We arrived at the trailhead of the Denali Highway around 1:00 in the afternoon. Jumping out of the truck to unload the snow machines I was quickly reminded how much colder interior Alaska can be than my coastal neck of the woods near Palmer. We had left home around 7:00 am after a brief 3 hours of sleep. Packing the previous evening took much longer than expected and after a 6 hour truck ride we still had to drive 65 sleep deprived miles by snow machine before we would reach the lodge. Tired and a little sluggish I was soon revived as the zero degree air stung my nostrils and frost began to form on my beard. I gazed momentarily at the arctic world around me and smiled as I was reminded of why I live Alaska.
About a week prior to this little excursion, I made my way to the freezer in my garage and was stunned to see how depleted my meat stash had become. My girlfriend Chantelle and I had harvested a Dall sheep, Caribou, and Muskox the previous season which provided roughly 450lbs of lean meat for the winter. However, between friends, family, and ourselves there was only about 150lbs left and winter had a few more months to go. Now, we were not going to starve by any means, but it's a good feeling to have a full freezer and provide lean high quality protein for one’s family. As with most Alaskans, subsistence living has been and always will be a huge part of our lifestyle. Since the freezer was getting low there was only one thing to do….fill it! It just so happened that Chantelle had a caribou tag that was still good until the end of March. I also had a proxy caribou tag to fill for a good family friend, so naturally we made quick plans to head out the very next weekend in an effort to restock the freezer.
A few miles down the trail I double checked a gear list in my head as I surveyed the landscape for migrating caribou. Even though we were embarking on a road system hunt with the occasionally passing snow machine rider, we were still in very remote and unforgiving country. In the event your machine brakes down a person could easily become frost bitten or freeze to death if not properly geared for arctic conditions. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to dip down to negative 30 or 40 in this part of Alaska, even in late March! When adventuring in the Arctic it’s always good practice to bring a -40 sleeping bag, arctic tent, extra down parka/pants, stove fuel, and food, just in case you have to spend a few nights outside. In fact we felt unusually spoiled on this hunt since we were basing out of a well known lodge in the area that provides a much welcomed wood stove and warm meals to come back to at the end of the day. That being said, we each brought 4 days rations of Heather’s Choice breakfast, entrées, and of course Packaroons. We actually supplemented the breakfast for lunch, since breakfast was provided at the lodge and then utilized the Packaroons for snacks to keep us fueled in the freezing temps. The lodge also provided us with supper, so we saved our Heather’s Choice entrées for a late night meat haul or an emergency situation.
After about an hour of traveling, Chantelle, her brother Jerry, and I stopped for a snack while we glassed an area that often holds caribou. The entire landscape was covered in snow with only small pockets of black spruce scattered between us and the mountains in the distance. It was an amazing evening as the sun lowered itself in the western skies just above Mount McKinley in the distance. As I glassed the barren countryside, I could not help but to think how critters can survive in such a harsh environment and what a hard existence they persist in. After devouring a couple of my favorite Packaroons (Amaretto), the three of us saddled up the machines and continued down the trail to the lodge. We still had a few hours of travel and had a lot of country to scour over for caribou before night fall.
The next morning we overslept slightly and hit the trail a little after 9:00 am after grabbing breakfast at the lodge. Disappointed that we didn’t take advantage of the morning hours when the animals seem to be traveling the most, I looked at the positive side of catching some much needed Zzzzz. The three of us stopped at several points on the trail where I had seen caribou in the past. We scanned the open countryside for any sign of life. Midway through the day and after looking over many miles of countryside, we had not spotted a single caribou. I was starting to think our timing was off and we were a little early for the bulk of the migration. The winter had been colder with much more snow then some of the previous ones and it’s been my experience that caribou try to stick to the wind blow ridges when the snow is deep in the valleys. Staying hopeful we pressed on, keeping in mind that it was only the second day of hunting with two more days to go.
We had not gone more than a mile from our last stop and I caught movement from the corner of my eye we as topped a small hill. Stopping quickly, the snow began to crawl with them, they were everywhere! I jumped off my machine as a group of Ptarmigan of 50 or so waddled slowly away from me. Ptarmigan were in season and it just so happened that I had my .22 on my back for just such an opportunity. As I took aim on a bird that was about 50 yards away; I was amazed at how well they blended in when they stood completely still. It was easy to see how Jerry and Chantelle drove right by them even at 15mph. By the time I dispatched 7 birds, Jerry and Chantelle had noticed that I was not following and turned around to come find me. Driving up, Jerry found me literally chest deep in snow about 10 yards off the trail as I struggled to retrieve my birds.
