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CampFire Tales

Scott Irving

What a Hunt!We were camped in a thicket of spruce trees on the edge of one of Alaska’s many unnamed lakes. It had been raining nonstop for the last 36 hours and it would continue to do so for a good portion of our hunt. This was early September in Alaska and we had prepared for whatever Mother Nature might throw at us. As I rolled out of my sleeping bag on the second day of our hunt, I was filled with anticipation. We already had 2 bulls down and after seeing so many caribou on the flight in, I had a feeling it would be my turn today.

Our hunt really began about 6 months before opening day. As all experienced hunters know, advanced planning and preparation are the keys to a successful trip. We decided early on that we would hunt the Mulchatna River herd because of the large number of caribou in it. We also decided we would do a drop off, do it yourself hunt. There would be no horses, guides, or ATV’s Campto help with the packing on this trip, so my off season conditioning program was kicking into full gear. I always try to focus on legs, back, and lots of cardio when preparing for a hunting trip. As hard as it is to stay motivated at times, it really does pay off during the hunt.

After flying from Anchorage to Iliamna, the four of us were more than ready. We had been packed and ready to go a week before leaving, so when we finally boarded the Beaver we had chartered from Iliamna Air Taxi, no piece of equipment had been left behind. (I can’t stress enough how important it is to make a checklist of things you need long before your trip starts. When packing for a hunt I check things off as I go and inevitably write down and check off a few more items before I’m done.) Anyway, not more than 15 minutes out of Iliamna we started seeing caribou. I’ve never been to Africa but the films I’ve seen of the Serengheti came to mind. We probably saw a thousand caribou on that short flight to our hunting camp with a lot of big bulls leading the herds.

It is against the law in Alaska to hunt the same day that you fly, so, our first day was spent setting up camp and scouting the area. It wasn’t long before we spotted a herd about three quarters of a mile away. They were moving across an open basin of tundra and we began planning our hunt for the next day. We glassed the area for over an hour and observed two hundred or so caribou. All were moving in a southerly direction and traveling in herds of 20-30 animals. There was a sliver of spruce trees close to where they were crossing and we planned on being there as early as possible the next morning. If the wind was right, those trees would provide the cover that we needed.

As we began our hike through the tundra that next morning, I realized that the most important piece of equipment we had brought along were the hip-waders. Aside from keeping your legs protected from the rain, they also helped with the constant ankle deep water. We also had to cross several streams and marshes and without the hip waders it would have been impossible to stay dry and comfortable. After hiking for almost an hour, we reached our vantage point. Almost immediately, we saw quite a bit of bear sign and discovered where a bear had killed a caribou. The area around the carcass was pretty torn up and all that was left were some bones and hide, scattered over a 20 foot area. Judging by the size of the claw prints in the mud and the scat left behind, we believed it to be a fairly good size brown bear. We would have to be on our toes from here on out!

The stand of trees was better than we had hoped for. We had a tremendous view of the area and found a lot of caribou sign from where they had been crossing. After an hour or so of waiting and glassing, we spotted a herd climbing over a ridge about a mile away. They were too far away to be certain but there appeared to be a very large herd bull in the bunch. Now we just had to hope they would follow the same path as the ones we had observed the night before as there was nothing but open tundra between us and the caribou.

As the herd began heading our way it became apparent that this was a large bull. Even at this distance we could see his blood stained rack towering over his body. Mike got out the spotting scope and after watching him for a short time grinned and said, “He’s huge.” The herd was grazing and walking right toward us and before we knew it they had closed the distance to 150 yards. I don’t know if it was us or the bear kill but at 100 yards several of the cows started getting spooked. The bull was safely positioned in the middle of the herd and would not break free.  Soon, acting in unison, the herd spooked and bolted. They were running hard and it didn’t look like they would stop before getting out of range.  To our surprise, at 200 yards they slowed down to a trot and a short time later they stopped and were looking back in our direction. The bull was still positioned in the middle of the herd and Mike could not get a shot. When it looked as though he might get away, a few of the cows began trotting off and left the bull exposed. A few seconds later and then “BOOM.” One shot from Mike’s Remington .280 sounded off and the bull collapsed.

After I photographed Mike with his magnificent bull we began skinning and quartering the animal. After 45 minutes or so we had the pack frames loaded with meat and began the trek back to camp. Alaska hunting laws require that all meat must be packed into camp before the antlers and cape.  Thus, Mike packed his rack back to the spot he Nice Bullhad shot the bull from hoping that if any bears showed up they would be more attracted to the gut pile than his cape and rack. After that was done we loaded the pack frames with meat for the hike back to camp.

If you’ve never walked through the tundra with a load of meat on your back, you’re really missing a thrill. With each step you take your feet sink in 3 or 4 inches. When you go to pull your foot out the ground doesn’t want to let go. My off-season conditioning program included hiking up many hills but I don’t know what you can really do to simulate walking through the boggy tundra; it is really challenging! Needless to say, by the time we reached camp we were more than ready to unload our pack frames and take a break. After Mike hiked back to retrieve his rack and cape, we spent what was left of the day around camp, rigging up the meat poles, fishing for grayling,  and enjoying the Alaskan wilderness.

