Editor’s note: The following story appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
Story and photos by Steve Meyer
The apparitions ghosting out of the brushline in the early morning haze that blanketed the mountain valley slowly became two caribou bulls some 700 yards away.
Surveying the options for cover to make a stalk didn’t take long: There wasn’t any. The stunted blueberry bushes and lichen that comprise most of the vegetation on the northern slopes of the eastern Brooks Range might lend concealment to a snake, but not much else.
A prayer to the hunting gods – “Please let them come this way” – may not have helped, but when the pair of bulls turned and started our direction, it seemed worth the small effort. The capricious and unpredictable mountain wind was generally quartering across our right shoulders and would eventually intersect the path of the two handsome animals.
As they came closer, the binoculars confirmed both bulls to be mature, respectable representatives, all we were looking for. Around 400 yards out, the mountain landscape concealed a draw that took them out of sight, allowing us to move rapidly closer, and when the antlers rose out of the draw, the caribou were at 175 yards, nicely confirmed by Christine Cunningham’s 10×42 Swarovski rangefinding binoculars.
The bull on the right appeared slightly larger than his buddy, and Christine settled into a solid sitting position for the shot. On they came on a dead course to intercept our wind. At 125 yards, the larger bull’s head went up and he turned, ran a few paces and stopped broadside to Christine’s position.
CHRISTINE CAME TO the hunting arena in 2006, crawling through tidal duck muck with a borrowed shotgun. A hunter wasn’t born that day; she had been a hunter all of her life, but she had never had the opportunity to unleash the passion for nature’s most honest relationship until the moment in time that allowed her two clean misses on a pair of fast flying wigeon.
Bird hunting became her immediate passion, and with an extended family of three chocolate Labrador retrievers, two English setters and an Irish setter, hunting time was booked solidly in the bird department.
Big game hunting was always in the back of her mind, but time just seemed to pass too quickly to engage in yet another outdoor endeavor. When Christine met Emily Thoft through the rapidly growing community of female hunters, things began to change.
Emily and Matt Thoft own and operate Silvertip Aviation, L.L.C. (907-676-0421; silvertipaviation.com), an air taxi/ transporter service, and Orvis Outfitters, a big game outfitting and guiding service. The Thofts are registered Alaska big game guides and pilots, and during the late July to August big game season, operate out of their lodge on the Ivishak River, on the northern slopes of the eastern Brooks Range.
When asked about hunting big game, Christine had explained the difficulty of giving up time from the bird dogs once upland season began Aug. 10. Emily solved the problem by advising Christine that caribou hunting in their area of operation opened July 1, and that they would be up there around the end of July. A hunt scheduled for 2014 was derailed when a litter of English setter pups entered this world, but there was no problem changing to 2015, and so we scheduled a July 30 fly-out.
LOGISTICALLY, HUNTING IN the Brooks Range – particularly the northern slopes – requires a bit more of a commitment than the typical Alaska resident fly-out with a transporter or guided nonresident hunt. For our hunt we would drive the Dalton Highway, otherwise known as the “haul road,” from Livengood to Happy Valley. It was a trip of some 335 miles of broken pavement, potholed gravel, narrow bridges and lots of semitruck traffic. Traveling the Dalton is a story in itself, and our two-day adventure on it was a great experience.
We arrived in Happy Valley, an abandoned pipeline camp with an airstrip that services several air taxi operations. There we were met by Matt in his Cessna 185 wheel plane. Unlike many parts of Alaska, wheel planes are prolific in the far north; the terrain lends itself to these marvelous machines. The aircraft was limited to 60 pounds of gear per person, so loading the 185 was quick and the view that materialized as we gained elevation was in itself worth the trip.
After we landed on the Ivishak River, which serves as an airstrip for the Orvis Outfitter Lodge, we unloaded gear for the next stage of the trip, a Super Cub flight into hunting country.
Our destination would take us into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 19 million acres of one of the last truly wild places on the North American continent. Sadly enough, ANWR is in constant political and corporate turmoil over the desire to develop it. Words and photographs cannot adequately describe the wildness exuded by this magnificent chunk of real estate; being on the ground in it is a life-changing experience for anyone who embraces wilderness.
