I recently found an article I wrote back in 2004 while I was going through some old folders saved in my computer. It is about a trip I took at the Noatak Wilderness in Alaska that I wrote for another site, but may be of interest here. I could not find an image from that adventure so the image below is from a subsequent trip I took with my friend Jim to the same area.
Caribou 2004: Noatak Wilderness Preserve in Northwest Alaska
I recently returned from another adventured-filled float hunt in the Alaskan Wilderness. My hunting partner was John from Clayton, GA. He and I began our adventure complete strangers. While I was ready to abandon him on the river on the third day of our trip, we soon became friends who look forward to hunting together once again someday.
The planning for this trip began a few months after I returned from my 2003 float hunt where I harvested a respectable bull moose in Game Management Unit 21A with the help of my hunting guide Chet Benson. While I was planning the trip, I was also trying to coerce and cajole a few of my friends to come along with me. My friends Steve from Duncanville, TX and Dan from Dallas were both daring enough to answer the call to hunt caribou in the upper regions of Alaska.
For 2004, my goal was to harvest a caribou from the Western Arctic Herd. While the Mulchatna Herd is better known for its trophy potential, I chose to hunt the Western Arctic Herd in GMU 23 because its population is about three times bigger than the Mulchatna. This provides me with two benefits. The first is a very realistic opportunity to view hundreds of animals, but there was also a slim chance that I could view thousands of caribou if I were to arrive just in time for the main migration. The second benefit is a liberal bag limits where I could harvest up to 5 caribou as opposed to just one where the Mulchatna Herd likes to roam. I was not out to shoot 5 bulls but I wanted the chance at another bull in the event a monster bull decides to show itself after I take the first one.
I searched the Internet for numerous sources of information. The best I found is the Alaskan Hunting Forum on the Outdoors Directory. The forum is frequented by individuals who want to ask questions or share information about hunting in Alaska. The participants stretch from the absolute novice to Alaskan hunting guides and residents with decades of experience in the field. The information available was priceless though as with any Internet resource, you have to be able to separate the good from the bad. It did not take long to figure out who was giving good information and who was not. Many forum participants offered all kinds of advice on where to hunt, how to hunt, what gear to use and which air transporters are respectable.
Armed with all kinds of useful information, I began to try to finalize my plans by contacting some air charter companies, including Jim Rood’s Northwest Aviation, Buck Maxon’s Arctic Air Guides and Craig Sweitzer’s Mavrik Aire. Craig and his wife Melinda were the only one’s that were responsive to my queries with respect to references and location ideas. After a while, I got fed up with the whole process. There were many offers to help, but no one offered to help nail down the final details so I opted to utilize Larry Bartlett’s planning services. It was well worth the extra expense. I told Larry my priorities were as follows: I wanted to base out of Kotzebue; I wanted an adventure in an area where there was little chance of bumping into other hunters; I wanted to see lots of animals; and I wanted to bring home a nice caribou. My trip was all that and more.
Before I go into the details of my trip there was a final complication. My hunting buddy Steve hurt his back participating in one of those Navy Seal exercise regimes for old guys. While Steve really did hurt himself, I still believe he was just looking for an excuse to wimp out on the trip. He has been a bit apprehensive ever since he agreed to go on this adventure. Steve is a very capable individual. If I needed someone to cover my back in a time of danger, I know I can count on him. However, his life increasingly has become more and more metro-sexual. He’s softened quite a bit over the last few years so he now prefers a double shot no foam soy latte as opposed to cowboy coffee and a nice Shiraz over freeze-dried meals. In fact, I believe he opted to take his wife to San Francisco over hunting with his friends.
I was very disappointed with this turn of events, but it was not the end of the world. After all Dan was still on board. He was that is until he lost his job about two months before our departure for the bush and could not finance the balance of the trip. Lucky for me I hooked up with John from Clayton Georgia. If that town sounds familiar to you, it is because Clayton was where the movie “Deliverance” with Burt Reynolds was filmed and lives in spirit to this day. I did not know John. What I knew about John I learned over the phone talking with him.
For example, I knew he liked to hunt and fish in the West as well as Russia for animals such as Elk and Brown Bear. I also had a ordered a background investigation where I learned he had been married to the same woman for 35 years, paid all his debts and lived in the same general area for more than several decades. At a minimum, I knew he liked to hunt, had a stable social life and he was fiscally responsible. I was a bit apprehensive at the thought of going with a stranger. There have been trips where I had been partnered up with a complete stranger and it had been less than ideal. Fortunately, my drive to hunt Alaska over powered any reluctance I had about hunting in the wilderness with a complete stranger. John and I agreed he would take Steve’s place and we proceeded with our last minute planning.
Two weeks before our scheduled departure from Kotzebue into the bush, I sent all our gear and dry goods to Kotzebue via Alaska Air Cargo. I packed everything into 4 large plastic boxes purchased from Home Depot. The dimensions were 33x21x21 and the tare weight was almost 30lbs. There was more food and gear than we needed but I wanted to pack some extra stuff in case: we were stranded in the bush longer than expected; we had more room on the plane; and just in case John forgot to bring something. Also, I left my sleeping pads and sleeping bags uncompressed so that took up more room as well. A few days after I shipped all the gear ahead, I was happy to find out that everything had arrived without delay or difficulty.
