This past weekend I had the great privilege of taking two friends out to harvest their first Alaskan big game animals. One friend had previously taken an elk while on a hunt with his family in Montana, but hadn't yet been able to pursue Alaskan game. The other was completely new to hunting. He is an excellent chef who places a high premium on growing his own food and using organic ingredients where possible, so the transition to adding wild, self-harvested meat was a natural one.
We've been talking about this since last November when we made the decision together to apply for the Tier I permits, so it was with great anticipation that we headed into the field. We had planned all along to hunt an area that I am quite familiar with, but as opening day reports started to trickle in (and due to some very helpful advice from a member on here who I am indebted to) we decided to scrap our original plans and instead head towards grounds that I had only hunted once previously. We loaded up after work on Friday afternoon and did the best we could to get to camp by dark. We made it there a bit earlier than we figured, so with the light fading we quickly made our way up an adjacent ridge to take a look around. We had seen a handful of caribou on the drive in, and due to our burgeoning excitement we couldn't bear to simply sit around camp until morning. We didn't make it far and only saw caribou from a distance, but just those fleeting sightings were enough to tide us over as we built a fire to relax around. That night at least one of my friends didn't sleep well at all. As he told me the next day, it was like a child waiting for Christmas morning as he awaited his first hunt.
When morning came we made quick work of breakfast and coffee (I love my jetboil french press - get one if you're still using instant, it is way better) and headed back up the same ridge we had been on the night prior. Within 15 minutes we were seeing caribou, and not the ones and twos that we had seen on the drive in. Now we were looking at groups of 50 or more. At first we focused in on one group of approximately 50 and began to figure out an approach. I quickly learned, though, that either my hunting skills are seriously lacking or that there were simply too many sets of eyes and too little cover on that alpine ridge. To keep the story reasonably short, we spent the next five hours dancing with caribou and, quite frankly, getting our rears handed to us. Whenever we moved to a new location, the caribou would loop back to where we had just been. Whenever we would sit tight, they'd move towards the area we had considered. Over that time one group became two, then three, and eventually there were at least six different groups of animals that had criss-crossed the area we were in with somewhere between 200-300 animals. 95% or more of them were cows or calves, but we weren't feeling too particularly picky about size - especially given the culinary inclinations of one of my friends who was more interested in the tenderness of the meat as opposed to the volume. When an opportunity came, we pursued regardless of the presence or absence of bulls - but again and again our best plans were foiled. Eventually one friend and I went back to our parked machines to take a quick break and to refuel. While there, we noticed a small group of about 15 animals circling around the hill below us, so we moved into a position where we thought we might intercept them. They came a bit more quickly than we anticipated, but it actually worked out brilliantly as we were able to shuffle a quick 20 yards to a large rock which served as a perfect rest. One shot later and my friend had his first animal on the ground.
After taking a few pictures we looked into the distance for our other hunting partner and saw that he was pursuing another band of caribou. We quickly got to work butchering, and every 10 minutes or so we'd take another look to see where our friend was and to look for other animals. Each time we looked he'd be in a completely different area, and it looked from a distance as though these animals were giving him the same fits that we had been having all morning. We also had two groups of caribou run by within 100 yards while we were cleaning, but at the time I passed on taking the shots so that we could finish the job at hand. Near the end of the job our friend showed up to join us on the mountaintop, and told us to our great joy that he had taken one as well. I somehow missed the sound of the shot, but when he walked us to his kill site we found that his success came only 300 yards or so downhill from where we were. First caribou number two was down, and the butchering process began anew without delay between.
With only a few cuts remaining on the second caribou of the day, I looked up to see a group of approximately 30 caribou crest the hill above us. I had already been making plans in my head to hike the next ridge into an only partially-visible valley, but when those caribou presented themselves within shooting range, I didn't feel as though I could pass up the opportunity. My wife had sent me with the instructions to not pass up a cow, but when I saw a few bulls in the middle of the group, I decided to target the first one that would give me a clear shot opportunity. A few moments later, and within 3 hours and 300 yards of the other two harvest sites, our third tag was filled.
That night was filled with fire, tenderloin, drinks, and laughs as we enjoyed our time at the foothills of the Alaska Range. The time since...well, that has been spent cutting meat when not at work. We're finally done with the task (other than the grinding of the burger) and I couldn't be more satisfied with the result. We've all got many pounds of wild, healthy meat in our freezers and we've got some great memories to go with it. I can't claim an ounce of credit for introducing these men to hunting - they both were already going down that road - but I am certainly thankful for the privilege of being able to join them when they made that first trip.