Looking for game and enjoying being in the mountains is how most hunters actually spend their time when out there. Here, the author’s brother contemplates caribou country. Photo by Bjorn Dihle.
MC, my better half, exhaled like an enraged grizzly and flung an antique rocking chair against our home’s wall. Hell knows no fury like an Alaskan woman who wants to go hunting but can’t get time off from work.
“If I can’t go caribou hunting you sure as Peter Piper’s pickled peppers can’t either!” she yelled.
MC had been a gentle vegetarian when we met, but on our second date, which took place deep in the wilderness, she was faced with a situation where she had to kill or be killed. There, beneath the aurora dancing across the night sky, as wolves howled in tribute, she tasted the blood of the beast for the first time and there was no going back.
“Look, the real reason you’re upset is because you’re worried you’ll never see me again. A lot can happen in the wild. We both know the Alaska triangle is real. If a lonely sasquatch doesn’t get me, there’s a good chance aliens will. Don’t cry for me. When the first snows come, listen for the north wind—you’ll hear me then,” I said.
“YOU…ARE…GOING…CARIBOU…HUNTING…WITHOUT…ME!” MC screamed and began smashing my grandmother’s china against the wall.
The night was long, dark, and filled with peril but the next day I sat crammed in my brother Luke’s truck as he, his eldest daughter, Kiah, and I sped along the edges of mountains and through the taiga toward the interior of Alaska. We were on our way to hunt the Fortymile caribou herd. Numbering around 84,000 and growing, Fortymile caribou travel back and forth from Alaska to Yukon. Of Alaska’s 32 caribou herds, with an estimated combined total of 950,000 animals, the Fortymile herd best embodies the lonesome interior of the north. We had a long drive to get to where we’d hunt, so Luke and I passed the time imparting our woods-lore and legends to young Kiah.
“And that’s how by examining a critter’s dew claws you can tell the difference between your basic wolf and a werewolf,” I explained to Kiah, who was pretending to be bored, as we pulled off the highway and parked.
It was early September; a sharpness was in the air, and the leaves of willow, poplar, and birch trees were beginning to turn red, yellow, and gold. I was so excited to be headed into caribou country I stripped down to my camouflage spandex, blasted the Salt-N-Pepa song “Push It” and did a warm-up dance as confused looking hunters slowly drove by in their trucks and stared. In most of the Fortymile hunt area, people are allowed to use off-road vehicles. We were hunting one of the few non-motorized areas—hence, my spandex, which allowed me to move like a fleet-footed wolverine. For some reason, though, I couldn’t keep up with Luke and Kiah during the hike in. My 13-year old niece offered encouragement and waited patiently while Luke talked me through a couple emotional breakdowns and took some of the weight out of my backpack.
We set up camp eight miles from the road as the sunset bit crimson on the expanse of wild country. Fresh snow clung to mountain tops; a network of alpine ridges stretched in all directions. For me, heaven is caribou country—it inspires a longing to abandon my domestic life and wander wherever the wind takes me. I’d decided that after the hunt I would walk west and try to packraft a river back to civilization. My hope was that if I lost 15 pounds and got a good face and hand tan that MC would be so impressed by my manly beauty that she’d be less resentful. Otherwise it could be a long and lonely winter.
Luke, Kiah, and I ate a dinner of pasta and talked about how little caribou sign we’d seen during the hike in. Fish and Game, from a recent aerial survey, had said there were virtually no caribou in the area we chose. It didn’t really matter, though. We’d hunt hard, but just being here was a gift good enough for the three of us.
In the morning, we slowly hunted our way deeper into the mountains. The hours passed quietly, and, though we saw no animals, the country was far from empty. Our family had hunted this place many times through the years and every fold of land inspired memories. On that flat was where MC saw her first wolf. On that mountainside was where Dad spent an afternoon stalking a young bull until he was within easy bow range and, then, decided not to kill the animal. There was where MC and I took a bull with an hour of light left on our last day hunting. There was the mountain I’d stood on many times and stared west at the great wild expanse and felt stirred to my bones. After the sun set, we returned to camp and ate freeze-dried dinners as stars lit up the darkness. Deep in the night, I woke suddenly to my tent shuddering in the wind—slowly, just over the whispering of the breeze, I heard the rising and falling of the howling of wolves coming from the valley below. Most of another day passed and no animals showed. The deep quiet of the country was so intense that I was only beginning to adjust. Often, when there was no wind, the loudest sound I could hear was my breathing, footsteps, and even the beating of my heart.
That evening, as we were hiking back to camp, Luke dropped to a crouch and whispered back that there were three bulls nearly within range. We waited until the caribou went behind a hill and then sprinted to cut them off. We belly-crawled to a rise; Luke and Kiah each took a rest, and, at the sound of their shots, two bulls fell to the tundra. Everyone deals with the silence that comes after pulling the trigger differently. We walked to the animals, knelt, and rested our hands on their warm bodies. Luke offered a simple prayer, and Kiah thanked the caribou; then we began butchering.
It was a 12-mile pack to the road, and, even with heavy hauls, we had to relay meat. I made the mistake of forgetting garbage bags to line my pack; by the time I finished helping haul, both my pack and I were covered in blood. Smelling like a dead caribou before a long walk and float through barren-ground grizzly country wasn’t exactly ideal, but I figured it would be more dangerous to go home. Kiah didn’t want me to go, so I offered some of my best mountain man wisdom.
“All a man’s got is mountains and rivers. And he doesn’t really even have that,” I said.
“That makes zero sense,” Kiah said.
“You’re probably safer dealing with grizzlies and wilderness than risking the wrath of MC,” Luke said. “She’ll cool down after the rut. Might want to come home then.”
I made my exit and followed a ridge towards the setting sun. Ahead of me lay the paranormal terrors of the Alaska triangle, grizzly bears, and, most frightening of all, a fierce wilderwoman to contend with, but that’s another story. That day, as I crested a high point and looked back as my brother and his daughter grew smaller as they trekked across the tundra, I gave thanks to the caribou, my family, and the wild country that sustains us.