Nine Days in the Chugach: Part I by Adam Smith

 

“Get the **** up!! Come on, you have to stand up!!!”

Blake’s urgent yell was of no help. I had made it 90% of the way across the waist deep, rampant, glacial stream when I went under. It all happened in slow motion. First, I felt the rock start to roll, then my foot missed bottom and kept going, directly downstream. Finally, my calf and hip hit the riverbed; and before I could react I was fully engulfed, pack and all, in the raging torrent.

Immediate panic!

The current tried to sweep me away as it grabbed my pack that acted like a parachute gathering the full force of the turbulent creek. This was it, this was how I was going to go. No bear attack, no plane wreck, no murder in a dark alley. In a glacial stream, in a gorgeous glaciated valley, in the Chugach.

Alright, time to Tarantino you guys here….

Let’s step back to February 2017. I was visiting my birthplace, Kansas, when a buddy of mine asked if I was interested in guiding some veterans on a spring conservation snow goose hunt. Growing up in a family full of servicemen, and with a father whom spent 20+ years serving his country in the Air Force, I have the utmost respect for our servicemen and women. Naturally, I headed out, spending the next five days, scouting and hunting the white devil with some truly remarkable men.

On day two of the hunt we were laying in a milo field when I got the first text. Then within the next hour I received three more texts. During a break in the action I checked my phone thinking I had been added to another one of those irrelevant group chats that blows your phone apart. To my surprise the first text read, “You lucky SOB.” It was from my hunting partner Blake (who was in Afghanistan, also serving our country). I had completely forgotten it was February 17, the day that the Alaska Draw Hunts are released. Instantly I tried to log on to the website to see what had made me a “lucky SOB”, but to no avail due to the spotty cell service. After a little dead time, I “graciously” offered to run into town and grab some food for the guys. Truthfully, I wanted to check the results online. That’s when I found out, that I had drawn a <1% sheep tag in the Chugach Range. I was on cloud nine for the rest of the week.

The following months consisted of scouring maps and collecting information. I booked a date with a pilot in March and things were beginning to take shape. Blake discovered he’d be able to use his R&R time to come back in the middle of his deployment and help me on the hunt which was the final piece to my puzzle. Namely because my other prospective partner, Chris, had drawn a sheep tag for the TMA (Tok Management Area). We obviously would not be hunting together this year!

When August finally rolled around, I packed the truck and began my 18-hour trek to Palmer, AK which was our jumping off point. Upon arrival, I was greeted by very close family friends who opened their house to Blake and I. They prepared us our final home cooked meal before the 14-day excursion. We did our final preparations and packed our bags while enjoying a frosty beverage and glassing sheep from their back deck.

The day before we were to get dropped off, Chris made a day trip up in his Super Cub from Kenai. Being the tremendous man that he is, he flew us all over the area I had my tag for, searching for rams and getting a good feel for the lay of the land. Man, what a game changer that was. Being able to lay eyes on the terrain from the air sure turned out to be our ace in the hole. It gives a guy better perspective and an opportunity to avoid those glacial pools or crevasses that can ruin your plans. Can’t thank Chris enough for his willingness to do that!

The relationships made in the backcountry and the bonding that happens over these white critters are ones that will span the test of time. I am certain over the coming years, Chris will be cashing in on my “I owe you BIG TIME” tab, and to be quite honest with you, I’m going to continue to rack that thing up! The only thing better than owning a plane is having a good buddy that does!

The morning of August 7th rolled around, we hit up McDonald’s for our ceremonial last-morning-in-civilization breakfast, a staple for us. We then we met our pilot at the Palmer Municipal Airport and off into sheep country we went!

Blake went in first…to the wrong strip! We’ll call this SNAFU #1.

I flew in next, and when we went on final I piped up that this was not at all where I wanted to be dropped! The pilot had a chuckle, throttled up the engine and we left Blake standing there, all by himself. I only wish I could have seen the look on his face when we powered up and left him there! Classic!! Later dude!

We flew up the drainage not a mile, but it sure would have been a treat (note sarcasm) to bushwhack through all those alders had I not spoken up and settled for the first strip… I pointed out where I’d been thinking and our pilot agreed it was a much better idea! We circled it once and down we went. A bumpy landing, but we were in, what a difference those tundra tires make!

I unloaded and helped turn the airplane around so he could pick up Blake and bring him to the correct strip. This was a little mishap in the grand scheme of things, however I learned a valuable lesson. It serves you well to send a pin or even better, coordinates, to show the pilot exactly where you want to be dropped.

