FAIRBANKS — It was an unlucky fall. We’d tried for moose around Fairbanks and blown our one chance. We went for caribou up north but missed the herd. In Minto Flats, we saw nothing. I’d pretty much given up on getting any game meat until next hunting season.
Then Toby emailed from Anchorage. Want to go to Adak?
He’d mentioned it before — cheap mileage tickets on Alaska Airlines, no limit on caribou. I had a busy March already, and didn’t think I could go.
Ian read the Wikipedia entry. Adak is the farthest south city in Alaska, and the farthest west in the U.S. Until the mid-’90s, it was a military base with thousands of residents, a bowling alley and a McDonald’s; now a few hundred people live there. It’s covered in grass, has a 4,000-foot volcano, and rains all the time. Wind speeds of over 120 miles an hour were recorded — before the wind ripped the anemometer off its tower.
I’m in, Ian wrote.
I was game. Mark couldn’t resist.
In a few days, we had a trip planned. We bought our tickets and rented a house that came with a truck to drive around the island. On a sunny day in mid-March, we met up with Toby in Anchorage and flew the rest of the way together — 1,200 miles south and west from Anchorage, out the Aleutian chain. We set our watches back an hour.
I thought it would be easy. The island was only about 20 miles across. The caribou were introduced in the 1950s for sport and food security, and without any natural predators, the population had thrived. “Fat and lazy,” I told people before we left.
The regulations barred hunting bulls from January to August, so we brought a spotting scope to help determine the sex of any animals we found.
From a thousand feet up, we could see the wind kicking up whitecaps in the water. We bought land permits at the airport, then stashed our gear at the house and went out hunting. The sun disappeared. The wind whipped our jacket hoods. The rain stung our eyes. We heard later we’d been lucky to land in the foul weather; the next scheduled flight was four days later.
The next day, we hiked. We skirted Lake Betty on a narrow, slippery trail, and then climbed a thousand feet up to a pass, kicking steps into the snowy slope.
“This is definitely not what I expected,” Mark said.
Me neither. I’d looked at a map, but let myself imagine the island was mostly flat. I figured we could walk all over it. Now, a few miles from the truck, I wondered what we’d do if we actually shot something.
We glassed for a long time, and then hiked down to Gannet Lake and up to a second pass. Finally we spotted a pair of tracks, and for a second, the animals that made them. They spooked and ran off.
From the ridge, we could see Teardrop Lake and beyond that, the Pacific Ocean. We glassed again, but saw nothing. Not even tracks.
Ripe for zombies
The next few days, we drove and glassed and hiked. In good weather, the island looked merely strange — abandoned bunkers, whole suburban streets of empty military housing. In foul weather, it seemed ready for a Zombie invasion. Street signs gone. Streetlights leaning or tipped over. Overgrown grass. Unexploded ordnances.
One afternoon, when the wind and rain made hunting futile, we explored the northern end of the island. A whole series of concrete buildings, abandoned. A playground by the ocean, abandoned.
We followed a dirt road around a lagoon, the east wind driving in off the Bering Sea. The levy protecting the road was already washed away in places, and we wondered how long the road would last. We struggled to stand in the wind. A seal, unfazed, bobbed in the surf.
Honestly, we weren’t having much fun. The weather was often miserable, and just getting around was hard work. In all the hours we spent hunting, we’d seen two animals. My vision of harvesting early and spending the rest of the week watching TV and playing games was going out the window.
Then a rat — another introduced species on the island – got into my food. We doubled down. Toby searched online for info about the herd, finding one survey that showed most of the animals in the southern part of the island, far from town, while Ian took care of the rats, trapping a pair of good-size rodents behind the couch.
The next morning, we tracked down the one Fish and Wildlife Service employee stationed on the island, whose office looked a lot like our house. She said the Navy used to take sailors by boat to Slaughter Alley, a pinch point for caribou. It was too far to walk, but we could get close if we spent a night out there.
During WWII, roads and buildings covered the island, she said. Now most are gone, though foxholes still dot the island. No battles were fought on Adak, but the islands of Attu and Kiska were both occupied by Japan. Fighting on Attu, soldiers had suffered more from frostbite, trench foot, and gangrene than enemy fire.
Now Adak is prized for its bird habitat — much of the island lies within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge — and the Fish and Wildlife Service seems to consider the caribou a nuisance.
We hiked to Susie Lake, without luck, and then went to talk with a local man who rented Argos. The animals don’t hang around town much, he said. We’d be lucky if we saw a group of a dozen.
That afternoon, we spotted a group of eight, about a mile away, moving fast up a hill. Toby and Ian took off for the other side of the hill. Chasing caribou is usually a waste of energy, but we had no other option. Besides, Toby was a former professional Nordic skier, recently inducted into the University of Alaska Anchorage Hall of Fame; if anybody could chase down a caribou it was him.
Mark and I watched them run up the slope, Ian slightly behind. When I finally made it over the hill, they were field dressing a caribou Toby had shot. A dozen bald eagles gathered as we field dressed the caribou. When we set out with loaded sleds, the birds swooped in to pick over the remains.
At home that night, we celebrated by feasting on liver and onions, heart, and some choice cuts.
With work and family calling, Mark decided to head home. He was glad just to have seen the Aleutians, he said. We checked his bags, then went to chase down some ptarmigan. Unlike the caribou, they were plentiful and easy to hunt. “Adak: Come for the caribou, stay for the ptarmigan,” we joked.
That evening, the sun came out and Toby, Ian and I hiked out past Heart Lake and sat on a hillside overlooking Shagak Bay. Toby walked to the top of the ridge and saw two caribou hoofing it down the other side. From their tracks, we saw they’d passed a few hundred yards from us, completely out of sight. I remembered another thing the Argo man had said: “All the dumb ones have already been shot.”
Now the stakes were high. A quarter caribou each was better than nothing, but we’d hoped for more. Ian thought we should keep hunting where we’d seen animals, but I lobbied for a new spot, still hoping we’d find caribou by the hundreds. They agreed, so the next morning we climbed toward Husky Pass.
A small herd was grazing by the side of frozen Lake Bonnie Rose. We dropped our packs and crept closer. At 330 yards, heads went up and another chance disappeared over the pass.
We followed their tracks, each step taking us further from the truck. From the pass, we spotted some animals on a distant hillside. We climbed the rocky slope and skirted the hill at a crouch. Then Toby stopped. Caribou. Across the valley, a dozen animals were grazing heads-down. When they wandered out of view, we grabbed our rifles and hurried closer.
We crept up the side of the ridge, trying to see them before they saw us. We were silent. The wind was right. Ian’s eyes lit up. There they were, still grazing at close range. This time, we made it count.
Stefan Milkowski is a former news-miner reporter who lives in Fairbanks and periodically chronicles his adventures on the Outdoors Page. He wrote about
a snowmachine trip from Fairbanks to Nome in the March 22 edition of the News-Miner.