"Hey Chuck," my long-time hunting pal Richard Long hissed through the flap of our tiny backpack tent. "Look outside. Quick!"
I groaned, rolled to my knees, and fumbled for my pants. Here I was, in the middle of Alaska's barren ground caribou country, with the worst case of flu I'd had in 20 years. It was barely daylight -- 3:45 a.m. -- so I wasn't exactly sleeping in. But Richard had beaten me out of bed by more than an hour, cooking a Mountain House freeze-dried breakfast and puttering around camp.
When I peeked past the tent fly, my heart skipped a beat. A herd of caribou bulls was feeding 200 yards from camp -- tall-racked trophies with long main beams and antler tines sprouting everywhere! I dove back into the tent for my 10X glasses, high fever and queasy stomach temporarily forgotten.
A close look at the herd in front of us was impressive. There were 14 bulls, and every one was large. Two were giants, flirting with the Boone and Crockett minimum.
"Go get 'em, friend," I said with a weak wave of my hand. "I still feel puny, and two's a crowd with all those eyes and ears."
My partner didn't need a pep talk. We had hunted Alaska's barren ground caribou the year before, and Rich had failed to find the one he wanted. He burned his tag and swore revenge on Alaskan bulls. As I sat by the tent flap and watched my pal slip toward the caribou, I could see he was primed to make good on his vendetta.
It was not Richard's day. The caribou walked a half-mile, climbed a 500-foot hill, and disappeared. They were not spooked, merely lining out for parts unknown, as caribou so often do. Rich jammed his hands into his pockets and headed back to camp. When caribou are in a traveling mood, nobody catches them.
Caribou are not America's spookiest animals, but like all members of the deer family, they do have excellent senses and put them to good use. To get within bow range of caribou, you must keep breezes in your favor, use all available cover, and move as silently as possible. Even wide-open country has dips and folds that help you to stalk within range.
The keys to bagging these animals are moving between vantage points, glassing with good binoculars, and hunting until you find a bull in a stalkable position. In the summer, bulls lounge on high hills where strong breezes keep biting bugs away. Caribou hate bugs.
That's why I prefer to bowhunt barren ground caribou in late summer when the bulls hang out in bachelor groups. Once you find a suitable bull, you can hunt him all day -- unless he's in a walking mood. Summer days in Alaska are 18 to 20 hours long, so shortage of daylight is not an obstacle.
Alaska allows nonresidents to pursue caribou without a guide, so Richard and I hired an air taxi service to fly us to a remote area that Alaska game biologists had told me held plenty of summertime bulls. They were right.
The next day was windy with intermittent rain -- typical summer weather in Alaska. I was beginning to beat the flu, so Rich and I left camp together.
We carried backpacks stuffed with hunting and survival gear. During our many hours of hiking and glassing, we would burn a lot of calories, so we carried trail mix, granola bars, and other power foods to keep up our energy. We also had satellite telephones, first-aid kits, extra clothes, and waterproof tarps. With the nearest road 200 miles away, a minor accident can turn into tragedy unless you fend for yourself and have some way to contact others in an emergency.
I eased up the mountain west of camp. Climbing higher would give me a better view. A dozen 'bou wandered the valley below, and a few more were bedded high above. Two larger bulls fed past me on the mountainside, then bolted as they caught my scent.
Rounding the flank of the mountain, I skidded to a halt. Caribou were scattered like pepper across the valley below -- cows and calves here, a small bull there, two or three middle-sized bulls elsewhere. Animals appeared and vanished as they fed across the deeply cut low country. In less than 10 minutes I counted 55 caribou, including some with decent antlers.
Then I spotted a huge bull. He was over a mile away, but the point-studded rack stood out against a glittering lowland lake. I pressed the binoculars to my eyes. The bull was a monster. I watched him for a minute or two, noted landmarks in the vicinity, and then piled off the mountain at a trot.
One hour later, I slowed to a sneak and slipped up a wind-blown ridge of sand. This landmark had been near the bull, and I peered over the top. The colossal caribou was bedded 100 yards away. His velvet rack rose like two moss-covered trees.
A shallow ravine angled toward the caribou. I ducked out of sight, circled to intersect the
draw, and started a soggy crawl. A half-hour later, I risked a peek.
The monster bull was feeding in front of me. My rangefinder said 40 yards. I rose to my knees, drew the bow, and planted the pin on his Hershey-chocolate chest. The arrow hit with a crunch, and a few minutes later I was admiring my prize on the ground -- the best barren ground caribou I had ever shot.
The tall rack had 17 points on the left and 19 on the right, with main beams over 50 inches long. Palmated tops, long points, and a 49½-inch spread all boosted the score. After an official 60-day drying period with velvet stripped away, my caribou measured 396 6/8 inches, placing it among the top entries in the Pope and Young Record Book.
On nonguided caribou hunts, meat transport can be a chore. Alaska law requires hunters to salvage all edible meat, including lower legs, neck, and ribs. In some hunt districts, removing bones from the quarters is not allowed. Where legal, the smart move is to de-bone the carcass where it falls, which reduces a 400-pound 'bou to less than 150 pounds of meat, antlers, and cape.
In four hours I dissected my 'bou, draped the meat over alder bushes to cool, and headed back to camp. Tomorrow would be a grueling meat-packing day, and I needed some rest.
Rich had not bagged an animal, but he had seen a lot. We were up at dawn, going our separate ways through chilling mist and rain. Ten hours later, I laid my last load of caribou meat by the sleeping tent. Minutes later, Rich appeared along the lake. The grin on his face and the spring in his step told me all I needed to know. He'd gotten even with the caribou.
My friend's bull had the longest bez tines I have ever seen. The record-book rack was completely different from mine, with shorter top tines and oversized lower beams. That's one nifty thing about caribou -- every set of antlers is unique.
The caribou racks looked great beside our tent as we waited for the floatplane to arrive. Drop-camp hunting can be tricky to plan and carry out, but both of us knew where we wanted to be the following August. Barren ground 'bou get in your blood!