It Never Would Have Happened Without the Boys and the Dogs
Author: Jim Julson (Colman, SD)
In April Dan, one of my twins, was informed he had been selected for a summer internship working as a civil engineer for the US Indian Health Service. He was to be on the job, based in Anchorage, Alaska, by May 19th. The moment I learned he was headed for Anchorage my mind began to explore all the possibilities. Since his internship lasted just the summer and he would be back to begin classes at South Dakota State University for the fall semester, I began to explore the upland bird seasons in Alaska. I found they opened August 10th. It seemed most people went to Alaska to hunt big game or fish so I reasoned the upland bird hunting might be pretty good. A little more research revealed they have several species of ptarmigan, ruffed grouse, sharp-tail grouse, spruce grouse and blue grouse. Blue grouse only inhabit south east Alaska, an area I would not be visiting. Upland bird hunting pressure is minimal. As a bonus I also learned if you went far enough north it is possible to hunt caribou as early as late July.
As I was doing research I came across a book authored by Jim McCann titled Upland Hunting in Alaska, The Bird Hunter’s Guide. One evening after reading his book for a while as I climbed into bed I thought, “it would be nice if he were still alive I would ask him some questions.” I jumped back out of bed, looked in the front of his book and found no date listed after his birth date. I googled up his address and sent him a letter along with our website address. A few days later I received an email from Jim, “he would be more than happy to answer my questions.”
As it turned out Jim knew not only about upland bird hunting but also about the area we would be doing a fly in “drop camp” caribou hunt. We exchanged numerous emails regarding the caribou hunt, including what the terrain was like, equipment needs and he even volunteered to be the person with whom we could leave our drop camp trip itinerary. So if we did not contact him within reasonable time of when we were supposed to return he could call in the search and rescue. He also volunteered to take me upland bird hunting when I was in the Fairbanks area. Things were beginning to fall into place!
I began to search the internet to determine the areas to hunt early in the season and found the North Slope of the Brooks Range was probably our best option. We would have a chance to drive the Dalton Highway(locally referred to as “the Haul Road”) and see a lot of Alaska, since the road system is very limited. I located what appeared to be a reputable air taxi service that provided drop camp services out of a place called Happy Valley about 90 miles south of Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay). Happy Valley is a wide spot in the road that served as one of the staging locations for equipment and crew during construction of the Alaska Pipeline. I checked out his references and they were all good. Several of his references had flown with him for over 8 years.
About a month before I was to leave home I received an email from our air taxi that he had run into some issues with his plane but the hunt was still on and he had arranged air transportation to fly us out to our hunting location. A phone call later I realized we maybe in a bit of trouble—he would not tell me what was the matter with the plane. All I knew was it was not mechanical. He assured me he made other arrangements to fly us out. I had not put any money down yet, so I inquired about this. His reply was just bring cash. Another flag, all was not well. I called the boys and we discussed the situation. Adam’s plane tickets and everyone’s two caribou licenses were already purchased. We were going to drive the Haul Road anyway. So we decided to approach this as an adventure and see how it unfolded.
I left home July 26th with our 2 female Small Munsterlanders and most of the gear to camp and hunt upland birds and caribou as well as fish. It took me 4 days and 12 hours to get to Fairbanks from my home in east central South Dakota. I did stop at night and did a little sightseeing along the way.
Breakfast in the Yukon Providence of Canada
I arrived in Fairbanks two days ahead of the boys to organize food and since neither of them would be driving back home with me I had to get the details on what was needed for me to transport their caribou and fish back to South Dakota. Adam arrived mid afternoon on August 1st and Dan drove up from Anchorage on Saturday the 2nd. The three of use left on the 2nd and drove my pickup up the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) Alaska. It is 500 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. Over 400 miles of it is gravel, traveled primarily by semis servicing the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. This road was built during construction of the Alaska Pipeline. Fuel and services are available at only two places, Coldfoot and Deadhorse.
