I’ve made the trip up the James Dalton Highway, The Haul Road, a half dozen times and will certainly do so at least that many more before I ever leave Alaska. Each Haul Road venture usually has a different objective in mind as I attempt to learn every angle of hunting along its path. I’ve made the five-mile “death march”, I’ve road hunted, I’ve flown in, I’ve hiked in and pack-rafted out and will soon have rafted the mighty “Sag” river. I believe it to be a hunter’s rite of passage to make that long drive across the expansive northern taiga and tundra and test one’s mettle against the tussocks. If you find yourself unable to resist the allure of this iconic Alaskan adventure, let this be a fun guide to your odyssey.
The James Dalton Highway begins about seventy-five miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Rental car companies don’t permit you to drive their vehicles there but there are two U-Haul rental locations in Fairbanks to help you out. Get your fix of city luxuries while in Fairbanks and get a hold of some extra fuel jugs. Don’t worry about filling them until Hillstop Gas Stop in Fox, AK. Waiting to top-off your fuel here will stretch your tank an extra twenty-five miles and allow you to check off your first “must do” on this rite of passage, “Pie or Die”.
Send the final “I love you” message to your family and “We’re f#@kin’ doing it!” to your buddies, and then put all your technology away. Your phone won’t work from here on and a GPS or a watch isn’t even useful during the road trip. That said, bring your favourite driving music because neither NPR nor the evangelists have made it to the Alaskan north. This is the time to admire the vastness and grandeur of the Alaskan wild. Venturing upon this highway, you’ll feel as the settlers of the American West did when they rode across the Great Plains and the unsettled Rocky Mountains of the frontier. This is Alaska: The Last Frontier.
Maybe that’s not entirely accurate. The view during your drive is not raw unobstructed nature for as far as the eye can see. Though it’s not necessarily a detraction from the natural grandeur, there is one big hunk of American steel and ingenuity that will parallel you the entire way north: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It’s impressive and you have to take the obligatory picture next to it. It epitomizes a conundrum that’s as big as the pipeline itself. Love it or hate it, we cannot deny that oil exploitation is the lone reason the Haul Road exists. Yet, millions of acres of backcountry are accessible as a result. Peruse the kiosks at Yukon and Arctic Circle camps to educate yourself on the pipeline, the road and the lands. The pictures you take here will be the feature of many lasting memories.
Speaking of memories, shortly after crossing the Yukon River bridge, stop at the “Hot Spot” café. It’s a quirky place that is built in an old rail car. Treat yourself to a milkshake and an unforgettable behemoth of a burger. If you finish them both, you’ll swear you should be entitled to a free t-shirt. The owner there is another Alaskan icon, she’s as classy and sassy as they come.
Now, naturally, you’ll be inclined to speed north. Don’t rush! Prepare for a full day’s drive with no plans to hunt that evening. Set the cruise control at sixty miles per hour and enjoy the scenery. Though the Dalton Highway is a wide and well-maintained road, no surface laid across mountains and permafrost is without hairpin turns, winding routes, and stretches of deep potholes. Keeping at sixty miles per hour will traverse these peacefully and keep your passengers from getting motion sickness. Second, but equally important, when one of those big trucks approaches you, pull over and grant them the entire road. Stones rumbling from all those rolling tires do much less damage to your windshield if you are stopped along the shoulder.
250 miles from Fairbanks is the establishment of Coldfoot. I enjoy the services provided by this camp and I recommend you do the same. Fill your vehicle with fuel and maybe your belly with hot chow. On the way home, you can grab a room for about $200 a night, a steep price, but a hot shower and a clean, comfortable bed are invaluable after camping on the tundra.
The most important part of your stop in Coldfoot is to fuel up on caribou hunting information and desire. Returning hunters abound and you can give them an opportunity to tell the story of their trophy or the one that got away. Their enthusiastic success story is needed information regarding the location of the herd; essential information for the DIY hunter. Also, ogle some caribou antlers and notice which antler features catch your eye. You don’t realize this yet, but a man’s preferences for caribou antlers is similar to their preferences for women. If you like big tops, you’re probably a boob man. Big shovels and bez? Definitely a butt man. Meat hunter? I think you get the point. Any port in a storm right?
Before you leave the boreal forest on your way north, stop at one of the burn areas and gather some firewood and an assortment of long poles. You’ll appreciate these for campfires and a meat rack.
You will leave Coldfoot Camp with an amplified level of energy and quickly eclipse the next seventy-five miles. The road then turns to gravel and passes the sign for the “farthest north spruce tree”, may God rest its soul. It ascends a winding path carved into the steep talus slopes of the Brooks Range — the farthest extension of the Rocky Mountains. Once you’ve crested Atigun pass, you’ll begin the descent down the “north slope” that leads to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. I’m often greeted by a sizeable herd of Dall sheep as I crest the mountain, and I’m always excited by the fact that my hunt could begin anywhere from here onward to the north. In fact, the next twenty miles of road is commonly referred to as “Death Valley”.
Your homework, experience and due diligence become crucial at this juncture. It’s impossible to pre-plan where to begin hiking. An ideal situation occurs when the herd is migrating and caribou appear like ants all across the plains. Most likely, you will have to pinpoint the location of a smaller resident herd. Thus, information gathering opportunities are pivotal. The next most important resources that must not be missed are, construction flaggers, other road hunters and hunters at the Happy Valley airstrip.
