|… a black bear tag that I hoped to use on a bear, wolf or wolverine, whichever critter screwed up first. George Siavelis, who was to be my Alaska guide for the next 10 days, picked me up at the airport. My first impression of George was okay, possibly because when he laughed – which he did a lot – he reminded me of one of my colleagues back in Holland. George talks with great enthusiasm about the country he calls home. He knows a lot about it too! He is a good observer, intelligent, and I am quickly captivated by all he has to say about the wilderness, animals, and people of Alaska.
In the evening we eat caribou, quite tasty, followed by strawberry cake with cream and too much coffee. I’m back in the cabin by eleven, packing my gear for tomorrow’s trip. I turn in at midnight. George will pick me up at 6:00 AM. Very little sleep; too much Alaska coffee, too excited and feeling jet-lag.
Yet, I’m up before six the next morning and ready for the adventure. The weather is overcast with low-hanging clouds, although that will change and the Alaska sun will shine for the next 2 weeks while I’m here. We go down to the river and load the airplane. We taxi out to the middle of the river and take off. Some 200 km of untouched wilderness later, we land on a lake. One of George’s boats (a custom jet-raft) is already moored there. It’s an aluminum frame with two inflatable floats without any real bottom. Just places where you can lash bags. According to George, it is a kind of unique design. It does have a more shallow draught than a standard jet-boat, which is particularly handy in shallows. We head off downstream using the engine. After a while we drift with the current, George steering the boat skillfully past shallows and rocks. The river is splendid. It meanders, splits into two, three or even four channels all dotted with islands and gravel banks. There are willows everywhere, gnawed away by beavers, numerous beaver lodges. Here and there the secondary channels are dammed.Only days later do I come to truly appreciate what an incredibly beautiful valley this is. An unspoiled primeval valley stretching for what seems like forever and it is surrounded by mountains, and more valleys stretching hundreds of kilometers.
George steers us to shore at a gravel bar where we’ll pitch camp for the night. We take our gear out of the boat, prepare a meal and then climb a hill taking our binoculars to “spy out the land”. We see several caribou, here and there, in the valley or on the slopes. One hour later I see something black moving a long way away. When I look through George’s large spotting scope it turns out to be a bear – quite a large Alaska brown bear according to George. After setting up the tent I catch my first arctic grayling. Later George broils it on a rock, which proves very tasty. My first night’s sleep in the wilderness is uninterrupted.
We spend the next days watching caribou, black bears and grizzlies everyday. Days of relaxation, full of peace, some fishing and every evening and morning bears and caribou in the scope.
15 August 1997
The bald eagle remains perched in the top of the black spruces. As I study him carefully through my binoculars I suddenly discover the nest in the broken top of a spruce. A gigantic nest with just one, almost grown, young eagle flapping its wings.
The alpha wolf is clearly distinguishable, extremely large and powerful. The other wolves behave like young dogs around him. The entire pack now lay bathing in the sun on the old bluff; some of them occasionally playing with each other and with the alpha. It is such a wonderful sight it brings tears to my eyes. Meanwhile, George is teaching me much about them and their behavior. I had hoped to be fortunate enough to see just one wolf in Alaska, even once, if only for a few seconds, but knew the chances were slim to none. But here I was watching a whole pack of them for nearly an hour. George has a great deal of respect for wild animals, especially wolves.
Suddenly, the alpha wolf gets up and trots off the bluff down into the willow bottom. Almost in unison, all the other wolves follow in single file down the trail into the willow bottom. I tell George that I can’t believe what we just been watching for an hour. George just stares across the river watching to see if any of them come out of the willows, but none seem to. Out of the blue, George asks if I feel like going on a long hike on this beautiful day. He tells me that he believes the wolves will bed not far off the bluff as it is very late in the day for them to even still be out and about. George suggests that we cross the canyon and spend the evening on the bluff overlooking the willows the wolves disappeared into. He admits it’s an outside chance of actually successfully stalking wolves on foot, over a mile or so away, but we need a hike. The weather is beautiful, we have seen bears on that side every night so far, and maybe, just M-A-Y-B-E, the wolves will show themselves come evening. I agree and so we’re off. We use the raft to cross the river, and then I follow George as we make our way through the willow bottoms and old creek beds, circling downwind of the hopefully stationary wolves. We have to make a big 2 or 3 mile circle around them. This hike proves easier than we had thought. There are caribou and moose trails everywhere. Around 1:30 PM we are just 800 or 900 meters away from the bluff. We stop here, eat, and lie dozing in the sun for the next 3+ hours, until about five. Then, stealthily, we cover the last distance and inch our way over the crest of the bluff. According to George there is little chance of our seeing the wolves, and even less getting a shot at one, but “you never know”, he says. We sit down, each looking a different way, and wait for about two hours. Suddenly, one of the wolves appears in the dried-up river bed, no more than 60 meters away. Two seconds later and a second Alaskan wolf appears. We hardly dare breathe. George whispers in my ear so low I can hardly hear “It’s a smaller one, wait for the big one”. We expect to see more wolves any second. There must be more in the vicinity. The wolves come closer and closer until they are barely 25 meters away. One of them gnaws nervously on a branch a little. They then disappear one by one in the low willow shrubs. We wait another half an hour, both of us worried we won’t see them again. Then, they reappear in the open between the willow shrubs. A splendid sight – the two wolves in the old river bed. Once again they come to within twenty meters distance. The first, a male, now appears to sense something’s wrong and gazes penetratingly up at the bluff where we are sitting as quiet as statues, with cramps in every part of our bodies from not moving an inch in the last 3 hours. It is getting late, it might be a long hike back to camp, and the cramps are getting unbearable. The second wolf comes up the creek bed unsuspectingly. “Take him”, whispers George softly. A large red spot appears on the wolf’s shoulder. One leap and it is laying still, among the willow shrubs. The other wolf darts like a bolt of lightning, and then appears in the low undergrowth and looks anxiously around.
