Alaskan Caribou Adventure

Going anywhere from Lander, WY is always an endeavor. I left my home at 8am on a Friday, and after a five hour drive and three flights later, I arrived in Fairbanks, AK at 2am the next day.  Luckily my hunting partners had already made it into town and had secured a hotel room with space for me to get a few hours of decent sleep.  It was a long first day of the journey, but no complaints here – I was on my way to the Arctic Circle!

The next morning we woke up, grabbed a quick breakfast, and then made our way to the local airport. An hour or so later, we were on a Caravan heading northwest to the small town of Bettles, AK (population 12).

When we first arrived in Bettles, we immediately checked in with Brooks Range Aviation and began the process of sorting gear, obtaining bear canisters and spray, purchasing hunting licenses, etc.  Our initial plans were to fly out the next day, but because the weather had been sketchy the entire week prior, we jumped on the first opportunity to fly out.  We grabbed a leisurely lunch at the Old Sour Dough Lodge (where you eat what they give you) and then made haste to the plane once the pilot determined there was a window to fly.  Within ~30 minutes we were in an Otter (mid-sized float plane) and on our way into the Brooks Range. One and a half hours of flying through fog and mist we touched down on Jobe Lake. We would find out later that had we waited, we would’ve been stuck in town for 3 days…

After arriving and setting up camp, we immediately began glassing.  Holy shit!  100 caribou here, 20 there, 5 giant bulls across the river in that direction, etc.  Because Alaska law forbids hunting on the same day of fly-in, the only thing we could do was sit and watch all the amazing animals!

Catching a glimpse of the Brooks Range as we fly through Alaska's misty landscape.

Catching a glimpse of the Brooks Range as we fly through Alaska’s misty landscape.

Brooks Range Aviation flying us through the thick of it.

Brooks Range Aviation flying us through the thick of it.

Drop off location along Jobe Lake.

Drop off location along Jobe Lake.

Basecamp overlooking the North Slope of the Brooks Range.

Basecamp overlooking the North Slope of the Brooks Range.

Day 1: The first full day in the field was a learning experience.  Our first instinct was to strike out after bands of caribou that were migrating through.  With four of us, we figured breaking up into pairs would help us cover more ground.  So, Ben and I struck out to the northwest and Ross and Geoff worked to the southeast.  Excitedly, Ben and I left camp with hopes of catching up to a group of caribou that were further down the valley. After venturing out across the tundra we quickly realized just how difficult it was to move through the terrain.  The habitat is made up of wet mosses/lichens, tussock grasses, and ankle deep water which made it nearly impossible to catch up to animals that had already passed through.  A little demoralized, Ben and I went back to camp and spent the next hour glassing.  We ultimately decided the key to intercepting them was to glass caribou that were several miles out moving in our direction, and then create a plan to move into position as they passed through.

Ben glassing back across the Nigu River.

Ben glassing back across the Nigu River.

It's easy to feel small in the vast Alaskan landscape.

Feeling small in the vast Alaskan landscape.

Ross returning from a recon mission.

Ross returning from a recon mission.

Meanwhile, Ross and Geoff worked their way along the river to the southeast.  They also realized that the herd was slowly pushing their way down the valley and that getting to high ground to glass was the best strategy.

Later in the day we all reconvened to refine our evening plans. But just as we were about to part ways, Ross and Geoff spotted a group of nice bulls slowly working towards us.  We again refined our plans, and then split up with hopes of someone connecting.

Luckily for us, the caribou turned and made their way towards Ben and I as we eased our way from one ridge to the next.  Within an hour we were watching the bulls slowly feed towards us.  And just as quick as the hunt started, a giant bull with the gnarliest tops you’ve ever seen turned broadside and offered Ben a 200 yard shot.  Done.

As we approached the beast, I couldn’t help think just how crazy it was that we were in mother f’ing Alaska hunting caribou.  Ben didn’t say a word – he just stood and stared with a bewildered look on his face.  I think we repeated the word “crazy” about two dozen times…

Ben making the final push and moving into position.

Ben making the final push and moving into position.

Ben admiring his caribou with speechless astonishment.

Ben admiring his caribou with speechless astonishment.

The real work begins once the animal is down.

The real work begins once the animal is down.

Day 2: We woke up to falling snow and a chilly 30 something degrees.  The previous day had kicked our asses so we were a little slow to get into gear. Hauling a bull caribou across the tundra in wet, soggy clothes for a couple of miles will kick anyone’s ass.

As we prepared breakfast I glassed a group of 5 bulls several miles out.  Even with my sleepy, groggy eyes I knew this was a group worth going after.  We quickly scarfed down our sustenance and Ben and I once again struck out.  Today was my day to put down the camera and to carry the gun.

Since I was a kid I had always dreamed of hunting caribou.  Something about the idea of journeying into the Arctic Circle to pursue such an interesting animal that has evolved to live in such harsh conditions has always fascinated me.

Approximately 45 minutes after we set out we were in striking distance of the small group.  We knew we had options on how to approach the animals, but as all spot and stalk hunts go, we could only make an educated guess as to which route they would take.  Given our recent experience and lay of the land, we calculated the caribou would continue through the valley with hopes that they wouldn’t move toward the river.  As luck would have it they didn’t come towards us, however they moved to the northeast, which would eventually give us a shot.  We skirted along the ridgetop and found a solid position.  As we moved into position, so did the caribou.  400 yards. I don’t often take shots past 200 yards, though I felt confident in the gun, my rest, and my ability to shoot.  Done.

