Hunting The Haul Road

“Perfect,” I said when I noticed the caribou bull’s gray, velvet-covered antlers towering above the brush. “What a great spot to make a stalk,” I told my bowhunting partner, Sam Hunt. “If we can’t see him through the low-lying cover, he probably can’t see us either. It’s mid afternoon and if the bugs don’t drive him crazy, he’ll stay right there for a while. Go get him, Sam. He’s a nice bull, I’m sure he’ll make Pope and Young.”

After working out hand signals, I stayed back to lessen the noise, movement and scent. Sam made the stalk alone. It probably only took a half-hour but it seemed like days waiting for Sam to weasel into position for a shot. When I could finally see the bull and Sam in the same field of view with my 30-power spotting scope, I knew something would happen soon.

Now this scenario isn’t all that unusual except for two things. One, Sam who is an excellent archer, missed. Two, the caribou was less than a quarter-mile from the highway—the Dalton Highway.

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Most good caribou hunting in Alaska is usually accessed by boat, plane, horseback, ATV or backpacking, but for those willing to make the long “haul,” excellent hunting can be reached by vehicle on Alaska’s northernmost road system.

When put into proper perspective, hunting the “Haul Road,” as the Dalton Highway is affectionately called, is nothing less than a marathon. The 825-mile drive from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay takes about 23- to 28 hours including pit stops, flat tires and road closures. That’s akin to driving from New York City to Milwaukee, except you haven’t crossed a single state border let alone a half-dozen. Only in Alaska can you witness, from a car window, such diverse wildlife in harmony with a phenomenal length of conduit.

Like a huge metal string, the four-foot diameter pipe runs over hill and dale for a few miles then dips underground for a distance only to resurface and span another river. Almost half of the 800-mile long tube is underground and it crosses more than 800 rivers and streams along its path. Meanwhile, for 415 miles at the northern end of this journey, the two-lane, mostly gravel road called the Dalton Highway crisscrosses or winds by in near unison with the oil-filled cylinder. This highway was originally built to transport materials to the oil fields on the North Slope. These two threads of civilization, the road and pipeline, weave their way through the breathtaking fabric of the Alaska wilderness.

The pipeline concept was spawned shortly after the Prudhoe Bay oil field was confirmed in 1968. Initial production spanned three-and-a-half years. The project cost eight billion dollars. With inflation, you’d need a nerdy bean counter to factor the cost in this current economy!

Today the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) begins at Prudhoe Bay and snakes through the Alaska countryside for 1,408,000 yards. The monster ductwork terminates at Valdez in Prince William Sound. With a crude oil maximum throughput of approximately 2 million barrels per day, billions of barrels of “black gold” have been delivered since the first oil flowed in 1977.

While oil has pulsed through the pipeline the last 36 years, caribou have flowed over the tundra on the North Slope for eons. On our seven-day August trip, we saw several hundred caribou. The hunting method that worked best for us was studying the topography maps of the area along the Dalton Highway from Atigun Pass north to Prudhoe Bay. What we looked for was broken country or steep hills affording a bowhunter some concealment from the caribou’s senses and this prairie-like terrain. Once we located such real estate, we would find a safe pullover (so as not to interfere with the tractor-trailer rigs zooming by) and glass from the truck window. On several occasions we found caribou within a few hundred yards of the road. The biggest problem was finding cover to make the stalk. That’s why we concentrated on the hilly country and the brush-pocked gullies along the Sagavanirktok River. This waterway somewhat parallels the highway for about 120 miles. Another technique worth considering is floating the “Sag” River.  This would put you in seldom-reached country when the river bends away from the road. The river is fairly gentle; however, the water level fluctuates drastically depending on prevailing weather. A good 12-foot raft would work fine. Another positive aspect of rafting is access to both sides of the river. We tried hunting the far side by crossing the river in neoprene chest waders. There were a few locations where this was possible. But one day we got ourselves into a pickle. We crossed the Sag to go after a huge bull. The river became too deep and too swift—we ended up swimming. If you’ve never stroked across a raging river north of the Arctic Circle wearing a backpack and bow in tow, you really haven’t swam a river! In retrospect, I would not recommend such a gung-ho feat. Use a raft, boat or at least a float tube to ferry the river. I’ve since decided that caribou’s huge antlers that lured us across the river were not worth risking hypothermia and drowning.

The antler potential of the caribou from the North Slope is quite respectable. They might not have the massive antler-growing genes of the Nelchina or Mulchatna herds but there are plenty of Pope and Young-class bulls available. Most of the caribou in this area are members of the Central Arctic herd. However, with caribou being so nomadic, it’s not uncommon to get a mixture of animals from the other herds as well.

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Besides caribou, there are many other species that inhabit the area. In just one afternoon’s drive toward Deadhorse, we saw gobs of bird life. Trumpeter swans, Arctic loons, pintail ducks and a snowy owl come to mind. During the week, several moose were located, including a couple bruiser bulls.

On one caribou stalk, we had to carefully circumvent a cow moose and her calf to get in on our quarry. That cow was stubborn and wouldn’t budge. Every time I tried to move past her she’d drop her ears and raise her hackles. Then, she’d make short bluff charges. Those gestures and actions are moose language for, “I’m going to kick your butt if you mess with me and my calf!” I believe a cow moose protecting a calf can be as dangerous as dealing with a grizzly. We gave her a wide birth, circling around and increasing our journey by an extra mile or two.

