Being an avid hunter my entire life, a common question I’m asked is “what is your dream hunt?” Without fail, every time I’d answer, “caribou hunting in Alaska.” When I would respond this way, I’d picture it happening 20 or 30 years from now. I knew it would be expensive, hard to plan, and seemingly just out of reach.
In 2017, I was in a very serious rollover accident on my way to class from a hunting trip, and it totally changed my way of thinking. As I almost died, I now have a very real understanding of how short life really is, and I’ve learned to not put things off or to hold back from chasing my dreams.
Making It Happen
So, this year I decided that I was going to hunt caribou and that I’d make it happen no matter what. I looked into over-the-counter tag options and realized the only way I was going to accomplish this hunt within my financial means was to do a fully DIY, public land, unguided hunt. I did all the research, looked into public areas to hunt, and read up on the characteristics and habits of caribou.
At this point in my life, I had only been to Alaska once — to look for moose sheds — and that was in a totally different part of the state. In fact, I had never even seen a caribou in real life! To say that I didn’t know what to expect was an understatement. But, regardless, I was going for it.
I invited my friend Kayla on this trip, as we had always wanted to do a hunt together. We departed on September 15th and had high hopes for finding caribou and tagging out. We flew up to Alaska and rented a van to drive and sleep in. The van would keep us safe from the grizzlies and protect us from the frigid Alaskan weather.
On the Hunt
We had five days to hunt and, from the beginning, we realized this was going to be a lot harder than we expected. We were like fish out of water, two hunters new to Alaska, hunting a in place we had never been. Hunting an animal that lives in herds with a couple thousand head sounded simple, but the struggle is finding that herd.
We saw caribou just on the first and last days of our hunt. They were always moving fast, and away from us. We tried our best to gain on them, chasing them up and over mountains for miles. The closest we got was 700 yards on the last day, but with no shot opportunity.
We hiked 10 miles a day or more in tough terrain. The mountains featured thousands of feet of elevation gain in the soft, squishy tundra. The temps never went above 30 degrees and got down into the teens at night. We had good gear to stay warm, and we never stopped moving or glassing for those elusive caribou.
We left with tags in our pockets, but we honestly had a great time. We got to spend five days in the most beautiful, wild Alaskan backcountry. We left Alaska for home, and I couldn’t help but feel that I had some unfinished business with the caribou.
The Next Step
I got back to my home in Utah and got ready for my next tag; Colorado archery elk. I had done that hunt before and it just wasn’t getting me excited like Alaska did, so I made the last-minute decision to fly back to Alaska by myself, and solo hunt for caribou in the bush.
I figured that even if I didn’t see a caribou, at least I would be giving it one last fighting chance. I’ve had a lot of successful solo hunts in my life on public land, so I wasn’t nervous or discouraged about hunting alone. I knew that my biggest threat would be getting a caribou and then breaking it down and packing it out by myself in dense grizzly county; but for that, I was prepared.
I never go anywhere in the woods without my Springfield Armory 1911 chambered in 10mm. I’ve been carrying this gun on my hip for a few years now and have complete confidence in it. I knew that as long as I stayed alert and focused I’d be safe, and also prepared with that 10mm on my hip.
I bought a one-way ticket to Alaska and rented a four-door truck this time since I was by myself. I was instantly greeted with a totally different climate; it felt like mid-winter up there! Daily highs were just 15 degrees, and the roads and mountains were now covered in snow. Glassing was much harder in these frigid temps, but I knew that it would give me my best shot at finding some caribou.
About halfway into my first day of hunting, I spotted four caribou miles and miles away. I could tell that it was two cows and two calves out feeding in the snow. Because of the terrain, I couldn’t see the big herd, but I knew they had to be close and just out of my view.
It was too late in the day and they were too far away to get on, so I decided to make a game plan for the morning. They seemed to be moving southeast, so I planned to start hiking in the morning about 20 miles southeast of where I spotted them (because they move all night and cover a lot of ground).
I started hiking in the early dark on day two of my second Alaska trip. I had to cross through a big valley before going up a steep mountain to glass, in hopes of relocating the herd. It had just barely turned light as I was crossing through the valley, and I saw something move to my right.
This “something” was closer than expected and my initial reaction was it was a grizzly. I quickly removed my binoculars from the harness and looked at this animal — it was a caribou. As I scanned over its antlers, I realized it was a GIANT bull. Luckily, my rifle was not attached to my backpack as I had it harnessed around my shoulder and ready to go.
This caribou was moving fast through the trees and hadn’t realized that I was there yet. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time or space to set up with that large animal moving quickly through the thick trees, so I shouldered my rifle to make a shot.
I primarily archery hunt and I’m decent at guessing ranges under 100 yards. Looking at this bull, I knew that he was about 80 yards away. So, I knew I’d be able to put my crosshairs right on him for an accurate shot.
I shouldered my rifle, took a deep breath, aimed right behind his shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. I heard the impact and watched the bull with my eyes. He stood there for a second, did a slow circle, and collapsed to the ground in a matter of seconds. I was blown away by my emotions. I had just solo hunted and successfully killed a giant caribou in Alaska! How could this be?
I had such low expectations for this trip, really just going back for more time in the mountains and more experience figuring these crazy caribou out. I could not believe it, and that feeling after watching that caribou go down may just be the happiest I’ve been in my entire life. I truly worked so hard and overcame every obstacle. I am proud of myself for not giving up and not making any excuses. I did it.
The Next Step
Now the hard part: breaking down an entire caribou and hiking it out of the Alaskan bush by myself. Alaska has very specific meat laws as well: pretty much the only things you’re leaving behind are some bones and the guts. I was not dreading this process though; this was my reward for working so hard — hundreds of pounds of free-range, organic meat for my freezer.
I got some pictures with my bull with the help of my camera, tripod and self-timer. Next, I positioned the bull so I could start removing his quarters, back straps, tenderloins, neck meat, rib meat and so on.
The entire time that I was breaking down the caribou, I kept my Springfield Armory 10mm close and on my hip. This was the most crucial time for attention to movement around me because a hungry grizzly could be lurking nearby for my carcass.
The entire process of breaking down the meat and hiking it out took about eight hours. Hiking out an entire caribou by a 110-lb. woman is no small feat, and it took me four trips. The first trip was a front quarter and hindquarter. The second trip was the last front quarter and hindquarter. The third trip was all the back straps, tenderloins, neck meat, rib meat, scrap meat and miscellaneous gear. The last and fourth trip was the head, cape, camera and tripod. I was able to get the meat into town and to a meat locker. To my surprise, my hind quarter and front quarter loads weighed 85 lbs. each! It really is incredible what you can accomplish with some determination and adrenaline.
This entire experience was so special for me. Shooting and packing out an entire caribou by myself, deep in the Alaskan wilderness, was truly the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I never doubted myself, and never I feared the predators of Alaska for a second because of that 10mm on my hip.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to have confidence in the sidearm that you carry. I feel very fortunate that I can go do these crazy solo hunts because I feel so safe and protected with a trusty 10mm at arm’s reach.
I’d be nothing in the woods without a solid piece of protection on my hip at all times. If anyone else wants to try solo hunting in any wilderness, I highly recommend buying a sidearm and practicing with it often if it is legal to carry there. Give yourself that peace of mind and confidence to go out and chase your dreams with no excuses. The memories and accomplishments for me from this caribou hunt will be close to my heart for the rest of my life.
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