The day finally came when I would depart or Alaska. The car service brought me to the airport with plenty of time to spare. In fact, I had close to two hours before my flight. It was the middle of the afternoon and it was still a few days away from the Republican National Convention so the place was relatively quiet. It was a good thing I had all kinds of time to spare. It took almost 1.5 hours to get through TSA and I was the only one there. At first, I though they were going to hassle me for placing my ammunition in the same container as my rifle. That part was actually a breeze.
The problem was my small checked luggage that contained some items I forgot to send ahead, including my breathable chest waders, wading boots, IsoPro Fueled stove and lantern, etc. as well as a change of clothes for the next two days for my return trip. My suitcase had given off a chemical warning so TSA had to swipe each and every item in my suitcase, including my waders, boots and stoves. After each item was swiped for explosive materials, everything had to go through the CTX machine individually. Yes, one boot and one under wear at a time. While all this was going on, the TSA manager on the scene started checking my gear out. He was an avid outdoorsman and was apparently enamored by my lightweight gear especially my mantleless lantern. I wanted to tell him to keep his paws off my gear. However, with hate in my heart and sugar on my tongue, I said thank you when he complemented me on the quality of my gear. That was also when he explained to me that my gear had given off a false positive that required the extra procedures.
The flight to Anchorage via Seattle was relatively uneventful as was collecting my luggage and rental car. My first stop was REI followed by Lynx Crossing, which is a bed and breakfast owned and operated by Tracy Harmon and his wife Kim. Upon my arrival, I met my hunting partner John and Tracy for the first time. Both of them were sitting and chatting in Tracy’s extremely well organized and spotless garage. Formal introductions were made and we all sat around talking about hunting in Alaska as well as rafts since Tracy works at Alaska Raft and Kayak.
While Lynx Crossing is a bed and breakfast, Tracy offered John and I some sheep for dinner stew since both of us were too tired to go out. The three of us got along quite well. The downside of course was the fact that we did not hit the sack until after midnight, which is about 4:00 am for my still unadjusted body clock. The next morning John and I were treated to a breakfast feast that included a bowl of fresh fruit topped with whipped cream and a puff pastry followed by some fancy egg and potato creation. Needless to say we were very well fed and taken care of at Lynx Crossing. I would highly recommend staying at Lynx Crossing while you are in Anchorage.
With our bellies full, John and I decided to do a little sight seeing in Anchorage. We visited places such as Wal-Mart, Lowes, REI, Wild West Guns and Mountain Sports. The only places we regretfully missed were Barney’s Sports and Alaska Raft & Kayak. Between all these shops we were able to pick up a few last minute items we needed for the trip such as an electric fence, citric acid and other miscellaneous items.
I had an airline ticket from Anchorage to Kotzebue. However, John offered to give me a lift in his airplane, which is an Aerostar 700 that he flew up from Georgia via South Dakota, Seattle and Juneau. While I dislike airplanes—small ones in particular, I reluctantly accepted his kind offer. It was just much too convenient to go by private plane and avoid all the hassle associated with all the new security measures at the airport.
I rode John’s plane to Kotzebue full of fear and trepidation. However, my flying phobia was once again overblown since John is a very competent pilot. The only part of the flight I did not like was through the cloud cover, which was most of the trip. I could not see anything other than the ice forming on the wing. A pilot, I’m not, but I knew enough to know ice is not good. John, however, assured me that it is a concern but not anything to really worry about since he had a couple of options available to him to remove the ice.
The flight up was uneventful and mostly uninteresting since the skies were full of cloud cover and smoke until we were close to the Kobuk River. When we landed in Kotzebue, we were not sure where to go since there was no formal FBO or Flight Base Operations. An Alaska Department of Transportation individual told us to park next to their hangar. Once we unloaded just what we needed for the evening, we took a taxi to the Nullagvik Hotel, which will be our accommodations for the next two nights until we head into the bush.
The Nullagvik Hotel is the only hotel in town though there are a few bed and breakfasts. It’s not exactly the Four Seasons let alone a Motel Six, but it was clean, adequate and in the center of town. However, the rates did match its monopoly status in town. Lucky for us they allowed us to share a room despite the fact we had reservations for two. After we had checked in, we enjoyed a nice dinner at the Bayside Restaurant and Inn. The food was really good so we actually ended up eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Bayside for the duration of our stay in Kotzebue.
The next morning I had breakfast at the Bayside and took a walk around town. On the way back to the Nullagvik Hotel, I decided to stop by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to get the scoop on game movement and water levels on our destination. I was told by one of the Fish and Wildlife Managers that it was still a bit early for the main migration but there are still plenty of caribou around. That was the good news. The bad news was the fact that water levels on the Noatak River have declined about a foot in a week. She also mentioned there is even less water along the tributaries we plan to begin our float hunt. Finally, she decided to increase our fear factor by mentioning that while it has been warm, temperatures are expected to fall so the river could freeze at any time.
