Caribou Hunting in Sheep Country
As seen in the Spring 2016 issue of Hunt Alaska magazine!
My brother goes caribou hunting every year. It is a family affair with kids and fathers-in-law and campers, they even have a chest freezer that plugs in so that the caribou meat is not only packaged but FROZEN by the time they get home. They are always successful, usually taking their caribou on the first day. It is a time looked forward to by all, a time spent with friends and family enjoying good food and stories, and also putting in a supply of meat for the winter.
Barren Ground Caribou. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that this ubiquitous ungulate graces more dinner tables than any other Alaskan big game. They are plentiful, often accessible by vehicle, and tags are readily available. For many Alaskan hunters, their first big game success was on a caribou hunt.
As such, the general Alaskan view towards caribou is that it is a meat run. While not exactly taken for granted, it is not the animal that locals generally spend inordinate amounts of time and money planning and executing a big expedition for in an effort to take home a monster trophy.
My hunting partner Casey and I feel differently. We admire caribou. A great big mid-September bull, with his white winter mane and blood soaked antlers is a sight that gets our hearts pumping!
My hunting partner also hunt differently than some folks. We hate crowds. We don't have families, and we rarely eat anything we can’t cook in a Jet Boil. We have never been much for taking the easy routes. We are happier on the knife-edge ridges, the alder-infested hillsides, and country where the only trails are made by animals. For us, thats the kind of country that says “Alaska”, and thats the kind of country where you will find the adventures that dreams are made of.
Casey’s specialty is logistics, and in the course of his research he unearthed a stretch of mountains that proved to contain some truly spectacular bulls. He hunted the area in 2012 and took a nice representative of the species, but as is so often the case, as he was packing out his trophy, a small herd of caribou came in to view and among them was the biggest caribou he had ever seen, a true record book bull.
So, the next year, we went back, and again we saw two “Booner” bulls, but they were so many mountains and miles away that we were not able to make a play for them. Casey did take another big bull however, even nicer than the one the previous year. The taxidermist said it had the biggest neck of any caribou he had ever mounted.
We decided that the 2014 hunting season would be different. The trouble with that particular part of the country is that you don’t even start hunting till you reach an altitude of about 4,000 feet, and then you just keep going up from there. The caribou are often found perched on rocky ledges, over-looking bands of Dall Sheep down below….
We would have to pack light and be ready to hike long and hard to find the caliber of animal we were looking for.
The morning of the hunt was a typical one for September in Alaska, where the weather can be as fickle as a middle school girl. Our pilot said the valley we hoped to land the two Super Cubs in was draped in thick clouds, but that he was optimistic about it clearing up by lunch time. As predicted, there was a break a few hours later and our pilots were able to settle the planes down in the little hanging valley that would be our home for the next 12 days.
We set up camp and then hiked up a near by ridge to look around. In Alaska, one cannot hunt the same day airborne in an effort to encourage fair chase, so this was merely a dry run to see what might be moving through the area.
The canyon we were in was about three or four miles long, and about 3/4 of a mile wide. It was surrounded on three sides by tall mountain ridges, and a large stream ran through its center, finally dropping off the end of the valley in a series of magnificent waterfalls to a great river, several thousand feet below.
As we scanned the hillsides that evening we saw a few caribou, smallish bulls and cows, as well as a smattering of Dall Sheep, and this seemed a good sign for things to come.
The next morning we determined to hike to the top of one of the surrounding mountains and then follow the ridge line down towards the mouth of the canyon, glassing as we went.
It was a beautiful morning with blue skies and large puffy white clouds, and crisp cold air carried with it that fresh, invigorating smell that is so particular to fall time as we made our way up and over the mountain.
At mid-day, we stopped for lunch at a good vantage point and set up the spotting scope. There were many small drainages that fed in to the big canyon, and we began to search each one meticulously. We spotted several bands of caribou, but none with any truly big bulls in them. Then, one of the large puffy clouds parted, letting the sun peak out and shower one of the valleys with light, where it had been cast in deep shadow before. Casey exclaimed that he could see some bulls nestled at the head of the valley, and that they looked to be quite big. Some more vigorous study revealed 5 nice bulls, two of which in particular looked to be of the caliber that we were after. We quickly assessed the situation. It was mid-day, and they were about a 1.5 miles away from our present position, as the crow flew, and a good dealer farther than that from camp. We would have to hike down our mountain, across the valley, and 2/3 of the way up the mountain across from us to get to the head of the drainage where they were located. Being caribou, at any moment they might decide that home was in fact somewhere else, and take off before our poor bi-pedal selves could make it to them. We decided that these bulls looked like they were worth the effort, and after all, we were here looking for a little adventure right?
