"If you can get in without falling on your kiester you automatically qualify for your pilots license" Mark Lang, (pilot, guide and hunting operations manager) said with a grin.
Climbing into a Super Cub is not as easy as it would first appear, but it was my first lesson on hunting in the Alaskan tundra, as they are as common as SUV's are in the lower 48. Following his instructions, I placed my right foot on the step bar, grappled for a steel tube support bar with my hand then swung my left leg into the constricting cockpit. I struggled with the seatbelt and shoulder harness for a few seconds, then allowed Mark to hook the conglomeration together - so much for the rugged adventurer appeal I so desired; I felt more like a helpless infant in a car seat than Ernest Hemmingway.
Mark slid into the pilot's seat in front of me with practiced grace and only a second of precarious off balance. The 180-horsepower engine roared to life. Knowing as much about bush planes as I know about neurosurgery, I was startled and impressed as we taxied for takeoff. Instead of getting on the main runway, Mark pulled back the throttle and before the tires touched the runway proper we were airborne.
Miles upon thousands of miles of unbroken tundra, disrupted only by the gently rolling hills and small pans of water stretched out before my eyes. The bright yellow, red, and green tundra bushes blended into one, and took on the appearance of a mottled yellow tapestry. As we distanced ourselves from the remote village and the occasional four-wheeler track we started to see caribou. The farther we got from any vestiges of civilization the more numerous they became.
Yelling over the noise of the engine Mark said, "The big bulls are just now starting to come down from the mountains. Most are hard-horned and the rut is in full swing. "
After seeing several large groups containing a couple of decent bulls, Mark pointed to a likely looking landing spot. We dropped closer to the ground and skimmed within feet of the bushes, looking for any wet spots, holes, valleys or large lumps that could interfere with landing (more importantly taking off). Seeing nothing that roused suspicion, Mark made his final approach, cut back the throttle and coasted in for a relatively smooth landing.
Climbing out of the plane, we opened the hatches and had just begun stacking my gear in a neat pile when my partner, Mike Lunenschloss, in another Super Cub, touched down next to us. All of our gear unpacked, we shook hands with our pilots and bid them farewell.
Within seconds the engine noise was reduced to that of a mosquito, then it disappeared all together. The silence was deafening and all encompassing as the Alaskan evening shrouded us like a woolen blanket.
With little light remaining, we set up what was to be our home for the next week. After the tent was up, the bags unrolled, the lantern hung and the food hoisted into a tree, safe from marauding grizzlies and wolves, we grabbed our binoculars and headed to the highest ridge to scout for the following morning's hunt. What we saw looked like something straight out of National Geographic Magazine. There were herds of caribou, not by the dozen, but by the hundred, milling across the open tundra. It didn't matter in which direction you looked from camp, there were caribou. We were right in the middle of them! We watched until dark and headed back to camp, more than satisfied with our area.
The next morning, we awoke at dawn to the sounds of ptarmigan calling outside the tent. I made a mental note of this for later use, but had caribou on the brain. Within minutes of first light we were perched atop the same ridge and thankfully, the herds had not moved. There were probably close to a thousand within sight. We spent several hours examining each group and locating the best bulls. Finally one stood out from the rest and while I had told myself countless times, I would not shoot the first good bull I saw, conflicting thoughts crossed my mind. I had heard, by countless other hunters, how one day there were hundreds of caribou and the very next they had vanished, never to be seen again -of how the weather was so bad they could not get out to hunt or how the fog rolled in and made glassing impossible. I decided that a good bull in the hand was much better than a trophy in the bush.
Shedding my pack, I put on my gloves and slung my rifle across my back. On all fours I made my way to the slowly feeding caribou. They were about half a mile away, which is an incredibly long way to crawl on hands and knees, but the cover was about ankle high and there was not a single fold or rise to hide behind, so crawl I did.
Every so often I would stop and look at the herd. So far, none had noticed my advance. I kept crawling, angling towards their position. When I got within 300 yards, a cow looked up and stared. She took a couple of tentative steps towards my position and stopped. She had me pegged, but since the wind was in my favor, she had not fully made up her mind as to what kind of threat I posed. I found a small evergreen shrub in front of me and laid my rifle over it. Guessing the range to be a bit over 300 yards, I settled the heavy crosshairs slightly below the back line of the bull. I had my .375 H&H sighted in for 3.5 inches high at 100 yards with Hornady's Heavy Magnum ammunition with .270 grain Innerlock bullets. I squeezed the trigger and within a fraction of a second, the sound like a watermelon being thumped with a stick, resounded back to me. As the rifle came down from recoil, I cycled the bolt and regained my sight picture through the scope. The bull was still standing there. He was not staggering or for that matter he didn't even look wounded. I got ready to squeeze off another shot but a cow stepped in front of the wounded bull. After a second or two, he bedded down behind her. I figured this would be the end. However when the herd of cows started to move off, he stood up like he was not wounded at all. A shot presented itself, I held the same and squeezed. Again I was rewarded with another sharp "Whop!" and down the bull went. Upon later inspection, I discovered the first bullet entered at the last rib, quartered through the chest cavity and exited behind the far shoulder. The second shot broke his spine. I stepped off the distance over flat tundra at 363 long paces. While the bull was dead on his feet after the first shot, it reinforced my belief that you can't ever use too much gun!
The following morning found us back on the same rise. There was not quite as many caribou in the area, but some bigger bulls had moved in. After careful deliberation, my partner put a stalk on one particularly large bull, but swirling wind and their fickle movements foiled the stalk. Later that afternoon, he put another stalk on a large herd that contained one decent bull. However, shortly after he got into an ambush position, the herd decided to feed in another direction. Apparently, Lady Luck was not smiling upon him.
We headed back to camp for dinner and while I was boiling water with my Snow Peak single burner stove, I glanced to where we had landed the planes two days before. Right on our makeshift runway, less than 200 yards from camp, was a herd of caribou. The slight contour of the hill concealed some of the herd, so Mike decided to walk the 100 yards to the top of the rise to look for a bull. He had cased his rifle upon returning to camp, so he just grabbed his binoculars, the cased rifle and headed out. From the comfort of camp, I watched him peer over the rise, with his binoculars glued to his eyes. He quickly ducked back below the brink of the escarpment and unzipped his rifle case.
Now things are going to get interesting, I thought to myself. I could not see the bull from where I stood, but at the report of the rifle, I heard the meaty "Thwack" of the bullet striking flesh and there was no mistaking the grin and thumb up when Mike turned around. Walking up to the spot where he shot, there was a dead bull laying about 100 yards away, right in the middle of the landing zone. There would be no packing this critter, just cutting and bagging.
While the bull was not as big as mine, it had a unique shape and had the added bonus of double
In two days of hunting, we had two bulls down and surprisingly enough, the weather looked to hold for the rest of the week. I sat down on the camp chair in front of my tent and watched the herds of caribou feed across the nearby ridges. I thought to myself, six more days in Alaska...hmm what to do next. I still had a wolf tag in my pocket, we had seen several beautiful pelted fox; ptarmigan were in every valley and then there was always the great grayling fishing. Decisions, decisions. It would be nice if I was faced with such tough choices everyday of my life.