Once Blake was with me at the correct strip, we said our goodbyes to the pilot. It was time to get to work. We saddled up and headed for the glacier. Of course, before we could find our way onto the glacier, we had to do a little ol’ fashion alder bashing. Oh, what fun!! If you have never been into the north country and experienced such a gift, just imagine a 50 to 60-pound pack on your back and walking through an endless jungle gym. There’s enough ducking, bending, swinging around, stepping over, and tripping on limbs to keep a gymnast on their toes! Alders are a real patience tester. They certainly belittle the chore of wading through plum thickets filled with locust trees back in Kansas whilst hunting pheasants and quail! Alders are one of those things that can’t be explained. One simply must get into the middle of them to truly appreciate the grit required to withstand a good alder bashing and remain in high spirits.

We eventually found the creek bed we were looking for, which dumped out of the glacier in what we decided would be a decent spot to start our ascent.

Enter stage right, SNAFU #2.

We found the creek, but needed to drop down into it. The sides of the creek were steep, and mostly open rock faces, but we found a spot that looked like a scree slide entrance to the bottom. Only a 25-30 foot decent to hit the creek bed… doesn’t sound too tough, does it? At least not until you slip and your pack wrenches you around, sending you tumbling head first down into the boulder ridden slew.

Going first, Blake made the transition from the alder enveloped forest floor onto the scree slide without incident; however, he made a critical step that I failed to see. This was my undoing. I gave him room and once he was clear, I made my move. Holding onto an alder branch with both hands, and my feet down on the slide, I situated my ice axe and trekking pole. Before my left foot even hit the ground, the little knob I was standing on with my right foot gave way. I began my tumble down the slide.

Now for those of you wondering: “You were on scree how did you fall?”

Typically, yes, scree is loose gravel/silt that you can sink into and kind of ride down like you’re walking through sand. However, what appeared to be scree was a very hard and dry slide with absolutely no give to it whatsoever.

Immediately, I tried to self-arrest with my ice axe, however, the ground was too hard. The ice axe was skipping off the ground tearing up my knuckles. That’s when I lost control. I was on my right hip sliding feet first downhill when I hit a boulder that was mostly contained beneath the surface, but jetted out enough to create a bit of a shelf. Directly below this rock was a steeper grade. When I hit the rock, it threw me head first down the mountain. For visual purposes, I was now in a Pete Rose style headfirst slide.

I saw a limb sticking out of the hill 1/3 of the way from the bottom, my last chance before I crashed headfirst into the boulders in the creek bed. I reached for it and miraculously grabbed a hold of it! The weight of my body and pack ripped the limb and its roots out of the mountain. Luckily, when I grabbed a hold of the limb it was just enough force to swing my legs around, now I was back in a feet-first slide, riding the limb down the mountain like a firefighter down a fireman’s pole. I hit the bottom feet first and absorbed the impact with my legs.

I sat up and began doing an inventory on my body. I could hear Blake from up above, “Don’t move, I’m coming down.” I sat there, beginning to wiggle fingers and toes then worked my way up to the bigger joints. Everything felt okay, granted the amount of adrenaline that runs through your body shortly after you careen down the mountain out of control, usually masks any injuries. Thankfully, nothing serious, save a few bumps, scrapes, and some bloody knuckles. My biggest concern was my rifle, the only one we had brought on the trip. We looked it over and it appeared unharmed.

We sat there and chatted about my careless mistake that could have cost us the hunt only a few hours into the journey! We downed some fluids, had a snack and went back to the grindstone. We reached the glacier shortly after, where we stumbled upon the easiest spot to get on a glacier Blake had ever found. This was my first glacier based hunt, so I could not truly grasp how sweet of a find this was!

After a few hours of glacier travel, we encountered our first big obstacle. It was a spot where the glacier had receded due to the glacial stream cutting away at the edge of the glacier for years and years. It was basically a 100+ foot wall of beautiful deep blue ice. After spending a few minutes picking out a route, we began a slight back track and worked our way around the potential death trap. We found a spot to get off the ice to spend the night on a saddle above the glacier, all the while gaining a little vertical so we could get a better view into the country we would access once back on the glacier.

The exit off the glacier was a bit sketchy, pleasantly steep, with more of the hard-packed dry slide nonsense I came to love so much on this trip. We made it off without incident and got camp setup with plenty of light left in the day. That night we watched a big picturesque billy above camp and counted as many as 14 goats around the glacier, nine of them being nannies and kids, and five being billies. We also saw one black bear below us out on the moraine eating berries. However, still no sheep. 

