The following appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY LANDON ALBERTSON
My first successful caribou hunt was a true Alaskan adventure and was easily my favorite so far.
What made it even better was that I got to share the experience with Jen, my wife/adventure partner, and one of my best friends, Reed. It was an unforgettable trip for all of us.
THE FLIGHT IN
It all started with my first flight in a Super Cub. Our pilot methodically loaded the plane and I climbed aboard. I strapped on my seat buckle and tightened the straps. Then I slid on a radio headset so I could communicate with the pilot during our flight. We taxied to the edge of the runway and the pilot asked, “Ready?” “Ready!” I replied excitedly. The plane jolted forward and within a couple of seconds, we were soaring above the trees. Forty-five minutes over the breathtaking mountains of the Alaska Range was all it took for me to fall in love with flying.
From the towering mountain peaks to the winding riverbeds, I was reminded once again just how beautiful Alaska truly is. But it wasn’t just the landscape that had us recalling our love for the land. The wildlife greeted us along the way: Dall sheep, caribou, and even a grizzly bear spotted by Jen served as a perfect introduction to the Alaska backcountry.
We landed at camp – each of us arriving in separate planes. Once we were on the ground, I noticed my face and cheeks were getting sore. It hit me that I hadn’t stopped smiling since we had lifted off.
Still buzzing from our flights, we set up camp and waited impatiently for the hunt ahead. Base camp was next to the landing strip, which was located in a sliver of trees that reached to the riverbed.
The river ran north and south and featured thick trees on either side. Steep
mountains sprouted from the banks of the river. Dark green cedar trees covered the lower half of the mountains, with yellow birch trees sparsely sprinkled throughout.
Above the tree line were thick red-blushed bushes and orange alder patches that set the mountainside on fire with color. The peaks were jagged rocks cut out by small runoff creeks. We could see small white specks towards the top of the peaks.
I grabbed my spotting scope and inspected the specks that salted the mountaintop. It was a group of Dall sheep – mostly ewes and lambs and a couple small rams feeding on minerals throughout the rocks. I watched them until it was almost dark and then finished getting my pack ready for the caribou hunt in the morning.
We started off early and headed west from our river bottom camp to scale the steep mountainside. The first mile of the ascent was made more difficult by the thick brush that was at times over our heads, while the tall trees eliminated our glassing opportunities.
I climbed a couple cedar trees to get above the brush and glass in hopes of spotting animal before it spotted us but to no avail. As we fought the thick brush on our way up the mountain, we found out quickly if we wanted a slightly easier hike to stay on the game trails that weaved their way through the terrain.
Our plan was to scout for caribou and call for moose along the way. On only the second call, we heard the first bull moose respond to the whines of my cow calling. We listened to him grunt and make his way closer to us, the deep sound growing louder as we waited. “Wahaaa wahaaa,” grunted the bull as he marched his way to my calls.
As the bull came closer and closer, I thought to myself he should appear at any moment. But soon, I felt the all-too- familiar and disappointing cool breeze tickle the hairs on the back of my neck. With the switch of the wind, the moose winded us and was gone, so we continued up the mountain.
We kept making our way towards the top and the visibility improved above the tree line. Eventually we made it to the edge of a ravine. The canyon had 100-foot vertical rock sides, and as we peeked over the side, we saw the rushing creek below us. The creek ran from its headwaters west to east and split the mountain range in two – a north side and a south side.
We stood on the edge of the north side, looking across to the south. The creek and ravine ran perpendicular to the river we were camped on and eventually joined the river about a half- mile upstream from camp. But where we were standing, it appeared to be impassable in either direction.
The only way to get across was near the mouth of the creek, which was a couple miles down the mountain in the direction we’d just come from. As we stared across the canyon, I spotted a caribou feeding on the opposite side of the ravine.
It appeared to be a cow; all we could do was watch her through our binoculars. The caribou appeared to be getting pestered by biting flies and mosquitos. She would feed and then all of a sudden shake her body and buck her legs. Then she would take off running in a dead sprint, like a track star racing in the 40-yard dash.
Once she outran her foe, she would stop to feed until the flies caught up to her again, starting the process all over again. We watched her forage until she ran off out of sight, leaving us with the decision to hunt the south side of the ravine the next day.
We began on the south side of the creek, the side where we saw the cow caribou the day prior. Though the terrain was still challenging, the brush was not as thick, making it easier for us to get above the tree line.
We called for moose along the way but with no luck. We reached the base of the peak and decided to eat lunch, glass for caribou and, if the bugs would stop biting, maybe take a nap. It only took about 10 minutes of glassing before Reed spotted a caribou working its way over the next ridgeline to the north, about a mile away.
I pulled out my spotting scope and got the animal in focus. I could tell it was a nice bull – he had a long white mane and tall brown antlers. But of course it was on the opposite side of the ravine!
We briefly considered the 2-mile trek back down the mountain to cross the creek and then hike 2 more miles up the other side. But we knew he’d be long gone by the time we could get there. We were again filled with disappointment that we were on the wrong side. But we finished eating lunch and decided to continue up the hill.
We made our way to where we had seen the cow feeding the day before. We crested the hill and spotted her at 200 yards. She was feeding and slowly making her way toward the ravine, away from us. At one point she lifted her head and sniffed the air. I could tell right away she had caught the scent from something. The wind was blowing heavily from the north – into our faces – so I knew she didn’t smell us. She then made a beeline into the wind, resembling a bloodhound on a scent trail.
