Article By Steve Shannon

“Don’t drown him; Mom will be pissed.” The backpack straps dug deep into my shoulders and the black flies flew like kamikaze pilots into my eyes and ears. It was all I could keep telling myself as my younger brother followed me out on his first backcountry hunt. In all honesty, it wasn’t his fault, and I don’t hold it against him. Florida just doesn’t have the same terrain and climate we do in Alaska. Perhaps I didn’t emphasize just how much hiking and weight would be involved in our pursuit. Nevertheless, 500 yards into our first packout loaded down with camp and caribou, he told me he couldn’t carry it.

At that point, my attitude was focused on the mission. I got comfortable with the thought that I would have to leap-frog loads of meat with two backpacks back to our raft. Then, as the day warmed and the black flies woke up, he needed to wear MY head net. Again, I’ll take the blame. I didn’t specifically tell him to bring one. However, as he began remarking–then full on complaining–about the bugs, my homicidal thoughts crept in.

The adventure started in February when the Alaska Draw Permit results were published. I drew a Unit 13 caribou tag and had to take to social media to tell the world. My brother asked if he could come along—a Sherpa of sorts—to take pictures and see what all this backpack hunting fuss was about. Of course I said yes; I have been trying to get my family to come to Alaska and visit for the entire decade my wife and I have lived here. We began brainstorming.

Providing gear tips and helping my brother spend his money was fun. He would only be as warm and dry as his gear allowed, I explained, “so spend money on the good stuff now rather than regretting it in a downpour.” We discussed boots, rain gear, food, sleeping bags, and even that nice merino underwear from First Lite. He was geared up and ready to go.

His flight came in at midnight on Thursday, and by Friday after work we were on the road. Our destination was a riverside campground where he and I would launch our raft. From there we would begin the paddle four miles back to where we would begin hiking. The first night’s sleep was fraught with fits of tossing, both from sleeping in the driver’s seat of my Tacoma and the anxiety stemming from the fear of oversleeping and getting a later start than we’d planned. The two of us woke up bleary-eyed but excited to begin the adventure. We inflated the Kork raft, double-checked gear and permits, and were in the water on time.

Five minutes into the trip, my brother couldn’t stop splashing his backpack with the water from his paddle. We stopped. He tried to retie it. Then he tried again. Now, my giggling surely didn’t help the situation, but what are big brothers for? When he had had enough, I jumped out and tied his bag behind me so I could lean against it and keep it dry, and we were back on our way.

During our paddle in, the water seemed to boil with grayling, greedily feeding on the surface. We floated around a corner into one of the first small lakes and flushed a wedge of swans, two dozen or so, and watched in awe as they flew overhead. Our paddles stopped in quiet appreciation as we watched them lift their bodies off the still water and into the orange of the morning sky.

Once we had worked our way in far enough that we weren’t seeing other hunters, we started looking for places to beach our raft. If there was one thing that would risk ruining our hunt, it would be company. On a Unit 13 hunt, avoiding the crowds would take work. We found a quiet spot to pull the raft up onto the bank and into the blueberry bushes, where my brother and I traded our waders and hip boots for hiking boots and exchanged our paddles for packs. We quickly scurried to the nearest high ground. He and I worked the binoculars for a few minutes in the first small drainage we came to, but no ‘bou.

We chose a good-looking low spot between two high domes–a saddle a few miles away–and began picking our way through the alder and over the tundra in that direction. After a few hours, we stopped to eat and my brother spotted the first group of caribou. Three cows and a calf were working their way through the valley below. Perhaps my brother would prove useful after all. “Good eyes,” I responded.

We watched them graze along a small ridge below us. He commented on how fast they were covering the same terrain we just walked through while they ate. “They say if you can see their rears, don’t bother trying to stalk them. They’re too far gone,” I explained. He agreed and we finished our lunch.

The two of us were now within a mile of the saddle, working our way up one side of the ridge that led into it. We stopped once more to glass and rest our legs from the steep climb. It was my turn to spot some caribou and I saw a group of eight cows and calves graze into the far side of the saddle and feed their way up and over, a thousand yards away. We watched the group move through and made small talk about how the hike was going. As we were about to start climbing again, I turned to look up above us to see where I wanted to settle in for a better glassing position and a group of six bulls materialized behind us, working their way along the ridge top, a little over 500 yards away. Things just got real.

Five of the bulls were pretty young and still in velvet, but one bull was noticeably older and had a beautiful white neck. With his velvet shed, his antlers had already hardened and were the color of chocolate milk. They curled tightly so he wasn’t particularly tall or wide, but when the caribou show up, I don’t count points.

We made a quick game plan, I unstrapped the .30-06 and we crept with our packs to a set of rocks that would put us completely out of view. Our approach angled toward them, and while we tried to stay low and crawl, they spotted us. At just under five hundred yards they balled up and swarmed around one another just as we made it to the outcropping. We hid for a few minutes until they once again spread out and began acting normally. I took out the range finder and had them at 460 yards. Quite a bit farther than I wanted to shoot.

New game plan. They weren’t getting any closer to us, and they already had an idea that we were nearby. I looked around the landscape. What tundra lacks in trees and shrubbery, it makes up for in crevices, low areas, and rocks. It was time to get creative. We guessed that they would follow the ridge top. Out of the bugs, they’d feed along above us and work their way over their migration route.

