There's the confluence of the rivers," called out Dave Bogart over the steady drone of the Cessna 180's engine. "So keep an eye out for the camp, which is situated on a knob above and slightly to the northwest." He had plotted our course on a topo map he kept at the ready and examined frequently as we flew a distance of some 150 miles through a mountainous, isolated swath of south-central Alaska on a mission to drop me at a remote hunting camp. Bogart is a FedEx pilot by profession, as well as an avid and talented bush pilot. My taxi into the wilds had a single engine, 230 horsepower, and 19-foot floats beneath its belly. A lake would be our landing strip.
Alaska's huge land mass is one-fifth the size of all the other states combined, yet it has a very small system of paved roads and areas served by tarmac, sea, or river. The remainder can be reached only by foot, four-wheeler, dogsled, snow machine, or air, which accounts for Alaska's extremely well-developed bush air service. While it might seem a novelty, it is in fact a necessity and a way of life for many.
My taxi to the wilds had a single engine and 230 hp. A lake would be our landing strip.
Another basic need and lifestyle for many residents is hunting and fishing. Both are supported by plentiful game, including moose, caribou, and bear, as well as some of the world's top supply of salmon, halibut, and crab, along with other seafood and freshwater fish that are a source of income as well as food for people and sled dogs. In much of Alaska, 4x4s not only are a means of transportation, but having the right vehicle and driving skills can mean the difference between life and death.
On this journey, I would join good friends Gus Gustafson and his wife Diane Fox on their annual fall hunt. The two-day pack trip would begin by exiting the solo two-lane tarmac that runs east-west in this region, and then traveling along a northerly trajectory of 4WD track chiseled into the rugged and regal landscape, with multiple stream crossings and other off-road challenges, to reach their makeshift hunting camp. They carry in goods and gear to accommodate their self-sufficiency for three weeks, plus emergency supplies, in their purpose-built, heavily-laden tundra buggies.
Along with them were Mark Hansen and Mike Craig, who have been a part of the Gustafson/Fox camp for nearly all the 23 years this couple have been visiting the tundra each fall. All hunt for big game to fill their larders and share with others. This quartet of friends bonded over a number of decades while working as mechanics and welders for Alaska's Public Transit. Now retired, they enjoy each other's company and have the skills needed to craft the buggies that carry them and their gear to camp, haul the big game they shoot back to camp to dress and hang, and pack out their meat and goods at the end of their stay. They are a mobile garage of mechanics.
Bogart and I had been flying for nearly an hour and a half at an elevation of just under 6000 feet. Taking flight from the Meadow Lakes region near Wasilla, we had ascended to an altitude that allowed us to skirt above some of the 5500-foot peaks of the Matanuska Range and thread between the snow-capped summits that rose above us. My trusted pilot dipped the Cessna's wing and we circled back slightly, descending in altitude and scanning the undulating, umber-colored open landscape punctuated by black spruce and magenta and gold-tinted shrubs and sedges.
We quickly found evidence of the hunting camp. From our lofty vantage, it was a miniscule collection of tarps and tents, with the two homemade tundra buggies appearing like mini Matchbox trucks parked alongside the primitive camp on the otherwise barren Arctic terrain. As we buzzed the camp to announce our arrival, my heart raced with excitement. I would soon be living off the grid for a few days, donning heavy long underwear, eating wild game, drinking in the beauty of the landscape by day and other spirits when the darkness fell, telling tall tales by the potbellied stove in the three-dog nights, and sleeping in a tent -- all the while knowing that bears were watching our moves from nearby and awaiting their turn at the "gut pile," where the innards and remnants left after cleaning a killed animal are strewn exactly for this purpose. Breaking bread with the grizzlies in this manner likely means you'll be left alone, but the thought of living among them fascinates and frightens me. My companions, far more experienced in this coexistence, are more cavalier and tell me there are rogue bears just like there are rogue people.
Gustafson, Fox, Hansen, and Craig greeted us as we landed on a nearby lake and motored to the shore. As I waved Bogart off and the ripples on the small lake below the hunt camp cleared, my journey of the heart began. The next days were spent "glassing" for caribou and moose (looking for them through binoculars) and respectfully observing the rich diversity of life in the wilds where the tundra is alive with birds and small animals, Arctic bushes, grasses, and moss painted in fall's palette of muted colors. Sunrise and sunset brought a light show to the snow-capped mountains that ringed the distance -- the Tal-keetnas, Wrangells, and the Alaska range. And evenings were spent by the fire feeling rich in the company of my friends, who plan this stay not only for the meat they can bring home, but for the serenity they find in the wild.
My final night at camp, I offered to stay behind and prepare a spaghetti dinner while the others hung and gutted three caribou they had shot that day. The warmth of the potbellied stove filled the cook tent as the smells of the meal wafted into the frigid Arctic night. Fearing that I could attract a wandering hungry or rogue grizzly, I frequently palmed a .357 Magnum left behind in the event I'd need it for exactly for this purpose. Suddenly, the world went dark with a hiss; the Coleman lantern had run dry of fuel! I twisted my Petzel headlamp on my hat's rim, grabbed the handheld radio, and called out to my friends, "Hey, guys, I'm out of lantern fuel and in the dark," trying to hide my quickly growing anxiety." No worries," came back the reply. "Just go out to Mike's tent and get his LED light."
Easy for them to say, I thought, as they were a quartet of experienced hunters with their guns and the buggies at the ready. I was alone, and there could be an ursus arctos or an ursus horribilis nearby. Pushing back the canvas and stepping into the night, I was awestruck by the view. Stars salted the sky and my fear morphed into joy at my blessing, as I took in the view of the cook tent illuminated by the stovepipe sending sparks into the darkness.
Yes, there could be a bear watching me and the night's splendor from the nearby brush, but ultimately, this was exactly why I was here: to join friends who drive tundra buggies into this small patch of heaven on earth, off the grid in Alaska.
IN THE HUNT Though the annual hunting trip in Alaska is filled with adventure and good t
BUGGY WHIPS Gus borrowed a friend’s tundra buggy, called Squatty, which started out as a
COOK TENT The hunting camp had
a separate tent for cooking meals.
It contained the pot-be