Hunting Caribou Close By

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Daniel Bill and the Kalistook brothers begin to skin a caribou on the tundra near Bethel. See more photos. — Photo by Debbie Michael

We were just settling into a nice lazy nap when the phone rang. Daniel fished his cell phone out of his sweater and swiped across the screen to accept the phone call. The seasoned hunter’s body language changed as his conversation went on. He asked a few questions, hung up, and started moving to the front of the house as he reported that another person called Isaac Kalistook, and said that they saw some caribou close to Bethel. Daniel said that Isaac and his sons were going to check them out within the hour.

Daniel started gathering his hunting gear methodically—parka, snowpants, gloves, and a bag with various tools and necessities for the trip. I cautiously asked who else was going. I then asked if he’d like me to come along. He said that the choice would be mine to make so I started getting ready too. Since I heard that the caribou were “close by” I didn’t want to pack (or wear) too many things to slow and weigh us down, but I wanted to dress warm enough to keep the -15 degree weather out of my face, hands, and body. Daniel started going in and out of rooms looking for something. After not finding them anywhere he made a trip down to Swanson’s Hardware for his Caribou Harvest Tickets.

While he was gone, I heated water and, after it boiled, poured it into a thermos knowing that this precious liquid would be most welcomed out on the frozen white tundra. I made sure to pack my camera and pocketed some extra batteries and placed the camera strategically in the front inside pocket of my big heavy down coat. I was a little worried about coming along, being a burden, and even about not being accepted to come along—traditionally, women don’t go out hunting and are sometimes even considered “bad luck” when they come along. I prayed about it and continued getting ready. Daniel came back with his tickets, ran outside to warm up the snow machine, and then called the Kalistooks to see if they were ready and was told that they left about 10 minutes ago. One last go-through of the supply bag, dressing for the cold, and packing the sled and we were off to go gas up at Crowley’s.

The air was very crisp. I looked out towards the banks of Bethel as we slid down to the bottom of the very steep ramp behind Crowley’s and the New YK Building. The willows and alders on the island across the river and the fence along the bank were covered with newly formed frost. I looked to the west and I saw a couple of trucks approaching Bethel from one of the downriver villages. I was expecting to turn towards them, but was surprised to be heading upriver instead. I adjusted my goggles and pulled up my knitted facemask as we zoomed upriver. Wow! It’s cold. I was even more surprised as we kept going upriver after we passed the island across from the boat harbor, but didn’t want to slow Daniel down to ask him which way we were going.

Further upriver, two snow machines were parked on the river while their riders were milling around them. As Daniel slowed to a halt next to them, I thought that one of their machines broke down or something. Neither of them looked like Isaac. Daniel stopped to check to see if they needed help. The two men neared. Oh, it’s Larry Kalistook, Isaac’s oldest son! I didn’t know who the other guy was nor was an introduction made. Daniel and Larry asked questions about their buddy and dad, and then decided that Daniel and I would head back towards Bethel and wait for Isaac and sons while the other two would go on ahead. We didn’t have to go back too far before we spotted two other snow machines a little ways down river. Isaac had brought his two sons, Thomas and Clarence. After exchanging greetings and information we headed back up river.

As we were approaching Church Slough, we made a right turn onto a high riverbank and into the trees. I really wanted to lean over and look ahead since I hadn’t been this way before, but the stinging wind kept me silhouetting Daniel’s form. We led through twisting and turning channels. The snow from days before still clung to trunks and branches. I welcomed the warmer air in the small passageways between the trees, but it fogged up my goggles so I moved them out of the way. I felt like a boxer training for a big fight—dodging to the left then right, and ducking from low hanging branches, my beaded gloved hands protecting my face. I slowly peek to the side and we’re back following a channel. At one place, we slow as we go down a steep decline, and rev up at the bottom to climb a sharp incline in a matter of four seconds—Nature’s rollercoaster ride. Time has a way of playing tricks on you anytime you’re having fun. I don’t know how long we were in the trees and channels, but it didn’t seem that long at all. After a few more minutes, we met up with Larry and his friend. They talked “shop” and we were off again, Larry and friend leading the way. Then, all of a sudden, there were no more trees, just the tundra, sky, and the sun! A lot of tundra. A lot of sky. And the bright sun in the cloudless sky!

