The variety of wild terrain and big game available in Alaska makes it an undeniably unique corner of the natural world. Hunters who undertake the once-in-a-lifetime adventure of hunting brown bears on the coast or Dall sheep in the mountains know planning and preparation are part of what makes the pursuit of wild game so much more than taking the shot. In Alaska, the terrain, transportation modes and weather involved in planning a DIY (do-it-yourself), self-guided hunt for big game would appear daunting. A self-guided hunter is not just responsible for knowing the regulations and caring for the game after the trigger is pulled, but must also consider a number of factors that may not come into play in less-remote or milder environments. Alaska, more so than any other state, offers a chance for an adventure rather than a hunt. It’s not just a chance to take game, but a risk—to travel by bush plane, encounter grizzly bears, and see the northern lights from the top of a mountain.
In Alaska, a nonresident hunter must have a guide or a next-of-kin relative accompany him or her to hunt brown bears, Dall sheep or mountain goats. Moose and caribou are open to nonresident hunters without a guide or next of kin, but the animals are widely distributed across the state and success rates on taking a trophy moose on a self-guided hunt in Alaska are dismal. Based on these factors, deer and caribou are the best options for a first-time Alaska DIY hunt, and caribou are uniquely northern animals. Although Alaska does not lend itself to short weekend hunts, a caribou hunt offers a realistic opportunity to take a trophy animal and can be accomplished in 10 days or less. Most caribou seasons open on August 10, which allows a DIY hunt in moderate weather with less concern about being snowed in, as can be the case even in late August and September hunts.
A large percentage of caribou hunting once open to nonresident hunters is no longer available in Alaska. The ability to pick up a harvest ticket or registration permit and drive to an area where success was at one time reasonably expected is mostly gone. The best options for the nonresident DIY hunter are near or above the Arctic Circle. In Alaska, hunting areas are broken down into game management units (GMUs). Nonresidents may obtain a registration permit for caribou in Unit 20, but due to herd migration and unpredictable closures, a hunt along the Steese Highway out of Fairbanks or the Taylor Highway out of Tok is implausible for most nonresident foot hunters. Remote hunt opportunities exist in Unit 25 and Unit 26. Both of these areas are accessible by chartering for air services. (Note: Hunt information has not yet been published for the upcoming regulatory year, so be sure to check with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the latest regulations).
A hunter can start in Fairbanks, travel to Bettles on a commercial flight and then take an air taxi to caribou country. Another option is to drive the Dalton Highway (a.k.a. Haul Road) and charter for air services to the Brooks Range out of Coldfoot, Galbraith or Happy Valley. The Dalton Highway offers unparalleled road-tripping adventure, and is worth the time it takes to drive the 414-mile road before hopping a bush plane. There is a vehicle service that provides rental SUVs for the Dalton Highway at a cost of $200 a day. The drive from Fairbanks to Happy Valley is about 12 hours, and has incredible wildlife viewing and fishing opportunities along the road.
Starting with the Bettles option, a flight from Fairbanks to Bettles will cost around $200–$250 per person. Brooks Range Aviation is one well-known air taxi equipped with de Havilland Beavers on floats, which have a lot of cargo space; one can carry a nice base camp in this plane. Floats limit the options to lakes, but the company routinely gets hunters into caribou country. Depending on the length of the flight, the cost runs from $1500 to $2,000 per person. Several air taxis operate out of Coldfoot, Galbraith and Happy Valley; my personal experience is with Silvertip Aviation.
In terms of success, flying out in a Super Cub, while limiting gear and base-camp comforts, is without question the best option for a first-class caribou hunt in wilderness country. Last year, Silvertip Aviation flew our hunting party out of Happy Valley in a Cessna 185 wheel plane with a limit of 60 pounds of gear per person, not counting firearms, to their wilderness lodge on the Ivishak River (about a 15-minute flight). We then transferred to a highly modified PA12 Super Cub before heading out to the hunting area. We had planned to spend 5 or 6 days on the ground, but were fortunate to take caribou on our first day of hunting in uncommonly great weather.
