‘Bou hoo — Thrill of the chase, sting of a thief in newly opened Fox River hunt

By Joseph Robertia

Photos courtesy of Marcus Mueller and John Hedges. John Hedges, of Soldotna, hikes across the tundra above Tustumena Lake with Truuli Glacier in the background during a caribou hunt with Marcus Mueller this fall. Mueller, of Kenai, drew one of only 10 permits issued this year by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the Fox River caribou herd.

Redoubt Reporter

Hunting is about so much more than killing an animal. It is about leaving a land of clean shaves, pressed attire, business meetings and punctual appointments. It is about escape from the routines and roles of daily life — employee, spouse or parent.

All of these are temporarily traded for the hope of having a significant life experience. One developed from bonding with other like-minded hunters, while also intrinsically exploring oneself, and not just living in, but becoming a part of, the natural world. At least, that is what a recent caribou hunt was for Marcus Mueller, of Kenai.

“This was so much more than a meat run,” he said. “It was an exploratory getaway filled with camaraderie. It turned out to be a great adventure. Around every corner was something unexpected.”

His words are particularly underscored by the uncharted nature of his fall hunt this year. Every hunt is different from the last, but Mueller was one of only 10 hunters drawn to hunt the Fox River caribou herd. Primarily residing in the pristine and rugged area from the mouth of the Fox River to the south of Tustumena Glacier, this herd was down to around 20 animals at one point, but now is up to around 65 to 70 animals, so for the first time since 2003 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allocated 10 permits to this region.

“We got into all new, undiscovered country for us,” Mueller said.

Hunting is challenging enough, but hunting in an entirely new area adds more difficulty than just heading out to the same tree stand year after year. Mueller knew he and hunting buddy John Hedges, of Soldotna, had a lot of work ahead of them before ever venturing into the field.

“I knew it was on the peninsula, but no other logistics,” he said. “I got maps of the area, went by Fish and Game, and tried to talk to anyone with knowledge of that country. I got all the info I could and it all pointed to the same thing — there was no easy access to get into this area.”

Located on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, motorized access into the rugged backcountry

Hedges sights through his rifle in the alpine above Tustumena Lake. While Mueller drew a permit for a caribou, Hedges was looking for Dall sheep.

by truck or four-wheeler isn’t allowed, and likely wouldn’t be possible even if it were legal. Any old horse trails have since grown in. He found no alpine lakes or other suitable locations to land a plane in the high country. Mueller and Hedges were going to have to take the heel-toe express.

“It looked like it was going to have to be a long hike in, but I’m able-bodied, so we got shuttled across Tustumena Lake with full packs and a week’s worth of gear and supplies,” he said.

“If it was easy, everyone would do it and we’d call it baseball. Well, it’s not easy, but it’s not tough either. John refers to it as “Type B fun.” You know the good time you had, only you didn’t think it was particularly fun at the time. The only alternative is to just not do it, and frankly that would be a piss-poor waste of time option. So we do it, we do it with gusto, and it gives us something to talk about for the winter months, and around the poker table and at the water cooler.”

— Marcus Mueller, journal

Starting from a beach in Devils Bay they began to hike into the trees and brush between Crystal and Clear creeks, an area with bears feeding on sockeye salmon that had come to spawn in these waterways. In addition to the dense brush, the elevation was laborious to ascend.

“Once it started going up, it just kept going — up and up and up. We tried to navigate the trail based on the information we had gotten, interpreting things based on what we had heard. It took about three hours to cover the two miles until we broke through tree line to the subalpine zone,” Mueller said.

Above tree line it became a little easier to navigate, but no less simple to hike.

“We could see where we were going, but there were still lots of false summits as we kept going up,” he said. “It was great being off the grid, though. We weren’t constrained by trails. We could go wherever we wanted to, so that’s what we did.”

They reached a plateau where they could see Tustumena Lake and miles farther past it. Underfoot was soft moss, bright-red ground foliage and a mat of edible berries, while overhead the sky at times seemed close enough to reach up and touch.

Big-bottomed mama grizzly was just up a ways. She gave us a brief stand-and-see before she

John Hedges, of Soldotna, scouts for game with Truuli Glacier in the background.

booked downhill for several minutes before disappearing from sight. Her golden sides jiggled like Jell-O as she ran. We got on the berry patch ourselves. The tundra is full of bounty by design — crowberries under every step, and this side of the mountain had good blueberries. It’s no wonder how bears can fatten up on the berries in this country. We’ve probably seen about 40 bears so that’s a lot of berries.

The scene comes to life just as soon as you stop and watch. Bears roaming the berry patches are black marks across the landscape. Goats come in and out of view as they negotiate the ledges they occupy. If you are lucky a band of sheep will crest a ridge and trot into view.

— Marcus Mueller, journal

The area also offered good opportunities to glass for the caribou herd. As it turned out, they didn’t have to look for long.

“We spotted a cow and calf on our first day,” Mueller said. “Caribou are naturally curious, but having not been hunted since 2003, these animals were very curious. They didn’t run away and instead they came closer and watched us as we watched them.”

They hiked until they found a suitable place to make camp, at roughly 3,500 feet and not far from the headwaters of Crystal Creek. A few large boulders served as windbreaks for their tents. They felt lucky to have already spotted a caribou, but it wasn’t long until more showed up. A lot more.

“We were setting up camp when I saw my partner stop in his tracks,” Mueller said. “Not even 400 yards away we saw around 60 caribou grazing in the plateau. We went on the stalk and glassed the herd to look over it, but we had had a big day so we weren’t antsy to pull the trigger. We just took notes and then went back to setting up camp.”

