The Shot Less Taken

By Eric Pittman

I am often asked why I feel the need to own a gun, hunt animals or shoot at a range. These develop into other questions about reloading and very frequently safety. Gun politics are a subject for another article, but the need I feel to own a gun is perhaps best illustrated by my tour of duty in Fairbanks Alaska.

From all parts of the Last Frontier spring tales both beautiful and gross, of hunts gone both right and completely astray. My own adventures into the wild of Alaska were like the uncertain steps of a newborn fawn. I felt clumsy but somehow at home. As luck would have it I was born in Fairbanks AK, but was moved with my family before I could even walk. Years later I was back, thanks to old Uncle Sam. There I did his bidding for 3 years, and enjoyed them all.

During my second year a group of servicemen including myself decided to take a trip to a place called Galbraith Lake. Just search the Internet for "Galbraith Lake" and you'll get some idea of what we were looking at. During April there's still snow everywhere at this latitude. The trip up cost us two tires, a frozen carb (on my truck--scared the heck out of me, it stuck open in Atigun Pass), and essentially rock-stripped the undersides of both vehicles. With us were two compound bows and a few shotguns for Ptarmigan hunting. The archers would be after Caribou. As the Alaska Pipeline runs parallel to the road we were on, firearms are illegal within 5 miles of the road. We intended to walk in after our birds while the bow hunters sought their prey just off the roadbed.

I've never seen so many animals in one spot at one time. We watched the herd migrate across the highway miles ahead of us. In the clear air even individual legs were visible. It's definitely the most incredible thing I've ever seen.

We went home with no Caribou and no birds. No one felt like they'd struck out. One of the archers had a really decent shot as a 'bou essentially snuck up behind him, but it bounded out of range before he could shoot.

The second was the summer a year later. My friend John and I had taken up panning for gold on a claim. It seems an older friend of John's had the claim but was too frail to really work it, so out we went. The water in this small river was pretty cold. It was the 4th of July weekend and I figure it was less than 40 degrees.

Midway through our second day I saw a tree tip over at the edge of the natural clearing we were using for a base camp. The tree-felling culprit soon showed herself and her cub. A bear had broken a rotted tree open for the grubs or whatever else inside. I pulled my 7mm Mag Model 70 to my shoulder, bolt open and back. I just wanted to look, and be ready in case we were less-than-invited. From about 75 yards she looked our way; stood in all her majesty, then dropped to all fours. Fortunately, she was just sniffing. There, in the river with our feet sunk six inches into the river bottom and water up to our waist, we'd have been easy meat.

A griz in Yellowstone from your car is one thing. To see one where she was hungry and hunting, with a cub to feed, was quite another. Realize that we were the closest 300 lbs. plus of meat within a few miles, and probably the easiest to kill. A rifle cartridge never looked so small and a gun never felt so flimsy.

So, in the end I'm glad the gun was there, both times. It was the instrument of the hunt, and the thing that guarded our lives. I own guns because when they're with me I'm enjoying life more. When I'm armed I'm out doing what I like, the things I want to do, not the things I have to do. There's fun without guns, for certain, but nothing beats the thrill of the outdoors, face-to-face with something majestic.

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Copyright 2003 by Eric Pittman. All rights reserved.