Flying in Formation Along the Sagavanirktok River
Part 1 of this series focused on the planning, packing, and initial road travel to the Dalton Highway in Alaska to start this father-son adventure. Part 2 of the series will focus on arriving at Deltana Outfitters base, transitioning from the rental car to a Super Cub, the ‘air taxi’ of the North, scouting from the air, getting dropped on the tundra, and setting up our base camp.
1. From Road Tires to Tundra Tires.
After a noisy night camped next to a quarry, the following morning we found ourselves completing the last couple hours of dirt travel up the Dalton Highway, and pulling into the airstrip at Happy Valley by mid-morning. Happy Valley is the base of operation for Deltana Outfitters / Brooks Flyers, about an hour South of the end of the highway in Deadhorse. It’s basically a few campers on a gravel bar on the river. We were four days early, Tuesday, versus our scheduled fly out day of Friday.
Happy Valley Air Base
Once you travel to Alaska, you will learn one thing very quickly — all plans are subject to weather, and weather varies widely. If flexibility and patience aren’t your thing, you may want to travel somewhere else. Bush pilots fly when the weather lets them. Knowing that, we had allowed a few extra days of cushion, intending just to fly fish on local streams until our scheduled fly out day. But also knowing that, we intended to just say hello and let everybody know we were in the area, in case a weather window made flying in earlier more favorable than later.
We were quickly greeted by Curt from Brooks Flyers, who provides air taxi service for Deltana. The initial conversation was pretty short – ‘Great, the Bungards are here!”, followed quickly by ‘You ready to go now?’ You bet. Good air windows should always be taken advantage of! Proof that building some extra flexibility into your schedule can pay dividends in Alaska. After some quick paperwork with Curt’s wife, Lynnette, and Dad and I started aborting gear from the rental Suburban right there on the gravel bar and hastily re-packed for the fly in portion of our trip.
Unloading at the Deltana Office in Happy Valley
Curt and his son, Isaac, operate Brooks Flyers, who acts as the air transporter for Deltana’s unguided hunts. They provide some guidance before the hunt on weight and gear, but bottom line is your body + all gear + food <= 300 lbs, packed into more small bags than large ones to ease packing on the tiny Super Cubs. I was bringing in a bow and my Marlin 45-70 lever action rifle, and Dad had his Thompson Center Pro Hunter rifle.
I’m pretty experienced in packing light, knowing what I do and don’t need, and what type of gear is available on the market. In Part 1 of the series, I recommended practicing for trips like this with weekend and week long backpacking trips, and that’s so key here — learn how to pack only what you need, and how to use it, before you get to the airstrip. The pilots will thank you, and you’ll be safer, be less likely to forget anything, and have better chances of success in the field.
All food, weapons and gear came out of large duffels bags and hard cases, repacked into smaller dry bags and packs, and loaded into the Super Cubs. 10 days worth of food was packed into the Orion 65 for the drive to the airstrip, then unloaded into dry bags, leaving an empty cooler to hopefully be full of meat for the long drive back.
Repacking Into Dry Bags
2. Flying In and Scouting
After only about an hour after rolling into Happy Valley, we were loading up the Super Cubs. Dad flew with Curt. I flew with Isaac. Father and son pilots flying father and son hunters. They are in the air daily, which is extremely advantageous for knowing the whereabouts of constant wanderers like caribou.
Loading Up and Heading Out in the Brooks Super Cubs
We started by scouting an area where there were ‘thousands’ of caribou in a valley the night before, to find nothing. Such is the nature of caribou – an animal with no real home territory, they basically are born and wander until they die, covering thousands of miles in the process, and twenty or more miles a day. Curt and Isaac know the area well though, and it wasn’t long before we found what was left of that large group, now broken up into smaller groups, wandering as they do, but moving in a general direction.
Caribou Crossing A Tundra Stream
View Of Landing Zone (We put down next to small pond in the upper left of the image)
We guessed there likely location the next day based on the overall direction of the various small bands, and decided to put down near a small creek, the Kadleroshilik, with vegetation that may allow for a close range bow shot vs the wide open, long range nature of tundra hunting. The Super Cubs are an awesome tool in that respect, with the ability to put you down basically anywhere in short order – tundra, gravel bars, ridge tops, etc, versus having to put down on lakes with float planes.
3. Touching Down, Tenting Up
After about an hour and half in the air, we landed in a light rain, quickly unpacked the planes, said our goodbye’s to Curt and Isaac, and found ourselves enjoying the quiet of the tundra, watching the planes leave over the horizon. I love that feeling when you realize all the stresses of the logistics and travel are over, and you’re finally on your own and doing what all the planning and work was all about. Being dropped on the tundra is very similar to the feeling of shoving off the bank on a river overnighter — there’s a certain finality to it, no turning back, commitment to the journey ahead. You’re on your own.
