Sunday, August 25, 2013

Surf and Turf Weekend...Alaska Style- Pt 3.

The following morning found me sore and groggy. We'd driven back through the night and had arrived sometime at 0'dark hundred. I showered and basically tipped over into bed. I'm generally an early riser but this morning found me hiding out between the sheets well into mid-morning. I managed to pry myself vertical and make my way to the coffee pot and start the day's chores. The primary chore was to clean out the chest freezer and make room for a bumper load of halibut that was due in from Valdez in a few hours.

That chore was easily completed since my freezer contained more air than not and I moved on to prepping my hunting gear for the next adventure. Caribou season had opened while we were on the boat and today's plan was to get out there and look for one. When my hunting and fishing companion arrived from the processor- we offloaded halibut into the freezer, hunting gear into the truck, stuck the ATV to the trailer and off we went.

No rest for the weary.

We headed for a close by spot that is scenic, rugged and although a popular hunting spot, it has yielded great results in the past. We unloaded the ATVs and headed up the steep approach to the plateau that would serve as out glassing platform. Arrival was pretty much non dramatic and we were soon engrossed in picking over the terrain with binoculars and a spotter. We must have glassed over the area for about an hour when I caught movement on a stark mountainside to the south.


We looked them over and they seemed to be meandering down the sheer face for the river bed several thousand feet below using a very long natural depression in the mountain that I could only guess was an ancient creek bed or some other drainage feature long since dry. We made plans to maneuver the ATVs down the trail, set up at it's end and then make the final intercept on foot as they arrived at the bottom where the dry creek arrived at the river- a distance of some 3 miles.

The plan was going very well and then at half the required distance we saw two other ATVs parked on the trail. We stopped and although slightly aggravated yielded the animals to the more opportune party. We sat there for about twenty minutes, expecting the shooting to start at any moment and hoping that some of the caribou might bolt and run our way when it did.

But it didn't.

I glassed over the other party carefully and it was almost comical but here was a group of four hunters laughing and smoking while a band of six caribou walked past them on a sheer mountain face in plain sight...less than four hundred yards away! Well if they weren't hunting, I still was. We decided to put on our best poker faces and just maneuver past. As we approached we had to engage in the usual small talk... "how's the weather?" and finally the customary, "Seen anything?" I've often wondered what people are doing in the hunting field without binoculars and will frequently gauge another party's level of competence by the presence of glass hanging around their necks- these guys were in epic fail mode as no binoculars were evident anywhere.

It was a lot of effort to quell my natural bent to sarcasm and reply with a deadpan, "Not really" instead of something like, "Only the caribou trying to climb up your back!" but I managed and we were soon free of the casual conversation and once again in pursuit of the caribou who had meandered below the level of the plateau. We hit the end of the trail and picked our way to the planned ambush point on foot. We arrived at the end of the rocky ridge line in time to see our quarry make it's way down the dry creek bed to the river.

Too late.

Without the lengthy delay engaged with our less visually acute brethren we would be there right now, opening fire from the nearly perfect ambush spot and concluding a long and well planned stalk. We watched as the caribou swam the river and climbed the mountainside on the other side. What difference it made we had no idea, but caribou behave in bizarre ways and what advantage one mountain held over another in the pre-migration season we had no idea. We discussed our next step and looking at the mountain face to our immediate south, decided that since we couldn't follow where the caribou had went we would explore where they had come from instead. We abandoned the ATVs and were soon climbing the rocky, dry creek bed to the top of the mountain which was situated as a long sharp ridge with drainages falling away steeply to each side. From my sheep hunting experience this was likely looking sheep country and although no sheep lived here, they did on the mountain to the immediate north.

We walked slowly across the ridge top and glassed carefully down each drainage most of which held some green summer grass, one held nothing but sheer cliff and one held an extremely interesting ice cave in a small glacier. On out next drainage my partner exclaimed in quiet urgency, "Caribou!"

And there was.

Perched on a spire of rock topped with green grass some 1500 feet below us was a lone yearling bull. More like a sheep than a caribou, he was there escaping the summer heat and the bugs by resting in the evening breeze rolling off this mountain. We hunkered down and crept to the edge and glassed him over- he was resting, dead asleep in fact and completely unaware of our presence. We looked the situation over and made our war plan. My partner was someone whom I'd mentored as a new hunter for the last couple of years and he'd yet to take an animal- he'd take the shot. The caribou was about 1500 feet below and perhaps the same distance horizontally down a very steep rocky slope and on a small spire just over the southern edge of the ridge than ran sharply to the valley below. Although getting into a decent range wouldn't prove difficult the steep, barren terrain would make approaching quietly arduous and somewhat dangerous. We dropped over the northern edge of the ridge and would use it to shield our approach from the caribou and hoped it would keep our scent away from his nostrils as well.