After my visit to Fish and Wildlife I headed back to the hotel to see if John was up and about. I bumped into John in front of Hanson’s Store so I accompanied him for breakfast. After he finished eating, we proceeded to walk around town to check on our gear at Alaska Air Cargo and to do a little campaigning around town. Our gear was in good shape and ready for movement upon our request. Ironically, we ran into a US Park Ranger named Lindy Summers at the cargo facilities. She told us that she and her colleague would be happy to give us a briefing on native allotments and other issues related to the area we plan to hunt.
We met her at the National Park Service office where she and her colleague Kean Mihata were waiting with topographical maps. Lindy and Kean spent over an hour with us pouring over maps explaining where native allotments were present, expected hazards, water levels and how to deal with grizzlies and where to find caribou. They were a wealth of information. John and I were amazed when Lindy and Kean mentioned to us that we were the only hunters that have ever visited their office in the last two years.
It was now well after lunch so we headed back to the Bayside where surprisingly we ran into Lindy and Kean, who were attending a going away party for a colleague. The place was very full so the hostess asked two gentlemen if they would mind if John and I shared their table. While talking with these two individuals, we learned that they were in town working on a large construction project. One of them also volunteered that he had just been released from prison. There was a long moment of silence before curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask why he was in prison. He was in prison for bootlegging. Apparently, he was purchasing liquor in places like Nome, Fairbanks and Anchorage. He would then sell the liquor in Kotzebue and its surrounding villages that are either dry where no liquor is allowed or damp where there is no liquor for sale but you are allowed to consume. Then he volunteered that prison was no so bad because he ended up marrying his roommate’s sister.
After lunch, our next stop was the Alaska Department of Fish and Game so John could pick up his hunting license and tags as well as to possibly have an opportunity to meet with Jim Dau, who is the area biologist. Jim was supposed to be on vacation that day. We knew that because we met his son Jason at the local café earlier that day. We used that fact as sort of an ice breaker to get Jim to meet with us. While he did spend some time with us, the news was not good. It’s been unusually warm so the caribou have not left the North Slope though we still are likely to see quite a few small groups of caribou. In addition, Jim had delayed his son’s hunt because visibility along the Selawik River was dismal due to smoke. That made me think of two things. First, we may not see any caribou and all those hunters that had planned to hunt the Selawik may now be headed to the Noatak. i.e. Less caribou and more hunters.
It was now about 3pm, which is the time Melinda from Mavrik Aire told us to be at their storage facilities to meet with her husband Craig. On the way to Mavrik’s facilities, I stopped by Alaska Air Cargo so I can have our gear boxes fork-lifted over to where we need them. John went to his plane to move it closer to Mavrik’s Aire’s facilities. We were there a bit early so we took the opportunity to organize our gear a bit. While just about everything was ready, I wanted to compress my sleeping bag and pad as well as to reattach the pockets on my Kifaru Longhunter backpack.
It turned out to be a long wait. Craig did not arrive until about 7pm. Bad weather and poor visibility due to the smoke from forest fires throughout the state as well as controlled burning in Western Canada has blanketed the skies with black clouds. Both of Mavrik’s Otters had to make an unscheduled stop in McGrath, AK to wait for better visibility. Craig was a bit worried upon arrival since he has not had any contact with his other plane on the flight up from McGrath and the other plane left about 15 minutes before Craig. He was not yet alarmed because the other pilot may have just landed on a gravel bar to ride out the bad weather. Later that night when he still had not heard from his pilot, Craig reported the plane overdue to authorities.
The next day was our day to be transported to the bush. A guy named Chris who works for Mavrik picked us up at the hotel to bring us to the plane. When we arrived at about 9am, Craig was making some minor repairs to his plane so we were told it would just be an hour or two. John and I placed all our gear at the water’s edge in preparation for our flight. Our one to two hour wait turned into a 7 hour ordeal though it could have been worse because at one point Craig though he would have to wait for a part from Anchorage.
We spent the time talking to other hunters also waiting to be brought into the field. John and I were going in at the same time as George and another hunter named John. We stayed away from another group that consisted of 2 adults and 2 kids. They were nice but I thought the kids were overly obsessed with their rifles and pistols. We always tried to keep a few storage containers between us and those kids.
The moment finally arrived. The plane was ready and so were we. Craig had other things on his mind so rather than weigh all our gear he simply asked if our gear weight was good to go. I told him yes because we were using inflatable canoes and we had an extra 30lbs from our raft allowance to play with despite the fact that John looked like he brought everything but the kitchen sink.
We loaded the plane and took off. The first load consisted of my hunting partner John as well as the other John and his father-in-law George. John and I were the first to be dropped off on a lake. After we had unloaded our gear, Craig asked if it would be all right for the other two hunters to share our lake since the smoke had not yet cleared in the area where the other two wanted to go and it was getting too late to fly around looking for a new location. My fears were realized—less caribou and more hunters in the same area. If John and George were also floating I would have said it would not be all right. However, we could not hunt that day since we just flew. John was a little more apprehensive but I assured him it would be fine and not to worry about it because we would be well underway the next morning.
