30 August 2015

North Slope Brooks Range Caribou Part III

Nights on the tundra are somewhat odd this time of year in Alaska, I'm used to full dark coming long before 11 o'clock. Full on dark I am not sure was ever made though a headlamp was needed post midnight for any detailed activity, perhaps around 330 in the morning it was at its darkest while dawn came just after 5.

I set to breakfast and coffee knowing I was going to have a long day. I wanted to explore beyond the edges of the rises that we could see. My plan was to head towards the mountains, try to stick to the high country and walk the rocks where I could. Trying to hike the tussocks is a recipe for busted ankles and twisted knees. Someone said it's like trying to walk through a room filled with basketballs, an apt description indeed.

I set my rifle into the ancient caribou rack we found at our campsite as I prepared to leave. The size of the bulls antlers had set my imagination on fire, excitement built as I cinched down my pack. I kept my PSK, camera equipment plus rain gear and puffy, otherwise I was running light.

The glassing point from camp, as the crow flies, was four miles. My round about route to make walking easier was about six miles.This land is quite deciding, the distance that you think you see is double in actuality. My journey to the spot where I wanted to glass from can be be as seen below.

 Some of the pictures I took on the hike out.

The bull below came through just after noon. It might not look far but he was well over 1,000 yards from my position. He fed down around and below the dome I was glassing from and out of sight, but it would not be the last time I saw him that day.

Cropped way in...

Having spent several hours glassing from the southern end of the dome I traversed it to glass the northern areas.

From the northern end of the dome I saw a black dot about two miles out from my position, this is what it looked like without magnification. It's in the very center of the picture.

This is after magnification.

I watched him for nearly an hour. He was holding there and feeding without a care in the world. He was on the next knoll over, two miles out and if I put a stalk on him I'd be dropping into the valley out of his line of sight. The wind was in my favor and it looked good with the exception of how far I was from camp. My best guess was it would be a six mile pack out across the tundra back to camp. I'd had such a grand day and I was feeling well, I smiled as I'd made of my mind to give it a go. I radioed Dustin and let him know what I was about and set off in the bull's direction.

It took nearly two hours to cross the valley, I made time by counting paces, 100 at a time and then a breather for a minute or two. The terrain is very deceiving, far more rugged than it appears. As I started up the knoll towards the bull, not knowing if he was still there I found my heart pounding. If he was still in the same general vicinity I was less than 200 yards away. I unbuckled the waist belt on my pack and loosened the shoulder straps in case I needed to drop it quickly. In full on stalk mode I made my way up the hillside.

 Now I wish I'd had a camera man with me but I didn't. As I neared the top of the rise I could see antlers from time to time against the skyline but they looked different than what I had seen from a distance. I figured there were two bulls on the other side of the rise. Heart rate accelerating I inched further up the hill.

As I neared the crest I peeked above, sure enough there were two bulls. The closer of the two wasn't the one I was after, the bigger one which is the same one I'd glassed much earlier in the day was about 170 yards from my position. I eased my pack off while laying nearly flat on the ground. Laying the pack flat on the ground wasn't going to get me high enough to take a shot. I stood it upright and placed my rifle on the top between the frame supports. The rifle slid easy into my shoulder as I brought it to bear on the bigger bull. I slipped the safety off as I exhaled, he was quartering slightly away, text book position. The cross hairs settled in, I was aiming rearward to take both lungs but exit behind the offside shoulder. At 2.2 pounds the trigger was crisp, the rifle bucked, I cycled quickly and got back on target for a follow up. He spun in a circle, blood ejected from his nose and mouth, I thought about a second shot but after seeing him hit so hard I put the rifle back on safe and watched as he turned and with an unexpected amount of energy lurched off the back side of the knoll and out of sight.

I started breathing again and radioed Dustin to tell him I had my bull down.

I was both happy and sad, nearly a year's worth of planning and anticipation and I'd punched a tag on my first day of hunting. I was grateful for the gift, saddened by the end and elated at the journey that took me to this bull's side.

It was exactly 3:10 in the afternoon when I walked up on my bull, having left camp at 6:20am that morning it was already a long day. Knowing it would be longer still I set about cleaning the caribou. A task that would take three hours to complete. I was six miles of rough country from camp after having walked at least eight miles to this point. I didn't photograph cleaning and butchering the bull. Bloody to the elbow in grizzly country while alone wasn't a comfortable place to be. I used my Ulu and a havalon to clean the animal, taking every pound of meat including the rib me. I laid it all out on my tyvek sheet as I cut it free. I deboned it as I went.

Three hours later I started putting the rapidly cooling meat into my meat bags, using five of them. Putting them in my pack with my other gear I found I couldn't life the pack while standing. I had to sit on the ground, strap in, roll to my knees and get one leg under me while using my rifle to help get vertical. With gear I believe I was around 170 pounds on the Kifaru Duplex. It was all I could do to stand. Knowing how tough the country was I wanted to get all of it as far as possible if not all the way to camp. I was so far away I made it clear I didn't want Dustin or Throc coming out to my location. I shot it that far from camp, I'd walk it back.

I tried walking 50 paces at a time, counting them off and forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other. If you've ever walked the tundra, especially with a super heavy pack you know exactly the kind of special hell this was. At times I would bend and slide the pack up, resting the upper part on my rifle, this took the weight off of me for a few minutes then I'd start again. I left the kill site a little after 6pm, by 10 I was nearly out of gas. Darkness was coming, the terrain wasn't getting better and camp looked as far off as it did when I started back.

A group of cows came through at one point, giving me a moment to just stand and rest as I watched them.

By 11 I was done, I'd covered slightly more than four miles with 170 pounds on my back and couldn't continue. I had been stopping more frequently and on two occasions caught myself falling asleep standing up. I decided I had to get back to camp but I wasn't going to make it with the meat. The wind had picked up, the temperature was dropping fast. I lowered the heavy pack at a shed laying on the tundra, tucked the bone white antlers around my pack and set off in a straight line to camp. All I could think about was crawling into my sleeping bag. It was a struggle to stay on my feet. A little after midnight dark was upon me, not a full dark but a deep twilight and the sun had fallen behind the hills. A cold was creeping into my, driven by the wind, I found my feet unsure and I stumbled several times before making it to the lake. Up the hill to my tent with graying vision, each boot fall a struggle to pick up to make another. Weakly a grin spread across my face, I shed my boots and crawled into the slick bag and immediately passed out.

To be continued...


  1. Amazing scenery!! Reminds me of my trip to Lapland in '01.
    I can almost hear the wind sweeping across the open expanses, rustling through the low growth.
    Sounds like a very clean shot. The reward will be yours after a lot of hard work. Truly earned!!!

    That first image would make a nice picture on the wall and I have a similar knitted hat! ;)

  2. Wow. This is awesome! Like a once in a lifetime hunt!