A Caribou Hunting Adventure in Alaska, No Guides Required

He’s a really massive bull. That a lot I can inform, despite the fact that he’s among the first wild caribou I’ve ever seen. I settle the spotter on him and watch his rack tower over the alders. The bull’s principal beams sweep back in a deep C form, and people C’s are topped with foot-long tines reaching skyward. His mane is long and white, whiter than those of the two younger bulls hanging round him.

He’s probably the most spectacular critter I’ve ever seen, however he’s a few mile away, feeding on the aspect of a mountain, with daylight starting to fade. Even more necessary, we had flown into camp earlier in the day, so we’d have to attend till morning before we might legally hunt him or some other bull.

By morning, the previous white bull and his two operating mates would certainly be gone. We have been camped virtually 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle alongside a tributary to the Noatak River, which runs out to the Chukchi Sea on ­Alaska’s northwestern coast. I’d needed to hunt caribou since watching Saturday-­morning searching exhibits on ESPN 2 as a bit kid. So, once I lastly acquired the opportunity, I did all the analysis I might on Rangifer tarandus.

The author settles into shooting position while Hansen spots.
The writer settles into capturing place whereas Hansen spots. (John Whipple/)

Jack O’Connor, Outside Life’s most well-known capturing editor, once wrote: “No more beautiful big-game animal than a bull caribou walks the face of the Earth…the very epitome of the wild and uninhabited northland of mountain and glacier and tundra.”

Then he went on to say, “But he is, alas, a dumb and rattle-brained creature.”

The veteran caribou hunters I talked to put it extra kindly. These animals are all the time on the transfer, typically with no clear objective. A herd of caribou could be feeding contentedly in a valley at one moment, then run full tilt over a ridge the subsequent second with no predator in sight. The radio-collar research I perused confirmed that in late August to mid-September, Alaska caribou have a every day median velocity of about 0.5 kilometers per hour, which means they travel on average about 7 miles per day. When you can rely on caribou to do one thing, the veteran hunters advised me, it’s to keep shifting.

So, we pack away our glass for the evening and let the trio of bulls fade into the mountains.

Racks drying in the sun.
Racks drying in the solar. (John Whipple/)

Getting There

My searching companions—Brooks Hansen, a public-­relations rep from Camp Chef, and John Whipple, a photographer from Palmer, Alaska—and I had been dropped off on a river gravel bar with all of our meals and kit for the week.

I had flown from Minneapolis to Anchorage, and then to Kotzebue, a mining and fishing town of a bit of greater than 3,000 wind-battered souls. Kotz serves as a supply hub for 10 satellite tv for pc Inupiat (pronounced In-yu-pak) villages and a major jumping-off level for nonresident caribou hunters. The town’s Chinese restaurant, the place most of these visiting hunters end up consuming, has an enormous mammoth tusk on display that locals found washed up on their seashore—that they had hauled it as much as city on a four wheeler. You don’t should attempt too arduous to think about woolly mammoths migrating across the tundra right here over the past ice age. Kotzebue’s average high temperature in August is 56 levels.

From right here, we flew in bush planes, separately, to the gravel-bar touchdown strip.

A herd of cows and calves feeds its way uphill.
A herd of cows and calves feeds its method uphill. (John Whipple/)

“Good luck, don’t die,” was the last thing our constitution pilot stated, with only a hint of sarcasm, before slamming the cockpit door and taking off.

Near the strip we found a skinned grizzly carcass, left by the hunters earlier than us. In their previous camp, we discovered two quartered caribou carcasses; apparently, that they had killed their bulls without straying far. So we determined to make our camp on the far aspect of the river and stored our rifles shut as we pitched our tents.

Our other two searching companions have been stranded again in Kotze­bue. Heavy cloud cover had pushed into the valley and prevented David Draper, the editor of Petersen’s Hunting, and his girlfriend, Tess Rousey, from with the ability to fly in safely. That is commonplace operating process for many hunts in Alaska, where journey into the backcountry depends on bush planes, and sensible pilots don’t fly into the mountains beneath a low ceiling. So, while we hunkered down for our first night time in the camp, Draper and Rousey ate bulgogi and drank beer, not without some bitterness, again in city.