We take pictures and George begins to skin the wolf. He does it skillfully and is apparently a dab hand. When he is half-way through with his work, wolf howls can be heard from two different locations close by. We look at each other, race to re-climb the bluff and wait. Nothing happens. George wants to finish the skinning because he wants to return to the river before dark. We take the shortest route back to the river. There are wolf tracks and droppings everywhere it seems on the way back. The pack has evidently spent some time in this maze of woods and dried-up river beds. The wolves howled that evening a lot. They were singing the blues according to George. The next morning I feel thoroughly rested. I have slept well, though I had woken up thinking of wolves. We take our time, eat breakfast, gather our gear in order to travel upstream by boat to the lake. George wants the wolf skin in the freezer back at Aniak as soon as possible and he says the pilot will be flying in to the lake today. The ride upriver was as beautiful as the ride down. Rick, the pilot, does indeed fly in half an hour after our arrival. According to George you can wait 20 minutes or 20 days for these bush pilots to turn up.
We head down river again and decide to camp at a different tent we put up a few days earlier. We eat dinner, with coffee of course, and then climb a hill and “spy out the land”. After a while George crosses to another hill and beckons me to join him. There’s a young fox cub watching us 80 meters away. In no less than ten minutes there are five young fox cubs and a vixen sitting in a row staring at us, a delightful sight. I take a couple of photos with the 300 mm lens, too far away of course and too dark. However, later in the hunt, George and I will photograph these foxes at less than one meter. When I’ve finished taking the photos George, who has returned to our old hide-out, beckons to me again. Two caribou are walking on the tundra a long distance away. One of them is a bull, not a particularly large specimen according to George but a mature adult. We study them through our binoculars and slowly but surely they keep heading in our direction. He does appear bigger the nearer he comes. We consult; it is a good bull, not one for the record book, but who says we will come across a better specimen in the coming days. After further deliberation we decide to have a try. The hunt is on. I keep looking around me as I trudge behind George. I suddenly see the head of the cow surface from behind a hillock. When I hiss “George”, quietly he stops, looks up and sees the caribou. He crawls back but the caribou cow may have seen us. We turn back and after 100 meters stalk again from another angle. We watch until the cow lies down and the bull soon follows suit, lying next to her. We can easily approach to within 300 meters unobserved, using the terrain. George asks about the range of my rifle. When I say 100 meters, he wonders what to do about the other 200 meters. George thinks we can head along a line of hillocks on our side which we now follow and after a while we come to a small notch between. As we look over the edge we can see them lying on the opposite shore of a small pond, now only 200 meters away. The bull is lying very close, and partially behind the cow. The distance between the cow’s head and the bull’s shoulder is less than half a meter. George asks if I think I can do that and is apparently concerned that I will hit the cow. I reassure him, yet I take up the aiming position three times to see if I can fix my sights steadily before whispering “okay” to George. As soon as I shoot I clearly hear the bullet strike home. Nothing much else happens. The cow doesn’t even look at the bull who, with a bullet in his shoulder, cannot stand up. A shot in the neck finishes him off.
I crawled into my sleeping bag that night feeling contented. George recounts enthralling stories about “The Mad Trapper of Rat River”, but I slip into a dream, a dream about the infiniteness of Alaska, the tundra, its rivers and mountains with all the creatures and inhabitants of this fascinating, intact and unspoiled country. A country I will dream about on countless occasions when I return to my native, over-populated homeland, the Netherlands.
For the next week, George and I boated, floated, hiked and fished this magnificent river. We talked by the fire in the evenings, stalked animals to get close-up photos, and thoroughly enjoyed that awesome country. Alaska – a country to dream about – a place I hope to return to frequently.
Taken from a feature article in “The Alaska Professional Hunter magazine.”