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Sheep Hunting for Caribou in Alaska

Most Times, You Wait for Caribou to Come to You…

Photos by Karla Eberlein-Miller

The tiny airplane bumped and jerked like a Jeep going full-speed through a freshly plowed field. Out every window was nothing but pure white. Looking out at the wing, I could see ice starting to form. I worked hard not to think about the turbulence and mountains that were surely close on either side of us. Instead, I thought about the pilot. Alaska’s bush pilots are the best airmen in the world, I told myself. Then I thought, if you could judge a bush pilot’s experience level by the degree to which he smells like sweat and looks like old leather, then this guy will get me through my first Alaskan hunting trip just fine.

I’d been preparing for my first Alaskan adventure for close to a year, but I’d been imagining it since I was a hunting-obsessed kid growing up in Minnesota. I devoured every outdoor magazine I could get a hold of, especially the ones with Alaska on the cover. The snow-peaked mountains and seemingly endless supply of game had captured my imagination not long after I killed my first deer. But oddly, it wasn’t the idea of the killing that had me longing for Alaska; it was the idea of challenging myself. I found romance in the tales of leg-burning hikes after faraway sheep and the death-defying feats of courage it took to face a charging grizzly — all pretty standard adventure fare for a teenage boy.

En route. Dropped off in the middle of nowhere via a Piper Super Cub.

Now, at 37, it was finally my time. I was booked to hunt caribou about 150 miles south of McGrath, Alaska, for seven days in late August. And while I’ve had the good fortune to hunt in many remote places around the world, this was to be my first extended backcountry experience. I’d hunted and camped for two to three days at a time, but never had I been dropped in the middle of nowhere for over a week.

Planning a trip to the backcountry of Alaska can be a daunting proposition. Outfitters, gear, picking an area, time of year — it can all be overwhelming. A Google search for outfitters alone turns up a dizzying amount of options.

Luckily for me, picking an outfitter was easy in this case. I’d been invited on the trip by a good friend, and he had first-hand experience with our outfitter, Rob Jones. But, in Alaska, the difference between “outfitted” and “guided” is vast. This hunt was to be unguided. Rob’s job was to get us in, get us out, and provide dried food and tents. Aside from that, we were on our own.

Knowing that I’d be solely responsible for my success, as well as my comfort kick-started a fixation on researching gear and training for the hunt that bordered on obsession. Months rolled by, and I made list after revised list of what to bring, what I needed to buy, and more importantly, what I need to do before August rolled around.

It’s All in the Details

Any experienced backcountry hunter will tell you there are three things that can make or break your hunt:

1. Conditioning. If you aren’t in relatively good shape, the backcountry can be miserable. You most likely will walk, with a day’s worth of gear on your back, an average of 5 to 10 miles a day over tough terrain — often much more. Chances are, no matter how in shape you are, you’ll still be miserable at times, but at least you can give yourself a fighting chance if you get your ass off the couch and get in shape ahead of time.

2. Have the right gear. It’s not rocket science: Get the best waterproof hiking boots you can afford. You’ll need lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying layers (lots of them) and really good rain gear. Nowadays, it’s amazing what you can get for your money. But, that being said, you typically get what you pay for.

3. Get out and use both before you go. This may sound like a no-brainer to some. But you’d be surprised how many people get dropped off in BFE never having hiked a single mile in their brand-new pair of boots.

I began to change up my regular workout routine to include more leg and core exercises. I hit the stair climber instead of the treadmill. I put weight in my pack and hiked in the boots I’d be using on the mountain. I told myself I wouldn’t leave anything to chance. I’d be ready.

You’re on your own here. Time to make camp and glass the hills for bou.

This was especially the case with my rifle. I would be taking a Kimber Mountain Ascent chambered in .300 WSM, topped with a Nikon Monarch 7 4-16X50 scope. I chose this rifle because it’s the lightest production rifle on the market. (And, I’m a diehard Kimber fan.) Ounces turn into painful pounds fast when you’re loading down a pack and carrying it for miles. Every bit helps.

I went to the range every chance I had. And I got more and more comfortable every day with my gun. The Nikon scope features an incredibly useful BDC (Ballistic Drop Compensation) reticle system, providing easy-to-use yardage hold-off points. It wasn’t long before I was comfortably making 500-yard shots that grouped into less than 4 inches with the deadly Federal Premium 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip.

As months ticked down to weeks I took over our living room with stacks of gear. I laid out every piece of clothing. Due to the aircraft’s weight limit, we were restricted to 75 pounds of gear per person. So I packed and repacked. A little nerdy? Sure. Overly excited? Damn right.