The fall weather in Alaska is fickle, and as Mueller and Hedges woke up on the second day, Mueller started to wonder if he’d made the right decision the day before.

“It rained the whole next day,” he said. “We were totally confined to our tents, and damp became as close to dry as we could get.”

The new four-season, single-wall tent is leaking at the vent seam. I put a bowl to catch the drip. Might as well turn the situation to my advantage being that we appear to be camped about a half-mile from water. Water collected on my ground cloth and filled the hummocky depressions under my tent to make a cold, squishy, liquidly surface that the tent floated on.

— Marcus Mueller, journal

Time ticked by as the sound of raindrops pelting the top of their tents remained constant for hours, but toward the end of the day the sound softened as the clouds briefly broke.

“We put our boots on and found that 50 yards from camp was another herd of at least 20 animals, so we stalked to where we thought they were going to go and waited,” Mueller said.

They were hoping to head the animals off, but it was another critter that showed up instead. A curious coyote slunk though and drew a big whiff of scent before moving on. The men continued to wait. The caribou never showed, but the rain re-appeared, so they retreated to cover.

Later in the evening they again got a reprieve from the downpour. From outside his tent Mueller heard Hedges shout, “Get out here!”

Mueller scrambled out to find an impressive sight.

“This time the herd had 33 caribou in it with three decent bulls, and they were only about 200 yards from where we were, so we again put the stalk on them, crawling on our bellies up a grassy knoll,” he said.

Mueller knew which bull he wanted. He was medium-sized as caribou males go, but still an impressive animal with a smoke-colored coat and a cream-colored neck and mane. Mueller watched him as the bull put his large snout down to graze. His nose was nearly to the ground, but his large, velvet-covered rack still stuck up several feet high.

The animal’s tiny ears swiveled around, but he seemed oblivious to how close Mueller was with his Finnish-made 30.06 Tikka T3 Lite rifle. Only 150 yards was between them, so Mueller locked the crosshairs of his scope on the caribou and fired.

“It was clean shot, just over the shoulder. He fell right over,” he said.

The rest of the herd didn’t even run after the shot was fired, Mueller said. He, on the other

Marcus Mueller, of Kenai, poses with the caribou of the Fox River herd he shot during a hunt this fall.

hand, had sat motionless long enough and sprang into action. It was getting close to dark and in the low light of the fading day, he and Hedges dressed the animal out and began hauling the meat to a cool location — one they thought would be a safe place.

“We ended up caching it in a snowfield, not far from camp so we could watch over it,” he said.

The quarters, skull, rack and other assorted chunks of meat were tucked away not just in snow, but on and under rocks to let air circulate so it wouldn’t rot over the next few days they were still in the field to hunt Dall sheep. They also put a tarp over it with more rocks to keep the smell down and hold everything in place should a wolf or other animal stumble on the scene.

For several days their cache held up well as they spent their days unsuccessfully scouting the area for legal sheep, but toward the end of their trip Mueller noticed a problem. On a visit to check on the cache he noticed it had not just been disturbed, but outright raided.

“Two hindquarters and a bag of loose meat were gone,” he said.

Mueller scoured the area and saw no signs of where the meat would have been eaten on location, but he did see some round carnivore tracks. They were too large to be a coyote, but not quite the correct appearance of a wolf print. He followed the tracks to learn the culprit was a rarely seen creature — or two, to be exact: a mother and pup pair of wolverines.

Our day yesterday was not particularly pleasant. It was more a day of defeat. Our beautiful meat cache had been breached and ravaged by wolverines. These tenacious little buggers apparently uncovered the cache and drug the quarters up the snowfield to the point where the creek tunneled through it, creating a cave sized just right for their purposes.

— Marcus Mueller, journal

“I could have shot them right there, but you have to ask yourself why you’re out there. I couldn’t

The hunt had highs — including the beautiful scenery ­— and lows, primarily at the paws of this thieving wolverine.

kill them for doing what they do naturally,” he said.

Mueller went back to salvage what he could from his caribou. This time he made the cache what he thought was bombproof and even tied down the skull and antlers. But to his dismay the next day, the wolverines had returned and claimed the rest of his kill.

The antlers from my bull caribou were now also gone, vanished from the tundra. A full set of antlers — my consolation prize — gone. Not an item that can be easily hidden on the barren landscape. The two gremlins were there. They ran into their hidey-hole and growled at us as we stole the last of our meat back.

— Marcus Mueller, journal

One of the wolverines stood its ground and bared its teeth at Mueller, but he managed to get one front quarter back. A paltry amount of meat considering how many pounds they had butchered off the bull, but it would have to suffice as the wolverine would not yield any more.

This is the most fearless, badass creature I have ever witnessed. As I stood there tying the caribou shoulder to my pack, I sensed that this wolverine did not take kindly to what I was up to. That caribou, the whole thing, was his. So now my consolation is as pissed at me as I am at him. We’ll call it a draw, though I think he won.

— Marcus Mueller, journal

 

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2 Comments

Filed under hunting, Kasilof, outdoors, wildlife

2 responses to “‘Bou hoo — Thrill of the chase, sting of a thief in newly opened Fox River hunt

  1. Scott Swendsen

    Very nice writing! Yet hard to describe the opportunistic wolverine as a thief – just taking advantage of a nice, free, all-you-can-eat banquet…

  2. christine cunningham

    Great article!

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