WYANDOTTE — A parking lot conversation about a huge set of moose antlers in the back of a pickup truck turned into the story of a 20-day Alaskan Hunting and fishing adventure.
What possesses a man, Bobby Cole, 33, of Wyandotte, to leave the comforts of home to risk even his life in the Alaskan wilderness?
“It was the trip of a lifetime. A lot of people want to go do something like this and they never do it. They say, ‘Oh, I’ll do that one of these days.’ I made up my mind to just go do it. I feel pretty blessed. I never wanted to be the guy that had regrets,” Cole said. “I have to say I’m not a real religious man, but I feel this trip was a total blessing from God.”
Cole, owner of Cole Excavating in Wyandotte, said, “I’ll never work for another man as long as I can make a living and hunt and fish.”
Cole and five of his friends from across the U.S. set off toward Alaska for an adventure of a lifetime. The men met in Alaska on Sept.11 and they stayed in the Alaskan wild, coming back to civilization on Sept.29.
No guide, just using mapping and one of the men’s previous trip’s experiences to lead them.
“I drove from here and we all met up in Fairbanks, they all flew. Then we met and drove in my truck for seven hours from Fairbanks, north on the James Dalton Highway to get to a place called Chandalar Shelf Air Strip, which is in the Artic Circle. It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Cole said “The only thing there is a tent and a camper. We actually stayed there two nights in a tent waiting for our turn to get flown in.”
The Alaskan pilot could only carry so much weight on the aircraft, a small Beaver plane, so the hunters had to be flown in pairs or alone with their gear.
“He flew two of us and our gear in. The weight limit of the plane is 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. We were limited to 50 pounds of gear per person and 100 pounds of dried goods for the whole trip,” Cole said. “We had to do dried goods because of the weight, Ramen noodles and stuff like that.”
Weather caused flight delays causing the hunt schedule to be hard pushed.
“We were supposed to go out on Sunday and it started snowing. Me and three of the others got flown out first and set up camp next to the gravel bar we landed on and he (the pilot) said he’d be back the next day with the other two. Well it started snowing so he couldn’t fly for four days, and we were there with hardly any food and we hadn’t killed anything yet. So we were trying to fish and we caught a few Grayling and ate some of those,” Cole said.
The men had a satellite phone that could send messages, but no calls.
“We knew every day they weren’t coming. There were a couple of times they tried and had to turn around. We ended up getting six to eight inches of snow on the ground. Visibility wasn’t the problem: it was landing on snow and not being able to stop.”
Cole has been on many outdoor adventures and wilderness hunts in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and other states, but said nothing could prepare him for the Alaskan cold weather, isolation from other civilization and wildlife they experienced.
“I got up out of the tent, it was single digits, it was cold and I walked about 30 yards and saw some nice big grizzly tracks near our tent we had spent the night in,” he said.
The day he returned, a video of a man on a similar hunt attacked by a grizzly bear went viral on Facebook.
“It was a humbling feeling knowing you’re not the biggest, baddest thing out there,” Cole said.
The men waited and waited and finally heard the plane coming in with the remaining hunters.
“We got started floating, and floated for 16 days. We were in inflatable rafts. We really weren’t seeing anything that we could legally take, we were seeing cow Moose and some calves,” he said. “It was the eighth day and people were getting a little frustrated because we hadn’t shot anything
The men had hunting permit tags for Moose, Caribou, Black Bear and Wolf.
A guide is required to hunt Grizzly bears in Alaska and the six men were on a self-guided hunt.
To hunt moose in Alaska, non-resident hunters must obtain a permit and tag and can only harvest male moose with a 50-inch or more width of farthest points on the animal’s rack. Residents are allowed to take moose.
“It was the eighth day and we were starting to get a little frustrated because we hadn’t shot anything, and we were eating noodles, one of the guys shot a duck and we were trying to catch fish,” Cole said. “We had floated about 40 miles of the trip and came to this place called Old Woman Creek and there’s a big hole there and we started fishing and I hooked a big fish.”
Cole hooked the big fish on light gear with only six-pound test line.
“Everybody’s kind of down in the dumps just sitting there watching me reeling this big fish and they were saying, ‘You’ll never get it in.’ I fought and I fought and I finally landed it. And of course they all got excited because we finally and some fish to eat,” he said. “They all started fishing and we ended up catching six or seven big, 10- to 15-pound Northern Pike. We were excited; we had got some meat.”
The men loaded back into the boats and rounded a bend in the Sheenjek River.
“There was a big bull moose standing there and one of the other guys jumps up on the bank and shoots it,” Cole said.
The other hunters left their guns in the boat and went to help dress and quarter the moose to place in pack frames to load the meat in the boat.
“We started quartering and cutting on this thing. Two of the guys went across the river to begin calling to try to get something to come in,” Cole said. “We were just about done and were loading all that moose up and was walking back to the boat when one of the guys said, ‘Oh my gosh, look there!’ At about 100 yards, there was a big moose coming towards us, of course I didn’t have my gun. It was in the boat. I shot over 250 rounds through a 375 H&H, that’s a big rifle. I had bought this rifle and took it to the gunsmith two or three times and filed it down and got the trigger to a hair trigger, and it was on the boat. When the moose came out I didn’t get to use it — the whole reason I brought that gun was to shoot a moose and it was on the boat. The guy that killed the first moose had his rifle, hands it to me, and I’m trying to find this big ole moose in the scope. He’s got the power turned way up on the focus and I can’t find it. It was a real small radical and it’s 100 yards away and I couldn’t find it!
