Last Frontier Caribou
“Oh no!” I tell my wife as I spot two hunters who appeared to be pursuing the same caribou bulls we were stalking. I think and hope to myself that they’re chasing the group of sub-legal sheep that were feeding above the caribou. We continue our stalk and run into the other hunters on the leigh side of the ridge that led down to the sheep and caribou. We asked the couple what they are hunting and they replied “We’re chasing sheep!” in a defeated tone as we all watch the group of rams crest over the next ridge. They continued marching onward towards the rams and bid us good luck. An unsaid understanding as fellow weekend warriors to another, we’re all looking to notch our tags and fill our freezers.
I look at my wife and say, “well, we’re back on the stalk!” We closed the distance on the two bulls we spotted from the opposite side of the mountain. We slipped and dipped into the direction we last saw the bulls bedded. We scooted down the mountain on our booties until we could only see the bulls’ branched antlers sticking out of the low laying willow brush. The two bulls were both unaware of us and happily sleeping. Jordan decided to wait for the larger of the bulls to stand up before she took her 150 yard shot downhill. Minutes turned to hours as we waited patiently for a standing broad side shot. The mid morning mountain thermals shifted and both the bulls stood up. Jordan made a perfectly placed shot through the vitals and down went her first caribou. We hugged. We smiled. We admired the beautiful bull caribou laying just down the mountain from us.
The party had really just begun as our camp was up-mountain 5 miles and we had a long pack out ahead of us. They say all the fun stops and the work begins when you pull the trigger, and I partially agree yet I’ve learned to love and savor the “suck factor”. The heavy load is a right of passage and an honor. It’s part of the experience. I smiled and told my wife “It’s not your’s unless you pack it out.” She ponied up making two trips to the kill site packing meat. The first trip she took a shoulder, the last trip she packed out the skull and cape. She earned the soreness and blisters that came with the bounty of meat and bone. If it was as easy as shooting the animal and driving a four wheeler up to the kill site, then everyone would do it.
ATV access across Alaska has grown exponentially since the 1980s. Although many hunters luck out each year and shoot game just off ATV trails, I have found there is greater opportunity for hunting success off the beaten path. For this hunt, we relied on the quads God gave us to haul the caribou back to the ATV accessible area and made one heck of a memory in doing so.
Jordan’s father, Vince was also with us on the hunt, he hung back during the stalk and watched things unfold from the ridge above. He then joined us to help field dress and pack out the bou. After we got home from the hunt, the three of us enjoyed reminiscing on all the details from the adventure. One of the things we laughed about was our night of siwashing – an old military term for sleeping out in the elements while not being fully prepared. In other words we packed light to cover some ground to find animals but found ourselves a little too far away from base camp to return for the night. We all slept huddled up together under a tarp held up by our trekking poles. When we weren’t shivering, we were busy doing jumping jacks and push ups to keep warm.
Vince brought up the point that the hunters we encountered on the stalk weren’t visible from our initial vantage point. Vince thought it was cool that Jordy and I didn’t interrupt the other groups stalk on the sheep and/or the caribou. We had waited patiently until they came back up the ridge to the packs they left behind. I told him, “that’s the only way to be an ethical sportsman.” You must wait your turn.
Road system hunting has became increasingly competitive in the state of Alaska, it seems like the majority of the “legal” animals has someone chasing after them. From long range shooting, to bigger badder boats and ATVS, to the most spruced up airplanes, it seems Alaska hunting has been taken to a whole new level. Guided hunts versus unguided resident hunts, territorial disputes, land access issues, regulation changes etc. The information that can be found on the internet and hunting articles bread a whole new hunter, a hunter with a radio GPS, someone with satellite texting and calling capabilities, who has no fear of being too deep in the wilderness. As Alaska’s population of hunters grows and technology changes, its always important to remember the basics of competitive hunting and being a sportsman.
No matter how you do it, make it safe and ethical, and feel great for all of those involved and those who may become involved on the hunt. Make and share memories that will last a lifetime, make someone else feel good they made the decision to get off their couch and get into the field. I know that my wife will cherish her first caribou that’s in our freezer and on our wall. I know my father felt happy to see his daughter and son carry the flame of the next generation of sportsman. I feel remarkably happy for my family and the opportunities we still have to chase wild animals in the state we call home.