Sometimes you think you know what you want and are surprised when life changes things around on you and gives you something that shows you how wrong you can be. This was the case on my recent hunt in Alaska with Stoney River Lodge run by Curly and Betty Warren near Sleetmute in Southwestern Alaska. I went for the adventure, to clear my head in a place that would allow honest thinking, and with the goal of trying to shoot a moose. I didn't get a moose even though I thought I wanted one. Instead I got a better life.
As a guy who spends a fair amount of my time deciding what needs to happen in life, I am constantly evaluating and contemplating various definitions of success and their relevance to my perceived self-worth as a provider for my family and my business. I decide what needs to happen, develop a strategy that should lead to the outcome, define executable plans to carry out the strategy, further develop alternative plans that account for anticipated potential variations in the plans, and then perform those plans on a predetermined timeline defined by project steps and benchmarks. As a recent "behavioral assessment" test confirmed, I am an "intense, driving, results-oriented self-starter whose sense of urgency is tempered and disciplined only by my concern for the accuracy and quality of my work." That may sound a bit like HR consultant-speak; and it is. But it's also dead-on accurate. It is this control trait that, at least most days, I deem essential to my ability to succeed. Comfortable with the knowledge that I am in control, I rest easy at night.
Of course life is not at all controllable as a whole and I recognize this. So when something comes along, I develop a plan (with suitable alternatives of course) to deal with the surprise and steer it to my predetermined, preferred outcome. And so goes my flywheel of life through time, continuous planning and accomplishing, planning and accomplishing, planning and accomplishing.
Occasionally the above recipe for success falls short and I fail. It's actually more than occasionally. It's a lot. I am just not good at failing. I suppose no one is, but some people seem to get used to it. I am very afraid of ever getting used to it, so I have never been good at simply dismissing a failure as "just another learning experience." I tend to dwell on failures and perceive them to be dents in my character. I sometimes experience an inability to stay positive when I perceive that I have failed to prevent something from going wrong. My need to try to control everything brings with it a concomitant sense of failure when something goes wrong, or gets outside of my control. When there is not enough money, I have failed to provide. When the business has a problem I have failed as its leader. When a son makes a poor decision, I have failed as a father. These thoughts of failure too often get in the way of more positive work. So on this trip I was determined to try to figure out a way to deal with this personality trait. Little did I know when I set out that something would happen to put it all in perspective.
I left Anchorage on Sunday the 10th. A day before I would turn 46. I was feeling excited and determined. The toughest thing about this hunt was not the physical demands (although physically it was tough), but rather the mental challenge. I really miss my family when I am away and I really wanted them to share this great experience with me. I vowed that someday, God willing, I would go on such a hunt as this with them. I wanted to share what I knew would be a great adventure with them in real time. Not just with photos upon my return. But I knew this trip, at this time, was just for me, and that I was going to make the most of it.
So I focused on letting go of work and on my need for introspective self-study. I boarded a 206 with a pilot from Sportsman's Air at the Lake Hood air strip and sea-plane base. He transported me and another hunter to the lodge. This flight was through some unbelievably gorgeous mountains. When I experience the existence of such indescribable beauty, it only reaffirms my belief in God. These mountains – their glaciers and rock and water and life – did not come to be through some cosmic accident. They were created for us to be a reminder that there are things of beauty far greater than our ability to comprehend.
The first attempt to get through at Merrill pass failed because of weather. We approached a wall of white clouds that stretched to the ground. As if hitting a traffic jam, the pilot veered the Cessna around and headed back to find an alternative path. These bush pilots are truly special people. He talked on the radio with other pilots in the sky about alternatives. "Merrill's socked in. Gonna try going low through Biggy Push and then high over Glacier Junction. Maybe 3400 will get us over it. Worked this morning for Ronnie but he had to go around Eagle and get tight against Black Cliffs before sneaking through at Poop Hole." Well maybe the Poop Hole part was misheard, but you get the drift. It's like us car people talking about alternative roads when we hear of a traffic jam on the way home from work. Except their alternatives, if not chosen properly, can result in a lot more than just wasting time and gas.
After arriving at the lodge I had lunch, obtained moose and caribou tags, and checked my rifle. The Kimber Talkeetna wearing its Swarovski Z6 punched two 300 grain .375 H&H Magnum Barnes TSX bullets through paper 2.5 inches high at 100 yards. I was all set.
