A hunter scans the mountains for dots hoping they will turn into a caribou. With only 250 available permits and a population that fluctuates between 200 and 450, the chances of being able to harvest a caribous in the Kenai Mountain Herd are slim.
Photo by Mark Quiner
I was ready to see some blood.
Far from my Iowa roots, I puffed up an old mining trail in the Kenai Mountains short on breath, long on crazy ideas from old northern tales. After many false summits, I reached a crest and started to run and yell excited about what may be on the other side.
Then the seasoned Alaska veteran I was with pulled the reigns, reminding me to hush when breaking new territory. Maybe, he said, we would find an animal on the other side.
Then he shared some more wisdom: “A lot of people think it’s about killing an animal,” he said as he scanned the facing mountains with some binoculars. “It’s about the journey.”
I stood corrected, if not a little wiser.
An aspiring tell-all reporter, I was fortunate enough to be invited along on an elite Alaska event cloaked in secrecy and slim odds: a hunt for a caribou in the Kenai Mountain Herd with the Alaska veteran who drew, in a lottery drawing, one of 250 permits.
The conditions for accompanying him were simple: do not tell where we looked for the caribou and do not give his name.
The Kenai Mountain herd has not always been here. It was introduced in the area in 1965, according to Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna. Its population generally fluctuates between 200 and 450 animals, he said.
In addition to this herd, there are three other caribou herds on the Kenai Peninsula. Twenty-five permits are issued for the Killey River Herd and none are currently issued for the Lowlands and Fox River herds, he said, adding that their populations are too low.
Selinger said a harvest helps achieve management goals, but the herd will survive without one.
“We don’t have to harvest, but the opportunity is there,” he said.
Few had the chance to actually participate in the Kenai Mountain hunt. Even fewer would have the chance to see an animal.
Selinger said that, on average, about 20 caribou are harvested from this herd each year.
“The success rate is extremely low,” Selinger said, pointing out there is not motorized access to the herd.
Our chances of killing one did not seem likely.
As we headed into the mountains, we hoped to do some wildlife viewing along the way. We ticked black bear, sheep, goats, and a brown bear with two cubs off of our list all before we began the hunt but no caribou.
The hunter had been trying for weeks to bag one. The first day he set out to hunt he had his chance. Not wanting to steal away the opportunity for some adventures in coming weeks, he passed, hoping for more days wandering through the mountains looking. Since then, no luck.
Before the hunt, I asked him where he goes looking.
“No-name creek,” he would reply without cracking a smile.
So the rules were set and his goals made known. But I seemed to forget the goal, as my desire to help butcher a fallen caribou and pack it out moved to the front of my mind.
The hunter was enjoying the journey. He also, however, wanted some meat for his freezer.
The rough trail we used hoping to access a caribou had also been used to access some old mines. Pictured is just one of the mines along the route.
Photo by Mark Quiner
After we reached the end of the mining trail, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides with mountains and vistas. One direction was the road, with a layer of clouds in the distance. Hiking along the side of the mountain, I started to think the going might get a little easier as we skirted along the top of the ridge to the next valley. But for the hunter, that was the time to really slow down.
Every time we went around a bend, he would stop, pull out the binoculars and scan the facing mountains, separated by long, deep valleys. What, I wondered, would we do if he saw one on the other side?
Soon we found a rock outcrop to break for lunch and devote some time to spotting wildlife particularly a caribou. The hunter scanned the scenery, looking at dots he hoped would turn into what he wanted.
I couldn’t tell what we were looking for. All I could see were green, brown and red dots everywhere. The chances of actually spotting an animal seemed slim.
But as I looked north, the clouds cleared, giving us a view of Mt. McKinley as we ate some sandwiches. When we started moving again, we felt sluggish as we lost altitude coming down from the ridge.
We had a decision to make: should we hike to the top of the next mountain and keep looking? Or should we continue a descent back to the road?
At this point, it was about 4 p.m. and we still had energy to continue. Knowing daylight would soon be gone, we decided to head back to the car. We were going to have to do some bushwhacking and stream crossing on our way, possibly giving up our chance of killing an animal.
Our chosen route included crossing a boulder field and pushing through dense brush, creeks and devil’s club not desirable on the tail end of the journey.
Walking through the boulder field, we scanned the ground hoping not to trip. Then we spotted something that looked like a caribou track. The hunter started scanning the hillside again, still hoping to find his animal.
By now, my interest in helping butcher a caribou was gone, my vision shifted to finding the road and the truck. As he looked high in the sky where we had just descended, I wondered what he would do if he spotted one at the top.
He said he would probably go up, shoot it and drag it back down by its antlers.
Suddenly, I started questioning whether I would make it to work in the morning, as I pictured carrying a caribou quarter in my pack while breaking a trail through the alders.
Luckily, I never found out. Daylight was fading fast, no caribou was spotted and we realized our chosen route had too many obstacles to continue.
Eying a line in the brush on the other side of the creek, we decided to make a crossing, hoping to find a more clear path.
Studying slick rocks and guarding my camera, I hopped across the stream, now singularly focused on the clock which had just struck 7:30 p.m. the fading daylight and being done with the hike.
We scored. On the other side we found just enough space left on an overgrown trail to guide us back to the road where we would begin a dark three-mile walk back to the truck.
“There’s old trails all over these hills,” the hunter said, musing on the history of the old mines, trails and our nearly empty packs.
We never did find that caribou.
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