Since snow machines were not allowed off the trail on this section of the hunt area, it took us about an hour to retrieve the birds with snowshoes. The snow was even deeper than I had previously thought and in my mind I began to wonder if it was even be possible to retrieve a caribou in these conditions. A few miles further down the trail we stumbled into another group of Ptarmigan, this time they numbered well over 200 birds. The deep snow giving them no problems as they scuttled upon its crust as we gave chase to them. Filling our daily limit happened in short order, but retrieving the birds was an entirely different story. After several hours of wading through 4-5 feet of snow, we had collected all our tiny delicious catch. With the sun setting, we quickly cleaned the birds, ate some Packaroons, and made our way back to the lodge. It had been a long cold day, but worth every moment.
The next morning we awoke to another clear crisp day. We ate a quick breakfast at the lodge and hit the trail by 8:00 a.m. The decision was made over breakfast to head back west toward the way we had driven in two days prior. As we moved slowly down the trail stopping at various lookout points, the landscape was still. Not a caribou to be found, not even a fresh track was to be seen. As we glassed one of my favorite look out points I spied a red fox running alongside some brush about 300 yards out. The fox was in hot pursuit of a snowshoe hare that was running directly toward us. Since fox season was closed, I decided that I would harvest the hare if it presented a shot inside 200 yards. Sure enough, the hare eluded the fox by running into some brush that was 178 yards away. Already settled into my shooting sticks in the sitting position I dialed my trusty Ruger .22 to 175 yards and squeezed the trigger. The hare flipped over backwards and within an instant was expired. Since the odds of harvesting a caribou were not looking so good, we at least had some fresh ptarmigan and snowshoe hare to take home. Thankfully, the hare had expired in an area that we could retrieve it with snow machines or we would probably still be out there. We continued down the trail for several more hours stopping periodically to glass for caribou. Finding nothing, we called it a day around 7pm and head back to the lodge. By the time we crawled into our sleeping bags it was around 11pm and the northern lights began to show. I watched the lights for a bit through the window of the cabin as I relaxed from a long but beautiful day. Tomorrow was the last day of hunting and I hoped it would bring us some more good fortune.
By the time we ate breakfast and packed our gear the three of us hit the trail around 9 a.m. We planned to go slow over the next 67 miles in the hopes we could pick one caribou out of the massive countryside. We had not gone more than a couple of miles when Chantelle spotted 5 caribou bedded up the mountain side about 450 yards from the trail. Normally this would be an easy meat haul, but the caribou were in the non-motorized area so we would have to pack them out if we were so lucky to harvest one. Having no concern of our presence the Caribou stayed bedded as we examined them thoroughly with our binoculars. The three of us stood and contemplated the difficulty of packing out one or two caribou through waist-deep snow. It didn’t take long before we accepted the challenge as we found ourselves hiking the packed trail left by the caribou leading up the mountain.
Within about 45 min we got within about 300 yards of the caribou but they presented no shot. They began to get nervous and started to move uphill away from us. We post-holed through the snow as fast as we could behind them in hot pursuit. They finally cleared a small patch of timber for an open shot. Knowing if they made it over the hill they would be out of range to retrieve, it was going to be now or never. Chantelle plopped down in the snow taking aim on the last caribou of the group. Ranging the last bull at 438 yards the crack of the rifle broke the morning silence and the bull stumbled from a direct vital shot. A second well placed lung shot brought the bull to his final resting place. After a brief celebration, we made our way up the mountain side to get a look at Chantelle’s trophy. At first look I noticed many scars across the face and neck of the bull. As Chantelle and I further examined the old warrior he had only one tooth left in his head. His ribs and hip bones showed the stress of winter on his old body. This winter most likely would have been his last if we had not harvested him. Even in his weathered condition he was still gorgeous and we felt blessed to have such a great trophy.
We decided to field dress the bull leaving him in tact, minus the entrails, and try sliding him down the mountain side atop the snow with the grain of his hair. It was either that or quartering the animal and making several trips up and down the mountain in waist deep snow, which did not sound any easier. Needless to say the pack out was amazingly difficult, as Jerry and I took turns pulling the caribou with a strap down the mountain side. After about 4 hours and 800 yards later we reach the snow machines totally exhausted. Even in complete exhaustion we couldn’t have been happier. It was a well-earned trophy and one amazing experience that none of us would ever forget.