The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
MREs are full of anticipation, including the finicky one I was trying to rip apart.
The plastic seal was like a vise, but eventually I got it open and began searching to see its contents. Eli, my 12-year-old son, was already devouring his ready-to-eat meal, and Lew, my longtime hunting partner, was doing the same. Since we were starving we decided to eat on the boat, which was anchored to a bluff on the south side of the river. As I heated up my “pork rib” I got the strange feeling that we were being watched, or at least not alone.
My intuition was correct. Four monster caribou bulls stood on the bank across the river and contemplated whether to cross or not. It was a beautiful sight.
The stretch of the river we were on was a familiar one, but getting there that morning had been an adventure in itself, since reaching the Kobuk can be treacherous. A monster, shallow lake separates the town of Kotzebue from its mouth, and if the wind is up, then it’s almost impossible to cross in a boat.
The wind that morning was supposed to be less than 10 mph, which is very doable, but once we got halfway across it changed and triggered bigger-than-average waves, tossing us to and from and covering us in glazed ice. It was a cold bumpy ride, but once we made it across it well worth it to see the old river once again.
As we cruised upriver, we took note of how the wall of yellow-leafed willows that stretched on forever into the hills came to a stop just short of the sand and rock that covered the bare bank. Green grass could be found in a few places and on the way up we’d seen six moose devouring it as fast as they could. The other side was a high mud bank covered in a deep, dark mixture of moss, roots and sand standing taller than I or anybody else could ever climb. It was classic Arctic Alaska. I had been through here many times, but 10 years had passed since I’d last been up the Kobuk in search of caribou.
RIVERS ARE A HUGE part of everyone’s lives here in Alaska, but for us here in the Arctic, the Kobuk is especially so. Whether you’re getting from one village to another or heading to camp in hopes of catching a few salmon or picking berries with your family, it really doesn’t matter; the river helps define who we are.
The Kobuk itself flows endlessly east of Kotzebue and is made up of many different channels that find their way into one wide expanse of delta. Each channel has a name and each has some of the best hunting this country has to offer.
Many years ago when I first arrived in Alaska, I made my maiden voyage up this same river by boat. I was in awe of its beauty and the immense amount of taiga that ascended the landscape above it. Huge valleys of spruce and willow could be seen in every direction; the river teemed with fish. It was as incredible then as it is today.
That same trip, which happened over 20 years ago, was actually my first introduction to Alaska. The weeklong adventure was for caribou and hopefully a moose, if we were fortunate enough to see one. We did not, and the closest caribou we saw was well out of reach. But that boat ride changed me: I fell in love with Alaska and life in the Arctic, and it played a big part in me moving here and making this place my home. I’m so glad I did.
After that first trip, I couldn’t get back fast enough, so I made it to the Kobuk again the following September. This time, however, it was quite different. Thousands of caribou migrated through the country and seemingly approached us from all directions.
From our boat, we could see groups of 50 and 100, and knowing where to position ourselves became a confusing delight. I used my bow to get my first caribou on that other trip, and to this day it was probably one of the most incredible hunts I’ve ever been on.
IT WAS NO DIFFERENT on this particular day. The bulls that were staring at us from across the river now didn’t seem too concerned. They actually looked tired, and as I watched them through my binoculars I started to imagine the incredible journey they were on: Miles and miles of deep tundra, being chased by wolves and bears, plus all those rivers they had to cross. I would be tired too.
Seemingly on cue they began to bed down, and one after another they lay in the sand directly across from us on the river.
We tried to continue with lunch, but the thought of four bulls lying on the bank across from us made it too exciting to eat our MREs. We had to make a plan, and I told Lew and Eli that our best bet was to roll up the anchor and float down the river ever so gently and get across to the other side. The hope was that the caribou wouldn’t become too alarmed and would stay put until we could make our way over. We proceeded to implement that plan and it seemed to be working perfectly.
Our floating exercise brought us to a point downstream 400 yards away from the bulls. We quietly got out with our gear: Lew with his bow, Eli with his rifle and me with the camera.
The wind was right and the willows were thick, making conditions perfect for a stalk. We inched our way forward, weaving in and out of the brush, while trying to keep a visual on the caribou at all times. It was working perfectly until the willows gave way to open bank. Lew ranged them at 100 yards and knew that getting a shot with the BowTech was not going to happen. Eli, however, would have a chance with his rifle.
My son had never taken a caribou, even though he has been with me many times when I’ve done so. He has helped me cut meat and truly enjoys being on the river. Getting him his first big game animal has been our goal for some time and I really wanted this for him.
We quickly set the Bog Pod shooting sticks up and got ready. Eli lined up his scope and pushed off the safety. We could tell that the bulls were getting nervous as each stood up, milled around and watched in our direction.
Then it happened. A boat came barreling around the corner, creating a chaotic scene that had our four caribou friends making a mad dash through the wall of leaves. It was game over.
It was equally disappointing and incredible to experience. As we cranked up the boat and headed back to camp all I could do was reflect on seeing caribou once again on the banks of the Kobuk. The scene – four big bulls with their brownish gray coats and showing off their beautiful white manes and tremendous antlers – was truly special and hard to stop thinking about. We didn’t score, but the experience was a memory that will be forever etched in our minds.
I was so glad Eli was able to see it.
AS WE HEADED TO CAMP, we rounded one of the many bends in the river and came to a large sandbank I had camped at once before. Lew noticed something and over the steady purr of the outboard motor I heard this telling declaration: “Caribou!”
We immediately headed to shore, and I got my rifle from its case. I jumped up on the bank and began the short stalk alone. There were five animals in all, each bigger than the four we had seen earlier. Choosing was difficult, and I had to decide quickly, while at the same time get a clean shot. Wanting the biggest bull meat-wise and antler-wise can sometimes create conflict, but once I found him it was pretty easy. The scope found its mark and I waited for him to turn broadside and alone. He did, falling where he stood.
The remaining bulls ran only a short distance, stopped and looked back like they always do. For a moment I thought Eli or maybe even Lew might have a chance at one of them, but the caribou weren’t impressed. They quickly turned and disappeared into the wall of willows, swallowed up as if they had never been there.
The whole episode took less time than it takes to tie your shoes, but it was incredible, to say the least. It was exhilarating and surreal all at once.
Seeing the big bull laying there in the sand with its double shovel and pristine coat reminded me of long-ago seasons, when I’d brought my dad to this very spot. I’d also spent countless hours hunting with friends in this same area.
We took a few pictures, field-dressed the best we could and loaded the bull on the front of Lew’s boat. Darkness was approaching now, but we were happy sharing in our success and the benefits that come from living in such a great land that we call home. It was the end to a great day.
THE KOBUK RIVER IS full of surprises. It might be moose one day, waterfowl the next, or maybe even a porcupine; you never know. This day, however, it provided us with food and memories from one of its oldest and most incredible inhabitants: the mighty caribou. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on hunting big game and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor toAlaska Sporting Journal.