The Dalton Highway (Haul Road), 500 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay)
START—Fairbanks to Yukon River crossing
Yukon River Bridge
Crossing the Artice Circle, 11pm
Coldfoot, temporary camp built during the construction of the Alaskan Pipline
Coldfoot to Atigan Pass
Coldfoot to Atigan Pass
Climbing to Atigan Pass
Buried pipeline off just off the road, Atigan Pass
The North Slope, August 3rd
Arriving at Deadhorse
FINISH—Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) Alaska
When we arrived at Happy Valley we found our air taxi pilot right where he said he would be, sleeping in his van. As he told us his story we found out through some problems with a hunting lease he had purchased he had lost his plane and house. He explained he had two possibilities for flying us out for our hunt. One was through a guide who had not yet shown up at Happy Valley for the fall caribou hunt and the other was through another air taxi service located at Deadhorse. Since the guide had not yet arrived we drove to Deadhorse to check on the availability of the air taxi there. As our pilot talked to the Deadhorse air taxi we could sense they didn’t know if they wanted to get involved with this situation or not. Since it was getting late we decided to check on motel possibilities. We found out it was $100/person/night and one of us had to sleep with someone else in another room. We opted to put our tent up outside of town. The next morning we went back to Happy Valley to find the guide had arrived. Our pilot went to talk with him and came back explaining they would not take us out. So we headed the 90 miles back to Deadhorse. My Sons and I arrived ahead of our pilot. Up until now our original pilot did the talking. Upon our arrival I went into their office and introduced myself. The Secretary looked at me and said, “we talked with you last July.” I had called to check on their availability once it looked like we were going to have problems with our original air taxi. They had explained to me they did not feel knowledgable on where to drop us to hunt, so we had stayed booked with our original pilot. I proceeded to explain the situation and that I would be paying them. I asked that they be honest and tell us our chances of getting out. Realizing we were at the end of their line, having not made reservations earlier. She said they usually get 50% up front. I said do you want cash, credit card or check. She said, “cash works,” and made a call to the pilot who was transporting a team of government researchers off the beach. We were to be next when the Beaver got back. We were elated and went to start repacking the food and gear that would be going with us. When we finished that and walked back into the office to check on the pilot’s status we were told we may not get out. The pilot had radioed in that he had picked up some rocks on the beach during his last takeoff and had chipped the propeller and it looked like a new propeller would be needed. I asked if he was still flying and they said yes he was flying back with the researchers off the beach and would be landing shortly. We met him at the hanger when he landed. The mechanic looked at the propeller and found the leading edge to be slightly chipped. It was well within tolerance and a file smoothed off the rough edges. We loaded our gear and took off. It was not 6pm in the evening. Our original pilot had showed us and our new pilot three spots to check. The first place we saw caribou we were to land. At the first location we saw nothing. The second location we saw a few cows, but no bulls, and there was already a tent and hunters there, so we went on to the third location. On the way we saw half a dozen bulls bedded down on the top of a small mountain. The pilot tried for 45 minutes to find a place to put us down, but could locate none that were feasible. On to the third site. It was getting late enough and the plane was low enough on fuel this third spot was going to be it---time and fuel would not allow us to go back to the second location. This location was on a gravel bar near some ice fields on the river. We saw no caribou as the pilot located a place to land. It was late enough in the day shadows made the smoothness of a landing spot deceiving and as a result when he landed we hit a large enough bump the tundra tires bounced us back up in the air 10 feet. He held the plane steady and we landed safely. We quickly unloaded while the pilot located the best departure path. He needed 700 feet to get air born.
We set up camp and finished eating about 11pm but it was still light and we could very easily work. It never did get any darker than twilight.
The next morning we awoke, made breakfast of oatmeal and brown sugar and discussed a plan. I had marked the bulls on my GPS as we had flown over them the day before and since we did not see any caribou in our immediate vicinity we opted to start in their direction. I didn’t know how to determine distance on my GPS so we really had no idea how far it was back to them. We set out about 9:30am, in a light rain.
We learn what tundra is like to walk on
A little friendly help
The ridges were easier to walk on
We walked about a mile before we got to the edge of the river bed and since we had to pick our way across small finger streams it took us a while to reach the edge. Then we found out what tundra was. Walking on tundra is like walking on an uneven sponge with divots all over. There is no real way to describe it and no real way to prepare ahead of time for it. Plus it was raining. At one point during the day a sleet squall hit and was bad enough we took a tarp out and set down with the tarp on our backs to protect us.
By about 3pm in the afternoon we had only seen one cow, but we had reached the spot we spotted the bulls from the plane. As we glassed we found nothing. I suggested we start back as we had been walking steadily since 9:30 that morning and it would be late when we got back. Dan looked at me and said with the enthusiasm of youth, “there is no way he was going back yet. He had not walked this far and spent all the time to get there plus bought his tags, plus it stayed light all night!” So we set down and ate a little and glassed some more. Dan suddenly said, “I see antlers!” I found them also, plus another pair. The excitement picked up. We discussed a plan. It looked like we could circle around them, get down wind and come up over a ridge and be within shooting range. At this point those two boys took over, I smiled to myself and I just followed directions. They had the situation under control and Dad didn’t have to call the shots. There is a time when a young man makes a transition from being a boy to becoming a man, taking charge and making decisions. It may have been happening gradually before this but it became very evident that afternoon that I was witnessing that transition. Whether we harvested any caribou or not that afternoon I knew these two sons would be just fine. Oh, sure they would make mistakes and hit dead ends just like we all have, but they had left boyhood behind and would do just fine! I relaxed and enjoyed the moment. Good thing too, because, as you will learn, there were some physical challenges to come before this hunt was over that made us question if we ever wanted to hunt caribou again.