As I made the first flight in with Matt in his highly modified PA 12 Cub, caribou and grizzly bears dotted the landscape below. The “airstrip” where we elected to begin the hunt was a shale-strewn ridge surrounded by mountains and guarded by a gorgeous blonde grizzly bear in a creekbottom some three-quarters of a mile from where camp would be.
I set up camp with a backdrop of roaming caribou in the high ridges around the site. They were seeking the high ground where wind keeps insects and heat at bay. When Christine arrived on the second flight, the caribou had started to move down the shale slopes into the surrounding valley.
Since we had flown in, hunting could not start until after 3 a.m. the following morning. That was OK, as it allowed us time to soak in the silence and beauty of our playground.
The area was flanked on the north by rugged blue-gray shale slopes and jagged rocks. It was more of the same to the south, where the valleys below were blanketed in lichen – a mainstay of caribou diet – blueberry scrubs and salmon berries.
Scattered throughout the valley were shed caribou antlers, bleached white by weather and sun, revealing that herds spent time here in the winter. These antlers are considered artifacts and are not to be taken or even moved from their natural resting place.
As we sat in front of our tent a young cow caribou came prancing up the slope to the west, displaying the innate curiosity that has a way of ending badly for caribou. Christine waved at her and she ran back and forth, coming to around 50 yards from us before she caught a whiff of our scent and trotted down the valley to the east.
Later in the evening we scouted the area to the south and spotted a very respectable bull caribou feeding along, oblivious to our presence. We weren’t looking for a record-book bull; a mature representative animal that would provide winter meat was Christine’s goal.
This bull filled the bill just fine and Christine was excited and insisted we just go back to camp and find him in the morning. That was OK, except that with caribou, the odds of them being in the same area the next day are not great. Caribou don’t know where they will be tomorrow; they move constantly, and often it is a matter of cutting off their direction of travel to get a shot.
Still, the odds were in our favor. The caribou had come to the valley off the surrounding ridges, it was fairly late in the day, and it seemed likely they would bed down in the vicinity.
There were numerous calves amongst the cows and young bulls in the valley, and the grizzly that we had seen flying in was only a quarter-mile away from some of the cows and calves. He could be a game changer.
SLEEP WAS FITFUL. This time of year and this far north it does not get dark – more like dusk – and we tossed and turned, all the while listening to the periodic “click” sound caribou hooves made as they trotted by the tent. We could legally hunt at 3 a.m. but elected to wait until 4:30 for the sake of not getting overanxious.
We sought a vantage point overlooking the valley that bottomed out at a brush-choked creek. Dotted around the valley were caribou, most still bedded down, and only their heads and small antlers visible. But there were no bulls. We climbed over a knoll to overlook the area where the bull had been the night before. The valley floor was such that any caribou bedded down there would be visible; there were none.
From that spot we could see caribou cows and calves starting to move southwest towards a pass that would take them up onto a steep shale ridge. We theorized that if the bulls were still in the area, they were probably bedded down along the brush line of the creek and would eventually follow the cows and calves. We moved to another viewing area where we saw the aforementioned bulls.
Anxiety, buck fever or whatever one chooses to call it is a very real dilemma, especially for the first-time big game hunter. Many are the stories of disastrous first shots and they are hardly gender specific. But Christine is an accomplished wingshooter and had been practicing shooting from field positions all summer with her .300 Weatherby, reliably hitting vital zone targets out to 300 yards.
The sound of her shot blended with the “whack” of a solid hit; heart-shot, the bull staggered and started the typical run. When Christine hit him again, it dropped the animal.
We walked up to the gorgeous bull and found the light gone from his eyes. Christine knelt beside him, stroking the soft velvet of his antlers, unable to speak. After several minutes she looked at me, her face breaking out into a familiar smile. It left no doubt that this was the beginning of many more hunting adventures for big game.
It is rare to have a first time for anything and have it go perfect; this was one of those times.