Happy Father’s Day weekend! Here’s a story that’s in our June issue about a memorable father-sons caribou adventure:
STORY AND PHOTOS BY LANDON ALBERTSON
I remember my first hunt like it was yesterday.
It was a cold October morning in southern Oregon and we were chasing mule deer with my dad. Even now, I can smell the thick junipers and the sagebrush that stood taller than my head.
We sat next to a barbed wire fence on the edge of a small alfalfa field. The deer would cross the fence in the mornings coming from the alfalfa fields and heading into the junipers to bed.
Right at first light, I could just see a herd of deer start to jump the fence through my scope. I peered through and looked for a buck: doe, doe, fawn, doe, and then finally a buck, which jumped the fence. I shot a small forken horn that day, but I was so proud of that buck it might as well have been a state record. The memory is a trophy, and I’m lucky to have shared that experience with my dad.
BOOM! THE RIFLE RANG out and the dust flew from behind the target. “Two clicks to the left and about 1 inch high,” I told Leo, my 13-year-old son. He made the adjustments on his scope and sent another round downrange. Bull’s-eye! We were sighting in his rifle and doing some target practice, preparing for his hunt that was less than a month away.
Leo had drawn a youth caribou tag for Game Management Unit 13 in central Alaska. Unit 13 holds the notorious Nelchina caribou herd, which has been a popular subsistence hunting herd for centuries. The youth season runs August 1-5 and provides a great opportunity to
harvest a caribou before the general season begins on August 10.
Caribou are a popular and highly sought-after big game animal in Alaska. They are members of the deer family, sized like an elk and a large mule deer. Bulls weigh 350 to 400 pounds, cows from 175 to 200 pounds. Caribou are unique in the deer family in that both sexes have the ability to grow antlers.
Leo’s hunt was for either sex, but he had high hopes to take a bull as his first ’bou. Caribou mostly live in the tundra, but in the early season they escape to the mountains to get away from Alaska’s large mosquitoes and biting flies. That’s where we planned on finding them.
AFTER LOADING THE CAMPER, side-by- side and four-wheeler, we finally hit the road by 8 a.m. the day before opening morning. With us on this hunt was my 10-year-old son Caleb and my good friend Tyler. It was about a five-hour drive from our home in Palmer to the Denali Highway, a mostly dirt road that runs east to west to connect the Richardson and Parks Highways.
We got to the parking area, unloaded the off-road vehicles, grabbed enough supplies for a few days and headed out into the bush. Thanks to the long summer days in Alaska, we still had about six hours of daylight left to scout and then set up camp.
The trail to the hunting location took us about 12 miles from the main road. We crossed running creeks, climbed rocky hills and bogged through swamps. Along the way, we spotted ptarmigan already changing from their auburn-colored summer plumage to their winter white. The birds looked as if they had put on a brown T-shirt and white painter’s coveralls.
At about the halfway mark, we found fresh caribou tracks crossing the trail. The excitement grew as we knew we were getting closer.
The ride across the tundra took about three hours, one of which was spent digging and winching the side-by-side from a muddy swamp. Finally, we reached the base of the mountain, only a little more covered in mud than when our adventure started.
As we made the climb up the steep slope, I paused and turned to check on my sons following close behind on the four-wheeler. It was then that I spotted a caribou rack moving through the brush only 50 yards from the trail.
The large bull worked its way across the mountainside, but since it was the day before season we could only watch as it crossed the trail behind us and escaped into the tall brush. We spotted herds of cows crossing ridges and feeding through the draws. We scouted a bit more and came up with a game plan, deciding to wake up early and get to the top of the ridgelines to scout. I had high hopes of finding a herd of bulls or even spotting the bull that we’d seen on the way in. We set up camp, ate dinner and then tucked into our sleeping bags to anxiously wait for morning.
THE TEMPERATURE DROPPED 25 degrees overnight and the boys had trouble leaving the warmth of their sleeping bags in the morning. I made oatmeal and opened a pack of doughnuts in hopes of enticing them to get up. We ate breakfast, loaded up the side-by- side with gear and headed for the ridge where we had seen a herd of cows the day before.
Leo passed on a smaller group of cows along the way and was determined to take a bull. Up and over the mountain we went and onto the other side, where I spotted caribou feeding about a half-mile away. Through the binoculars, I could tell it was a bachelor herd of bulls and there were a couple of shooters mixed in.
We decided to head towards them, with the ankle-high grass and a small boulder field as our only cover. We used the ridgeline as refuge, crouched low and only moved when the bulls lowered their heads to feed. We closed the distance to 300 yards and Leo readied himself on the shooting sticks.
A heavy crosswind blew every few minutes, making it difficult for Leo to get steady. I noticed a large, wheelbarrow- sized rock protruding from the ground about 2 feet. The rock was about 100 yards in front of us, and we knew if we could get to it that Leo would be able to lie down for a steadier shot. Leo and I quickly grabbed our gear and jogged to the boulder as the bulls continued to feed. They were oblivious to the impending danger.
We made it to the rock and Leo placed his .300 Win. Mag. on the boulder, then lay down on his belly. He shouldered the rifle and slowly loaded the chamber with a 190-grain Winchester Expedition big game bullet. While still breathing heavily from our jog, he peered through the scope.
Five bulls were munching the grey lichen on the lower side of the mountain face as a single bull stood feeding 20 yards above the group. I told Leo to focus on the lone bull and wait for his opportunity.
The bull slowly turned and presented a quartering-away shot. I heard the click of the rifle’s safety and Leo took a deep breath; then, boom!
The shot rang out and dirt flew only inches above the bull. The caribou spun 180 degrees but didn’t run, as he was unsure of where the loud sound had come from.
“A little high,” I told Leo. “Just take your time and a deep breath and try again.”
He chambered another round, inhaled, and squeezed the trigger. Another shot echoed through the mountainous tundra and the bull instantly fell. Leo’s face lit up and he gave me a huge hug. Then we slowly approached the bull.
Leo grabbed its velvet horns and lifted its head for a better view. He stared and smiled, unable to speak, until he looked up at me and said, “Thank you, Dad!”
I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER the hunts I shared and lessons I learned with my father and I’m grateful to have those experiences with my sons. Youth hunts give kids the opportunity to experience hunting with less competition and less pressured animals.
Getting my sons outdoors has taught them about more than just the landscape and the wildlife; they’ve also gained valuable skills like patience, respect, problem-solving, confidence and responsibility.
Hunting has shown them the value of meat and given them the ability to provide for our family. I hope they always remember these experiences and carry the tradition into adulthood to remain hunters for life! ASJ
Editor’s note: Landon Albertson grew up in Lakeview, Oregon, but now chases hunting and fishing adventures as an Alaskan transplant. Check out some of them at preyonadventure.com and on his YouTube page (search for “Prey On Adventure: Alaska Fishing & Hunting”).