Father shares family's hunting tradition with son

Passing it on

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2003

The hills and valleys of the high country are ablaze with color as the vibrant greens change to a golden hue, and splashes of red are starting to enter the scene.

As the seasons pass from summer to fall, so too are many peninsula fathers passing on the hunting tradition to their sons.

"It was a great week," said Bill Berkhahn, who just returned from a successful caribou hunt with his 15-year-old son Rob. "Just being out with your son, and seeing him in the field, applying what he's learned from you it's a great feeling."

Rob began his hunting career a long time ago, according to his father. "When he was around 8 or 9 he started hunting grouse," he said.

Over the years, as the young woodsman became more competent and confident with firearms, he continued to move up to higher caliber rifles.

In 1999 he completed his Hunter Education Certification, and of course over the years he's accompanied his father on hunts and helped pack out meat.

However, this year was the boy's first year hunting big game for himself and he set his sights on caribou.

Early season hunts are a perfect time to pursue these stout members of the deer family. The bulls have not yet become obsessed with combat as they soon will be from the hormone-induced rut, and after grazing on succulent vegetation all summer long, caribou are in prime condition.

However, caribou are no easy prey. They are often a restless species, prone to large scale movements at the drop of a dime. Not to mention they have a great sense of smell and spook easily.

Caribou hunting takes knowledge and patience, and after years of watching his father, the younger Berkhahn demonstrated he had acquired both.

The father and son team hiked 5 miles up into the high country near Tok with all their gear the day before season opened.

"We wanted to ensure an early start," said the senior Berkhahn, and at 5:30 a.m. on opening day they began their hunt.

They started walking the ridges, and saw a few caribou cows and a black bear, but nothing worth writing home about for the first few hours.

"Then around 10 a.m. we saw nine animals walking on a ridge line about a mile away," said Bill. "Five of the nine looked like males, with a nice big bull leading."

Unfortunately, he said the group was constantly moving and sticking tight together the Berkhahns didn't have a clear shot.

Knowing that it's better to intercept caribou than to try and catch up, the father and son team repositioned. They stealthily moved and waited about 15 minutes before seeing the group again.

Then, 50 yards away, ol' mosshorn made his appearance.

"The bull came over the ridge alone," said Bill. "Rob got off three shots and dropped him. No buck fever or anything."

The rest of the herd scattered and Rob set off to make sure he had killed the animal successfully, not wanting it to suffer if he hadn't.

Bill repositioned himself and after 15 minutes took a caribou himself. "I've shot caribou for years, but doing it with my son was really fun," he said.

They boned the animals and spent the next three days packing out the meat on their backs no horses or ATVs for these two.

"We saw a lot of animals along the way, and we would stop and talk about how great it is here in Alaska," said Bill.

In addition to being a great bonding experience, the senior Berkhahn also said he felt a great sense of accomplishment from mentoring his son in the skills necessary to be a successful, safe and ethical hunter.

"I'm glad he can carry on the hunting tradition," said Bill. "The 30.06 rifle he used was even tradition. It has been passed down in the family for 50 years. My dad used that rifle, and me and now him."

As to the bull the boy dropped, it's rack measured out to a 48-inch spread pretty good for a first-timer, to say the least.

Father and son peeled the velvet when they got home and the rack is in the process of drying, but the senior Berkhahn hopes to have it mounted with an engraved plaque, to mark the occasion for his son to remember.

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