It all started with a phone call from a buddy reminding us that the last day to apply for Alaska bison was December 15th. The same buddy was kind enough to walk the two of us through the application process as Alaska was a new experience for us both. After completing the party application, we hit the button to submit the application and forgot about it. The next time we thought about this hunt application was on February 17th when we received a call from our buddy who had helped us apply, saying, “You lucky suckers.”
We spent the next several months planning the trip. As anyone who has gone through this process knows, there is an amazing amount of time that is spent making sure all the variables are solved. Due to the remote nature of the unit and the possibility of needing to pack two very large animals out, we recruited two buddies to embark on this adventure with us.
After months of planning and preparation, August arrived, and it was time to put our plans in motion. We met the day before we were scheduled to fly out for a gear check and bag weigh in. After making sure everything was good to go, we agreed to meet at 2:30 a.m. the next morning to load up and head to the airport. Morning came quickly, and you could sense the excitement from the six of us as we loaded the last of our gear in the truck. Once at the airport, we checked our bags and firearms, cleared TSA, and departed Oregon for Anchorage.
After landing in Anchorage, we collected our gear, loaded up the rental vehicles, and headed to Costco for some supplies. After the not so quick stop at Costco, we made a quick stop at Sportsman’s Warehouse to buy a few final items and then headed northeast on the Glenn Highway towards Glennallen.
We had set aside day two to check in with Alaska Fish and Game, purchase our locking tags, fly the unit, and organize gear for the raft trip into the unit. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Upon checking in with Alaska Fish and Game, we learned that their online portal was down and they were unable to sell us the locking tags we needed. They suggested we check back later in the afternoon as the system would likely be back online. While grabbing some lunch, we received more bad news. Our air charter service called to say that our scheduled flight was canceled due to high winds. We headed back to Alaska Fish and Game only to learn that the locking tag portal was still offline and they were closing soon. They told us to check back in the morning and that they were optimistic the system would be back online. We headed back to sort gear, prepare the rafts, and load coolers for the float into the unit the next day.
The next morning, our luck started to turn. We called Alaska Fish and Game as soon as they opened, and we were told that the system was still offline, but they had a solution to allow us to purchase the locking tags. In an effort to stay as close to schedule as possible, the rest of the crew agreed to shuttle gear and rafts to the planned launch point on the Klutina River where we would meet up with them. As we headed out to deal with the last administrative item, the excitement of knowing that our adventure was about to begin settled in.
When we arrived at the boat ramp, there was a flurry of activity. We loaded the four rafts full of gear and supplies and prepared to set off on the Klutina River. As we put on our lifejackets and pushed off from the bank, we realized that the recent rains had the currents flowing and the one and a half-mile trip downstream to the Copper River would be a quick one. Approaching the confluence of the Copper River, the water transitioned to a milky gray color, confirming the glacial origins of this mighty river and the high percentage of glacial silt it contains.
The rest of the 30+ mile float in was spent navigating the braided channels, fighting the persistent headwinds, and taking in the abundant scenery. We saw several bald eagles, a jet-black juvenile wolf, towering bluffs, and impressive views of Mt. Drum and Mt. Wrangell. As we approached our intended camping spot, the current picked up, making it difficult to reach shore. After a bit of a rodeo, all four rafts made it safely on the bank. The next few hours were spent unloading gear and setting up camp.
The next morning, we headed out to do some scouting. We hiked several miles, covering steep terrain and navigating the thick forest. Although we didn’t find any bison, we identified some key glassing points around the area. As we hiked back to camp for the evening, the wind picked up. We spent the final evening before opening day listening to trees strain against the wind and strategizing in anticipation of opening day.
Finally, opening day was upon us. The morning hike led us to one of the glassing points we had identified the day before. The wind was gusting as we settled in and started glassing. At about 3:30 p.m., we spotted a lone bison feeding on a distant ridge. We decided to go after him and started our hike at about 4 p.m. An hour later, we knew we were getting close. We moved slowly to the spot where he was last seen, but we were never able to locate him.
The next three days consisted of hours of glassing, hiking, and a tent day due to stormy weather. On the morning of day five, we glassed two bison a long way up the Chetaslina River. Although they were several miles away, we were running out of time and knew this was the best chance of finding success. The hike was challenging and took about three hours to get to where we thought the bulls would be. Scanning the hillside, we located both bulls bedded down about 300 yards across the river. As we got into position to take our shots, we knew it was now or never.
The first shot from Riley with the .300 RUM found its mark and, after a follow-up shot, bull number one was down. We lost sight of the second bull in the thick trees, but he soon appeared close to where the first bull was laying. As the bison started to move up the steep slope, Jason aligned the crosshairs and took the shot. Again, the bullet from the .300 RUM found its mark. After a brief celebration, the reality of the work that lay ahead quickly settled in.
We finished processing both bison at about 12 a.m., loaded our packs with meat, and started the long hike back to camp. At 3:00 a.m., we were still hiking and made the decision to lighten our packs. We hung the meat from our packs, marked the location, and pushed on. An hour of hiking later, exhaustion started to settle in and we knew we would have to cross the river to get back to camp. Crossing a river in the dark is never a good plan, so we made a fire and went to sleep on the forest floor.
As daybreak started to illuminate the forest, we awoke to a light rain. We extinguished our fire, grabbed our packs, and pushed through the last few miles towards camp. Once we arrived across the Chetaslina River from camp, we realized that crossing the river was not going to be easy. Levi, one of the taller and more ambitious members of the group, decided to wade across the strong current. Once across the river, Levi and another member of the group, Ken, handlined one of the rafts up the Copper River so we could ferry the rest of the group across.
Exhausted and cold, we were glad to be back at camp. However, we knew the work was far from done. After discussing our options, we decided to deflate one of the rafts, pack it into the kill site, and float the meat out in one trip. Heading out early the next morning, we were back at the kill site at about 1 p.m. We worked quickly to pack the meat to river bar and load it into the raft. Two of the more adventurous crew members, Levi and Leighton, volunteered to float back to camp with the meat. The rest of us would make the hike back.
At about 9 p.m. that evening, we all met up back at camp, unloaded the meat, and prepared for our float to our takeout point about 20 miles down the Copper River. It was raining and windy as we broke camp and loaded our gear the next morning. We hit the river with a strong sense of achievement, knowing that we were tagged out and had just completed a once-in-a- lifetime experience!