As seen in the Winter 2015 issue of the Boone & Crockett's publication Fair Chase!
As the oversized balloon tires of the Piper super cub touch down my mind started to race with excitement. Once on the ground and firmly stopped, the piolet quickly handed me my gear and readied himself for takeoff. “I’ll be back in a few with your buddie” he yelled, and with some throttle the wheels of the plane were off the ground heading back toward civilization. Within seconds I was all alone and surrounded by the only the sounds of Mother Nature. I impatiently pulled my binoculars out to take a look toward the mountain side we flew by just before landing. As I scanned the steep slopes it wasn’t long before I was able to decipher rock from antler. Looking closer I was able to pick out several young bulls. “On the ground less than 5 minutes and already seeing caribou” I murmured under my breath still glassing. Collecting my pack and rifle I moved away from the tiny rock air strip, roughly 500 yards up the mountain side where I had camped years before. This was my third hunting trip in this area and to most people it was another rugged Alaskan mountain valley, but to me it was much more.
In the last four years I have been fortunate enough to pull this draw tag for Caribou three times. My first two hunts were successful, harvesting very nice bulls. In fact, the first bull I took in this valley was my first big game animal in Alaska and where I cut my teeth on Alaska hunting. Several years later my cousin Andy made me return the favor for helping me pack out that caribou, by helping him pack out a giant 60” bull moose. I have to chuckle, because I still think I got the short end of the stick on that handshake. The second bull I harvested in this valley was an absolute dandy falling just shy of the record books. This trip was also my first hunting trip with my current hunting/business partner John Whipple. Over the past four years John and I have formed a long lasting friendship and been on many hunting expeditions together. That being said we starting applying for this hunt unit together as a party tag, in the hopes that we would draw and both have any opportunity to harvest trophy caribou. Neither John nor I dreamed that we would draw the tag two years after we first hunted together. Drawing odds for this area are extremely low and we were both surprised and humbled to see that we drew the tag for the fall of 2014.
Even though John and I felt blessed to have drawn a trophy area for barren ground caribou, drawing the tag was actually the easiest part. Our first obstacle would be pursuing these monarchs in mountain country so steep we had often observed mature caribou bulls sharing the same cliffs with Dall sheep. That being said, we knew we would have to be in good physical and mental condition in order to pursue and pack out a caribou in terrain this rugged. The weather would be our second hurdle; as we all know the weather in Alaska can change on dime and this area was certainly no exception. We planned our hunt during the first part of September; which usually meant snow. Although in our previous hunts in this area we experienced snow, rain, sleet, hail, and pretty much any other form of precipitation Alaska could think about throwing at us. We choose to hunt at the beginning of September to allow time for the caribou to shed most or all of their velvet and transition into their winter colors. In the early season, barren ground caribou are mostly gray with dark gray velvet on their still growing antlers. Once the end of August rolls around and September nears the larger bulls shed their velvet and become hard horned, while exchanging there grey brisket for solid white. In my humble opinion, there are very few animals in North America that are as beautiful and majestic as a mature caribou bull with his winter coat.
I had become totally fixated on another small group of caribou when I heard the faint buzz of an airplane in the distance. The plane flew up the valley hovering just below the clouds that consumed the mountain tops and touched down at the air strip, bouncing to a stop. “It’s good to be back here” John said as I help him move his gear away from the plane. Still completely overwhelmed with excitement I just smiled and nodded my head. We spoke to the piolet briefly and confirmed our tentative pick up date; weather providing of course. “Well we’ll see you guys in a couple weeks, Good Luck!!” the piolet yelled and is seconds he was airborne and out of sight. Since it was early evening we decided to set up camp as quickly as possible and hike up a nearby ridge to glass. In Alaska you cannot hunt the same day you are airborne, however we wanted to survey as much of the valley and adjacent drainages for any potential trophies before night fall. Once we made it most of the way up the ridge line we spotted several small groups of caribou across the valley; mostly comprised of cows and calves. However, looking closer we were able to confirm one small group of respectable bulls that we decided might need a closer in the morning. With the days still fairly long in early September, we glassed every crook and cranny we could until dark or roughly 10:00pm. With no more daylight left and stomachs growling we headed down the mountain toward base camp. Once back at camp John and I discussed our morning game plan over a mountain house and concluded to head back up the ridge for more glassing at day break. Even though I was fairly tired from all the packing, travel, and excitement I found it difficult to sleep. All I could think about was giant caribou and how the morning could not come fast enough!
Shortly after day break we loaded up our packs for a one day excursion from base camp. The ridge line we had glassed from the previous evening ran several miles to the south and allowed us to scope out a series of drainages that flowed into the main stem of the valley were we camped. An added bonus was this particular ridge line presented a somewhat easier trek as compared to rest of the surrounding area. Moving across the ridge line John reminded me to stop often and glass each drainage as the perspective changed. In the past John and I had made the easy mistake of putting our head down to get from point A to point B; only to stumble across animals that we would have seen earlier if we would have taken the time to glass a little more. It was nearly 3pm as John and I sat on the mountain side eating a protein bar as we scoured the country side for any sign of caribou. Since the morning we had seen only one caribou cow and calf, while the other small groups we had seen the evening prior had disappeared from the area. I had been glassing the head of a steep rocky drainage directly across the valley from us for over an hour and was fairly convinced that it was time to move on. Popping the last chunk of protein bar in my mouth while looking though the spotting scope I was just getting ready to ask John if we should continue down the ridge, when I caught movement. I instantly froze in position; to be sure I seen movement and not just the vibration of me chewing through the scope. As I focused, a caribou bull slowly emerged from the shadows and grazed into the sunlight. In a few seconds another bull came into focus; then another; it seemed like they were appearing out of nowhere. Five bulls in total fed out into a small bolder field covered lichen. “You better take a look at this John” I said as I pointed out the area with my finger. The bulls grazed for only a few minutes and like a ghost dissolved back into the flat light of shadows. John and I decided that the two of five bulls looked to be potential trophies and that we should definitely take a closer look at. “That looks like work” John said with a grin as we started our way down the mountain toward the rocky drainage.