Down the hill behind us fifty feet was a rock lip; not a cliff, but a four- or five-foot drop that I could crouch under and parallel the bulls as they fed. It was game on. I slid down below the drop-off, rehearsing the scene I had practiced in my mind every time I went to the gun range. I began preparing myself, “Don’t run, you’ll be out of breath when it’s time to shoot. Swallow the excitement for now. Kill him first, before you celebrate in your head.”

As I covered ground as quickly as I could, the rock lip began to curl towards the bulls’ path and I spotted a group of four cows that I was sure the bulls would follow. I worked my way ahead of the bulls and watched where the cows were headed. I began ranging alder bushes and rocks that they passed. The bulls were quickly closing the gap on this group, and I had to get ready. The bushes and rocks I ranged began to get closer: 300, 240, 220, then 190 yards. Now this was a range I was comfortable with. I had put in the work at 300 yards with my rifle all summer to make a shot across the open tundra feel more natural; at 200 I was very confident.

The cows kept feeding and now the bulls were mixing in with the group. I crawled the last few yards to a tall rock and bundled my jacket on top of it to create a steady rest. “BREATHE! I don’t care how close they are!” My inner monologue tried to calm the nerves as I nestled the stock into my shoulder. I found the mature bull in my scope and watched as a cow walked in front of him. He raked his antlers on a lone alder bush, and the cow kept walking. At a hair over 200 yards he stood perfectly broadside all alone. This was it.

He wasn’t going to stand still for long–caribou never do. Just one more good breath. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, and then it all went black.

The crack of the rifle filled the valley. I flinched and then struggled to find him in the scope again. I pulled my head back in time to watch his front legs push off the ground as his hind legs buckled beneath him. He had dropped in a low spot, such that only the chocolate antlers were visible to me. I quickly worked the bolt, ejecting the spent brass and cycled in a fresh round. I watched and waited for him to get back up. I endured that short, sharp pain in the pit of my stomach everyone goes through when you hope that he doesn’t get back up and that he isn’t in pain.

His antlers didn’t move. It was the end and the beginning. I thanked God for the caribou, and for the moment. 

I sat a few minutes, soaking in the yellows and reds of the tundra, and as the first snowflakes fell, I knew this was one of those moments that permanently sear into one’s memory. It was those minutes that I would dream about and replay in my mind all winter. That moment would be the catalyst for picking a tougher place, a deeper wild for next year’s hunt. And then, I walked back to find my brother.

We gathered our gear and I cut my tag before we started the walk up to put our hands on our animal for the first time. “I didn’t think you’d be that good,” my brother quipped. “I expected to hear a few more gunshots.” Which, if you don’t have a brother, translates as, “I am impressed with your hunting prowess. Perhaps one day I will be half the outdoorsman you are.” I took it as the compliment he meant it to be.

I ran my hand through the bull’s thick neck hair and put a hand on his antlers, sliding my other hand along his hide and gave thanks again, grateful for the many meals that this magnificent bull would provide.

The time had come for my brother to help skin his first animal. As we broke down my bull into pieces that would cool fast and fit into our packs, I thought back to the first time I skinned a deer with my older brother, Jim, in the woods in Wisconsin. About the first time I took apart a moose and a caribou with my friend Tim. And the first time I went on an overnight backpacking hunt with Mark when he marched me into the ground. Watching my younger brother have those same experiences reminded me of how Alaska has helped me grow over the last ten years.

My wife and I moved here two weeks after graduating from college. We were babies. Now, ten years later, we have a life that we have been blessed to build around us. I owe a debt to this place. It is a place that I feel has taken me from boyhood to manhood. It is a place where I learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It is a place where I learned that hard work, especially pursuing incredible animals on their terms, doesn’t always mean a tangible reward. But that just beckons me back for more. It is a place that has transformed me into the guy in charge of breaking down an animal rather than the new guy with a dull knife. I am indebted to this land, and the other men who taught me the skills it takes to bring home my own protein.

With the meat cached on top of some rocks, we propped up a tarp for cover for the night. Camp was pitched on the flattest spot we could find, and yet we still woke every hour, continually sliding to the bottom of the tent, balled up in our bags. It was a cold night, but morning broke clear and crisp over the ridge above us. Coffee was drank in exactly the manner it is supposed to be: from a sleeping bag, black, and with snow-covered mountains on the horizon.

With camp broken down, we loaded our packs and leap-frogged loads of meat the three miles back to the raft. It took all day, it had its share of “brotherly love” moments. It was a miserable slog at times, and took patience to work our way back slowly as the day began to give way to the night. In the end, we made it back to the raft in time to cache the meat for one more cold night and paddle out in the morning. It was a hard push, and crawling into our sleeping bags with hot food was all we had energy for at the end of the day.

The third day broke clear and cold, the mountains again gave us a great show during the sunrise. We loaded the raft and spread out the meat and load so as to get good airflow around it while we paddled and pulled our way back to the truck. Against the current with a full load, it was a longer paddle than on our way in, but we smiled the whole way back.

We finished loading the truck and began the drive home. With the heater on for the Florida boy, backpacks off our backs, he turned and gave me those six little words that make you want to push him out into the ditch. “You know, that wasn’t that bad.”


Posted by Adam Janke