t get here to Camp 2 until this morning. Knick and I went up through the pass by Eagle Nest Rock. We fooled around with some sheep and then Knick made a stalk on a caribou and missed three long shots. Back to camp early. Russ had gotten two long shots at a ram. No hits.
Wednesday Evening, August 26
—Temperature went down to twenty-two last night. Just what we need to freeze the velvet on the antlers and start the animals down to timber to polish them off. Caribou are not in here like they were last year. The salt lick is hardly used. Moose are in the timber but hard to see with velvet still on their horns.
Knick and Bob hunted up to Camp 1 and will stay there tonight. Dick and went to “Gray Creek” (where Bud shot his sheep last year) this morning and climbed Black Mountain from the back. Made a climb to get above a ram but he either winded us or just wandered off. Ran into several ewes and rams. Coming down, about 6 P.M., we looked back and there, 200 yards away on a cliff, were two rams looking at us. One was a big one but there was nothing we could do about it and they finally ran over the mountain.
Back in camp at 8 P.M. Russ had spent the day washing and cleaning things up. Said that Ross McLaughlin had dropped in for a visit from Camp 3 and that Glenn had had a long shot at a good ram. No news from Camp 1 for two days.
Thursday, August 27
—Weather is cloudy. We went up to the flat above Camp 2 this morning intending to hunt back past Eagle Rock, coming in over the mountain to Camp 1. Ran into a bull caribou and did a stalk. He saw us when we were maneuvering to get the camera in line. He stared at us head on for a minute at about forty yards and then started circling downwind to get our scent. I shot under him at fifty yards, under again at sixty, and low again about seventy. Dick had the camera going and we should have a fine strip of film—maybe even better than if I had made a hit. The caribou never did seem to get our scent and stayed around about 200 yards from us finally ambling off over the mountain.
I am beginning to have more respect for caribou. It is important to wear camouflage, to make use of all available cover, and to make no moves unless the animal is facing away or quartering away from you. Their eyes cover a wide radius and their ears are quick to pick up strange noises.
By the time this caribou incident was over, the rain started again and we decided to hunt through the spruce, along the river bottom toward Camp 1, to learn about activities there during the past four days. As it turned out we didn’t hunt since the light was too poor for pictures. We found Bob Arvine shivering beside the stove in the cabin. He had waded the river to try for a moose… . Knick is hunting downriver toward Camp 2.
Just as we finished lunch Judd came in, soaked to the skin, and wearing a very wide grin. He had dropped two fine bull caribou within fifteen yards of each other. The first one with a long shot and the second at closer range where the Razorhead did its job quickly. The details of the hunt took almost an hour to tell and all the time Judd still had his pack on his wet back!
Jack Albright shot a big bull caribou with a fine, wider-than-usual rack. Judd saw a wolverine yesterday. Bob Kelly came in followed by Jack. They were also wet down from the rain.
After coffee and tea, we went to photograph Judd’s trophies. This was on the way to Camp 2, so I filched some tenderloin to replenish the larder at our camp. Judd’s caribou are two mighty fine animals and looked great in the viewer. He has now filled his license on caribou. There are moose in the alder thickets along the lower slopes and in the spruce in the valley.
Before we left Camp 1, six rams were bedded down high on the mountain across from us. Twenty-five ewes and lambs were in sight also. We think the rams are moving into this territory. And, the freeze of two nights ago seems to have driven the caribou down lower. We have not seen a grizzly nor any sign. With the shortage of blueberries they have doubtless gone elsewhere.
Camp 2 suffered another blow in prestige when our team of Knick and Bob Arvine were trounced soundly at cribbage by Judd and Bob Kelly.
The plane was expected in today but clouds hung low and prevented it. The hard freeze has changed the scenery from green to all the fall colors. Buckbrush is now red and orange. Cottonwoods along the creeks are lemon yellow while the poplars show a burnished gold. Some of the willows are turning but the hardy alder are still hanging on to their dark green.
I wonder if I’ve talked about the bridge across the river near Camp 2. Last year the water was not too high for wading and we could cross it in our hip boots. But this year was a different story—the frequent rains turned the stream into a raging torrent too high for any kind of boots.
