My Dream Hunt: The Spell of the Yukon | TSLN.com

My Dream Hunt: The Spell of the Yukon

Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
Tri-State Livestock News, Open Season 2016

There's a land where the mountains are nameless,

And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;

There are valleys unpeopled and still;

Recommended Stories For You

There's a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,

And I want to go back — and I will.

-from "The Spell of the Yukon" by Robert W. Service.

Through a series of random meetings and a struck-up conversation in a charming sidewalk café in Reno, my husband Will and I found ourselves booked for a caribou hunt with a ranching/outfitting family, Mary, Alan, Logan and Jessica Young, in the Yukon a few years ago.

We made a down payment and were given an essential supply list, unequivocal maximum baggage weight per person – "two duffels not over 50#, plus rifle" and unequivocal date of September 10 to be in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, two days before our scheduled flight to Midnight Sun's main camp for our hunt September 12–23, 2011.

Choosing to "see the country" by driving the 2100+ miles, we equipped the 3/4-ton GMC with topper, coolers and a good bed for motel/campground versatility. Departing September 3 we entered Canada via the Sweetwater/Coutts port September 5th. It was painless and relatively swift, even with hunting license and firearm. After overnighting at Whitecourt, early Hudson Bay trading post at the confluence of McCloud and Athabasca Rivers, my Sept. 6 journal mentions "very different, beautiful country . . . hummock-y ground covered in tall, tall coniferous and dedicious trees . . . much hay in bales . . . canola fields at different stages." We toured Dawson Creek's great Museum before passing Milepost 1 on the Alaskan Highway to camp in a Provincial Park on the Kiskatinaw River.

Sept. 7 the Old Alaskan Highway into Fort St. John took us across an engineering phenomenon, AlCan Bridge – the curved and 9-degree-slanted wooden work-of-art our soldiers built across the Kiskatinaw River as they began the storied Alaskan highway. I journaled, "A lot of change today from big high prairies into deep timber, canyons, mountains of all kinds . . . many big rivers, some run East, some North, some are green, some are muddy, some are lazy and some, as the aptly-named Racing River, truly race! By Will's geology we've been in quartsite, granite, sand, bentonite and many other formations today. Saw more than twenty caribou . . . two black bears grazing greedily on clover . . . seventy-some Wood Bison, a dozen Stones Sheep ewes and lambs . . gas, supper and overnite near the Laird River at Coal Creek, a Wood Bison bull wandering the campground."

This was the day I discovered the tantalizing "smell of the North" I've read about in books, and loved having in my nostrils until around the same point returning home.

From there everything became more exciting and wonderful, "wild-looking BIG country" according to my notes there's no space to share. Long hard miles on narrow tarmac, elevated to avoid sinking into the muskeg. And magical, storybook places . . . Whitehorse . . . finally Dawson City – where my grandfather Sedgwick's brother spent some years, made some fortune in gold, and lost his health to scurvy. My Dawson City highlight was getting to play piano some at our hotel one night and the next evening in the historic Jack London Lounge!

Despite my angst about warm socks or rubber boots getting left at the airport because my bags might be overweight, everything got onboard and the breathtaking flight with an experienced elderly pilot wormed us between mountain peaks to settle lightly at Midnight Sun's main camp, Hart Lake on Yukon's beautiful Hart River. We feasted on home-cooking in the rustic lodge and slept well in a snug cabin after lively conversation with hunters from Austria, Texas and elsewhere who'd flown in with us.

I discovered a Yukon outhouse comfort-secret – 1 1/2" Styrofoam insulation material tops the wood, and even though there's no door (unit just points away from camp at the end of the path) it feels warm, not damp and cold like wood!

We float-planed into spike camp on Three Barrel Creek the next morning with a skilled pilot who made it work with three passengers where there's really only enough water and space to accommodate a single-passenger unit. The outhouse was shocking . . . the Pepto-Bismol-pink Styrofoam seat was 3" thick and a huge bite was gone from the center, sporting teethmarks the guide said were "probably grizzly"!

The wind died with the dark, so waking from a sound sleep after a good supper and snuggling into my comfy cot to hear "whish . . . whish" and see the tent wall move occasionally in keeping with the sounds paralyzed me into not even breathing – which I didn't want to do anyway because of a horrid stench. This phenomenon traveled the length of the tent . . . moving sounds faded from earshot but I remained wide awake to inform my spouse, rising from a sound sleep some time later, not to go outside without his gun! It was still locked in the case, but he got it out…. The guide told us next morning, from the behavior and stench it was either a wolf or a grizzly investigating things.

We chose saddles, adjusted stirrups and for a week guide Ryan led us over 20 miles or more of awesome Yukon landscape daily, on good Midnight Sun horses. Long days and miles in the saddle were normal to our Wyoming ranchworking lives, but there was nothing "normal" about the Yukon. Traversing muskeg is like a walking on a 12" soft foam mattress, except it's wet. Hooves sink at least 5" each step, often more, and come up dripping water . . . the same on top of a mountain as near the creekbottom. Our cook was half mountain goat Yukon outdoors encyclopedia, tough to keep up with but teaching me fun wonderful things, like finding and gathering aromatic tea, and miniscule moss berries delicious in morning pancakes.

