Caribou Heaven, Caribou Hell: Hunting in Alaska with Editor-at-Large Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Caribou Heaven, Caribou Hell
By Bill Heavey I had envisioned all sorts of hardships on my first caribou hunt above the Arctic Circle: cold, exhaustion, being constantly wet, even the frustration that comes when you haven't seen a 'bou in three days. What I did not come prepared for is being stuck for half a week in a rundown one-room apartment in an Alaskan village with five strange guys watching nonstop reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

This particular hell is due to the outfitter's needing to catch up with a weather-induced backlog of hunters awaiting transport into or out of the bush. I am on this hunt at the invitation of a buddy, David Draper, who works for Cabela's, and whom I last saw at an ice-fishing festival in Brainerd, Minn., where he had taken off most of his clothes in an effort to raise beer money by posing for photographs. (It is a measure of Cabela's strength that it can dominate the outdoor market with somebody like Draper on the payroll.) At the moment, I'm trying to keep from strangling him. For the last hour, every time the show's laugh track has gone off, Draper has joined in with a reflexive, mirthless, and identical giggle of his own. If it keeps up, I may have no alternative. He now resembles nothing so much as a recently dissected frog, something dead that nonetheless continues to kick if poked in the right spot. And what makes it worse is that the four other guys, whom I just met, don't seem to be bothered by it in the least. Which makes me think they are crazy, too. Crazy in Kotzebue
Truth is, we've all veered off the track. Kotzebue, which lies a few miles north of the Arctic Circle and is the jumping-off point for a good chunk of northwest Alaska, is a dreary little village of peeling houses landscaped with old shipping crates and rusting heavy equipment parts. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. three days ago on the early flight from Anchorage, expecting to be out of here and into camp by noon. But a previous stretch of bad weather (even by Alaskan standards) had backed up the hunters ahead of us going in and coming out of the bush. So we are sitting in the outfitter's rental holding tank, waiting for the word to mount up that never comes. We drink coffee until noon, switch to beer after, and watch one of three channels on satellite TV all day. We fight over the one bed and floor space each night, listen to sled dogs on short ropes 12 feet outside our window bark all night (average bark rate by my watch: 80 times a minute), and eat gummy, insanely overpriced Chinese food in restaurants run by Koreans (don't ask).
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

For live entertainment, we wander down to the airstrip to hear the latest horror stories from soggy hunters who can barely restrain themselves from kissing the tarmac as they trip out of single-engine planes. There are two guys from Montana whose pilot took their meat, antlers, and most of their gear on the first flight, promised to be back in two hours, and didn't return for six days. They were reduced to splitting a can of soup and a few crackers for dinner to save rations. "It poured almost nonstop for three days,-¿ one tells me. "Just buckets of rain. Whenever there was a break, we'd sprint down the beach and back just to try and warm up.-¿ A foursome of hunters from Idaho awaiting their plane on a sandbar got cut off by rising waters, retreating until they ran out of high ground and watched some of their gear float away. Without a satellite phone, they might not have made it. An Alaskan National Guard Black Hawk helicopter was dispatched from Fairbanks, as was a C-130 from Anchorage to refuel the chopper in midair. After picking the men up, the helicopter had to take on fuel a second time in the air before finally making it back to Kotzebue. Even the locals sound impressed by that one.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Seeking a respite from the wind and rain at the strip, I stumble into an outfitter's gear shed and find two guys from New Jersey who are three days late and still giddy at having made it back intact. They lost all their cached meat to bears, which then showed up each night between 1 and 3 a.m., snuffling around just outside their tent. "Wall of nylon isn't much security,-¿ the shorter one says. "We'd made trip wires of soda cans with stones in them using fishing line, but that didn't bother them. My buddy got immune to the fear after a while. He'd just roll over, stick his arm out the flap, and fire a .44 mag in the air. Fifteen seconds later, he'd be snoring again. Me, I was scared s---less. I couldn't sleep unless it was daytime.-¿ They wish me good luck and hustle off to try to get standby seats on the flight back to Anchorage.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Around noon on the third day we suddenly get the word: There's a weather window and it's our turn. There is an ecstatic fumbling for gear, and we hustle down to the airstrip half-dressed. And then, almost before we know it, three planes bearing the six of us are roaring down the runway almost side by side. Bush pilots do not stand on ceremony, nor do they care greatly for instructions from the tower. The name of the game is to move as much cargo as fast as possible because you never know how long the weather will hold.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Half an hour later, we top a ridge and begin angling down toward an uneven gravel bar in the middle of what we are told is the Eli River. "He's not gonna land there,-¿ I say to myself. We are clearly descending into a field of igneous rocks the size of bowling balls. "He's not gonna land there.-¿ The aircraft is so packed that I'm carrying my rifle between my knees, and I reposition it so that the barrel will only break my collarbone instead of going through my eye when we crash. I am still chanting my little mantra when we come to a bumpy stop. The planes dump our gear, roar back into the sky, and are gone almost immediately. Suddenly, the only sound is the wind. We have engaged Northern Trophy Outfitters for transport, food, and camping gear, but nothing else. We are now on our own. A Caribou Window
