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December 2019
Story by Rich Holstrom
State: Alaska
Species: Bison

I wanted a challenge, an adventure, to chase an American icon!

The trip-of-a-lifetime started with a single click. I was holding my breath as I logged on to the Alaska Fish and Game website. The seconds seemed to last forever as my buddies and I waited to see how lucky we would be. “No way,” I said when the page loaded. I looked at my friends gathered around the table. “We’re going to Alaska. I just drew my once-in-a-lifetime bison tag!”

Opening day was six months later, September 1st, but our journey began several days before. My buddies and I traveled from Oregon to Alaska where we made our way to the majestic Klutina River. We spent a quiet Saturday morning unloading rafts and gearing them up. Our heads spun and our hearts raced when we finally set out. I manned one raft, heavy with gear, while the others, Cash, Leighton, and Levi, manned the second. The Klutina was a short-lived float of vibrant, fast moving water, sending us on our way to the Copper River.

“This is happening,” I thought as the Klutina’s sapphire water mixed with the cloudy brown of the Copper. “The past six months of planning and dreaming have finally become reality.”

Our 30-mile expedition led us through territory we’d never seen before. Flowing water, towering trees, and even game tracks revealed themselves. We learned something new with each stop and quickly discovered this was grizzly territory.

As the hours passed, we fought headwinds and sand blowing off the steep bluffs surrounding us. Finally, Saturday afternoon, we reached our intended camp on the banks of the Chetaslina. The camp didn’t provide the relief we were hoping for. As we gathered in a circle, fighting the sand blowing off the gravel bar, it didn’t take long to agree this camp wasn’t going to work. We loaded back up and pushed further down the river.

The confluence of the Cheshnina, just a mile and a half south, provided shelter from the wind and a picture-perfect view. Timing couldn’t have been better as we had five hours of light to set camp and admire the beauty of Alaska. Fresh grizzly and wolf tracks surrounded camp, and if we were to forget their presence, Levi would be sure to remind us, “Look at these tracks. We are in grizzly country.”

September 1st finally came, and the hunt began with a journey up the Cheshnina. Our goal was to reach the meadows several miles in from the Copper River. We learned very quickly that a short section on the map was a long journey on foot. A wise friend told us, “Alaska is no joke!” He was absolutely spot on.

Our trek up the Cheshnina was a battle in and of itself, trying to stay on bison trails, making our own paths, and locating river crossings. Six hours later, seven miles on foot, we arrived at the meadows.

“We are in their home,” one of the guys said, but there were no bison to be seen. That ended up being a blessing in disguise. On the hike out, we were fatigued. The thick brush and spongy terrain will test your strength both physically and mentally.

Day two was a slow start, and we decided to head north to explore. As doubt started creeping in that this was the real deal and I might be going home empty-handed, I heard Cash say, “Bison.” We glassed the bluffs near the Chetaslina. The bull we originally spotted wasn’t alone. With several bison in the area, we made a group decision to return to camp to eat and come up with a game plan for the next day.

We started day three rested and motivated. As we headed back north, steady rain began to fall. We huddled under several pines, which served as both a shelter from the downpour and a clear vantage point to glass the bluffs. Leighton spotted a herd of bison on the top of the furthest bluffs, about a mile and a half away. Excitement set in as we headed up the mountain, quickly closing in to 900 yards. Of course, they were nowhere to be found! Wet and cold, we sheltered under another large pine to wait out the rains with hope the bison were doing the same.

Several hours later, the bison hadn’t returned. We worked our stiff, wet bodies down the mountain back to the initial vantage point. As we made our way, we realized a lone bull was working down the ridge in the same bluff we had observed the day before. Adrenaline surged through my body as I realized this could be the one. The wind was perfect. Our position was perfect. We had a plan.

We settled into position, awaiting the bull’s arrival. As he emerged from the timber, I had my broadside shot. My heart was pumping and my body was trembling with bull fever as I clicked the safety. Ready to pull the trigger, the bull decided to drop off the ridge back into the timber. Just like that, he was gone.

After several hours of repositioning, we decided to travel back down the mountain. Evening was approaching, but I just couldn’t sit still. I walked up the edge of the bluff overlooking the Chetaslina River drainage to glass the bluffs in the distance. Within a minute, I had bison in my view! Time wasn’t on our side. I ran down and let the guys know what I’d seen. We had a lot of land to cover in only a few hours. We traveled a ridge for more than a mile, hoping against hope the herd would still be there.

With 700 yards still to go, we put eyes on them. We moved closer, carefully choosing each step. As we closed in on 100 yards, we decided to get into position on the trail. The bison were at the furthest point of the ridge, with a steep drop on both sides.

“This is perfect,” I thought as I realized they were feeding toward us. I spotted my bull and kept eyes on him as he closed in. The time had come. I whispered to the guys, “Ready,” and then squeezed the trigger of my Ruger .375 H&H Magnum at 45 yards. The bull dropped and rolled. The shot was perfect, and the bull expired as it fell to rest at the foot of a tree. This was a day and moment I will never forget.

The four of us gathered around the massive animal in a state of shock. It happened, and it all came together perfectly.

It was 3:30 in the morning before we arrived back at camp, exhausted. The next two days, we put miles on the boots packing the meat back to camp. Each trip up for another pack always yielded the thought, “I hope the meat is still hanging in the tree and not a meal to the grizzlies.”

We spent the last evening at camp enjoying a hard-earned meal and honoring the sacrifice of what we had come for – bison. We sat around the fire and retold the story to each other. We were living the dream.


Alaska Bison Hunting