The construction flaggers get the gossip from most every hunter waiting for a pilot car. There’s no better way to spend this time than to stretch the legs and small-talk. The DIY hunter needs to do the same. Hunt and glass your way north and take any opportunity to chat with hunters along the road. Next, stop in Happy Valley. The pilots themselves are generally preoccupied with their business but there are always kind hunters who will pass along information regarding the herd’s whereabouts. When you’ve narrowed down an area, you’ll hopefully spot caribou or the plethora of road hunters who congregate where they see the most animals. This is likely where your hike will begin and where you begin testing your mettle.
For the rifle hunters, before you start hiking, turn on your GPS and trace the road for several miles in each direction from your starting point. This will become your reference line for determining when you’re the required five miles from the highway. It often happens that you get focused on stalking a moving animal and don’t realize that you’ve returned to the bowhunting-only corridor. Be cognizant of this and diligent in tracking your location. Sometimes it’s just easier to hike in six miles and not worry about this.
But now on to the aforementioned “mettle”. What was that all about? I don’t know you personally but I can guess that you are a proud DIY hunter and have spent months preparing for this. You trained all summer, packing around your frame pack filled with a sandbag or that bag of winter road gravel stolen from your truck bed. You’ve come all the way to Alaska for a wild hunt in an incredible landscape. Do yourself a favour and resist the urge to road hunt. Beat-feet across the tundra, stake out your own hunting grounds and an untouched vista.
Many caribou are killed by road hunters and there are many great stories from their experiences. But that’s not the experience you dream of. My best stories, successes, and failures have come from getting away from the road. Animals near the road behave like animals that are being hunted. Get beyond the pressure from the road and you’ll find caribou behaving like wild animals again. There is a strategy that can be learned as to how to hunt animals that are being stalked by inept hunters. But that’s another article.
Back to the mettle…tussocks are indescribably awful to walk on. Prepare to be humbled but don’t let them beat you, there are strategies that can help. The best advice is to make no expectations for your pace or establish any hopeful destinations. Just lace your boots tight and use your trekking poles — these are required — to pick your way across the tundra. Ridgelines above the sandhills as well as long waterways can provide uniform ground and a reprieve from the rugged tussocks. They will also become your most useful terrain features when stalking animals. I have no personal opinion as to whether it’s easier to walk on top of or between the tussocks, though this is common banter between those who have endured this hunt. Truthfully, it’s Chevy vs Ford; just a matter of opinion. Pack light, lace the boots tight and start walking.
When you’ve left the road and ninety percent of the hunters behind you, remember that caribou are a worthy opponent. They — generally — are not dumb or senseless. A bowhunter needs to do everything right to close the distance. Like every animal, they have natural tendencies that become their weakness. In my opinion, their strength/weakness is their constant need to move and graze. This provides the best opportunity for access into archery range. The tundra itself provides minimal defilade and successful hunters do a lot of flat belly crawling. On open ground, caribou will certainly spot you inside of about eighty yards. I extensively utilize the heavy bramble along the waterways to stay concealed while working into the path of a moving animal. I then let them close the final distance. I can’t stress enough the importance of high-end, one-piece leather boots and high-quality gaiters. With these on my feet, I choose to walk through waterways as a means of traversing more efficiently.
This adventure is supposed to be fun and prove to each hunter that someone with desire, integrity, and grit lives inside each of us. Give respect to the land and the animal when you’re successful. Alaska law mandates that you harvest every bit of salvageable meat. Consider this a challenge. Take the ribs out on the bone so you can smoke them whole. Take the heart, the tongue and other bits too. Then, lace those boots tight and load that heavy pack tight to your core. Start walking towards the truck with no expected ETA. When you are tired, do the trekking pole lean until just before you feel ready. When you are really tired, sit in some soft dry tundra until just before you feel totally rested. Drink when you are thirsty and eat when your body craves fuel.
Before you begin resting and celebrating at the truck, construct your A-frame. Hang the meat and give it some TLC. Lastly, exchange a hug and a high-five with your crew. Revel in the moment of having attained a rite of passage. You are now true DIY hunters in the Last Frontier. Now, you may enjoy those camp comforts you brought along. Sitting around a fire with a can of chili, a roasted tenderloin and a bottle of Fireball can generally erase all memories of hardship.
Road trips, boots, tundra-walking, stalking, Fireball…it’s been quite an odyssey. I harvested a large bull on my first trek up the Haul Road in 2011. I bowhunted two days in the snow before poor boots mandated that I grab the rifle, tag out, and get home. I belly crawled through the light snow into close range of one-hundred bedded caribou and picked my favourite bull from the herd. That bull remains my most prized trophy. In a single trip across the tundra, I packed all my gear on my back and pulled a sled with all the meat, the head and the hide. Those five-point-two miles took me eight hours. It was then that I developed my cardinal rules for the tundra: Just walk. Set no pace. Rest when tired. Drink when thirsty. Eat when hungry. Give respect to the animals.
About The Author:
Steve was born and raised in the bluff country of SE Minnesota where he learned to chase giant phantom whitetails. Going to college in North Dakota allowed him access to federal grasslands where he taught himself how to spot and stalk western game. Back then, he knew he would eventually move farther west. At age 28, Steve finally moved to Alaska. He still hunts giant whitetails and pheasants back home in the Midwest but now considers himself a true blooded mountain hunter. You can follow Steve’s adventures via his Instagram account @alaskanodysseys.