I noticed the letter from the North American Hunting Club as I quickly thumbed through the rest of the day's mail. "Nothing urgent," I thought to myself as I put the letter aside to be looked at more closely later that evening. Before receiving that letter, I'd forgotten that a few weeks before, I'd filled out an entry form for the Club's Membership Drive, but considering I'd only been able to sign up what I considered to be a meager 26 members, I didn't think I had much chance of winning the hunt that was being given away. Needless to say, I was completely shocked when I opened the envelope that evening and read that I had actually won the do-it-yourself, drop camp hunt for caribou in Alaska with Ketchum Air Service!
Because this adventure was going to truly be the "hunt of a lifetime" I called my brother, Kirk, who I like to call "Bear Bait," to see if he'd be interested in joining me. Kirk's also an NAHC Life Member and it didn't take much convincing to get him to agree to come on the hunt with me. Plans were quickly made for a late-August hunt and if all went well, I'd make it home in time for opening day of the Wyoming archery elk season.
My basement was a total disaster the night before we left for Salt Lake City, Utah, to
catch our flight to Anchorage, Alaska. There were provisions scattered all over the floor as Bear Bait and I went through our checklist for the hunt, making sure we weren't forgetting anything. When we finally finished packing we were able to get everything we needed into two oversized military-style bags. According to the literature Ketchum Air Service had sent, we were limited to 125 pounds of gear each, which is quite generous considering what other charter services allow. After weighing our bags and adding the weight of the cook stove, waders and other gear we were planning to rent from Ketchum, we figured that we'd just make that limit.
After we arrived in Anchorage the next day, we went over to Ketchum's facility on Lake Hook and met some of the crew. Jim from Ketchum Air Service was especially helpful in getting us lined up with the appropriate licenses and tags and then showing us the required hunting orientation video. The best advice that he gave us, however, was to be sure that we ate at a restaurant called Gwennie's, which he said wasn't too far from where we were staying. The food there is not only delicious, but the service is outstanding as well and the morning that we flew out, we stopped there again and had breakfast.
Setting Up Camp
After breakfast the following morning, we left Anchorage and headed for Sparevon Lake. To get there we flew through Lake Clark Pass while taking in as much of the scenery as possible. We even saw some Dall's sheep hanging out on a mountainside, and from our bird's eye view of the surrounding country, it looked to me like they were totally inaccessible. After we landed on the lake, we quickly went to work unloading our gear and setting up camp. The sky was clear at the time, but because we'd flown through sleet and rain on the way in we wanted to get the tent up while everything was still dry. We made it just in time. After getting a "cook shack" put together, camp was officially set, and it was now time for some scouting.
We left camp and started hiking up a valley that Jim had told us about. We'd hiked a half-mile from camp and were just about to sit down and start glassing the seemingly barren countryside when suddenly like ghosts, caribou started appearing out of thin air. They'd graze for few moments and then disappear again. We hiked a little farther up the valley and noticed a large group of caribou near the top of the mountain and another smaller herd approximately halfway up the mountain. As we moved farther up the valley more and more caribou drifted in and out of sight, but with daylight starting to fade, we decided to turn around and head back to camp. And since this was the only place in the area where caribou were being seen, there were several other hunters camped around the lake, too. We weren't surprised to learn several of them were also Life Members of the NAHC.
The next morning we took off up the mountain across the lake shortly after first light, hoping the big group of caribou from the day before would still be in the area. When we got approximately halfway up the mountain we stopped for a breather. Bear Bait just happened to look behind us and noticed two caribou below us on the mountain, and a mile across the valley! We could tell that one was a bull, but from that distance we couldn't tell how big he was, so we turned around and headed back down the same mountain we'd just worked so hard at climbing. We covered the distance quickly but ran out of cover 400 yards from the caribou. Looking through binoculars, I thought the bull looked pretty good and Bear Bait decided he wanted to take a shot at him. Kirk had worked up a flat-shooting load before the hunt and had practiced with it all summer, making sure he was ready for a long shot if necessary. It paid off. Shooting from the prone position and using a bipod, he put his 140-grain bullet right on the money. The bull ran a few yards and fell over dead! After photos were taken we got the bull quartered and then started the long packing job back to camp. Although it was "only" 2 miles, the heavy packs and spongy tundra made quite a chore out of it. That night we feasted on fresh caribou steaks, potatoes and homemade bread from Gwennies. We had one bull down and one to go.
My Moment Of Truth
The next morning we were again up and hunting shortly after first light. The climb didn't seem too bad this morning, and it wasn't long before we'd reached the top of the ridge we were planning to hunt. And across the valley and off to the north, we could see a lone caribou bull, and he looked huge! Even with my naked eye I could see his antlers, and I quickly told Bear Bait, "That's the bull I want!"
The bull was feeding away from camp and didn't seem to be in a big hurry to get anywhere, so we quickly started moving in his direction. Then, for some unknown reason, the bull suddenly changed directions and walked back over the ridge and out of sight. My heart sank. He was still more than a mile away, and I knew there was no way that I could cover that much ground and still hope to get a shot at the bull if he decided to move out of the area. I was just starting to sit down to glass the rest of the valley when the bull reappeared over the ridge while still feeding and drifting in and out of sight.
As I looked over the situation, I knew that if the bull continued on his present course, and if I could cover the distance to him without being seen, I could probably get a shot. Because of the slippery ground cover, our rifles were never carried with a round in the chamber, so I started toward the bull at a swift jog, backpack and all. I finally made it to the bottom of a small hill and it was there that I stopped to take off my frame pack and load my rifle. If the bull had stayed his course, when I topped the hill he'd be in shooting range. I slowly eased up the hill, coming out behind a small bush, and there he was, 200 yards away and still feeding. My 140-grain Barnes bullet struck home and the bull collapsed in his tracks!
After more photos and another long quartering and packing job back to camp, we once again feasted on fresh caribou steaks that night. After we finished eating, two hunters from nearby camps came by to visit and when they saw our two bulls they asked us what our secret was and where the caribou were! We kind of got a kick out of that considering that they live in Alaska and were asking two out-of-staters where to find caribou!
Even though our bulls aren't record-book-quality animals, this was certainly a hunt of a lifetime for both Kirk and myself. And it's one that we'll never forget and one that we highly recommend to other NAHC members.