Matt Yernatich had made Alaskan hunting trips before. But in September of 2009, he flew to the South Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range for a hunt that would top all the others.
Yernatich spends most of his time preserving hunting and fishing memories for others. For the past 32 years, he has been a taxidermist and owns Artistic Anglers, a replica fish and taxidermy studio in Rice Lake.
On previous Alaskan trips, Yernatich had shot moose, caribou, a Dall sheep and a brown bear.
Now he was going back, hoping to shoot a grizzly and another moose. And if the opportunity arose, he would consider taking another Dall sheep, too.
“I was an equal-opportunity hunter,” said Yernatich, 56. “If the opportunity presented itself, I would hunt it.”
He booked the trip with Jim Kedrowski’s Alaska Hunting Expeditions, flying from Fairbanks to Coldfoot and then by Beaver to a camp on the banks of the North Fork of the Chandalar River. Yernatich had hunted with Kedrowski, originally from Minnesota, on previous trips.
The Chandalar River gathers water from four drainages and flows south into the Yukon River. The river is just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Each day, Yernatich, along with Kedrowski and an assistant guide, would ride horses up various drainages, climb to an overlook and use binoculars to search for game.
On an earlier trip with Kedrowski, the guide had asked Yernatich if he had ridden horses before.
“No,” Yernatich told Kedrowski, “but I’ve watched a lot of Westerns.”
Kedrowski just laughed, and Yernatich quickly grew comfortable with riding.
The Chandalar country is vast and mostly tundra with clusters of willows along creeks. Mountains rise to 4,000 feet or more. Yernatich and two other hunters in Kedrowski’s camp on this last trip of the year would see nobody else during the week, just one helicopter flying below them in the Chandalar valley.
On Yernatich’s second day in camp, the hunters spotted a grizzly, rode their horses across the river and made a sneak toward it on foot. Yernatich shot the grizzly at 228 yards with his .30-06. The bear measured 72 inches from nose to tail, Yernatich said, probably weighing 400 to 500 pounds.
He spent the next day in camp fleshing its hide so he could do a lifesize mount of the bear. That tanned hide is still in the freezer in Duluth awaiting mounting.
“Mounting my own grizzly doesn’t pay the bills,” Yernatich said with a laugh.
Looking for a moose
Yernatich and his guides spent the next two days glassing for moose before deciding to ride five or six miles to a spike camp downriver. On the ride, they spotted the head and antlers of a moose high on a ridge. Yernatich, working downwind, made the climb on foot toward the moose, eventually getting above it on the mountain.
Finally, he saw its head. The moose was lying in the brush. When Kedrowski approached it from below, the moose stood up. Shooting freehand from less than 100 yards, Yernatich dropped the moose, which had a 52-inch antler spread.
The moose wasn’t as large as Yernatich had thought it might be when he originally saw it from below. But he didn’t hesitate to take it when he had the opportunity.
“It doesn’t have to be a huge trophy in my eyes,” Yernatich said. “It’s about the experience and the memory.”
He and his guides loaded the meat and hide on the horses and made the trip back to camp. A shoulder mount of the moose now hangs in the Artistic Anglers taxidermy studio.
Time for a sheep
With time left in his hunt — and perfect weather — he and his guides rode a couple of hours to a spike camp on another day to go sheep hunting. In the rugged terrain, they climbed high to look for sheep. Yernatich had done hill running at Chester Bowl, along with a lot of walking and bicycling, to prepare for the physical demands of the trip. That paid off in the mountains.
“My motto was, ‘I may not beat you to the top, but I’m gonna get to the top,’” he said.
He and his guides spotted several sheep high above them late one day. They decided to spend the night at the spike camp and try to find the rams in the morning.
In the morning, they hiked to the top of the mountain, where they looked into a basin and observed the sheep walking . One of the rams was legal to shoot, having large enough horns.
Yernatich took several shots from 432 yards and a finishing shot at 50 yards. The ram had 37-inch horns and was estimated to be 9½ years old, he said.
Like the grizzly hide, Yernatich’s ram hide is tanned and in safekeeping. Yernatich plans a full-body mount of the ram.
He had taken a grizzly, a moose and a Dall sheep in six and a half days of hunting. He’s the only client of Kedrowski’s to take three animals in such a short time frame.
“To do that, the weather has to be perfect,” Yernatich said. “We had no rain, and it was maybe in the 20s to low 30s at night. The stars and planets were aligned…”
While taking the animals was rewarding, Yernatich said, what made the trip so memorable was the hunting, the country, his guides and the camp camaraderie. The evening he shot the grizzly remains indelible in his memory.
“The moon was out,” he said, “and we were riding back to camp along the riverbed. It was dead quiet. You could hear the water in the river, the horses’ hooves clanking on the rocks. You could see sparks coming from the hooves. It was a full moon. It was the three of us, nobody talking. The horses knew the way. They wanted to get back to camp. You’re just riding along. And I’m thinking, ‘There’s something mystical about this. I’m a lucky guy to be able to experience it.’ ”