My next fortunate experience was that the weather allowed transportation to camp. I met the main lodge pilot, Mitch, who clearly knew what he was doing with many tens of thousands of flying hours. His Piper Super Cub easily accommodated me and my gear. About an hour later, we were touching down on a flat, stone hill top somewhere west of the lodge. As we were approaching, he said to me over the headset, "Let's see if I can remember how to do this." It seems the bush pilots up there need a sense of humor to keep their sanity. Or maybe he just sensed me getting quiet as we were descending. I am pretty sure it was for his benefit.
At camp I met my guide, Joe Mott. I had heard of him before and read about his world-record grizzly taken just a few years earlier with a hunter out of SRL. Turns out Joe had been guiding for Curly for over 30 years already. I knew I was in for a treat. That night we chatted a bit as we got to know each other. This is an important step in the process. A hunter and guide can't become best friends over one fried moose steak, but it's important to gather a little background and try to level out the mutual expectations as quickly as possible. We were able to do that thanks to Joe's great style and honest personality.
The first day dawned with a cold frost on the tent and ground. Good sign. The bulls were not yet rutting, and I figured that just such a temperature drop would help motivate some bulls to start vocalizing their intentions. We hiked over a small mountain to the edge of a long downslope and began glassing a large valley below. The tundra top we sat upon headed downhill fairly steeply to a section of grass and spruce, which eventually opened to a spring-laden swampy hillside that turned, further downhill, to a jungle of tall trees and ferns. Beyond that was a bottom drainage full of birch, moss and moosey-looking cover. Joe quickly spotted a bear, and about a mile east of it, a cow moose with her young male offspring. We sat a bit and Joe decided to move us down the slope and into the bottom. "This isn't part of my glassing plan," I thought to myself. But hey, he killed probably 500 moose to my zero, so second guessing him about the plan change wasn't the smartest thing I could come up with. Off we went.
About 10 miles later my aching joints necessitated a break. Every step was either up, down, sideways, or some combination thereof. We sat down, had some lunch, and Joe pulled out a head-net. He donned it and was asleep within minutes. I looked up and saw, two mountains over, what I thought was the one on which our tent was staked. I secretly dreaded the hike back. The feeling of complete loss of control came over me. There was no decision to be made by me. There was no truck that could come get us down at the nearest logging road. No boat that could float us back to a dry camp. No lodge waiting with a warm woodstove at the end of an ATV ride. There was simply one thing that was going to happen next. We were going to hike back up through the bottom grass and moss, up through the fern forest, up through the swampy side hill, up the grass to the tundra, and up over two mountains to get back to our tent. Rarely are we faced with the absolute lack of choice. It was a very restricted feeling. One particular bright spot, however, was the stop we made at the head of the spring that fed the swampy side hill. We found where the crystal clear, ice cold water was emanating from the ground and filled our water bottles. That was the most delicious, refreshing water I had ever tasted.
That night we had moose steaks fried in bacon grease. I promptly zipped up my Wiggy's sleeping bag and fell asleep. The next morning brought more rain and wind. Some things about tent camping are great. One that isn't is that boots don't dry overnight. Not unless you have a wood stove in there with you. And our heat was merely from a Coleman stove perched on a wooden crate between our cots. The 6x6 Bombshell tent was cozy and warm (and most importantly windless), but was no wood-heated lodge or wall tent!
We trudged out to the top of the hill from which we briefly glassed the morning before. Visibility was poor, despite it getting lighter as the sun, somewhere up behind massively thick clouds, was presumably getting higher in the sky. We could not even see the bottom, and the rain was getting heavier. We headed back to the tent to wait it out. Later that afternoon, the rain lightened and almost stopped. The wind was forever present, but had also lessened its bite.
We left the protection of the tent and headed in a direction opposite the first perch. Arriving to a new look-out spot, I was excited to explore new territory with my eyes and through binoculars. The short time we sat there was terminated when Joe "suggested" we move back to the first spot. That was about 2 miles away back over the mountain that sported our tent. By "suggestion" I mean he stood up and put his pack on and started walking away while saying something about needing to check where the moose are. Although I was pleased with the view I had, I decided his 500:zero moose kill ratio was something I should continue to remember.
Over at the first perch we saw little as light faded and the ceiling came down again. Clouds and more rain. But it was very beautiful country. The birch trees were yellowing by the minute. Each day in Alaska in September sees 7-9 fewer minutes of daylight (depending on where you are). I commented to Joe that the month of September sees an extraordinary amount of change up here. He responded, without even moving his head away from his spotting scope, "you'll see a lot of change just between now and when you kill something." The guy knew what he was talking about. Maybe even more than he knew.
