As I fought to catch my breath I ranged two points; a Black Spruce at 208 yards and a Dwarf Alder at 234. I had just sprinted to a small island of spruce trees after the caribou I'd been stalking for the preceding half hour dipped into a shallow drainage. With any luck, he would reappear and traverse the hill in front of me on my side of the range markers.
As I lay prone trying to get my breathing under control I allowed my mind to wander just a bit in an attempt to settle my nerves. I couldn't help but think how long ago this trip had started and how much time and energy had gone into pulling it off.
Two years prior, a friend and I had decided that we wanted to hunt caribou. An easy proposition, right? Simply hire a guide in Quebec or Alaska and choose your bull out of the thousands that parade before you.
I suppose if you have the money for a guided trip it might just be that easy. The truth is, however, that many people who consider themselves serious hunters are unable to hunt outside of their home state simply because it is too cost prohibitive to do so. Out of state licenses are becoming exceedingly expensive and guided excursions carry a price tag that few people can afford; at least on a regular basis. The price of a guided caribou hunt averages well over $5,000 and that is not including a license or transportation to Quebec or Alaska.
In our case the funds for a guided hunt just weren't there, and the truth is that even if cash wasn't an issue we'd still prefer to do it on our own. We decided we would plan our own unguided caribou hunt. It took a lot of time and we assumed a fair amount of risk, but we ultimately planned and executed a very successful self guided hunt - and so can any hunter willing to put in the work to make it happen.
Expect to work hard on a self guided hunt. No one is going to do anything for you and the success
of your hunt is dependent on the amount of effort you are willing to put in. Photo by Matt Gantt.
The first step is to determine where the hunt will take place. Since U.S. citizens cannot hunt unguided in Canada, the only real option for self guided caribou hunting is in Alaska. The question then becomes which caribou herd in Alaska will give a self guided hunter a chance at harvesting a bull in the most economical package possible.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game Caribou Annual Survey and Inventory Federal Aide Performance Report identifies 26 caribou herds in Alaska. My research indicated that there are three herds that offer out of state hunters a real opportunity at an affordable self guided trip. They are the Mulchatna herd, the Western Arctic herd and the 40-Mile herd.
The Western Arctic caribou herd ranges the Northwest part of the state and is primarily accessed out of the bush town of Kotzebue. The Mulchatna herd ranges the Southwest portion of the state and is accessed out of Anchorage and bush towns around Anchorage. The 40-Mile herd makes its home in Alaska's interior and is accessed out of Fairbanks and towns East of Fairbanks.
Caribou can have dramatic swings in population dynamics over fairly short periods of time, so it is critical to completely understand the health of the herd prior to planning a trip. Conversations with Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologists will help determine the health of the animals, the quality of the bulls and where the herd is likely to be during the caribou season. For our trip we chose the 40-Mile herd, but on any given year any of these herds can provide an excellent trip for the self guided hunter.
To access these herds the use of an air taxi will be required. Choosing the right air taxi will not only determine the success of your trip; it can potentially save your life. There are no runways in caribou country, there are landing strips. I promise you the first time you see a landing strip from the air you'll ask the bush pilot, "We are landing where exactly?" And you won't actually see the strip until you step out of the plane and stand on it, at which time you might be able to discern an area with fewer rocks than the area around it.
An experienced and responsible bush pilot is critical. Not only is the flying difficult, weather is a constant challenge in Alaska and the right decisions need to be made quickly when things turn sour. Be sure to have several conversations with the pilot prior to booking to get an impression and check as many references as you can muster prior to stepping a foot in to the plane. It is also a good idea to check with the FAA to make sure he's not hiding any skeletons.
Choose your bush pilot carefully; the success and safety of your hunt depend on it.
Once a caribou herd is selected and the air taxi is chosen, it's time to gear up. The air taxi will provide a weight limit for the flight in to the field, usually around 75 lbs. This weight limit will act as the limiting factor for your gear, and it is imperative you adhere to it. If a hunter shows up "too heavy" a good air taxi will be happy to lighten your load for you. It's better to be prepared at or below the specified weight, that way you don't have to cull your gear under pressure and risk leaving behind gear you'd rather have in camp.
There are two options for preparing camping gear. The most economical option is to provide your own backpacking type gear. A small 3 season tent, lightweight sleeping bag and pad, water purifier, and a compact cooking stove and utensils will get you through the week safely. Remember, you are not packing for comfort; you are packing to ensure your safety…big difference.
The other, slightly more expensive, option is to rent camping gear from an air taxi or outfitter. This will add to the price of the trip, but makes the logistics a little easier and will usually add to your overall weight allowance as the air taxi will probably make an extra trip since you've rented his gear.
On our trip we worked through an outfitter that provided a camp with tents that included wood stoves, cook stoves, cots, sleeping pads and bags, lanterns, propane and salt for capes. Included in the price was flying the gear in and getting it to the camp site. We paid more than we would have if we'd brought our own gear, but it made the logistics a little easier and eased the pressure on our weight limit so we could bring a few more creature comforts.