We begin ferrying gear through the freezing water and up to a campsite in the stunted trees. Everybody here is from Nebraska but me. Mark Nelsen and Tom Rosdail work with Draper at Cabela's and have come up on their own dime for a busman's holiday. Jeff Baldridge is a veterinary meds salesman who has a farmer's quiet, no-nonsense demeanor and the air of a guy who knows how to put meat on the ground. Steve Freese is a just-retired captain in the Douglas County Sheriff's Department who plans to hunt and fish his brains out for the rest of his life. He is a heavyset man who moves slowly and deliberately and seems incapable of getting upset about anything less than a triple homicide. All these guys are immensely more likable now that we're working together to set up camp. Plus, there are a lot of animals to go around. The Western Arctic caribou herd is the biggest in Alaska, nearly half a million animals. They are barren-ground caribou, generally the biggest antlered of the three types found in North America. In the fall they meander down from their summer grounds in the southeast part of the Brooks Range and winter over north of Nome. While the legal season goes for months, the practical season is short. Antlers are still soft at the beginning of August and don't harden up until September. The bigger bulls in this area wait until the middle of the month to start moving south toward their wintering grounds. By October there is usually too much snow on the ground for a bush plane to land with tundra tires, but not quite enough for skis. What this means is that the effective season for trophy caribou is no more than three weeks, sometimes a month. We're lucky to be here at all.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

I find myself in the unusual position of being the most experienced caribou hunter in camp, having once gone after them in Quebec. What I know is that they are tasty but neither particularly bright nor great rewarders of hard work. If you're in an area through which they are migrating, your chances of success are high. But the ancestral travel routes they have to choose from are almost without number, and they make their selection according to criteria known only to themselves. In short, timely local intelligence is everything. When you do get between them and a place they want to go, you're as likely to shoot one close to camp as 3 miles away, though from the way the Cabela's boys are talking, it sounds as if they are trending toward the heroic, planning hikes up into the shale foothills and mountains above the tundra that lies along the river. Because of the delay getting into the bush, and because I was naive enough to plan another trip on the premise that I could choose the days of my arrival and departure, my five-day hunt has now dwindled to two. The others will stay on, but a plane is to pick me up on Wednesday in time to make the evening flight from Kotzebue back to Anchorage. I am more than a little worried about the brevity of the hunt, but there's not a hell of a lot I can do about it now.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Why It's Called Barren Ground
The next morning, we head out in two groups. Tom, Steve, and I make our way straight up from the dwarf trees into the rolling tundra; the others head north and into the foothills. I thought I had walked tundra on my previous hunt, but the Canadian stuff was asphalt road compared to this. This is boot-sucking, fall-inducing, forward-movement-arresting muck. You start out stepping on the firmer-looking clumps of grass to avoid sinking in the sludge around them. After a few tumbles, however, you realize that the tussocks are a sucker's bet, floating islands you slide off of. So you seek out the lowest ground first, since that's where you'll end up anyway. But even this is a delusion, as the terrain is honeycombed with the hidden trails and burrows of lemmings, voles, and Arctic hares. Every so often you end up thigh-deep in some rodent's condo. It seems entirely possible to disappear quietly and permanently into the ground while the guy in front of you walks nonchalantly away. After 200 yards, I am winded and struggling to keep up with Tom, who is my age but far more determined. Steve, carrying a muzzleloader, has already fallen 100 yards behind us and is in no great hurry to twist a knee. Tom grimaces. "I think Steve's gonna hold us back a bit,-¿ he says when we finally take a break. "Yeah...,-¿ I pant. "Steve...hold us back.-¿ He waits for Steve as I slog another 50 yards to top a rock mound for a look. My Bushnell Elite 10x42s clearly show a herd of caribou on a hill at least 2 miles south. In this kind of walking, and with absolutely no cover for an approach, they might as well be across the Bering Sea.