DIY Alaskan Caribou Hunting Adventures: Part 1 – Getting There
Alaska, the ‘Land of Adventure’, is still truly wild at it’s core. It’s an amazing place, and of one of my favorite places in the world. I had the privalege of returning there again this Fall, the third trip with my father. The first two trips were all about fly fishing, and we had some amazing adventures, getting to remote places, and catching some of the famed fish that Alaska is so famous for. This trip would be different, our first time doing a DIY (Do-It-Yourself), self-guided hunt in Alaska, for barren ground caribou in the Brooks Range. This is Part 1 of a chronicle of that trip, focusing on planning for the trip, packing, and traveling across Alaska to a remote airstrip. The journey before the journey. Future posts will chronicle various stages of the hunt itself. I hope you enjoy reading this series about our journey, and perhaps take one of your own one day.
Our plan was simple — fly to Alaska, drive North until you can’t anymore, get on Super Cub, fly across the tundra, get dropped, hunt caribou for a week to ten days, fly ourselves and a bunch of meat out, drive back, and ship meat home. Simple, right?
The Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Deadhorse
A self-guided, backcountry trip in Alaska can seem daunting, but with a little planning and the right backcountry skills, it’s not out of reach. Remote climbing, whitewater, fishing and hunting trips have taken me all over the world, and growing up as on outdoorsman, and working in this industry as a ‘product guy’ and athlete has given me a lot of experience and knowledge of the right equipment and skills to be comfortable and enjoy life in the backcountry. For those new to it, I always recommend starting with some weekend backpacking trips to quickly teach you the do’s and don’ts of safe backcountry travel, what to carry, what you’ll actually use, and what you’ll learn is a waste of money and energy to bring along. It will also teach you what gear ‘luxury’ really matters to you for keeping your head in the game when you’ve been hungry and wet for days, and ready to kill your tent mate. You can gain experience yourself, or there are plenty of classes, clubs, or even organized trips you can usually find through local specialty outdoor retailers.
When it comes to self-guided wilderness hunting trips, going after barren-ground caribou is considered relatively ‘easy’ when compared to some hunts, and a good ‘first timers’ choice. There’s not typically a lot of strenuous climbing, meat loads are more manageable for one or two people than a moose, and weather conditions are typically milder during the primary caribou season. There are exceptions of course, an any seasoned caribou hunters will curse the grass hummocks that make up the tundra – and torture your legs and back, the bugs, or the here-today, gone-tomorrow nature of caribou. When it comes to making memories though, the solitude, camaraderie of your hunting partner, wildlife, scenery and incredible hunting experiences are the ones that stick.
One skill that must be learned prior to any remote backcountry hunt is meat care. Proper meat handling and care is critical on any hunt, especially remote hunts where meat may be exposed to the elements for multiple days. That can’t be stressed enough. Know the regulations for the area you’ll be hunting, and go the extra mile to learn how to hang and care for meat for extended periods. I personally use T.A.G. game bags, from Pristine Ventures in Alaska. They have a dense weave that is strong, breathes, while keeping bugs and larvae off the meat. They are light, washable and reusable, and worth the investment. For caribou in Alaska, where bone must be left in, I make a custom pack of 2, 22″ x 44″ large bags for rear hams, 2, 14″ x 34″ front shoulder bags, and 2, 14″ x 22″ bags, 1 for backstraps and tenderloins, and the other for neck and rib meat or other small pieces. I will go more into meat handling and care in future posts from this series.
Pre-Packing TAG Game Bags, one kit per animal, before the trip
When it comes to choosing an outfitter, there are a lot of them out there, good and bad. Do some homework before who deciding to trust with your valuable time and money. Going guided or unguided is a big decision, and best decided based on your skill level and experience, and budget. For our trip, we booked a self-guided hunt through Deltana Outfitters, with air taxi service provided by Brooksflyer Aviation. These guys are pros, and know the Brooks region and tundra like the back of their hands, offering various hunts for Alaskan big game species, from caribou to dall sheep or brown bear. Self-guided hunts basically means hiring the air service, Brooksflyer, to get you and your gear into and out of the backcountry safely. Our trip started late August, a typical time for caribou hunting in Alaska, with snow returning to higher elevations, and caribou starting to group up for winter migrations. The pilots are flying daily, keeping good tabs on where game is located and moving.
