Hunting deer in Juneau means climbing over, under and around trees, over mossy covered hills, and soggy bogs of muskeg. In contrast, the tundra areas north of Kotzebue, climbing is minimal and there are little or no trees to navigate. Hills, although small, are just deep enough to hide caribou, the game we're hunting this trip, and the willows that line the creeks provide a travel path with all the necessary elements of habitat: food, water, space, shelter and arrangement.
Traveling from Juneau to Kotzebue for a fall caribou hunt takes you into a very different adventure than most Southeast Alaskans are used to. It takes a lot of pre-planning, just as hunting deer or moose does locally. But to hunt in the tundra preparation means rubber boots, raingear and gloves, and also layers for the possibility of freezing cold and wind. A walking stick keeps hunters steady over the grass tussocks and knee-high blueberry brush. And preparation also means food. This is ne of the most important things to plan well, it must be easy to pack, fly out and prepare when you are exhausted from a day of hiking and packing meat.
We flew to our site by float plane on a Monday and set up camp. Since we couldn't hunt caribou the first day we tried our hand at pike fishing and took stock of the area. The creek was unusually high from the volume of rain the week prior so we prepared the inflatable raft for the next day's excursions. The pike weren't interested so we prepared a quick dinner, leaving time to organize our gear and rest up for next day's anticipated work.
Days two through seven gave us several opportunities to harvest caribou and a few ptarmigan. Each person in camp had their own view of the hunt and their own experience. Our party was made up of two married couples, and two men. Our adult son was in this camp for the first time which made this trip a very special one for my husband and me. All of us are experienced hunters.
My turn to shoot came when I was watching three of our party sneak across the tundra after a small herd just north of camp. We could clearly see their flame-orange caps as they moved out to close the distance between them and the caribou. The other three of us were watching from the willow hedge - with our guns and packs we were ready to lend a hand. When the shooting started in the field, about half of the animals ran towards the willows and stopped just beyond us. We decided this was too good to pass up and slipped between the brush, creeping over a rise and get in a position to shoot. Because I had not yet taken a caribou and my two male hunting partners had, they deferred to me for the first shot. It was a perfect moment. I hadn't hiked myself out of breath and I was feeling pretty calm. This was an unexpected chance. I dropped my pack part way up the slope. "Move closer" one of them whispered. I scooted forward. I took a good sitting position, braced my elbows, sighted in and the animal presented a broadside view. I took aim and fired. The caribou dropped with one shot. It isn't always this perfect - but I attained my goal - to be calm and to make a good clean shot. Now the work really began. We had to retrieve all of the meat and keep it in good condition before taking it home and packaging it for the freezer.
The opportunity to harvest an animal for meat involves respect for the animal and the resources as well as personal accountability. In Hunter Education we teach that ethics are what you do when no one is watching. Your personal ethics are also on display to your hunting partners. Demonstrating respect and consideration makes a hunting camp a positive experience for everyone. It was a good hunt. And the meat in our freezer is just a bonus. I can only hope for more of these good trips to harvest meat as well as memories.
Linda Coate is a freelance writer, hunter education instructor and 4-H outdoor skills leader. She lives in Juneau and contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.