The Thriller Herd

The Western Arctic herd (WAH) is likely one of the largest caribou herds in the world and the most important in Alaska. It hit its modern-day peak inhabitants of just about a half-million animals in 2003 earlier than dropping to about 200,000 in 2012. Hunters and caribou researchers began to stress over these declines as other caribou populations all over the world dropped on the similar time. Researchers discovered that the WAH was struggling to recruit calves, says Lincoln Parrett, the Alaska Department of Fish and Recreation caribou analysis coordinator who supervises the area. They have been seeing fewer calves make it to at least one yr previous, which meant the herd was getting older on common, making it more vulnerable to harsh winters and predators.

However why the drop in calf recruitment? Parrett and his fellow researchers weren’t fairly positive. In recent times, herd numbers started growing once more. Calves that researchers captured for his or her survival research have been plump and wholesome. Parrett theorized that as the population dropped, only the prime animals survived. These surviving caribou are better at recruiting calves, and their offspring can be too.

Kotzebue Sound.
Kotzebue Sound. (John Whipple/)

The WAH was estimated at about 230,000 animals—with calf production and survival fairly excessive—in the summer time of 2018, just before we arrived. The herd had declined mysteriously, and now it was rebounding mysteriously.

Our flight into Kotzebue was filled with caribou hunters, but Parrett says searching strain has relatively no influence on the herd’s general inhabitants. Hunting tradition in this corner of the world is deep—this becomes obvious whenever you stroll by means of town and see moose and caribou racks hanging over every door. The Inuit have been searching caribou in this area for hundreds of years, ever since their ancestors migrated across the Bering land bridge.

Trendy-day hunters take an estimated 12,000 caribou from the herd each season. About 11,000 of those animals are killed by locals who are out to fill their freezers and feed their families with meat—an Alaska resident can kill five caribou per day in this unit. The remaining are tagged by traveling hunters like us, who’ve come to the Arctic for the journey, a trophy bull, and the meat that comes with it.

Because the caribou migrate from their summering grounds all through the Brooks Vary and south towards the Seward Peninsula, hunters travel up west-flowing rivers to intercept them alongside the best way. But the Western Arctic caribou don’t migrate in one big herd as you may think—a endless sea of gray and white hides flowing across a flat tundra. As an alternative, they’re scattered in groups of about 10 to 30 animals that trickle across the mountain ridges. They hang out in habitat that appears—at the least to an uninitiated Decrease 48er—more suitable for mountain sheep than caribou. By some means, these herds manage to locate each other in the mountains and band collectively before finally gathering en masse around the Kotzebue Sound.

Parrett says the herd’s migration patterns shift barely each few years, and now increasingly caribou are actually migrating to the north slope of the Brooks Range to winter, as an alternative of coming south to the sound. This is irritating to south-slope hunters who rely on caribou meat to get them by way of the yr—nevertheless it’s fascinating for a ­researcher like Parrett.

“What a spectacle it is for a herd of that size to choose where it wants to go,” he says. “Their ability to find each other and how they respond in unison to large-scale environmental changes, that just blows my mind. It’s one of those things as a scientist, and personally for me, [that] makes me think maybe some things just need to maintain their mystery. Maybe some things don’t need to be explained.”

Draper packs out his bull.
Draper packs out his bull. (John Whipple/)

The White Bull

Towards all logic, the large bull and his two companions are still on the mountainside in the morning. Via my binoculars, I watch him feed on arctic grasses and lichen whereas Hansen fries eggs and Whipple organizes digital camera gear. I estimate the bull is more than a mile away across a muskeg flat and then three-quarters of the best way up the low mountain.

I do know we must be hustling to shut the space on the bull, but I don’t need to be that guy in camp barking at everybody to rush the hell up. So, I comply with Hansen’s lead. I eat breakfast and drink espresso. We take our time.

The arctic tundra conjures uninteresting photographs of gray and white desolation. But that’s not what it seems like in late summer time. The mountainside is filled with early-fall colour: brilliant green and gold willows, blood-red blueberry bushes, and turquoise rivers.