As daylight broke on the second day, we had already had coffee and a light breakfast. We packed our lunches and gathered our gear for the day. We began our hike up to a ridge and then over to our vantage point in the trees. It was raining hard and with the clouds down low we didn’t think we were going to have very good visibility. However, once we got to our spot we still had a nice view of the surrounding area despite the weather. We glassed for over an hour and didn’t see a thing. The weather began to clear a little and we could see a couple of miles out over the tundra but didn’t spot any signs of life except for a few trumpeter swans on the lake. We were patient and knew that it was just a matter of time before more caribou would show up. We decided to sit tight and soon our luck changed.

We spotted a lone bull about three quarters of a mile away. I couldn’t tell how big he was saw a beautiful white mane and what appeared to be a large rack. There was no time to wait for a longer look. He was moving fast and heading away from where we were so I would need all the time I could get to position myself for a shot. Without saying a word, I grabbed my pack frame and started working my way toward his direction of travel as quickly as I could. There was a small ridge in the tundra I was heading for. I figured if I could get to the top of it without being seen I would have a nice shot opportunity. Every hundred feet or so, I would stop to check on the bull’s position. He was really moving fast across the tundra and I would have to move quickly before he was gone.

I finally lost sight of the bull as I approached the ridge that was between us. I tried to quietly get to the top and into position without being seen. There was a small cluster of bushes on the top that I was aiming for and when I finally got near it, I belly crawled the rest of the way. Just as I got into position, the bull came into full view, a mere sixty yards away. The ridge had shielded my view of him as I approached my spot and I had no idea he was so close. I didn’t need my binoculars to decide on whether or not I would take him. He just had one shovel but the size of his rack was impressive. He also had a beautiful white mane which contrasted nicely with his dark brown body.

I quickly thumbed down my Leupold 3X9 to 3 and by the time I picked him up in my scope he had closed the range even further. If I waited any longer he would be right on top of me. I aimed in right behind his left front shoulder and with one shot from my Ruger .270 he was down. The 150 grain bullet had entered just where I had aimed and exited on the other side midway through his body. I held my rifle on him for a minute or so before I approached. I wanted to make sure he was down for good. After assuring myself that he wasn’t getting up, I paced off the distance from where I had shot. He was only 41 yards away when I took him. I was simply blown away by how quickly he had travelled through that boggy tundra!

After photographs and congratulations, I began skinning and gutting him out. I decided I would have a shoulder mount done so I was very careful when skinning. I worked on my bull for about an hour when Mike and his brother showed up to help with the packing. We decided we would try to get all of the meat out on one trip and I would come back later for the rack and cape later. The 3 of us were once again packed with heavy loads of caribou meat and all I could think of were those delicious back-straps we would have for dinner.

After two days of non-stop rain, it finally stopped and the sun came out. It was only for a couple of hours but it was a relief to be able to dry out for a while. The Alaska colors were incredible. It was early fall and the willows were turning red and yellow. The lichen, which is the primary source of food for the caribou, was beautiful in its various shades of brown, green, yellow, and red. All of that coupled with the deep blue color of the lake and the surrounding view of snow capped mountains produced a sight I’ll never forget.

The other members of our group each got their caribou and our trip was a complete success. We took four respectable bulls in 3 days of hunting. Our hunt took place in some of the most beautiful country Alaska has to offer and we never saw another hunter the whole time we were out in the bush. It was a short trip but almost 20 years later I still remember it as if it were yesterday.

If You Go:

Hunting in Alaska is rewarding but can be very expensive. It is great if you have the money to hire an outfitter and guide. If you don’t, then a do-it-yourself drop-off hunt is the only other option. When this hunt took place I was an Alaskan resident and it was much cheaper back then. These days, with the price of gas, your transportation costs are going to be a huge part of your budget. Tack on your non-resident license and tag fees and it’s understandable why some people save for many years before making a hunting trip to Alaska. One way to minimize the travel expenses is to try to use frequent flier miles. I am planning on going up next year for a caribou hunt and am hoping to book my travel from Seattle to Iliamna or King Salmon using my reward miles from Alaska Airlines. This will save a big chunk of money on the trip.

When hunting in Alaska, bring the highest quality rain gear and hip boots that you can afford. Let’s face it, if you’re wet and cold you’re miserable. Hunting when you are miserable isn’t any more fun than doing anything else when you’re miserable! You’ll also want to bring plenty of bug repellant and a couple of Thermacell’s for when you’re at camp. The mosquitoes, black flies, and these little creatures they call “no see ums” can be terrible at times. There is also some kind of bug that is attracted to blood on your hands; we all got nailed by these things when we were skinning our animals out. They leave a painful bite and a nice welt to go along with it. Lesson learned. On subsequent trips, I brought latex gloves and didn’t have this problem.

Lastly, throw a fishing pole in with your hunting gear. You will most likely be dropped off on or near a lake and the fishing is fantastic. We caught grayling, trout, and Arctic Char on this trip which was excellent table fare to go with the caribou steaks. Aside from the bugs and the weather, be ready for the time of your life. The scenery is incredible and hunting in Alaska is better than any place I’ve ever hunted in the lower 48 states.