Bouncing down a barren stretch of the Dalton Highway, known to Alaskans as the Haul Road, a bang and a thud emanating from the engine compartment of our van signaled that our hunting adventure was far from over.
Our expedition started nine days prior when our group of ten, all members of BHA’s Armed Forces Initiative (AFI) and comprised mostly of veterans and active-duty service members, assembled for the first time in Fairbanks. Following introductory greetings we piled into a rented van, hooked up our trailer piled high with rafts and began the twelve-hour drive north to our destination on the North Slope of Alaska’s famed Brooks Range. Shortly into our journey we recognized this trip was going to be special. While three of our party, including myself, live in Alaska, this was everyone else’s first time seeing the picturesque landscapes of the Northern Interior bordering The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Every curve in the road brought new sights and an inevitable remark on either its beauty or remoteness. After a full day of driving we pulled into camp, set up our tents, and quickly fell asleep under the fading light of the midnight sun.
The following morning our scheduled airboat ride would take us some thirty miles upriver, beyond the Dalton Highway Corridor Management Area (DHCMA), and further into the tundra that barren ground caribou call home. The DHCMA is a designated bowhunting only area that extends five miles on either side of the Dalton Highway, protecting both migrating caribou and the trans-Alaska pipeline, carrying crude oil from Prudhoe Bay south to Valdez, from hunters’ bullets. After a two-hour airboat ride our group arrived at Tundra Camp 1 and quickly dispersed along the adjacent ridgelines to spot nearby caribou. Finding none, we turned ourselves to the task of setting up camp as dark clouds quickly moved across the horizon. Finishing camp set up moments before the storm clouds reached us, we were soon buffeted by wave after wave of wind and rain. Upon moving our rain-soaked equipment into the protective cover of the tents we bedded down for a long, wet night.
In the morning we awoke to snow on the tents, which was destined to melt soon after the morning sun rose above the horizon. We quickly cooked breakfast, organized our wet gear on top of nearby brush to dry, and headed off in buddy teams to glass from the high ground. Our Lower-48 guests were about to discover the wonders of walking on the tundra. You see, while the tundra looks flat and easily traversed, it is in fact covered by tiny tussocks, or grassy root balls, which one must either choose to walk across, or risk soaking your boots by stepping into the void between them. Due to the layer of permafrost on the tundra, surface water is not readily absorbed into the ground and often forms a muddy mess between the tussocks. This significantly slows movement and increases strain and muscle fatigue.
While the morning hours showed little caribou activity in the vicinity, our hopes were buoyed with the knowledge that caribou are migratory animals that can travel great distances in very little time. Identifying movement corridors and intercepting incoming animals is more important than chasing individual caribou on foot. By dinner our group had two bulls down, taken by a buddy team that pushed one ridgeline further than everyone else. They quickly field processed the animals, placed the first load in their packs, and stored the remainder for a subsequent trip in the morning. The rest of us gathered our now sun-dried equipment and found enough small branches along the riverside to have fuel a small, smoky fire, beside which we planned the second days’ hunt.
The second day would consist of more walking. Tom and Marc, the only two that successfully harvested animals on the first day, reported that they had seen more animals moving along a ridgeline several miles away from camp. Determined to put some more meat on the ground, three buddy teams headed out and occupied vantage points overlooking various valleys, saddles, and ridges while Tom and Marc went to retrieve their final load of caribou meat and antlers (according to Alaska regulation, antlers must be the last thing to be retrieved from the field). Upon reaching their cache they discovered that a grizzly had spent the night foraging through the kill site. While it had left the game bag covered meat untouched, the gut pile had been consumed and the carcass had been dragged and stashed in some nearby brush. There was still one day remaining until grizzly season opened, so Marc and Tom quickly retrieved their meat and returned to camp. Our final group remained closer to camp that second morning, watching and waiting for any caribou that remained closer to the riverbed, along which we were camped. As luck would have it, the group closest to camp was the only successful party that day, allowing for some assistance when it came time for the pack out.
