The Learning Curve

alaska hunting expedition, dall sheep, DIY hunting

“Story and pictures by Drew Kress about his adventure into hunting Alaska. Many view Alaska as a hunters paradise with abundant game and fish in the mountains and rivers. There’s some critters running around, but not around every drainage. Hunting the last frontier is tougher than buying a tag, booking a ticket, and jumping in a bush plane. Just like with any endeavour, there is a learning curve and Alaska’s is near vertical.” – Austin

No question that in some shape or form, the things we love to do were spawned from some type of inspiration. Some may argue that is engraved into our DNA, but I will argue the opposite. No matter what it may be, someone or something has given us a vision in our heads of what we want to set out to accomplish. Education, career, relationships or whatever it may be. I am here to talk about hunting. For most of us our fathers pointed us in the right direction to experience hunting and spark our ever-growing love for the outdoors. For others it could have come from friends, books or something we just can’t explain. Whatever it may be there was some type of learning curved involved. Some may climb the mountain of growth quick, but for some it may take years to figure out how to create personal growth and how to go about gaining the knowledge. Over the years, I have come to learn that the growth you accumulate all depends on how willing you are to put yourself out there and how you perceive the activity as a whole. This is my story of the learning curve.

The way I see it there are two types of “hunting” in north America. There’s “Western hunting” which involves a lot of walking, glassing and hiking to find your game. Practically east of the continental divide you have your whitetail and turkey hunting that involves a lot of sitting and waiting. Rather than covering lots of miles, terrain and spending time behind binoculars, you scout small and hidden chunks of land looking for game trials, deer sign, choke points, food and possibly water. The way you define “success” in this style of hunting comes in many ways. When I was growing up, harvesting any deer was an accomplishment to me. I went about it with either a gun or a bow and thoroughly enjoyed both. At a young age I immediately found it fascinating to go out into the woods, kill a deer and eat it. With that satisfaction erupting in me, I even took it upon myself to learn how to trap and hunt small game as well. To be able to do it at a young age sort of sparked a path that I continue to walk on to this day. That is to be able to go out, be self-sustaining and not have to buy meat at a grocery store. I ended up doing this from the time I was about twelve years old to when I left for the Army. What I enjoyed most was that every year I was getting better at it. I learned from my mistakes and applied it to the next time I hunted, or the next season. In my head I was set out to be a whitetail killer. When I turned eighteen, I had made the decision to join the Army to be an Airborne Infantrymen. Little did I know that this would pave a totally new path for me as a hunter and an outdoorsman. My first six months of the Army involved a lot of carrying around heavy packs, retraining your brain to ignore body pain and sleeping on ground in the woods. There was certainly a lot more involved, but I mention only those because it has trained me to become a better hunter. After I completed Airborne school, I was given papers that informed me I was being sent to Fort Richardson, Alaska to be a part of the Airborne Infantry brigade located in Anchorage. “I am the luckiest dude in the world” I said to myself, but little did I know the frustration and challenges I was about to undergo. My first year in Alaska was 2015. It was more than safe to say I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t even know where to start. Coming from my whitetail and tree stand hunting background, I was totally lacking the knowledge on what to do. The next two years I went on an embarrassing tangent of trying to hunt Alaska’s big game in the way I would hunt whitetail deer in Wisconsin. Apart of that reason was time off issues and also not having a clue of what to do. Looking back now I find my efforts hysterical. As you can guess no success came of those two years, and I honestly didn’t know any better. Insanity is in a way defined as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. It was safe to say I was going insane. It wasn’t until two years later when I had gone on a moose hunt South-east of Fairbanks that I had realized that it’s time to start going about things differently. “How do I go about things differently?” I asked myself over and over. The amount of failure I was experiencing was exhausting. I had tried to find mentors to show me the path to success in the field, but I was never able to find the help that I needed.

