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DIY Alaskan Caribou Hunting Adventures: Part 5 – Packing Day

 

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Dad Leaving Camp And Crossing the Creek For Day 2 of Packing

For Part 1 of this series, click here: Part 1 – Getting There

For Part 2 of this series, click here: Part 2 – Flying In

For Part 3 of this series, click here: Part 3- Antlers in our Midst

For Part 4 of this series, click here: Part 4 – The Hard Work Begins

 

Part 4 of this series ended with tired legs and a sore back in a sleeping bag on the tundra. The first hunting day had yielded three bulls down, and by the end of the day, all three were in game bags, and one was completely back in camp after three round trips and over ten miles of tundra hiking.

Part 5 begins with me waking up in the EXACT same position that I crawled into my sleeping bag and hit the pillow. A rare thing for me as I’m normally a very ‘active’ sleeper, tossing from back, to side, to face sleeping all night. The agenda for the day was already set — two bulls worth of meat was out there on the tundra, waiting to come back to camp. It was cold overnight, but I know the air temps this time of year are a direct function of sun exposure. If it’s out, it will get into the 70’s and bugs will come out. If it’s cloudy, it will be in the 40’s or colder, and there’s little risk to losing meat. Either way, I don’t know, so it’s time to get up and get back to work before heat or bugs have a chance to taint the meat.

Dad was now rested after the first day’s packing, so the plan was to go together to what was now the farthest bull, my smaller one. I’d taken its first load of meat back the night before, so between the two of us we should be able to pack its meat and rack entirely back to camp in one load. I’d now found the fastest, best walking and most direct path to that kill site, which was up the creek bed as long as possible before heading up the bluff. We donned our overboots for creek walking and off we went in the morning mist. There were a few caribou still around, but overall the vast majority had already moved out of our area. We still brought one rifle just in case an opportunity to fill the fourth tag presented itself, or a bear had made claim to one of our kills.

Luckily by the time we reached the the site, everything was as we left it the day before. We quickly loaded the remaining game bags in our packs, using some ultralight Kifaru pack liners to help keep them clean.

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Loading Meat Bags Into Pack Liners

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Loading Meat and a Rack on My Pack

Once loaded, we headed straight back down to the creek, put back on the hippers we’d stashed, and busted back through brush and into the creek bottom for the hike back to camp. The tundra is so soggy and unstable, even hiking on loose and slippery gravel in a creek bottom is far more enjoyable.

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Busting Brush Along the Creek
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Stepping Down Into The Creek Bottom
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Bringing The Morning Load Back Down the Creek

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Heading Through The Final Alder Thicket Back to Camp

Hanging meat to dry and cool on the tundra can be a tricky thing when there’s no wood to cut and erect meat poles. One night out propped up on grass hummocks is one thing, but with what could be a week or more left to go, we needed a better system for hanging meat. One option is propping them up in the canopy of alder bushes, but since we didn’t know if there would even be any bushes where the planes would drop us, I had planned ahead and brought a system of tarp poles that could be rigged in a tripod system to create a frame for hanging meat. I also brought an ulralight tarp to cover them once erected, and enough cordage and stakes to keep it all secure regardless of the weather. This allows me to create a shelter that keeps the meat dry, ventilated on all sides, and in the shade to stay cool even if the sun came out, regardless of the type of terrain we were camped in. (There are more details on this system at the Gear Highlights section at the conclusion of this article.)

I had erected the initial meat tripod frames the evening before for the first bulls meat, and once back in camp with this load, added the second bulls meat bags to the same tripods.

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Loading Meat Bags on the MSR Tarp-Pole Tripod Frames

It was now around lunch time, and you can see from the heavy jackets in the photos, quite cloudy and cold. In no rush to go after the last caribou load, it was time to sit a bit and we enjoyed a salami and cheese sandwhich lunch before heading back out.

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Salami Sandwich Lunch Break 

After lunch had settled, it was time to cross the creek again and head up past the knoll where Dad’s bull laid. It was a big bull, but only a half mile from camp, so the goal was to suck it up and bring it entirely back in one load. As we approached it, I began to question that plan as I sunk deeper and deeper into the tundra.

The photo below is a good example of the view of your feet while tundra hiking. It’s basically like walking around furry bowling balls on a soggy mattress. You can’t step on the grass hummocks because they’ll roll or you’ll slide off and twist your ankle. Stepping next to them just makes you sink in soggy moss. Walking over them makes you pull your heel awkwardly high to your butt, exaggerating the stepping motion which can lead to cramps. Basically it’s not very fun.

