Spot & Stalk
Sep 10 2020
By Billy Molls
My young packer, Reno, and I had been spiked out in the mountains chasing Dall sheep for nearly month by the time our final grueling hunt came to a close. We were fixin’ to bed down for the evening when Big Dog, the pilot, soared in and landed on our tiny patch tundra. “There’s a big storm movin’ in,” he advised, hoping out of his single passenger Husky aircraft with a determined speed I hadn’t seen him use in all the years I’d known him. I thought about pointing out the fact that snow was already flying and he was flirting with the legal minimums of ceiling and visibility as it was, but I could see he was in real hurry because he didn’t even stop to roll a cigarette. “Get the hunter ready and send out any extra gear you don’t need. I’m gonna try to come back to get you guys, but if I can’t make it back tonight, I’m gonna need you two to be as light as possible. This strip is too short to haul any kind of load out of if it’s covered in snow.”
I sent out crusty socks, an old book, my tripod, and spotting scope. Reno sent out little more than his rifle. I thought about lecturing my under-study about the importance of having a weapon on hand in the wilds of Alaska, but Big Dog always seemed to come through, and besides, I had my 44. Magnum.
We stuffed Russ, our hunter, all his gear, his tent, and our excess stuff in the airplane and Big Dog roared for base camp. With visibility diminishing, Reno and I crawled back in our tiny pup tent. Right away, the starving hillbilly from Indiana started chowing our last candy bar. “Better go easy on the groceries until the plane shows up,” I insisted. “We aint outta here yet.”
The weather quickly went from wet and windy to whiteout. I knew we were stuck for the night. Due to low provisions, Reno and I split a freeze-dried dinner. I gathered all the other food we had and laid them by the head of my bedroll. Just for insurance, I laid my pistol out where he could see it. “You made it this far. Don’t make me send you home without a hand.”
The weather was even worse the next day. A satellite phone call to base camp revealed that they wouldn’t be able to get us anytime soon. We rationed our food out pretty thin. As I laid in my sleeping bag reading, Reno just sat and stared. His blue eyes like that of a hunger-crazed wolf, but didn’t take any more than his share.
We woke the next morning to a two-foot snowdrift outside our tent. The only thing we talked about was food. We both agreed omelets with bacon, hash browns, and pancakes were preferred over our single packets of oatmeal. Once again base camp didn’t offer any hope, so we took inventory of our food stores: one 1-ounce packet of cream cheese is what we had to look forward to. “The road’s no more than 25 miles away, Reno. Lace up your boots, we’re gonna eat a meat with some fat on it tonight.”
The “Haul Road”, or what many know as the “Ice Road” from the popular TV show, was just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Reno and I were young, bored, and starving. I figured it’d make a good story to tell our grandchildren if nothing else.
I started off breaking trail for the first hour. With frozen beards and sweaty skin we couldn’t see past our boots at times through the wind and snow. I knew as long as we didn’t lose sight of the river we’d make to the road. Once there we could call base camp, which was just 20 miles up the road, to pick us up.
After sharing the packet of cream cheese and swapping the pole position a couple times, I was back in front, plowing shin-deep heavy, wet snow. While trying to think of one acceptable reason I chose my profession, I spotted a peculiar object though the blinding sleet. I came to an abrupt halt once I realized what it was. With his head down to shield his collar, Reno ran into me. I pointed a stones throw ahead at the grizzly in the willows. “Oh crap! Should we walk around ‘im?” he whispered, looking left and right for an escape route.
“We’re too close to try to skirt him. He’s gonna see us one way or another. He’ll either charge us, or take off running.” As soon I quit speaking the bear spotted us. Reno and I stepped out into the open, stood side-by-side, waved our arms in the air, and started hollering.
The massive boar lumbered fearlessly toward us. Reno kept yelling as I zipped a 300-grain hard-cast bullet a couple feet to his left. The grizzly stopped and stared before standing on his hind feet and bobbing his nose in the cold damp air, trying in vain to get our scent. Reno and I walked a few feet forward and kept shouting, but he wasn’t alarmed. I took careful aim and fired another round. We saw the vapor as it almost clipped his ears. The bear whipped his head around as the bullet sped past. He snapped his attention back on us. I cocked my double-action S&W and waited for him to make his move. Reno was still hollering. I leveled the pistol on his chest, and I joined the choir.
The dark old bruin gave it careful consideration before slinking broadside to our left. Just when I was beginning to think he was going to circle us like a bullfighter, he “woofed” and galloped ahead several lopes, before falling back into a walk. He glared at us as he sauntered little more than 30 yards past us. I kept the front bead on him as Reno and I continued to encourage him to leave.
When the bear was finally out of sight, my long legged packer started high stepping for the road. I stumbled along behind, keeping an eye on our back trail. We did the quickstep for a full mile before we even thought about slowing down. Ten miles down the river, with only two miles to go until we’d hit the road, the weather cleared up. We found a long gravel bar and waited for Big Dog to pick us up.
Back at base camp, after eating everything in sight, we savored a six-pack of beer that our boss saved for us. Warm, dry, and red-faced from the wind and the alcohol, Reno piped up, “That was pretty dumb of me to send my rifle out, huh?”