“I had to take the gun away from my face and point it at the moose and bring it back to my eye. By that time he had turned so he turned around and I double lunged him and in 15 seconds, he was on the ground dead. We were high fiving and jumping up and down!”
Even though he is an avid outdoorsman and experienced hunter, Cole had never shot a moose before.
“How do you top that — it was like watching a tree fall to the ground. It was pretty cool,” he said. “Some of the mountain guys I hang out with say moose are more deadly than grizzly if you ever tangle with one. There are three species of moose, the ones we have here in the lower states and the ones you see in Yellowstone, then there’s a Canadian moose, and the biggest of the sub-species in the U.S. are the Yukon moose.”
There are approximately 300,000 moose in the U.S. with two thirds in Alaska. Moose are herbivores consuming many types of plant or fruits.
Cole said they kept all the meat quarters, cape, head, and antlers and left little behind of their kills
“Keep in mind we were pressed for time because we had four days of delay,” Cole said. “So we loaded up the meat and floated on down the river trying to hustle.”
The men had to be back to rendezvous with the pilot at a specified gravel bank on a specific day to be flown out. Starting out at Last Lake at the head of Sheenjek River in the Brooks Mountain Range in an unpopulated area of northern Alaska.
“It was very awesome,” Cole said. “Very beautiful, the aspen trees were starting to turn.”
“There’s nothing for 200 to 300 miles in all directions. We floated for about 130 miles, doing 20 to 25 miles a day.” he said. Cole said he would sleep with his parka pulled up tight around his face and would wake with his mustache and beard frozen and his tent covered in frozen condensation from his breath.
The men feasted on fish, the meat from their kills and supplies they brought, but Cole lost about nine pounds on the trip.
“We weren’t prepared for the cold really. The forecast was low 40s and 30s but it never got above 35 and it was down in the single digits, if you weren’t hiking, paddling or in your sleeping bag, you were freezing cold. My big toe on my left foot is still numb. In the cold weather up there your metabolism is so much higher because your heart rate is higher. Just laying there in my sleeping bag and it was freezing I could feel my heartbeat racing. They tell you not to eat moose meat the first day, so we ate fish, but we didn’t have any cooking oil, so we ended up taking some moose fat and fried that up in the skillet and that’s how we fried fish that night. It was pretty good, but we were hungry.” Cole said.
The danger is real on such adventures.
“The guy who had been before said on the last trip they had counted 24 grizzlies. I brought a .44 mag revolver and slept with it. You can get hurt and you may not make it out of there. I had some serious conversations before I left about what should happen if I didn’t make it back,” Cole said. “We floated on down and some of these guys were pretty frustrated, it s been 10 days and they’ve not even got to pull the trigger,” Cole said. “We came around the bend in a river with a real tall mountain of snow on it and I could feel something was up there but I didn’t know what it was so I grabbed my binoculars, it was like two mile sup and it was a little herd of caribou.”
The men docked their boats and hiked up the mountain.
“Someone made the comment we were very far from the boat and that’s something you shouldn’t do. We were walking on permafrost and it’s like walking on a 10-inch sponge. It’s the worst walking you’ve ever done in your life,” he said. “But we all decided we were going to pursue these caribou.
The herd consisted of 25 to 30 animals and everybody got a shot and the hunters ended up with seven caribou a mile and a half from their boat.
“We had to clean them, quarter them and pack them all back to the boat. It was about 1 o’clock in the afternoon and it was dark when we got back in the boat,” he said. “The river was real rough, so we went a quarter of a mile and camped.”
Cole said he never saw any black bear, but when he was walking through deep dark timber encountered wolves.
“I heard them howling but I couldn’t see them it was too dark. Suddenly they were all around me. To hear them howl in that dark timber with the snow coming down and the mountains, that was a neat experience,” Cole said.
Cole pulled a box trailer up to Fairbanks with freezers to haul the moose and caribou meat back home.
“My moose and my caribou filled up one freezer,” he said.
Cole grew up and went to school in Wyandotte and has hunted and fished his entire life including deer, duck, hogs and elk.
“I’ve chased deer all over,” he said. “All of my hunts have been exciting. This hunt is not for someone who doesn’t want to be there. You can’t just go back and sit in the house. It was cold, and you could see it on some of the guy’s faces, ‘OK, let’s get through this.’ I didn’t want to come home. I wanted to stay up there, I just liked being in the mountains hunting and fishing. The water was so clean you could get a drink wherever you want.”
Because of more snow, the men didn’t get flown out for three extra days and nights.
“By then we were all ready to go, it had been days without a shower,” Cole said. “A couple of times we could hear the pilot, but he had to turn around because he couldn’t see us. He got two of us out and had to come back and get one more guy, then two more. Then it snowed, leaving one guy by himself. The guy that didn’t get in was the guy riding with me so I had to sit back and wait.”
Once they were all out they loaded up drove straight through back home and got home at 2 o’clock Monday.
“I had a cheeseburger, a shower and I wanted to talk to a couple people, my dad and my girlfriend. I was very thankful that I was able to go do it. What a trip!” Cole said.
— Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at email@example.com. or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1