I spent the afternoon setting up camp and getting dinner of shrimp and beef kabobs ready for consumption, while John did some fly-fishing. He was quite successful in reeling in a few graylings. After dinner, John admired my 6-man Kifaru Tipi tent. It was extremely roomy and light for its size. He asked me about the stove, which I still had not assembled let alone use. He suggested I put it together so we could try it out before we really needed its warmth. I told him it was not a bad idea and since he was in construction he may be best equipped to assemble it. The stove was a breeze to assemble and pretty soon we had it operating and the tent warm. The other two hunters came over for a visit and to take a look at our set up. They were quite jealous of the stove and the warmth emitting thereof. Not only was it warm, but we had a bunch of space to stretch out and store our gear.
I woke up early the next morning so I had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and began portaging our gear over to an unnamed stream that would flow into a small river that would lead to the Noatak River. I am an early riser so it was not a surprise that John and the others were just getting up when I had already portaged my stuff. Once John woke up he too ate and carried his gear over to the nearby stream. We inflated our rafts and were just about ready to go. I simply needed to pack up the camp, while John loaded all our gear into the two canoes.
When I returned to the boats, John had lowered the boats as well as the gear. Our gear was within the Mavrik’s weight restrictions. However, I was surprised to find that our canoes were full despite the fact we still had to harvest a couple of caribou each. That was when it hit me how much stuff John had really with him. My things were in three bags, but one of them is only half full and the other contained an uncompressed sleeping bag that can easily be made significantly smaller. A bit of panic hit so I asked George if we could leave some things for him to take out for us. George accepted and so we left a number of items such as extra pots, stove, pumps and other items we felt we could do without. One of the items John left behind was a full sized tackle box. George gladly accepted the items for us and promised to leave them in my gear box back at Mavrik’s facilities. (Note: We never did get our stuff back)
It was now time to launch the boats. After months of preparation, John and I were set to hunt Game Management Unit 23 by floating this un-named stream, which connects to a river that eventually converges with the Noatak River. The water was shallow so we simply walked the boats until we reached a deeper part of the stream. At least, that was our hope. For the next two miles, we just pulled, dragged and pushed our boats along the stream. In fact, there was a section there where I thought for sure we would be unloading the boats and carrying everything over some brush. However, I found a path through the bushes where we were able to just double team the boats by pushing and shoving them in between a couple of bushes. I thought there would be at least one nasty portage but after a couple of miles the stream connected to a larger river where we were able to finally paddle.
We had not yet traveled more than 4 miles from our drop-off when John told me he was spent. I said it was not a problem. We had 25 hours of paddling we can break up anyway we would like. We can take it easy today and simply hump it tomorrow. We started looking for an ideal campsite when John spotted a herd of caribou. John was sure there was a nice bull in there so adrenaline took over and despite his spent body, he took off after the caribou. I opted to continue on to the campsite so we can have a place to rest for the night.
While John was chasing the elusive caribou, I had gone ahead and made camp. The Kifaru 6-man tipi is extremely comfortable but I find it a pain to pitch everyday because it uses about 16 tent stakes. In addition, the stove had to be re-assembled. There was quite a bit to do, but I had fun doing it since the whole process was part of the adventure I signed up for on this trip. A short while later John came floating along. Apparently, John had chased the caribou for about a mile up the ridge to no avail. That was when I explained to John my simple rules for hunting caribou: 1) intercept caribou whenever possible because it’s nearly impossible to catch up to them; 2) if you need binoculars to determine it’s a bull then it’s either too small or too far; and 3) let the boat do the work for you whenever possible.
I knew John would be a bit tired since I was a bit tuckered out myself so I cooked a nice meal of lamb chops and potato soup. During dinner, I asked John if he could gather some wood for the stove. For some reason, he looked a bit miffed at the request though he went into the woods gathering wood with a passion. He was, however, visibly upset at the request. I’ve been insulted, snubbed, yelled at and called every name possible during my two decades on Wall Street, so disapproving looks have zero affect on me so I simply complemented John on his effort.
The next morning, I woke up early once again so I wolfed down some oatmeal, packed my gear and glassed for a while until John woke up. I did not, however, expect John to sleep until 10am. Well he was tired from the previous day’s events. To make sure our bodies were well stoked, I cooked up some eggs and sausage after John was awake. Once we were both well fed, I was all set to go. We needed to average 15 miles or 5 hours per day. Since the day before was a low mileage day, we had to make this a hump day. To my surprise, John decided he needed to reorganize his gear.
I was a little irritated but I took a deep breath. After all what’s another half hour. It was not yet noon any way. Well noon came and went. Pretty soon it was 1pm in the afternoon. I was a bit miffed so I asked John if I could help him in any way. That was when he mentioned that he was real tired from having to collect firewood last night and that he really needed 8 hours of sleep every night. That’s funny, I thought to myself. We went to sleep at about 11pm not 2am. By my watch, he was able to enjoy 11 hours worth of sleep.
My face was surprisingly blank so John added that if his not getting sufficient rest became a problem we should consider splitting up. With hate in my heart and sugar on my tongue as well as my nicest voice, I told him that his suggestion was a good one. I was excited once again as I began to divide our supplies such as food and fuel for our stoves. Once that was done, I said with my biggest smile and nicest voice, that I would meet him at the next campsite about 20 miles downriver. I also explained that if for some reason we did not meet up, we both had 10 days worth of supplies.