The Brooks Range is one of those magical places that are truly wild and a true reflection of the Alaska outdoors; given the landscape, weather and remoteness, it’s likely that things won’t go a planned, and it’s important to prepare for that. Preparing mentally and physically for the ultimate outdoor experience is as much about living a life of adventure as it is about taking game. But there’s nothing like the feeling of bringing home wild game and having that first meal back home. I remember sitting down to that dinner with an overwhelming sense of all that went into it. And I knew I’d go back someday.
I carried a .300 Weatherby Mark V Euromark , but any good-quality scoped rifle in the .270 Winchester class will work. I shot hand-loaded 165-grain Noslers, but whatever load you use should have a well-constructed bullet, such as the Nosler Partition (not for caribou as much as for the chance encounter with a grizzly bear).
A spotting scope is heavy and not needed to spot a decent-size bull. The better quality the binoculars, the easier it will be on the eyes. I used the EL Range from Swarovski Optik.
I carried an Eberlestock Just One pack for its adjustable design, and recommend an internal frame pack with a capacity of at least 4,000 cubic inches. External frame packs are cumbersome for the aircraft and caribou loads do not demand that sort of structure.
Your tent will need to withstand a fair amount of wind as well as snow. It doesn’t have to be a high-tech mountain tent. I use a simple Eureka four-person Timberline tent that has proven to work in all sorts of weather.
Opinions differ, but I prefer down sleeping bags, as they are light for their insulation and compress into a small package. I use a water-resistant 650-fill goose down Marmot bag rated to 0 degrees for most of my backcountry trips.
The cook stove is an important piece of gear, as it can also serve as a source of heat. There are no trees on the northern slopes of the Brooks Range, and therefore no wood to burn. Any of the MSR butane canister stoves are great. Models that have the wind blockers make a huge difference in heating up water and food. In higher elevation and with the wind, it’s likely you will burn more fuel than normal. It’s worth bringing along a few more canisters than you think you will need.
In addition to lightweight cookware, dishes and utensils, it’s a good idea to have a collapsible water jug. There are mountain streams or lakes in many areas, but you may have to walk a fair distance from camp to get to them. With no trees there are no beavers, so filtration has not been a concern to me. But if it is an issue, you can either boil water or bring a filtration device.
Insect life in this part of the world is just mind-numbing. Wind can help keep them in check, but at a minimum, lots of 100 percent DEET bug dope and headnets are required. A Thermacell unit is worth bringing for use around camp or while dressing an animal.
Good-quality game bags are a must. Those produced by Caribou Gear are great and reusable; the company also markets a citrus spray that does double duty as a bacterial deterrent and bug deterrent.
A good skinning knife, a lightweight saw (for removing the antlers from the skull), and a Havalon change-blade knife will take care of dressing, skinning, quartering and boning. In some areas, the meat must be left on the bone for transport.
The hunting areas are a mixture of shale ridge lines, low blueberry scrub sidehills, and muskeg valleys. The mountain slopes vary from gentle to vary steep. The muskeg can be very wet, and is fairly miserable for packing out animals. I am accustomed to living in XtraTuf boots during the summer, but good waterproof boots are a necessity.
Temperatures can range from below freezing to 60 degrees in late July/early August. Down and merino wool with lightweight rubber raingear, such as Helly Hansen Impertech, works well. I wore First Lite merino base layers, Prois hunting shirts and pants, Eddie Bauer down field vests, Darn Tough merino socks, and brought along waterproof gloves with liners.
Gear is usually packed in small waterproof bags. Tents and sleeping bags should be left out of bags to fill available space in an aircraft unless flying in a larger plane.
In early-season hunts, Caribou antlers will be in velvet and can be preserved by freezing for later freeze drying (the best method) or injected within about five days of taking the animal. If that isn’t possible, then it is best to strip the velvet off in the field. If a shoulder mount is planned, bring 3 or 4 pounds of regular table salt per cape.
Regardless of the air service you use, you’ll need to bring a satellite phone, or satphone. These are necessary for emergencies but also to communicate with the pilot. Satphones are available for rent from independent vendors or through some of the air services.
This RetroWON first appeared May 22, 2016.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham