48 Hours in Alaska Part I
Posted on March 27, 2014
48 Hours in Alaska-Part I
Join this bowhunter and his friend for an unforgettable experience in the wilds of the Alaskan backcountry.
By Ed Fanchin
Planning a do-it-yourself bowhunt to Alaska is an adventure in itself. This was my sixth such trip to the great state. My buddy Jason and I went together and I thought we were prepared for anything that would be thrown at us. We had been planning this trip for over a year. We decided to use the transporter, 40 Mile Air, out of Tok, to do a drop-camp for caribou. We would be hunting the 40 Mile caribou herd, which is known for producing some nice record-book caribou every season. The 40 Mile herd is one of Alaska’s smaller caribou herds with an estimated 40,000 animals. I guess 40,000 animals is small when compared to the Alaskan Western Artic herd, which is reportedly over 400,000 animals strong.
The logistics of getting to Tok went off without a hitch, and it wasn’t long before I was climbing into the back seat of the Piper Super Cub aircraft. This was my first ride in a Cub, and to say I was excited would be an understatement. Jason had his own plane to ride in. Our pilots, Leif and Randy, gave us an incredible one-hour flight to the leading edge of the 40 mile herd. Surprisingly, we only spotted a few bears, moose and a lone wolf during the flight. No caribou. It wasn’t until we cleared the last ridge that we spotted the first few caribou. Then we spotted a wave of caribou in the valley that we were going to land in. We literally had caribou on our short Cub landing strip, which was nothing more than a 100-yard flat spot of gravel, clear of brush and boulders.
That day, Jason and I set up a modest but comfortable camp. Because of weight limitations on the Cub flight, we had lightweight backpacking gear and freeze-dried food. We had enough supplies for our planned eight days in the bush. Alaska law prohibits hunting the same day you fly so we had to sit in camp and watch beautiful caribou bulls migrating through the valley. What a wonderful sight we had waited a long time to see.
The next morning we woke up to a dense fog and heavy drizzle. This was far from prime hunting conditions. Excitement was in the air, though, as we had prepared and traveled a long ways to get to this moment in time. I decided to make a hot cup of coffee, soak in the beautiful surroundings and give my wife, Jennifer, a call on the sat phone. I wanted to tell her we had arrived to camp safely.
Bad News From Home
I was not prepared for the information she shared with me. Sadly my mother had suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. Her prognosis was unknown and they were doing a battery of tests to determine her condition. Jennifer did not have any further information. I was devastated.
You can believe you are prepared for anything and then you get blindsided by something like this. I talked to Jason and the decision was quick and unanimous…we needed to start heading home right away. Our hunt was over before it even began.
I called 40 Mile Air, informed Dick of my predicament and requested that we be pulled out as soon as possible. That sounds easy enough but there is a priority protocol that most flight services abide by. The first and most important flights are life-threatening medical emergencies. Next are scheduled flights and the last is… everyone else. We were in the latter. Dick informed me that they would try and get us out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, they weren’t flying because the weather was socked in at the airport. He requested that I keep him informed of the weather conditions at our end.
I sat for a few moments and thought about my mother and the planning it was going to take to get home. I realized that at that moment there were very few things in my life I had control over. What a helpless feeling. Something I did have control over was the opportunity to hunt caribou in Alaska. We were here, we had caribou tags and there were caribou all around us.
Seizing the Opportunity
Jason and I loaded our packs and hiked up the hill behind camp, over to a saddle that we saw caribou going through the day before. The conditions were wet and miserable. One thing you can count on during the summer in Alaska is that the weather is always changing. I knew that eventually we would have an opportunity to stalk some caribou.
The ceiling lifted to the tops of the surrounding peaks as we neared the saddle. In the valley below us, we spotted a group of about 15 caribou heading our way. The herd contained a few small bulls. These were not the size of caribou we came to Alaska for, but given the circumstances, any of the bulls would do. We hustled to the saddle and picked out a likely ambush spot.
The herd headed straight for us. I was video taping and running the rangefinder for Jason. Of course the cows were in the lead and spotted us trying to hide behind the only bush in the saddle, which was half the size of the two of us. The herd took off but we considered it a warm up because we spotted another herd heading our way. This herd had a few good bulls in it. Just as the ceiling had lifted, it dropped to the floor again. Visibility in the soupy fog was less than a hundred yards.
The herd never showed up in the saddle. We moved to a different location so we could observe another saddle, weather permitting. We were both wearing Helly Hanson rain gear and were completely dry and comfortable. While waiting for conditions to improve I fell asleep on the spongy tundra hillside. It wasn’t long before I was awakened to Jason saying, “There they are, right below us.”
Sure enough, the herd of caribou hadn’t moved very far in the fog and fed right to us. They were about 200 yards down the hill and were not committed to either of the two saddles we were sitting between. As visibility was improving, we played a cat-and-mouse game with the herd. They would head one direction and then for no apparent reason they would change directions. It was a difficult game we were playing because we had very limited cover and were within their sight most of the time.
Caribou are unique animals and are challenging to bowhunt. Their constant movement and unpredictability can test you stalking skills. I’ve found that setting up an ambush to intercept them on their path of travel is the best way to get within bow range.
To read part II, click here!