Featured Hunting in Alaska – Alaska Bound for Caribou Iain Harrison September 5, 2018 This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 23. Want more hunting content? Check out RECOIL’s newest addition, CARNIVORE Magazine. CARNIVORE Issue 2 hit stands on 8/24/2018. Ever Dreamed of Putting Together Your Own Adventure North of the Artic Circle? We Did, And Took Three Wounded Vets Along For The Journey Alaska has always held a special place in the hearts of adventurers, hunters, and outdoorsmen. Even today, it exerts a magnetic pull on the imagination of those who live in the Lower 48, and an expedition way up north might seem like an unattainable dream for most, denied due to reasons of logistics, distance, and expense. It doesn’t have to be that way. When we first started planning this trip, the original idea was to simply task a couple of RECOIL staffers with putting it together, and then document the process for a print article. As the pieces fell into place, we decided that it would be just as easy to take six guys as it was to send two. So the idea was hatched to share the adventure with some dudes who really deserved it. Working in this small industry brings us into contact with some truly exceptional, hard-working, and warm-hearted people, and occasionally we get an opportunity to throw something back into the karmic pot. When folks heard what was in the works, they practically fell over themselves to help out, offering guns, optics, ammo, gear, and rations with no expectation of payback. LOGISTICS Make no mistake, putting together the logistics for a successful Alaskan adventure takes hard work, and you’ll pay for it with either time or money. We’re tight-fisted bastards, preferring to put in long hours and late nights rather than just whip out a credit card, so a lot of research, planning, and cell phone minutes were in order. We wanted to combine time in the true wilderness with physical challenge, along with the opportunity to put meat in the freezer — in that exact order of importance. A hunting trip, for sure; but one that was as far removed from standard outdoor TV hunting shows as imaginable. There was to be no fakery, no staying in expensive lodges, no guides, no bullshit. We were on our own. Certain Alaskan game animals are available to outsiders only if they employ a guide. As this would run counter to our philosophy of rugged individualism, we chose to forgo brown bears, moose, and elk, and instead hunt caribou during their annual migration. Tags are relatively inexpensive, they require no specialized gear or exotic calibers and their trek south for the winter is one of the most spectacular events in nature, as thousands of majestic animals cover hundreds of miles across the barren tundra. There are 32 Alaskan caribou herds or groups, and we decided to go after the Western Arctic herd, as this is one of the largest and their migration patterns fitted well with our group’s availability. In order to cover as much ground as possible and maximize our chances of coming into contact with the herd, we decided to rent rafts and paddle down the Noatak River as the animals congregated in preparation for their trek south. Accordingly, arrangements were made with Northwest Alaska Outfitters to deliver three, 12-foot inflatables to the air taxi service we’d be using, in preparation for our arrival in the northwestern village of Kotzebue. In the meantime, the most important component of the trip was handled by our friends at Camp Patriot. Having worked with several veterans’ organizations over the years, we’re used to approaching the field with a degree of caution. There have been several instances where well-meaning charities have gotten in over their heads when it comes to housekeeping matters. And there’s a notable case study that seems to spend most of its time pursuing large corporate donors in order to bump up its administrative budget, instead of developing programs to support the cause for which it was founded. That they also stepped on their dicks with the firearms industry was reason enough to seek out people with unimpeachable credentials. Arrangements were made for the group to rendezvous in the tiny town of Kotzebue, Alaska. Quite literally at the end of the line, it’s inaccessible by road — the only way in is by either air or sea. Two Alaska Airlines flights each day touch down on the abbreviated runway, which is also used by smaller aircraft, such as the Cessna 206 favored by most of the bush pilots in this region. Once there, last-minute preparations would be made, major pieces of kit such as tents and rafts reinspected and assembled, and gear would be repacked for loading onto bush planes. Because it’s at the far reaches of a very long logistical chain, goods and services cost anything from two to three times what you’d expect to pay at your local big box store. So we learned to plan for it, accept it, and quit whining about it. Pilot Eric Sieh of Arctic Backcountry Flying Service