This story is about 18 month old, but I needed the URL for a couple of PMs. Enjoy 'the view'.
I was walking out of the grocery store the other evening (Saturday last) when a buddy of mine walks up and asks, "What are you doing tomorrow?"
To which I respond, "Nothin'."
To which he responds, "What are you doing Monday?"
"Nothin'." Says I.
(Now I wasn't actually doing "nothin' " for the next two days, but Steve and I have an unwritten rule between us that short of a family emergency, we are always doing "nothin' " when the other ask "What are you doin'...".)
He then asked if I want wanted to fly out to Illiamna to go caribou hunting. (Now you see why we're always doin' "nothin' " when asked.)
I responded "Yes."
Steve is a long-time buddy of mine that lives about a mile from me. His house is on one of the many private landing strips located in ‘The Valley’ where he launches his Cessna 170B - on skis in the winter and wheels in the summer. Some of you may have heard me mention hunting the Mulchatna caribou herd “out west”. Illiamna – actually Illiamna Lake – is the “out west” to which I was referring.
Not too long ago, Illiamna was one of the only places in the state that you could ‘land and shoot’ big game. Meaning, you could be ‘same day airborne’ as you hunted. About three or four years ago, that practice was outlawed out there as well.
I headed home to get ready for the ‘morrow. Getting ready wasn’t too difficult, as we had to travel light. With two adults and their rifles and camping gear in the plane, we still needed room/weight allowance for two caribou. We actually were allowed to shoot two apiece, but there was no way the 170 could haul both of us, our gear, and four caribou in one load. Since it was about 3 hours of flight time one-way, “light” it had to be.
Probably the most difficult decision for me regarding what I was going to take was what rifle. That really wasn’t too tough – I grabbed the .338 MAI Ol’ John had made. That rifle needed blooding, and it was one of the lightest rifles I currently own. Other than my rifle, I took only 20 rounds of ammo, a knife, extra socks, a sleeping bag and pad, some tea and sugar, one Mountain House dehydrated meal (Beef Stroganoff), and a plastic Gatorade bottle filled with water. Steve was supplying the tent.
The next morning about 0900 Steve called and asked if I was ready. I said I was, but I needed to pick up caribou tags. He did too, so we headed to the store to get them together. Once that was done, a quick weather check, and it was time to load up. My wife drove me over to Steve’s place where we loaded both Steve and my stuff in my Jeep. He would take off from his strip, and meet us over on LakeLucille. From there, we would load the plane and use the longer strip (essentially the whole lake) to take of “loaded”. Here are a couple of pictures of Steve’s plane at LakeLucille.
We filed a flight plan with my wife, and headed ‘out west’.
It was a gorgeous day. About 15 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind blowing. You could see ‘forever’. We climbed to about 1000 ft and headed straight for our ultimate destination, the west end of Illiamna Lake, some 300+ miles at a heading of 210 degrees from home. Here’s some of what we were looking at.
Here's what the countryside looks like from the air in "The Valley". Most of the trees you see are birch (Betula sp.).
Here is the ice on the Cook Inlet flats.
Once we got to the mountains, we climbed to about 3500 ft and flew through LakeClark pass. Here are some pictures of that part of the trip.
Once past a small town on the banks of Lake Clark called Port Alsworth, we were into ‘caribou country’. Here’s what Lake Clark looked like from the air:
And here's what the "caribou country" looks like from the air.
Wasn’t too long before we were nearing the west end of Illiamna,
and we dropped back to about 500 ft to look for sign. Wasn’t much to see, but it’s often the case that it looks like there’s nothing around from the air, but when you get out of the plane, animals just seem to materialize. We found a lake with lots of caribou tracks in the snow around it, and landed. Once on the ground, it was about 10 degrees F, and it looked great. We commenced to ‘make a hole’ for the tent. Here’s what camp looked like.
Here's me "making a hole". The wind-blown snow is about 8 feet deep here.
