“We need to get that boy a caribou,” Dom Watts said.
Dom had just heard the story of my son Logan’s Idaho bighorn sheep hunt, and the great attitude and perseverance the fourteen-year-old had exhibited in challenging conditions. Dom lives in Alaska and is an avid DIY caribou hunter, and he was already setting the wheels in motion to get Logan to Alaska on his first caribou hunt.
So it was that in the fall of 2019, Logan, now seventeen, and I arrived in Fairbanks to meet Dom and pilot Pat Valkenburg. Pat had flown into the Tanana Hills region where we were headed the week before and he said caribou were all over the place, so we hoped that we weren’t too late. Logan and I did some last-minute shopping for supplies, then crossed our fingers that the nice weather would hold for our flight into the bush.
Early that afternoon, I was in Pat’s Cub along with the first load of gear. The flight in was amazing, with the brilliant fall colors of the tundra below. Pat expertly set the plane down on the landing strip and we unloaded my gear. Pat’s son, Toby, had been in camp for a couple of days and met us on the landing strip carrying the last load of meat from a beautiful bull he had taken the previous day. Pat flew two more trips and delivered Logan and Dom safely to camp. Once we had camp set up, we enjoyed a delicious meal of caribou tenderloins over the fire, courtesy of Toby. What a great way to start a hunt!
The next day broke overcast and drizzly — typical Alaska weather. Well, I thought, at least Logan will get the true Alaska experience! We boiled some water and inhaled a Mountain House breakfast while glassing the different herds of caribou trickling over the ridgelines and into our valley. It was about mid-morning when we spotted a herd of bulls making their way down the ridge not far from camp. I grabbed my spotting scope and determined there were definitely some good bulls in the group. One in particular stood out, sporting tall, gnarly tops.
We scurried to grab our rifles and packs, and headed up the mountain to intercept the traveling bulls. I had explained to Logan that with caribou, you don’t get a second chance. You can’t pass on a particular bull and come back to find him later, since when caribou are on the move they will soon be out of the valley and your opportunity will be gone. You will likely have only one chance at a particular bull. Of course, once you pick one and shoot it, it’s always possible an even larger bull will come walking over the hill with the next group. Thus, caribou hunting is definitely more of a gamble than most other forms of hunting where you can often pass on an animal early in the hunt and come back and find it again if nothing else presents itself.
Fighting our way uphill through the thick, wet brush was a challenge, and we knew we only had a short time before the bulls would outpace us and our opportunity would be lost. We finally cleared the brush and headed toward the back of the valley where the caribou had been crossing into the next drainage. The bulls had dropped down into the creek and were out of sight. Suddenly, antler tips appeared on the skyline, and we dropped flat on the wet tundra. The bulls had turned, saving us time and effort by coming up a low ridge closer to camp. We threw down our packs so Logan could rest his rifle on them, and I ranged the passing bulls at 300 yards. A fairly nice bull came up onto the ridge and plopped down for a rest. Behind him, we spotted the gnarly tines of the bull Logan was after.
The bull slowly fed his way up onto the ridge, but he wasn’t in position for a clean shot. First he was facing away, then quartering toward us, then he turned so that his antlers covered his vital area. It almost seemed like he was taunting our excited young shooter, who, nevertheless, showed patience and restraint. Finally the bull presented a clear broadside shot, and I told Logan to take him when he was ready. His .300 WSM barked and sent a 165-grain Barnes TTSX on its way. The bull went down almost immediately as Logan quickly worked the bolt and readied for a follow-up, but it wasn’t necessary.
We let the rest of the bulls move off, then made our way up to Logan’s bull. He was magnificent. The top points were nearly two feet long and bladed, towering over his massive frame. Logan’s appreciation was genuine and heartfelt, and he thanked Dom and me repeatedly for the opportunity. We admired the bull, took pictures, then began processing him for the pack back to camp. This task was regularly interrupted by new herds of caribou topping nearby hills, which would cause us to scramble for our binoculars.
We split the load between us and made the fairly short and fortunately all-downhill pack to camp. We spent the rest of the day glassing, and that evening we enjoyed more fresh tenderloin around the fire, this time accompanied by mashed potatoes followed by our celebratory tradition of raspberry crumble for dessert.
The following day was drizzly, cold, and dreary. There was some movement from the caribou, but not much. We glassed all day from camp, but nothing inspired us to venture out. Most of the caribou seemed to be hunkered down, so we did the same and just spent the day around the fire, enjoying each other’s company. One highlight of the day was watching a wolverine bounce around the mountainside and stalk a small herd of caribou.
Our third day dawned clear and beautiful, and the caribou were up and moving. I had barely begun glassing before I spotted a magnificent bull on the skyline. He crested the saddle at the head of the valley and began crossing the mountainside at a quick pace toward the next saddle and into the next valley. He was by far the biggest bull we had seen so far, but there was no way we would be able to get there in time to cut him off, so we had to watch him walk out of our lives and into our memories. Most of the caribou seemed to be taking this same route, however, so we decided to hike to the head of the valley and position ourselves where the majority of the animals were funneling through.
We had barely reached a great-looking spot overlooking the saddle the caribou were using before a good-size herd topped the far saddle and began making their way toward our position. There were a few good bulls in the bunch, but two really stood out. One was a large-framed bull still in full velvet and the other was a hard-horned bull with a smaller overall frame but incredible tops and bezzes, and good shovels. They were headed down the mountain opposite our position, where they had to cross the creek and work their way up the mountain to the saddle, which would bring them within about 100 yards of our position. This gave us plenty of time to look them over.