Climbing by means of the muskeg is sluggish going. Imagine a grassy marsh with ankle-deep muck, and scattered throughout this marsh are softball- to ­bowling-​ball-​measurement mounds of hard-packed dust coated in moss. Reaching the strong slope of the mountainside is a aid.

As we decide our approach uphill, the three bulls disappear from view, however we hold pushing upward anyway. ­Every few hundred yards we cease and glass, and ask each other questions that we will’t reply.

“Do you think they’re still up there?”

“I wonder if they slipped into the willows?”

“Maybe they topped out over the ridge?”

And eventually, “I bet they bedded down somewhere up there,” Hansen says. And he’s right. Throughout a draw, some 500 yards away, he spots the large bull bedded with the 2 smaller animals.

Rifle at the ready.
Rifle at the ready. (John Whipple/)

We crawl to inside 430 yards of the bulls after which run out of cover. The large white bull is dozing on his aspect, with the two other caribou about 20 yards away. The second-largest bull has tall antlers which are palmated on the tops. Hansen and I agree that we’ll kill each bulls if we get the prospect. However the wind is gusting arduous via the draw, and we determine not to danger an extended shot. We again out and try to get closer by looping round and climbing above the bulls. But I foolishly take a route that skylines us. No mountain recreation animal, even the rattle-brained caribou, will tolerate a predator stalking round on the ridge above him.

The bulls break from their beds and start plodding downhill. They don’t seem to be in a panicked flee simply but, so we modify course and hustle down our aspect of the draw, hoping to get forward of them. We must move quick enough that we achieve on the bulls, but not so quick that we’re noisily kicking rocks, which can only ship the caribou into full escape mode.

We get about midway down the mountain and nestle into an enormous rock outcropping to catch our breath and relocate the caribou. Now that we’re out of sight, the bulls have seemingly forgotten about us. They’re nonetheless strolling the edge of the draw, however they stop to feed and rake brush with their antlers as they go. I watch the white bull intently, this time by means of the riflescope.

Ultimately, he leads the other two bulls to inside 300 yards. He turns broadside and stands still for a moment. My rifle booms, and the bull disappears into the willows.

“He’s down,” Whipple says. “Let’s get that other one.”

Brooks slides into my capturing rest while I swap my rifle for binos to spot for him. The other two bulls are operating, however not away from us. It looks like they’re not sure of what the shot was and at the moment are looping closer to us. Ultimately, they close to 120 yards, but each time the bull stops shifting, he angles toward us, making an attempt to determine if we are predators or simply three oddly formed boulders.

Simply before the palmated bull trots over a ridge, Hansen squeezes off a shot. The bull kicks and slips out of sight, so we scramble over the top and discover him hunched up on the fringe of a willow patch. Hansen’s second shot ends our hunt.

Getting ready to smoke a hard-earned rack of caribou ribs.
On the brink of smoke a hard-earned rack of caribou ribs. (John Whipple/)

Questions Answered

On a traditional day, Hansen is jovial but in addition overcome with an anxious marvel concerning the past, the present, and the fast future. He requested our bush pilot dozens of questions, and the pilot’s gruff, brief answers solely inspired him to ask a dozen more. Now with two bulls on the ground and hours of quartering and packing forward, Hansen works himself right into a frenzy. How lengthy will it take to quarter a bull? How many journeys will it take to pack one out? How much does a hind quarter weigh?

Now I’m the one lobbying for us to slow down and take it all in.

We attain Hansen’s bull first. It has disproportionately vast hooves that permit it to tromp across the muskeg. I run my hand across the bull’s again and really feel his smooth, high quality hair, which reminds me of a yearling doe I as soon as killed in Upstate New York. The bull’s antlers are even more spectacular up close. In the event you have been to take just one of many tops and mould it right into a whitetail’s rack, it will outscore any buck I’ve ever seen in New England.

We intestine Hansen’s bull and then hike up to mine. I’m thankful for an additional probability to inspect a caribou up close before turning the animal into meat. We marvel over his antlers for a bit, take some pictures, after which go to work.

