Almost every time I venture into Alaska’s wilderness I learn something new, see something that takes my breath away and do something crazy. This time was no different. As my friend JR and I rode over ice and overflows to where his wolf trapline was, we gawked at the amazingly rugged mountains.
It wasn’t long before we spotted herds of cow caribou that winter in this drainage. They were feeding up on the hillsides as we worked through the river bottoms pulling the wolf sets. Wolf trapping is open until the end of April, but pretty soon it will be impossible to access this area when the ice breaks up on the rivers.
“It’s ok ladies … we’re here to help!” They weren’t having it though, and didn’t stick around too long. Who can blame them after a winter of being chased by the pack of 20-30 wolves that works this drainage? It’s a wonder anything can escape the wolves, but JR has helped the situation by pulling 7 wolves out of the pack in the last few months. They will be replaced this spring with new pups, and this will have no impact on the pack’s strength in the long run. But hopefully it will keep a few of these caribou alive long enough to birth and raise their calves. Wolves can smell which cows are pregnant, and will often kill the cow, eat the unborn calf, and leave the rest. Once JR found a cow moose that the wolves killed but hardly ate.
Having pulled all of his remaining wolf traps, we decided to go do a little exploring. Without fail, every time I go to the mountains I am left in awe of the beauty and brutal nature of this country. With everything still frozen but relatively warm, it was perfect for traveling miles and miles up these drainages on snowmachine.
We took every opportunity to stop and glass for sheep, caribou, moose, wolves, wolverines and other wildlife. We concentrated on glassing the south facing and wind-blown ridges for sheep. Sheep cannot (or won’t) dig for their food, so they depend on wind-blown areas to help them survive the winters.
I was excited to try out the new Zeiss Victory RF 10×45 binos, and they didn’t disappoint! While we didn’t see any sheep on this ridge, I got a chance to test out the built-in rangefinder. I was amazed to get back readings on rocks at the top of the ridge at 1,624 yards! Anything under 1,000 yards returned readings almost instantly every time.
“You’ve gotta try these man…” I told JR. So he put them to the test as well. Being a registered guide for everything from sheep to grizzly bear, he knows what will and won’t hold up in Alaska.
“I hate you man…you’re gonna cost me a lot of money..” JR said after trying the binos (he’s going to get a pair now).
As we got higher and higher up the drainage, JR stopped, unhooked his tow sled, smiled, and charged up a glaciered over tributary creek that runs almost vertically up a really nasty gorge. This photo is taken from a spot we were able to stop. This is usually a very small creek with huge boulders. In the winter, the water freezes, overflows and freezes again until the whole chute is filled side to side with cascading ice falls.
Having studs in our snowmachine tracks, we made it up the chute pretty quickly. This is half dumb, can be very dangerous and is not for rookies. As you ascend these ice falls, you have to find a balance between going too fast, and going too slow. You can wreck easily if you go too fast, but if you don’t have the speed to bump over some of these falls (as I found out), your track spins out, and you start to slide backwards. This is a “white knuckling” situation, as you must keep your sled from turning sideways, and try to keep it under control, backing it onto a flat spot to stop. Play your cards wrong, and you’ll be picking up the pieces of your snowmachine at the bottom of the canyon.
This was as far as we could make it, running out of ice to run on. So what was the obvious decision for us to make? Keep climbing! We shed our bibs and heavy jackets and headed even farther up the draw on foot.
It wasn’t but 15 minutes or so before we got some serious altitude. This is looking back down the direction we came. With every step higher, the scenery got more beautiful. We were getting closer to sheep country.
Hardly a minute later after I spotted a sheep on the crest of some rock outcroppings, and out came the binos.
I don’t care if it’s six months until sheep season, the sight of several skylined rams gets the heart of any true sheep hunter pumping. We ranged these rams at 560 yards.
I was really impressed with the quality of these Zeiss Victory RF Binos. Not only was the rangefinder feature great, but the clarity of the optics was fantastic. Even with a magnification of 10x, we could see horn mass very well, and although we couldn’t tell for sure without a spotting scope, we could tell a couple of the rams were close to full curl which is extremely hard to do with binoculars.
Spurred on by this sight, we kept climbing. The rams seemed to stay pretty comfortable with us until we started working up to this point, then they decided they’d had enough and moved out. Sheep have amazing eyesight and picked us up almost instantly. They sit on high perches where they can see all of the country below them. They usually don’t become alarmed unless they suspect you are climbing up get them. Then they will leave for higher ground or escape cover like cliffs.
We spotted three more rams on the ridge to JR’s left, 750 yards away. We decided to start heading back down, as sitting and staring at these rams was almost more than we could take.
JR took one last look before we turned our bunny boots downhill.
Climbing in these heavy, slick, winter boots was one thing, but going downhill in snow, slippery rocks and ice was another. We had to pay close attention with every step, as the traction was bad, and a fall here could put us in deep trouble. We were asking ourselves as we eased our way down, “Who’s idea was it to come up here, and who was the dumb guy that agreed to come along?”
We made it down safely, then began the ride back down the ice falls.
JR is eased his sled down this “step.” With our snowmachines pointed downhill, it was much easier to control them and the ride down was quite a bit of fun.
“Demonstrating” how slick this ice was, I slipped and fell pretty hard, and was staring to slide down the creek as JR tossed me his ice cleats. Although we were pretty lighthearted about it, situations like this can turn deadly fast, so we were very careful where we stopped, walked, etc. Some parts of these chutes are extremely steep and solid ice, so there’s not much to stop a sliding person or snowmachine.
It cannot be stressed enough that you’ve got to be careful when running rivers like this. Ice will collapse and leave open channels like this, which can turn deadly if you fall in.
Finally back at the cabin and soaking wet, we got a nice fire going in the stove, but it just doesn’t seem quite right without a campfire as well.
The morning greeted us with a few of these guys outside the cabin, a sure sign that spring is here.
I am a hunter to the core, but I enjoy these spur of the moment excursions almost as much as a sheep hunt. Seeing new country and pushing into the unknown is as big a part of my life in Alaska.
While helping a friend pull some of his last wolf traps of the season, I did some exploring and almost got more than I bargained for.