has over 20,000 hours of seat time in bush planes. We failed to plan for one eventuality however, and that caused more than just a little cursing. Kimber did a stand-up job of getting bolt guns and 1911s sent to RECOIL’s outpost in Arizona, where they were fitted with Leupold optics and repackaged before being sent on their merry way. Figuring that having 15 grand’s worth of guns and accessories sitting on a loading dock was a bad idea (we’re smart like that), we checked transit times and dispatched them to ensure their arrival two days prior to the team’s touchdown, and three days before we were due to fly to the backcountry. Following several emailed delay notifications and ill-tempered phone calls with UPS HQ, we eventually received a delivery notification after we boarded the return flight home. Fortunately, our team located the guns in a Kotzebue warehouse following a physical search of the premises, after having a hunch that someone might have overlooked their arrival and failed to enter it into the system. To paraphrase Von Moltke, no plan survives contact with Alaska. While we were scrambling to locate our guns (and receiving many offers of loaners from complete strangers), our air taxi service suggested that we might want to reconsider our scheme to float the Noatak River, as rafts typically don’t work so well on ice. Due to unseasonably cold temperatures, not only had the river started to freeze over, but this had consolidated the caribou herd and pushed them southward. Our pilots were only too glad to fly us to the original put in point if we insisted on sticking to the plan, but when you receive information from guys who have eyes on the ground from 2,000 feet AGL, you’d be an idiot not to take it into consideration. Accordingly, we switched targets southward in an effort to get in front of the herd and hunt them on the tundra. Millions of acres of bugger all, dotted with wet spots. Heaven! After stuffing dry bags, packs, and gun cases into the fragile-looking Cessnas, we squeezed on board and settled in for an hour flight to our base camp. With tundra unfurling beneath our wings, we were treated to views of snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes, moose, bear, and finally, as we closed in on our destination, caribou. Thousands of them. THE HUNT Touching down on a gravel beach, the realization that our nearest neighbors might not have our best interests at heart came quickly, once we found grizzly tracks at the rear of the tent site. After waving goodbye to our intrepid pilots, we set about building a meat pole (hur, hur) in order to hang food outside of camp and away from where we’d be sleeping, then built a fire, grilled up some moose meat given to us in Kotzebue by a returning hunter, and prepared for a good night’s sleep. The morning dawned cold and clear as we scrambled up the hill at the rear of camp. At the summit, we pulled out binoculars and spent the next few hours glassing across the river to a valley where the caribou were expected to make an appearance. Several ghostly white tree stumps were mistaken for our prey, but despite wishing and willing them to move, they remained resolutely immobile. As we waited for them to turn into caribou, two grizzlies kept us entertained as they searched for a few last tasty morsels of the season, trying to pack on as many pounds of fat as they could before retreating to their dens. Our vantage point was quickly dubbed OP hill, and we explored all of it, locating potential ambush sites and crossing points where we thought the ‘bou might make an appearance. Burning up calories left us hungry for a Menu 4, or possibly a Menu 20 for those with an adventurous palate, so we trekked back into camp to refill bellies and water bottles. Around 90 minutes before last light, a couple of the guys decided to take one last look around from our vantage point. They’d had binoculars pressed to their faces for maybe 15 seconds before letting out a yell. The caribou had been sighted and were headed our way. Game on. Leaving Rich and Micah back in camp, the rest of the group scrambled up the loose dirt slope that took us to our vantage point, then skirted the crest around the hill where we were greeted by the sight of a thousand caribou streaming down the valley to our north. Scarcely 500 yards away across the river, they showed no sign of slowing down to bed for the night and were intent on putting as much distance under their hooves as possible. Guessing they’d attempt to cross downstream from camp, we hustled across the tundra to a vantage point in some thin, scrubby willows — slightly above where we estimated the herd would make an appearance, and in a position of cover. Evidence of nocturnal visitors. Suddenly, the sound of hundreds of animals entering the water rose like surf crashing on a beach and everyone’s heart rate kicked up in anticipation. As the lead animals started pushing through brush on our side of the river, a shot rang out. Rich had