The approach went surprisingly smoothly. The river at the bottom of the canyon was passable, and the drainage that held the caribou was dry, and we were able to make our way up through it with little trouble. At about 5,300 feet, the drainage flattened out in to a small valley, surrounded by sheer cliffs. We could see a group of young bulls at the very top of the mountain to our left, as well as two young rams nestled in the cliffs just below and to the right of the bulls. We were within a 100 yards of a big boulder that the 5 bulls had bedded down next to when had last seen them. They had to be close. That is, if they were still there at all.
We shed our packs, covered ourselves head to tow in camo, and began creeping closer to where we had last seen them. The valley was flat, the only cover being the occasional boulder that had tumbled from the surrounding cliffs, some of which were the size of cars, one closer to a mid-sized house. As the minutes ticked by, the tension and excitement continued to mount. Where WERE they? We were now in a low crouch, moving through the center of the valley, every one of our senses dialed in and focused. I had taken point, and as I moved forward, a hidden gully, one that we could not see before, began to appear, and suddenly, I could see the tops of antlers! I froze. Then, motioning for Casey to get down, I dropped to my belly. We crawled 50 yards to a boulder big enough to hide us, and from which we slowly peered around. There were 3 bulls within view, about 180 yards away from our position. While nice bulls, it didn’t look like the true monsters that we thought we had seen from across the valley. As we were debating wether these were in fact the same animals that we had seen before, the other two bulls, stepped in to view. As soon as we saw them, there was no doubt. These were the trophies that we had come for. As it had already been decided that I would get first crack at a bull, I chose what I thought to be the nicer of the two bulls, and settled in for a shot. A few more tense moments passed as the bull moved in line with one of the smaller bulls, preventing a clean shot, but he continued on, and as he cleared the other caribou I squeezed the trigger. The quiet mountain valley that only a moment before had not held a breath of wind or experienced even a clatter of stone, now reverberated with the boom from my rifle. In a clatter of hooves and flash of fur the caribou all took off down the valley, but I had seen my shot hit home through the lungs, and I could see my bull staggering at the back of the bunch. A second shot through the vitals finished the job, and the magnificent animal stumbled one last time, and came to a rest. Meanwhile Casey was tracking the other big bull and now that he was sure that my bull was down, he settled in to a good rest to take a shot at the fast retreating target. His first shot struck home, but the bull ran another 60 yards before stopping to look back for a moment, as they so often do, and as soon as it did so Casey drove another round straight through its shoulder, putting it down hard, and for good.
When you are in the thick of the action, at least for me, things slow down, and instinct takes over. It is not until afterwards that the real excitement and realization kicks in. As we looked first at each other, and then down the hill to where we could see the two bulls lying, we were overcome with the elation of a well executed stalk, and were grateful at being blessed for the opportunity to take two such animals.
It is not often that an animal keeps appearing bigger the closer you get to it, but that was the case with both of these bulls. Mine was wide, with great big tops, while Casey’s was heavy beamed and sported a shovel that looked like it would go 14” in width!
By this time it was evening, and the sun was just slipping behind the mountains as we got the cameras out and began documenting the trophies. By the time we started dressing the two bulls out, what had been a beautiful sunny afternoon was quickly turning in a dark and stormy night. By the time we had finished both animals, were covered in a several inches of wet snow, and it was pitch dark.
Knowing the hike back in the snow was going to be a bit treacherous, and preferring not to do it with full packs, we stashed the meat, cape and antlers for the night, and began to make our way back to camp. The way back was long, and the snow continued to fall, but none of it really mattered, because we had our bulls down on the ground, and we were here for a little adventure any ways, right? We got back to camp around 1:00 AM, and just as we did so, the snow stopped and the clouds lifted to reveal that the whole northern sky was lit up by the Aurora Borealis. We couldn’t help but sit outside of our tents in the snow for another hour enjoying one of God’s greatest wonders, and reflecting how blessed we were to live in such a place.
The next two days were spent packing the bulls out. Imagine you are packing a sheep off of a mountain, but the sheep weighs 500 lbs. You get the idea.
After the pack out we took a day off and loafed around camp. We still had 7 days left on the ground, and we spent them trying to see if we could find a ram or two. While we saw a fair number of sheep, none of them turned out to be mature rams. We also saw quite a few more caribou, but unlike the last two years, we never saw any that were bigger than the ones we had taken!
All in all, our journey was a successful one, and not just because we were blessed with two magnificent caribou. As any good hunter knows, the kill is only a small, small part of the experience that is hunting. We got to experience God’s country, in all its rough glory. We were allowed re-live the memories and good times we had hunting the valley in the past, as well as make a few new memories. We got to test our bodies and our souls as only people who have pushed themselves to their limits can really understand. These experiences enrich a man, help him understand what he is made of, and helps provide perspective for when he gets back to the “real” world. Whenever Casey and I look back over our many hunts together and think of the many experiences and lessons we have had, we are reminded that it is not just about the trophy, it about the entire experience.