ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- When it comes to bison hunting in Alaska, the odds don't favor hunters. They must beat long odds just to get a shot at one of the animals--about 2,000 people applied for the 10 permits awarded this year to hunt the Farewell herd--and then they must actually find and shoot a bison, which are too skittish, too speedy and often too far afield to be considered an easy target.
Yet Gene Vik made it look as easy as Buffalo Bill did 150 years ago while taking down thousands of bison when they roamed the Great Plains.
At least Buffalo Bill wore boots. Vik was in his stocking feet, about 25 feet from his tent, when he got his.
The only way Vik's story could get more incredible is if he gets his wish and, after waiting the required 10 years between receiving a bison permit and applying for another one, he enters and wins the lottery again in 2020.
He'll be 92 then.
Vik, 82, got his bison at the end of September. A resident of Alaska since before statehood, Vik waited years to get his shot at one of the animals.
"I've gotten plenty of caribou and moose, and there's just something about (a bison)," he said. "The permit is really tough to get, so you feel awfully lucky if you get one."
You feel even luckier if you get a bison the way Vik got his.
Vik and hunting partner Ole Erickson spent a couple days looking for bison on the Farewell Burn east of Nikolai before calling their pilot and asking to be picked up and taken to another spot.
"We arrived around 5 p.m., and there was a small herd--but it was about two or three miles from where the Super Cub landed," Vik said. "So we opted not to (pursue the animals) and went to bed early.
"Around 7:30 or 7:45 the next morning, Ole said, 'Did you hear that?'
"We unzipped the flap of the tent and about 50 yards off there were 25 or 30 animals.
"Usually I keep a rifle in the tent, but the rifles were under a tarp about 25 yards from the tent. I was in my stocking feet. I was able to knock one down and then they stampeded all over the place."
Told of Vik's success, spokesman Riley Woodford of the state Department of Fish and Game was amazed.
Bison might seem like they're just standing around like cattle, he said, but they aren't easy to get.
"There's a misconception this is an easy hunt, and everyone I've ever talked to says it's a really hard hunt," he said. "Bison are skittish, smart and really fast. People have seen them jump over seven-foot fences."
And unlike the Great Plains bison that numbered in the millions before their slaughter by early settlers and railroad workers, bison in the Farewell herd are few and very far between.
Of the 900 bison in Alaska, about half are in the Delta Junction herd, which numbered 435 in a pre-hunt count done by Fish and Game in 2009. The rest are in three smaller herds.
The Farewell herd lives primarily along the south fork of the Kuskokwim River. In the late 1990s, the herd included 350 animals, but the number had dropped to 200 by last year, according to the state Division of Wildlife Conservation's 2010 report.
The Copper River herd numbered 143 and the Chitina herd numbered 41 in 2009, the report said.
The Delta herd is the only one accessible by the road system. For the others, access is by plane, snowmachine or riverboat. In a five-year span from 2002-06, bison hunters reported a success rate of 68 percent, Fish and Game statistics show.
Remarkably, Vik won one of the coveted bison permits once before, but he couldn't work out the logistics. When he learned his name had been drawn again, he got to work right away to make sure the hunt would happen.
"This hunt," his wife Helen said, "took precedent over everything in this family for a whole month."
The bison is still getting a lot of attention.
A taxidermist is working on the 100-pound head; Vik said he's giving it to Erickson.
A tanner is working on the hide; Mrs. Vik said she's given orders for it to go to the family cabin at Nancy Lake. "I don't want it in the house," she said.
As for the rest of the beast, the Viks are at once enamored by the flavor of the meat and organs but astonished by the amount of fat.
Gene's surprise came as he field-dressed the animal.
"It was so doggone fat. It's the fattest animal I've seen. Just gobs of yellow. Just terrible," he said.
Back in Anchorage, Helen was surprised too.
"I had thought we would have a lot more meat," she said.
Not that the couple's freezer is empty. Helen cooked one-quarter of the five-pound heart and froze the rest. There's 150 pounds of sausage and hamburger. There are steaks and stew meat. And from the 14-pound liver came more than 30 pounds of yummy liverwurst.
"It's really, really delicious," Helen said. "It's much better than any moose liver I've had."
The Viks have hunted and fished in Alaska for decades. Gene came to Alaska as a member of the Army Air Force in 1947 -- one of the coldest winters on record, he said. He opted to stay and make his home here.
"It was pretty free and easy-going back in those days," he said. "I voted against statehood. I didn't want to give up all of my freedoms. And I did."
Helen came to Alaska in 1951. Both are from Minnesota, but they met in Alaska, married in 1952 and raised four daughters in Anchorage.
Vik started Superior Millworks and owned it for 20 years--until the late 1980s. He officially retired in 2000, but his talents as a handyman keep him busy. "I've got quite a few widows and divorcees I have to do work for," he said.
Helen, 79, doesn't hunt anymore but she still fishes. Gene hunts, fishes and maintains the family's Nancy Lake cabin.
"I've had it since '61 but I don't think I've ever stopped working on it," he said.
Soon, the cabin will feature a big, warm buffalo hide. Vik has always wanted a buffalo cape, which is one of the reasons he kept applying for a bison permit over the years.
"Alaska Fur Factory is making a robe out of it, except the wife says I can't have it in the house," he said. "Maybe I'll just sleep outside in it."
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