I was about to shove off when John came up to me. He explained that if I were to go ahead, he would be coming along behind me to help if I got into trouble. But, was wondering who would help him if he got into trouble. I explained to him not to worry since we both had our own satellite phones. While we did not know how to receive calls, we were both very adept at placing calls. In addition, I mentioned that if we did not hook up again after two nights, I would not go further but would instead start hiking upstream. He was not satisfied so I told him I was simply going to float about a mile downstream. He need not worry since I would only be a half mile away as the crow flies. I would stay in one place to glass.
I shoved off with a feeling of relief. While I was paddling, I made up my mind that I’ve had it. Three days at a snail’s pace was too much for me. I cannot sit around camp waiting for this guy until well after noon to get his butt in gear. Nothing was worth this misery and I was convinced at this point that John would place me in danger. As soon as I found a nice gravel bar, I beached my boat and phoned Mavrik. I asked Melinda about the possibility of an early extraction before we reach the no-fly zone since there were some really large gravel bars nearby for them to land. At this point, I did not know that Mavrik’s Otter on wheels was still missing. Had she told me this fact, I would’ve known that a pick up was all but impossible because a plane on floats could not land where we were.
Melinda explained to me that she was not sure it could be done. Now Melinda is a nice person but whenever I speak to her on the phone she forgets the very basic tenets of customer service. The customer is always right. It took me a while to coax out of her under what conditions it would be possible to be extracted early. We could have saved each other a lot of time and effort if she had just been straight and to the point about the conditions necessary to make my request possible. I don’t need all the other stuff nor a song and dance about how she’s not sure about this and that. All she had to say was “If the plane is available and you’re willing to pay $x, then we can do it otherwise you’ll have to find a way to the extraction.” Melinda and I left it at me calling her in about an hour or 4pm after she has had a chance to speak to Craig.
As I hung up, I spotted a nice bull on the ridge across the river. I examined it carefully and determined it was a respectable bull but it did not quite fit my vision of an ideal bull to shoot so I sat there and admired it for a while until John finally arrived. I pointed to the bull as he approached. He must have though I was going to shoot it because he stopped so I waived him over. I explained to him that I was not going to shoot but he was welcome to do so. He was so obsessed about seeing animals and not going home empty handed that I thought he would shoot it for sure. He asked me how far it was and I told him it was probably between 350 and 400 yards. Not bad since his laser rangefinder indicated 377 yards.
He opted to not shoot as well because he normally fired 165 grain bullets from his 300 Weatherby and he decided to use 220 grain bullets on this trip, but has not had a chance to shoot it so he suggested we press forward. It was not long before we ran across a herd of caribou crossing the river. From our vantage point, it was clear the caribou were walking across the ridge on our left or East and coming down to the river to cross not more than 50 yards to our front. Unfortunately there were only cows on the ridge, but John wanted to sit there for a while and see what happens. We saw a lot of caribou coming down but it was all just cows and calves.
Normally, I would have been happy to sit there all day to see what would come along. However, we were way behind schedule. I decided to give John one more chance. This was it. I explained to him one more time what we needed to do in order to stick to our plan. That is, we need to average 15 miles or 5 hours a day on the river. We can fall behind a day or two but sooner or later we need to catch up and we were now almost two days behind schedule. I saw us as having the following options: we could hump it the rest of the day and try to make up as much lost ground as possible; we could stay right where we are for the entire trip and get picked up right there; we could glass in this location for the rest of the day and paddle all day for the next three days; or split up. I also made it clear that I was perfectly comfortable with any of these options but we had to pick one.
John tried to convince me that since we had 10 days worth of supplies, we should just extend our trip to 10 days instead of seven and if we shot a caribou or caught a bunch of fish maybe we could even stretch our trip to two full weeks. I explained that I did not, unfortunately, have that kind of flexibility so we were limited to the aforementioned options. Also, I planned 10 days worth of supplies for a seven day trip in the event of unforeseen delays such as 9/11 which left hunters stranded all over Alaska for several days. Also, my guide from last year was stranded in the Talkeetnas for a few days due to smoke. A lot can happen in the Alaskan Wilderness to cause delays in our extraction so I wanted a safety buffer.
John thought through the options. I do not know what made him choose the original game plan, but that’s exactly what he selected. I was somewhat doubtful, but I took him at his word that we’re going to catch up and stick to the plan. In fact, he told me to go ahead and he would follow and to just inform him when we have caught up. We set off, stopping occasionally to glass the nearby ridges. I don’t remember how long we paddled that day, but we were able to reduce our mileage deficit in half. We were still behind but not alarmingly so. It was late when we finally decided to set up camp.
The next morning John woke up at a reasonable hour and we were off on the river by 10:30am. Not great but not bad either. We were still a day behind schedule but no longer under a lot of pressure to make up two days worth of paddling. We now floated on a leisurely basis and glassed on occasion. We saw lots of caribou and John still wanted to examine each and everyone because he still was somewhat worried about going home empty handed. I told him not to worry as we had plenty of time and I would let him have the first shot. In fact, I pointed out a couple of nice bulls for him to shoot though they were just beyond both our abilities.