On our first pack journey, we find Rousey and Draper at camp. “Glad you guys made it in safely. Grab your packs and some water.” And back up the mountain we hike. With the five of us chopping and hauling, the job goes a lot quicker. However nonetheless we don’t stagger in to camp with the final a great deal of meat till after midnight. By the point we get the quarters hung on the far aspect of the river, even Hansen is quiet.

Base camp on the tundra under the dancing northern lights.
Base camp on the tundra beneath the dancing northern lights. (John Whipple/)

Final Lights

The subsequent a number of days all meld together. Whipple and I spend one afternoon smoking a slab of caribou ribs over a willow-brush hearth we make on the gravel bar. We build a makeshift grill out of river stones and gather a heaping pile of brush, enjoying like youngsters and then feasting like kings.

Ultimately, Rousey and Draper kill bulls, and we gladly repay the favor and assist with their quartering and packing.

On the last afternoon, Hansen spots a lone grizzly a mile above camp. We watch it slowly head in our course down a drainage.

Whipple, an Alaska resident, has a bear tag for the unit, so I give him my rifle and a handful of .300 Win. Magazine. shells, and we make a run up toward the bear. Whipple had played his position because the easygoing cameraman the entire trip, but now he will get lethal critical. He kneels in the willows to say a quiet prayer, after which we creep within 200 yards of a patch of wavering brush. We will’t truly see the bear yet, so we push closer.

Whipple slips round yet one more patch of head-high brush, then spots the grizzly.

“Sticks,” Whipple says, and I shove the capturing sticks into his hand. The bear is turning to take a look at us, not fairly threatening, however not spooked both.

Admiring a massive barren-ground bull caribou.
Admiring an enormous barren-ground bull caribou. (John Whipple/)

“Range?” he asks.

“Inside 100,” I say with a demise grip on my rangefinder.

Whipple’s shot anchors the bear, and begins the final skinning and packing job of our adventure.

That night time, we gather all the remaining whiskey in camp and stay up to watch the northern lights. Around 1 a.m. a inexperienced glow appears on the northern horizon. That glow morphs into a dancing ray of green mild that ultimately stretches across the complete sky. We stare up into the night time until our necks ache, and hoot and holler like we’re worshiping some historic spirit we’ve never recognized.

The Inuit individuals had totally different solutions for what these magical green lights is perhaps. Some believed they have been spirits of their ancestors enjoying a recreation with a walrus cranium. Another tribe believed they have been walrus spirits enjoying a recreation with a human skull. My favourite, nevertheless, is that the lights are the spirits of animals that arctic hunters have killed.

An astronomer would explain that the aurora borealis truly happens when electrically charged particles are thrown off the solar’s environment and collide with gases in Earth’s environment.
However Parrett, the caribou researcher, has had it right all alongside. Some issues don’t have to be defined.

DIY Caribou Camp Necessities

<img alt='Camp Chef Stryker 200 Multi-Fuel Stove.’ peak=”1125″ src=”” width=”1500″ />
Camp Chef Stryker 200 Multi-Fuel Stove. (John Whipple/)

We employed Ram Aviation to transport us to our caribou camp. The company fees $4,000 per hunter when you use its gear, but you can do the trip for much less in the event you deliver your personal. We have been allowed 60 kilos per individual, which is an expensive quantity of weight for a hunt like this. So we put a premium on comfort and cooking. Listed here are some of our key camp gadgets.

Ready Lite Low Chair
Weighs 2 kilos 6 ounces and supplies a cushty seat for glassing from camp (and consuming whiskey after the hunt). $90

Cabela’s Alaskan Guide Tent
Includes a helpful vestibule for stowing gear out of the rain and is designed to face up to the brutal tundra winds. $350

Camp Chef Sherpa Desk
Organizes all your cooking gear and supplies a sturdy base for chopping boards and camp stoves. $146

Klymit Insulated Static V Sleeping Pad
Inflates shortly and keeps you off the cold muskeg and onerous rocks. $85

Camp Chef Stryker 200 Multi-Gasoline Range
Runs on propane or isobutane (propane is far easier to purchase in Kotzebue) and solves all of your water-heating wants. $125