The three of us stood together in a loose circle outside of our tent in silence, sharing an epic view of interior Alaska as the sun slid down towards the horizon. We shrugged into puffy coats as the chill in the air strengthened, a clear night with no cloud cover promising cold temperatures but doing nothing to dampen our enthusiasm. Our conversation slowly turned from big bulls and rifle performance to sleeping bags and pads; with the tide turning towards the warmth of a down bag and a two-inch mattress we turned in. Two caribou tags, three guys, and two days to do it in. No pressure.
The hunt wasn’t meant to be as short as it turned out. Several factors chipped away at our original allotted timeframe; myself and my friend Rick both guide sheep and mountain goat hunters among other things in the fall so we had a narrow window to try to cram a caribou hunt for ourselves in. With a guided hunt running longer than anticipated and walls of storms coming in off the ocean hampering the mountain flying, Rick and I watched our chances at a week in the field with our own rifles continue to dwindle. My father, who had come along as a packer on a goat hunt and stayed to hunt caribou with us had a hard deadline to get back to the lower 48 for work that couldn’t be moved, a difficult circumstance when hunting the Alaskan interior and dealing with the weather that can come with it.
All optimists, we stayed positive and waited for the weather to turn so we could make it into caribou camp. Dad had a flight at 6:00 AM Saturday morning to report for work and both Rick and I needed to be back to our normal jobs Monday. Given the time constraints, we decided to go out together if the weather allowed, leaving Rick and me one day to hopefully cut, package, and freeze meat as well as prep capes and antlers to take home before flying out commercially Sunday morning.
Wednesday evening found us in camp, preparing gear and food for the following day. We packed enough clothes and provisions to sustain three eager guys for a marathon day of hunting the big, white-maned beasts. With the first lightening of the sky, I peeked out the tent door Thursday morning to a storm depositing quarter-sized flakes of snow so quickly I couldn’t see more than four hundred yards. We’d come this far and being scheduled to leave the next afternoon or evening, the choice was easy. The long johns and puffies were put on, packs shouldered and we headed for a glassing knob we’d seen the night before. As the sun rose the snow slowed, then stopped. Grateful we had started our hike earlier; we were tucked in behind binoculars and spotting scopes as visibility increased. The morning light revealed several cow moose, a couple of pairs of cow and calf caribou, and even a sow grizzly with her two cubs in search of breakfast. There was plenty of game to watch, just not what we were searching for, after hours of picking apart the brushy country we moved to a further knob to lay eyes on some different ground.
While admiring a mature bull moose through a spotting scope, a flash of grey in the brush caught Rick’s eye. Behind the moose, the unmistakable white mane of a caribou appeared revealing antlers that necessitated a closer look. The bull was too far for an accurate sizing-up so with the game clock continually running in all of our minds, we slid into our packs and took off. Several hours later, after wading through a couple of miles of waist- to head-high alders, we stopped for a break. The bull moose was still visible but, as anyone who’s hunted caribou before can attest to, the caribou had done what they’re renowned for and vacated, simply disappearing into the ocean of alders we were now adrift in. Disappointed but not having time to bemoan the circumstances, we headed for higher ground to regain some elevation and try to turn him or some other bulls up. A break in the sea of brush atop a low rise provided a lunch spot and a fresh glassing opportunity. While eating and glassing, Dad turned up the tell-tale tops of a good bull over a ridge not quite a mile out. The bull was moving parallel with the ridge and knowing the odds of catching up to a caribou weren’t good, we still hoped we could cut him off before we lost the opportunity altogether.
We dove back into the brush, hoping the bull would stop and feed and give us time to cut the distance. Having had the good fortune to have shot a caribou before, I deferred to Rick if we were to catch up to the bull. If Rick liked the look of him, it was his shot opportunity. Slowly coming up over the ridge at what we hoped was far enough ahead of the bull, we were dismayed to see the brush was as tall and thick as it was in the bottoms and sidehills we had been picking through all day. Wondering if we’d even see the bull if he was close, we fanned out and began painstakingly picking the topography apart.
Several minutes went by and just as I was wondering what our next move should be, I heard a furtive whisper from down the ridge. I made my way over to Rick and following his outstretched arm I laid eyes on the bull in a small opening. Rick was on him and his shot hit home, his first caribou expiring quickly.
Back slaps, hugs, and big grins ensued and after the initial excitement, I turned to get my pack I had left about thirty yards away. Halfway to it, I heard Dad whisper-yelling at me. Turning around, I knew immediately we weren’t done hunting for the day. I waded back and looking past them, could just make out a set of antlers in the brush. The old bull had stayed still and quiet while we celebrated but now was up and slowly looking around to make sense of the situation. Sliding past the other guys, I slipped my scope cover off and waited. The bull didn’t look like he was going anywhere quickly but he obligingly sidled to an opening just large enough to expose his vitals. A 170-grain bullet from my .300 Win Mag found its mark and the bull went down, leaving us all somewhat shocked and shaking with adrenaline after everything that had just transpired.
The sun had reached its peak for the day, adding warmth to our shoulders as we began the process of caping and quartering the bulls. Stretching my back out and looking up at the vast Alaska mountain ranges in the distance while my dad took a break and ate a candy bar, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the way the hunt transpired; three optimistic, hard hunting guys with two days to hunt made it happen on a couple of mature caribou. I shook out my hands, stretched once more then got back to work and thought to myself, “How many hunts could I get in in a fall if they all went this good?”