High above treeline, the view was true Alaska wilderness. Undulating mountains stretched in every direction, the highest elevations touching the sagging gray clouds, which occasionally misted Mary Kuepper and her hunting partners, chilling them to their cores. But the silhouettes of caribou shuffling across the ridge of the next peak over kept her going.
"My legs were beat, the terrain was super steep," she said. "It was cold and windy, and I was feeling just about over it. But even amidst my weariness, turning back was not an option. I was keenly aware of how far we had come and how hard we had worked, and I was incredibly motivated to see this through."
Kuepper, a 33-year old mental health clinician from Sterling, was a long way from her Kenai Peninsula office. Having drawn tags to hunt in Game Management Unit 13, she had spent five days traipsing through the area along the Denali Highway between Cantwell and Paxson. Over that time, she's seen numerous people bag caribou. Having not grown up hunting, each animal that fell from a bullet prompted a crossfire of conflicting thoughts.
"I've always been supportive of hunting and people's right to do it, I just never thought that it was for me," she said. But after marrying a Wisconsin-born-and-bred hunter, Lee Kuepper, and hearing him describe a lifetime of tracking, shooting, and eating game, she began having second thoughts.
"His experience of hunting and how that has shaped him (and) our efforts to live a cleaner and more sustainable life were definitely motivating factors. A huge part of the decision came down to wanting to know exactly where our food was coming from, and I figured that if I was going to reap the benefits of filling the freezer, I wanted to bear a level of responsibility in how that happened," she said.
She devoted weeks to getting ready, acquiring the right boots and pack, adding a camouflage outfit to her wardrobe. Hours were spent at a nearby gravel pit to get comfortable firing her husband's .270 Winchester rifle in the standing, kneeling and prone positions.
Thinking you can pull the trigger on an animal in the crosshairs, and actually doing so are two different things, though.
Kuepper wondered if she would be able to take a life when the time came. She saw caribou on the first day — at first alive, majestic and moving more briskly over the terrain than she imagined they could, then suddenly dead after being shot by a nearby hunter. Clearly, her personal decision would be difficult.
"(It) was pretty emotional for me to watch. It was the first time I'd ever seen an animal be killed, and I remember having the distinct thought that I wasn't sure if this was something I could really do," she said.
Kuepper and her party went back to their camp, a cab-over-camper owned by the family of another hunter in her party. They shed damp clothes and savored a hot meal before calling it a day. The pitter-patter of rain on the tin roof over Kuepper's head soothed her to sleep.
Until 4:30 the next morning. After coffee — lots of coffee — the hunters rode their four-wheelers into the motorized-hunting area.
"The terrain was rough going, lots of bumpy tundra, rock gardens everywhere and plenty of huge mud pits," she said.
They glassed the hillsides, snacking on sandwiches, smoked salmon and jerky. They saw small groups of caribou, but couldn't get into the right position to make a shot.
"We spent the rest of the day wheeling around, covering about 40 miles total and getting into some big, open, beautiful country," she said. "But, no more 'bous."
'Way more animals'
They took a break, went into Cantwell and talked to some folks at the Gracious House Lodge, who mentioned that hunters in the Maclaren area were having success. So Kuepper's party headed east.
"Lee, my husband, was glassing on the top of the rig as we went, and … we started to see animals. Way more animals. We came across a herd of about 40 on a pretty low ridgeline," she said.
Given how few animals they'd seen over the previous two days, they decided not to pass up the opportunity, even though it was late in the day.
"The animals were only about 2,000 feet up, so we decided to go for it. We hoofed it up the mountain, making that first ridgeline in about 25 minutes. Unfortunately, the animals also decided to move on up, and by the time we got to where they had been, they were gone," she said.
But the Kueppers bumped into other hunters heading down who also had been successful. Making the most of it, the Kuepper group queried them about where the herd had gone and then headed that way. At an elevation of some 3,500 feet, they found what they'd come for.
"Slow and steady, we moved toward the herd," she said. "This mountain had a highway of game trails, so our path was clear. They continued to climb, but so did we, and after about an hour and a half, some pretty steep inclines, plenty of shale and some belly crawling, we were ready to take our shot."
Kuepper's husband went first, firing from about 200 yards, but connecting in a clean heart-lung hit.