Overnight, the wind really picked up. I was awakened by the whipping of the tent. I laid there thinking that the front must blow through at some point. An hour and a half later I was still waiting. I was starting to think that there was no way the tent would stay up through all of this. I prayed multiple times for our safety and, in making my "plans" for the event of a tent failure, figured we would have to pull the tent fabric over our sleeping bags and heads and hold it there until the storm passed and/or until morning when we could do something about it. Eventually I fell back to sleep, comforted in my knowledge that I had plan for dealing with the potential failure.
The next morning the weather had calmed somewhat but the rain fell steady and hard, back and forth, steady to hard and back to steady. We decided to stay in and wait it out. It was, after all, a 10-day hunt for a reason. And this type of weather was exactly why. Joe had mentioned that this season in particular was one of the wettest he could remember in his 30+ years of guiding in Alaska.
Between reading, naps, coffee and snacks, he repeatedly said that eventually the weather would have to break. We never left the tent on that day, content to stay inside and try to dry out. The next morning dawned without the sound of rain or much wind. Perhaps this was it. After a breakfast of spam, eggs and moose meat, we departed the tent for the first perch. As we walked away from our tent, we had to climb a (somewhat now familiar) slope to the landing strip and cross over it to the first mountain.
As I was growing accustomed to the terrain, I could spend more time looking up and less time looking down at my next step. We had not gotten more than 30 yards from the tent and part way up the slope, when we both saw, almost simultaneously, the two top tips of a caribou's antlers. Reactively, we both crouched and froze, with Joe whispering, "caribou!" just as the tips disappeared over the rise. "Come on," he said, and we were off jogging up the slope as quick as we could go and still remain hopefully silent. This time the lack of wind was a burden!
Caribou can move swiftly when they want, and, quite frankly, even when they are not alarmed. Just wandering for food, they can cover miles in just minutes. I dropped my pack, pulled out my light-weight (think tent pole) shooting sticks, and chambered a cartridge. We crept up to the top of the hill and saw them reaching the next hill, about 150 yards away.
There were about 10, with a few bulls. The lead one was good. I set up on the first bull and focused on my breathing and shot placement while waiting for the cows to clear. They must have noticed our heads popping up and breaking the edge of the hill, or possibly they winded us. There was not much wind though and if it was bad they would likely have picked up on the spam. In any event, although they were not running off, they were getting a little schitzy. As the bull stood there and the cows cleared him in a line walking over the next hill, I was about to squeeze off. Just then I heard Joe. "Hold up!" I couldn't imagine why. "Look to the rear. The big one is in the back!" I took my head off the rifle and looked round the scope. Sure enough an absolute mammoth was bringing up the rear. I immediately got back down on the scope and found him. I had to wait a few more seconds for him to clear the others, and when he did, he started walking behind them to go over the hill. I figured I'd have to shoot him walking. Just then he stopped and looked in our general direction as the others had done.
I heard the shot hit him but wasn't absolutely clear on where. He started to jog forward but stopped after a few steps. I put another round into the chamber and was ready to fire again, when Joe advised me to hold off. He had seen the shot placement and knew it was a good hit. I waited. The magnificent bull did not want to go down. I examined him through my scope. He was hit through the heart. But he remained on his feet. It is a sight I will never forget. When he started to sway, I felt both exuberance and sadness for what I had done. Excitement with an intense connection to the still- standing animal. I was already thanking him while he stood there, desperately trying to remain alive. I willed him to fall. He would not fall. I asked God to please make him fall. He would not fall. I thanked him again in my mind for giving me this opportunity. I thanked God for making it all happen in such a special place. Then he fell. I hung my head where I sat and prayed. I looked up at Joe and thanked him. Joe was smiling and said nothing.
Good guides know to leave hunters alone with their thoughts at these moments. He gently said to me, "Go to your caribou. I'll get our packs and meet you over there." I approached the fallen bull with shaking hands and knees. The rush of adrenaline was too much for my muscles to handle now that it was all released.
I stopped about 10 yards away and knelt down to gather my thoughts and view this animal still untouched by a man. I again thanked God for giving me such a blessing.