Arvine, Kelly, and Albright made a survey of the problem and found a spot where two spruce trees leaned far over the water in strategic positions. They tied them together in such a way as to form ladderlike rounds. Then they dropped two heavy spruce poles into the center of the river and anchored them at the base with piles of rocks. The poles were further supported by guy wires anchored to a tree across the river. These poles were also fashioned with ladder rounds. In conclusion, two more poles were used to make a sort of suspension section which reached the opposite bank. Handrails completed this fine piece of backwoods engineering and served us well for the entire hunt.
Sunday, September 6
—Dick and I came here to Camp 2 last night after a fine dinner of caribou tenderloin smothered in mushrooms, hot biscuits, and other delicacies.
Got up at 4 A.M. for a 5 A.M. start up the mountain. Sky clouded over. Looked worse at 6 A.M. Snowing at seven and still at it now at eight. We are waiting in the tent by the stove.
There was trouble with the pressure fuel lantern last evening. It was hanging from the drying pole overhead in the tent when flames began spurting from underneath. I backed out of the tent with it and tossed it as far as I could where it lay on the ground burning. We thought it would burn out but about ten seconds later it exploded. Could not find any pieces with a flashlight and deducted it all went into orbit.
Don Loesche, our bush pilot, had lunch with us yesterday. He told us of an experience he had last spring flying charter for a prospector in the mountains. The prospector had seven hundred pounds of supplies, mostly food, done up in small bundles for a free drop in an area where it was impossible to land. Don had never been in there and instructed the prospector to mark the drop area well, preferably by pegging a tarp flat on the ground.
At the appointed time, after the man had hiked in, Don took off from Fairbanks with the load and found the place without difficulty. It was marked by two arrows made of brush pointing to the tarp.
The plane made many passes dropping several bundles each time and Don was delighted with the accuracy of his drop—mostly direct hits and the rest close misses. He was encouraged, he thought, by the prospector jumping around, waving his arms, and yelling, on the fringe of the area.
After the drop was completed he went in low in a tight circle to appraise his work and found that his target had been the prospector’s tent which he had flattened to a shambles!
-At 9 A.M. we decided this would not be a day for pictures so we started off by ourselves to hunt. I went downriver intending to go to where we saw the moose. Got into a wet blizzard about three miles down and returned to camp and then on to Camp 1 to get dried out and pick up my hip boots.
Just did a washing and plan to return to Camp 2 after another of Bob Kelly’s dinners. Tomorrow Dick and I will pack downriver and set up a spike camp regardless of the weather.
Don had said that there were many caribou on the flats below and he had located a short ridge that he could land on when the wind was just right if anyone wanted to set up a spike camp there. Bill Wright and Jack Albright quickly packed limited supplies and Don set them down on the ridge. Just about the time Dick and I were ready to start on our downriver project the fog began to lift. When we could see part way up Black Mountain there were four rams halfway to the top. Plans were changed and we took off.
We did not find them. Russ told us that they were alarmed by the plane that made three trips up the valley to ferry Jack and Bill out to the ridge.
We found a spot where a grizzly had dug out a marmot on the mountaintop and saw his tracks in the snow. Saw wolverine and fox tracks also.
Coming down the mountain we saw a fine bull moose in a spruce grove sur-rounded by high, thick willows. Could not do anything with him as we spooked him off.
The plane made an air drop of a corrugated box containing among other things an airmail letter from my wife. Really airmail, all the way… .
Kelly came down to Camp 2 to keep Russ company as Camp 1 is deserted. Glenn and Jesse and Russ are siwashing up to the glacier to look for rams.
Good weather today. Cloudy but some sun. Temperature twenty-eight now. Will freeze tight tonight. A cow and calf moose were on the salt lick as we came by on our way in.
Tuesday, September 8, 8 P.M.
—An unusually long hike today. Abandoned, at least temporarily, our siwash expedition downriver and took to Black Mountain again expecting to find the rams on the back side. The sun was out when we left so we dressed light. Got about a mile from camp and that was the last we saw of it. We did not find sheep and went to the very top where there was a foot of snow. Continued east along the top and had to move along to keep warm. A grizzly had been wandering about. Also a wolverine, fox, and porcupine had crossed over. Shot a hoary marmot for his skin and then started down through the basin where I shot the ram last year. Halfway down we saw a ram near the top and went back up again. He was traveling. We followed for about an hour but finally had to give up to get off the mountain while there was still daylight. Wet snow started to fall, making us glad to see the glow of camp lights across the river.
