The caribou appeared unexpectedly on the adjacent ridge and I eased forward into a prone position. Bill raised his hat in the air slowly and began to wave it ever so slightly. I tightened the grip on the forend and slid my hand toward the front until the hasty sling went taught. I was locked in and found the middle bull in the 6X scope. The crosshairs were moving more than I liked; I was breathing heavily after wading the river and sprinting up the reverse side of this slope in an effort to intercept the small band of caribou. I focused on the bull and took up slack in the trigger...
The adventure had began a couple of days prior. Hunting season had been in full swing for a few weeks and although I had spent considerable time afield and even saw several acceptable animals, the weather was simply too warm for decent hunting. An unseasonably hot fall in the Interior had rendered the animals sluggish and clinging to the higher peaks and meadows. Several acquaintances had been successful in the early season only to have their success turn into a hellish race against heat and bugs to prevent their hard earned meat from spoiling. Game wardens had been citing large numbers of people for wanton waste when they returned from long trips with quantities of spoiled and inedible meat. Just the previous weekend, Evan and I had battled gnats and biting flies in the Tangle Lake district and stalked a small band of caribou. We gave up on a serious pursuit when the temperature passed the 80 degree mark by midday. The weather forecast had record highs for several days in a row and higher than normal temperatures were forecast for the near future.
I was contemplating the coming weekend on Wednesday when my friend and frequent hunting partner Bill stopped in my office. "This is the weekend", he declared,"get your gear together and we'll pick you up on Friday. Plan to be back on Sunday night. I'll fill you in later." With that brief phrase he spun and left the office on some other unknowable errand. You see, Bill is an unusually successful and frequent hunter who's been in these parts for a long time now. I generally find it wise counsel to listen to his advice when it comes to harvesting game. The office door hadn't even shut by the time I was dialing the phone to tell my wife that I was going hunting for the final weekend of the early season caribou hunt.
Friday came and after work I had my gear all packed for a warm weather hunt. Bill and another hunter stopped by and we chatted briefly as we loaded my gear into the truck.
"Where we going?" I queried.
"Dickey Lake... and better bring your winter gear." was the reply.
I felt a little odd packing my winter gear into a duffel when the outdoor temperature was a balmy 60F, but Bill reads millibar charts the way some folks read the morning paper so I reasoned I had better comply. I replaced my lighter weight sleeping bag with my heavier winter one in the bed of the pickup. I also noticed Bill had wrangled three ATVs for the trip. As much as I like hunting from foot and dislike ATVs for hunting in general the area we were going had a number of factors. One, the Dickey Lake trail was 18 miles long- much too far to backpack and recover an animal the size of a caribou. And two, the Dickey Lake trail was a BLM managed trail system where the trail itself was well maintained and off trail travel strictly prohibited. There would be no galloping across the tundra on machinery chasing caribou; the machines were simply efficient workhorses to haul our camp and ourselves in and hopefully our quarry out.
As we travelled southward toward the trailhead I noticed the faintest change in the weather and by the time we reached Summit Lake the wind was blowing a steady 50 miles per hour. The dry silt riverbed of the Delta River was simply a thick brown cloud of airborne dirt. Bill explained that the weather was going to undergo a significant change over the weekend as two pressure systems collided and fought for dominance over our high hunting ground. Bill explained he was confident despite the weather service's starry eyed description of higher temps and clear skies. As we pulled into the Paxson Lodge for a late supper the wind in the lower elevations was reasonable. We queried other patrons of the lodge ( an odd collection of sourdoughs and visiting sportsmen), some of whom had just returned from Dickey Lake. Their report wasn't encouraging- high winds, whitecaps, airborne dust and worst of all, no caribou.
"We'll camp down at the airstrip and head up early in the morning." declared Bill, "No sense in fighting back there on quads in a windstorm."
We made a quick camp behind some windrows adjacent to the dirt airstrip that passes for Paxson International Airport. I could already tell the air temperature had dropped significantly as I wiggled my way into my bag. I placed a wool hat and a couple of other layers next to the bag in case I needed them for additional warmth during the night. Little did I know that by dawn I would be wearing all of them.
When the early false dawn arrived and the urgency of a full bladder overwhelmed the desire to stay in my warm cocoon, I was surprised at how much the temperature had dropped. I ran my hand over the interior of the tent wall in the pre-dawn gloom lit by an amazingly bright full moon and was surprised when my hand contacted hoar frost. Our collective breath had condensed and frozen on the interior of the tent, a condition frequently encountered in winter camping. I hadn't expected it this morning. Outside the tent and urologically relieved, I made a quick cup of coffee in my Jetboil while I waited for my companions to wake. The thermometer on my GPS showed 15F. Bill was delighted when he emerged from the tent.
We broke camp by the setting moon and headed for the high country and our waiting trailhead. As we unloaded the quads Bill explained that the high pressure system had generated a high altitude windstorm, cleared the upper atmosphere and dropped temperatures dramatically. The cold temperatures would push the caribou to lower elevations during the night (conveniently lit by a huge moon) where we would find them herded up into larger groups and not the singles, doubles and triples we had been seeing for weeks. He replied that this would be the triggering event for the rut, during which the animals would assemble into vast herds, fight for dominance, mate and begin the winter migration in a few weeks.
At the trailhead the day broke clear. Stark blue sky and an odd absence of wind for the high mountains and unbelievably cold for September- even in the Arctic mountains! As I sat warming my machine I briefly scanned the mountain face to the west, I was surprised when as the sun climbed into the sky I saw not one or two- but a gathering of forty caribou! A good omen to be sure. Over the next several hours we saw several bands of caribou on the Swede Lake flats as we motored to the Gulkana River ford. We crossed the river and continued to the northwest, gaining elevation as we did. The going was slow as we picked our way up the rocky trail with the machines. The sub freezing temperatures yielded a trail surface that was hard as concrete but with numerous ruts and boulders protruding from the early season thrashing it had received.