At about noon that day, John excitedly pointed to a herd of caribou that he believed contained a nice sized bull. Well I’ve heard this often enough over the last couple of days I thought to myself. I took a quick look through my binoculars and told him it was all cows, calves and young bulls. He insisted there was a big bull. I thought right, you’re seeing things again. I wanted a rest so I humored him by sitting there a while. Not more than 5 minutes later a huge bull made itself visible at the bottom of the next ridge. We could just see his antlers above the alders. It was a nice bull and I had to apologize to John for doubting his eyesight.
John was all set to move into shooting position. I reviewed the landscape and told John we should just float the boats to the end of the gravel and drag the canoes up the slough and climb up the bank where he could shoot the bull. John did not want to take a chance so he opted to trudge one half mile through the willows. As John left, I started to snack and refill my water bottles. It wasn’t very long before I thought I heard a shot so I dragged the canoes to the slough and climbed up the bank. When I climbed up the bank, I was surprised to see the bull John wanted to shoot walking around with another respectable bull.
I scanned the area and noticed a large depression in the tundra not more than 50 yards to my front. I crawled my way to the depression. It was a perfect hide. I could stand and not be seen and the top offered a perfect location to lay prone to shoot my prey. In case John opted to shoot the smaller one, I wanted to be in a position to shoot the larger one. My theory was that John would shoot the slightly smaller one because it was about 100 yards closer to where he was and he had ‘bou fever. There is no thing like the sure thing. I watched the caribou graze and John stalk. Once he was in a position to shoot, he fired and hit the caribou twice.
He started to head back to the where he thought the boats were so I signaled my location to him. He looked surprised to find me so close and asked if I wanted the other caribou. I told him no so we both walked over to examine his caribou. It was a very nice bull with double shovels, a pair of nice bezes and wide palmations. Also, not all of the caribou’s velvet had been rubbed off yet. I congratulated him and he looked ecstatic. He asked me one more time if I wanted to try for the other bull and I told him no. It was just an okay bull and it was already at the top of the ridge so I really was not interested.
We headed back to the canoes to get our field dressing gear, cameras and frames. After a taking a full roll of pictures of John with his caribou, we started filleting the animal. John was much better at filleting the caribou than I was so I started to pack loads out while he butchered. I took a load of backstrap and a hindquarter out and return before by the time he was finished. Thus, we were able to take the last three loads on the last trip. I took a hindquarter and two shoulders, while John took the loins and all the stew meat as well as the antlers. We had plenty of time, but this team effort worked out to both our advantage. I enjoy hiking and John was a much better butcher.
We were able to carry the meat back to the river in no time. Once we caught our breath, we put all the meat in contractor trash bags and tossed all the bags into the river so we cool the meat rapidly. After the meat had been cared for, we decided to have a celebratory lunch of Mountain House. Our bodies were once again refueled so we loaded the boats and charged back on the river trying to make up for lost time.
It took us a while to find a campsite that evening. However, we found a spot with sufficient bushes to hang the meat. John immediately began the task of caring for the meat. He dragged his canoe downwind from our camp site and hung all the meat on some strong bushes. It worked quite well and saved us the hassle of building a brush pile. He also took the opportunity to spray all the meat with citric acid.
We were quite tired from paddling all day and caring for the meat. Thus, we decided to pitch my small mountaineering tent, which is a 3-man tent from Stephenson’s, rather than the big Kifaru Tipi. I had another very reliable tent, which is a Super Quasar ETC from Terra Nova, but I opted for the Stephenson’s Warmlite because it was about 60% lighter than the Terra Nova. The Stephenson tent was a breeze to pitch. I had taped a plastic tarp, at the suggestion of Stephenson, to the bottom of the tent. This was a great idea and saved me some in pitching and striking the tent. Also, the fly and the main tent are sewn together. I simply staked one end of the tent with two stakes, fed the poles through the sleeves, and staked the other end with two more stakes and we were good to go.
For a mountaineering tent, I found it quite comfortable and with plenty of room for the two of us. Despite a hard rain for most of the evening, we were quite dry in the morning. There was little to no condensation inside the tent either due to excellent ventilation from air vents at the top and bottom of the tent. It was only a very slight drizzle when we woke up so I dressed outside the tent. It’s a good thing we laid a tarp down just outside the tent because it game me a nice dry and clean spot to attend to my business.
Later that morning I heard a groan from the tent. “My meat!” It was John waking up to the realization that he had forgotten to lay a tarp over his meat cache to prevent it from getting wet. I had not mentioned it to him because I saw that he brought a tarp over there. Apparently, he had intended to use the tarp to protect his meat from the elements but had forgotten about it so the meat got soaked over night. John would never leave the tent until he has had his cup of coffee. Once that was out of the way, we had breakfast and he cared for the meat while I packed up camp.
We were now working quite well as a team and we were on the river paddling by 10:00am. It was still quite late by my standards, but it was a time that worked well for both of us. This would turn out to be our longest day of paddling down river. There were a few herds of caribou that we had to check out. In fact, I thought one would make a nice wall hanging so I tried to rack a round into the chamber of my rifle. The bolt would not close! I inspected the chamber and it was full of sand. I failed to cover the muzzle with a piece of tape and a bunch of stuff got lodged in there. I was out of luck until I cleaned my rifle. It was not so much the missed opportunity on the caribou that bothered me, but the knowledge that my rifle would have been useless had it been a grizzly bear in front of me. That’s the last time I forget to cover my muzzle and I am going to pack my pistol from here forward.