I felt unworthy. I felt like I did not deserve to experience such a wonderful thing. Had my failures gotten the best of me? Why did I feel this way? At that moment I realized that failures can suck you down and if you let them, they can displace the good and wonderful things that happen. I decided at that moment to let go of my failures and simply use them as a reminder of how blessed I am and how much I have achieved. They should become merely a foil to the great things in my life. No longer would I be held still in moving water, tethered to an anchor weighed by failures. Rather I would shed the anchor and move ahead in life knowing that failures are life experiences that build us up; the same as successes.
It was a moment of self-forgiveness and a time for re-commitment to my family and career and indeed to life. The gift of the caribou was one that could have been diminished had I let my feelings of inadequacy overcome the triumph of such an extreme experience. The caribou died and in his death came a message to me so profound that I believe it was only able to reach me because I was in a state of mind uniquely available in a natural place like that, high atop an Alaskan mountain, where I could see life, and death, so clearly. I stood up, refreshed and eager to touch this beautiful bull caribou that lay before me.
I approached him, and laid my hands on his neck. I felt the cold water on his white mane, and the warmth of his face as I moved my hand along his head. I thanked him for giving himself to me and told him that we would remember him always and that he would feed my family for the coming year.
I promised him that we would admire his coat and antlers for lifetimes to come. I then ran my hands up his incredible antlers. Their mass and points and beauty were overwhelming. I was unable to take it all in at once. Time seemed frozen on the mountain with that bull. Soon Joe approached, stopping a short distance away, and waited for me to speak to him. The magic spell was broken and I felt the caribou's spirit leave us.
Later I would learn that my bull would make the record books. I did not care. An animal this old and strong and special is a treasure to behold regardless of some arithmetic compilation of measurements and deductions for "imperfections." I have often wondered about the prudence of such judgments of animals. And while I appreciate the scientific need for this data, I never understood the use of the data to diminish a trophy with deductions for what I deem as individual character. At times I thought maybe I was just cynical, perhaps because of all my trophies taken, none made the "books."
Now that I have one that would easily score in the books, I can confirm that I was not, in fact, being cynical. The bull caribou that lay before me that day is a trophy by any measure. And I need not apply someone else's criteria to measure its greatness. All who will see him with their eyes will know this trophy in their own way.
I still had a moose tag when I returned to the lodge with my caribou. And many asked me when I wanted to go back out for my moose. I contemplated it for about a day but knew that I never really wanted to go back out for a moose. I had my treasure. My trophy. And I was relieved to have finally come to terms with my failures. Had I shot a moose on this trip after shooting that caribou, I knew I would somehow be doing a disservice to the caribou, and indeed also the moose. I wanted the experience and the trip to be only about the caribou and what he taught me. When someone gets a great gift, he is content with it and celebrates it. I felt as though I would disrespect the caribou if I had gone out for another animal right away. Like someone ungratefully returning a heart-felt gift given by a close friend or loved one.
I will return someday for a moose. Hopefully with one or more of my sons. I don't know what lesson a moose might teach me, but I suppose that there will be another opportunity to learn something about myself, and about life, up in the Alaskan wilderness. It seems a very cleansing place. Extremely tough and easily deadly. But also a place for a person to face life and its shortness with a clear head and ability to see straight. On this trip, through an unexpected encounter with a trophy caribou, I found a way to become a better person. Perhaps that is the essence of all hunting.
Jonathan, you are right on, every animal I've harvested has been a trophy.
Thanks, Gilles. Your comments ring true with me and I thank you for offering them. From a U.S. hunter, my best wishes to you for hunting success in the future!
Whow!!! This story is so plentiful and down to earth written with wisdom and recognition to what this planet earth is mean to bring us by our CREATOR, GOD!
Thank you for sharing this with us in total respect for the animal that was gifted to you, let that be a lesson to those supposedly 'Trophy Hunters'' whom too often destroy the true values of what the hunting spirit is all about and turn on public disapproval for the sport.
I am pleased to read as well that you intend on passing this life experience down to your sons so they can appreciate the better things about life when made available to them.
Appreciate the great outdoors and thank the Lord for it as it purifies or minds and souls and profond reconnaissance to the animals that make of those moments so precious.
Thank you from a Canadian hunter.
Congratulations Jon. What a wonderful story to share.
I agree, Charly. They seem more like cabins. Unfortunately, I heard on this last trip that they are no longer being made! I haven't tracked down the details yet, though.
How about those Bombshelter tents......I've spent many a night in them with 60 mph winds blasting it and always woke up with the tent intact.
Great story. Good start for 2017, let's keep it going! Thanks Jon!
Great story! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing, Jon!