When all is said and done, you can research and plan all you want, but if you don’t commit and take the plunge, it will never happen. There will always be unknowns, that’s part of the adventure. Just do it, have fun, and adapt to challenges as they come your way. Take pleasure in the process.
2. Getting Started
For any backcountry trip, remember that whatever you bring, you have to carry it, from airports to campsites. Light is right, but only IF quality and performance is there under harsh conditions, of which Alaska dishes out regularly. There’s a lot of great gear on the market, and some that isn’t. Your life may depend on the quality of gear you use, and skill using it. Learn what works for you, and get to know it at home, using it in the worst conditions you can find. Then, when it really matters, and you’re pitching your tent in blowing, freezing rain in the middle of that night, there’s no ‘where does this pole go’ scenarios.
My general rule of thumb is that for a multi-week trip in Alaska, everything I need, except food, needs to fit in the two, 50 lbs bags that most airlines will let you check as baggage, plus a carry on backpack. I’ve done 5 week fly fishing trips that way. All my camera gear, electronics, and fly fishing gear goes in the carry-on, and weapons, tents, sleeping bag, cooking gear, boots/waders, etc, all go in checked luggage.
On this particular trip, since both hunting and fly fishing would be involved, gear weight added up beyond my usual plan for two, 50 lb checked bags. The solution was to use frequent flyer miles for the First Class upgrade, which gets you two, 70 lbs bags, checked free. It’s always worth weighing the cost difference between baggage fees each way, or 3rd bag or overweight fees, vs paying for the upgrade. Often you can break even or come out ahead, and you’ll be more comfortable on the long flight.
My two primary checked bags for this trip were a weapons case, and large duffel. My weapons case of choice for air travel is an SKB double weapon case, with my Mathews Heli-M bow, arrows in a Plano compact arrow case, rifle (Marlin 1895SBL 45-70), and clothing and hunting gear like optics and knives packed inside. The Marlin fits inside with a bow, without having to remove a stock or modify it in any way. My other go-to bag is an XL North Face Basecamp duffel, packed with camping gear, fly fishing waders, boots, cooking gear, dry bags, clothing for 3 weeks, etc. That duffel, the same one, has served me well multiple times annually, from Chile to Alaska, over the last 20 years. On my back was my hunting pack for the trip, a Sitka Bivy 45 pack, filled with camera gear, electronics, fly rods and reels, and travel clothing. I did break my rule a bit for this trip, and flew a 3rd checked bag, a pre-production test unit Orion 65 cooler, up with us as well. It’s purpose was to act as our refrigerator and food locker on the journey to the hunt, then the meat transporter on the way back to Anchorage.
Luggage Cart, Ready to Load the Rental Car at Anchorage International
Make a habit of pre-packing at home before trips like these, weighing your bags, and knowing exactly what you can fit and can’t before you head to the airport. I stand on a bathroom scale with and without the bag and calculate the difference to know exactly how heavy each bag is. Make a list of things you need to buy after landing because you can’t fly it, or it just didn’t fit. It’s a lot easier than wasting a bunch of time trying to remember everything you need after a long day of air travel, or getting to camp before realizing what you forgot.
I try to book a flight to Anchorage with just one stop, Chicago. Early morning flights will usually put you in Anchorage around 1 or 2PM, leaving the afternoon to get provisions or anything else you need, before leaving the city. Rent a car months in advance, and shop around. Compare rates of long term rentals vs weekly, as often significant savings can be had. If you want to stay in Anchorage that first night, book a room far in advance, as most summer tourists are ending their trips in town, making their way home. Our vehicle of choice for this trip was a Chevy Suburban, large enough to sleep in if needed, and carry plenty of gear for the two of us during the long, 400 mile dirt ride up the Dalton Highway, North from Fairbanks.
