On a recent Sunday afternoon, a new friend and neighbor at church and his wife invited us out to lunch at a local restaurant. I didn't know him well as he is one of Alaska's thousands of remote workers- working in a remote mine for several weeks before he gets to spend a week or so at home. I've done it in the past and its tough on family life, your social life and, especially, your sporting life.
As we discussed Evan and my recent successes, he lamented that he'd been unsuccessful so far with his limited time. We talked a little of caribou strategies and locations and after a little bit of conversation I discovered that he was an enthusiastic, but rarely successful hunter. He hunted in a style that is pretty typical for a lot of folks here in the Interior- ride a four wheeler through trails, look for animals, see none, and ride some more. He was reasonably well equipped with an ATV and a suitable rifle and some other miscellaneous equipment but nothing in the way of optics outside of his rifle scope. A somewhat recent transplant from the big woods of Pennsylvania his lack of binoculars didn't particularly surprise me.
In my youth, I hunted in a similar fashion in Tennessee. I didn't own a set of binoculars until well into adulthood or even a riflescope until college. A spotting scope was something rarely seen- possibly in magazines featuring Western hunts or maybe on the odd segment on television. Truth be told, such equipment was largely superfluous until "bean field shooting" became popular. In the thick woods, visibility was so limited that the standard open sighted rifle was more than adequate for any shooting and all but the most visibly challenged could identify buck or doe at those ranges. A spotter could have you finding deer three or four farms (if not the next county) away.
Over our meal, we made a quick plan for an evening hunt about thirty miles to our south. In the interest of time, we decided to take ATVs into the fairly well developed trail system known as "Top of the World". A BLM managed trail- the trail system makes efficient use of ATVs to move people through some mountainous plateaus while limiting habitat damage that is so typical of that form of transportation. After loading the machines and packing for a quick hunt- we were off.
We arrived at the trail head to a well established camping area in a gravel pit at the bottom of a steep trail along the Alaska Pipeline pad. There were perhaps 15 camps loosely spread over the area and several of the hunters had erected meat poles- suspiciously empty given the area and season. We climbed astraddle our machines and motored up the hill- approximately 2000 vertical feet in just a few minutes. On my recent sheep hunt this climb would have taken hours. Turning onto the first trail head up the knife edge of a ridge we climbed perhaps another 1000 vertical feet and my partner was all but surprised when I just pulled off the trail on a rocky bench and just stopped.
"What are you doing?" he queried curiously as I unpacked some of my gear.
"Glassing," I replied, "we can either hunt with our feet or our machines. But either way we can still hunt faster with our eyes." I donned the binoculars and scanned the mile wide plateau below us looking for signs of caribou. There were several parties of hunters below, we could see them on their machines cruising the trails standing on the pegs looking for caribou. Apparently, the understanding that caribou are wide ranging animals- and while possible to locate near a trail, it certainly isn't a strategy to rely on. We were buffeted by a fast moving storm that pelted us with enough rain to reduce visibility and enough wind to make the machines rock. We hunkered in our rain gear, confident the lighter skies to the south would mean a short lived storm and better weather. In about twenty minutes the rain stopped and wind died down enough to restore good visibility.
I scanned the plateau below. Nothing moving except our fellow hunters. I explained the tactic I was using to my new friend. "Scan with your naked eye- don't look for caribou. Look for things out of place- movement, odd colors, odd shapes. Then repeat with the binos- looking for something that doesn't match." I instructed. After scanning the plateau out for about a mile and satisfied that I couldn't detect anything, I handed the binos to my neighbor with instructions on their use. "After you get used to using them you'll feel naked without them on a hunt." I joked.
It was time to pull out The Big Eye. A spotting scope. I had picked one up a couple years ago and since then it became and indispensable part of my kit. As a foot hunter, I could cover more ground with the spotter in a few minutes than I could walk over all day. I began by scanning the far edges of the plateau, looking for out of place shapes and colors. Finished, I looked at the next plateau from which we were separated by a deep canyon a mile distant.
In a few minutes I found what I was looking for- a caribou. The lone bull was prancing and feeding about a half mile from the pipeline trail, on the north side of a lake. I reckoned the bull was about two miles away. I called out, "There one is. Over there." Setting the ball head lock to keep the bull in focus and stepping back to allow my companion to look through the eyepiece.
"Well I'll be..." he exclaimed, "that's just impossibly long to find an animal." He stared a little longer, switching between binos and the spotter to compare the views. "You'd never see him, even looking right at him with the binos and the naked eye- forget it." he remarked. We were both amused when another hunter rode right past the animal on the pipeline trail without seeing it across the wide open tundra. I could see the animal's breath steam as it stared at the distant machine and snorted.
I warned him, "that's a long way off for a stalk to start this late. Let's go to that knob for a better look." I said, indicating a low round knob on the near lip of the canyon between us and the bull. "Maybe we'll see something closer in."
