Young hunter lands 'big one'

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2001

BROOKS RANGE -- His heart pounding, Ben Ferguson, after six days of hunting, had a barren-ground caribou in his bow sights. As the animal came at him, he had split seconds to make his shot.

The youngest of Reb Fer-guson's two sons, Ben was learning the ultimate challenge: archery in the Brooks Range.

His big brother, Clint, had recited to him stories of bow hunting ''the big one.'' Both sons had heard many times their dad's story of getting his first deer with a bow.

The son of an Italian immigrant, Reb had grown up in inner-city Trenton, N.J., 10 miles from a patch of trees, his boreal woods, a block from a rubber factory. Both of his parents worked and had little time for sport. Reb was not curtailed, however, by the ''conveyor belt'' existence.

When he was 14 in 1957, he was given a 45-pound, Fred Bear bow. In search of some woods, he hitchhiked to Route 1 to some posted property. He scrambled up a tree and balanced precariously on a branch, leaning against the trunk.

In the darkness, a flick of white caught his eye. Just below, at 40 yards, a little ''button'' buck passed under the tree. He pulled his arrow back and sank it into the animal.

Tearing his pants trying to get to earth, he excitedly pulled an ''Outdoor Life'' manual on ''How to Field Dress'' out of his jeans pocket. Improvising a field rucksack, also from on-the-spot directions, he skinned the deer's legs, tied them into makeshift straps and hoisted the meat against his back.

For the rest of his school years, Reb and his best friend, Bill Chmura, hunted the New Jersey farmland.

When they were 19, they hitchhiked to the Last Frontier, loaded with bow and arrows. In Alaska, Reb became the father of two sons and a daughter. Bill returned to New Jersey but passed his equipment to his best friend's oldest son, Clint.

At his family's remote Tanana River homestead, Clint, an only child for seven years, played both cowboy and Indian with his bow and arrow, prepping to use the bow from Bill later. Not until he was grown and in his own home in south Georgia, however, did Clint seriously bow hunt. He got his first deer with a Broadhead point. In his spare time, he watched his 3-year-old son, Hunter, play with his own little bow and arrows.

''There's something really special about bow hunting,'' Clint said. ''It's the ultimate challenge in hunting. When the shadows deepen here in the dense vegetation, it's very mysterious.''

Once a year, the three Ferguson men hunt the creek bottoms of south Georgia together. Ben, the only Ferguson who had not bagged anything with a bow, was inspired. This year, before the Georgia trip, he had a goal in mind. He carefully chose equipment ordered through Cabela's archery catalog. Then, he practiced nightly for a projected big trip to the Brooks Range. When Reb and Ben were not ordering points, camouflage clothing, arrows, ''tranquilizers'' and targets, they were at Alaska Fish and Game's required archery course.

On a foggy Aug. 18, they started up the Dalton Highway, listening to trucker chat on the Citizens Band radio, hugging their side of the road as semis whizzed past. Hoving into view, Sukakpak, a jagged mountain was an explosion of rock. They crossed the state highway's highest point, Atigun Pass, and then left the last tree on the south side of the Brooks Range.

On the North Slope, the mountains were stark, obtrusive, prehistoric, rising above the undulating tundra. They had passed through four topographical zones and driven 847 miles, that were more like two countries than a single state, and turned into the Wyoming Gage turnout, mile J353 to set up camp.

As the men blew up air mattresses, wandering bunches of caribou tormented them. As soon as the shelter was up, masqueraded in their leafy camo, they headed out for a creek to the only brush cover for miles.

Bulls were roaming the hills in twos and fours, drifting south. For days, Reb and Ben walked miles of muskeg, stalked, lost arrows, fought morning and evening coastal fog.

On the sixth day, they decided on a different technique. The day began crystal clear. By 10 a.m., the coastal fog had filled every valley. The hunters sat alone in pea soup. Damp disgust settled into their bones. Tired of wasted time, they began packing, to look elsewhere.

By 1 p.m. everything but the tent was loaded in the truck. But now it was hot. The riveting sunshine had burned off the fog, and bulls were roaming tantalizingly across the now visible hills. From time to time, the caribou would break off into a run. Bugs were driving them higher to cooler climes.

Throwing their tree garb back on, the hunters left one more time, for ''the big one.''

For 90 minutes, they hiked across the muskeg but decided then to wait, not chase. They split up on two ridges separated by a natural caribou corridor. Reb hunkered down on his ridges peak while Ben scanned from his vantage point. The majestic bulls were in no danger; everything was visible for miles across the unbroken hills. Half dazed by the sun, Ben opened his lunch and began munching.

Startling him out of his stupor, a medium-sized caribou, driven wild by the warble flies, ran straight for him on the ridge. He ducked behind a bush, but the caribou had spotted him against the horizon. ''Well, that's it,'' Ben sighed, having carelessly let himself be ''sky-lined.'' But the caribou was in front of his dad's ridge, running toward Ben, 200 yards away. He didn't dare risk drawing his bow, but let the bull pass, giving him a 50-yard berth.

Through the sights of his 50-yard pin, he moved his bow in sync with the running caribou, then aimed just above his back. ''Yo!'' he yelled. ''Hey!'' The animal, startled, turned. Ben let his weapon fly. Entering the bull's ribs and passing through his lungs in one shot, the arrow, incredibly, did the job.

''We got a downed caribou!'' Ben yelled but his voice drifted out over the open tundra. Hearing something, Reb walked laconically toward his son, sure they were going to stalk another missed caribou.

''Well,'' he said, scanning the horizon, ''Where?''

''There's a sleeping bull over there!'' Ben pointed, playing the trickster.

''Where?'' his dad craned his neck looking at something strange.

''There's a sleeping caribou, Dad, only 100 yards out. We can still get him.''


''Dad!'' Ben exploded, ''We got a dead caribou!''

Reb's eyes softened as he cuffed Ben affectionately. The two packed the meat back to camp as the golden sunset warmed their faces. The 17-year-old, the son of the ''Trenton hunter'' had closed the gap. He could sit now by Clint's hearth and tell his older brother's son of ''the great one,'' the bull Uncle Ben shot in the Brooks Range in 2001.

Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us