In 2017 my Brigade had received orders to deploy to Afghanistan to participate in the fight for Operation Freedom Sentential. We were set to leave in early September and return the end of May the following year. “Another year without meat and another year I wouldn’t nourish my souls in the wild lands” I thought to myself. Though I was excited to do great things, I was let down that another year of my passion is going to be put on hold. Throughout my time in Afghanistan I took it upon myself to reeducate my ways of hunting in Alaska. I wanted more than anything to close the gap and be able to become a knowledgeable hunter who understands the game he’s hunting, knows where to go and has the traits to make the experience in the back country enjoyable. So, I decided to order books, watch videos and listen to a lot of podcasts on DIY hunting in the west. By the time my deployment was over I had read over two dozen books, watched a crazy number of hours of Alaska hunting videos and likewise with hunting podcasts. I overall tried to retrain the way I thought about hunting. My old mindset was more focused on killing and getting meat rather than actually enjoying the activity of hunting and apricating its attributes that establish gratitude in you. I was fully invested and ready to tighten my bootstraps, hunt hard and enjoy Alaska’s back country. The months overseas went by and I finally got off the plane from the trip back across the world. I was hit in the face with fresh air and the smell of what seemed like freshly browsed willows. I wanted to cry I was so happy. It was mid-May and my plans were to make a spring bear trip happen. I had saved up a bunch of money and had time off to make it happen this time. A family friend in Glenn Allen had invited me out to put out some bear baits in the area. I spent the next two weeks with him learning how to go about bear baiting. I learned as much as I could from him by asking questions and taking a detailed note of everything he did. After a week and some change, we had bears coming into the bait consistently. After one sit in the stand we had a black bear come in. After all these years of trying, I had harvested my first big game animal in Alaska. I was excited for many reasons. My first black bear, getting meat in the freezer and finally over coming my years of nothing. After recovering the bear, my friend who was a lifelong Alaskan showed me his way of skinning the bear and how to break down an animal to haul it out on your back. This knowledge I gained from my buddy gave me more excitement than the pull of the trigger.

After finally accomplishing a successful big game harvest in Alaska, I wanted so much more. I had felt like I got the smallest crumb of the best and tastiest pie in the world. As the summer went by, I continued to train for my planned hunts this fall. I would go hike, shoot my rifle consistently, practice glassing, research my hunt areas and just about anything productive that came to mind. I know I wanted to be successful, but I also wanted to continue to change my definition and perspective on success. With everything moving along properly, I was growing more and more excited that fall was coming.

The August of 2018 had finally arrived. The pictures I painted in my head the last few years were finally presenting themselves and they were beautiful. As I usually do, I got lucky in Alaska’s lottery drawing and got a tag for a Caribou hunt and an any Bull Moose tag. With these two trips and another planned on Kodiak, I was ready to embrace everything that these adventures had been holding for me. Overall, my outlook was to peak and plateau on my learning curve of Alaska hunting that I had been walking on for a few years. If I could go out with a good attitude, be persistent and be ready to learn at every turn of the corner I knew I would be satisfied with myself.

The planned trips came quickly, and next thing I knew a buddy and I were hiking into the Alaska back country for my first Caribou hunt. This was my first backpack style hunt and thankfully I had somewhat quality gear to sustain myself. Due to a bad winter die off, the hunt was restricted to bull caribou only. The first day we walked along a creek till dark and set up our camp. The next few days we hiked, got soaking wet, covered lots of country but we were unable to turn up a bull. We floated down the river in our pack rafts back to the truck and reflected on our trip. I found myself complaining quite a bit and moaning about the lack of time we had for the hunt, the bull only rule and my gear that had failed me and my expectations. My hunting partner discussed the fun he had and positives he experienced on the trip. I ended up feeling very guilty later for adding negativity to our hunting trip. This ended up being the first time I really took a deep look at myself in the mirror and my attitude towards hunting adventures. It was the slap in the face that I needed.

When I got back from that trip, I truly realized that I needed to change my wilderness attitude. A few months went by, and in October my four and a half years in the Army had come to an end. My biggest intention was to leave the military and find a job that would allow me to spend an ample amount of time hunting throughout the year. To celebrate my life change, I invited my father and two brothers up for a hunting and fishing extravaganza on the Kodiak Archipelago. We were going to target mountain goat and Sitka black tail deer. Being the only one with experience hunting in Alaska I was the “leader” of our group. Setting the example and making the decisions on an adventure reminded me of how to lead troops in the Army. It’s important to have a good attitude, to look after each other and help out in any way possible. I ended up helping out a lot by carrying some of my father’s gear and also being the brush busting man and blazing a trail up the mountain to the goats. Through the hike up we hit plenty of physical and mental obstacles. Physical fatigue, your mind telling you to turn around and go back down, not finding goats where you expected and all the other small hiccups that add doubt to your mind. There were some moments I was the only reason they stayed on the mountain to continue the trip.

A few hours before dark we set up spike camp on the alpine and racked out. It was a very cold night in early November and the shivering cold added a lot of fatigue to all of us. Right before day light, I crawled out of my frozen sleeping bag, put on my frozen boots and hiked around with my little brother to find the Goats. It didn’t take long and I found the group hanging out on the mountain side a quarter mile from camp. I woke up my dad and brother, then we hiked up toward the goats, snuck into rifle range and each harvested a goat. After a long and very heavy pack down I had felt that I had made a significant improvement to my self motivation and persistence on a hunting trip. Maybe it was because I required myself to be the example, or maybe some things just finally clicked. Even though I got my first Billy Goat, I was more excited about how the trip had went as a whole and how I had bettered myself as a hunter and a person.

