By Raymon Kemper
When I was a child, I would thumb through the pages of the outdoor magazines by the hours. The fly-in float plane hunts in Alaska and Canada were extremely captivating to me. Hunting and fishing in areas that very few had ever stepped foot became my ultimate dream. However, an adventure of this magnitude would likely cost me a small fortune based on my research. Canada requires nonresidents to have a guide, but I found that Alaska had a few big game species which could be hunted as a non-resident without a guide. This consisted of caribou, moose and black bears and without having to hire a guide, I could likely make my dream a reality.
Doing the research on putting a trip like this together was most of the fun. Trying to figure out where to go, what gear to take, when was the best time to go were just a few things to consider. I had a couple of good buddies that were up to the challenge as well and we were doing the research together.
The research and saving of hard earned cash took several years to put together. We were finally ready to pull the trigger when I met with Bryan and Julie Alberts at an outdoor trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah. They had recently purchased Ram Aviation out of Kotzebue, Alaska. They specialized in drop camps for the same type of hunt we were looking to do. The research I had done allowed me to be very specific in my questioning and I knew that the price they were offering was better than what I felt I could do it for myself. They lived in the area and had spent a lot of time flying, which meant that they would have scouted out the herds and travel patterns before we arrived, which would give us a better chance of success. We paid the deposits required and booked the hunt for the upcoming fall.
It was mid-August and there was a cool breeze as I walked into the Denver International Airport. I couldn’t believe that the time was finally here; I’d been dreaming of this day for most of my life. My excitement was growing by the hour, knowing that I was heading to the Arctic Circle to hunt the biggest herd of caribou in Alaska and on top of that, we were going to be in one of the wildest places in the world.
My two really good friends going on this trip were Steve and Nate Manson, from San Diego. The plan was that we were going to meet up in Seattle, then fly to Anchorage, then on to Kotzebue, Alaska. It was a full day of flying and sitting in airports, but well worth it; knowing we would fulfill a lifelong dream over the next week.
When we arrived in Kotzebue, there was a representative from Ram Aviation to pick us up and show us around. That night we stayed in the Nullagvik Hotel, which had very nice accommodations considering we are at the end of the world. We had the pleasure of getting a bit of history on Bryan and his operation during our stay. He has been a bush pilot for his entire life. He loves to hunt and fish and is extremely passionate about the outdoors and his operation. He is meticulous about his planes and demands the same from his pilots. This is a great trait in an operation that uses planes, since breaking down has some severe consequences. This conversation made me even more confident in the decision we had made to book with Ram Aviation.
The next morning, Bryan picked us up and took us to their office, located next to the runway. Steve, Nate and myself quickly repacked our gear and took care of all of the required paperwork. We had a safety briefing and then loaded up in the planes. Being inside the planes confirmed what Bryan had said about being meticulous. All of the planes were very clean and well taken care of. Our two-hour bush plane flight went fairly quickly, with lots of terrain to see and Bryan made sure he pointed out everything of interest. When we arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a huge grizzly crossing the river. Not exactly what we expected as a neighbor for the next week. We unloaded all of our gear on the gravel bar and the pilots took off, disappearing over the horizon.
I looked at Nate and Steve and said, “Welcome to the Arctic Circle!” The area was beautiful, but it was very apparent that we were deep in the wilderness of Alaska. We quickly put on our waders and loaded our pistols. I waded across a narrow channel and started looking for a good camp location. Nate started setting up a tent, while Steve and I waded over to the gravel bar and carried all of the gear to our camp.
We crawled out of the tent early that morning, all of us anxious to start our caribou hunt. Nate fixed breakfast while Steve and I dressed up the camp and situated our packs. Then we started glassing and immediately spotted caribou around camp, about 60 all together. That was amazing! We all had a smile on our face, as I put on my pack Nate, Steve and I headed up the ridge to the overlook. As I looked around the valley at all of the caribou, I could not identify one bull, but I knew that if the cows were there, the bulls were not too far away! We stayed up there most of the day, but unfortunately with the warmer temps, the animals were not moving, so we decided to head back to camp.
The tundra in the area was very tough to walk across. Thankfully, we were all in very good shape and had trekking poles. When we got back to camp and started fixing some food, Steve walked to the river to wash his hands and he noticed fish swimming up the river. All three of us are avid fly-fishermen, so it didn’t take much for us to grab our fly rods. We fished for a little while but were unable to get any of the chum salmon, so we went back to camp and ate our dinner. It was getting late and I think everything was catching up with us. I pulled out my Nikon spotting scope and scanned the valley, but unfortunately, we couldn’t spot anything close to camp, so we decided to call it a day.
