Journal of an Alaska Hunt

We left Farmington, New Mexico on Saturday August 28, 1999 for the trip that we had been planning for the last three years.

Our hunting crew consisted of Sam and Harry (better known as Smut) Smouse, a father and son; Ed and Curtis Owen, another father and son; Rick Arnold, Legrand Jack, Emer Barela and yours truly, Don Miller.

We left Albuquerque for Anchorage, Alaska at 6 am on the following Sunday. What a day! I saw things that I had only read about or seen on television. Glaciers, ice burgs and scenic mountains that would make you gasp in awe. This plus all of the laughter and camaraderie that a person could stand, and all of this was before we got off the plane in Anchorage.

Sunday, August 29, 1999

We met Ed and Curtis in Anchorage. They had been seeing the sights and fishing for a week prior to our arrival. They were kind enough to cart us around to see some of the country side in their rented motor home. Curtis had caught a 28" silver salmon off a fishing boat sometime during the week. Seems that the fishing hadn't been all that good during their sojourn but they had seen more country than most folks.

This country seems to be a land of extremes. From sea level to towering snow capped peaks. Alaska has 17 of the 20 tallest peaks in the USA. Rainfall in some areas exceeds 217 inches per year. Now that's a lot of rain to a New Mexico boy. The vegetation in Anchorage seems to be as diverse as the scenery; from dwarf spruce trees to gaudily colored mushrooms. I can hardly wait to get to hunting camp to see the differences there.

If the rest of the trip goes as well as it has so far, we are going to have a blast. We are all anxious to meet Ralph Miller and crew. From my conversations with him I have him pictured as a giant of a man with a hearty laugh and colorful personality. I'll find out if I'm right in the next day or so.

Monday, August 30, 1999

Pretty much a repeat of yesterday. The highlights being the Anchorage museum and the Alaskan Fur Exchange. (Not to be confused with the Alaskan Bush Company)> If I had it to do over again I would spend only a single day in Anchorage as this seems ample time to see the sights and pick up any supplies that may have been forgotten. Especially if you are wanting to go hunting as badly as we were.

Tuesday, August 31,1999

Left Anchorage (finally) at 11 am. The first glitch crept in at this point as only half of our gear made it to Iliamna. Harry (Smut), Rick, Ed and I felt like we had won the lottery as our gear all made the trip intact. Yet on the other hand we felt a twinge of guilt that our compatriots had to stay in Iliamna overnight.

You haven't lived until you land on a river in a float plane. The flight in to the Nushagak River camp wasn't as rough as I had expected. We saw caribou, moose and a huge brown bear on the trip in, as well as getting a look at the country in general that we would be hunting in. 

On arrival we were greeted by all of the comp personnel, from Ralph Miller (whom I immediately dubbed cousin Ralph or Cuz for short) to the camp cook and all the guides. I have never been so immediately impressed with a person or an operation as I was with Deltana Outfitters. We were made to feel at home and very comfortable.

Since Alaskan game laws forbid hunting on the same day that you fly in, we opted to go fishing after we completed all of our paper work for licenses and fired our rifles to check zeros. No change in mine from New Mexico to Alaska.

The fishing was great! I caught grayling, rainbows and silver salmon the first evening all within 100 yards of camp. The food is good and more than ample, served with the chef's humor and we were regaled with grand stories of the hunt from all. A bit of a sour note was that apparently ERA, the air service from Anchorage to Iliamna tends to leave baggage behind on a regular basis. So for future reference on should keep this in mind and plan accordingly.

We'll go out tomorrow to see what we can see and start this hunt for sure.

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Up at 5 am. Left camp with Billy Molls as guide. Took a boat up the Nushagak River about a mile and a half. Then we walked back into the three wheeler area. Saw a grizzly, 2 black bears and a few caribou with a small bull in the last bunch of 4.

Smut and Rick went with Dave back behind camp to the Sisters area off the Klutipuk. They saw a grizzly, 2 nice bull moose and 9 caribou with 2 shootable bulls in the herd, The caribou were too far to stalk and way too far to shoot. Sam, Emer, Curtis and Legrand all made it in today. After license and sight-in chores they went pike fishing. Talk about some good eating, this is food fit for kings.

Pretty tired tonight. We walked a long way. Billy is quite a young man. He seems to know what he is doing and I'm very comfortable with him and trust his judgment.

Saw and ate blueberries, cranberries and salmon berries. It's no wonder that there are bears all around. 