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Steve announces he is happy just to sit on the rock mound and see what develops. Tom and I slog on across the hill, traverse a little creek, and head for a higher perch 500 yards away at the foot of the shale mountains. From there, we can glass, see if they'll come our way, and possibly intercept them. The 20-knot winds slice through us and buffet the spotting scope on its tripod. At 60-power I can just make out the bodies of the older bulls, larger and whiter than the other animals, with shaggy dewlaps. It's tough to get a feel for racks at this distance, and the scale and austerity of the landscape are, frankly, mildly terrifying. The distant herd continues to feed but does not really move. Several times an hour, Tom and I take short walks below our observation post to keep the blood moving. On one, we suddenly catch sight of five caribou, three females and two juvenile bulls, coming our way from above and left on the mountain. They will soon pass within 200 yards. We hunker down and watch, fearful that spooking them will start a chain reaction. Meat on the hoof, they amble along, grazing the lichens and late blueberries. Their antlers are bigger than those of any deer I've ever shot, but as caribou go they are negligible. After three hours, the herd, including what I can now tell are eminently shootable bulls, is no closer. With the light leaking from the sky, we slog home.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Camp Meat, Part 1
Back at camp, David and Jeff are warming themselves by the fire, both having taken bulls a couple of miles from camp. Their faces tell of satisfaction and exhaustion, initial euphoria followed by five hours of dressing, quartering, and hauling meat and antlers. Steve, the slowpoke, is the only one who has husbanded enough energy to cook. He shaves long strips off one of the fresh tenderloins, seasons them with garlic salt and pepper, and threads the strips onto green poplar sticks. We eat it hot off the fire with our hands, accompanied by the choice of beer or Canadian whiskey. It sounds picturesque, but our camp wouldn't make it into an outfitter's catalog showing the romance of the wilderness. It's nothing more than three two-man domed tents crammed in among the poplars and spruce, strewn about with waxed cardboard boxes containing our canned goods, perishables hanging in plastic tarps and bags from trees just downwind. But a smoky fire and a damp log to sit on are welcome after a day on the tundra, as is the caribou. It's hunter's meat: flesh that was walking hours earlier. Camp falls quiet while the butt of one of the logs slowly turns into a mosaic of glowing orange tiles that crumble, one by one, into the fire. And one by one, we finish up and crawl off to our bags.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Camp Meat, Part 2
In the morning, heading down to the river for water, I take my rifle and remember to walk loudly, recalling the outfitter's advice about bears. "Keep your meat and latrine downwind of camp. Make noise when you go to crap or get wood. Anybody with half an ounce of common sense should be fine.-¿ Well, I think, that lets me out. On top of this, I'm lightly gunned: a Winchester .270 with 130-grain Ballistic Silvertips for "light, thin-skinned game.-¿ It's plenty of gun and lead for caribou, and just enough to seriously aggravate Ursus horribilis. On the other hand, who am I kidding? A charging grizzly can outrun a quarter horse over the same distance. The best hope for a guy with my combination of nerve and shooting skill is that the bear will be put off by the poopy smell emanating from my trousers. I'm halfway done filling the big jug before I see it in the black sand by the water's edge. At my feet is a print as big as my size 12s, only twice as wide, and belonging to someone in serious need of a toenail overhaul. It's a griz, and it's popping fresh. I stare at it, wide-eyed, and am instantly transported back 10,000 years. Deep inside my monkey brain, a circuit connects and the ancient warning courses through my bloodstream: You not top predator here. We've been told that the bears in this area get hunted hard and generally avoid humans. But if ever I needed a reminder that we are on the unpaved side of the guardrail, this is it. My heart tachs up to about 130 beats per minute. I walk very loudly back to camp and whistle as I go.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

A Bull in the Scope
It seems ridiculous (and will turn out to be more ridiculous still) that the second day of the hunt is my last. Tom, Mark, and I head back up to glass in the foothills of the shale north of camp. There are ancestral trails all around and above us: on the ridges, along the river, through saddles. There is even a caribou interstate heading diagonally up the slopes to a very high pass in the mountains some miles distant. It glistens silver in the sun, like a fresh scratch in old lead, traversing a grade where a single misstep would send you tumbling thousands of feet. The only drawback at the moment is that there is not a caribou in sight. The three of us hunker down out of the wind in the lee of a boulder, slam some energy bars and water, and try to figure the best move. Tom wants to continue north alone to prospect. Mark and I decide to try our luck back south, nearer to camp. In the folds of the foothills there are two streams running from the mountains down to the river. The 'bou use them as travel routes, and any animals spooked by one of our party higher up might be ambushed here as they flee. As we make our way down through a meadow, however, we spot a herd that has moved into the tundra belt above camp in the two hours since we left. Sure enough, they are feeding slowly toward one of the streams. "If we really book,-¿ says Mark, "we could sneak up the stream and have a shot if they stay put for a bit.-¿ It's a lot of running and only a slim chance at gunning, but that's what we're here for. We set out at maximum slog, pushing hard just inside the cover of the trees at the meadow's edge, sneaking out now and then for an update.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

