The Sacred Hunt – Episode #3 – The Memorial Hunt – Big Alaska Bull Caribou

Welcome to episode #3 of the Sacred Hunt. I call this episode “The Memorial Hunt,” as it’s all about a spectacular Alaska caribou hunt, a very special rifle, and the last wish of an old friend who I’d never see again.

Back in the summer of 2011, I was preparing to move from St. Charles, Missouri, to Kodiak Island, Alaska, which would become my home for the better part of the next decade. As I was loading up my truck in the garage and preparing for a long journey north, an old friend from church stopped by to say farewell. His name was Paul, and although I’d see him on the weekends at church on a regular basis, I never got to know him on a deeply personal level. As I found out that day in the garage, Paul was a guy who loved the outdoors. He was incredibly excited that I was heading to Alaska as he figured that my new life would be one filled with endless hunting and fishing opportunities.

Alaska Hunting: A Quickstart Guide for Planning a DIY Alaska Hunt
Alaska Hunting: A Quickstart Guide for Planning a DIY Alaska Hunt

In the midst of our conversation, Paul excused himself for a moment as he went out to his truck and he came back with a beautiful Belgium made Browning BAR II 30-06 rifle, which he gave to me as a parting gift, hoping I’d be able to put it to good use on some wild Alaska hunting adventures. Needless to say, I was extremely humbled and honored by such a gesture. As we continued to talk, I found out that Paul might not be around for too many more hunting seasons, much less ever get the chance to head to Alaska for a dream hunt. Paul was fighting cancer and had been for quite some time. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never knew it, as he was always full of positive energy and enthusiasm. He was not the stereotypical image of a man struggling with a terminal illness. After our conversation had come to an end and we exchanged a final handshake, I carefully packed up the cherished firearm with the rest of my belongings, and the next morning, I hit the road.

Hunting for Memories

Fast-forward now to July, 2015. During a phone conversation with my mom, I learned that Paul had passed away. He had fought the good fight for another four years since that memorable day in the garage. I just couldn’t believe that it had been, in fact, a little over four years since Paul had bestowed that beautiful rifle upon me. Sadly though, I had only fired the Browning a few times since our final conversation, and those few times were at the range…not on a wild, adventurous hunting trip. Contrary to what my family and friends imagined, I was not spending every day out in the wilderness hunting and fishing, as I was quite busy with work commitments.

Finally, in August of 2015, I had a break from work and was able to head out on the sort of big game adventure that I’m sure Paul had in mind for the rifle. My buddy Clint and I had planned a 30-mile caribou float hunting trip on a river up on the mainland of Alaska. I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to finally make good on Paul’s wish. So in preparation for the adventure, I taped a picture of Paul to the stock of the rifle. This was to be a “memorial hunt,” and I wanted to truly honor Paul’s memory during the experience.

The hunt began as we loaded up and launched the hunting raft on a nasty, rainy morning. The first phase of the float was on wide open, slow-moving waters. We covered many miles the first day and saw a few but encouraging number of caribou on the move. Thus, we decided to set up camp in a fantastically beautiful spot for the first few days to see if more caribou would pass through the area.

After hunting that first spot for a couple of days, we didn’t see hardly any animals, other than a few more cow and calf caribou, and a moose or two passing through. And so, we broke down camp, packed up the raft, and headed off for the next leg of the adventure. That next day proved to be quite an exhausting one, as we had to disassemble, unpack, and portage the raft and all of our gear up and over several hills and valleys in order to get around a deadly set of waterfalls. Finally, after re-assembling the raft, and loading it up again, we got back on the river, which was no longer a nice, gentle float. The middle section below the falls was white water rapids and required some serious rafting skills to get through safely, which we thankfully did.

As afternoon turned into evening, the wind kicked up, which made paddling the raft a brutal, muscle-burning, tag-team effort. Again, there was not much wildlife activity along the way, other than a sow grizzly bear with three cubs that we had an exciting encounter with. By the time the light began fading away, after a long day on the water, we decided it was best to get serious about finding a camping spot. The decision as to where, exactly, became much easier upon spotting a huge, magnificent caribou bull heading up a nearby mountain pass. As he slowly crested the top and disappeared, we landed the raft, quickly set up camp, had a meal, and were fast asleep.

The next few days were again spent exploring and glassing the area from various vantage points. And, once more, not much was out there in the way of wildlife. Visions of massive herds of roaming caribou only remained those of my nightly dreams. It’s truly amazing how few wild animals there actually are out there in the massive expanses of Alaskan wilderness. In most cases, you really have to work hard and cover a lot of ground to bring home a supply of venison for the freezer.