It took us all of three hours to cover roughly two and half miles. We had traveled down the mountain side losing 2000 feet in elevation, crossed a small river in the valley floor, and started our ascent up drainage were we hoped the caribou were still bedded. As we neared the head of the drainage John and I circled high and wide trying to get a visual of our query. Of course, the terrain looked considerably different up close than it did through the spotting scope across the valley. There back yard so to speak was riddle with tiny pockets and gullies, any of which they could be hiding in. We moved cautiously single file through the area keeping quite as possible on the noisy rocks. Suddenly John turned around and signaled me to get down! They bulls lay less than 100 yards in front of us nestled in the bottom of a steep and narrow gulley. We decided to belly crawl 20 yards or so and take cover behind a small bolder; just big enough to hide both John and I as we kneeled. Peeking over the bolder the bulls must have sense something was off; they started to move up the opposite side of the gulley looking back toward our direction. All five bulls slowly appeared; the two largest bulls of the group were last to come into site. It didn’t take us long to decide if bulls were trophy caliber. As they continued to casually move up the gully, John and I took a shooting positon and readied ourselves for a clean shot. John was first to shoot, hitting the bull cleanly through the vitals. The group ran thirty yards or so to the top of the gully stopping again to look back our direction. A second shot rang out from Johns .300 Remington SAUM, sealing the deal on the massive bull. After Johns caribou fell to his final resting place, the four remaining bulls ran down the ridge line, giving me enough time to reposition and acquire the remaining bull in my sights. “He 287 Yards” John calmly called out. On a side note, I have always admired John’s ability to keep calm in stressful situation. With the bull cleanly in my sights I waited for one of the other smaller bulls to move out from behind my target. Taking a deep breath, I slowly squeezed the trigger of my .270 WSM. The shot stuck the bull slightly high in the shoulder, bringing him to the ground where he stood. Not taking the bull from my sights I racked another round for a follow up shot. Thankfully, there was no need and I watch as the bull expired in seconds. Still kneeling and weak in the legs from all the excitement, John and I celebrated in typical fashion by shaking hands, slapping each other shoulder, and congratulating one another.
As we approached the bulls they only seem to grow in size. Arriving at John’s caribou first we both stood speechless for moment. The sheer size of his antlers and body was simply impressive! The bull easily weighed 400lbs and was dressed for the ball with a steel gray coat that transitioned into a beautiful white brisket. His antlers tinted red with blood from the recent shedding of velvet; he was truly a site to behold! John knelt for several minutes completely silent admiring his magnificent trophy. Next we closed the final yards to claim my bull. Still wearing most of his velvet and summer coat, he lay like a dark gray statue upon the ground. Taking one knee behind him I grasp his antlers and moved his head to reveal a set enormous bez and a single massive shovel. Velvet hung from portions of his rack soaked with blood; while his neck and shoulders were lightly dusted displaying a hint of his winter coat. He was stunning and an absolute giant. I could not of been more happy and it was a moment I didn’t want to leave, but knew that we had a lot of work ahead.
It took us several hours to completely dress out our trophies and by the time we had finished it was nearing dark. Both John and I were completely exhausted from such a long day that we decided to make a meat stash near a large bolder that we could use a land mark, and start our long trek back to base camp while the weather was still good. We had no more and collected our belongings when we realized Alaska had other plans. Snow start to fall heavier and heavier as we made our way down the mountain in the dark! We traversed slowly over the bolder fields and slick tundra slopes taking care not to fall. By the time we made it to the valley bottom and started our ascent toward camp the snow lessened. We made it back to camp around 2:00 am completely soaked from sweat and snow. As I dropped my pack next to the tent and removed my head lamp I noticed a shimmer in the horizon. The northern lights started moved across the sky in with a spectacle of green and blue that was almost hypnotic. All I could do was smile as I lay in my tent and let the colors dance me to a much needed slumber.
In the morning my John and I awoke to a sunny snow filled valley. About six inches of snow had blanketed the valley and mountains. In one night our hunting ground had transformed from vibrant fall colors to a winter wonder land. We made a quick bite to eat, gathered our packs, and started our way toward the meat stash some three miles away. By the time we reached the Caribou the majority of the snow had melted its way up the mountain. With more meat than we could carry in one load we knew that it would take us several trips or days rather, to haul our spore back to the air strip. With packs fully loaded John and I shimmied into the shoulder straps from a sitting position. Once firmly married to the pack we helped one another to their feet. Bearing 120 pounds or more upon our backs; it felt like you were caring around the world. As we started our first meat haul back to camp my aching shoulders and burning legs reminded me of the price of success! It was a feeling that brought a smile to my face and one that I would hope every hunter gets to know.