The more I looked at the bulls the more undecided I got. Part of the problem was that neither of the bulls were of the caliber of the giant we had watched
from camp that had taken this same path just a couple of hours earlier. Should I chance it and wait for another giant, or take one of these very good bulls?
Dom kept commenting on the bull with the smaller frame. He kept saying, “That bull is just so cool!” While I was vacillating, the herd had worked directly parallel to us and soon would be over the saddle and out of sight. I could feel Dom’s frustration at my reluctance to shoot, and I had a feeling that if I didn’t shoot this bull, he would. So I did what any good friend would do . . . I decided to shoot it. The bull was chugging up the mountain with his mouth hanging open from the rapid pace, but he was constantly in front of or behind other caribou in the bunch. Finally he cleared the others, and I took the shot. The bull reacted to the impact of the bullet from my .28 Nosler, turned to face down- hill, and stopped. I readied for a second shot, but knew he had to be hit hard. He stood frozen for a few moments, then went down. The rest of the herd milled around a bit, then continued their journey over the saddle into the next drainage.
Dom said, “Just a few more steps, and I was going to shoot him myself!” I laughed and replied, “I could tell. I figured if he was good enough that you wanted him, I’d better shoot him!”
Dom, with his caribou expertise, had been right about the bull. Everything about him, from the character of his antlers to even his body size, was impressive. We sat and admired him for a bit before we took pictures and began dressing him for the pack to camp. It was a beautiful day and the caribou were moving, so we were in no hurry, often stopping to glass other groups that passed by. After getting the bull broken down, we lazed away the rest of the day glassing, taking turns napping, and feeling fortunate to be experiencing such a beautiful day in Alaska’s wilderness. As dusk started to drain the color from the landscape, we loaded up our packs and headed down the mountain back to camp and the promise of another magnificent supper of tenderloin, mashed potatoes, and raspberry crumble.
Since Dom had so graciously insisted on being the last to shoot, the next day’s plan of attack was his decision. He decided to return to the head of the valley where the majority of the movement was and where I had found success less than twenty-four hours before. We packed up the day’s supplies and began the march up the mountain.
Reaching the head of the valley, we set up not far from the carcass of my caribou. It was another beautiful day, so we got comfortable on the soft tundra and took turns glassing and soaking up the sun. The caribou traffic was much lighter than the previous few days, but there were still herds making their way through the different travel routes into our valley. There were several groups that had bulls plodding along in them, but nothing that really piqued Dom’s interest. Two wolverines made an appearance, frolicking and playing on the saddle adjacent to us. Toward late afternoon we decided to hike along the ridgeline, looking into the drainages out of sight from our position as we slowly made our way back to camp.
Related: Wolverine: The Real Superhero
As we walked, we made a sobering find — pieces of an airplane. The day we arrived in camp, the two hunters who were leaving had told us about finding airplane wreckage, and we hadn’t gone far before we saw what they had described. The edges were torn and curled from the forces that tore them apart. We found the wreckage scattered along the ridge for more than a mile, so we speculated the event must have happened at high altitude to scatter the debris field that far. Some of the pieces had letters that appeared to be military, but it was hard to say. We spent quite a bit of time wondering what happened, but we knew one thing for sure — we wouldn’t have wanted to be on that flight over Alaska.
The next day Dom was up early glassing for bulls. I had just gotten out of bed and stumbled out of my tent to greet the day when a herd came down the same hill as Logan’s had the first day. Their route would lead them down to the creek bottom not far from camp. There were a couple of good bulls in the herd, so Dom and Logan threw on packs and headed up the mountain to try to intercept them. I belatedly readied my gear and followed, clearing the thick brush at the bottom of the hill and heading up the ridge. Logan and Dom were about two hundred yards ahead of me as they topped a rise and went out of sight. I started up the ridge and as I reached the crest, I saw the herd of bulls coming straight toward me. I dropped back off the ridge and hurriedly looked for Dom and Logan. I soon came upon their packs on the back side of the ridge right on the saddle the bulls were headed for, so I knew they’d seen the bulls and were setting up somewhere close-by. A shot went off to my left.
I stepped forward and spotted the caribou 70 yards in front of me and to my left, and Dom and Logan set up on a small cliff. Dom’s bull separated from the rest, then went down. I snapped some pictures of them on the cliff with the rest of the herd filing past, then headed over to meet them and congratulate Dom. His bull was nice, with a big frame and good tops, and would yield a bunch of meat for Dom’s freezer. We had just hung the meat on the meat pole at camp when we heard a Super Cub coming in. We were all a little disappointed, since we had just been talking about how weren’t ready to leave and end our good time afield. Pat landed and then, without a word, began prepping the plane to spend the night. That made us all share a collective grin. He joined us for yet another celebratory dinner of caribou tenderloins, mashed potatoes, and raspberry crumble.
As darkness set in, Mother Nature treated us to an awe-inspiring light show. Amazing can’t adequately describe the beauty of the aurora borealis we wit- nessed that night. The colors were vibrant and varied, snakelike ribbons from horizon to horizon and balls of light rolling across the night sky. It was a fitting end to a fantastic week. Our goal of getting Logan a great bull and some great memories had paid off even more than we had hoped, with all of us experiencing success and making our own lasting memories in the magnificent Alaska wilderness.
The story originally appeared and is reproduced with permission from the Sports Afield Magazine.
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