AN HONEST TO GOD GRIZ


It had been a good morning outing: we saw 18 Musk Oxen from 200 meters, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, which had possibly been on the Platte River last April, when I was there as a tour guide, and found a few blueberries to boot.  We had flown across the Kobuk Delta from Kotzebue, Alaska, where we had arrived the day before.  I wanted to show my wife some of the places in “The Great Land” I have seen during my seven backpack trips.  The last one was a year ago in the Wulik Mountains, 150 km north of Kotzebue.  It was a good trip, but what made it special were neither the rivers, as nice as they were, nor the peaks that few people ever see, let alone hike in, up and around. No, it was seeing Musk Oxen on Cape Kreusenstern after the trip, and I had to make it happen.

Wulik Peaks backpack, August 2014

Wulik Peaks backpack, August 2014

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River in the Wuliks

While backpacking, I had heard there were Musk Ox out there, and the pilots would take us by them on the return flight.  That had me excited, for I have wanted to see Musk Ox for many years.  I knew if I didn’t see them on this hike, I might never.  However, we didn’t detour to see them on the trip back.  Pilots are busy, summer is when they make a living. Disappointed, I wasn’t about to quit.

After landing and unloading, I went to the office and asked about flights to see Musk Ox.  “Sure, they’re right over on Kreusenstern. When do you want to go?”  I got one woman on the trip to split the cost with me, and we flew over that afternoon.  We were on the ground briefly, not too close, but close enough.  I saw them. That mattered.

My wife and I planned a short Alaska trip to see Musk Ox and bears, starting at Kotzebue for the former, then down to Homer and over to Lake Clark for the latter.  In Kotzeube, we had a chance to see bears down the coast, but the absence of any whale carcasses meant no bears. That happens. I’m impatient and often complain, but I accept Alaska for what it is.  I deal with the weather better up there, stating “it’s Alaska.” My default expectation is to treat any wildlife sighting as a gift.  I expect little, yet I have seen a couple of wolverine, a couple dozen Griz, a couple thousand Dall sheep, and a couple tens of thousands of caribou.  I’ve been lucky.  But I’ve made my luck, not waiting until I was too old to carry 60 pounds needed to backpack Alaska.

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Musk Ox hair, with scat present.

We landed out on the tundra in overcast 50 degree weather, with 20 mph winds.  My wife and I started to walk towards the musk oxen, dots a mile away.  It was beautiful out there; I found blueberries, musk oxen hair, and flowers on the tundra.  Suddenly, I heard a sound behind me that I identified even as I turned my head:  two Lesser Sandhill Cranes.  It was the furthest north and west I had ever seen cranes, half again more latitude and a sixth of the way around the world from Nebraska.  That was special.  So were the musk ox.  We got within 200 yards without disturbing them.  With binoculars and a 50 x camera lens, we viewed 18, including several young. We were thrilled.

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Lesser Sandhill Crane.

Musk Ox

Musk Ox

Sometimes, out of focus shots capture things that make the picture.  The eyes were remarkable.

Sometimes, out of focus shots capture things that make the picture. The eyes were remarkable.

Young one with mother

Young one with mother

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Pair of Musk ox. The one on the left kept pushing at the larger one to her (presumably) left.

Part of the herd.

Part of the herd.

Returning to the plane, I looked across at Cape Kreusenstern, beautiful rock that for 6000 years Alaskan natives had seen as they travelled up and down the coast, finding seals in the winter, other game and berries in the summer.  The pilot asked us what we wanted to do next, and well, I wanted to fly by Cape Kreusenstern, but….nah, we would flying back. There wasn’t anything else out here to see.  Chartering a plane and pilot isn’t cheap, but the time on the ground wasn’t as expensive, and a half hour of it was outright free.  Besides, I was already out here, and I would likely never come here again.  Maybe I might, but my body had recently had other intentions, and I’m not placing any bets.  I looked at the Cape again, as the plane started to taxi on the tundra, and then I tapped the pilot on the shoulder:  “Could we fly by Cape Kreusenstern?”

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Cape Kreusenstern.

He nodded.

We flew north a few miles then east across the water to land.  As we flew inland holding the same altitude, the land came up to meet us.  I realized we weren’t going to fly along the Cape but rather towards it and inland.  Well, no matter.  I was enjoying the tundra below me.  I looked out the port window and saw a single caribou.  It was small, even with the distance factored in.  I told the pilot and my wife, who was in the co-pilot’s seat.  I’m not a good spotter of wildlife, but Jared, the pilot, was looking, and he hadn’t seen it.  I pointed behind us.

Jared banked steeply to starboard, swinging around, so my wife could see the caribou.  I remembered the first time I saw Caribou from a plane, back in 2008 in ANWR, and I was thrilled.  I’ve seen thousands since; I’ve had them walk right by me.  I wanted this memory for my wife.  But there was something else out there, too, and when I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it. I tried convincing myself it wasn’t.  But it was.

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Caribou, Aichilik River, ANWR; June 2009. No telephoto.

A bear.  An honest to God griz.  Hunting the caribou.

We circled again, saw the bear, who promptly headed towards some bushes.  Jared hadn’t intended to disturb him; he had just granted an old guy’s wish to fly by Cape Kreusenstern.  Wow.  First the Cranes, then Musk Ox, a caribou for my wife to see, just one, being hunted by a bear!  When an Alaskan bush pilot is excited about a spotting, you can be sure you’ve seen something special, in case you haven’t ever seen a bear go after a caribou.  I hadn’t, and I’ve seen plenty of both up here.

I still don’t know why I asked to go to see Cape Kreusenstern.  While we slowly taxied along the tundra, I told myself twice it didn’t matter, but some feeling inside told me to go, now.  In Alaska, one flies when the weather is favorable, because it may not be favorable tomorrow. In Alaska, I took backpacking trips when my health was fine, because it might not be fine next year.  I had wanted to see the Cape, for whatever reason, and the feeling inside me finally got my attention and said, YES, THIS IS THE TIME. IT MAY NEVER BE THE RIGHT TIME AGAIN.

Ironically, I never did fly along the rock face of Cape Kreusenstern, but in my mind, the rock face I saw from the distance will always remind me of a special day, one that three of us will always remember:

“Mike made a suggestion we fly by the Cape.  We did it and went inland when suddenly he saw a lone caribou,  As we turned, damned if there wasn’t a bear, hunting him.  Right by Kreusenstern.”

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