Field and Stream
The Old Man and the Mountains
I know Phil Caputo socially and remember a phone call that led up to this hunt. He and I are the same age—62 at the time of the call—and he wanted my opinion on a sheepand-grizzly hunt he was thinking of taking in Alaska’s Brooks Range. “You’ll die up there,” I said. “You’re 20 years too old.”
This did not deter Caputo. He went anyway. In his time he had survived a year in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, an assassination attempt by mobsters when he was a newspaper reporter, a kidnapping by Lebanese militiamen, a bullet in the ankle by same, and God knows what else. Death by sheep hunt held no terrors for him.
“The Old Man and the Mountains” can serve as a model for all adventure stories. Its theme is a universal one—our battle with age, which we are all destined to lose—combined with the best hunting yarn and travelogue you have ever read. —D.E.P.
THE BROOKS ARE THE wildest mountains you’ll find anywhere. Through their canyons and high passes, the last great caribou herds on Earth make annual pilgrimages to the coastal plain, gathering in such numbers that the tundra itself seems to be in motion. Moose browse among sparse willows fringing nameless creeks; the barren-ground grizzly lumbers across alpine meadows with an imperious tread; the gray wolf howls beneath the boreal fires of the northern lights; and Dall sheep graze on pastures that look almost vertical.
* * *
The ram’s horns were only threequarter curls, meaning we could not shoot it. Only rams with full curls are legal game. The news was not entirely a letdown. It was only the first day of a 12-day hunt, and the first day of any hunt is like the first day of a honeymoon—disappointment seems impossible.
* * *
Shouldering rifles and packs, we tramped some 2 miles up a drainage paved with more rocks than there are stars in the heavens: big rocks, small rocks, smooth rocks, sharp rocks, round, square, and triangular rocks, rocks upon rocks, an anklebending ordeal. The braids of a nameless creek twined through the geologic rubble, disappearing underground for a spell, reappearing farther on, the canyon narrowing as it climbed between scree-swept slopes, the slopes rising toward crags and spires that, partly veiled in mist, looked like fortress walls guarding some mythic kingdom.
* * *
As we trudged up a slope to glass for game, [my guide Dave] Marsh observed that I was struggling and offered some advice. “You’re fighting this country,” he said. “You’ve got to roll with it because you’ll never win. Best you can do is break even.” I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t the country I was fighting—it was my years, another battle I couldn’t win.
* * *
Wilderness possesses an inherent value that cannot be quantified, and that value increases as our wilderness decreases. ANWR is among the very last authentically wild regions in North America. To my mind, drilling would take the wild out of it. Putting derricks, pump stations, and pipelines into that natural cathedral would be like installing a gambling casino in St. Peter’s Basilica.
* * *
The sun came out, the sun vanished, and freezing rain lashed the Kate Creek valley. In such weather, the Brooks Range becomes a formidable place. Soaring abruptly from the river basins, peaks as gaunt and sharp as flint arrowheads frowned through the enshrouding mists and talked to me: You, little man, travel here on my terms, not yours, and I can kill you any time I choose.
* * *
In my memory flashed images of the two rams resting 1,000 feet above us. Next year, one might be legal, but would I be capable of hunting them?
* * *
There comes a point in life when you’re not as old as you feel, but as old as you are.
February and March 2004