Hot Pursuit!

 The second to last day of our adventure began as most of the others: with Clint and I spending hours glassing over the seemingly endless terrain, intensely examining the trees, bushes, valleys, mountain ridges, and river bottoms, hoping to see the flash of an antler or the subtle movement of a caribou moving through the thick brush. Finally, the silence was broken as Clint whispered, “Joe, I see a bull.” As Clint reports, my eyes popped out of my head in surprise! I must admit, things were not looking too hopeful up until that point. I slowly got up from my glassing area and walked over to where Clint was perched. He took another confirming look through his binoculars and pointed in the direction of the bull. I was happy to see that indeed, a large, lone caribou had made an appearance a few mountain ridges over. It was most likely the same bull we spotted the evening we set up camp. The bull was a long ways out there, but we realized it was probably going to be our only chance at filling a tag.

We quickly gathered our gear and started heading in the direction of the big bull. The caribou was not moving fast, but nonetheless, he was moving away from us at a steady pace, and he already had quite a head start! Clint and I made every attempt to stay out of sight, remaining just below the ridgeline of the bull’s travel route. We kicked things into high gear and raced across the mountain tops in hot pursuit. It was one heck of a workout! With lungs burning, sweat pouring, and hearts pounding, we caught up to where we last saw the bull and peeked over the ridge to see if he was in the immediate area. Unfortunately, he was not. He had already made it over to the next ridgetop! Again, we stayed low and bolted in his direction. Once more, upon catching up to where he was last spotted, we saw that he was ahead of us and was disappearing over yet another ridge top. Our quest continued in the same manner until at last, we finally caught up with the bull.

The Moment of Truth

As Clint and I cautiously peeked over the final ridgetop along the bull’s route, we saw a massive set of velvet-covered antlers moving through the brush just below us. This was it! The moment of truth was upon us. Clint remained behind while I closed the distance and prepared for the shot. I crouched down low, snuck in closer, and carefully crept around the edge of the ridgetop. There he was, 75 yards away, out in the wide open mountain tops. It was a sight I’ll never forget! Absolutely beautiful! With my heart still pounding and lungs breathing hard from the pursuit, I got on one knee, rested my elbow on it, and took careful aim with Paul’s rifle. With the gentle squeezing of the trigger, I quickly and humanely harvested the bull.

After Clint and I exchanged victory hollers from across the mountain top and regrouped, we went to go have a look at the big bull, walking toward it with a sense of sacred awe and respect. After expressing our gratitude to the Lord for a safe, successful hunt, we got busy field dressing and quartering up the bull. In the process of doing so, we noticed that we were not the only hunters who were after this fine caribou. From the fresh wound on his hamstring, it appeared a pack of wolves had also attempted to take out the bull, however, they would have done so in a fashion not nearly as quick and humane as a well-placed bullet, as wolves sometimes literally eat their victims alive.

Heading Home

After packing out all the meat, which was a heck of a workout, we spent a final night in camp and headed for home the next morning. The final day of rafting was yet another demanding ordeal as a fierce windstorm came through the area. The wind was so strong that trying to paddle was a complete waste of time and energy. So, we had to get out and push the raft down the river for the last few miles…and even that was difficult to do. Several hours later we finally got to our take-out spot, so we unpacked the raft, loaded up the truck and headed for home, where we then spent the better part of the next day butchering and processing all that venison.

All the meat finally made it to the freezer and the gigantic rack eventually made it to a place of honor on the wall to immortalize and honor both the magnificent bull as well as the experience of the hunt. To top it off, I had finally made good on Paul’s wish to use his rifle on an epic Alaskan hunting adventure. In fact, that would be the first of many to come, as the Browning 30-06 has become my favorite rifle and the one I have used on every big game hunt both in Alaska and the lower 48 ever since. That rifle has taken quite a beating over the years, but with routine maintenance, it’s still going strong. And, all these years later, I still have Paul’s picture taped on the stock, which I’m going to have to replace soon as all those wet, rainy Alaska hunts have greatly deteriorated the wood.

Passing it On

For many primitive cultures, both the skills and the tools needed for hunting were handed down from generation to generation as a way of honoring those who have passed on and who have shared their wisdom and knowledge. The same holds true today for modern hunters. Honoring the memory of friends, family, and mentors through the traditions of hunting, as well as honoring the animals that are hunted and the land that supports them, are all reasons why the hunt is indeed, sacred.

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