Clothing should be lightweight and quick drying, and a quality waterproof outer layer is a must. Clothes should be kept to the absolute minimum; a set on your back and one extra is plenty. Quality, well broken in boots with a quality pair of socks for each day is also vitally important.
All the gear should be packed in an external frame backpack. An external frame is key because once a caribou is on the ground, the pack will need to be removed and the frame will be used to pack meat back to camp. An idea that works well is to use an extra large dry bag for packing clothes and gear. The dry bag can be strapped to the frame for transporting then can be unstrapped and used for clothes and gear storage while in camp. The dry bag is sealed and waterproof so it can be kept outside the tent, freeing valuable space inside the tent. With a 75 pound limit, gear needs to be planned and packed efficiently. Don't forget, food counts toward weight too so plan accordingly.
Your weapon should be streamlined to be as light as possible. Rifle hunters should leave the heavy barrels and 20 power scopes at home. A light weight rifle and 3x9 scope will give you everything you need. Bow hunters have less flexibility but should keep weight in mind wherever possible. Bow or rifle will need to be transported in a soft case in the bush plane.
Once in the field, be prepared to glass. Caribou hunting will either be in a tundra environment or in hill country above timberline. Either way, it is best to let binoculars and a spotting scope do most of the searching. If the plan comes together as it should, camp will be situated right in caribou country and there will be no need to wander. Once a good bull is identified there will be plenty of opportunity for walking during the stalk and hopefully while packing out meat and horns.
Caribou country is big and a hunter can see a long way. Be prepared to spend some time behind the glass.
For those who have not hunted Alaska, know that you will work very hard to successfully execute a self guided hunt. In my own opinion, the value of a guided hunt is not so much the assistance received while hunting but all the services that are rendered while the guide and hunter are in the field. Something always "breaks" in camp and must be fixed, food must be prepared, firewood must be gathered, meat and capes must be handled properly - the list is long. On a self guided excursion, the hunter must also be prepared to be camp manager and camp cook.
Understanding all laws that apply to a hunt is essential. Read the regulations thoroughly as a part of planning the trip and call the Alaska Department of Fish and Game prior to the hunt to ensure every law is being followed. The Fish and Game Department is a part of the Sate Police in Alaska and there is no flexibility in their interpretation; the law is followed or it isn't.
More than likely the hunter will need to exhibit a lot of patience. Things happen in Alaska only when weather allows it. It is likely that bush flights will be delayed or rescheduled because of weather. It is likely you'll spend time in your tent because the rain or fog just won't allow for practical hunting. A schedule is important, but it should be viewed as a guideline rather than a strict agenda.
Lastly, setting expectations is also important. If a hunter is not going to be happy unless a trophy animal is harvested, then it is probably best to save your pennies and hire a guide. The primary goal of a self guided hunt should be safety. Next the hunter should be prepared to enjoy the experience first and understand that coming home empty handed is possible, if not likely. Lastly, my definition of a "trophy" on any unguided hunt is to harvest a good representative of the species. In the case of caribou my goal was at least one shovel, a bez on each side with points and visible points on top. The size of the frame was not important and the overall score was never even a consideration.
My breathing back to normal, my nerves once again settled, I waited anxiously for the bull to emerge from his hide. The tips of the antlers were visible first. They appeared to come directly out of the ground as the caribou climbed out of the drainage toward the hill in front of me. Next came the bez points, then the shovel and then for just an instant the entire bull was silhouetted against a fiery sunset. It was one of those moments in time that only lasts for only a second, but that is remembered for an eternity.
The bull walked across the hill in front of me and paused to feed directly between my range markers. He stopped feeding and lifted his head, the velvet on his antlers glowing with an orange tint as the setting sun warmed them. I settled the crosshairs on the bull's chest, but was surprised when the rifle recoiled against my shoulder. The view through the scope was magnificent and while I gazed in humble appreciation my finger had squeezed the trigger; more out of muscle memory than out of any desire to end the hunt.
No hunting is easy. Hunting in Alaska without a guide is down right tough. As I admired my trophy I took pride in the fact that I had planned and executed a self guided hunt that was a success by any measure; the air taxi was first rate, the camp was well equipped and situated in the middle of caribou country, and I had hunted safely with four friends sixty miles from the nearest road. The fact that I was fortunate enough to harvest a mature bull caribou was simply a bonus.
The author with a bull harvested on a self guided caribou hunt in Alaska's interior. Photo by Matt Gantt.
For those who enjoy hunting in truly wild places and pursuing game that can't be found in the lower 48, caribou hunting in Alaska is a must. With some careful planning and a lot of hard work, an Alaska caribou hunt at a reasonable price is available to anyone.
Doug Humphreys lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia with his wife Aundrea, his son Oren and daughter Amelia. Doug hunts as often as he can in as many places as he can get to and enjoys freelancing for hunting publications.