Despite describing it as the hardest hunt he's ever been on, Timber Wolf Lodge owner Michael Beals is thrilled with the 1,800-pound bull bison he bagged last week on the Cheshnina River in the Copper River drainage.
One of 15,000 applicants for 12 hunting permits, the Soldotna resident said he hit the jackpot, and chose to share the hunt with his whole family.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said of the five-day hunt. "Most guys want to go hunting with their buddies, but for me it was an opportunity to be closer to my family and give them a deeper understanding of what dad does to fill the freezer."
Beals was accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and sons Michael and Jason, though the trip wasn't without its challenges.
"It rained pretty bad, and it's discouraging when all you can do is sit in the tent," he said. "If we couldn't find the bison, we would have abandoned the hunt."
Nevertheless, he and his sons would trek out from their base camp, 30 miles up the Cheshnina, for miles and hours on end.
"We weren't sure the bison existed, and we weren't sure why we were up there," Beals said.
On the fourth day, he and his youngest son, Jason, spotted two bison across the river, but because of the swift current, they could not reach the animals.
Since their airboat pilot, J.R. Wilson, checked on them regularly, Beals and his son met up with him on returning to the base camp. Wilson offered to take them up river and to the other side, so Beals and his older son, Michael, went.
He described the ensuing events as "nightmarish."
After traveling to the spot where he had previously seen the two bison, it became apparent they had moved on.
"So we asked the airboat pilot to take us a little further up the river, and we saw six bison in the middle on a sand bar," Beals said. "It was an absolute stroke of luck."
Since he could not shoot from a moving boat, Beals had the pilot beach the boat on the gravel bar about 165 yards from the small herd, which immediately began running in the opposite direction.
"They go at a pretty good gallop," he said.
He took a shot at the lead bull with his .375 H-and-H and hit him in the right forequarter, knocking him down. He turned back to his son and Wilson, who were pointing toward the bull.
"He got right back up, and the others corralled him and herded him off," Beals said. "As I got closer, they pulled off and I shot him again.
"I've shot moose from 150 yards with a .375 and taken them down, so I know the impact of the rifle is substantial."
But the second shot was not enough.
"I was convinced he was down, but as I walked toward him, after a couple of minutes, he stood up," Beals said. "But he stumbled and fell into the river."
Despite weighing close to a ton, the swift Cheshnina River swept the dying bull down stream. Beals, his son and Wilson headed down after the bull, which was floating near the surface, but lost him in the wide, murky river.
"We went down a mile and a half and had no idea where he was," Beals said. "Then a hoof came out of the water and my son grabbed his tail and then we were both trying to grab him and float close to shore."
They finally managed to beach the animal in hip-deep water and tied him off to shore while they moved their base camp. After the whole family was together, they tried to move the bull out of the water, but to no avail.
"The four of us would pull together and only move him one inch," he said. "Finally we moved him seven inches into knee-deep water."
Beals was forced to clean the animal standing in the water. As darkness fell, the Beals built a large bonfire to ward off bears.
"I started cleaning him at 7:45 p.m., and it took until 5 a.m. to properly process him," Beals said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done."
Beals said he was able to harvest 850 pounds of meat from the animal. It took two boat loads to transfer it all back to civilization.
Once back, he said crowds gathered everywhere he stopped, all wanting to see the head of the animal. Even locals in the Copper Center and Kenny Lake area were amazed at the animal, Beals said. Others didn't know the lottery hunt was still conducted. And many others sought a taste of the wild bovine.
"You never realize how many friends you have until you get a bison," Beals joked. "But just to taste it, to put a piece on the grill, it's very good. Very sweet."
Beals said the hunt gave him new appreciation for Native Americans who hunted bison from horseback with bow and arrow in what is now the Lower 48.
He is having the head and shoulders mounted by Northland Furriers of Soldotna and plans on making it available to schools for children who have never seen a bison. The hide is being made into a buffalo jacket.
He said that if he had lost the bull he wouldn't have sought another.
"It was just perfect to have just seen them in the wild, even if I didn't get one," Beals said. "They are incredibly powerful animals. They can run forever."
He described the bull's heart as being the size of a basketball, and the animal itself reminded him of a Cape buffalo.
"My home has whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn, Dall sheep, mountain goats and elk," he said. "But the number one prize is the bison."
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