We stopped and they made a plan to ride in the direction of any fresh caribou tracks they’d run into and see where they went. I felt the excitement growing in the air, but still felt a bit uneasy about tagging along, being a woman, and was worried about how the other hunting party felt about me being there. If they minded or not they didn’t say anything about it. Instead, we rode from one hill to another in hopes of finding the elusive caribou. We went towards the south east first, then west from there, back towards the north, then further east before we went more southeast. Still, no caribou. At one of the stops we made, I wanted to acknowledge my feelings about this and said, “Malikngama tangevkanritliut?” What if the caribou aren’t letting themselves be seen because I came along? Daniel reassured that my tagging along didn’t have anything to do with not spotting the caribou yet.

My excitement was getting more and more dampened as we ventured out further south and east. A few times, my thoughts veered toward the comment “Close by.” I know I heard those words and I heard them a few times, in fact. I found out that men’s definition and women’s definition of “close by” vary by more than several miles. I think I was being a good sport about the term and even laughed to myself about it. I must point this out to Daniel when we get home. We came to a halt, yet again, and I was starting to feel ready to go back home. Thomas parked to the right of us and Isaac and Clarence on the left of us. Thomas took out his binoculars and aimed them towards the direction of Three Step Mountain. Slowly he scanned, then took them down and pointed, “Maybe 10-15 of them over there towards Three Step,” he said as he gave the binoculars to Daniel. Daniel looked through them, gave them back to Thomas and strode over to the snow machine as he said, “Kitaki.” This means something like, “Well, okay then. (Let’s get going.)”

We mounted our snow machines and headed for the caribou. I held onto Daniel and the snow machine as our machine bucked on the bumpy tundra. I was so happy for the extra snow that provided some cushioning. Daniel sped up when he noticed the caribou moving southerly, trying to get to a more concealed place. I tried to mirror his actions. I hunkered down when he hunkered down; I leaned to the left or right when he did. I had to keep my body ready for any movement, even an abrupt stop. The veteran hunter raised his head and then raced up a small hill and stopped. Thomas quickly joined on the right of us with Isaac and Clarence on the right of Thomas. Daniel told Thomas that they’d be shooting from this place. I slid off our snow machine and sat on the snow covered ground between the two snow machines. I tore off my gloves beaded with a butterfly on them, unzipped my coat part way, and dug for my camera. I fumbled with the buttons turning on the camera. My fingers started burning in the short time I was taking pictures. Isaac shot first, then Daniel, then Clarence. Daniel, speaking in Cup’ik, said that we would go see about something and I thought he meant that he and I would go out further to try to get a caribou. I didn’t know that all three bullets they shot had found their marks and the three men downed a caribou each. We were greatly blessed.

Daniel and I went to check on the caribou he caught and went back to see Isaac’s catch. He suggested that the others bring their catches over to the one he caught on the frozen pond or small lake. Thomas tied a thin rope around the caribou that Issac shot and dragged it over while Isaac brought Clarence to get Clarence’s caribou. The two came back and unhitched their catch near the first caribou. I thought of my dad and remembered what he would say if he was there, “Quyana elpenek cikiutekluten.” Meaning “Thank you for giving yourself up for us.”

Daniel unfastened the nut and bolt to our sled and asked for assistance from me and Thomas. Our long day’s journey was evident in the amount of snow in the toboggan. We flipped it twice to get most of the snow out. I took advantage of the moment and quickly made a mug of tea for Daniel. I thought about making myself one, too, but the thought of needing to relieve myself in the cold open space made me change my mind. Daniel handed me a wrench and asked me to chip away at the ice from the ropes we’d need later.  I busied myself with the task, periodically looking up as the men started skinning their animals. I could tell which two hunters were the more experienced and seasoned by their removed parkas. I removed my beaded gloves and just used my stretchy gloves. I was surprised how warm they kept my hands in the sub-zero temperatures.