Happy Campers, Unloaded at the Landing Zone
We picked a campsite on a dry bench about 70 yds from the creek with relatively good views of the small valley we were in, and started setting up our base camp. Our main tent was a GoLite Shangri-La 5 teepee style tent. Light, roomy, and easy to stand in to get dressed. We also brought a Hilleberg Anjan 2 for any remote spike-camp or emergency shelter needs that may arise away from base camp, and an MSR E-Wing tarp for a meat shelter. (More details on that system later in Part 3) It’s always good to have a backup shelter option in Alaska, where a sever storm, or rogue bear, may decide to level your tent while you’re away.
Pitching the Tent
4. Camp Chores
Alaska laws prevent hunting on the day you fly, leaving plenty of time for organizing camp and getting ready for the next day, without any distractions of chasing game. The first few hours were spent sorting gear and food, finding a place for everything, getting comfortable, and enjoying the sights of caribou wandering in the distance.
Sorting Food and Glassing the Area
Before dinner I did a quick scouting trip to the creek to get fresh water, look for recent caribou sign crossing the creek, look for any bear sign in the immediate area, and get a general feel for the land. As we formulated a plan for the morning, and watched a small group of bulls visible in the distance, heading down a small contour to a river crossing to our South. That was the 3rd group we’d already seen follow the contours of the land in that direction, so it was a pretty indicator of likely travel corridors in the morning.
Dad Kicking Back and Scanning the Skyline for Caribou
With all the driving, work stress before the trip, lack of the sun setting, etc, getting to sleep surprisingly wasn’t a problem, even with anticipation high. Our tent was finally setup, and we were just a dot on a map.
Our Tent Location from Satellite View
We each had 2 tags, and the plan was to try to take any mature bull each early in the week, then decide about any trophy hunting after that. As the pilots advised, they’re really good at predicting where the caribou will be a day out, but after that, who knows. Caribou wander. They’ll be in the general area, but it may be days before they would move through our huntable area. On our last caribou hunt in Quebec, we passed on bulls on the first day, then spent a week not seeing any fur at all, and finally took cows and small bulls at the end of that hunt for meat. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we hoped to have learned from that experience, to take advantage of mature bull opportunities this time, and didn’t want to make the same mistake by passing everything on the first day.
Base Camp, as seen from the Ridge Across the Creek
That concludes Part 2 of this series, settling into our tent and enjoying the solitude of the Alaskan tundra. Part 3 will continue our adventure, with the first, and very eventful day of caribou hunting in the Brooks Range.
If there are any questions, feel free to post them here, or our our Facebook page, and I’ll be happy to answer them.
1) Seal Line dry bags. Alaska is a very wet place. Expect long periods of sustained rain. Expect your gear to be sitting out in it. Good dry bags are essential for staying comfortable and safe in the Alaskan backcountry. You can’t fit large hard cases like an Orion 65 in the Super Cubs, so what I like to do is transfer the food into wide-mouth dry bags and small dry backpacks. This keeps food dry, makes them easy to pack in small planes, and cuts down on the amount of scent in the air for nosy bears. Seal Line bags are also Made in the USA!
2) Water Purification. Fresh water is key on any adventure, and there are many options for getting and storing it. On this trip I opted for a light, portable water purification system, and a base camp system from MSR. For the light system, I like the MSR HyperFlow Microfilter. It’s small, easy to use, and pumps fast. For basecamp, I like to hang the MSR AutoFlow Microfilmer. Just fill up the large reservoir bag with river water, hang it in camp, and it will filter on demand, or while you’re off doing other things. In the packs and for bulk water storage around camp, I use MSR Hydromedary Hydration Systems and Dromlite bags. Some Aquatabs are also always in my pack for emergency water situations.
3) Camera. Many of the shots here are from a GoPro camera, which basically go with me everywhere I do. They can be mounted nearly anywhere, survive nearly any weather condition, and capture some awesome images and angles. In the photo below you can one mounted to the strut of the Super Cub using the handle-bar mount. From the inside of the plane, I used my the GoPro App on my iPhone to control it, see what the camera sees, and capture images and video like the first image in this post.
4) All of our hunting clothing and foul weather gear was from Sitka Gear, a WL Gore company from Bozeman, MT. They are experts in light, functional, quality backcountry gear. Quality Gore-Tex shells are critical for sustained comfort and protection in wet conditions, and you can definitely expect a lot of that in Alaska.