FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Nineteen is too young to have a bucket list, unless, of course, you are 19 and are either terminally ill or about to engage in an activity that might get you killed.
Nineteen-year-old Javier Hernandez and his two friends are as healthy as horses, but are about to do something very brave but very dangerous.
Hernandez and his companions, Tony Ayres, 19, and Phil Tesolin, 23, are U.S. Army soldiers. They are scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in May 2011.
Tesolin has already served one tour in Iraq, but for Hernandez and Ayres, Afghanistan will be their first time in a war zone.
None of the soldiers would call their excursion to the Alaskan Arctic in September 2010 an item on any bucket list, but all acknowledge everything they do these days carries extra sentimental value and significance.
"Who knows what will happen over there," said Tesolin with an uneasy grin on his face. "I know I just wanted one last great hunt with my friends before I left."
All three men currently live in Fairbanks, Alaska, either on or near the Fort Wainwright Army Base, though none are from Alaska.
Though Tesolin, a Michigander, had done a little hunting in his short time in Alaska, Hernandez and Ayres had not.
Both had some hunting experience in their home states of Texas and Oklahoma, but nothing from home compared to the massive moose they had already encountered while in Alaska.
Nevertheless, all three decided to take the long Labor Day weekend to drive north from Fairbanks on the legendary Dalton Highway to try and kill some caribou north of the Arctic Circle.
Adapting to circumstances
What they found when they passed over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range and descended down onto the arctic tundra surprised them.
"I thought there would be more trees," Hernandez said.
More surprising for all of them, however, was the lack of caribou they encountered along the road.
"We hoped to run into some bulls near the road, but when we didn't see any, we just kept pushing farther and farther back," he said, somewhat dejected.
Though the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says its Central Arctic Caribou Herd hovers around 32,000 animals, they are often spread over a large area.
Sometimes the Central Arctic Herd is crowded along the entire Dalton Highway corridor, but other times they are still in the mountains.
Unfortunately, when the soldiers arrived on the tundra, the bulk of the herd was still residing in mountain drainages.
Still not acknowledging the trip was part of any bucket list, but determined to see some caribou for fear they might never get another chance, the men approached a bush pilot operating off the Dalton Highway, and asked if he could fly them to a place where there were more caribou.
When the pilot told them how much just the fuel would cost to get all of them in and out of the mountains with gear and caribou, Tesolin jokingly responded, "My wife gave me $200 for this trip. I guess that wasn't enough."
"Money isn't everything," answered Hernandez. "Let's go for it."
Ayres agreed and Tesolin, being the highest-ranking soldier, broke out his credit card.
As the men began sorting through their gear in preparation for the unplanned adventure, it was apparent none had ever been flown into a remote Alaskan Arctic drainage before.
Though all intended to hunt, they only had one rifle between them. For safety, they carried two sidearms, and for fun, they took along one bow.
They only had one small three-man tent for the three of them and were woefully under-stocked with food. In the very real event they could not be picked up in three days, as they planned, their camp would likely get real uncomfortable real fast.
Nevertheless, all three said their military training would get them through anything. Additionally, all three had complete faith that any one of them could take care of the other two in an emergency.
So, with a little extra gear and food from the pilot, the soldiers piled into the bush plane and headed to the mountains, completely unaware of what they were about to encounter.
As the plane approached the remote drainage, a small herd of caribou meandered across the rocky creek below them.
Already they had seen more caribou on this leg of the trip than they encountered in several days along the road.
More importantly, the soldiers were excited to get started.
Before going to sleep that night, they decided they would take turns with the rifle. Not long after exiting the tent, the first tag was filled, and the gun was passed to the next man.
"It might not have been necessary, but we used our military training to get close to the caribou," Hernandez said. "It just came naturally to apply my guerilla training out there, and it worked."
"Happily, the caribou didn't shoot back at us," added Ayres.
In only three days, all three soldiers killed bull caribou, learned to butcher them out of necessity, and gained a deeper appreciation for the Alaskan wilderness.
"I'm a little nervous about going oversees, but at the same time, I'm excited to get a chance to do the job the Army trained me to do," Hernandez said. "After the experience I just had here, I can also say I'm sure I'll not only return to the U.S., but also to this place to hunt with these guys."