Caribou Trophies off the Dalton Highway
by Cory Black
I squinted to the east, trying to make sense of what looked like the curved trunks of small alder bushes bobbing along the horizon about a mile away.
“Can you see them?” asked my hunting partner, Jason Lee. “Up by that knob?”
We were on the tundra, more than 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, watching two massive sets of caribou antlers. That the eyes and ears of their respective owners were below a small rise and out of sight for the moment put us at a huge advantage. We began closing the distance, trotting at first, and then sneaking along on our hands and knees when the topography flattened out and we could see their bodies.
“Two hundred and seventy-five yards,” Jason whispered peering through an electronic rangefinder.
I dropped to the ground, chambered a round into my .300 Winchester Magnum and settled my rifle stock against my cheek. Lying on the tundra, heart pounding and crosshairs on the bull’s chest, I suddenly felt a sense of lift, like I was hovering above it all.
Undoubtedly, some of this could be attributed to the fatigue that comes with taking turns at the wheel in a 16-hour, non-stop drive from Palmer up the Dalton Highway. With us was Matthew Varner, who’s back for a second year, and Brandon Wilson, who has lived in Alaska for several years but has never been on a big-game hunt.
This was my third hunting trip to the far north. Our success rate had been 100 percent during the past two years, and we’d taken some beautiful animals. This year, however, I was determined to be more selective and hold out for a trophy bull, the kind of animal that haunted my dreams. This was a really nice bull, double shovel, long tines on his mains, and his whole rack was cocooned in velvet. My finger tightened on the trigger, but something inside of me said to take my chances that I’d see a bigger one.
“I’m going to pass,” I whispered to Jason. “Take him if you want.”
“Are you serious?”
His face registered incredulity but only as long as it took him to shoulder his rifle. Moments later, we were standing over the animal, Jason’s first big game taken in Alaska. Though Jason basked in the accomplishment, he was having trouble understanding my rationale.
“I can’t believe you passed that up,” he said, sounding surprised.
I studied the antlers a bit and wondered if he wasn’t right. Had I grown too picky?
We skinned and quartered the fattened caribou. Our packing strategy over the years has evolved to include the use of plastic sleds along with our packs. The sleds disperse the weight of the meat over a broad area and the plastic slips over the sparse vegetation of the tundra with little drag. When we’re not packing meat, we’re packing our camp. Hunting with firearms is prohibited within a 5-mile corridor along either side of the Dalton Highway; so we’ve grown accustomed to parking the truck and hiking at least five miles across the bogs before making spike camps. With the nearest trees several hundred miles to our south, we also pack lumber to the camp and erect meat poles. We arrived back at camp and hung Jason’s caribou quarters next to those of a nice bull Brandon had shot earlier in the day.
As I settled into the relative warmth of my bag I wondered if I’d wake in the resolve to hold out for a monster bull come morning when we began day four of our hunt. We can legally take five bulls each, but two each would be the reality, given the packing distance and limited space in the truck. I began drifting off to sleep with thoughts that I’d better take a small bull or cow close to camp if the opportunity presented itself.
The next morning, Matt and I returned to the same area where Jason had taken his bull. We plodded along the tundra to the northeast, stopping periodically to scan the endless horizon. We settled in for a long glassing session at a small rise that put us more than eight miles from the road. After a long afternoon revealed only a wolverine, we decided that it was time to start hiking toward camp. As we neared a small rise a couple miles from our tent, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. I whispered to Matt, and we did simultaneous belly-flops onto the soft tundra as two cows and a nice bull seemed to sprout from out of nowhere.
“Do you want him?” Matt asked, wondering if the bull fit my criteria.
I looked him over with binoculars. He was a large animal with well-polished antlers.
“No,” I said after yet another look. “You take him.”
Matt left his heavy pack at my side and whittled down the yardage separating him and the bull. As I watched the action unfold from afar I felt the clock ticking toward the end of our hunt. I began to contemplate why it was that I was so bent on holding out, but my reverie lasted only as long as it took for Matt to crawl up to a tussock and steady himself and make a clean shot. The animal dropped immediately, and I scrambled over to Matt and congratulated him. We skinned, quartered and prepared the animal for the long pack to camp.
On the crisp morning of day five, we had no more than crawled out of our tents and engulfed a quick breakfast when a small bull appeared, having bedded a mere 200 yards from our spike camp. I decided to pull the trigger on him. It would be meat for the freezer, and it would likely be the only bull I harvested with only one remaining day to hunt. With young bulls and cows scattered about the tundra near our camp, my companions began stalking their second caribou. As I quartered my bull I heard shots off in the distance, and by the end of the day, we had five caribou hanging at our spike camp and another two out at the truck.
We woke the next morning and begin the arduous task of hauling out the meat. With our packs and sleds loaded full, each step required extra concentration. Though we’d prepared for the hunt physically and brought along trekking poles for such occasions when the uneven terrain of tundra defied our sense of balance. Still, there is jubilation in it all, a band of friends toiling across a great expanse with a winter’s worth of spoils. I’ve settled into the contentment of another good hunt by the time we’ve hung the meat out at the truck and made the trip back to our spike camp. On a sunny afternoon we lounged outside of our tents with our shoes off and enjoyed freshly fried chunks of backstrap and slices of heart. After lunch, I settled in for a nap.
“Cory! Get over here. I think I found your bull,” said Matt. He had been taking a self-appointed shift as camp sentinel with a spotting scope. One look through the glass was all that it took to know that this was the animal I had been waiting for. We slid into our boots, shouldered our packs and make haste to close the mile that separated us from the massive bull. We scrambled where we could, all the while keeping a low profile, until we came to a rise and found that the bull was still 600 yards away and at the far side of a small lake. He was feeding and seemed indecisive in his direction, so we decided to wait him out.
Within a few minutes he headed south. We headed southwest and skirted the lake on a path we hoped would cut him off. At the beginning of our final stalk we had the luxury of a few small rises to hide behind. Eventually those flattened out and we were forced to crawl along on our hands and knees. When we had stalked to within 300 yards, only the bull’s back was visible above the horizon. We slithered along on our bellies for another 75 yards, all the while keeping his antlers in sight. We got to within range, and I decided to head for a tussock a few yards to our right. As I’d hoped, the height of the tussock allowed me to lay prone and steady my rifle. I
struggled to control my nerves, shouldered the rifle and noticed the immensity of his antlers against the blue sky.
“Two hundred and twenty-five yards,” Matt whispered.
I inhaled a small breath, held it, centered the crosshairs on his chest and squeezed the trigger. At the recoil from the rifle the bull disappeared. Dumbfounded, I chambered another round.
“I think he’s down,” said Matt.
Sure enough, when we stood up the broad white cape and antlers appeared. He was dead and lying on his side. We made our way over to the bull, and I spent the next few minutes overwhelmed by its size and beauty. I stroked the fur of his cape, grasped the hefty beams of his antlers and basked for a moment in the juncture of good weather, good friends, a winter’s meat and thoughts that the bull permeating my dreams would now forever be etched into my hunting memories.
Cory Black moved to Alaska in 2007, making his longtime dream a reality. He makes his home in Palmer, along with his wife Crystal and his three children: Javen, Navy and Paizley.