I was fortunate enough to draw a caribou tag this year, but I was unable to get after it on opening day. A friend drew a 14C sheep tag which took priority, so we spent the first couple days trying to help her find a ram. I had to go back to work in my classroom on the 13th, so I figured that my caribou would have to wait until September. As Friday evening rolled around, my wife was pushing me more and more strongly out the door in hopes of having a happy husband. I was coming down with a bit of a cold that my little one picked up from his nephews while we were sheep hunting, so I figured I would make the call at 5am on Saturday. Dawn arrived, and after a few hits of the snooze button I decided that I had better take the chance if for no other reason than mental sanity. Students would be in my room within a few days, so I needed to take the chance to clear my mind, caribou or not.
I stopped for breakfast on the way through Anchorage, so by the time I hit the trailhead and loaded up my pack it was already 9am. Later than I was hoping to start, but still enough time in the day to put in some miles. As I've mentioned in some PMs to others who have asked about my previous experiences on this hunt, I have found that putting in miles is the key. They give away 250 permits and have an average harvest of about 12. It's a low density herd, so the advantage goes to those willing to walk or willing to spend a lot of time afield. Since school starts early these days, time was not on my side. Miles it would have to be.
By 10am I was above treeline, and by 12ish I was into the area I was hoping to hunt. I see caribou in there about 20% of the time that I go afield, so I do not exaggerate when I say that my expectations were low. Nevertheless, within 10 minutes of getting to my intended destination, over a roll comes a cow and calf. My wife had encouraged me to take whatever I could, but still...I was hoping for a bull. Within a few moments three more caribou emerged into sight - a cow, another calf, and a small bull. My last caribou that I took in this area is now hanging above my fireplace, so I admit that I had hopes of another that was equally as beautiful and large-bodied. Still, this bull looked healthy and, better yet, looked like he might be packable in one load. Since my wife has a goat and a caribou permit yet to fill, I figured that I should take the opportunity before me so that we could focus on filling her permits as the season progresses. At first it looked like they were going to walk right towards me. I set up in anticipation of this, but there was one cow in the group that kept veering right and up into a hanging valley. No matter how I prayed or cursed her, up, up, up she went. Over two hours they climbed another 1,000 feet and got into a position where they could survey the whole valley. Eventually one cow and two calves passed out of sight into a high bowl, while one cow and the small bull laid down with just their heads and antlers exposed. At this point time was starting to work against me, so I decided I had to make a move. They weren't going to come back towards me, so I would have to move towards them. I got down low (this was after ~500 yards of belly-slithering across wet tundra and sharp shale) and crawled about 150 yards as quickly as I could. To my surprise, they didn't see me or at least didn't react. I spent the next 20ish minutes climbing up directly below them, trying to use the rolls in the hill to conceal myself.
Just before I was about to crest the hill I thought they were behind I looked to my left and saw what I was hoping to avoid. One of the cows was staring me down from about 250 yards. She had me pegged. I was hoping the bull didn't notice, but a moment later I saw him rise from his bed about 50 yards closer. I tried to draw a bead on him right away, but he didn't stand and look - he immediately broke into a run. I got onto my knees and followed him as well as I could. At about 300 yards he stopped for a moment. Without thinking I let loose the first round. I hit him, but not as well as I had hoped. He ran a bit farther and then turned towards me to look for the source of the commotion. I put another round right behind his front shoulder and (unfortunately) through a small part of his rear shoulder. It wasn't a perfect opportunity, but I couldn't risk letting him go. He stumbled around for a moment, and then it was over.
I had to backtrack for my pack that I had dropped for the stalk a half mile back, but that was a quick jaunt after the couple hours of quiet excitement. Although I absolutely hate to lose any meat, I was pleased to only need to trim a couple of pounds from one hind quarter. It wasn't a perfect hunt, but in the end I had a very heavy pack full of fine eating meat. I was planning to do two trips to get him out of the mountains, but I surprised myself by being able to get him out in one load after spending a couple of hours meticulously de-boning him. All told it took me just over 12 hours from my truck round-trip. I was blessed, without question. Someone I talked to earlier today suggested that I must have this hunt figured out. Not true. I've simply been blessed after putting in many, many miles. I thought about passing this little guy up for something biggger and another weekend in the mountains, but with the low success rates in this hunt, I just couldn't take the chance. Besides, he's awfully tasty.