I moved from Alaska to Texas in 2013. But right before the move, a friend, Tom (incidentally, the same guy who joined me on my Kodiak misadventure) invited me on a caribou hunt out near the Canadian border. I was familiar with the region and the type of bulls that were likely to be present, so I quickly committed. This particular area sees high numbers of animals; but, it’s also a very accessible area with high pressure. I decided I’d go with Tom and try to out-hunt, on foot, the masses who would no doubt be hunting from ATVs. This ended up being a challenge which would prove both life-threatening and unforgettable.
Earlier that year, I'd purchased a Kimber Montana in 7mm-08. So far I'd been unimpressed with the way the rifle performed, and had begun thinking that I'd gotten one of the infamous Kimber barrels/actions that just plain sucked. On a last ditch effort to finally use this rifle, I worked up 10 different loads that I hadn't tried yet, to see if I could find one that worked.
Tom and I went to the range on Sunday afternoon before the trip with 30 rounds (3 rounds each of the 10 different loads) and a prayer. The loads were all over the place. I was shooting from 100 yards off of a sand bag with a little breeze, so I didn't expect bench rest type results. What I was getting, however, was less than impressive, at best. Some of them were > 5". I was not happy.
As luck would have it, the final load of the day was a 145 grain Barnes LRX on top of 41.5 grains of IMR 4350 and a Federal GM210M primer in Nosler brass. The results were sub MOA and that was after 27 shots, again, from a sand bag with a slight breeze. I know it's only a 7mm-08, but when your rifle weighs less than 6 pounds, even the lighter calibers start to make your shoulder tingle! Here are the results, which I'd expect to be a little tighter from a lead sled on a calm day and a spotless barrel...
We loaded up all of our gear Monday morning at 7:00 in my driveway and set out on our eight hour drive to the hunting grounds. After a quick pit stop at the grocery store for supplies and tags, we were on our way. We pulled into the parking lot around 5:00 PM on Monday afternoon and unloaded the Ranger and the 4-wheeler. After we loaded everything up, we set out on the 20+ mile journey to where we'd set up our base camp. Here's the view from camp.
We got in on Monday evening and the season didn't open until Thursday morning,so we spent time messing around camp, reading, and trying (unsuccessfully) to kill a pika with a slingshot. I made adjustments to my scope based on the group from the range and took a test shot which hit exactly where I wanted it to. So I called it good. Now the waiting game for the season to open begins.
Tom had done this hunt every year for the prior five and swore a guy could kill a caribou from camp if he was willing to wait. However, he already had a caribou on the wall and would have been quite happy with any legal animal to fill the freezer. While I'd usually consider any notched tag in Alaska a trophy, this hunt was different for me. I really wanted to get away from all of the road hunters and prove that with a little hard work, it was possible to shoot a nice bull. Additionally, I wanted a bull that I’d be happy putting on the wall as one last memento from Alaska.
With that said, I figured a guy would have to do quite a bit of work to harvest a trophy caribou in unfamiliar territory with limited time and some serious pressure. Tom wasn't planning on leaving camp. The trail ran about 20 yards from our tent from east to west. It seemed like most of the people who hunt that area either wait in their camp for a small group to pass by, or they ride their quads up and down the trail all day looking for a group with a bull to shoot. Since it was a quota hunt, my plan was to work a little harder and try to get off the trail a ways and see if there was a bigger bull to harvest early in the day so I could avoid eating tag soup due to an early closure.
When opening morning finally rolled around, I left the tent at about 5:00 with another buddy, James, and headed for a knob on the north side of a saddle about a mile from camp. Tom stayed in camp, opting to wait until about 8:00 before he went anywhere. At about 6:00, James and I spotted a small group of caribou on the southern ridge of the saddle, working their way towards camp. We were absolutely floored when we heard the report of Tom's .270 and watched a bull tip over several seconds later about 175 yards from our tent. Tom told us that he wouldn’t need to leave camp to notch his tag, and we didn’t believe him. He’d proven us wrong on opening day.
Throughout the days waiting for the season to open, we left plenty of boot leather within on the hills surrounding camp. During those outings, I'd seen a shooter bull hanging around the top of a ridge to our north. I watched him again on opening day, and he disappeared over the top, so I wasn't sure if he'd stayed or gone. Most people say it's a fool's errand to try to stalk a caribou on the move, but since we weren't sure if he'd bedded down or kept going, I gave it a shot. Throwing caution to the wind, I figured I'd drop back down the saddle, climb the 500' up the ridge on the other side, and see if I could follow suit and notch my tag shortly after Tom.
I was going up this ridge as quickly as I could and about five minutes later, I found myself within 50 yards of the bull who had bedded down on top of the ridge line. But the curvature of the mountain hindered my view, so I had to get down on my stomach and crawl to about 25 yards before I had a clear view of his head gear. I had finished evaluating his rack, and although he wasn't an incredible bull, I figured he'd be a decent sized guy to put on the wall. I knew there was a camp on the other side of the ridge, so I'd planned to wait him out at 25-30 yards in a prone position. With all the activity down on the trail on opening morning, it was only a matter of time until he'd get up and move to somewhere that I felt I could safely shoot.