At about 5pm that day, we came across a cabin that was marked on our maps. It was also the cabin that both the park rangers and the biologist warned us about. We stopped to see if anyone was home, but it was unoccupied so we took off in search of a campsite. While we could’ve easily camped out nearby, we wanted to make sure we did not cause any friction with the landowners. As we prepared to get back on the river, a plane flew over us and tipped their wings. It was Craig. He must’ve been checking on us after dropping some hunters off. It took us a few hours to find a suitable place. By then we had been canoeing for almost 10 hours so John did not want to bother with the tent. Also, he wanted to give his bivy sack a try for the evening, while I wanted to clean my rifle real good then test fire it.
After dinner, John made himself a comfortable bed for the night using his canoe and bivy sack. Just to make sure he stayed dry, he also covered himself with a tarp. My tent was so easy to pitch that I went ahead and pitched it. John definitely planned his rest much better than I did. He was nice and comfortable on a soft raft, while I tossed and turned all night trying to figure out the best way to avoid those large rocks underneath the tent.
The next day we were at it again. We were no longer under any pressure so we took more time glassing here and there. We had spotted a couple of caribou on a ridge alongside the river. I wanted them so I took off while John waited at the river. I followed the contours of a stream as far as I could. My plan was to come up behind the caribou. When I ran out of stream, I looked up only to find my precious bull had already sauntered off away from the river.
The caribou looked like they were about a mile so I figure I could keep after them. I had walked maybe half a mile but I never seemed to making any progress because the caribou were moving as well. That was when I looked back at John’s experience the first night on the river. Also, John had stopped on the opposite bank from where I stopped. There was no way he was going to be able to get across to help me pack out the meat nor would I be able to communicate my intentions. The current at that point was moving at rapid clip. I decided to head back and look for another opportunity.
We continued down the river and we continued to spot some caribou here and there. In fact, John almost ran over about a dozen caribou crossing the river. It was a breath taking sight to watch them walk or swim gracefully across. There were a couple of nice bulls in that herd but by the time he and I stopped the caribou were long gone. Despite the strong headwinds, we were making pretty good progress. Whenever we were on a stretch of river facing directly east and west or if we were on the windward side of a ridge, we would be hit by such strong headwinds that we would stop dead in the water if we were not paddling. This lack of forward progress was despite the fast moving currents that would carry us anywhere from 5-8mph whenever we were in the lee of a ridge or mountain.
What progress we lost due to headwinds, we made up for in tenacity. In fact, we knew at some point we were going to be at the pick up two days ahead of schedule. We now had to pay attention because our fear was no longer whether we would make it on time, but overshooting it. We compared GPS units. The heading and estimated time of arrival indicated on our units were identical but for some reason we were getting different distance readings. We made sure we were using the same datum. Still we were getting different distance readings. We each had confidence in our respective units so we took off. After a few minutes on the river, John figured out why we were getting dissimilar information. My GPS unit was set to statute miles and he was using nautical miles. Another mystery was solved.
We arrived at the pick up point at about 5pm or 6pm. It was perfect. There was some high ground where we could set up our tent, some bushes to hang the meat and we could cook under the cut bank where we would be protected from the weather. Upon our arrival, I called up Melinda at Mavrik Aire to confirm that we had arrived a day early. I told her we were happy to stay but if Craig was available, we would welcome an early extraction as well. She went on a long dissertation about the fact it may not be possible and that it would be unlikely. Once again, she reminded me that she needs to go to customer service school.
She’s very nice, but all she really needed to say was “We’ll pick you up as early as we can, but for now just plan on staying there until your scheduled departure date unless there’s a last minute change because we are fully booked.” That’s a lot better than “we’re very busy, we can’t promise anything, we can’t really do that, the schedule is real tight…blah, blah, blah.” I didn’t need that long song and dance. After all, I did preface my “request” with the fact we wanted to leave early only if it fit their schedule. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say she was rude or anything. To the contrary, Melinda was quite nice on the phone. I just prefer it if people would just get to the point and remember that the customer is always right.
There is one more customer service item I need to mention. I wanted to confirm our pick up location with Melinda by giving her our coordinates. She said she didn’t need it if we were where Craig told us to be. I was fed up at that point and figured I can call her again later to let her know our exact location if anything went wrong. In retrospect, I should’ve insisted she write down our position in case I had entered the pick up coordinates into my GPS incorrectly or I was given the wrong information. She could’ve given the information to Craig for confirmation.
As we were eating that night, John said “Well Alex you are about to get your wish. There’s your caribou.” I had been joking all week that I would shoot my caribou from our last campsite while I was eating dinner. Sure enough a herd of caribou had stumbled within a hundred yards of our camp. I placed my plate down, reached for my rifle and lay down prone to shoot. After picking the biggest one, I fired three shots. I missed once and hit it twice. He was still not dead but it was not going anywhere. He was just laying there. I was out of bullets so I went to my bag to get some more. By that time, John had already started stalking toward the caribou which were now a few hundred yards away. While I wanted to finish my caribou off, I also did not want to accidentally hit John nor spook the other caribou. I had no choice but to finish my meal. It was almost a spectator sport. There I was eating a plate full of Korean boneless ribs and Spanish rice, while I was watching John sneak and crawl in search of prey. He eventually got close enough to examine all the bulls and opted to finish mine off for me instead.