zeroed in on a bull and let fly, which spooked the herd into a mad dash — stampeding caribou hurtled past our position as panicked animals sought to escape. One slowed down to walking pace and Rocky managed to get a clear shot, dropping it about 200 yards from where we sat. With two animals down and daylight rapidly fading, we had to work fast. Innards rapidly became outards and large chunks of ungulate were secured to pack frames for the haul back to camp. While Rich and Micah worked on their caribou, an enormous grizzly wandered onto the opposite river bank and licked his lips in anticipation of the feast to come, eventually heading back into the tree line after much yelling and arm waving from humans intent on keeping their prize. Beyond Clothing outfitted all the guys with their great layering system, which we adapted to differing insulation needs. Whether hauling loads across the across the tundra or sitting on a hilltop glassing for hours, our clothing performed superbly Headlamps flickered through brush as our team humped their loads through overgrown game trails and wrestled with a dense matrix of meager branches that tried to snag packs and rifles. When you’re loaded down with 80 pounds of fresh meat in grizzly country and can see maybe 10 yards in any direction, there’s a certain reassurance that comes from nine rounds of 10mm on your hip. Once our loads were slung on the meat pole, the campfire was rekindled as the moon rose bright and clear and a celebratory bottle was passed among brothers gathered around the flames. Backs were slapped, jokes made, the same tale was told from different perspectives, and plans were made for the next day. In the end, everyone who had a tag filled it. Our reward came, however, not from death, but rather the affirmation of life — something that’s hard to fully appreciate unless it’s experienced first-hand, and in the raw. Men who previously were strangers shared an adventure, and in doing so forged a common bond. CAMP PATRIOT “Camp Patriot exists to take U.S. disabled veterans on outdoor adventures.” That’s the mission statement, but what does it mean to the guys who get involved? Founded in 2005, the organization started out by taking groups of wounded vets on mountaineering trips, as well as hunting and fishing adventures. Since then, their program has expanded and the centerpiece is now a 90-acre ranch in Northwest Montana, which offers residential activities based out of two guest lodges. “Having a home base allows us to serve many more vets than we’ve been able to previously,” according to Micah Clark, Camp Patriot’s executive director. “In addition to spending time in the great outdoors, we can also offer educational programs such as animal husbandry, homestead gardening, and self-reliance skills like canning and bee keeping.” The value of offering outdoor adventure programs extends far beyond the few days spent in the wilderness. By having a focus and goal outside of their daily rehab routines, participants have a light at the end of the tunnel, which can provide the additional motivation needed to improve treatment outcomes. THE TEAM Nic Harrelson A graduate of Virginia Military Institute, Nic took time off halfway through his studies to deploy to Iraq with the Virginia National Guards’ 116th Infantry Regiment as a .50-cal gunner. On his second deployment, his vehicle was hit by an explosively formed penetrator and despite suffering a traumatic brain injury, he recently completed a master’s degree in diplomacy. Nic demonstrated his Scandinavian bloodlines by wandering around Kotz in a T-shirt while the locals were bundled up against the bitter wind, and spent time in camp thrashing the water into a froth with his fly rod. The fish laughed. Rocky Marciano Rocky saw 23 years of service, all of which were with airborne units. Kicking off a career that spanned three continents and 130 static line jumps, he served with 2nd Ranger Battalion before moving to 508th Airborne Battalion Combat Team, the 82nd Airborne Division, and then to Army Special Operations Command. During a deployment to Afghanistan, the former sergeant major was blown up twice, suffering a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Built like a fireplug, he snores louder than a F16 on takeoff. Rich Peters Rich is one of those larger-than-life characters whom you just don’t get to meet all that often. A founding member of SEAL Team 6, his last foreign escapade involved busting out of a Libyan jail after shedding about a hundred pounds due to a dates-and-diarrhea diet plan. Although suffering from reduced pulmonary capacity due to exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, the former master chief still had plenty of breath to regale everyone with a nonstop series of adventure stories. Micah Clark Former Navy corpsman and executive director of Camp Patriot, Micah was instrumental in getting this trip off the ground. Acting as a fixer and liaison with the veteran community, his