When we arrived just below the top of the ridge I stopped and they creep up to take a look over the top. They came scurrying back. Dan looked at me and said, “there is a big one up there and you have the biggest gun, you shoot first!” Whoa, what do you say to that? …OK! So with one of them on each side of me we creep up to the top of the ridge. Looking over all I could see of the caribou was his antlers. He was laying among the willow brush and I couldn’t find anything to shoot at. So I piled a few rocks up, and put my jacket on top of them. Got into a comfortable prone position and waited for him to stand up. I was being questioned why I was not shooting and I had to explained I could not find anything to shoot at. They were both ready to back me up. We did not have to wait long and when he stood up I put the crosshairs on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. He dropped like a rock. Out of nowhere a slightly smaller bull appeared. I yelled, you know we haven’t seen a lot of bulls so far, he looks big enough to me to shoot. Those two opened up. I just keep my scope on him and watched. The first two shots slowed him down and the third one put him down for good. Later Dan said, “I was going to keep shooting until he dropped. There was no way I was going to track a wounded caribou across the tundra. We stepped off the shots at about 250 yards.
When we got to the caribou everything hit home for Adam. He said, “You know what we just did? We shot caribou in Alaska, Whoa!”
Jim’s bull, number one
Adam and Dan's bull, number two
Finishing up butchering and getting ready to load up
We took a lot of pictures, then ate a snack, calmed down and then started to field dress them. By this time it was 6 pm in the afternoon, it had stopped raining and the sun had come out. We quartered and harvested the loins and rib meat and put them in pillow cases we use for game bags. We could only pack one caribou at a time, so we moved the remaining meat, in games bags, about 100 yards from the carcass and took off packing one back to camp. I was going to put two front quarters in my pack but Adam said, “no way are you carrying two.” So Adam took 2 front quarters, Dan took a rear quarter and some loose meat and the horns; I took a rear quarter and the 3 guns. By 3 am in the morning we were still 2 miles from the tent. Dan had stretched a muscle in his upper thigh and could only pick his left foot up a couple inches off the ground---so he ended up shuffling his feet most of the time. I said, “enough, let’s drop this meat here, make the spot with the GPS and come back after we had rested.” No one argued. We arrived back at the tent at 4:30 am. We had been gone 19 hours.
Loaded and headed back to camp
Dan though he looked like some type of an alien
Dan shuffling through the tundra
Dan shuffling through the tundra
Adam crossing a small stream in the river bed on the final leg to camp
The next morning the sun came out and we could dry everything out. We got up late, ate and drank good. Then set off to get the closest meat, where we had dropped late the night before. It was a 5 hour round trip. We went to bed early and agreed we would not shot another caribou unless it was close to camp. The next morning we were awakened by ravens making a racket just outside our tent. I went to check and a red fox ran away from the area we had our meat. He had chewed through one of the game bags and eaten some of the rib meat. We covered the meat with a tarp and held the edged down with a lot of rocks and that seemed to deter him. However he was back the next evening and walked within 15 yards of us looking for scraps as we ate supper.
View from our camp, sunrise the second morning
A 10pm intruder looking for scraps
Exploring the ice fields located about a quarter mile from camp
Just as we finished up breakfast we saw four bulls walk up on a small rise in the river bed about a half a mile from camp. Nobody got excited. We all knew we had a full day ahead of us packing out the furtheres caribou we shot the first day. As we ate the caribou kept coming closer. We got the binoculars out and started looking them over. There was one that was Ok. The pilot had told us we could only fly out three without the plane making an extra trip. I commented, “if you were ever going to shot another one you would probably never get one closer.” Nobody was moving to get a gun. We all just continued to eat breakfast and glass them once in awhile. Pretty soon they were probably ¼ mile away and moving at an angle that would take them within about 400 yards of the tent. The guys each got a gun and walked about 50 yards from the tent. They got into good shooting position and I looked through the binoculars and told them which to shot at. The third one back! They started to shoot as the caribou moved across about 300 yards out. Someone hit a leg on the third shot and them someone got a solid body shot and he slowed down. They were being very cautious not to hit the last one as they shot. It was smaller and even though we had a tag it would mean butchering another one and an extra air taxi trip. A final shot put him down. We stepped it off at 330 yards. We butchered him and packed him back to the tent. Loaded food and water and set off to get the caribou we had shot the first day.