It was almost 11:00 p.m. that night before we were able to finish the task of butchering the caribou and hanging all the meat up on the bushes. As before, John did the butchering while I served as the pack mule. When all the work was done, we finally came to the realization that we were now camped out within a couple of hundred yards from a gut pile. It’s not going to take very long for Mr. Grizzly to find the rotting carcass. Fortunately, the carcass was downwind of our campsite and the weather had turned cold. We would’ve either been nervous wrecks or we would’ve had to move camp if it were the other way around.
We slept in the next day. I was able to stay in bed until about 7:00 am, while John continued to get an extra wink or two. All the pressure was gone. We were at the pick up point and we both had a nice bull. On the day before the pick up, we simply policed our camp a bit and glassed the nearby ridges. At one point, John took his fly rod out to try his luck on fish. He was even kind enough to give me some lessons on how to fly fish. Other than that, I can’t recall what else we did for the rest of the day.
I was quite tired by the evening. It’s been a fun week, but the adrenaline is starting to slow down a bit so I opted to go to sleep early that night. In fact, I was already undressed and in my sleeping bag by 7:00pm that night. John wanted another caribou so he stayed by the campfire to see what would turn up. At 10:00 pm, he woke me up to let me know a herd of caribou were about to walk into camp so he invited me to “come out and see if I wanted to get in on the action.” I was just about asleep so my first answer was no. He was so insistent that I finally ran out of the tent with just my skivvies, boots and binoculars. I told him that the lead bull was marginally larger than ours. If he was to shoot it, I would be more than happy to help him butcher it in the morning. With that, I went back to bed. Not long after, John came into the tent as well. He decided to pass on the bulls. I guess it wasn’t worth the effort that late in the evening for something he already had hanging up in a bush.
The next morning we had pancakes and bacon. After a hearty breakfast, we packed up the camp and moved everything over to a convenient spot near where we thought the plane was likely to land on the gravel bar. Craig’s instruction to us was that he would be picking us up with a plane on wheels. We were all set and ready to go by about 10:00am so it was simply a waiting game. Some time after 2:00p.m. an otter on floats flew over us and tipped his wings. It was Craig. John surmised Craig was letting us know that he was picking us up on floats and to move our stuff to the river. I decided to give Melinda a call to verify our pick up. When she answered, I told her that Craig flew over us on floats but told us we were to be picked up on wheels. So I wanted her to let us know whether we should go to the river or stay where we were. She said she was not sure what Craig was flying, but if he flew over us on floats then the pick up would be on floats not wheels. Later I would know this was a complete lie because she already knew at that point that the other Otter on wheels had crashed. To this date, I cannot figure out why she couldn’t have just said. “Craig will be picking you up on floats.”
That settled it. We had to move all our gear close to the water. It was not very far. In fact, I doubt we moved our stuff more than 50 yards. The only thing that bothered me was Melinda’s lack of information. In her own words, she did not know what Craig was flying. John and I started to wonder if she knew anything. It would be at least another hour or two before Craig returned so we made ourselves comfortable for the wait. We even went ahead and dismantled the tent. About an hour and a half later, we saw Craig’s plane fly in the wrong direction. It did not occur to us that he had someone else to either drop off or pick up. We were sure he was headed back to Kotzebue. It was a disappointment, but we knew those things happen. I went about busying myself with preparing for another night in camp by collecting firewood. While I was doing all this, I heard an airplane nearby. Craig was approaching from down river.
While we were loading up all our stuff into the plane, Craig mentioned that his other plane had crashed into a tree as it was flying through smoke. The pilot had died in the crash while the two crew members were in serious condition. On the flight back to Kotzebue, Craig flew over his other hunters and wagged his wings to let them know he knew where they were. It was about 6:00 pm when we finally arrived back in town. Air cargo services were closed already so it posed a bit of a problem for me. My original plan was to air cargo the meat and antlers to Anchorage. It was Saturday night and air cargo was not going to reopen until Tuesday morning. Well after my departure. It was immediately settled in my mind. I will just donate all the meat. John on the other hand had the luxury of traveling in his own plane so it was not a problem for him. In fact, he offered to take my meat so I gave him everything. He was able to freeze all the meat in Sean’s (aka Bigfoot) new deep freeze.
The next morning, I purchased an antler box for $35 from Alaska Airlines for my caribou rack. I checked that box as well as all our camping, hunting and rafting gear all the way to Newark; a total of seven items, including five over-sized and overweight items. For all that trouble, I was only charged an additional $300 in fees. I was also able to get on an earlier flight so I would get home half a day earlier. Once I arrived in Anchorage, I called to let my wife know my new flight details and to let her know that she should pick me up in my truck.
The flight home was smooth. I slept most of the way home. It was even nicer that my wife, who loves to sleep in on weekends, came to pick me at the airport despite my 6:00 am arrival. Seeing her is always a very uplifting experience for me. I retrieved all my stuff from baggage claim. When we got home, I slept for 18 hours straight. My adventure was officially over so all I could do now was to dream about my next adventure.