I was somewhat doubtful of our ability to pursue the bull, he was at least two miles and two plateaus and one canyon away. About two miles by ATV and about a mile hike along the far lip of the canyon to skirt three small lakes and the attendant bogs. Even using the machines it would be a long stalk and take a lot of time. We only had a little over an hour of shooting light left. We departed our high ridge and after several minutes of riding, climbed the knob trail. This halved the distance to the bull and gave us a great chance to observe the bull and confirm we had no game closer. It also gave us good opportunity to plan the stalk in detail and get an entirely different perspective on the terrain. The route to the bull would be just under a mile and would take a circuitous route to take advantage of natural features and avoid the obstacles.
We took the ATVs alongside the pipeline pad and ditched them on a gravel siding pad where perhaps during the construction days three decades ago a generator shed or a foreman's shack had been. In the darkening gloom the alders beyond looked foreboding, but we knew from our earlier observation that they would soon give way to lower brush. After crashing 50 or so yards through the dense alder, we spooked a flock of ptarmigan out of the edge that nearly gave us both heart attacks. We both knew how much bears love holing up in alders until night when they prowl and hunt.
Along the pressure ridge, we kept a low rise between us and the caribou. My partner, despite my reassurances that the bull would still be there, fretted about it since it was largely out of sight. We arrived at the head of a drainage that emptied a small lake and from our previous vantage point knew he was on the hill beyond. Quiet as thieves we picked our way up the drainage and after several exhausting minutes in the thickening dark we arrived at the edge and there, on the far side, was the bull. Unfortunately, at 500 yards we were spotted and the bull's breath exploded in the a visible cloud as he snorted loudly. The sound carried across the water. Crap. Busted.
We tried to retreat into the thin brush and skirt the lake to our north, despite the stealth our quarry matched our move to the south. A reverse of several hundred yards to the south and the cagey little bull matched our move to the north. While not scared enough of us to bolt and flee across the ridge, he simply was determined to keep the lake between us. On our southern feint, we stopped at the toe of a long point that jutted out into the lake a good distance, perhaps a hundred yards or so. It wouldn't put us on the far side of the lake but it just might put us within shooting distance, albeit long.
We stalked along as best we could in the low brush while the caribou fed and intermittently looked in our direction. The light was failing quickly and at some point when we stopped moving the caribou lost visual acuity of us completely. He panicked somewhat and after several minutes of running in circles- determined he was safe enough. We evaluated our situation; more or less stuck on a peninsula sticking into the lake with a bull prancing across the water at what we reckoned to be three hundred yards. About as long a shot as I'm comfortable with. My partner's rifle was a .300 Remington Ultra (for once magnumania worked in our favor) about as flat shooting as shoulder fired rifles get. At my insistence he stretched out prone across the top of a small beaver lodge while I spotted his shots with my rifle scope. I would fire only if he wounded the animal and I was needed to prevent its escape.
I was somewhat shocked by the ferocious muzzle blast of the rifle when he took his first shot- I saw a clod of tundra fly up behind the bull and I called the shot, "High." He cycled the bolt and ejected the smoking hull onto the grass and lined up for his next shot. Boom! The rifle rang out again and I clearly saw the impact of the bullet high. He was shooting over the caribou's back as is often the case when novice hunters attempt to shoot at extended ranges. "Where are you aiming?" I queried tersely.
"I'm aiming a foot over his back!" he said quickly racking the bolt. Clearly nervous the bull would bolt.
"Aim dead on! You're shooting over his back! And while you're at it, calm down and breathe " I replied. I looked at the bull. He was standing there, clearly alarmed at the sudden thunderclaps that had echoed over the tundra. Without a visual cue he was clueless as to which way to run- so he stood there broadside scanning furiously for danger. He was puffing like a locomotive and in the chilled air his breath flashed to steam instantly. Boom! The big rifle rang our again and I saw the impact of the bullet behind the shoulder clearly through my rifle scope, shock waves rippling over his flank. I saw an explosion of steam on the far side of the animal as his breath escaped the exit would. I ejected the shell in my chamber, there would be no need to back that shot up, as the bull fell to the ground.
My partner was in shock, overjoyed at finding success after so much disappointment. Introduced to a new kind of hunting unique to the west, he was hooked.
"Nice shootin' partner...we've got a caribou to skin." I said as I dug my headlamp from my pack. It would be a very long night as dusk turned to dark. We had to gut and quarter the bull and then haul him out the varied terrain to the waiting ATVs and then a short ride out of the mountain to the waiting truck several miles away. The growing dark was accompanied by a cold rain.
It would be a miserable pack out.
By the time we arrived back at the camp the storm had grown into a full blown gale. Darkness, strong winds and cold rain had driven the other hunters into their tents and RVs to drink beer or coffee, tell tales or swap lies with their companions as we unloaded the meat in the dark. I wonder how many of them went to bed that night convinced there was no game there on that high plateau.