Thursday, December 28, 2006
Caribou hunt in Alaska brings lessons
By SUE WATSON
Shirley Mathews’ first caribou hunt in the tundra of Alaska will be her last.
Mathews, her husband Gary Bush and a friend, Roger Williams, booked an unguided hunt through an outfitter and the three took a trip of a lifetime in September. It was the first hunt for caribou for all of them.
The trio flew to Alaska, then travelled to the bush in a small airplane which drops hunters off for a seven-day hunt by landing in a dry river bed.
Little did Mathews know that the satellite phone they rented from a communications company was the most important item they took with them.
“That was my 50th birthday present to myself,” she said, as she recounted the story of her husband being lifted back out on the first day of hunting following a knife accident.
Bush was helping skin one of the three caribou he and Williams had killed when he cut his index finger on his left hand, nearly severing the extensor ligaments.
The hunters were dropped off in the tundra about 50 miles away from civilization, a small town, one mile deep and two miles long, situated near and almost surrounded by the Bering Sea. On day one of the trip the three scouted per Alaska’s hunting regulations.
Hunting in the wilderness - a thick tundra or wetland on top of a mountain - began on day two and Bush and Williams shot three caribou the third day into what was planned as a seven-day hunt.
While field dressing the animals to pack the meat out, Bush cut his hand. The satellite phone, which sometimes can and at other times doesn’t make a good connection back to the base camp, in this case did work. The outfitter dispensed an airplane to the camp and Bush was taken to Anchorage to the hospital for emergency surgery leaving Mathews and Williams to skin and pack out the meat.
The two buried the fresh kill in the cold waters of a shallow river to keep the meat from spoiling and wolves and bear from getting to the meat.
On day four, Mathews hunted and killed her first and last caribou. On day 5 and 6 the two lugged the meat to their camping area and stored it several hundred feet away from the campsite in case wild animals smelling the meat would come into the camp.
Mathews said if the wolves and bears found the meat, it wouldn’t be in the camp site and create a danger for themselves.
“We communicated, hit and miss, to keep the outfitters informed on what we were doing and got reports on Gary’s condition,” Mathews said.
At night the wolves could be heard howling near the campsite.
The meat, with the exception of a portion eaten by the wolves, was unspoiled.
Mathews and Williams donated about 750 pounds of meat to a local church charity and shipped 50 pounds of the meat back home.
Back safely at base camp in Kostzebue, Alaska, on the Bering Sea, Mathews got in touch with her husband and learned he had reconstructive surgery and was released by the hospital in Anchorage. He was staying in the home of their friends. They flew back home together.
Mathews has visited Alaska once for a fishing trip several years ago, and she loves the state. But she does not love the tundra, a wetland filled with hidden sinkholes where at one minute you can be walking on dried grass with a solid underfooting and the next moment you can find yourself waist deep in water.
Walking through the tundra was the worst part of the trip, she said. But there are other hazards. You have to be on the watch for bear and wolves, where you put your feet, and the thermometer which can drop precipitously in just a few hours without notice. Hunters can get caught and stranded for days to weeks by an unexpected snowfall.
“Weather can change by the hour,” Mathews said. “Some people get stranded for days.”
In bad weather pilots cannot fly to the camps.
Lesson’s learned, Mathews said, include the following: do not depend on others for survival, know at all times where your supplies are and be prepared to eat raw meat.
“You’ve got to be able to live off the land in case the bears come and take your food,” she said. “The most important thing we had with us was a satellite phone, and second, our own weapons.”
The men look at the experience differently and will definitely go again, Mathews said.
She called the trip to the tundra “an experience of a lifetime.”
Bush said he definitely expects to visit the tundra again.
“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” he said.
It was at age 10 when Bush began thinking about far away hunts during trips with his dad to a local hardware store. There he saw lots of trophies from big hunts.
After experiencing the real thing, Bush said he has learned an important lesson - to be patient when out in the wilderness.
He called the tundra and the environment unforgiving. The physical aspect of the hunt was not a problem for him, he said.
Bush said he is drawn to the wilderness experience.
“I’ve always wanted to leave a footprint where no one else has been,” he said, describing his love for adventure and the great outdoors.
“I got to see a lot of things people don’t see,” Mathews said. “Now, as I look back on it, I’m going to go to the beach. Now that I did it, I feel like anybody can go to the beach.”
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