We walked through where we saw the grizzly earlier. I made sure that my scope was turned all the way down. It wasn't that I was afraid, it just seemed like a real good idea at the time...

Thursday, September 2, 1999

Hunted the fingers and the sisters today. Both Legrand and I are starting to wonder where the caribou are. We saw the bull moose that Smut and Rick saw as well as a couple of cows. Legrand has a moose tag starting the 5th, and found these fellows of great interest. Had a red fox come by us at about 25 yards; paid us no attention at all.

Stepped off in a caribou trail covered with brush and twisted my right knee. Rainy and foggy; we couldn't see much so we came back to camp. One of the guides, Dave, fitted me out with a knee brace that they "just happened to have in camp". I was glad to be able to use it as it made walking a lot easier.

Sam and Emer hunted up river with Art, seeing about 200 head of caribou. Ed stayed in camp and Curtis hunted the three wheeler. Sounds like we are going to have to go up river to get into the caribou. Smut and Rick saw about 50 head with Dave and had a bit of a hair raising experience with a large grizzly. Seems as if they walked up on him in the fog, backed off thinking that the bear would go about his business. When the fog lifted the bear was closer. Dave had Rick fire a round to scare the bear. Apparently this had no effect on the bear as he stood up and looked around. When he dropped back down to all fours, the boys made a calculated retreat. In Smut's words, "he can keep this hillside, cause I'm sure not going to argue with him".

Caught 2 large silver salmon and several Dolly Varden.

Friday, September 3, 1999

What a day! The caribou are certainly on the move. We saw upward of a thousand head. Every time you turn around there is a new bunch to look at. It's fascinating to watch them coming from across the valley, across the river and finally appear like so many gray ghosts in the rain and fog. I have never seen anything like this.

I turned down a fair bull. Billy told me that if I just had to kill him that it would be OK, but more than likely a better bull would come along. 

Smut had a long shot at a bull with a huge shovel. Missed but was happy anyway.

While Smut and company were after the big bull, Legrand, Billy and I watched a small black bear make off with Smut's back pack. It was hilarious! Every time the bear would take a step he'd step on the straps which made his head jerk to the side. At about this time the boys made it back to where they had left their packs. You can imagine the language when all they could see was the hind end of the bear making off with the pack. Now, we are about half a mile away from all of the action, watching through binoculars, yet you can hear what that poor bear is being called even at this distance. Must have been the way the wind was blowing.

On the way back to camp by boat, we watched a huge black bear swim across the river in front of us.

Curtis drew first blood today, with a nice bull and Ed missed a nice one.

Saturday, September 4, 1999

Breakfast before sun-up and the sense of expectation is almost palpable. The seven mile trip up the Chichitna Fork to hunting country was wet and cool enough to make you appreciate your rain gear and extra layer of clothing.

Legrand and I With Billy as guide decided to watch the river crossings for caribou. Smut, Rick and Dave went to the backside of the peaks where the bear stole the pack. The large herds visible across the river and on the far side of the valley weren't in evidence as often as they were yesterday. However, there were enough to keep a person watchful. We watched several herds of 50 to 100 head cross the valley toward us then at the last minute veer up or down steam without crossing to our side.

Legrand spotted a large grizzly across the river. We speculated if it was the one that made memories for Smut and Rick. I spotted a black bear in roughly the same area.

Finally a herd came to us with a decent bull in the bunch. It was Legrand's day to shoot first, but being the gentleman hunter that he is, he asked me if I wanted to try for the bull. To make a long story shorter, a cow or more were always blocking the shot. Quite exciting but no shooting.

After lunch and with a break in the weather, actual sunshine, my hunting companions took advantage of the warmth to catch a cat nap. Now me being dedicated and serious person that I am, stayed awake. Actually I did my dozing when it was raining. At about 2 pm I noticed what I thought was a white caribou. Turned out to be a wolf. I flipped a pebble at Billy to get his attention. He came alive very professionally, no sudden movement, just totally alert. He in turn woke up Legrand who had trouble seeing the wolf. All this time Mr. Wolf is coming closer at a leisurely pace, stopping often to look and mark his trail. Finally Legrand came over in front of me and I set his head in the right direction. The wolf came toward us onto the bench just below us at about 200 yards and Legrand harvested his first wolf.