Since my trip on Kodiak, I have developed a new perspective on how I measure success as an Outdoorsman. I used to spend so much time trying to skip the middle pieces of hunting in Alaska, but when I walked the whole path required, I found the feelings I had been missing. I sometimes blame my old perspective on the culture of hunting where I grew up, rather than measuring the hunt based on your enjoyment and the knowledge you gained, it was measured on the size of antler and how quickly you could be done hunting. Before the self-realization on hunting perspective, I never felt or found fulfillment out in nature. Rather than going out just to kill, I have now learned to focus more on going out into nature to truly enjoy myself, relax, gain knowledge and hone my idea on the activity of hunting. Since I’ve been going about it this way, I have learned more about hunting in the last year than I’ve learned my whole life. My process of figuring out how to hunt in Alaska was really just based off of my own perspective of success. I no longer go out there with only the intention to kill. I’m out there for the pure challenge, the connection to the land, finding peace in its roots, feeling the greatness of success and even the crippling despair. They’re the highest level of emotions I feel in life and it drives me to do well in everything I can. My friendships, relationships, school, work and everything else I do feel totally different to me and in a great way. It’s safe to say that a change in your perspective can make your life better in a lot of ways. It’s a learning curve that you just can’t quit.

Photographing Dall Sheep In Alaska By Jerry Herrod

dall sheep, hunting, Hunting Alaska, photography

Dall Sheep photography in Alaska can require as much effort as it takes to harvest a full curl Ram during the Sheep Season or be as pleasant as driving down the road and finding them close enough to shoot from the comfort of your vehicle with a smaller telephoto zoom lens. 

Twister

While not for everyone, the Dall Sheep is an important animal to add to any Alaska photographers portfolio and if you’re a true sheep nut at heart, it’s also a good way to keep track of population trends and horn growth if you spend enough time in a certain area. 

Hierarchy

If you’re already a mountain hunter, you’ve probably already collected most of the outdoor gear necessary to hit the mountains and start looking for sheep, minus a camera and/or lenses. If you aren’t, you’ll want quality gear and clothing to help keep you warm and safe on a outing in the mountains. 

Dressing in appropriate layers for warmth and and quality raingear is a necessity in the mountains, along with trekking poles and quality hiking boots designed for alpine walking. Dress for the season and dress in layers. You can shed or put back on multiple lighter layers and control your body temperature better than wearing only one bulky set of insulated pants and jacket. The more active you are, the more layers you can shed and when you stop to photograph for longer periods you can put those extra layers back on to stay warm. 

A good set of binoculars ranging from 8×32 up through 10×42 are more than sufficient to help with spotting Sheep from a distance and analyzing their behavior. 

Sheep are like any other wild animal and are constantly aware of their surroundings and anything not natural to the terrain. At the same time each Sheep is an individual animal and certain animals tolerate a photographer getting into position for a shot more than others. It’s all in how you approach to get within range of the lens you’re using. I would recommend learning Dall Sheep behavior from a biological and conservationist standpoint before trying to spend a lot of time climbing and trying to get within photo range of sheep. Learning animal behavior before heading into the field will help prepare you to get the photo you’re looking for. Many resources are available with some internet searching from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, US Fish & Wildlife Service and reading up on what professional photographers have published and made available in books or online. 

Approach to mountain animals such as sheep requires time, patience and being physically capable of climbing to where the animals will be. It’s no small feat and the trip to and from your location to shoot may require most of your day just to get there and back leaving as little as a few hours to collect images. 

Any camera is capable of collecting an image nowadays, even the camera in your smart phone but much of the basic camera gear available might require you to get too close to the animals and just pushing them out of the country totally. You’ll be left sitting watching sheep running for the next mountain over and just spending the rest of the day hiking down a mountain with nothing to show for all your effort and climbing. 

Getting serious about photographing mountain animals such as sheep or goats or any animal that lives above treeline often requires more specialized camera gear. Quality camera gear is often expensive but, you can often find big telephoto lenses used and substantially cheaper than their newer counterparts. 

I shoot on a Canon camera and lenses but it comes down to personal preference and ease of use for the individual. Many people get wrapped around the axles on high end photography gear for wildlife photography and having the latest and greatest gear (sound familiar with you sheep hunting nuts out there?).  For example, with some time spent on a internet search or occasionally checking the local camera shop, you might find a used 100-400mm zoom lens and a quality DSLR body for under $2,000.00. That along with a small tripod for stability, a high speed SD memory card and a few extra batteries and you’ve got a reasonably good walk-about wildlife photography kit that will cover most of what you’ll want to shoot and allow you to stay reasonably safe distances from the wildlife you’re trying to photograph. 