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What It’s Like to Look Down When Tundra Hiking

As with the morning bull, everything was as we left it the day before with Dad’s. Leaving the meat unattended overnight was a little nerve wracking, but it all worked out. I loaded Dad’s pack with a manageable load for him, and then took the rest and the rack on my back, and sunk into the the tundra.

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Dad Was Thankful No Bears or Wolves Borrowed His Caribou

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Fully Loaded and Ready To Get Back to Camp

The last half mile back to camp was some of the hardest walking I’ve ever done. My back and muscles were finally spent. Eventually it got down to counting twenty steps off, leaning forward and resting my back by leaning on my trekking poles, take a few breaths, and repeat. Cresting the bluff and seeing the camp helped, knowing it was mostly downhill from there. When we got to the creek, and I dropped the rack there while bringing the pack back to camp. I went back and crossed the creek one last time for the rack, and that was it, the hard work was over. Three bulls down, three bulls in camp. Two tired hunters.

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Bringing The Last Rack of the Three Bulls Into Camp

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Setting the Rack Down Meant the Last Load Was Over

Hard work now done, the homework began. It was time to get the last meat bags hung, get a tarp over them so they’d stay dry if the weather turned, and clean the blood out of the packs.

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Tarp Erected Over the Loaded Meat Tripods

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Back to the Creek to Rinse the Blood Clean

The final camp chore was the long awaited dinner. We’d earned it. Our bellies and muscles were ready for it. Time to fire up the stove and reward the hard work with a full-course meal of caribou tenderloins, fresh peppers, mushrooms and garlic sautéed in rice, and a nice bottle of red wine. Yep, we were roughing it.

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Getting the Dinner Spread Ready. Smile Says it All

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Checking the Tenderloins

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Yes, the Wine Was Worth the Weight 

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Cheers

Bellies full and wine in hand, we could finally relax and reflect a bit over an incredible few days. Lots of planning and travel and hard work had come to fruition. Three bulls down, three in camp, one tag left and a week left to fill if we so chose. There were a few caribou off in the distance, but we were so busy all day, we hadn’t really been looking very hard. There was a lot of time left to hunt. We enjoyed the evening light, took a few photos, and settled into the tent again for another night on the tundra.

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The Alaska Pipeline, Right Through Camp

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Full Camp

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Settled Into For Night #3 On the Tundra

Gear Highlights:

Sitka Bivy 45 Pack. The Bivy 45 from Sitka is the largest pack in their line, meant for longer self-support backcountry trips and hauling bigger loads. It’s an internal frame pack system, with a large main compartment, with a floating divider to a lower chamber for sleeping bags, and various zippers, pockets, pouches and integrated straps for access, storage, organization, and attaching awkward items like caribou racks. The top pocket is removable to reduce weight when used as a day pack. It also has some unique features like a deployable, hunter orange exterior shelf. You can shift all the inner contents to being held by the shelf when the main compartment is full of meat, keeping them cleaner. It also has a unique weapon carry system that works with both bows and rifles. Carrying heavy meat loads is hard work, so you’ll want to make sure you have a pack that’s up the job, fitted properly to your body, and can take the abuse the backcountry can dish out. The material on the Bivy 45 is in their Open Country pattern, and even when stained from two days of packing bloody meat, washed completely clean in the creek, and dried in a day.

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Sitka Bivy 45 Pack with Top Pocket Removed

Mountain Safety Research (MSR) Meat Storage System. This isn’t a commercial product, but rather a combination of them that I’ve put together so I can have a sheltered meat hanging system anywhere in the world. It’s comprised of two tripods made from three each of MSR’s tarp poles, two more poles to erect awning supports, various guy lines and tent stakes, and an MSR ultralight awning. It also makes a great place to hang a gravity fed water filter in base camp, as shown in the photo below. A kit list of the parts that make up the system is below. When getting dropped by plane in Alaska, or floating a river, you never know what resources you’ll have where you camp, and this system can keep meat cool and dry for long periods anywhere. and can double as am emergency shelter if things get really bad.

Meat Storage System Kit List:

MSR 5Ft Adjustable Tarp Poles (8)

MSR Stakes and Guy Lines – Various Styles and Lengths. I store them all with cordage in a Plano tackle box.

MSR E-Wing Ultralight 2 Person Tarp.

MSR AutoFlow Microfilter gravity filter.

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Meat Shelter System Fully Erected

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