Alaska Wild in a Cessna 185
While there is no fuel at the airport, you can taxi off airport into “town,” where there is a gas station that also sells avgas. August is a busier time for aircraft traffic into Circle City, and the locals hardly give you a second look as you taxi down the road. With our longer leg behind us, we did our best to make a quick turn in Circle City and head out to our destination in the Brooks Range, about 200 miles farther north. We were hoping to get on the ground before daytime heating caused the air to deteriorate too much back in the mountains. An additional concern was the bad weather forecast for the weekend — if we couldn’t get in that afternoon, we might be sitting around a few days on a gravel bar or elsewhere waiting to get into the Brooks.
Climbing out of Circle City, we crossed the Yukon River and then passed north of the Arctic Circle just east of Fort Yukon, loosely following the Sheenjek River. We could sense the change in seasons, as what was green was now quickly turning brown. Reaching the area we were interested in, my wife, Charlie, circled a one-way strip lying on a riverbank, very reminiscent of Lower Loon in the Idaho backcountry, except half the length. After a few passes she landed, while I flew the area, looking around. I just didn’t get a good feeling about the hunting within reasonable hiking distance of that strip, and we decided to explore an area in a nearby drainage. The air was deteriorating by the minute, and we were burning gas.
Reaching the next area, it was hard to pick out the strip, even though we had a GPS waypoint from having overflown the landing spot just weeks earlier during a previous trip. The wind — 12 gusting 15 — was blowing up drainage, creating turbulence and forcing us to land downhill, with an awkward approach path over an obstacle and against the mountain wall. After a few passes, Charlie landed. It took me several passes just to get the orientation of the strip right, and more passes rolling my tires before I committed to landing. Standard remote Alaska rules applied: Look the strip over well enough to feel like the outcome is not in doubt before committing to the landing, but don’t take all day and a big chunk of your fuel while figuring it out. At that moment, I would have given a lot to be in my Husky, which was left at home, for the 50 knots greater speed of the 185.
Into the Mountains
Not long after I landed, it clouded over and the wind died down. While we were tired from the trip up, we dug into organizing our gear for five days hunting in the surrounding mountains. In Alaska, it is illegal to hunt most big game the same day you fly, but we wanted to get settled where we could camp and glass for Dall sheep so that we would have a chance the following day.
Despite the light rain, we headed up the drainage in high spirits. It took some effort to find a spot level enough to pitch our tent, and as soon as we got it up, our dog, Astro, ran Vizsla racetracks around the tent and then popped right in. There was still no sign of sheep, but our morning plan was to head farther up the drainage toward a glacier and glass areas not visible from below. In this game-management unit, only a ram with full curl horns or eight years of age is legal, and that means in many instances you need to study a sheep carefully to determine whether he is a legal animal.
At 7 a.m. we were under way. Reaching the head of the drainage, we scanned the area west but saw no sheep. We decided to drop our packs and climb 600 feet vertically to look from a different vantage point. There was still no sign of sheep, but we did see a large, lone, beautiful black wolf. We reversed course back down toward the airplanes and headed up another drainage. There, we spotted a group of caribou, and just as I was putting the spotting scope on them for amusement, Charlie announced she saw sheep behind us, far up a mountain. I got the spotting scope on the sheep, just as they became obscured by clouds. While we were certain they were rams, we couldn’t be sure they were legal from that distance. Charlie looked at a topographical map and estimated the sheep to be about five miles and 2,500 feet above us. It was noon, and since we had been hiking five hours already, we knew we had a long day ahead of us. Just as we were about to depart, a beautiful rainbow appeared on a nearby mountain, which we declared a positive omen.
Just before 5 p.m. we reached the bottom of a steep slope of talus and scree leading to the top of the mountain, which we hoped would allow us to hunt down onto the sheep. The slope was quite steep, about 1,500 feet of vertical, and we had a number of concerns — such as whether we could get up it without getting cliffed out, how it would be for Astro’s paws, and where it would put us relative to the position of the sheep that were out of sight. We decided to go for it, since we wouldn’t be harvesting a sheep down in the valley.