Upon arrival at Dickey Lake we ate our lunch at a protected gravel bar where the lake becomes the headwaters of the Gulkana. After I finished up, I climbed the ridge behind me to glass the wide plateau to the north to look for signs of caribou. I was surprised to find the plateau (that the hunters last night had declared a "desolate wasteland of wind") had become sunny, albeit cold, high tundra plain teeming with dozens caribou! My companions joined me a few minutes later and we began to count herds and watch as the bulls started competing for dominance. The older bulls were already corralling their harems while the younger ones tried to make inroads into the action behind the backs of the larger bulls.
We had expected to have to venture onto the plain on foot and that the resulting harvest would require a long pack back to the trail of several miles. I was surprised when on the far side of the lake a young bull cut a band of four cows from an old bull's harem and lead them straight into the water and began swimming for a point of land some mile away. He was trailed by a slightly younger bull as well. We made a hasty plan to don hip boots, ford the shallow river and make a sprint for the ridgeline apex some three quarters of a mile north east from our location. With any luck we would beat the caribou to the ridge top adjacent the point and ambush them as they emerged from the water. We decided that we should try for only two animals since that would be a lot of heavy packing over the rough terrain; even though we had a total of four tags among us.
After several minutes of fording, hard hiking up inclines and sprinting through meadows and small valleys we arrived at our destination. We planned to split up and take several points along the ridgeline to intercept the small band of animals because they had arrived at the shore before we had made the observation point and were no longer visible. We had just started to separate when Chad made a quite hiss. I turned and he was pointing at a line of six caribou glistening in the sun with wet coats as they climbed the adjacent ridge. We assembled slowly on the ridge top and watched as the animals, oblivious to our presence, moved single file down a well worn game trail along the top of the adjacent ridge. Their path would bring them to about 250 yards from our position.
I moved slowly into prone position and concentrated on the larger bull currently in position number 3. The smaller bull brought up the rear in position number 5 with a cow right behind him. I had the first shot and Chad would back me up. Typical protocol on a meat hunt would be a primary shooter (who was typically meatless for the season- that's me) shoot first and he would be backed up by a secondary shooter to quickly anchor any animal badly hit. Mass uncontrolled shooting in these situations had often stuck unlucky hunters with more meat than they needed or, even worse, with more than they could legally tag. Chad had scored on a moose just a week earlier and he gladly handed over "designated hitter" status to me. I placed the animal in the scope as Bill slowly displayed his hat and created a small amount of movement. Following a reflex wired deep into the ungulate brain- the caribou stopped dead in their tracks and faced us broadside. Target angle just doesn't get any better.
I placed the crosshairs just behind the shoulder and took up the trigger. BOOM! My .300 thundered from the ridgetop but the animal gave no visible indication of a hit. I don't recall hearing the report of the bullet striking home either but a brief second later, Chad (who believed I had made a clean miss) fired his .338 as I cycled a live round into the chamber and the bull went spinning and thrashing over the edge of the ridge and out of view. Bill called his shot as a solid hit through his binoculars and cried out, "Mike, take the second bull!"
I swiveled the gun 20 yards to the north where the younger bull was still standing stationary but tense on the game trail. I concentrated on the crosshairs and anchored my left elbow solidly into the alluvial gravel. The adrenaline dump of seeing our quarry so suddenly had rendered my muscles rock hard and I didn't realize the muzzle braked .338 being fired 10 feet to my left side had rendered my near side ear a ringing mess. I was focused so intently on the bull I don't recall feeling the sear break or the rifle even go off. My position was wonderfully stationary and I remember a feeling of extreme confidence even though the distance was pushing my limit for field shooting. BOOM! My .300 rang out again and I cycled the action from the shoulder to have a fresh cartridge ready. I distinctly remember hearing the sound of bullet striking flesh.
When I found the bull again in the scope, his rear quarters had collapsed and his neck arched downward over his locked front legs. I knew he was hit well but I kept the crosshairs resting on his shoulder, ready to fire a second time and immobilize him should he regain his feet. Bill, again watching through his powerful binoculars declared,"Don't shoot him again! He's hit very hard!" As if to add punctuation to his words still hanging in the thin mountain air, the bull fell over and was stone still.
We quickly reloaded our weapons, checked the safeties and made our approach. The shooting had only lasted 3 or 4 seconds and was decisive in both nature and execution. We had achieved our goal of two bulls without undue shooting or wounded animals escaping. We found the first bull just a few feet over the far side of the ridge in a slight defilade. He was still struggling ever so slightly although hit fatally. Probably entirely unnecessarily, Bill humanely dispatched him with a point blank shot to the spine. The tenacity of these animals is simply amazing; when we field dressed him we found that my first shot had drilled through both front shoulders and destroyed the lungs and Chad's second shot had ruptured his aorta and destroyed any remaining lung tissue. That he moved at all is testimony to the incredible toughness and tenacity the Alaska wilderness breeds into these animals. We then proceeded just 20 yards further down the trail and found the second bull in a heap- he had died nearly instantly from a textbook perfect double lung and heart shot.
We had made our meat for the winter. Now the real work would begin. We camped that night on the gravel bar after 7 long hours of field dressing, quartering and heavy packing from that ridgtop.
We didn't realize it but it would snow heavily that night and the remaining caribou would vanish by morning.