We duckwalk low up the streambed, only 500 yards from the herd, in which we now can see several shooters. But a shot above us in the mountains seems to unnerve them, or maybe they've caught a whiff of something. They start to break up. Mark wants to stay put in the hope that they'll regroup. Mark, I salute you. But you have three more days and my ears are already stuffed with David E. Petzal's delighted howls. "You whiffed on caribou, the highest-percentage of all big-game hunts? I know dead guys who have gone on caribou hunts and scored!-¿ So I backtrack down the creek to the trees, head south for a few hundred yards, and edge up a little fold in the terrain to another rock mound. My reasoning is simple: A few animals seem headed that way and I can't think of anything else to do. I stalk the area, hoping to see something good when I finally poke my nose over the crest. The wind has risen to 15 or 20 knots, the sky has darkened, and intermittent rain hits my face like needles. I set the .270 before me on its bipod and make like a log, hoping a caribou will venture within range. Half an hour later, the only things that have changed are my body temperature and the amount of daylight remaining. I back down out of the wind for a minute to regain feeling in my feet and hands, wondering whether the sins I'm being punished for are from this incarnation or an earlier one. And that's when the Tooth Fairy finds me. Directly behind me, less than half a mile downwind, stands a herd of 40 animals or more grazing in the longer grass near the river. I have no idea how long they've been there. I was so sure that anything downwind would take off that I had not bothered to monitor that direction. It makes no sense-"but then again it doesn't have to. Because there they are. Better still, although they aren't moving much, when they do it's in my direction. There is a lot of open ground between us, and nothing but a thin belt of knee-high shrubs 50 yards away for cover. If I can somehow get there undetected, I've got a chance. Dumping my pack, I sling my rifle over my back and start a fast crawl on hands and knees. Every few yards, I fall face-first into the soft, wet moss. My gloves are gone, my boots are full of water, and I have dirt in my teeth, but I am thankful beyond all reckoning to have electrical-taped my rifle muzzle. The wind is still perfectly wrong, but the herd continues drifting in my direction. I put my rangefinder on the lead animal: 273 yards. This is a reasonable shot for an experienced, competent marksman, and I wish I had one along at the moment. I am a mediocre shot on a good day, and this-"heavy wind, rain, a body shaking from cold and adrenaline-"does not really qualify. I move again, then once more, until I am out of stalk-sustaining shrubbery. A few of the animals seem to have noticed me and have slowed but are unalarmed. Perhaps I am blessed with body odor that is agreeable to caribou. Or maybe, though they are not God's brightest creatures, they can somehow intuit hunters who can't shoot worth a damn. Meanwhile, the bipod keeps sinking into the muck, giving me a steady bead on the ground 2 feet away. What I need is a rodent hole I can sink into so that the rifle will be higher than my body. But, like cops, rodent holes are never around when you need one. At last, still crawling, I stumble into a wet depression and kick away at it until it accommodates my shoulders. My butt is elevated provocatively, my back is bent like a Cheez Doodle, but none of this matters because there is a bull caribou clomping along in my scope. I've got more experience driving chariots pulled by matched teams of racing squirrels than I do shooting moving targets at a distance, but it's now or never. I laser him at 170 yards and focus on swinging through as I let out a breath and squeeze. The report scatters the herd. I run the bolt while trying to reacquire him. The bull has stopped and is swaying onField & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Going Nowhere Slowly
The next morning, as I'm packing up for my flight, a plane from another outfitter flies low over our camp, which I figure is a heads-up that my ride is on the way. I continue to think this right until dark, at which time I unpack and drink beer. This pattern of activity continues for the next two days. I have had the foresight to bring no reading material whatsoever, so I spend most of my time collecting wood, tending the fire, and reading the fine print on the granola bars, Pringles, and soup cans in camp. Occasionally, there is a trip out to haul caribou quarters. Draper wounds a bull one day and, while following the blood trail, notices a blondish grizzly, most likely a large juvenile boar, which has smelled blood and decided to participate in the search. At this point, David decides that the polite and wise thing to do is to let the bear take over. He hustles back to camp with his rifle unslung, walking backward most of the way.