More advanced gear may consist of a kit comprised of a 500mm or 600mm supertelephoto prime lens, large carbon fiber tripod and extended battery grip to allow for longer sessions before changing batteries. The larger lenses are heavy, and photo gear can quickly weigh as much as what you might take for a week long expedition hike in the mountains. 

If you already have a handle on basic digital photography, understanding of exposure, aperture and light, I could suggest some camera gear based on experiences in the field. I won’t dive into specifics on each brand for now, but Nikon and Canon are two of the more well known manufacturers. 

Keeping one eye open always

Keep in mind that each company produces entry level lenses and higher end lenses that are specific to entry level camera bodies,mid-range and pro-grade camera bodies. Do your research before you buy and ensure that the lens you’re getting is compatible with the camera body you’re buying it for. 

This list isn’t exclusive and some lenses have been left out. Some popular wildlife lenses for collecting longer range images are;

Canon 70-200mm f4 zoom

Canon 70-300mm f4-f5.6 zoom

Canon 100-400mm f4.5-f5.6 zoom

Canon 400mm f4 prime 

Canon 400mm f5.6 prime

Canon 500mm f4 prime

Canon 600mm f4 prime

Nikon 70-200mm f4 zoom

Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-f5.6 zoom

Nikon 80-400mm f4.5-f5.6 zoom

Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 zoom

Nikon 400mm f2.8 prime

Nikon 500mm f5.6 prime

Nikon 600mm f4 prime

Sigma 150-600mm f5-f6.3 zoom (produced by Sigma for both Canon and Nikon)

Tamron 150-600mm f5-f6.3 zoom (produced by Tamron for both Canon and Nikon)

With the zoom lenses you’ll be able to have a greater range and style of images to collect versus a large heavy prime lens glass. The prime lenses are big, cumbersome and not something most people are going to want to carry for several miles of hiking, especially in uneven and up and down terrain you’ll find hiking along steep slopes and hillsides on the mountains. Add a tripod large enough to support a ten pound prime lens and DSLR body and it becomes very cumbersome very quickly. A zoom lens will allow for a lot of versatility and allow for portrait style shots as well as collecting a landscape style environmental shot with an animal. With the large prime lenses you’re relegated to having to walking closer to, or further away, from your subject to frame the image properly for the shot. Just a few things to think about when you are deciding on if which wildlife lense you’re going to buy. Some people will prefer versatility of the zoom lens while others might be more confortable with the prime lenses and shooting from a tripod further away from the subject they are photographing. 

Tripods- Tripods will help you get a more stable shot with no operator introduced camera shake. The modern zoom lenses have amazing image stabilization built in but you wont be able to hold the camera and lens as steady as if you would be shooting from a tripod to support your kit.  I would recommend a carbon fiber tripod with a rating to hold the weight of your camera body and lens kit. The last thing you’ll want is a tripod too light for the kit you’re using and not being stable enough to prevent minor vibrations that might affect your image quality. Some quality tripods are produced by Gitzo, Manfrotto, Pro Media Gear, Sirui and Really Right Stuff. Whatever tripod you buy, I would recommend one that allows you to fold the legs out flat so you can allow yourself to lay down prone on the ground and photography from a low position of you need to. Mountain terrain is uneven and you might set up a tripod for taking a photo from a standing, kneeling or laying down position. 

Tripod Heads- There are many heads available for mounting the camera or lens to your tripod. Some are designed more specifically for wildlife such as gimbal heads, that allow you to more easily track and move with the wildlife subject. Ball heads can work just as well but may not track a moving subject as easily, but are often times less cumbersome than the gimbal head. Like with the cameras and lenses, it comes down to personal preference and ease of use.  

If you find yourself in a roadside situation and photographing from your vehicle, you might consider a photography bean bag to rest your camera on while setting your lens out your window. It will allow you to have a stable and even rest for your lens. 

Quality gear can cost as much or as little as you want to spend depending on if you’re buying it new or used. Don’t be afraid to buy used camera gear since many people are often upgrading gear as soon as the next new model camera body or lens is released and the savings is passed on to you when you buy used. Most photographers take reasonably good care of their gear and you might find a diamond in the rough if you take some time searching for gear and doing your homework.The accessory gear is also often found used and reasonable priced. Some internet searching can come up with quality used tripods and tripod heads for wildlife photography. 

I won’t be able to give specific locations on where to go, but most of the mountain ranges in Alaska hold Dall Sheep and with a some hiking and climbing you can get to some amazing places you may not have seen otherwise. The landscape alone and the views you’ll see is just as amazing as seeing the grand animals of the mountains. There’s a lot of Alaska out there to experience.