Eventually we made it past the moose. After an hour of bootless tiptoeing in damp tundra, Sam and I were both within 30 yards of a tremendous bull. His C-shaped antlers loomed above the brush he was lying behind. The antlers rocked back and forth in unison with his cud chewing. All we had to do is wait for him to stand and shake the bugs off like we’d seen him do several times. He was ours. Without warning, he exploded from his bed and was out of arrow range in a flash. The wind had swirled, betraying our presence. He stopped and stared at us from about 80 or 90 yards but that doesn’t do you much good with a bow-and-arrow in hand.

On another day we watched an old bull musk ox sway across the crimson- and lime-colored tundra. His shaggy brown coat flowed in the wind like an animated dust mop. Seeing a creature of the Ice Age roam its natural domain loudly whispers, wilderness. Quite frequently we stumbled into willow ptarmigan—we even watched waddling white-fronted and Canada geese feed on the plentiful blueberries.

It’s a good thing the berries were prolific, as I think they were the only thing that kept us going, especially on the day we headed into the mountains. It ended up being a 15-hour trek. Covering 10 miles a day when hunting Alaska is common. But trudging through the soft tundra and trying to maintain an even stride over tussocks is exasperating and draining. I’m certain the caloric exchange between tundra hunting and the nutrition attained from the caribou meat are not equal.

Although neither of us scored that day, it was worth the effort. We watched 40 Dall sheep nimbly scamper about the cliffs they call home and studied a roly-poly grizzly through our binoculars. The bear was particularly intriguing. His chocolate-colored legs, hump and guard hairs contrasted beautifully with his blonde coat. He was in a huge, saddle-like basin. Us on one side, he on the other. I’m sure it was at least three-quarters of a mile across. For about ten minutes, through binos, we watched that bear wander about in search of blueberries and Arctic ground squirrels—until he caught our scent. “Wow,” Sam said, “did you see that,” as the bruin stood erect and tested the air with bionic nostrils. “It didn’t take him long to figure us out, look at him haul ass!” Luckily, he sprinted back over the ridge from where he came. We continued on our journey unscathed but richer from the experience.

Not long after that, I had my best opportunity. I spotted five bulls high on a ridge in sheep country. The precipitous ridge would hide my approach. I’ve always believed steep terrain is the best camouflage anyway, so up I went. I timed my ascent well and caught the bulls lounging in a bug-free breeze on a bench in the otherwise upended country. When I peeked over the last rise, a glimpse of white caught my attention. It was the bleached out skull and antlers of a winterkilled caribou. Ironically, they framed the fuzzy antlers of one of the smaller bulls. He was standing in typical head-down caribou fashion. I could’ve shot him right there at 30 yards but I passed, holding out for a bigger, mature bull. When I tried circling around to get in on the gorgeous, white-maned bull with the lofty antlers, I got caught in the open. I froze in a half-squatting/sitting position in the jagged rocks. The caribou didn’t see me but I couldn’t move either. What a predicament: I was only 80 yards from one of the most majestic bulls I’d ever seen. I tried waiting them out but I could only take so much of the pins and needles shooting like fireworks in my lower extremities. Slowly, I started inching my way back out of sight. With just a few feet to go, a curious red fox popped up on the rocks right in front of the caribou. Not like the fox could catch’em, but he gave chase anyway. Of course, the caribou easily out-sprinted the vixen.

Out of desperation I sprinted around the corner in hopes one of the bulls would come my way. But as luck would have it, they headed down into the flat. I guess they felt less threatened by the tormenting bugs down low than they did from the fox up high.

I had several more chances during the week at lesser bulls but opted to pass. Then, I didn’t connect on a couple nice bulls I did want. But that’s okay; I didn’t need to shoot anything to enjoy this wild, northland hunt. This was Sam’s first caribou hunt and he arrowed a young bull on the last evening before the long trek home. I was content helping Sam and he was pleased as punch to put some tender steaks in the freezer. 

A few ice cubes or throat lozenges on the journey home would have been nice.  I had a terrible sore throat. We had talked all night (or should I say, I talked and Sam listened) as we drove south. We recited each of the four flat tires we endured in detail. Then the trip logistics and how we would do it next time. I’m sure Sam heard at least a hundred of my hunting yarns, too.  During my short driving segment, I remember looking over at Sam snoozing with his head leaning on the passenger window. He was smiling in his sleep.

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Lon E. Lauber is a nine-time Alaska state archery champion and holder of 51 Pope and Young trophies. For an autographed copy of Lon’s book, The Bowhunter’s Guide to Accurate Shooting, send $28 to Lon at  18913 E. Riverwalk Lane, Spokane Valley, WA 99016.


Regulations for Hunting along the Dalton Highway

For the uninitiated, the hunting regulations in Alaska can be confusing.  For a downloadable version of the regs go to: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/regulations/wildliferegulations/pdfs/regulations_complete.pdf

Realize there is a five-mile corridor on each side of the Dalton highway that is bowhunting only.  If you are willing to hike beyond that five-mile area you can hunt with a firearm. Also, you must participate and pass a certified bowhunting education course in Alaska or another state’s equivalent program to hunt this area.

Please check the current regulations for specific season dates, bag limits and other information.