Alaska Caribou

There was no debate. The bull caribou was decisively a shooter, but the distance was 50 yards beyond Ryan’s effective reach. His desire to notch the tag was put firmly in check. Exactly what we wanted. Hard caps become malleable when you’re talking 10 or 20 yards. All of a sudden you start validating long shots, figuring the ballistic difference is so marginal it won’t make that big of a difference. It’s only 10 more yards, just put one in the animal. Just Send It.

Just Send It Mindset

The little voice is so convincing. So devious. The Just Send It ethos is exactly the type of worry-free attitude that should be part of a hunter’s mindset, but not at the expense of discretion or in desperation. Allowing that attitude to hijack responsible stalks and shots can not only lead to poor results, but ethical, dangerous or even criminal issues too.

Failed Stalk

Ryan began the ill-fated stalk on the snow-covered ridge and found the best he could do was work parallel as the group of bulls slowly fed. We had hoped to crest, locate, range, settle and shoot with a swift enough pace to take the bull responsibly. But the caribou had moved just low enough on the mountain to be out of range. We were stuck. The wind increased and was steady at our backs. My wife Abby and I watched as Ryan laid in the snow 75 yards to our right, pinned down by the caribou now aware of our presence.

With a hint of urgency, the cows and calves congealed, then moved out of sight over the lower ridge while the large bulls stood guard. The bulls hesitated for a second, then followed. Ryan stood and hustled down the snow in a feeble effort to keep pace with retreating caribou. It didn’t look like they had spooked, more that they were just meandering out of sight. As Ryan descended, Abby and I saw the bulls crest a small knob on a dead run, half a mile away. It was over.

I picked up Ryan’s pack, and we started down the slope, letting Ryan know it was over.

Snow Day

We regrouped over hot Butternut Dal Bhat as the warm afternoon sun continued to eat at the six inches of snow that had fallen the previous day. It was nice to be out. After 24 hours in the tent, just being able to stand up, let alone glass and make a stalk, was a relief.

Back At It

We wrapped around the front of the mountain and back to camp when Ryan spotted a lone caribou across a small creek and about a mile up the drainage. We were six miles into our day meandering up into a side drainage to move camp deeper, but our legs were buoyed by the prospect of another stalk. We followed the creek carefully, and when the bull disappeared into a wide chute in the slope, Ryan pushed the pace. I stumbled along trying to keep my eyes up on the mountain, ready to freeze should the bull feed into view.

But it didn’t.

We worked closer and closer to where it should have been, but there was no bull. Had it fed over a saddle? Caribou cover ground so quickly it seemed that was the reason the bull was not coming into view as we worked up the drainage.

Things Change In A Moment

Without warning, two bulls came running down the slope through a football field-sized gap in the willows. Just as predictable as constant caribou motion, is the sudden break in feeding for a jog. We had seen this before the previous August, caribou driven mad by mosquitos fleeing with urgency, but there were no mosquitos here. Just snow and cold beaten slowly back by the September sun. What were they doing? We didn’t know and didn’t care. They had given up their high ground to stand in the willows by the creek. Such luck.

We dropped our packs. I moved forward with Ryan while Abby stayed back. Ryan moved out ahead of me while I kept my eyes fixed on the willows that lined the creek. An ear flicked. I tsked loudly attempting to get Ryan’s attention. He was moving forward quickly to a rock to use as a rest and didn’t know he was in view. He turned. Looked at me, looked at the bulls, then pointed. The bulls bumped, crossed the creek and then stood broadside. One was a good bull, the other was definitive. Just as we had hoped. Ryan Sent It.

After the Shot

There was such little blood I couldn’t tell if Ryan’s 105-yard shot was true or if he had managed to airmail the 6.5 Creedmoor round. Then a wobble. The second bull seemed convinced it was time to flee but stood close as his buddy struggled. A second round put the bull down. Ryan didn’t doubt the bull for a second after he held tines in his hands. It was only later that we scrutinized that bull in comparison to the one we had seen earlier. The bull from the blown stalk had back scratchers and more interesting tops, but the one Ryan took was considerably wider and had a much more pronounced shovel.

“I’m so happy with this one,”

Ryan said without a hint of regret or attempted self-assurance.

The Work Began

We cut what ended up being 185 pounds of meat from the bones and began shuttling it toward the pick-up spot, three miles down the drainage into the larger drainage where we camped the first night, then back to where we left camp for the next load.

The next day, we shuttled meat the final 4.5 miles, hiked back to pick up camp and the antlers, and then finished the trek in a light rain. We were smoked. We set up a tarp and waited for the rain to lighten enough so we could get the tents up without getting everything soaked. The urgency of the previous few days had been replaced with the relaxed patience of success and satisfaction.

We had Sent It, there was no doubt, but on our own terms and with no regrets. As it should be.

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