We crept quietly down the sidehill for what seemed like an impossibly long time until we arrived at the landmarked we picked that would signal the caribou was on nearly the same elevation as we were. The plan was to creep to the ridge's summit and then shoot the caribou in his bed. We had just made the summit and although our distance was off somewhat we were in very executable rifle range. Just 80 yards and slightly above the sleeping critter.

As my companion was getting set up for the shot his boot dislodged some large stone  and it bounced loudly down the bare scree slope. It sounded impossibly loud in the small rocky canyon and with each impact it dislodge even more stones and they bounced and crashed down the slope in a cacophony of noise. Muttering curses under his breath I told my partner to get in sitting position and get ready to shoot as soon as the caribou stood up. My partner assumed a sitting position and looped up in the sling like we'd practiced many times on the range. This should be a chip shot unless the dreaded buck fever took hold of his senses. I looped up my own rifle- ready to back him up if required. We certainly didn't want a wounded caribou running further down this terrain.

The caribou just eyed us and didn't move. I was certain the animal would shortly stand and present us with a perfect broadside shot. The seconds turned into a minute which turned into two. A standoff at close range between the hunter and the prey but the caribou never some much as moved. In fact, he fell back asleep.


I told my partner in the quietest tone possible, "Aim about 4" high and shoot him." I wanted to make a good shot and while an animal is bedded the internal organs are shifted into different places with the heart blocked by the shoulder and pressed into the ground. In this case a "high lung shot" should punch through both lungs, the network of blood vessels at the top of the heart and with more luck, smash the juncture of the neck to the spine.

My partner steeled himself and took up the minute slack on the trigger of his .338 Winchester Magnum.


The gun was impossibly loud in this canyon and the caribou snapped his eyes open and looked right at us. "A miss!", I said out loud since silence was now pretty much pointless with the cannon going off, "Reload and get ready for when he stands." I expected the caribou to jump up and trot off but the brief second he took to get his feet under him would give us a perfect broadside shot.

Except the caribou refused to move. He just sat there in his bed and eyed the strange  and noisy creatures who had invaded his bedroom. And sat there. And sat there. It felt like hours but in reality was only about minute, which in retrospect is a long time to sit with the crosshairs on a beast at somewhat close range.

"He's not moving, shoot him again." I said. My partner tightened up and I could see the muzzle shaking slightly like a taut wire in the wind. Apparently the previous miss had rattled him badly. "Do you want me to shoot him?" I queried, "I can pull this off pretty well from here."

"I've got this," my partner replied.

"Ok then, just breathe and focus on the crosshair," I coached him. "No rush, this guy isn't going anywhere." I was watching the bull though my scope and was ready to make the shot if required. My partner took several long breaths and tightened his grip on the sling. I could see the muzzle steady out as he got into the zone and focused on the shooting fundamentals. This should be better. I turned my attention back to the bull just a moment before the sear broke.

"KaBOOM!" The .338 rang out again and we were much too close to hear the strike of the bullet but the input wasn't needed. The 180 grain .338 slug hit the caribou in precisely the right place and he simply shuddered at the impact and dropped over apparently stone dead. I didn't get much cleaner than that.

"Reload and watch him for a minute," I instructed. "Sometimes when they drop like that you've just hit a spinal process and then they get up and run off." I was cautious although I was pretty sure in this case it was unwarranted. After a long minute, I finally said, "Congratulations! Good shooting. Unload and let's go get the animal." I heard the action eject the shells and my partner exclaimed in a long exhale.

His first big game animal.

We made our way down to the bull, a yearling bull in fine condition on summer feed. We worked quickly to field dress and quarter the animal and a brief rain squall made the rocks around us slick. I was a little concerned now that we were here and looking up the terrain looked much steeper and more forbidding than on the descent. We gave some consideration to going after the quads and crossing to another fingerling ridge but abandoned the idea as too dangerous. This one was only getting out of here through exertion and sweat. We split up the meat between the packs and picked our way carefully up the ridge, back to the top. Given our exhaustion and heavy load it took quite a long time and we stopped frequently to rest. We eventually topped out on the main ridge and dropped our loads. A whole bull caribou is quite a heavy load in two packs but I can't say I'd want to do that again. I lay back and dried in the stiff breeze a bit. We could easily get the quads to this location and retrieve both our gear and the meat via the BLM trail system that served this area and with a half hour had the meat secured to the racks.

We drank some water and broke out some much needed food- it was 5:00p and I hadn't eaten since mid morning. I was pretty exhausted but it had been a great day. We recounted the day's events and discussed the various ways to eat caribou and how to finish processing the animal. We ate and watched as a huge rainstorm rolled in from the mountains to the west. In an hour or two this exposed summit would be no place I'd want to be as the angry storm bore down.

Bone tired, we turned the quads down the trail and headed for home.

1 comment:

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Great tale, I've been missing lately too, post to follow