Here'a a view of the lake we landed on:
It was only about 1600 by the time we were finished setting up camp, and with about 3 hours of daylight left, (an nothing else to do), we decided to do a little scouting.
Lots of caribou and wolf tracks, and some fox. However, we saw nothing. It was deathly quiet, not even any birds to be heard. No wind. It was amazing to listen to the silence. We scouted about, and when it was too dark to shoot, headed back to camp.
Once the sun was below the horizon, the temperature dropped considerably. The thermometer in the plane read -5 F. By morning, it was -15 F. One of the nice things about winter camping is that, in general, you don’t have to worry about things getting wet from rain or dew. I simply stuck my rifle’s butt in the snow bank and left my daypack outside the tent. Here's me eating supper.
The worst that would happen is some frost, equivalent to dew, but that would brush off easily. We heated water for the dehydrated meals and tea, and hit the sack about 2000.
Shooting light was about 0800. And we got up, “made water” (melted snow), for tea, and were headed out by about 0830. The weather was identical to the previous day. We were pumped.
We headed back to the area we had scouted the previous day. First we crossed “our” lake to get to a small swamp. Once across that, we came to “otter lake” – so named because we saw an otter at its far end. (Hey, when you’re just trying to keep track of where you are, ‘creativity’ isn’t important.) We took that for a ‘sign’, and headed after it. About half way across this lake, we saw a fox sniffing around the otter’s den. I hustled after it hoping to get a shot, but no luck.
Once across “otter lake”, there was a narrow channel that connected it to a lake we called “spook lake”. We called this lake “spook lake” because it was always making noises. Noises that Steve and I really didn’t like. Neither Steve or I care for being out on the ice, and even though this ice was at least three feet thick, our uneasiness was kept on ‘high alert’ by the almost constant moaning and groaning of the ice on this lake. When you’re out in the middle of a frozen lake that’s about half a mile across, and it’s moaning and groaning, it’s a bit “spooky”.
We crossed “spook lake”, and headed across the swamp (with some open water at its outlet ) and gazed across probably 25 or 30 square miles of “caribou country”. Nary a critter. We turned back towards the woods surrounding “spook lake” and heading in, hoping the caribou were holed up in the woods because there was no wind. It was tough sledding where there was no wind-blown snow. The snow was usually about thigh deep, with a light crust that wouldn't hold our weight.
Caribou are ALWAYS moving, and ALWAYS moving into the wind, except… when there is no wind. They are so paranoid about wolves, that if the wind stops (which it rarely does in “caribou country”), they stop moving, and just mill around. I thought maybe they might be holed up in the woods waiting for the wind to start up again. Au contare.
We had to be back in Wasilla by nightfall, and one absolute truth about caribou hunting is that if they’re not there, you can’t hunt harder and find them. Either they’re there and you shoot them, or they’re not and you don’t. That’s all there is to it. In this case, they simply weren’t there. They had moved out some time before. Surely when the wind was blowing. We took a leisurely hike back to the plane and camp.
It was a bit nippy...
We had packed up camp and were airborne once again by about noon. Headed back, we scoured the hills looking for caribou, and saw none. Back over Port Alsworth, we landed and fueled up – 18 gallons at $8.25/gal for Avgas. Once back in the air, we were headed home. However, it was still absolutely beautiful weather, so we decided to get some pictures.
One landmark not too far off course was Mount Redoubt. It’s the volcano that has been in the news lately supposedly just about to erupt. We flew so close to it, we could smell the sulphur from it’s ‘belching’. Here are some pictures of it. The closest ones are from about a mile off the ‘crater’ – such as it is. I think you'll be able to recognize the volcano when you see it.
Fueling up at Port Alsworth:
Looking the other way at Lake Clark:
At about 9000 ft and 5miles off the crater:
About a mile off the wingtip:
So… no caribou or any killing. For those that have been here at THL for a while, you know I don’t like to go “camping”. If I go hunting, I want to kill something. This excursion was the rare exception. It was such amazingly beautiful weather, and it was so quiet, I really didn’t care this time if all I got were pictures. Hope you enjoy them.