Since cold weather has stilled the glaciers, the river can again be waded with hip boots. This saves a half mile to the bridge and back. The sleeping bag felt good.
Wednesday, September 9, 7 P.M.
—A blizzard, with an inch of snow already down, greeted us when we got up this morning. Visibility zero and temperature thirty. Spent most of the morning taking a series of camp pictures with the snow coming down steadily. It was finally decided that the comforts of the cabin at Camp 1 were too overwhelming, so we loaded packs and started upriver. Got some fine pictures of the swinging bridge along with some good footage going through snow-laden spruce.
Shot a spruce hen. Kelly says that if we all keep shooting at these and the ptarmigan, we might have enough for a dinner near the end of the season. It is hard on arrows in these rocks and tundra.
As we neared Camp 1, the blizzard still raging and visibility nil, we were surprised to hear the drone of a plane. It was Don flying low up the river. He left mail and supplies but took off before we could get to the airstrip.
He was back in half an hour_ and before landing dropped a note listing supplies needed by Bill Wright and Jack Albright at their spike camp on a ridge in the foothills. Also a note from Jack saying they had shooting at caribou and a big grizzly and that they planned to stay until Friday.
Glenn and Jesse Rust must be having a rough time on their sheep hunt upriver near the glaciers. This snow, still coming down, will end their activity. It is dangerous, and very hard work, to hike snow-covered mountains. Also, the sheep season closes tomorrow.
Alaskan residents have never seen such weather at this time of the year. We are still hoping for a break and a fairly long look at the sun.
I forgot to say in yesterday’s notes that Russ climbed the mountain across from camp and routed a grizzly in a willow thicket.
We see quite a number of cow moose. Occasionally we see a bull but the latter are staying in thick cover. We hope the rut will start soon and we can have some fun with our moose calls.
There are no birch in this part of the country; however, the birchbark from the roof of this cabin can be made into moose-calling horns.
Except for the men hunting caribou in the foothills, whatever hunting luck we might have from here on rests with the moose and the rare chance of a shot at a grizzly. Have not seen a caribou since Judd left. We have a new theory. While these are non-migratory caribou such as the large herds in the north, they do move from an area west of us to the lowlands along the Delta river.
All of the rain we have had has been snow up higher, leading us to think that some normally used passes are closed now. This reasoning is substantiated by re-ports from the Dry Creek area where hunters are having good luck with caribou. This is across a mountain to the north of us.
Thursday, September 10, 6 A.M.
-Up at 6 A.M. Two inches of snow here in the valley. Temperature twenty-two and snow crunchy. Spent the morning making two moose calls—one for this camp and one for Camp 2.
This afternoon, Dick and I went up Grizzly Valley to see what game had moved and to check on the wolverines. Saw no tracks of any big game. Twenty-nine sheep fed just above the willows, but they were all ewes and rams. We find there arc rabbits here. Saw their tracks.
The wolverines have eaten all the remains of both Judd’s and Jack’s caribous.
Had expected Glenn and Jesse back tonight but so far they have not shown up. The men from the ridge camp are due tomorrow. They will probably need a day to dry out and reorganize, although the weather has been better down that way. Dick, Russ, and I will go down to Camp 2 tomorrow to spend a few days trying for moose.
Friday, September 11
—A confusing day. Bill Burke is due in. The “Ridge Runners” are due back. Glenn and Jesse are scheduled to get back from their siwash up the valley by the glacier. Everybody’s anxious for mail.
Camp cleanup and an outdoor shower for all kept us busy during the morning. Plane came in with Bill and some mail. Don could not land at the Ridge camp because of a bad cross wind. He dropped a note on the way back to Fairbanks saying that he would come in at 6 A.M. tomorrow.
Dick Bolding and Bill Burke traveled along the mountainside toward Camp 2 this afternoon. They intercepted a bull moose coming over the snow-covered mountain. They got within 100 yards but were defeated by tricky winds.