My typical routine upon landing in Anchorage is picking up fly fishing gear, licenses and other supplies from Mountain View Sports and Barney’s Sports Chalet, food from Fred Meyers, and trying to hit the road to wet a fly line before dinner, and camping on a river somewhere. Everything you need can be found in Anchorage, so don’t panic if you forgot something. Get it in Anchorage though, as options can get limited quickly once you leave.
3. Getting to the Dalton Highway
We flew into Anchorage on August 16th. I flew from Nashville, Dad from Savannah, and we met in Chicago for the second leg of the flight to Anchorage. We picked up and loaded the rental Suburban, and headed out to make the provisioning circuit. One key piece of gear we didn’t own yet was Neos Overboots, slip on hip-waders for getting across creeks and boggy tundra. They are light and easy to pack, and really make a difference with stream crossings and traversing wet areas you come across. We picked them up from Barney’s, licenses, tags and fly fishing supplies from Mountain View, and food at Fred Myers (my lovely wife Ashley had prepared a full daily menu and shopping list for the hunt to make that easier as well).
The Orion 65 – Fits perfectly behind the 3rd seat of a Suburban, coincidence? 🙂
We ended up deciding to spend that night there and leave early in the morning for Fairbanks, after stopping to fish a bit on Montana Creek. It’s a beautiful day drive up to Fairbanks from Anchorage, where we decided on another hotel. After a last minute stop at Sportsman’s Warehouse the next morning for some citric acid spray (for meat care, more on that later), we checked a few arctic grayling spots I know on the Chena River, then were headed North for the Dalton Highway, AKA ‘Haul Road’ by 1 PM, two days after landing in Anchorage.
Entrance sign to the Dalton Highway
The Dalton Highway is a well known destination and adventure in and of itself. People travel from all over the world just to drive it. It’s also our travel route to our airstrip, a gravel bar on the Sagavanirktok River, about 40 miles South of the town of Deadhorse, at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton Highway follows the Trans- Alaska Pipeline, which carries oil from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks and beyond to Valdez. The Dalton follows the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, with over 400 miles of mostly dirt, and a few paved sections. There are multiple Pump Stations along the way, useful as key landmarks. It’s the service road for the pipeline, and big trucks own the roadway. Plan to yield to them, pull over when they come by, and both they and your windshield will thank you. Have a patch kit, tire inflator, good spare(s), and enjoy the drive.
Travel on the Dalton was as expected, a mix of gravel, mud (raining), and pavement. We just took it slow, pulled over for trucks, and enjoyed the scenery and wildlife, including a nice bull moose. Some key points along the way are crossing the Yukon River, and Coldfoot Camp, a common, and the only real stop for fuel, food and lodging.
Keep an eye out for wildlife
Pipeline Crossing the Yukon River
We made it to Coldfoot without incident, fueled up there, and splurged on their buffet dinner with smoked brisket. It was cool to meet and see folks from all over the world passing through Coldfoot, covered in dirt, sharing tales of their adventures – Finland, England, Canada, Jeepers, Enduro-Bikers, cross-country bikers, hunters, some kind of classic Volvo station wagon enthusiasts — all were represented at the bar.
The Dalton leaving Coldfoot, heading for Atigun Pass
The decision was made to keep pushing North after dinner, as the rain started to clear a bit. The drive up and over Atigun Pass was slippery, but we made it, only to be greeted by a flat tire once down near Pump 4, around 10 PM. Fix-a-flat and our inflator were far from adequate to fix it, but before we could get a spare off to change it, luck was with us and trucker ‘Todd’ was there to quickly respond and offer help with a proper patch kit and on-board air. Good karma does come from yielding to truckers. All in all, we only lost about a half hour, and many thanks to Todd for his help.
Back in the game, thanks Todd!
That night found us stopping at Galbraith Lake to camp – right next to a quarry operation. The view is gorgeous, even under the midnight sun, but I highly recommend bringing ear plugs if you ever camp there as the mining goes all night long.
I’ll end this part of the story here, camped along the Dalton Highway, on the North slope of the Brooks Range. In the next segment I’ll discuss getting to the airstrip, loading up, flying onto the tundra, and setting up base camp.