Editor’s Note: On Fridays we reach back into the vast SCI Archive and dust off a gem from a previous issue. This week we go back to 1979 and tag along on an Alaska hunt for monster caribou. This story originally appeared in the March/April 1980 issue of Safari Magazine.
The thick growth of tundra provided a comfortable bed in which to enjoy the warm Alaska sun. Blue sky and a sparkling river highlighted the surrounding mountains.
My wife Barbara and our guide Chris Branham were busy glassing the valley below us and the adjoining mountainside for caribou. I was devoting my time to surveying the fluffy white clouds passing overhead. A blanket of contentment had swept more ambitious pursuits from my thoughts.
The trip had already been a great success. I had bagged a nice Dall ram. Barb and I had been thrilled to sec two huge grizzlies fishing in a stream red with thrashing salmon. A black bear had passed through our camp, grumbling and growling at the intruders. Eagles and hawks had dazzled us with displays of aerial maneuvers. We also had been blessed with the sight of the gigantic Alaska moose, awe inspiring glaciers, and the neon glow of the northern lights.
Nothing further was necessary to make my first hunting trip to Alaska and my wife’s first hunting trip anywhere a success. Of course a caribou would be a great bonus, but we had only one day left and I was not optimistic about getting a good bull in so short a time. Nevertheless, we were obviously in a good caribou area. Paths left by thousands of passing caribou rutted the valley below. Chris had told us that caribou would be moving up toward us. All we had to do was wait. After hunting sheep, such easy hunting seemed too good to be true.
Chris snapped me out of my dreamy solitude by announcing that he had spotted caribou. There were three bulls passing along a ridge five miles away. Chris had again demonstrated his phenomenal ability to spot game but pursuit was impossible. The caribou were travelling and nobody catches a travelling caribou. The bulls moved swiftly across the tundra and disappeared into an adjoining valley.
Chris resumed his search, which I enthusiastically joined. A fourth caribou came up the same trail. Chris spotted it first, and after a good deal of coaching, I finally managed to make out a tiny brown spot moving along the mountain. A brown spot with a frosted mane and a curling rack of magnificent antlers. The script called for the bull to follow the trail created by his ancestors, the trail that lead directly to us. The bull had obviously not read the script. Instead the antlers continued across the valley and up into the mountains, twisting and turning as they went. Half way up the mountain the antlers stopped. They then dipped and rose, dipped and rose. The bull was feeding.
We held counsel. The caribou was still a good three miles away across tundra, willow thickets, boulder fields and icy streams. He could move on at any time. One route would bring him our way. Any other route could carry him away. We would be visible from his mountain perch if we came down the valley, but that was the only possible approach. The odds were against us.
We gathered our gear and headed down the valley. As we entered the willows, I recalled Chris’ advice that this was prime grizzly country. I slipped a cartridge into the .300 magnum and hoped I wouldn’t need it for a bear. Coming to a stream, we slipped out of our boots and walked across, the icy water numbing our feet and ankles. Stopping occasionally, we could still the caribou. He had not moved.
After two hours we reached a willow thicket about four hundred yards immediately below the bull. Squirming forward on our stomachs, we could see him pawing and twitching. The bull had climbed out of the valley to escape the flies, but his efforts had not been entirely successful. His torment had been our blessing. Because of the flies, the bull had been too distracted to see us approaching.
That blessing soon became our torment as well. Biting flies swarmed around us. We squirmed out of the willows and began climbing. By following a rock-strewn ravine, we could stay out of sight while moving directly toward the bull. At two-hundred yards we could see him clearly through our binoculars. He was thrashing his antlers from side to side and kicking, in a vain attempt to discourage the flies. The bull’s efforts were becoming more and more frantic. There was the sharp crack of antlers and hooves hitting rock. I seriously began to worry that he would break his rack.
Suddenly the bull reared back and bolted. His antlers swung back along his neck as he galloped forward into a ravine and disappeared. We had been foiled by a fly.
Looking up at Chris, I was surprised to see him wide-eyed and frantically motioning. Following his stare, I looked across the ravine to see a pair of antlers bouncing along the skyline, 90-yards away. The head and white mane of a caribou rose out of the ground like an apparition. The bull had circled and was coming right at us at a loping gallop. I stared in disbelief as he came into view.
Chris’ voice urging me to shoot suddenly broke through my shock. Raising my rifle, I found the bull in the scope just as he turned broadside and headed downhill. The .300 magnum bellowed and the bull collapsed.
Later, when we were busy dressing the bull, I looked down the valley. Three caribou were moving through. Their route would carry them directly past the point wehre we had been sitting at the beginning of the day. Chris had been right – all we had to do was wait!—William F. Richardson