The sun was slowly making its way down behind the hills and tundra as the men steadily worked on skinning, quartering, and gutting their game. Every so often I’d get up and get my camera out and take pictures of their progress. The sky was turning a dark blue to the east, sky blue towards the south, and shades of yellow and pink towards the setting sun. As I finished my task, the inevitable happened. I needed to relieve myself. I made my plans known to Daniel and headed towards a bend. I walked over to the bend noting the snow getting deeper, and thought about how easily the caribou walk on the snow and tundra. When I got back, I took more pictures of the guys and walked up the little hill to take a few more pictures from that angle. It looked like the men were finishing up and I headed back down.

Daniel and I hitched up the sled, laid a tarp over the sled and he piled in the big chunks of meat. After we covered up the meat, we packed up the rest of the gear and tied it up in the back of the sled. With a couple turns of the key, the snow machines revved to life. We helped the Kalistooks pack up while the mobiles warmed up. Each man shook the other’s hand in congratulations and gratitude.

Daniel came back and mentioned that he never caught a caribou so close to Bethel before. Before I got on the snow machine, I wondered exactly how “close by” we were to Bethel and wished I had a watch to see how long it would take to get home. It was a great day! I got to experience what I never got to experience. I spent time with good people, we were blessed with every one who shot catching, and we were safe and now going to head home.

We were about half-way to Bethel when the sun completely set and it got dark and colder very quickly. I never knew my nose could run that much in such a short amount of time. When we got near the trees, I thought it would get warmer like earlier. It did, but not by much. I could feel the area between my upper lip and nose starting to get stiffer. My fingers and wrists protected by my beautiful beaded butterfly gloves with their liners were starting to feel the bite from the cold and wind. I pressed my face shielded by goggles into Daniel’s parka hood, not caring that I couldn’t really see out of them anymore because they had fogged up. I don’t know if I imagined this, but I felt my body shrink a size or two and I felt the cold air slipping in between my shirt, sweater, and parka. I inhaled as deeply as I could and made myself bigger. I remembered what Daniel said about what he did when he got cold and heading back home…Think of things that make you hot. For Daniel its maqii, for me one was being home in my favorite red sweater, knitted socks, and drinking tea. It worked for a while.

The Winter Wonderland of the channels and trees seemed a lot longer going home than when we were heading out earlier that day. We saw two rabbits crossing as we entered one of the wooded areas. “When are we getting out on the Kuskokwim River?” I thought, “Surely we are nearing the way out.” Finally, after a few more turns, we were on the Kuskokwim. Did you ever experience looking at something and the more you look at it the further way it becomes? This is what happened to me that evening. It seemed like time was ticking away so slowly and taking everything else with it. Eventually, we got to the ramp behind the New YK and Crowley’s and sped our way up and past it. We criss-crossed our way home beside the highway.

When we got home we had a couple messages from a concerned mom and wife who was starting to worry. I called Rita up right away to let her know we made it home and reassured her that her men were on their way up safe and sound. I quickly reviewed the days’ events with her and said good night. Daniel and I drank our cold water as we heated some up for some hot tea. I noticed that I had a bruise on my left ring finger and wondered how it happened. We spent the evening thawing, watching television, and going over the day–I probably bruised my finger when I was trying to stay on the snow machine or when I was chipping away at the ice.

Later that night, after a nice hot shower, we got settled into bed and pulled up the warm covers. I said, “Thinking about this was what kept me warm on our way home.” As we were drifting off to sleep, I said, “Daniel, your definition and my definition of “close by” are two very different meanings.” He chuckled and agreed, “Mm-hmm.”

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