Chaos and Caribou

Clouds rolled over the ridges and made their way down the valley. Visibility fluctuated with them, and by the time we set down on our sleeping bags the clouds had enveloped the valley. We were about a mile and a half off the road, camping out for the opening of the craziness that is the fall 40 mile hunt caribou hunt. A high quota limit, easy access to the alpine, ability to use off road vehicles and relatively close proximity to Fairbanks all combine to make one of the (if not the) most crowded hunts in Alaska. It’s the only hunt I’ve ever had to wear hunter’s orange for, as you are hunting near dozens of your new closest friends. We hiked out the Pinnell Trail, staying in the non-motorized corridor (which we later learned is only 200 ft wide..) to avoid some of the craziness. As we read our books inside the tent, there was a faint rustling that grew louder. Alana asked if I heard it and we both sat up in our sleeping bags, straining to hear any sounds among the wind. Click…click, click, click….click. It was the unique sound of caribou, hooves clicking as they moved down the ridge side. I opened the tent door and tried to catch a sight through the fog and encroaching darkness. I watched as one stepped out of the fog no more than 100 yds from the tent. The group continued down and the sound faded away as we snuggled back into our sleeping bags, dozing off in anticipation of morning.

I first awoke around 4 am to the sound of 4 wheelers making their way up the hillside. Most people just “camped” in their RVs or tents by the road and were making their way up the mountain for a day. I put on my puffy jacket and winter hat, wandering out about a half hour later with binoculars and rifle in tow, to a knob below the tent that overlooked the valley. A look around showed a tent up on the ridge down valley that I had not seen the night before amongst the clouds. None of the caribou from the previous night’s passing seemed to be lingering around the valley. I listened and watched as more 4 wheelers made their way up the ridge, hoping to get further and find part of the herd.

Random shots were fired from up valley over the next hour.  I tried to locate the source but did not see any caribou, nor any identifiable shooters.  I returned to the tent for a little while and mentioned to Alana that there were no caribou and we collectively mused that it was likely just some guys firing out at rocks.  About 15 minutes later, I returned to the knob to take up watch once more.  More time passed, and more time without any caribou. Until suddenly, I heard a barrage of shots.  I turn back up valley to see about 30 caribou climbing the small mountain at the head of the valley.  I confirm in my binoculars and begin to head in that direction.  Alana and I debated, then decided to move positions.  I scrambled on, watching as the group atop the mountain continued out of sight minutes later, muttering to myself how stupid it is to be chasing caribou. 

I climbed as quickly as I could, gaining the top in about 30 minutes. No sight of anything. There was fresh sign though and I continued to follow that as best I could. I made my way over the other side and looked down the drainage. A group of about 25 caribou were making their way back down valley. Scurrying back to the top of the ridge, I ran along parallel, out of sight. I wanted to try to get ahead of them and set up in good position as they passed. Running across hard ground, I moved quickly, moving down a small drainage on the far side of the hill. The leaders of the group were just coming into view and I crouched down, inching forward to a better spot about 150 yards away. The group was largely comprised of cows and calves, with a handful of bulls. There were 2 people glassing down valley, about 200 yds in front of the herd, oblivious to what was happening behind them. Without anyone else in sight, I took aim and waited for the best angle. I had a bull in my sights. There were cows milling around nearby, but he quartered towards me and there was a clean shot. I took it. A cow went down. I’m not sure what happened, if it was user error or if a cow walked in front as I was pulling the trigger. But a caribou was down and the others stood on confused, including the 2 hunters up valley, before the group decided that this wasn’t a good situation and left.

The meat was in good condition and I worked to pack it all up along with the hide.  I took my time, hoping Alana would show but there was no sight of her.  Only the occasional group of bulls and other lone caribou frantically running around on the hillside above.  I packed everything in my pack, taking everything but the guts, head (I took the tongue) and carcass.  It was over 100 lbs but my HMG pack held up to the task and the walking was decent, hard ground without too much uphill travel.  Up and around the hill I went once more.  I watched from a distance as Alana broke down the tent and began making the way back to the car herself.  We met at the trailhead, talking as another 3 bulls ran past us at 50 yards. Gunshots soon followed.  We decided to call it a day, making our way another mile back to the car.  Travelling down the boardwalk and trail, we moved faster than those on ATVs travelling parallel to us just outside the non-motorized area.  We left with meat and more appreciation for the land, but also with an increased dissatisfaction with these off-road motorized vehicles. 

It was the culmination of our second Nascar like outdoor experience of the summer. The first being a trip down to the Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula for dipnetting.  We found great success in both experiences, but both had a different feeling.  Traditional activities, yes. Remote setting, more or less. But with a distinctly urban feeling.  They are satisfying but perhaps not as satisfying and joyful as something a bit more remote, at least for my tastes.  We will likely do this hunt again, but perhaps going forward we will continue to branch out and develop more hunting/fishing related trips that better align with our interests.

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