Monday, October 19, 2020

Windy Creek - September 2020

For years we've post-holed through the swamps of Clearwater Creek to hunt caribou in a quiet pass where the undisturbed animals graze and migrate through. With my fibula still a cobweb of healing bone, this year's caribou hunt would be different. I bought a Burley bike trailer, packed my bike in my car, then drove north for the non-motorized hunt along Windy Creek's gravel road.

When I turned west from Cantwell onto the Denali Highway, the tundra and surrounding mountains were lit by soft pink evening light. The technicolor of fall reminded me of a beautiful packrafting trip here years ago. As the road transitioned to gravel, two blonde grizzlies romped across the road in front of me. I pulled over the Subaru to try my fawn call: the bruins were intrigued and looked back curiously, but knew they were in a predator hunting zone so lumbered into the brush.

It was dark by the time I got to the Clearwater Mountains. I'd never been up Windy Creek before, and didn't know the pullover, so I drove back and forth in the rain before parking for the night at the right gravel pit. The rain had stopped by the morning; og and clouds were beginning to lift as I pedaled up the puddled road into Windy. 

Whenever a creek met the U-shape of the main valley I'd stop to walk into the drainage and glass for caribou. At first I saw no caribou and little sign, although there moose everywhere. By the time I was eight miles in the sign started to increase and I saw a few tracks. When the road crossed the creek I met a couple with bikes towing baby trailers who'd shot a nice bull. But, I couldn't find the pod the lone bull had presumably come from. Knowing the most likely place to find caribou would be the pass where the animals could easily move thru, I started the climb towards Pass Creek.

As the I left the valley bottom I was joined by the tracks of wolves who were heading the same way. Generally the grade was mellow enough that I was able to ride, but near the top I had to push my bike. With limited range of motion and strength pushing the bike and trailer was a chore for my ankle. From high on the valley wall I was able to look down into the wide valleys behind me - still no bou.

Reaching the top was a relief as was the sight of many caribou tracks on the road - still no animals though. I figured there'd be a good view if I descended towards Pass Creek where the valley woukld stretch away below. Coasting down the road, I passed pallet after pallet of box after box of cores. As my buddy Hans put it: "probably some good looking rocks in those boxes".

A mile below the pass I stopped and set up camp. Then, grabbing my trekking poles, binocs, and rifle, I started walking. A quarter mile from camp, the movement of antlers on the skyline caught my eye. Knowing this was my best chance, I started running and crawling for a good shooting spot. There was no way my little yuppie bike trailer could carry a bull, so I picked a nice cow and squeezed the trigger. The cow ran 100 yards before abruptly tipping over, which is when I noticed I no longer had my binoculars or trekking poles. I must have dropped them in my frantic rush! How typical. Time to walk a grid to find the loose gear and quickly process the animal before nightfall.

Alone butchering a bloody animal in the Alaska Range, I couldn't help think of the poor young man recently killed by a grizzly while dressing a moose in the Wrangells. I kept an eye for large predators who'd turn my caribou or me into dinner. It was dusk by the time I finished field dressing and started to carry the first load back to camp. I turned on my headlamp, loaded the trailer with caribou, and ferried it to the top of the pass to stashed in the scrubby bushes.

As I crawled into my sleeping bag 30 minutes later, rain was pattering on the roof of the tent. Within a few minutes I was asleep. By morning the snow line had fallen overnight and was a few hundred feet above camp. I glassed the hillside to make sure there were no uninvited carnivores on the meat. Only ravens had found the carcass, but where distracted enough to leave the meat bags alone.

I walked over to retrieve the remaining meat, then returned to break down camp and load my trailer for the ride home. As I loaded the trailer, movement in the distance caught my attention: a pair of wolves were loping down the ridgeline a half mile away. They dipped in and out of sight as moved along sniffing, peeing, and seemingly enjoying themselves. When they sat down to rest I decided to howl at them; and they started running straight towards me! Each time they slowed, I'd howl more and they kept coming until the two were sitting 200 yards away. These kind of memories are what make all the time spent outside so sweet.

The loaded trailer was too heavy to ride up the pass, so I pushed to the stashed meat at the top and started to coast down.

Riding back with the heavy trailer was generally straightforward, although I had to dismount to push up the hills and over the creek crossings. About eight miles from the car I ran into Schyler's dad and brother. They usually pull off 24 hour door-to-door Windy Creek caribou hunts, but not on this thin year.

The rest of the ride back was pleasant and mostly uneventful, although I had one scare when my trailer fell off and bent my rear axle to near the point of failure. Next time I'll bring a spare skewer - a broken one would have been a disaster.

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