Just over 15 years ago, I had an opportunity to travel to Alaska to go caribouhunting. Man, was I excited! My dad was one of the lucky few that won the hunt at a local dinner banquet. As anticipation grew and gear lists were checked, and then double-checked, we were ready to go. However, luck was not on our side. The day before we were to fly out, my dad received a shocking phone call. The outfitter had to cancel the trip. We were devastated! All the years we had spent dreaming about hunting in Alaska, the “last frontier,” were swept away right before our eyes.
As time has passed, and many hunting trips gone by, the could-have-been caribou hunt in Alaska has always been on our minds. While we thought that the opportunity had passed all those years ago, we discovered recently that luck was again on our side.
A good friend from high school had moved to Fairbanks, Alaska to start his career. Not only was I envious of his move, I immediately started figuring out how I could get to Alaska for the much anticipated caribou hunt that was taken away from us all those years ago. After dedicating several hours towards research, my dad and I chose a do-it-yourself (DIY) caribou hunt about 70 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Anyone who has traveled this part of the world knows that the logistics of getting that far north are pretty intense and time consuming. However, with a lot of time spent planning the caribou hunt, we were able to get arrangements finalized. We reserved our flights and made reservations with a small drop camp pilot. The anticipation was almost uncontainable.
Before we knew it, we were flying out of Salt Lake City towards Fairbanks. Once we arrived, we had a 9 hour drive north, traveling on the Dalton Highway, or as the locals call it, the “Haul Road.” Coming up over Atigun Pass and dropping down on the north slope of the famed Brooks Range, we witnessed the most beautiful, awe-inspiring scenery that one can only imagine. There were rivers, lakes, and streams everywhere. The water in the lakes was crystal clear, as if untouched by mankind. To understand the vast country and appreciate its unique beauty, one has to see it in person. Every day of our hunting trip we were in awe of the splendor that surrounded us.
Once we arrived at the local airstrip, we met our drop camp pilots, loaded our gear, and prepared for an early morning departure. Due to restricted weight limits, each person was allowed 70 pounds of gear for the entire hunting trip. This ended up being quite a challenge as there were four men in our group and 70 pounds included food, shelter, and clothing/gear for an entire week. We were able to pass weight checks, but realized that we would have to be cautious so as not to run out of dry clothes, food, etc. It was definitely a minimalist adventure we were about to embark on.
Traveling across the vast country in the Super Cub planes was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We had such amazing views and were able to capture just how enormous and picturesque the tundra is. After flying around and locating a few caribou, the pilots dropped us off and we got busy setting up camp, waiting to hunt the following day per Alaska Game and Fish regulations, which state that you can’t fly and hunt the same day. After our camp was set up, we headed out into the tundra to start glassing for caribou.
That evening while glassing, we spotted nine good-sized bulls. We decided to watch them and track their movement. Before leaving us at camp, our experienced pilots recommended that we watch the riverbeds, as the caribou would start rubbing off their velvet. We chose to follow those suggestions and stayed close to the river.
We had all planned on getting wet during this hunt but no one prepared us for the type of weather we would encounter. Rain, snow, and sleet poured down on us almost every day. All we could do was sit in the tundra swamps and watch the bulls as the rain poured down on us. Although our research indicated that we would get wet, and we prepared for it, one day the rain, moisture, and cold was more than we could handle and we were forced to wait it out in our tents. Even though we were drenched from head to toe, the wet conditions and ongoing storms never dampened our moods. It only caused our excitement and anticipation to grow as we prepared for the hunt.
As we woke up on day one of our caribou hunt, we were greeted with heavy rain and sleet pounding our tents. We all agreed that the wet and cold conditions wouldn’t stop us from pursuing what we had come to Alaska to do: hunt caribou. Shortly after leaving camp, we were able to spot a group of bulls that we had seen the previous night; they were grazing on the other side of a nearby river. Since there were a few great bulls in the group, we made a plan to hunt them and started heading closer. In order to get closer though, we had to cross a treacherous river. As we weaved our way trough the thick alders and slippery river rock beds, we made it to the river. Looking at the swift current we wondered if we could cross it safely, especially in the rain. We didn’t want to put anyone at risk so we walked up and down the river to find a safe, secure crossing point. This took almost an hour but it was worth it when we finally made it across.
As soon as we were on the other side of the river, we spotted a couple of bulls about 80 yards away. We could see that the bigger bulls were not with this group so we set out in search of them. As luck would have it, off in the distance about 800 yards away, we saw the bigger bulls that had made their way up onto a little bench. Determined, we tried to close the distance and ended up disregarding the advice of our pilots, who warned us not to chase them as they could easily outrun us. Sure enough, as we were trying to get closer, they darted across the tundra like a cat running from a dog. Defeated and drenched, we headed back to camp and worked on a new game plan.
After we had dried out the best we could, we headed north along the riverbed. We were determined to find another set of bulls. Although hiking in the swamp-like conditions put a strain on our bodies, we didn’t let that stop us and about every mile, we hiked up on benches to glass. We knew this would provide us with a better view and we would be able to spot caribou a lot easier. After doing this a few times, we got lucky and spotted two decent sized bulls about 2 miles away, just off the river.
With our adrenaline still pumping after the morning hunt, we quickly, and quietly, hiked closer to get a better look. We weren’t about to let this opportunity slip from our hands. After watching the bulls for a few minutes and determining which one to shoot, we made a great stalk along the bottom of the bench. Even with the strong winds and rain/fog coming in, it worked out perfectly. We closed the 2-mile gap to about 450 yards. As I lay there snug into my gun, with my dad calling the yardage, the bulls stood up and the bigger of the two turned broadside. Squeeze, boom, down he went. And just like that I knew what it was like hunting barren ground caribou.
After celebrating on a successful shot, we gathered our gear and headed towards my trophy bull. What a majestic animal it is! I will always remember walking up to my caribou and being in awe of what a beautiful creature it is. I will also remember the moment because the rain started to lift, a rainbow could be seen off in the distance, a raven flew about 15 feet above us as if it had never seen humans before, and along the river a 55-inch bull moose was quietly grazing. Truly a great hunting adventure and a well earned trophy.
The rest of the hunt was hampered by snow, rain, and fog, up until the last few days. My dad got the opportunity to harvest a great bull on the second to last day of the hunt. After seeing a total of 17 bulls on the trip, we were happy to be heading home with our caribou.
This was definitely an experience we will never forget. It is a tough hunt and caribou are hard animals to get on. However, if you are dedicated and prepared for the unknown, it’s a hunt worth doing. As our last night of the hunt came to a close, we sat in camp reflecting on what a great adventure it had been and the memories that we will forever cherish. As we settled in for the night, the sunset was a thin orange across the horizon to the west, the moon had just crested the eastern horizon, and directly above us the northern lights where dancing. It was the perfect way to end our adventure in the tundra.
I am truly thankful for the opportunity to travel to Alaska and experience all that the great arctic tundra has to offer. I would also like to thank my father, Jeff Blain, who has and will continue to be my hunting buddy.