"Walking up to that first caribou was incredibly emotional. Knowing that I was part of the hunting party that took this life was not something I took lightly," she said. "I remember being blown away at how big it was, how incredibly soft the velvet on the rack felt, how warm the body was. Knowing that there was life and that that life was now gone because of us was pretty intense."
Being on the top of a mountain late in the day, with darkness closing in, Kuepper forced herself to focus on the task at hand.
"The tears were short-lived as it was clear that there was work to do and not a lot of time to do it. I was surprised at how fascinated I was at the field-dressing process. How quickly I was able to transition from looking at a beautiful animal and feeling emotional about the loss of life, to looking at meat," she said.
Her husband and their friend Buck Kunz used their knives with skilled precision, and before long the caribou was field dressed and everyone's packs were filled.
"At 9 p.m., we started our walk down. It was raining and the ground was slick. Our incline was ridiculously steep, and our packs heavy. We went down a different path than we had come up in hopes of a straight shot down to the road.
"That was pretty scary. I fell on my rear no less than a dozen times, got scratched up a ton by the alders, yelled 'Hey bear,' till my throat was sore, and was entirely drenched by the time we got down," she said. "But we made it. We hit the road at 10:03 p.m., just as darkness fell. We walked the half-mile back to the rig … and headed up the road to camp at Coldwater Creek."
The next day they decided to take it a little easier, and spent much of the day fishing, but early the following morning they got back to business, traveling the road by four-wheeler to glass nearby hillsides.
"Within about 10 minutes we found a herd of about 30 animals silhouetted against the top of one of the mountains," she said.
There didn't appear to be any bulls among them. Having a permit for either sex and not wanting to go home empty handed, she began the thigh-burning process of stalking uphill.
"After about an hour of internal dialogue during which I repeated to myself, 'one foot after another' and 'you got this,' we spotted our animals. There were about 20 of them, primarily calves and cows, bedded down in a small valley about 500 yards away," she said.
She pressed on, slowly, steadily, belly crawling to within 100 yards, just above the herd.
"The wind was in our favor and the animals were relaxed, which afforded us the opportunity to get settled, pick the animal and really wait for the right shot. I picked the biggest animal in the herd and after about 30 minutes, around 11:30 a.m., got the perfect shot. The caribou had stepped away from the others, was broadside to me, and was standing still. I took my shot," she said.
Kuepper hit her mark, right in the "boiler maker" as her husband called out, but the animal didn't immediately drop.
"This was one of the many misconceptions I had going into the hunt. I had naively believed that a good, clean shot resulted in an immediate death, as I had seen with every animal taken on the trip, but that doesn't always happen," she said.
Sometimes a bullet-struck animal stands in shock, needing a few minutes to realize — either physically or mentally — it's mortally wounded.
"After taking my shot and knowing it was good, I chose not to watch the animal actually fall. Lee told me she didn't run or act frantic, she had simply stood there until she didn't anymore. I was tearful and emotional, both immediately after taking the shot and then upon walking up to the animal," she said.
Kuepper helped field dress the downed animal. Then they packed it down, returned to camp, and in a simple sauté of butter, olive oil, and a pinch of seasoning, she tasted the reward of all her hard work.
"It was delicious!" she said. "I'm a bit of (a) foodie and have had the opportunity to enjoy some pretty outstanding meals in my life, but never in all of my 33 years have I ever tasted anything that was quite so satisfying on so many levels."
Soon after Kuepper returned home, she and her companions processed their harvests, wrapping tenderloins, backstraps, roasts and steaks, as well as putting aside some less desirable cuts for jerky, chorizo, hamburger and maple breakfast sausage.
"All in all, I would say that this has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life," she said. "Mentally, emotionally and physically, this was challenging. I'm proud of myself for stepping outside of my comfort zone, but more so for being open and willing to try something that I had thought I would never want to do."
And she's gained new respect for a culture she knew little about. Now she wants to raise children, when the couple has them, with this same value system.
"I ultimately decided to go on this hunt so that I could be a part of knowing where my food comes from," she said. "I got that, which I'm grateful for. But turns out, I got a lot more, too."
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx, where they operate Rogues Gallery Kennel and have run several mid-distance mushing races, including Colleen running the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.