Dan and Adam's bull, number 3
When we were two miles from camp we noticed an unfamiliar plane kept circling our camp and finally landed. We had no idea what was going on. Guessing it was Fish and Game checking our carcass from that morning’s harvest, next to camp. Since it would have taken over an hour to get back to camp we hoped everything would be there when we got back and kept going. When we got within about a mile of where we had left the meat we saw something white run out of the general area of our kill. We guessed it was a wolf but had not brought the binoculars to reduce the amount of weight we would have to carry. When we arrived at out meat stash we found a corner of the loss meat game bag chewed open and a loin gone. Investigating the carcass location about 100 yards away we found a grizzly had buried both carcasses. We decided to load our meat and move out of there as quickly as possible. The day was sunny and pleasant and we arrived back at camp with no mishaps. However, it was an 11 hour round trip to get the meat that day. We found no evidence of anyone being in our camp. Were we puzzled!
Grizzly buried carcass
Our tent is middle right next to the white strip in the river drainage
The next morning we used our satellite phone to call the air taxi to see if our pickup was still scheduled. We were informed the Beaver that had brought us in was getting its 100hr check up and a Cessna 210 would be picking us up. The plane we saw the day before was our pilot finding a location he could land this tricycle gear smaller plane. We got the coordinates for the pickup spot and I put them in my PS. It was a bought a mile away. It took us three trips to pack everything, but the tent and one rifle, to the new pickup spot and we finished just before the plane arrived. Because this plane was smaller it was going to take two trips to get us out. Adam, Dan and the gear went with the first flight to Happy Valley about 30 miles away. They would be meet there by our original pilot and relayed to Deadhorse. I would go with the caribou in the second trip directly to Deadhorse. Before they took off I was given instructions to get the tent down and transported to the new landing site before he got back. I completed my task just before he arrived. It was curious, I was looking for him to the west but he came up the river valley from the north. When he arrived he explained, cloud cover had moved in and he could not fly directly over the small mountains to get back to me so he found a valley that got him to the river and then he flew the river up. We loaded the plane and took off. As we were flying the pilot explained the day before he knew he had to pick us up in a plane that could not land were the Beaver had. So he searched until he found a spot within reasonable distance from the original landing spot. It was him we had seen flying around our camp and landing. He showed me he had where he had marked the spot on his map and labeled it “AMEN.”
Getting ready to move camp to the new pickup location
It’s amazing what you can get on a pack frame!
Packing to the pickup point
We flew through light rain and overcast to Deadhorse were Dan and Adam and the original pilot met us. We loaded the caribou and gear into my pickup. Paid the second half of the air taxi fee and went to one of the two motels for a shower and meal. We paid $12 for a shower and $12 for a meal – but that included a sack lunch we took with us for the trip back to Fairbanks. We were all still pretty jazzed up so we decided to start back for Fairbanks. We left Deadhorse at 11pm.
We had to take there where the pipe line went under the road
On the way back we saw a wolf run across the road I front of us and stand and look at us about 50 feet from the road as we stopped and looked. We arrived back at Fairbanks eleven and a half hours later. We dropped the caribou off to be processed, got a motel, ate, slept and did laundry.
The next day, Sunday, we hired a float plane instructor to get Adam some float plane training and have a look around Fairbanks from the air. Then Dan took off for Anchorage, because he had to be at work on Monday. Adam and I went and picked up our dogs at Northern Pet Care. The kennel recommended by Jim McCann. Monday, Adam and I took our Small Munsterlanders hunting ptarmigan. Fly in drop camp fishing in the Yukon River delta region out of Bethel, Alaska and upland bird hunting in Alaska area stories for another time.
Later in the winter I finally transferred our track and way points from my GPS onto my computer and got a decent estimate of how far we had walked. As it turned out following my track we had shot the two furtherest caribou 5.5 miles from camp. Counting the packing trips to get them back and moving everything to the new air taxi pickup spot we had put on between 33 to 34 miles in four days. Most of it on tundra.
I left home at 8:30am on July 26th and arrived back home midnight September 14th. After 51 days, 12780 miles, and 80 pound of dog food the dogs and I returned home with 250 pounds of caribou, 60 pounds of fish a few upland birds ( I ate most of them as I traveled). We made some great friends and met people I never imagined I would meet. Great people, good dogs, “BIG BEAUTIFUL” country, an outdoorsman's dream! What more could you ask for!! The most important part was being able to share the experiences. I would love to return their hospitality and share bird hunting adventures everyone who helped us in Alaska.
This was one of the coolest and wettest summers on record in Alaska. The highest temperature Anchorage reached, all summer was 77 deg F. Most days it rained at least sometime during the day. We learned to dress accordingly.
If you would like to see more photos and get an idea of the topography, see how we traveled and more adventures in Alaska they can be viewed at www.julsonkennel.com, click on the “Julson Family – Hunting & Fishing Adventures” link and then the “Alaska” link.