CANTWELL — Writers are hunters who stalk their prey across a blank sheet of paper. When I hunt for moose or caribou I carry a pencil and notepad in my pack and scan the horizon for elusive ideas as well as wild meat.
Hunting tales usually end with someone shooting an animal. But long before becoming a writer, I valued the experience of hunting more than a freezer full of meat.
I returned home with a bag limit of ideas in late August after my annual caribou hunt off the Denali Highway with John Westlund.
On top of the world
With the unseasonably warm weather, caribou sightings were few and far between. After combing our usual terrain the first day, Westlund and I reconnoitered another area. Dodging other hunting parties as best we could, we eventually found ourselves perched atop a prominent hill surrounded by subalpine brush and wet meadows.
The viewscape stretched 25 miles or more in every direction, much farther than our binoculars were capable of resolving caribou. We didn't see any. But the scenery was abundant and in season. We were encircled by four major mountain ranges. More than 130 miles to the west, Denali towered over the intervening Talkeetna Mountains, and the snow-capped Wrangells loomed almost as far away to the southeast.
Unfortunately, the mental soundtrack accompanying this spectacular panorama was an endless loop of the first verse of a Carpenters song: "I'm on the top of the world looking down on creation." I tried to substitute the lyrics of a gospel tune — "50 Miles of Elbow Room" — less sappy and just as topographically apropos. But the Carpenters wouldn't yield the stage to the Carter Family for the rest of the trip.
That evening, we joined my wife, Lisa, and Westlund's significant other, Caren Ailleo, at Westlund's motor home and prepared for the next day's hunt.
Back on familiar ground, we hunted all morning without seeing anything worth pursuing, then split up in mid-afternoon. Westlund and Ailleo worked their way back to camp. Lisa and I resolved to walk around a hillock and glass for caribou along the edge of the brush.
Reclining on a berry-smothered hump afforded another dramatic, wide-angle view of the Nelchina Basin. Above us, a gang of ravens played aerobatic games in an updraft. Fully gorged on the scattered gut piles left by hunters, they kept an eye on us.
Ravens make it their business to know when a predator is in the proximity of game. A moose or caribou is no earthly good to a raven until it's dead. Even then, incapable of breaking into a thick-skinned carcass with their powerful beaks, ravens rely on eagles and meat-eating mammals to open up a carcass.
The big black scavengers use a special call to announce the discovery of a large, but as of yet unavailable, animal carcass. The call — a high-pitched croak — is described as a "yell" by raven researcher Bernd Heinrich.
Native American hunters have long claimed to be alerted to the presence of big-game animals by raven calls and flight displays. It's not a large leap for an animal boasting a raven's intelligence to repurpose a call designed to attract other ravens to a carcass to summon a predator, including humans, who might provide the carcass. Heinrich explores this idea in detail in his book "Mind of the Raven."
The aerial maneuvers of ravens pale in comparison to those conducted by pilots from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Heading out to hunt one morning we were surprised by a massive Boeing C-17 Globemaster — at least 150 shiny tons worth — skimming a few hundred feet above ground level.
The airspace above the Nelchina Basin is often tagged by the looping contrails of F-22 Raptors engaged in simulated dogfights. On occasion one of the fighters will break the sound barrier. The unexpected BOOM arrests the attention of every living thing.
One thing led to another, and Lisa and I didn't get back to the road until 10 p.m., just as the last glimmer of natural light blinked out. Someone in the campground nearby had told us "everybody" had been out looking for us, and Westlund and Ailleo were preparing to drive to Maclaren River Lodge to report us missing.
Lost and found
The lights were out when we pulled up to the motor home. I jumped in our car and drove to the lodge as quickly as the highway's potholes would permit. Westlund was on the phone when I walked into the bar. Feigning surprise, I said, "What are you guys doing here?"
Westlund glanced over his shoulder, turned back to the wall, and told the state trooper dispatcher that I had just walked in. She must have asked if I was OK, because Westlund muttered ominously, "He won't be when I'm through with him."
To my knowledge no one's ever called the cops on me. I drove slowly back to the motor home, giving Westlund a chance to get used to the fact that not only were we alive, but his four-wheeler was unharmed.
Two days later we headed back to Anchorage. The fifth sunny day in a row, it was another opportunity to drive like a tourist and enjoy being where I was.
The solitary gravel highway, often muddy or dusty, is seldom any stage in between. Crowding both sides of the road, golden leaves of willows, poplars and aspens fluttered nervously in the ever-present breeze. Clumps of mountains took turns looming larger, parting and flowing past like monumental bow waves, and receding in the rear-view mirror.
Among the most distinctive landmarks of the Nelchina Basin are the glacial moraines that crisscross the lowlands and the myriad lakes, some small, some large. No two lakes seem to be the same color, but on a sunny day many approach a dusky cobalt many shades darker than the pale northern sky. It's as if the blue of the sky has leached into the water.
I could be dropped blindfolded into the Nelchina Basin and, when the blindfold was snatched away, know instantly where my feet were planted.
Loathe to bid goodbye, I watched Westlund's motor home disappear in a cloud of dust within minutes. I didn't catch up to the motor home and Lisa's car until a scenic overlook about 6 miles from Paxson.
A five-raven salute
For many miles the Denali Highway runs along the top of an esker, a sinuous gravel dike deposited by the bed of an ancient glacial river. Gazing out the left window at the Alaska Range, in between scanning for potholes, I saw a raven flying low and level, matching my ground speed. It was soon joined by another and another until five ravens were flying single file.
The feathered escorts watched me silently as I watched them. They were close enough to discern the glints in their ebony eyes.
Unlike their smaller cousins, the gray jays that dash into camp to steal bits of food, ravens don't consider themselves thieves. They are the undaunted masters of this sub-Arctic country.
But that doesn't mean they are incapable of recognizing and appreciating the uncanny ability of humans to reduce a large animal to a pile of hide, offal and bone — raven food. Attributing a sense of gratitude to the five escorts would be gratuitous, but it's possible they were tipping their wings in an unspoken acknowledgement, like strangers nodding to one another on an escalator.
Or maybe they were just flying along the esker in my direction.
A surprise ending
Anyone familiar with my previous moose and caribou hunts along the Denali Highway is entitled to inquire about mechanical breakdowns. Westlund and I are always plagued by at least one. Apparently our luck had changed. I noted this and underlined it. Twice.
While we dug out our lunches at the scenic overlook, Lisa mentioned that our Honda was making some awful noises and starting to handle like a tank. I filed this information in the Luddite lobe of my brain, the part that believes if a machine is still capable of moving, it's perfectly operable. A few minutes later, about halfway through my ham sandwich, I noticed the car's right rear tire was flat. Humbled by the dogged inevitability of one's fate, Westlund and I changed the tire and limped back into Anchorage without further incident.
Oh, Westlund and I both shot caribou bulls, mine the day we were reported missing. Westlund's uncharacteristic surliness began to evaporate as soon as he laid eyes on the bags of meat strapped to the four-wheeler. I jotted down a note of his sudden change of attitude before I retired for the night.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist and a freelance writer based in Anchorage. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org