Landing in Heaven

Our aromatically seasoned pilot dropped us off on a makeshift landing strip in what was easily the most remote place I’ve ever been. Then my friends and I took a series of increasingly smaller plane flights (each with a pilot who was slightly crabbier than the last), carrying fewer and fewer people, until I found myself in a two-seat Piper Super Cub.

This is a plane so small it needs to be started by hand, flown by a pilot who had zero interest in conversation. No doubt he was sick of small talk with excited hunters, such as me. This was fine by me because chatting would’ve taken away from the sheer beauty of what unfolded below, as he guided the tiny plane confidently down an invisible, winding mountain road in the air. Eventually, we got to a flat spot on a saddle, overlooking a river meadow and surrounded by black, snow-capped peaks.

There, we landed. We quickly unloaded gear, and while I can’t remember if he said goodbye, I’ll never forget the awesome silence that remained as I watched him fly away. This spot would be my home for the next seven days. I was finally here after all these years. And it was better than I had ever imagined it could be.

Camp

The daily routine of any backcountry camp is directly shaped by the surroundings, the weather, and the people occupying it. There are an infinite number of variables, and each camp has a different vibe. However, one thing is constant — the first morning feeling that everyone there could wrestle the Incredible Hulk and win. The excitement is at a fever pitch and palpable. Coffee is sipped, granola bars are eaten, and gear is shoved in packs with the same type of anticipation as a child at the gates of Disney World.

Trust me, you don’t want to be out of shape when backpacking 5 to 10 miles a day.

Trust me, you don’t want to be out of shape when backpacking 5 to 10 miles a day.

As the sun came up over the mountains and I scanned with my binos, it was clear we had been dropped in the right spot. We saw at least one cow caribou in nearly every direction we looked. A good sign. But they were all up high, away from the bugs and the pending warm August sun.

Not Your Daddy’s Caribou

When most people think of caribou hunting, they think of giant migratory herds of thousands of animals streaming across an open tundra. This was not that. We dropped into an area that held a herd of fewer than 1,000 animals. Not only is it one of the smallest herds in Alaska, but they don’t really migrate the way their relatives do. Instead, they break into small groups and find pockets of food and shelter within the mountains.

Often, this takes the form of a high country meadow or saddle, protected from the winds and the bugs — sometimes just a few hundred feet below where you might find the formidable Dall sheep dwelling. When the weather turns bad, they take to the river bottoms and lower country, but mostly stay within a range of about 100 miles, year-round.

The game plan was this: climb to a high spot to glass, find a caribou bull, and go after it. None of this is hard if you say it fast. But, considering that the bulls were few and far between and hidden in pockets of solitude up high, it wasn’t that easy. This wasn’t caribou hunting as I thought I knew it. This was sheep hunting for caribou.

We all set out the first morning in different directions, with high confidence bolstered by the cows we had seen at daybreak. But like a cruel magic trick, the moment the sun began to cast shadows, they disappeared. And hours of glassing and miles of hiking didn’t produce a single animal.

For the next four days, this story was repeated. With the exception of a single cow here and there, the only thing I saw was the gopher who had taken up residence in our camp and took great joy in raiding our dried food supply. It rained off and on consistently. I got back to camp at dusk more dejected and exhausted each day. After a quick meal made with boiled water from the nearby stream, I fell asleep, seemingly before hitting the pillow.

Each morning I awoke more sore and less confident that the grind of heading back up the mountain was worth it. And it was obvious that the amount of preparation I had done was paying off — I can’t imagine how I would’ve felt had I not done the conditioning all summer that helped get me in shape.

On day five, after a brutal 5-mile hike, I finally spotted a mature bull crossing a river bed and felt adrenaline surge through my veins. But he had spotted us first and would’ve been in Russia before I could’ve gotten to him. Watching him trot over the horizon was heartbreaking.

On day six, it rained all morning. This was a welcome break and afforded a few extra hours of sleep, but everyone was conscious that the minutes were ticking away. When the rain did break, I hunted close to camp. No luck.

On the last day of my hunt, I awoke feeling a strange mix of “it’s now or never” and “I’m never going to see a damn bull.” So I resigned myself to the idea that I’d shoot any caribou I saw. After all, I wasn’t here to just hunt for horns. Caribou is some of the tastiest wild game on the planet, and I didn’t want to come home empty-handed. And with that, I set out for my last chance, do-or-die, give-er-hell day on the mountain.

Godsend

Maybe it was my renewed sense of purpose. Maybe it was the fact that I had put in the time and Karma was on my side. And maybe it was that after all this time, the odds were stacked in my favor. More likely, it was just dumb luck. But about two miles from camp, while glassing from a high ridge, I spotted a mature bull in a flat grassy spot about 1,000 feet straight below me. My heart pounded at the mere sight of him through the spotting scope. I wasted no time, shuffling down the mountain face at a careless pace, with seven days of aches and pains almost washed away by excitement.

