By Joseph Robertia
Every hunter has a mental picture of what they expect a planned hunt to be like, but often the actual opportunity of harvesting an animal on its own turf is more arduous than anticipated. While this is true of many big-game animals, few make a hunter work for it more than caribou. Expeditions for these medium-bodied members of the deer family can be long, strenuous, cold and wet — miserable, in other words. And as the cliché goes, misery loves company.
“My son-in-law said this was the hardest thing he’d ever done,” said Bill Ferguson, of Soldotna. In August, Ferguson went on a weeklong hunting trip in the Howard Pass area of the North Slope region with a friend, his son, and his son-in-law, the latter of which had never hunted for caribou.
Ferguson hunts numerous species annually. He has set his sights on caribou many times, but wanted to try getting a caribou from another part of the state this season.
“I’ve hunted the Mulchatna herd, drawn a permit for the Kenai Mountain herd, and I got a nice one in 1998 out of the Killey River Herd, but I was looking to get another representative from the caribou herds of the state,” he said.
While hunting may seem like a solitary activity in many regards, there can be quite a bit of camaraderie involved when friends and family members take to the wilderness together. Ferguson said it was especially meaningful to take his daughter’s husband out for the first time for what, in many ways, is a quintessential Alaska experience — a remote and rugged area crawling with wildlife in the foothills of the Brooks Range.
“It has its own beauty, with rolling hills and some significant mountains,” Ferguson said. “Right out of the gate we started seeing wildlife, too. We saw some lesser caribou bulls, we saw three grizzlies, a couple of wolves, a snowy owl and even a musk ox at a distance.”
While the aesthetics of the area are wondrous, living in the wilderness works best for those willing to work hard. Ferguson joked that when it comes to being in shape, his shape is round, but he keeps plugging along until the work at hand is done. It’s a mindset he has mastered from his years of hunting in Alaska, and one the newcomers had to learn.
“My son-in-law, William Johnson, has done a lot of hunting down in Illinois, but for white tail, and this is a lot different. I don’t think he knew what it was going to be like. It’s tough. It’s not like being at a lodge, where you go out for the day and then come back and get dry or warm or have food waiting on you,” he said.
“Hunting in remote areas, the whole world slows down. There are no flushing toilets or running water. Getting water and making meals, everything becomes more difficult, and if you get wet, you stay wet, you can’t get dry,” he added.
Moving around the wilderness in pursuit of caribou was equally arduous, according to Ferguson. In addition to hiking up and down the hills, the ground itself does not lend itself to easy heel-to-toe locomotion.
“We did a lot of hunting about a mile and a half from camp, but in the tundra there are no straight lines, so it’s like double that. It’s tough, not like walking in the park. You’re picking up your feet a lot, stepping over a lot of bushes. My son-in-law said, ‘An hour on the treadmill is nothing compared to this,’” Ferguson said.
The caribou don’t make it any easier on hunters. They are a species constantly on the move, especially at this time of year. A big part of being successful at hunting isn’t just finding a herd but trying to determine which direction it may go and then heading it off along the way.
“The herds we saw were in good condition. We saw some with 10 to 12 animals and others with 60 to 70. They were still feeding, not in full migration mode yet. Still, 200 yards is as close as you can get before they get skittish, so you first see them (through binoculars or a spotting scope) at about a mile or two away, and then you try to intercept them. You use benches and contours in the land to conceal yourself until you’re a couple hundred yards away,” Ferguson said.
He and his party were dropped off by Brooks Range Outfitters in an area where caribou
have frequently been seen, but they still spent their entire first day scouting. On the second day they made contact with a herd and saw some impressive bulls in it. They stalked to within a few hundred yards, centered the scopes of their .338 Winchester Magnum-cartridged rifles on their targets and took the first two caribou of what would, over the rest of the week, become a five-bull hunting trip.
“We were really pleased with how it all worked out. We all got one, and two of the mature bulls were animals that would score on Boone and Crockett. One had antlers that were 40 inches tall, and about 36 to 40 inches from tip to tip, with about a 3 ½-inch diameter to the base of each antler. The other had a 16-inch width to the shovels on the front. They were just beautiful animals,” he said.
While they went primarily to hunt, Ferguson and his party don’t limit themselves to just one outdoor activity at a time. They knew they’d be near some remote lakes, so they packed some fishing gear, too, and they were happy they did. Passing their downtime with piscatorial pursuits yielded some delicious rewards.
“We brought some small rods and some bait, which worked out because the lake we were on was full of lake trout. We even caught one that was at least 25 pounds, which was amazing to see, not just because of how old the fish had to have been, but because we did it on 6-pound test, so it was quite a tussle,” he said.
Based on its size the fish was a spawner so they released the behemoth, but kept its lesser-sized counterparts.
“We kept a few of the smaller ones and fried them up in a pan. It was great. We’d have fresh trout for dinner one night and fresh caribou tenderloin the next,” he said.
Spending the week outdoors, drawing such a bounty from the land and doing it all with family and friends was a marvelous experience, Ferguson said. And, after calling to confirm the two 40-pound boxes of caribou meat he sent from the processor to his son-in-law arrived, Ferguson said his Lower 48 family member felt the same way about the trip.
“It was tougher than he thought,” Ferguson said, “but he said he’d do it again in a minute.”