After all of the picture taking and whoopdedooing, we got back to the serious business of caribou watching. At about 4:30 pm we spotted a herd of about 30 to 40 caribou about 2 miles away across the river valley. They looked as if they might cross to our side but went 
down river, turned and came back up the river and would ya look at that - here they come! 
I can remember hearing them crossing the river at some 400 yards away. While all of this watching was going on we had noted a pretty good bull in the bunch. He seemed wide enough, tall enough, had good bezes and fair shovel. Since Legrand had put his caribou tag on the wolf it was my shot again. (Bless you Legrand).

As Billy helped me position for a shot we looked up to where we had left our packs and there was a black bear headed for the packs from the other side. At about this time the caribou started out into the open area and I couldn't tell you what happened to the black bear, but the packs were where we had left them and hadn't been disturbed when we came back for them later.

I found a good rock to sit down behind and braced my foot on. I drew a bead on the bull that we had watched for so long. At this closer distance he looked even more impressive than he did before he crossed the river. 

Billy asked me, "Are you on him?" I said, "yes". Billy said, "He's the one nodding his head". I said, "I'm on him". At about this time I slipped the safety off my 8MM Remington Magnum. Billy hissed, "Don't shoot"> A cow was walking between the bull and me. When the cow stepped past the bull Billy said, "take him". I squeezed the trigger and at the sound of the shot all hell broke loose in the caribou herd. Caribou scattered like a school of minnows and regrouped just as fast. They ran up the hill, turned and ran back down within fifty yards of us. I had chambered another round but couldn't get another shot since the bull was in the middle of the her. They ran down in front of Legrand at about a hundred yards and came back in front of us again. This time the buss wasn't with them. I told Billy, "he's down". He asked, "How do you know that"? I said, "I know that I didn't miss him at that range and he wasn't in the herd when they passed us this last time".

Sure enough when we stood up we could see one side of the bull's antlers rising above the tundra. My 185 grain hand load had centered both lungs at a range of about 200 yards and had damaged no edible meat.

I will never forget the moments spent with this magnificent animal while Legrand and Billy went to get the packs. The feelings of respect for the bull and the sheer exhilaration of having succeeded in fulfilling my Alaskan dream, were overwhelming. I thought of all the miles that the bull had covered to meet me and of the planning and friends that had made this dream come true.

After the caping and butchering chores were completed we headed down the hill to the boat to go back to camp. I had the ribs, loins, cape, neck meat and my rifle to a load of about 65 pounds. Billy, on the other hand, had all the rest of the meat and his rifle for a load of about 125 pounds. Legrand had the antlers and the rest of the gear that we had up on the hill. While I'm trying to recover from the roughest 600 yards I've covered in awhile, here comes Billy back with the wolf that was 63 inched from nose to tail tip and in excess of a hundred pounds and Billy isn't even sweating. Young Billy is quite a fellow.

My bull had a total of 32 points and double shovels with a rough score of about 330. Not a tremendous bull, but I am happy with him.

Back at camp we hung meat, cleaned guns and so on. Ed, Emer and company showed up with a very nice bull that Ed had accounted for. Now you have to know that Ed is 69 years young. This Deltana Bunch can take most anyone and put him or her on game in shoot able circumstances. At about 9 pm Rick and Smut came in with Dave, bring in Rick's bull, a little smaller but a trophy all the same.

Sitting around the cook tent with Cuz Ralph and crew, the subject of "what is a trophy" came up. I have to agree with Ralph and Jim. A trophy is in the eye of the person who takes it. No more and no less, whether it is a record book contender or not makes no difference as long as the person is happy with their accomplishment.

After our usual delicious supper, all of the yarns and a sip of the nectar, this fellow was more than ready for bed.

Sunday, September 5, 1999

Stayed in camp with Rick, Ed and Curtis. Didn't realize how tired I was until this morning when I found I'd rather sleep than get up to eat breakfast.

Today was the opener for moose. Legrand took off up the Klutipuk with Billy and Ben. They will spend a couple of nights in a spike camp to see if they can catch up with a bull moose.

Smut and Emer came in at about 6 pm with Art. They had each taken a nice bull. According to Smut, even though his bull wasn't huge he had a "cut" very symmetrical rack and was doubled shoveled. So far the caribou gods have frowned on Sam, as he hasn't seen anything shoot able yet.

Caught some real nice dollies, grayling and a pike today. Rick caught a rainbow in the 22 to 24 inch range.

We are each taking a 70# box of meat home. These boys pack it in waxed cardboard boxes and band it before it ever leaves camp. Sure beats the hell out of some of the meat I saw at Iliamna. A lot of it was wrapped in plastic fly blown meat bags or nothing at all. It's no wonder that some folks don't like game meat. Ralph and I agree on the fact that the end result off the stove is a direct result of the care that the meat receives in the field. The mat that we can't take home with us will be donated to an Indian village down stream about ten miles.