Day three of the hunt was a travel day. Two consecutive days hiking up tundra covered hills and ridgelines had us excited to get in the rafts and give our legs a brief break. Loading up the rafts, we took great care to protect our harvested caribou meat and pushed off the shallow gravel shoreline. Once the current had the rafts in its grasp, we were free to lean back and relax. The river had little in the way of hazards for us to concern ourselves with. We scanned the shoreline and nearby ridges for both caribou and bear, at one point piling off the rafts to place a spotting scope on a patch of brown fur in the distance. The muskox, unimpressed by the spectacle we presented, slowly raised his head and continued grazing across the tundra, his lumbering gait striking an imposing figure. It would not be the final muskox we spotted that day. Upon establishing Tundra Camp 2 along another gravel bar, we discovered that a herd of muskox occupied an adjacent bluff. With no fuel for a fire, we spent that evening watching the muskox graze between bouts of glassing for caribou.
Days four and five followed the same pattern as days one and two. On the first day in our second camp three groups of hunters moved off the river to get into more suitable terrain, while our previously successful hunters occupied their time with improving camp, tending to their meat, and chasing the ever-present ptarmigan that roamed the surrounding brush. Two more bulls were harvested on day four, bringing our tally to five caribou in our group of ten hunters. The final day saw myself and Garret, my hunting buddy, make one final determined effort to harvest an animal. We covered over 11 miles of tundra that day and nearly closed the deal on two of the largest bulls we had seen that week, but our stalk was blown just outside of our pre-determined comfortable rifle range of 300 yards. Finding a large double shovel dead head through my spotting scope, I decided that would be my trophy for this trip and picked my way across the tussocks to secure it and haul it back to camp.
Day six was our final day in the field. We broke camp and rafted the final 17 river miles that would take us back to our rental van, parked at the Haul Road take-out point. Strong winds hindered our downstream movement, with the wind often completely stalling the rafts, or even pushing us back upriver if we took a break from paddling. When we finally reached the van, we hastily deflated the rafts, stowed our meat and equipment, and began the long drive south. Our grumbling stomachs provided extra incentive for us to make Coldfoot by dinner, as we knew there was a fantastic buffet awaiting us at Coldfoot Camp, an old truckers stop about 55 miles above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Mountain Range. Arriving just before the kitchen closed, we gleefully loaded our plates high and passed the evening telling stories of hunts in the past, and ones we dream of in the future, before settling down in a room at the inn.
When we woke the next morning, we treated ourselves to yet another hearty meal at Coldfoot Camp before resuming our journey south. The quiet atmosphere of the van was soon broken by the sound of the van’s turbo destroying itself while climbing a heavily potholed section of the road. As the van coasted to a stop, 175 miles north of Fairbanks, the lights on the dash lit up like a Christmas tree informing us of what we already knew- we weren’t going anywhere soon. Over the course of the next ten hours, we awaited a wrecker and replacement van that the rental company continually promised was on the way. With night falling, we recognized that we faced the very real prospect of all ten of us having to sleep in the van as there was no suitable campsite in the immediate vicinity. As service members, we were all accustomed to improvising, adapting, and overcoming obstacles in the way of carefully laid plans. We began accepting the numerous offers of assistance that passing cars offered, with five of our party ultimately hitchhiking back to Fairbanks in several trucks and a semi. In the early morning hours of the following day, the remainder of the group were greeted by the sight of a flatbed truck pulling in to save the day and offloading a new rental van. Four hours later our group of ten reunited in Fairbanks and began processing the meat and trophies of our out-of-state hunters, many of whom were flying out the following day.
Despite challenges, which will always arise, the BHA AFI hunt was a resounding success, and will fuel campfire stories for years to come. We harvested five caribou bulls, traveled 33 river miles, and experienced the brotherhood that comes not only with being backcountry hunters, but also the one that arises with service in our nation’s armed forces in a time of war. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to show others why I love this great state. It offered me an opportunity to see the beauty of Alaska in a new light and reminded me not to take this great land for granted.