The massive beast was on the ground quickly and in no time we were admiring his beauty. My childhood dreams had come to fruition and I couldn’t have been more excited. A lifetime of aspirations culminated to that event.

That evening we ate caribou tacos.  So. Awesome.

Bulls migrating their way along the Nigu River.

Bulls migrating their way along the Nigu River.

A lone bull scans the horizon.

A lone bull scans the horizon.

Culmination of a childhood dream.

Culmination of a childhood dream.

Day 3: With two tags filled, it was all hands on deck to help Ross and Geoff get theirs.  Only they didn’t really need our help.

As with the previous mornings, we all woke up dreading putting on our wet, soggy boots.  My last pair of dry socks was about to be shoved into cold, sodden boots that had not seen sun in several days.  Naturally we were a little slow in getting out of our tents.  Half asleep, I hear Ross get out of his tent, and then exclaim, “that guy is an absolute pig!” Then about another minute Iater, I wake again to a gun shot.  I quickly jump out of my tent and see a bull down across the lake. Bull number 3. Done.

Over the next several hours Ross, Ben, and I trekked our way around the lake and packed out the bull.  As with the others, we were forced to walk a sizable distance in the wet tussocky tundra.  Though it’s a slog, we’re still super pumped to be experiencing the adventure.

Groggy-eyed Ross and his "pig"

Groggy-eyed Ross and his “pig”

The long slog out.

The long slog out.

Meanwhile, Geoff spent his time enjoying the finer things in life and had a leisurely breakfast at camp while glassing for his bull.  Just as we had gotten back to camp, we had another stroke of luck; two bulls decided to break from the norm and head directly towards camp.  Geoff decided these bulls were worth pursuing.  With strategic terrain separating our camp and the bulls, Geoff and Ross struck out for the nearest ridge. It wasn’t long before they peaked over the ridge and had the bulls walking directly toward them.  In similar fashion to our other hunts, bull four was down on the ground. Done.

Did I mention caribou tacos are amazing?

Geoff and his "camp" bull.

Geoff and his “camp” bull.

Geoff after putting a stalk on his caribou.

Geoff after a long stalk.

Day 4: Four tags filled in three days is an amazing feeling.  Even the constant rain that we endured throughout the trip couldn’t quash the thrill of the experience. Day four was no different, only this time we had achieved our primary goal. The only goal left was to spend the remainder of time fishing and soaking up more of the amazing views.

Contrary to popular belief, Alaskan fish did not fight their way onto our lures.  We had a much more difficult time figuring out the fish than the caribou.  Hours of fishing the Nigu River and the nearby lake didn’t yield much for me.  Geoff on the other hand, is as about as savvy a fisherman as anyone I’ve ever met.  He managed to land a sizable lake trout in the very section of river I fished – a section I was convinced was fishless (just like everywhere else I fish…).

Fish tacos are almost as good as caribou tacos.

It rains in Alaska, a lot - having a shelter large enough to accommodate all of us was a godsend.

It rains in Alaska, a lot – having a shelter large enough to accommodate all of us was a godsend.

Geoff showing off his fishing skills.

Geoff showing off his fishing skills.

Day 5: Though we had scheduled a couple more days in the wilderness, we thought it might not be a bad idea to head back to civilization to figure out the task of shipping antlers and meat back to Wyoming.  The previous day we phoned Brooks Range Aviation via our satellite phone to schedule an early pickup. Luckily the weather began to clear and retrieving us was doable.  Just as the weather had hindered others from getting in, it had hindered yet others from getting out.  Our early departure was just in time with the never-ending uncertainty of the weather.

Scheduling a taxi service out of the Brooks Range is not like requesting Uber.  We waited approximately five hours for the Otter to arrive past our scheduled pick-up time. As soon as we stepped foot along the shore to await our float-plane-to-civilization, we were already reminiscing about our trip, so we managed to pass the time. This was an adventure of a lifetime, and we were all beyond excited with our experience. The wait went by quickly. Target practice with handguns reserved for unruly grizzly bears will always help stave off monotony.

That evening we arrived just in time for dinner at the Old Sour Dough Lodge. It was a great way to wind down and we felt that we deserved to binge on the meal of the day – which just happened to be pizza and Alaskan Ambers. Perfect.

The flight out: front row seats of the Brooks Range at 1500ft.

The flight out: front row seats of the Brooks Range at 1500ft.

Ross and Ben unload cargo from the Otter.

Ross and Ben unload cargo from the Otter.

Conclusion:  The next several days were spent prepping meat and antlers for shipping, and reintroducing ourselves back into greater civilization. We managed to catch an early flight out of Bettles, which helped with the transition. While Fairbanks is a decent-sized town, everyone seems to be on their own wavelength, a wavelength noticeably different from the lower 48. A couple days in Fairbanks is a good buffer for easing back into our hustle and bustle culture from the wilderness.

If I hadn’t expressed it enough or if it wasn’t already apparent, this was a trip of a lifetime for all of us.  Two years of preparation – emails, phone calls, new gear purchases, doubt about unit closures, and several thousand dollars spent – had finally concluded in an amazing experience I’ll never forget.

My bucket list is one lifegoal shorter.

Four bulls in three days (L to R: Geoff, Ross, Ben, Craig).

Four bulls in three days (L to R: Geoff, Ross, Ben, Craig).

Shifting light across the Brooks Range.

Shifting light across the Brooks Range.

Long-tailed weasel hanging out around camp.

A curious long-tailed weasel.

The sun peaks through on our final morning.

The sun peaks through on our final morning.