By Jaremy Hamm
I’ve always dreamed of hunting caribou. The vision of those big tops with lots of points and double shovels was going to be part of my trophy room for sure. There are multiple species to hunt and they are located in many different portions of North America. Picking the species and the location is the easy part, but paying for the experience is an entirely different ball game. Some hunts range north of eight thousand dollars which, I felt was a bit pricey for an animal I could probably hunt on my own. My good friend Jeremy Sage called me just as we were starting to apply for tags throughout the west and informed me of a great opportunity to do a drop camp with a very reputable outfitter in Northern Alaska. The hunt would be pretty inexpensive and we would have the ability to shoot two caribou. That was about all the enticement I was going to need and the trip was booked.
After months of planning and preparation, August had finally come around and our Alaska hunting dream was about to happen. We were headed to the Northern Brooks range of Alaska. I would be accompanied by Jeremy Sage and Troy Melum. We would be flown in by Arrowhead Outfitters, which is the only float plane operation north of the Brooks Range for a self-guided hunt. Most outfitters run on tundra tires which limits the places possible to land. Floats limit this as well, but we are able to be dropped into areas that are totally controlled by Arrowhead Outfitters.
Just like the enthusiasm builds for every opening day, all the planning that went into our hunt just added to the excitement. We had spent hours combing over gear lists and finding excuses to add things to our hunting closets that we just had to have for this trip. Hours were spent on the phone talking about how excited we were and how much everything weighed to try and make the outfitters guidelines. As each hunting season comes and goes, I seem to find that all the time leading up to that day is half the fun.
When the last of our group arrived in Fairbanks at 10:30 pm, my first adventure to the wilds of Alaska started to become a reality. After months of foraging through forums and websites to try and get a taste of what we were about to experience, the time had finally come. We had already decided a week earlier that the excitement and anticipation of the journey would have us way too high on adrenaline to even think about trying to get any sleep, so we loaded up the truck and hit the road for the 400 miles up the Dalton Highway towards Arrowhead Outfitters. With a couple of options to make the trip up the Dalton Highway, we chose to rent a ¾ ton four wheel drive due to the unknown conditions of the haul road.
Even with the limited darkness of northern Alaska at this time of year, the majority of our trip north was made in the dark. We had our eyes out for some of the most notable landmarks as we drove, but believe me, there aren’t many and even fewer other vehicles at that time of night. We crossed over the Yukon River and into the Arctic Circle and arrived in Coldfoot to stretch the legs and grab some fuel.
As we crossed over Atigun Pass, we could see the sun start to rise and some of the landscape and views I had waited a lifetime to see start to show. The north side of the Brooks Range gave way to deep rolling tundra foothills and then to flatter river valleys all the way up to Deadhorse.
After nearly 10 hours, stopping only once for fuel and a couple other times just long enough to change drivers, we pulled into mile marker 366.5, which is the base camp of Arrowhead Outfitters. Howard and Deb met us there with breakfast sandwiches and gave us a spot to go through all of our gear and get ready for our flight out into the field. Howard spends a good deal of time with all of his hunters and makes sure that everyone understands the laws in Alaska as he does his very best to ensure a productive and safe adventure. After a quick orientation from our pilot, we picked up our camp kit in Prudhoe Bay from Camps by Deb and headed a mile to the lake to jump on a float plane and into the field.
When we arrived at the lake, we helped unload from a meat pick up and had the plane turned around and headed to camp within 10 minutes. Our pilot made a wide turn over the general area where we would be hunting and pointed out over a 100 caribou as he put the plane down at our camp at Hart Lake. Between all the caribou we saw coming into camp and the great bull that walked into camp as we were setting up, the excitement level was pretty high.
On day one we left camp right around first light and headed up and over the hill from camp. It didn’t take long to spot a herd with some nice bulls. We had some ground to cover to get into position and unfortunately, the wind was blowing at our backs. It certainly wasn’t the ideal situation, but the excitement of the first day really had a hold on us. We made a couple of tries to catch up to the herd, but even when caribou aren’t being pushed, they can really cover some ground and we were already a mile and a half from camp.
We sat down for a little calorie reload and saw some cows and calves coming up the hill about 100 yards away. As we watched another 15-20 cows use nearly the same route it became pretty apparent that caribou will often times follow where other caribou had already passed. We waited another 15 minutes or so and a nice bull followed another group of cows up the same draw. Troy was up and he set himself for the shot. Once the bull got within range, he pulled down the crosshairs on his chest and the first bull of the trip was down.
