“No one, but he who has partaken thereof, can understand the keen delight of hunting in lonely lands.” -Theodore Roosevelt
After spending the last night in the trappers cabin, there was not much to gather and clean up but our scattered gear, empty candy wrappers, and the leftover bones from the snowshoe hare we snacked on last night. The unforgiving cold of the Alaska night makes us grateful for the warm kiss of sunrise as it breaks the silence of night. A few days before, JD and I had set out to check the traplines along the way to the cabin. And as we selectively covered certain ground in the pursuit of ptarmigan, we held hopeful anticipation of calling in some predators along the way. It truly is difficult for me to imagine a better way to spend the short daylight winter hours of Alaska than in the backcountry surrounded by the sounds of wilderness and touch of the winter winds.
This trip most often always requires snowmobile travel, but this year’s warmer winter allowed us to ride in the entire way on our ATVs. In this moment of tracking, we become wildly aware of the raw capacity of our human senses. We are unfettered by the chilling bite of the snowy wind, our surrounding elements, the hunger that’s building in our bellies, and the fatigue that’s beginning to restrain our muscles. These expeditions are not to be taken lightly. Lonely lands are calculating, demanding, and nobody is there to save you. This is unspoiled earth. During the ride in, we spot signs of wolves and the fresh tracks in the snow give us hope that they are still near. We set up and wait in the shadows of a tree line on an adjacent hillside. I chose to set up a bit higher on the hill where I could sit next to a tree trunk in the cover of low hanging branches. I haven’t put the crosshairs on a predator since September, after taking down a brown bear that roamed onto our trail as JD and I packed out the hind quarters of the bull moose.
Alaskan predators are many and they compete for the same resources as those of us who hunt and ﬁsh for what we eat. While the lynx and coyotes prey on grouse, ptarmigan, and rabbits, the brown bear, black bear, and wolves take down moose, caribou, and Sitka black-tailed deer throughout the state. Predator hunting is a controversial and complex issue in Alaska and it’s something that I have mixed feelings about. I tend to stay away from hunting animals that I do not plan on eating. However, I do so on occasion, as I believe in the necessity of helping manage predator populations in areas where my community hunts for subsistence.
Our long winter months provide a rare opportunity to witness these predators standing in the snowy backdrop or posing out in the open, ready to pounce on smaller prey. Their instinctive predator skills seem to never fade. A few hours have passed since setting up the call. I catch a glimpse of a coyote moving across some bottom land. I slowly swivel my CHAMA Chair as I track him through my scope. This yote looks young and no more than 30 pounds. As I sit at the ready, I hold, waiting for it to take a few more steps into the open. My own instinctive predator skills are dialed in and I tune out everything else to ensure a swift, clean shot. Suddenly, the crack of a rifle shot from a few trees over breaks the silence. JD has taken the first shot. I see the snow pop off the ground just below the coyote. I wait a second to hear JDs second shot but just like that, the coyote vanishes like a ghost. These predators are as keen to their surroundings as we like to think we are.
Slightly discouraged, but grateful for the hunt, I packed up my riﬂe, CHAMA, and camera bag and head back to the ATVs. “Time for some birds?” I ask as JD walks up. “Oh yeah!”. In less than an hour we bag a couple of hares and enough ptarmigan to head home with. I thank God for these days, our ability, and the fertile lonely lands He gave us.