Packing up to spend the remainder of the hunt at Camp 2.
Glenn and Jesse got back from their outing up near Yanert Glacier. Called their quarters the Yanert Hilton. No luck with the sheep. There were rams there, thirty-six in one group, but because of the snow and their high location they could not get to them.
Camp 3 was evacuated and moved to the strip with the Merry Packer.
Saturday, September 12
—Plane brought Jack Albright back from the ridge early this morning. They have made no kills but have had interesting brushes with caribou, moose, grizzly, and black bears. He picked up more provisions and went back asking for a pickup Wednesday.
Dick and I packed to Camp 2 and then went on a hunt along Sheep Creek and Black Mountain. Tried my moose horn but only succeeded to put a cow and calf to flight. Bagged another blue grouse.
Bill Burke and Russ Wright hunted the south side of the river. Bill qualified for membership in the “Little Delta Bowhunters” by crossing the bridge without a mishap. He still has to do an hour on one end of the Merry Packer to become eligible for membership in the Great White Packer’s Association. Glenn came down to join us this evening.
Sunday, September 13
—A beautiful morning. Sun came up over the white peaks to start the thermometer up from twenty-six degrees. We threw our tent flaps back and ate breakfast with the warm rays on our backs.
Bill Burke hunted en route to Camp 1. Dick and I put our hip boots on and went six or eight miles downriver. We kept high on the right side and kept watching the left mountain which was covered with thick, high willows, tag alder, spruce, and buckbrush in a setting of knee-deep tundra.
Started back about 2 P.M. Sat down to scan the hillside at three-thirty and saw a fine bull moose and cow with calf, about halfway up. We marked him down well as he stood in a small clearing while the cow and calf wandered off downwind and disappeared.
We checked the bull again and went up; the wind was just right. With more luck than good planning, we came upon the bull lying down slightly below us about seventy yards away. I stripped my boots off for a close stalk. Dick was to photograph the event from my starting point as there were dry leaves on the ground in that raspy buckbrush.
At this point, the variable mountain wind changed and the bull got up and looked at us broadside. I started grunting to hold his attention while I picked up my bow and took a shot. The big, experimental broadhead made a beautiful arc as it streaked down the mountain, bending into what looked like a sure hit through the ribs. It did not drop enough, however, and went over his back.
The cow, apparently attracted by my grunting, came over to see what was going on but the bull had made off after the shot.
Farther up the river another fine bull was sighted along the mountainside but it was too dark for pictures and too late for another stalk.
The gas lanterns lighted up our white tents like jewels as we came in after dark. The aroma of broiled caribou steaks hastened our steps.
Got caught up on the news of the day through intercamp gossip as related by Glenn and Russ.
Kelly and Jesse, bringing supplies to Camp 1, saw a big bull coming downriver. He seemed to be heading for the salt lick where some cows have been hanging around. Russ and Glenn went to look for him but didn’t locate him.
Don took Bill Burke out to the ridge camp. A black bear had gotten into their camp while they were out hunting and messed things up a bit.
Monday, September 14
—I’m writing by the light of our campfire. This is a cold night but this morning was bright and sunny. A slow start for Dick and me after our long hike yesterday. We went up Sheep Creek to take some pictures. Came back down and climbed part way up the mountain across from camp and looked for moose. Saw none. Saw nothing today except sheep.
Glenn went up in the Eagle Rock basin. Saw a grizzly track and watched a black fox trying to catch a parka squirrel. Kelly and Jesse made a high cache today to store Camp 2 equipment.
Don, our pilot, told us yesterday that he made a mercy flight before he came in yesterday. A local outfitter had flown three hunters from Texas into a hunting area and had not returned. They found the party on their airstrip. Plane needed a new prop and some landing-gear parts. On the takeoff a hunter ran in front of the plane and was killed. The pilot wrecked the plane trying to avoid him.
The moose are not co-operative. The mating season has not yet begun and they seem reluctant to come out of the timber.
Chapter 7Little Delta & Brown Bear - Part 1
Just one year after their first excursion to the Little Delta River, Fred Bear and company return to the now familiar yet still strikingly scenic Alaskan country, but this time with a few newcomers to share in the experience.