Pick up morning arrived with the sound of one thing you don’t want in Alaska on flying days – the distinct sound of rain on the tent, and dense fog filling our little valley. Being stranded due to weather is just a reality of backcountry hunting in Alaska, and something to always be prepared for with extra rations, and patience. It’s not uncommon at all to be stranded for days or even weeks, with the harsh Alaskan weather making flying simply too risky. (In fact during our fly-out day, another plane crashed into a nearby mountainside)
Our scheduled 9AM pick-up came and went, and we waited, packing up camp in preparation for the sound of propellers in the distance, knowing we may well have to unpack everything if more nights out were needed. We left tent the tent and tarp up for shelter and visibility from the air, but knew we wanted to be able to tear down and get out quickly if only a small weather window presented itself.
Arranging Camp for Pick Up
We communicated with the pilots a bit during the wait by texting on the sat phone, and around 2:30 they were on their way in for the last chance of the day in the clearest weather we’d have for a while as a bigger storm was rolling in. It was a great sound hearing them come over the horizon, father and son Curt and Isaac once again coming in formation from Brooks Flyers.
Brooks Flyer Touching Down For Pickup
Once both touched down, we moved quickly loading up meat and gear to get them back off the ground. They were pretty impressed with our meat shelter though, so we took a minute to show that off!
Curt Checking Out The Meat Shelter
Unlike the flight in however, the flight out is two round trips, not one. The Super Cubs don’t have enough payload to fly out hunters, gear and now the added weight of racks and meat. So, they’d fly Dad out first. He and gear in one plane, his two caribou in the other. I’d be left behind, with enough food, gear and shelter to spend more nights out alone if they couldn’t make it back. A roll of the dice, but an unavoidable one. In three hours I’d either be hearing the props again, or pitching a tent again.
Curt Flying Out Again With Dad’s Racks and Meat
Once they left, it was back to the silence of the tundra, sitting on my butt in the rain with just my thoughts. It was kind of nice to sit alone and reflect on the week. The highs, the lows, the adventure of it all, and knowing how fortunate we were to have an experience like this. How fortunate I was to share it with Dad. How fortunate to have wild places like Alaska and the Brooks Range to have them.
Killing Solo Time On The Tundra
Eventually a flock of ptarmigan caught my eye, and I decided that chasing them with the bow some more would pass the time faster and keeping me warmer than sitting there waiting to hear props again. I was right, and before I knew it, there was a distinct buzz of props, and wings breaking over the horizon line again. We hastily loaded the rest of the gear, and got off the ground.
Flying Out, Scouting Some Rivers For Next Year
I enjoyed the flight out, getting an aerial view of our hunting grounds and home for the past week. I could replay all the stalks in my mind, see all the landmarks, kill sights, and even caribou moving in the distance. We did some low fly-bys on some streams, close enough to scout for fish from the air. I would imagine that flying the tundra never gets old.
It was late afternoon when we were back on the gravel runway in Happy Valley, and we quickly got to work unloading the planes and repacking the Suburban so we could begin the long journey back to civilization. We got back just in time, and heard the pilots talking to some sheep hunters, telling them to pitch their tent, they couldn’t fly anymore, and it may be days before they could.
The First Orion To Go On a Hunting Trip
Meat will keep well, exposed while hanging on the cold tundra, but packed into a heated car is a different story. We packed whatever we could into a pre-production Orion 65 — the first Orion to ever go on a hunt and get meat loaded into it. The coldest, oldest meat went inside where it would remain stable and relatively dry, and the freshest meat from the caribou the night before, while already cool and forming a skin, was still relatively fresh and went on a tarp in the back. Racks were another story, solved by engineering a net system with paracord to secure them to the roof for 400-mile of dirt drive back to Fairbanks.
Rigging Caribou Racks On The Roof
Ready To Leave The Airstrip
We said our goodbye’s to our friends at Deltana Outfitters, and set back out on the gravel of the Dalton Highway around 7PM, making the call to go as fast as we could to get back to Anchorage, roughly 20 hours away. There we’d drop the meat with a processor for shipping back home, and get capes and racks to a taxidermist. I was still on an adrenaline high from the night before and anxiety roller coaster of getting flown out, so driving late didn’t bother me. The sun was still up when we crossed back over Atigun Pass, heading to the motel in Coldfoot.
Heading South on Atigun Pass Around 11PM
We spent the night in Coldfoot, fueled and showered up. Despite getting there in the middle of the night, folks were still up and hanging out, waiting for a predicted Northern Lights show from the front porch. The next morning we continued South, and the backtrack down the Dalton went without a hitch, with no flats or anything else to slow us down.
Alaskan Roof Rack
Re-Creating Our Dalton Highway Sign Photo
Once back to Fairbanks, we fueled up and kept heading towards Anchorage. We called Alaska Seafood and Sausage, and met the owner after hours to drop our meat, which was all still in very good shape. It was great to see that our planning and careful attention to the meat care had paid off.
The next morning, the profile of the racks on the roof gave me a creative itch, and I thought I’d take advantage of the dirt canvas that was plastered all over the Suburban. I took some time to etch the Orion logo into the dirt with my finger, and it came out pretty good!
Getting Artsy With Dirt
The last stop was to our drop racks and my cape with Knights Taxidermy. Dad was getting both of his made into European skull mounts, and I was having my smaller bull preserved in velvet on a plaque mount, and larger bull made into a full shoulder mount for our home in Tennessee.
It’s a year later now, there are mounts on my wall to help keep the memories alive, and there are still caribou steaks in our freezer. In the end we shipped over 300 lbs of processed meat home, everything from prime steaks and breakfast sausage, to trail sticks to snack on in the whitetail stand.
That’s the adventure, from beginning to end. Hunting in Alaska is a dream that may seem out of reach, but is very possible with a little planning and practice, whether self-guided or not. It’s an amazing place, truly still a wild frontier, and one I hope all outdoorsman have a chance to experience. Maybe this series will help you make an adventure of your own one day. If you missed any parts, the links below recap everything. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
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
For Part 5 of this series, click here: Part 5 – Packing Day
For Part 6 of this series, click here: Part 6 – Camp Life
For Part 7 of this series, click Here: Part 7 – Tagged Out