An Alaskan caribou hunt – just the name brings to mind excitement and adventure in a vast and still mostly untamed wilderness.
The hunt took place in Alaska’s central region on the east side close to the Canadian border. The 40-Mile Caribou Herd, while quite large, is vulnerable during their annual migrations whenever they wander where man can come in contact with them. A winter hunt can set the stage for such an encounter along the Taylor highway.
This winter found the herd scattered across a broad range of country only accessible from the highway in small bands. To start with, we’d have to travel 60 miles north on the Taylor, through changing weather patterns, sub-zero temperatures, and ever-present equipment failure to make our adventure truly memorable. After all, it wouldn’t be an adventure without something breaking and duct tape being applied to remedy the problem.
The highway is not maintained in the winter, and the snow can get quite deep. Once we got there we knew we would have to come back in the same manner only this time with headlights and cold fingers, and without ever coming in contact with any services. So we couldn’t forget the sleds full of food, clothing, and a cache of 35 extra gallons of gasoline.
Two and a half hours later, our frozen faces gazed upon the sight we had all been waiting for; a large sign with blaze orange markings declaring we had reached mile 60 and the caribou were now fair game. We stopped, warmed our fingers, slung rifles, and cleared the snow off our lenses. Due to the waist deep snow and an unfortunate mistake of forgetting the snowshoes at home, the plan was to cruise up and down the “trail” looking for game in open areas.
The sign remained plentiful and our heart rates remained high as we eagerly anticipated seeing caribou around every bend. At one point we came to a frozen river that appeared to be a sort of caribou interstate. We decided to give the river a try and merged our machines southbound on top of their numerous tracks. We ran into enough overflow that we decided to turn back and pursue caribou elsewhere.
While glassing (or surveying with binoculars) our back trail, half a dozen caribou were spotted grazing on a timbered slope. We immediately closed the distance, and headed out on foot. On foot, but down to our waist that is, since we didn’t have our trusty snowshoes and fell through with every step. At least we had an audience to watch our antics, until the caribou decided we were serious and that it would be a bad idea to stick around. With afternoon fading to evening and our miniature Iditarod over, our flames of hope were flickering until a short time later when a lone bull was spotted standing broadside in a clearing to the west.
We quickly moved off the trail and at the same time shed our gloves and chambered rounds. We knew it was a good hit by the way he was knocked off his feet and then swallowed up by the deep snow. A short search later revealed a large, healthy adult male caribou. My Winchester Model 70 chambered in .280 Remington did its job and now it was time for high fives and pictures.
The next day we arrived at the 60 mile mark with a new game plan and fresh hopes. Some time later, glassing revealed a lone caribou feeding in a small clearing to the north. Knowing this would be our last day we took care in outlining a stalk that would utilize both cover and terrain to hide our moves so that this one would not get away. Our stalk progressed smoothly until at last, the shooter was presented with a broadside shot of his first caribou. The .300 Winchester Magnum roared and as the rifle recoiled the bull dropped to the ground, filling one more tag and ending one more hunt.
All together we traveled 298 miles on snow machines in 2 days, killed 2 bulls and had an Alaskan caribou hunt to remember forever.