All of a sudden, he got up. When he did, he looked like he was spooked and was going to run. No sooner than he had taken two steps, I heard a gunshot followed by the crack of a bullet passing entirely too close for comfort and then saw the caribou tip over. I crawled/ran/fell/shat myself back down the hill about 35 yards, side-hilled to the left about 50 yards, and proceeded to walk back, cautiously, towards where the caribou lie dying. All of this excitement had happened within about a 100 yard radius.
Beside the expiring animal stood a very proud child and his father. I realized I’d just witnessed the son shooting the caribou from immediately downrange, no more than 30 yards from the caribou when it was shot. The father was just as excited as the boy, and looked immediately dumbfounded at my arrival. In hindsight, he had to be wondering how I arrived on the scene so quickly from downrange, I was literally there within 30 seconds of them firing the shot. High on adrenaline, I proceeded to give the father quite the tongue lashing, one that almost resulted in fisticuffs.
It wasn't the boy's fault at all. It was his Dad's. I almost took a magnum round through the head because this guy allowed his son to shoot at an unsafe location. If his son hadn’t been present, it could have come to blows. I made sure to point out to the kid how important it is to know what’s downrange of the target.
Fortunately I hadn’t shot in their direction because I figured it’d be unsafe. I wish they would have returned the favor; but, in that area during caribou season, they probably thought their half-mile hike to that ridge put them well beyond everyone else. I understand that; but, ALWAYS KNOW what’s downrange of your target. No animal is worth killing a human being.
After all of that commotion, I walked back through the saddle and up the knob on the north side and told James what'd happened. He said he thought I'd shot the caribou and then didn't know what was going on until he heard me yelling at some guy on top of the mountain. I told him we'd probably be better off looking down in the valley on the northern side of the knob (away from the trail) so we wouldn't have to deal with anyone else. After a short hike followed by 10-15 minutes of glassing, I spotted some caribou. About 1000 yards away and almost to the bottom of this valley we were overlooking, they were standing on a small knoll down in the trees. We determined there were three shooters in the group and left everything but guns, a rangefinder, and binos at our spot on the side of the mountain.
We barely escaped with our lives after making it to the bottom of that mountain in roughly five minutes. We figured the descent to be roughly 1,000’ of elevation in about a quarter of a mile - steep! If you look in the middle of this picture, you can see the little knob that we had to descend to in order to get a shot on the caribou; but, this was taken from about 3/4 of the way down the mountain so it doesn't really help with judging the distance we had to travel to get down there.
Out of breath and running on adrenaline, we tucked up against a large rock to get a better look at the caribou. There were only six of them and three were indeed shooters. We quickly determined which two were the best and began to crawl into position to make the shot. Our plan was to do a 1 - 2 - 3 - BAM! When we judged them to be 178 yards and we’d run out of cover, we both got in a prone position. After what seemed like an eternity, they stopped and presented each of us with a quartering away shot.
Just as determined, we counted 1 - 2 - 3 - BAM! James’ 7mm Rem Mag with a 168gr Berger VLD anchored his with the first shot. Mine was obviously hit, but we watched it for about five seconds (another eternity) and didn't see blood or any vapor from a lung wound. Knowing how easily he could cover hundreds of yards DOWNHILL in a matter of seconds, and heeding a buddy's advice that "bullets and taxidermy thread are cheap, shoot til they're down," I racked the bolt and put another one in him. A puff of vapor came out of his right side with each breath and I knew I'd hit lungs. He turned just a bit and James and I could then see, simultaneously, that he was mortally wounded.
The first round ended up being a complete pass through and the second round lodged under the skin on the far side, each hitting both lungs. When we started pulling skin, we saw that the rounds had hit the animal within an inch and a quarter of each other. Not too bad from 178 yards with an allegedly inaccurate weapon. We retrieved the bullet that was lodged under the skin on the far side and the expansion was quite impressive; but, during the process of quartering and packing, we lost it. The second round anchored him and we'd done it. Two wall hangers on the ground at 7:45 on opening morning. Here are a few pictures from when we walked up to the bulls...
As we walked down to see the animals, it still hadn't occurred to us what we'd just done. Once we got there and looked over our shoulder, we realized that we were about two miles from camp and a mountain stood between us and our tents. These were no small animals, either, so the grueling process of caping, quartering, and hauling all of this meat back to camp began. We quit on the first day at about 10:30 at night and had about 2/3 of the work done. We came back the next morning and started hauling meat again at about 10:00 AM and had it wrapped up and in camp by about 3:00 PM. It was some of the hardest work I've ever done.
In the end, it was definitely worth it. I have some great memories of the hunt, some great memories of Alaska, and a trophy to put on the wall in case I start to forget.