With good numbers of caribou moving, we decided to stay right where we were. Not long after Troy was able to put a tag on his bull a huge group of caribou came over the rise directly in front of us. We could only see about 150 yards in front of us, but all we could see spread out for nearly 200 yards across, was antlers coming over the hill. Jeremy spotted a nice bull with huge tops that was easy to pick out and follow through the group. As the herd split to go around us the big bull went to our right and Jeremy had to wait until the bull cleared from the rest of the group.
Jeremy’s bull had made it all the way around us before he had an opportunity to pull the trigger.
As I was waiting for Jeremy’s bull to clear for him, I had picked out a bull in the group that went around to our left. Within a minute of when Jeremy dropped his bull, I was able to drop a nice double-shovel bull who cleared from the other caribou just before he dropped out of sight. But at this point, day one was far from over.
We spent the next hour shooting photos and reliving what had just happened. It was the kind of memory that will stick for years and probably always be talked and laughed about every time we get together for another trip. But that memory will always somehow include the work that goes into dressing out three caribou and getting them 1.5 miles back to camp over the tundra.
We woke up a little later on day two pretty fogged in with a light rain that seemed to keep on falling through most of the day. We weren’t able to get everything out of the field the day before, so our goal for the day was mostly to get back to our horns from the day before, hoping somehow the bears hadn’t gotten to them first.
I’m certainly no caribou expert, but we did seem to figure out a few things. We found that caribou movement really seemed to be dependent on the weather. If it was warmer and the bugs were out, they would cover a lot of distance and seemed to just keep moving throughout the day. The bugs just drove the caribou crazy. You could see them sometimes in the distance on a full out run for over a mile just to get away from those biting black flies. When we first saw it, we were expecting to see a bear or a pack of wolves close behind. On the days that were overcast and rainy though, the caribou didn’t seem to move far and pretty much stayed for hours in the same area where we spotted them.
Each of us had two tags on our hunt and we were all able to fill them. Jeremy was able to pick up his second bull on day three and Troy filled his second tag with a nicer bull than his first one with a 450 yard shot on day four. We didn’t venture as far from camp over the next couple of days because our camp was right in the middle of where all the caribou were moving. We set out on day five with my last tag to fill and news of some pretty nasty weather on the way over the next three days.
With overcast skies and cooler temps to start the day, the caribou were doing pretty much what we predicted. The caribou that we could see were grazing and not really moving. As the day progressed, a few bulls started to move as the clouds lifted and it got a little warmer. About mid-day a nice bull moved into range and I was able to score my second kill. As we were dressing our last caribou, we called Howard to let him know that all our tags were filled and discussed that we would be picked up the next morning.
It was an amazing trip. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the sheer number of caribou we saw each day numbered in the hundreds, with dozens of really solid bulls. Arrowhead took care of everything we could have needed and the pilots were extremely safe and competent. The camp kit we rented from Camps by Deb provided us with first class gear and everything we needed from tents and cots to kitchen gear. If you are looking for an Alaskan outfitter that can get the job done, you can count on Arrowhead Outfitters. You can find out more about them on the web at www.arrowheadoutfitters.com or by calling them at 907-746-7744.
Get in shape. Many sites and forums will tell you a caribou hunt is easy and maybe compared to sheep or hauling a moose it is, but let me tell you, hauling a pack with 80 pounds of caribou meat through the tundra is tough.
Give some serious thought to renting a camp. Due to the bag fees and weight restrictions nowadays with the airlines, we opted to rent a camp. Camps by Deb provided us with tents, cots, sleeping pads and a camp kitchen which saved us on a bunch of weight and cost on baggage fees.
Bring a good water filter. They tell you during the orientation that there is no giardia in the lakes or streams, but you never know.
Don’t over pack. Arrowhead Outfitters provide a really good gear list. If it’s not on their list, you don’t need it. Bring smaller dry bags – it makes it so much easier on the pilots to load the planes and get you to your camp a lot faster.
Bring a really good pair of boots and gaiters.
Bring enough game bags to take care of your meat and trophies.
Don’t hesitate to go self-guided. Caribou with Arrowhead Outfitters was a great first trip.
Bring your GPS – I put on an extra half mile over the tundra because I got turned around on my way back to camp. It also gets really foggy some days and everything looks the same.