negotiating skills paid off on numerous occasions and smoothed out many bumps in the road. RESOURCES We used Walt Maslen at Northwest Alaska Outfitters as a resource for hunt planning and raft rental and can recommend you pick his brains. (907) 259-4290 www.northwestalaska.net Arctic Backcountry Flying Service and Golden Eagle Outfitters share an office and hangar. Both are experts when it comes to bush flying and are easy to work with. www.arcticbackcountry.com We highly recommend you purchase your licenses and tags before departure. You can do this online at Alaska Fish and Game. www.adfg.alaska.gov Essentials DRY BAG We went into this trip with the expectation that we’d be rafting and set up the gear list accordingly. Despite switching plans at the last moment, Watershed dry bags proved to be worth their weight in gold, as they fit nicely in the aircraft and thanks to being completely watertight were able to be stored outside of the tents in camp. Their Torpedo gun bag is big enough for a scoped rifle and takes up about half the volume of a typical nylon padded case. www.drybags.com MEDICAL KITS One of those items you hope is never needed, but you’re awfully glad to have along when it is, the extra level of utility provided by an extensive med kit was appreciated by all. Chinook Medical’s Expedition kit packed everything needed for immediate care of fractures, bleeding, burns, dental emergencies, and other assorted trauma. Their Adventurer kit also got stuffed into day packs whenever we left camp, for peace of mind when hunting far afield www.chinookmed.com AMMO We’d love to show you a perfectly mushroomed copper projectile, recovered from just under an animal’s far side hide. But Barnes’ TTSX bullet is one penetrating mofo and keeps right on going after wreaking all sorts of internal havoc. We wanted a round that would provide enough horsepower to take down a grizzly, in case we were forced to shoot one that contested our place on the food chain and the 168-grain gave enough safety margin to do just that. www.barnesbullets.com PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON While our objective was to get away from the 24/7 connectivity of the modern world, having a lifeline meant sleeping a little easier. The SPOT Gen3 personal locator beacon allows first responders to locate the exact pile of Mr. Bear’s poop you end up in, so long as you hit the SOS button before entering his digestive tract. www.findmespot.com GPS When you’re 150 miles from the nearest road, navigation becomes somewhat important as hitching back to camp ain’t going to happen. We used a Garmin GPSMap 64st as recommended and supplied by Lt Col (Ret) Joe Strohman at Strohman Enterprise, and had no complaints with its performance. www.strohmanenterprise.com RIFLES Kimber equipped everyone with their Mountain Ascent rifle in .30-06, and we were all very glad they did. Sub-MOA accurate with a killer trigger and weighing in at a scant 5 pounds, 5 ounces, we scarcely used them to their potential, but loved the way they carried. As a bonus, the effective muzzle brake brought recoil down to .243 levels, even on full-house 168-grain loads. www.kimberamerica.com OPTICS Leupold stepped up and equipped each team member with a set of BX-3 binoculars, an RX-1200i rangefinder and a VX-R 2-7×33 Multidot scope, the ballistic reticle on which gave us an accurate aiming point out to 500 yards. We were conscious of not loading down a lightweight rifle with an enormous piece of glass, but wanted something that would allow us to exploit the weapon’s performance fully. Objective achieved. www.leupold.com PACKS Short of a pocket sherpa (just add water!), there’s no easy way to carry caribou quarters across lumpy, knee-wrenching tundra. SJK Tactical’s Rail Hauler made light of heavy work and is highly recommended for any time you need to pack out game animals. We teamed it up with our dry bags to make a large-volume, easy to handle backpack, but you can use their optional roll-top bag to achieve the same goal. Good kit. www.slumberjack.com RATIONS Rationing was a combination of MREs supplied by Crazy Mike’s Surplus and Mountain House freeze-dried meals. We had the luxury of space and capacity in our Cessnas, so food was never an issue. If you’re trying to cram everything into a Super Cub, then go with the lightest, most calorie-dense options. www.crazymikessurplus.com www.mountainhouse.com TENTS The MSR Stormking five-person tents we used provided luxurious accommodations — though we admittedly only used a fraction of their capabilities. Huge vestibules allowed sensitive gear to stay out of the elements and their five-pole design shrugged off the near-constant wind. www.cascadedesigns.com Explore RECOILweb:RECOILtv NRA 2019: Walther Arms Q5 MatchPreview - The P7 Revisited [SHOT Show 2017] UTS15 ShotgunTeach a Kid to Hunt NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included). Click here to get IMMEDIATE ACCESS to a digital PDF of this target pack!