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Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Three days after my scheduled departure, on the day the rest of the party is due to be picked up, we haul everything down to the river and wade back through the water, now half a foot higher, to the gravel bar, leaving only our bags, rifles, and one tent at the campsite. We consider ourselves old Alaska hands now, sourdoughs almost, and know that the plane may fail to show. Which is exactly what happens. Fortunately, we are prepared. We have prudently used up all our firewood and are also out of boiled drinking water. We have wisely moved our cots, without which sleep is nearly impossible, to the pickup spot, along with almost all the food. Remaining at the campsite are two spoons, a big can of beef stew, a roll of toilet paper, and whiskey. We cobble together a fire, roll the can of stew in, and wait until we are reasonably sure that the bottom is burnt and the top is cold. Then we sit by the fire, open it and pass it from man to man, followed in short order by the whiskey. At a certain point, the liquor laps the stew, then laps it again. The smoke, held down by low barometric pressure, visits each hunter in turn. It's democratic smoke, making sure everybody gets a good whiff. We are too cold and tired to move out of its way. You just sort of try to put your head in your armpit until it moves on to the next guy. Aside from the exhaustion, soreness, smoke inhalation, and missed flights, we're all feeling pretty good. We are in no particular hurry to return to our cubicles and mortgages. We're lucky enough to be AWOL from our daily lives and adrift in a world with a much stronger claim to reality.Field & Stream Online Editors
Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

Hunting barren lands caribou with Bill Heavey

One by one, we crawl into the tent, all of 9 feet square. It just manages to hold six if we lie four across the middle, head to toe, with a man lying crosswise at each end. Roots assault us through our thin sleeping pads. Each of us is getting involuntary acupuncture treatments, mine in the small of my back and left shoulder. Each is also convinced he is sandwiched between the group's two most objectionable hunters in terms of body and breath odor, snoring, and general personality. The darkness fills with groans, complaints, and audible farting as we all struggle for positions that might allow actual sleep. "Cowboy up!-¿ Tom finally mutters. "I've had it worse than this.-¿ I have too, I suppose, though it's hard to remember when. Now that I think of it, the nights back in Kotzebue were worse. More comfortable physically, but that was before I knew and liked these idiots, before we had forded rivers and hauled caribou quarters and eaten burnt stew together. "Gimme another shot of that whiskey,-¿ calls Mark. "Why?-¿ someone asks. "Because I'm sleeping next to Draper and he's starting to look good.-¿ Steve touches off a silent one that has the guys closest to him burying their faces in their bags for protection. "Funny, I don't smell a thing,-¿ he murmurs placidly. The Fall Asleep First Contest, unique among human competitions in that the winner never knows of his victory, is under way. Steve is looking very strong, already snoring, though surprisingly lightly for a big man, as if he's trying to be considerate even in slumber. Jeff keeps skimming just into sleep and out again, a stop-and-start sort of snore. David mumbles that a lit match would blow us all to hell right about now. I find that by turning on my side, wedging a boot under my temple and a spare watch cap under my hip, I can reduce the root pressure to near tolerable levels, as long as I take hourly sips of whiskey. But the noise of snoring and groaning precludes slumber for me. Eventually, I chew up a piece of cardboard packaging that once held chocolate pudding and cram the warm, wet pulp into my auditory canal. At last, as I let go and fall slowly into another rodent hole, this one filled with sleep, I have the half-conscious notion that there is always some kind of luck hanging around for those who can see through its strange disguises.Field & Stream Online Editors