At the end of day one we had made it from the strip and onto the glacier. We’d covered roughly three miles but that three quarters of a mile of alder bashing should have counted as one and a half!

Day two, we awoke to a gorgeous morning. The sun was out, and we had miles to put behind us. We had seen a pile of white dots down the glacier just before bed and decided that we needed to put eyes on those dots and figure out what they were. By the numbers, I had decided they were ewes and lambs. Only time would only tell.

It was a hot, muggy day of glacier travel with multiple breaks. We were mainly on rocks the entire time, no real ice to deal with until we had to get off the glacier that evening. Through the course of the day we saw 5 black bears and 1 billy. He was a nice one, hanging out all by himself in some cliffs where only goats belonged.

Upon reaching the spot we wanted to set camp, we had to find a way off the glacier, which proved a daunting task.  We did a little back tracking and simply decided it was time to strap on the crampons and skirt down the ice.

Blake made it down unscathed, but as the story goes guess who slid down on his hip by accident? THIS GUY! I’d never fallen, slid, or had any issues before this hunt. This was getting ridiculous. I think what happened was, after my earlier fall I got into my head, and I’d subconsciously decided to prove to myself that I could handle being in the nasty country we were in. It is always of the utmost importance to exercise caution and listen to that little voice inside your head. That little voice has never steered me wrong. (This may be because that little voice is in the sound of my fiancé’s voice and not my own!).

Upon getting off the glacier, we set up camp on a small bench overlooking the rest of the glacier and some of the finest country I had ever laid eyes on. I believe that some of God’s finest work was done in the Chugach. Once camp was made, we glassed until late in the evening. Boy, we sure did find a lot of rocks that looked just like sheep!! So many “sheep rocks” back in that drainage!! I am certain any sheep or goat hunter can relate and chuckle at that one. Who makes white rocks? And where are they? I’d love to have a chat with them!

We went to bed with high hopes as the next day was August 9th, the eve of opening day, although we had not seen a sheep yet. But, we knew they had to be somewhere!

We woke up on day three and had a quick breakfast before loading our packs for a potential stay up high under the tarp if we found rams. We headed up to check out the bowl that was behind camp. After a 45-minute ball buster up a scree slide, we topped out and could walk the ridge the rest of the way. Once we hit the ridgeline, we worked slow and methodically, being sure to see everything ahead of and below us before moving on. Everything—in true Chugach fashion—was quite crumbly and unstable. Upon cliffing out, we dropped the packs to do some glassing and discuss our next move. From this new vantage point we could see the end of the glaciated valley, and the bowl ahead of and below us. No sheep. Talk about discouraging.

We sat there, had a snack and began to discuss our next move as we watched a pair of nannies with their kids a couple hundred feet below us. They were working their way up the creek bed, when one nanny decided it was time for a nap. She made her bed right there next to the creek and the other three goats followed suit.

However, we weren’t there for goats. We decided that we had seen enough of this drainage and since the bowl we were in appeared to be the last “sheepy” spot in this valley, it was time to make a BIG move. This was hard for me to commit too. Not because I didn’t want to make a big move, I did. This meant we would spend opening day moving on the glacier which more than likely meant it’d be a “moving day” and not a hunting day.

Mistakes happen, and being only a few days into the hunt, we had time to make this right. So, let’s backtrack a bit. The big mistake happened when I flew with Chris to scout. We had flown down this drainage and seen a bunch of white dots low next to the glacier. We were low on av-gas and needed to start heading home, so no circling to get a positive ID on the white critters being sheep and not goats. With the number of dots, I figured it was a group of ewes and lambs. Mostly because I had never seen a group of goats that big, and I assumed there was no way there could be 30+ goats on a slide that low.

I am here to tell you it absolutely can be. It was a big nursery group of goats. I was amazed at how many goats were living in the area, and astounded at how low on the hill they were! If a guy was on the glacier directly across from that slide, he would have had a downhill shot. Seeing goats this low, had us worried we had totally skipped sheep country and were 100% in goat country. Back to camp we went.

Once back at camp, we pulled out the map and devised a plan. We would backtrack five miles and head up the opposite fork of the glacier, if we could find a reliable route.

We spent the rest of the day fueling up on fluids, glassing and relaxing as we planned to spend all day, rain or shine on August 10th moving back down towards the fork of the glacier. As we killed time that night, we had the opportunity to locate the massive group of goats and take plenty of video and pictures for the better part of an hour. We turned into bed that night anxious to get moving back down the glacier, we had some ground to cover.

Posted by jomh