By Mike Willis
Ice road truckers, the Alaskan pipeline, the Arctic Circle, and Prudhoe Bay. These are the things that come to mind when people think about the northernmost region of the last frontier.
All of these are indeed common reasons to find oneself in this remote land. However, for sportsmen like me, this region marks the beginning and end of the most impressive big game migration that most will ever witness.
I had wanted to hunt in Alaska for a long time. My brother, Tim, was living in Fairbanks. Naturally, he was my favorite person to visit.
With the Arctic Ocean and Russia as neighbors, Northern Alaskans and their non-resident guests get to experience remoteness and solitude that many don’t know exist. Realizing such an existence is only possible for those who are willing to endure a little suffering along the way.
Tim and I devised a plan (okay, mostly Tim) to embark on a caribou hunting expedition up north. It started with me on a 12-hour flight to Fairbanks. After arriving, I got a few hours of sleep and joined him for the 12-hour drive to the top of the state.
The drive alone is reason enough to visit (unless my brother is driving). Breathtaking views, the northern lights, and glassing Dall sheep helped pass the time.
After reaching our final destination, we set up camp to prepare for an arduous journey upstream. Yes, upstream! While the memories of success will always outweigh the pain experienced, the harsh reality was that we were traversing tundra and breathing through rags so as not to asphyxiate on bugs. The mental anguish that this opposition presents can undoubtedly make you question why you are there in the first place.
In fact, our arrival at the Prudhoe Bay area was met by a fellow hunter being airlifted out by helicopter. The older gentleman arrowed the bull of a lifetime, then suffered a major heart attack, ultimately leading to his death. The harsh reality of Alaska’s remoteness was never so apparent as when it took days to get him out to return him home to his family.
While I was sad for the family, I couldn’t help but admire the old man for “going out with his boots on.” I hope that when I am his age, I am still tough enough to chase critters in the remote corners of the Earth. As a passionate outdoorsman, I really can’t think of a better way to go.
I may never know his name, but he has forever left a lasting impression on me.
The state of Alaska requires rifle hunters to be at least five miles from the oil pipeline. When morning came, we loaded the rafts and floated down a few miles where we hooked a stream that fed into the main river. The entire day was spent pulling rafts against the current to get out to the five-mile-line for legal rifle hunting.
Everything hurt. My hair hurt!
Five miles may not sound like much. It sure didn’t to me when my brother pitched the plan. Let’s just say there was a reason why everyone else was bow hunting near the road.
After the long trip upriver, Tim, who lacks all characteristics that make a person human, immediately began glassing the vast tundra surrounding us. I was already in my tent, silently weeping for God to take me off of this Earth to end my suffering. Apparently, it was in His will for us to encounter a large bull because shortly thereafter, a herd appeared on the horizon.
The caribou were about 3 miles out. Suddenly, the group of three bulls and several cows all turned 180 degrees and began heading straight for us! In disbelief, we geared up and prepared for a potential stalk. As the caribou closed-in, we positioned ourselves for a 300-yard shot; a perfect distance for the 300 Win. Mag.
The dominant bull was steering the herd, and our window of opportunity was opening. Once he slowed for a moment, I put the cross-hairs on him and placed a solid shot in the boiler room. The bull ran towards us and went down about 50 yards away!
Overwhelmed with joy, my brother and I began the celebratory dance. Suddenly the celebration stopped as this beast stood up, looked right at us, and began to charge!!! Man, he was big!
Despite the good vital shot, this bull wasn’t giving up without a fight. As he began to gain ground on us quickly, I placed a few more shots into him to ensure that he would go down without having to suffer and to prevent us from suffering as well!!!
While the journey to our hunting area was nothing short of miserable, the fruits of our labor manifested in the form of a victory float back to the infamous Ice Road Truckers haul road. With game bags and gear lashed tightly to our inflatable rafts, we entered the rapids of the main river.
We only had to float a few miles of rapids to a point where we could access the road. However, keeping everything intact proved to be an intense, high-stakes battle of its own. When we finally beached, we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. We then hitchhiked back to our truck to complete our mission and begin the 12-hour drive back to Fairbanks.
I cannot explain the gratitude that I have for getting out there with my brother, enduring the Alaskan elements, and accomplishing our mission. Why he would be willing to put himself through all of that to get me a bull is beyond comprehension. All that I can say is thanks, and next time, I am driving!