Once I made it to the flat spot I still needed to close the distance — about a quarter-mile — between the bull and me. Luckily, he was feeding and in no hurry to go anywhere. I low-crawled on my belly, keenly aware of every squeak of my pack and clunk of my boots. I was determined not to screw this up, and when I ranged the bull just over 400 yards, I decided that I could go no further. All my time at the range and at the gym came to play in this moment.

caribou hunting

I lay prone, my gun over my pack, and as the bull fed, had enough time to slow my breathing, calm my mind, and get a perfect rest. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the bull to turn broadside. Finally, he shook his head at the bugs swarming around him and turned to walk toward higher ground. Aim. Exhale. Squeeze. The bullet flew toward the crease of his shoulder and a nanosecond later, in the silence of the Alaskan wilderness, I heard the impact and knew I’d done it. The bull ran a few yards, became wobbly-legged and fell to the tundra.

field dressing caribou

If you’d asked me 20 years ago why I love to hunt, I would’ve told you it’s all about the rush — the heart-pounding adrenaline you feel right before you let an arrow fly or press the trigger. But these days, hunting has become so much more. It’s as much about the places, the people, and the stories as it is about the kill. I love every part of the process, from the plane ride to the heavy pack out.

Standing over my Alaskan caribou bull in the spot where he fell, with daylight fading, I happily began butchering. I set aside the precious tenderloins and backstraps for a celebratory dinner that night. Each quarter went into a cloth game bag to cool and keep bugs away, as did the ribs and neck meat. In Alaska, it’s illegal to take the horns away from the kill site until you’ve first packed out the meat. Luckily, my friend Bret came to help and together we packed everything out at once with tired legs. It was one of the most grueling and rewarding things I’ve ever experienced.

The hunt doesn’t — and shouldn’t — stop at the kill. Memories go home in the cooler with that meat, and are relived every time a bit of it is thawed and served to friends. Even better are the times when it’s served to those who don’t hunt. It’s then that I feel as though I honor the caribou bull that lived alone up in sheep country in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. It’s where I tell the story of the rainy morning I almost gave up, but was rewarded for pushing through. It’s at the dinner table, with my family and my friends, that I’m reminded of why we hunt.


GEAR LIST

In Alaska, or on any backcountry hunt, you spend the majority of your time glassing. A high-quality pair of binoculars and a spotting scope are an absolute must. Not only will they help you find your animal, good-quality glass will also keep your eyes from tiring out after hours of glassing.

BINOS: Nikon HG 10X42

On this hunt I used:

RIFLE: Kimber Mountain Ascent
AMMO: Federal Premium .300WSM Trophy Bonded Tip 180-grain
SCOPE: Nikon Monarch 7 4-16×50 IL w/BDC Reticle
RANGEFINDER: Nikon 7i VR
BINOS: Nikon HG 10X42
SPOTTING SCOPE: Nikon Monarch 20-6082
BOOTS: Kenetrek Mt. Extreme
TENT: Hilleberg Kaitum GT
SOLAR POWER: Goal Zero Sherpa 50
COOLER: Engel High-Performance 65
RAIN GEAR: Sitka Dewpoint Jacket and Pants
VEST: Sitka Kelvin Lite Vest
PANTS: Sitka Mountain Pant
SLEEPING BAG: REI Lumen 20
SLEEPING PAD: Therm-a-Rest Neoair XTherm

RIFLE: Kimber Mountain Ascent


COOKING CARIBOU

Caribou meat is very similar to venison in texture and fat content. It’s extremely lean and easy to overcook. Most butchers suggest it be served not more than medium-rare. I love this easy recipe to serve it to people who have never tried wild game. It makes converts of even the most skeptical people.

Caribou with Bourbon Mushroom Sauce
4 tbsp. butter
¼ cup shallots, chopped fine
1 cup baby bella mushrooms, sliced
1 small handful dried cherries
¼ cup bourbon
¾ cup orange juice
2 tbsp. lemon juice
3 tbsp. black currant jelly
1½ tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 tbsp. water
2 tbsp. cornstarch
1 cup flour
4½ to ¾-inch thick Caribou backstrap steaks, trimmed of all fat

1. Combine 2 tablespoon of butter, shallots, mushrooms, and cherries in a saucepan.
2. Cook over medium heat until shallots and mushrooms soften.
3. Add bourbon and heat until just boiling.
4. Stir in orange juice, lemon juice, jelly, and mustard.
5. Heat until boiling.
6. Combine cornstarch with water separately.
7. Stir mixture into sauce; cook until thickened and set aside.
8. In a frying pan, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat.
9. Dredge steaks lightly in flour and sauté in butter for approximately 3 minutes per side until medium-rare.
Do not overcook.
Serve immediately with sauce over mashed potatoes.


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