Monday, September 6, 1999

Sam scored on a nice bull today. Seems that they were in the boat headed back to camp after a day of fruitless moose hunting when they came upon these caribou crossing the river. The luck of the Smouse ran true again. Sam dropped the bull with one shot and all they had to do to prep him for cleaning was to float him down stream to a handy sand bar. Jim and Art showed up from a trip to the upper spike camp. Sam borrowed a fishing rod and caught grayling while the crew tended to the caribou.

We've been camped at about 400 feet of elevation and hunting at 800 to 1000 feet. It's a far cry from the 6000 to 10,000 feet that we normally hunt mule deer and elk at. The temperature has been cool in the mid 40's to cooler at night. It has rained all but the last day or so.

Tuesday, September 7, 1999

I turned 49 in the 49th stat today. Now let me tell you, this is a class act around this camp. Al, the cook, made me a birthday cake and everyone sang. Don't know of many outfitters that would got or let his troops go to the trouble these fine people have, to show our party a wonderful time. I can not mention the smuggling act that Smut did bringing in a birthday present from my lovely and patient wife, Laurie.

No game in camp today. Legrand and company returned from the wilds of the Klutipuk with no moose. Saw several but first on thing then another conspired to keep the animals walking.

Smut and I helped out in the meat tent today. Ground burger and made several batches of sausage for the incoming hunters. After we finished up Jim took us pike fishing. Had a ball. Either Smut or I had a fish on about every cast. Jim told us that he had considered himself a pike fisherman until he met us. He finally got into them and then the fun really began. It was common for all of us to have fish on at the same time. Now there was absolutely no laughing or teasing going on in that boat and there was absolutely no tall tale telling going on that night in the cook tent. What a day! I'll never forget the way the pike made vees in the water accompanied by Smut and Jim's them from Jaws. My best fish was a 7 to 8 pounder. Jim's was a 10+ pounder and Smut's was 6 to 7 pounder. We even got to name a secret pike hole. Hopefully the JDS hole will produce for Jim and other lovers of the outdoors for years to come.

Decided to leave my antlers and cape with Art Hirschel, Ralph's resident taxidermist, for mounting. He is going to mount Legrand's wolf as well as Ed and Emer's caribou. I'm constantly surprised at the level of service provided by Deltana Outfitters. Not only are we well fed, bathed, escorted to and from the field, but taxidermy services?! All I can say is "go, Cuz Ralph, go!"

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

We're returning to the real world today. Everyone is packing or packed. We have exchanged addresses with all of the Deltana crew. It's saddening to know that the "dream" is about over and that I may never see any of these fine Alaskans again. Like hell, I'm coming back one day!

We were all packed and ready to go, when someone hollered that there were caribou in the river. This set off a general frenzy in camp, but for Legrand especially. I can still see him clad in his red plaid sweat pants, tennis shoes and no socks and a t-shirt. He comes boiling out of his tent with his rifle in one hand and handful of ammo in the other. By the time he gets back to the river, the caribou have crossed and headed towards the Sisters. Legrand and Billy give chase. After a time and counting four shots, Ralph, Jim, Smut and I took packs in hand and went to carry in the bull. We found a very tired and slightly worse for wear Legrand coming back toward camp. He had indeed filled his caribou tag and made our New Mexico crew a complete success story. We had now harvested 8 caribou and 1 wolf for 8 hunters.

Spent the night in Iliamna after bidding our friends farewell. Grams Bed and Breakfast is clean and the food is good. The showers were linger than those at camp but I don't think they were anymore appreciated.

Thursday, September 9, 1999

Back in Anchorage we completed our shopping for presents for those left at home.

Friday, September 10, 1999

Back in New Mexico after the 3 hour drive back to Farmington from Albuquerque we are all glad to see the lights and people of home.

To recap this all to short time in Alaska, I'd have to say that it could not have been as much fun or as successful without Ralph Miller and his merry band.

Where else can you hunt your butt off with success, have a hot shower, a good meal, work as hard or as little as you wish, catch fish hand over fist and then go to bed with a clear conscience? To do that many things in one day should make a person feel like he's guilty of something.

I don't know what other outfitters do for their clients, but I do know that I'm spoiled and other folks will have a high mark to reach, to equal the service of Ralph Miller and his Deltana crew.

Don Miller
Flora Vista, New Mexico




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