The cow was heading to the ravine and I figured she’d caught the scent of the bull from earlier. I told Jen and Reed, “If she knows a way to get to the other side, then we can get there too!”
We watched and hoped that she’d show us a way. She disappeared over the edge of the canyon and popped up on the other side of the creek a few minutes later. I knew that if she could get over there, then so could we!
The three of us made our way to where the cow had crossed. Along the way we found substantial caribou sign. Given the droppings, hair, tracks and a couple of caribou shed horns, I could tell we had found a heavily used travel corridor.
We made it to the ravine and found the trail that the caribou use to cross the creek. It was immediately apparent that this was the only place to cross for miles.
A game trail super highway led down to the bottom of the ravine. The path was beaten and packed with wildlife tracks; it looked like a popular trailhead at a national park. Our excitement grew as we followed it down towards the rushing creek.
Using a couple boulders in the middle of the creek as platforms, we were able to jump across and then started the climb up the other side. Now that we knew of a more convenient place to cross, we set off to find the bull from earlier in the day.
After another quarter of a mile on the game trail, I stood on a mound of dirt, which was about 3 feet high, to get above the brush and to try and spot the cow. I was glassing the horizon and found her about 800 yards away on a brush-covered knob. About 15 yards behind her was a huge caribou rack sprouting from the brush.
“Big bull!” I said to Jen and Reed. They used their binoculars and saw him too. In between the bull and us was a dry creek bed covered in dry yellow knee-high grass. With the wind in our faces, we got into the dry creek and made our way toward the bull.
We moved within 400 yards of the caribou and watched them feed just over a knoll and out of sight. I’m usually an archery hunter, and because of this I like to get close, even if I have a rifle capable of shooting 500 yards.
Reed stayed back to keep an eye on the caribou and Jen and I dropped our packs and moved in closer. We snuck onto the knoll and stalked toward them. The brush now ranged from hip- to chest- height, making it hard to navigate quietly and also difficult to find the caribou.
Thankfully we found a small game trail and used that to weave our way to where we last saw them, but they were no longer there. Jen looked through her binos and noticed horn tips moving through the brush 100 yards to our left. I tried to get a better look through the scope of my rifle, but couldn’t. I knew we’d have to get closer for a clear enough shot.
With the rifle at my shoulder, like a SWAT leader moving towards a suspect, we snuck closer; now within 40 yards of the caribou, I waited for my chance. After a couple of minutes went by, finally the bull stepped into an opening. All I could see was his rack, head, neck and top one- third of his body.
My arms shook with fatigue from holding the rifle up for so long and the scope’s crosshairs bounced with my movement. I slowed my breathing and concentrated on a small patch of brown fur behind his shoulder. My thumb took the safety off – index finger coming to rest on the cold trigger – as the crosshairs moved in a uniform figure-eight motion.
I waited for them to hit the brown patch and squeezed. Boom! The rifle fired and the shot echoed through the valley. The bull immediately dropped dead before he hit the ground.
We hugged and high-fived, filled with joy and disbelief that it had all come together. As we walked closer, we noticed a smaller bull 20 yards from where my bull had fallen. He bounded off, leaving me thankful that I had taken the more mature of the two.
I could not believe the size of my caribou – not only his horns but also his body. I’d seen reindeer at a farm in Palmer before and they were about the size of a mature mule deer. I’d figured that since caribou share the same genetics, they would be roughly the same size. This was a false assumption.
This caribou’s body was closer to that of a young cow elk with a big round gut. We took our grip-and-grin pictures – still ecstatic from the hunt – then set to work on processing the animal. The hindquarters and back of the bull were covered in a thick layer of fat. I could tell the bull had been preparing for the long winter ahead.
I trimmed off some of the fat to render oil from and cook the tenderloins the next day. It was a two-hour process to get the bull skinned and quartered, then loaded in our packs. It was 7:30 p.m. by the time we set out on the 4-mile journey back to camp.
The plan was to get there before it got too dark, but that proved more difficult than we’d expected. The brush, alder patches, creeks and bumpy terrain made for slow travel, and it was made even worse by the heavy, unbalanced packs. Six brutal hours later, we finally arrived at 1:30 a.m. Our bodies were sore but our spirits high!
We were grateful to sleep in the following day and give our backs and legs a well-deserved rest. For lunch I prepared thinly sliced caribou steaks seasoned with salt and pepper, then fried in rendered caribou fat.
With each bite it was a reminder of why we hunt. Not only did I score a beautiful bull caribou and meat that will be shared on our dinner table throughout the winter, but I also was able to share the entire experience with Jen and Reed. The memories will last far longer than the trophy or meat. We hunted moose for the next six days and had a couple close encounters, but unfortunately none of the bulls were legal.
An Alaskan mountain caribou hunt should be on every wilderness hunter’s bucket list. Flying home over the mountain peaks that were now covered in snow, I couldn’t help but feel lucky. Lucky that we found that cow caribou on day one and lucky on day two that she led us right to the bull I took. Lucky that I live in a place where I can hunt and provide meat for my family. Lucky to have a wife who loves adventure as much as me. Lucky to have a great friend like Reed.
But maybe it has nothing to do with luck. Instead I just feel blessed. 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”).