Weather was unusually mild for the season, delaying caribou migrations; a true boon for us as we hunted hard, savoring long day after long day, rather than filling a tag early. Ranging ever farther from camp we saw constantly differing terrain impossible to describe in mere words. Dense tall timber, deep narrow creeks, high meadows and rocky outcrops where you can see forever, lovely meandering rivers with wide gravelly bottoms and rushing channels, miles of bog where a horse's hindquarters disappear with a false step, rider leaping for solid ground from which to help pull him out. Steep caliche hillsides occasionally rivered by slides of flat rock treacherous to cross . . . miles and miles of beautiful memories. But not a single bull caribou, and only two or three cows had been seen.

Another guide, Tee, packed in two days from his distant camp with his string of horses, tough Austrian hunter Hans, and Hans's trophy Alaskan moose rack. Alan Young sent the message that we would not be flown out until Will had a chance to shoot a caribou. Tee offered to take us with him and Hans the next day, but we opted to go one more day with Ryan and Neal, who'd flown in some days earlier to help pack. Will's 30-06 had met a mishap, causing the already-repaired stock to part, so Neal offered him his ought-six and asked if he wanted to try it out – he declined . . . reckoned it was sighted in and would shoot just fine.

That day we climbed higher and saw more country from a distance and explored a pristine glacial lake we'll never see the likes of again, coming home more tired than any day, yet more exhilarated. We were met by an ecstatic Hans, whose caribou horns were on display in front of the kitchen.

He stopped my horse to explain, in his eager broken English with hand signals, that Will would get his caribou tomorrow because they'd seen two bunches but Tee did not let the one bunch know they were there. They went on and found another bunch and got Hans's shot there, a distance from the others. There were bulls in the undisturbed bunch and he knew Tee would take Will there the next day!

Neal accompanied Tee and us the following morning, leading a pack horse to retrieve Hans's dressed animal. It was foggy and hard to see, but we rode right to it and once it was packed Neal headed back to camp and we went on — soon finding caribou down near the Hart River. Good stalking and a convenient gully got us within a couple hundred yards on horseback. I stayed near the tied horses while the guys put the sneak on the caribou.

After hearing two shots and waiting a while, I got up where I could see them dressing out the bull, so took the horses over closer where there was brush to tie into. When they were ready I led up little dun Haflinger, Ty, with his packbox to be loaded. Going back to camp I was able to get lots of photos of tough independent Ty, loose with his pack of meat and rack as he'd stop and graze, falling way behind the guys in the lead, then hurrying to catch up. Hans led the celebration in camp when we arrived, but no one was happier than Will about "how well his borrowed gun worked"!

The caribou meat was delicious, the caribou hide and European-mount rack are beautiful, and it truly was a "dream hunt" for us. I can highly recommend Midnight Sun Outfitting, where Jessie Young says, "We're a family run and owned operation. We offer first class Northern Yukon big game hunts for Fannin and Dall sheep, Alaskan Yukon moose, Barren Ground caribou and Grizzly. Our hunting concession is one of the most northern areas in the Yukon with wild and pristine landscape. The Territory is remote, untouched and rich in game and nothingness. It is truly the 'last frontier'. Our family and company is embodied in the Northern lifestyle and we embrace the rich heritage that it stands for. "

YUKON MYSTERIES

The Yukon’s a wild, rare beauty

Who has lured in many a soul –

They came to “see the elephant”,

Then prob’ly trap, or pan for gold.

She’s always a willing teacher

For those who can be taught

The wisdom she’ll impart to you

Is not the kind that’s bought.

So pillow your head on her fragrant breast

While her wind/fir symphony woos you . . .

Ere long you’ll change – to slave, from guest –

For the Call of the Wild pursues you….

That precious home you’ve been longin’ for so

Where dear hearts and arms would enfold you

Is now wispily wafting where your campfire smokes go

‘Till you find that you’re no longer blue.

It’s the spell of the Yukon, the flash of her eyes

In the song and the dance of her streams –

As the minutes, hours and months pass by

You discover a change in your dreams.

She’s bound you ‘round in her gossamer web

(Like the frost-sparkled ones on the trail)

Nobody’s immune – be ye Yankee or Reb –

She owns you . . . for glory or doom.

In her silent, vast wilderness secrets abound

For her pioneers cut few clear trails

Her mysteries linger ‘cause she speaks not a sound

An’ no tracker can cipher the sign….

Who sleeps in this grave overlooking a lake

On the crick that is known as “Three Barrel”?

Could it be one of those who meant to go home

Then succumbed to her spell and died of some peril?

Or one of First Nations’, whose roots ran deep here

And had the best home they could make?

It’s plain someone with honor was here at the end;

Love shows in the fixin’ that was done for their sake.

To honor the life of man, woman, or child

With lovely hand-carved posts marked with clover,

Memorializing one who died in the wild . . .

A worn enameled plate serves as marker and stone.

Yes, Yukon, you’ve sung me your wild siren song

You’ve taught me this visit is all too brief –

Even sampling your pleasures could take a life long

And I’m sure you would not disappoint.

Time is up – I must leave – yet I’ll never forget

Your fragrance – Your sights – Your sounds – and Your taste –

In my heart will remain this yearning you’ve set . . .

Words now fail, so this is THE END

By Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns

9/17/2011

Written in Yukon Territory, Three Barrel camp of Midnight Sun Outfitters, by candle light in a tent

Go back to article