The rain echoed through my hood as my hands gripped ever tighter around the oars. The Ribdon River was swollen and the crystal clear, glacial water had become a foggy, churning mess after three days of relentless rain.
My hands were soaking wet and freezing. I was only wearing a liner glove because I wanted to make sure I could maintain a good grip on the oars. The rivers on the North Slope of the Brooks Range are different from what I had experienced before. The waters ran fast, wherever they wanted, with no break in their step. I knew this was going to be a long float back to that façade of safety the haul road provided our team.
Roughly a year ago at a hunting trade show, my journey began. I entered the show eager to network and educate myself on how I can go on the trip of a lifetime. Being 22 and fresh out of college, an expensive guided hunt was not in my budget.
At the show I was fortunate enough to meet Steve Opat, a Fairbanks local and a field editor for The Journal of Mountain Hunting. I did not know this at the time, but my new friendship with Steve would open doors to the Alaskan bush that I never thought possible.
After talking with Steve about countless Alaskan adventures, I decided to go on a DIY hunt there. With cocktails and bar food as mediators, some of my good friends and I discussed the possibilities of this trip. After several drinks and a few overzealous “hell yeahs,” the trip was a go. We had six months to educate and prepare ourselves for a caribou hunt on the North Slope.
There is a lot more involved with planning a trip to Alaska than just making sure you have the proper gear, of course. I learned it’s all about preparation.
When you decide to go to Alaska, start conditioning right away. Walking from point A to point B in Alaska takes way more time and effort than anywhere else. Even on the North Slope where the terrain is relatively gentle, it takes extra time and effort. This is mainly because you are walking on tussocks, very thick clumps of grass that protrude from the tundra. They have one goal—to make your life harder.
“Certainly the gym has its place, but it does not replace taking your pack for a walk outside on uneven ground,” Steve said.
Take this part very seriously. Put your pack on, go find some rough ground and condition yourself to the terrain. Even being well conditioned from countless times hiking through the rugged mountains of Montana and Idaho, I still struggled and became frustrated walking through tussocks. It’s impossible to replicate what you’ll be facing, but arriving out of shape isn’t an option.
While conditioning, you need to practice staying dry. Good rain gear is a must, obviously, but it is not a cure-all.
Getting wet is the best way to ruin a hunt, Steve told me. “Getting dry does not happen passively. It takes dedication to either stay dry or to get back to dry.”
This statement from Steve couldn’t be truer. Within the first day, my clothing was becoming saturated. I had to put all my effort into getting my gear dry after that point.
Condition your boots and your rain gear to ensure they will hold up to the elements. Everything is wet, even when it’s not raining. You may find a reprieve from the elements the further south you hunt, but the North Slope was relentless.
Gaiters are often overlooked by hunters. They are a great tool, not just for added waterproofing for your boots, but also for a glassing or camp seat. Sit on your gaiters to avoid over saturating your rain gear.
While the elements attack your outer layers it also is imperative to keep your base layers dry with proper layering techniques. Layering correctly will ensure that you have dry base layers for wearing in camp.
Plan for Reality
Four of us went on the caribou hunt, but only two of us got tags while the other two planned to take in the great fishing Alaska has to offer. In our preparation, the conversation came up many times that we should all four buy caribou tags. We realized that filling that many tags would be difficult, especially given the fact that we were bowhunting.
While we were there, we realized that our 10 days of hunting would be more like seven. My buddy killed a nice bull on day six, which meant we had to spend the next few days taking care of the meat. We left our hunting grounds three days early for meat processing and fishing. This allowed for us to properly handle the caribou before our flight home.
Learn Proper Field Care
Many people want to bring home the cape of their animal to help the memory of their hunt live on. Proper care of the cape is essential if you want to bring it home. Hunting the North Slope of the Brooks Range for caribou means that you are at least two days from getting the hide to a tannery or into a freezer. This means if you do not correctly handle the cape, it will get damaged.
My friend wanted to bring his cape home for a shoulder mount. We both had very minimal experience turning out lips and ears on a cape, which is something that we should have studied more before going on the trip. We did our best to keep his cape dry and cool for the return trip to Fairbanks, and our efforts worked. However, we weren’t well prepared and the trophy very easily could have been ruined.
Having a local expert in my back pocket was very beneficial. I was very grateful for the information and help that Steve gave me and we traded several phone calls during the planning stages. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who hunts Alaska frequently, pick their brain for whatever information they are willing to give you.
I realize that I was incredibly lucky meeting Steve and that not everyone can share the same luxury. In the case that you do not have a local contact, go directly to the source. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has much of the information you need. The site has a lot of content though, so to fully comprehend the rules and regulations you must study them in depth.
Do not hesitate to call the fish and game office closest to the area you are planning on hunting. From my experience, the employees at these offices are friendly and very willing to answer any questions you may have. This will confirm that the information you found in your countless hours of looking at maps and regulations online is correct.
Grabbing some photos will allow you to capture your trip and remember it for years to come. Knowledge of photography will help you capture images of the spectacular views the Alaskan landscape offers.
You owe it to yourself to learn how to properly use a camera. By no means am I trying to say go spend thousands of dollars on equipment, just that you should simply take time to learn about basic photo skills.
I was very fortunate on my trip to have three other people that were very well versed in the ways of photography. We were able to capture some phenomenal imagery that now has a place on my wall next to mounts. These pictures will add great value to your memories.
Alaska is not a place that you can just pack your bag and go—it takes effort and countless hours of preparation. You owe it to yourself and to your team to take the time to prep correctly for your trip. I learned gear is important, but education trumps all.