2011 Haul Road Caribou - Alaska
For me, traveling north to catch a south bound caribou herd had its trials and tribulations. The motor home ride from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay, pure scenic beauty alongside the Alaskan pipeline, exposed me to 1800 miles of greasy dirt and frost heaved highway-40 hour's worth. I made this trip with six fully grown men, our archery gear, and the supplies we would require for a week's hunt. To say we were 'tightly packed" or "over packed" would be an understatement. I endured rattle after rattle, washboard after washboard. I lived through cabinet doors and drawers being agitated open; the action dumped heavy and valued items everywhere. It was truly one pothole after another! Furthermore, I subjected myself to a 'No more than 45 miles per hour" long haul (now I know why they call it the Haul Road) and a case of "shaken baby syndrome"-whereas I became the victim. At times, I simply shook my head in disbelief. The things we put ourselves through for a hunt, eh? At this journey's end, I was definitely worse from the wear.
Prior to this trip, I had made five do-it-yourself jaunts to Alaska pursuing a variety of game. This adventure was going to be, however, my first DIY Alaskan barren ground caribou hunt without the assistance of a fly-in transportation service. With bird's eye memories from past hunts, I was eager to make comparisons...
We had passed several cow moose and calves browsing on our way north-very cool. But more than anything, I so wanted to see a grizzly bear. What I would give to photograph a large bruin! It never happened. The top of Denali was hidden by low clouds. Trees turned to tundra at mile marker 235 on the Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road. A few miles later, we crested Atigun Pass. The search for huntable caribou began.
It didn't take long! We encountered these two and glassed a few hundred more on the distant horizon. The occupants of our RV were as giddy as school boys-for obvious reasons.
At this point, we were all excited to stop, set up camp, and start our hunt! We were in the Arctic- hunting arctic slope caribou no less! We also realized we were going to be around for five days! We had seen caribou, and each day was going to provide us with 20 hours of huntable daylight. Could it get any better?
We knew our pot of gold was out there!
It was just over the next hill...
On the other side of that river! We stopped.
Camp was established near mile marker 96, just below Oil Spill Hill. The banks of the Sagavanirktok River (the Sag) were a stone throw away, and rumor had it, world class arctic char, graying, and whitefish graced every pool. Something in me felt fly rods would be pitching to fly thrashers! I never imagined a few would take advantage of both fishing and hunting opportunities simultaneously!
Jerry Fletcher has been bitten by the outdoor bug in a real bad way!
We caught enough 14-16 inch grayling to feed an army! Naturally, most were caught and released but enough made it to the grill. Grayling is now officially on my favorite fish to eat list. Even in the absence of lemon and butter, this fish's flavor cooked over willow coals and spiced with Montreal steak seasoning is fit for a king.
We arrived on the first day well after 3 pm; five of us decided to inflate a raft and venture across the Sag. Again, caribou were on the horizon and it only seemed logical to go after them. I was quickly reacquainted with the difficulties of walking on spongy tundra. Making it to the distant horizon seemed to be an exercise in futility! The vastness, well it just kept on going. The outbound and return walk only made us more tired. The adrenalin of just being there wore off; we settled into our racks for some well deserved sleep.
I spent day two guarding a crossing point on the opposite bank of the Sag. Earlier that morning, I watched five caribou cross the river. From my experience on past hunts, I expected more to follow. This point had its pro and cons. It afforded me very little range to glass the distance, but when and if the caribou arrived, they would be right on top of me. I was expecting short range shots. The rest of my group played the role of shortstop at various locations of their own choosing. Randy Huff had a caribou bed down near his location. He stalked within 13 yards and delivered a fatal arrow. The day drifted by and no caribou passed within range for the rest of us.
Doug Moreland stands guard at a crossing point.
I was up early on day three. Doug Moreland sounded the alarm when he noticed five caribou in the distance. The caribou were heading our direction and then decided to bed down. The vigil was on. When the caribou returned to their feet, they started straight for the spot I had been the day before. I ran as fast as I could to a high point on the west side of the river (revisit the photo of Jerry fishing. The high point I speak of is the dark green point about an inch above his head). Doug came with me. Neither of us was fast enough to cut off the caribou. Them swam the river and continued southward. However, that made ten caribou through the same spot on the river. I was beginning to connect the dots. I popped open my Montana decoy and set up shop. This new location gave me a commanding view, nothing was going through unnoticed. It also offered me some flexibility to move either up or down the river. Flexibility is critical when caribou hunting! Here's a view from my new perch.
And the Montana decoy I established behind my position.
Now keep in mind, my goal for this trip had two priorities: 1) I wanted to photograph flora and fauna, and 2) I wanted to merely arrow a caribou-any caribou. Please allow me to share a few photos (I love converting them into watercolors):
This Musk Ox walked 20 feet behind me, catching me totally by surprise. As I watched him ambled past, I had the wind in my face and remained completely motionless. He was thirty yards away when I snapped this photo. I seriously gave him the berth he deserved. The last thing I wanted was a startled charging bull.
Caribou number eleven (and the last caribou I would see crossing) came around noon. Here's her approach:
And this is what greeted her when she arrived on my side of the river:
She gave me a 46 yard quartering away shot the moment she stepped from the water. She barely had enough time to shake herself dry!
I judge my trips by this simple standard, would I do it again? In this case, the answer is a resounding YES-minus the motor home! A 4x4 pickup loaded with proper gear (e.g. tents, coolers, chairs, camp ware, etc.) would have given us more flexibility and less expense. It would have made hauling the raft easier too! The raft is a must!
As I age, I'm beginning to understand there's nothing easy about hunting Alaska-fun YES, easy no-HECK NO!