The next day was almost the same as the first, as we saw a lot of cows, but no bulls. Finally, the weather started to change on the third day, as the temperature dropped and rain showers persisted on and off all morning. We left camp and hiked over a little ridge by camp. As I was looking through my binoculars, I spotted the tip of an antler. I dropped to the ground and looked back. Steve and Nate were laying right behind me. The caribou were only about 200 yards away. Unfortunately, there was nothing but tundra between us. Luckily the bull was over a small ridge. We started low-crawling and after about 150 yards, we could finally see the bull. Steve set up his rifle on top of my pack just as the bull walked down the ridge. We then low-crawled a little farther and set back up, Steve was just about to pull the trigger when the bull laid down. It now became a waiting game. Twenty minutes later, the bull stood up. I looked over at Steve and he was ready. I pulled up my binoculars and looked at the bull, just as he was pulling the trigger. The bull dropped to the ground and we started to hoot and holler! As we walked up to the bull, there was nothing but smiles on our faces.
After a bunch of pictures, we quickly took care of the meat and laid it on a tarp before hanging it up. I looked to the east and saw something in the distance. I looked through my binoculars and saw another bull about a mile away. I looked at Nate and said, “are you ready? Let’s go!” Nate grabbed his bow and off we went. Steve said that we should drop down to the river and work our way along its course, as it would probably be faster. We agreed and hiked about 3/4 of a mile. I climbed up and looked to see if the bulls were still in the same location. The bigger bull was still there with three smaller bulls. I went back down and told them that the bulls were still there and we moved within 100 yards. We then inched a few yards closer. Nate slowly moved up and realized he was now only 40 yards from the big bull. He pulled back his bow as the three smaller bulls turned and looked. Nate then released his arrow and made a perfect shot. The bull ran about 30 yards, then fell down. Nate and his dad gave each other a big hug, then another picture session commenced. We processed the meat into bags and then carried them to camp. Wow, what a day!
By the time we got all of the meat back and hung on the meat pole, it was late and time to eat. We then turned in for the night. The next morning, we all left camp. Just before we went up the first ridge, a big grizzly came over the top, about 40 yards from us. I instantly started hollering, “hey bear, hey bear!” The bear turned and walked along the ridge away from us. What a way to start the day! As soon as we got to the top, I saw bull caribou everywhere in the distance. I pulled out my spotting scope and saw two nice bulls about a mile away. Just as we were about to go after them, a grizzly started walking towards them, then running at them. The bulls quickly took off and ran over the mountainside and that was the end of that! Looking around the valley with my spotting scope, I saw five more bulls on a distant mountain nearly two miles away. Even at that distance, I could tell that there were two big bulls.
I turned to Steve and Nate and said, “What do you think? It is going to be two miles across rough tundra. We would have to hike all the way across the valley and back.” Steve said, “Let’s do it.” I packed up my spotting scope and away we went. Three hours later, we finally reached the mountainside – two miles of the toughest terrain I have ever hiked! As we started climbing around the mountain, I saw three smaller bulls, but neither one of the bigger bulls. We slowly worked around and suddenly I spotted them about 600 yards away. We crawled within 400 yards and then I spotted one of the bigger bulls. I set up my rifle on my pack and adjusted my scope. As I put the crosshairs on the Caribou, it suddenly laid down beside a smaller bull. All I was thinking was, “Really? Again!”
We laid there watching them for 30 minutes. The big bull finally stood up and took three steps to an opening. I squeezed the trigger and the bull stumbled, then stood behind a bush. I could still make out the outline of the bull, so I took another shot and the bull disappeared. As I hiked up to the caribou, I was amazed at how big the bull was. After we celebrated and took pictures, I started figuring that it would take at least two trips to get my meat back. Nate said that he could carry two front quarters and one rear quarter. I then asked him, “Are you crazy, trying to carry three quarters that distance?” I said to myself, “He’ll be lucky to make it a quarter of the way back with that much weight.” Nate said that he could do it, so he loaded his pack up with two front quarters and one rear quarter. Steve took the other rear quarter. I loaded up the backstraps and the rib meat, then put the cape and the antlers on my pack. Five hours later, we made it back to camp. Needless to say, Nate did carry three quarters the whole way!
I was very impressed and thankful that I didn’t have to make a second trip. We all celebrated that night. We went fishing the next day and caught so many chum salmon between 5- and 12-pounds that I lost count. The next morning, we packed up and Ram Aviation flew us back to Kotzebue. Without Ram Aviation (907-521-1723), this DIY hunt would have never happened. Thank you Bryan and Julie so much for this hunt of a lifetime!