Hunting News

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Getting out in Alaska: Hunting caribou in the Aleutians

Commentary by Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Barnett
JBER Public Affairs


12/4/2014 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- More than a year ago, my father mailed me one of his rifles; one I didn't even know how to use.

I told him I was very interested in learning to hunt, if I could only find the opportunity.
I'd never really had the chance to hunt before, but I wanted to do so in the beautiful and potentially dangerous terrain that is Alaska.

Several weeks ago, Dan Evans, an old friend, offered me the chance to go hunting with him on Adak.

I hadn't even heard of the place; I had to attend the trip meetings and learn what was to be expected and what to bring.

I had to get a non-touch-screen GPS I'd never used before, 550 cord to tie gear to my body to keep things from getting lost while hiking, and more.

We also had to bring enough food for the trip because we'd only have what we brought.

Everything had to be in waterproof bags because a drought on Adak is said to consist of maybe two days without any rain.

As we prepared, super Typhoon Nuri hit in the Pacific.

It pushed much of the snow we were expecting down south, which would not only affect the weather, but would change where the caribou might be.
It also put into doubt whether our flight would even leave on time - or at all. Many things were still undetermined.

I questioned whether a trip which made survival situations likely was worth voluntarily undertaking.

As I learned about Adak Island, a relatively small place that used to have an active military base, but now is only occupied by perhaps a few hundred people, I became more nervous about the conditions of this trip.

But I was also looking forward to spending the time with the guys, devoting time to God, and getting the meat.

I already planned to give away most of it; my wife and I would enjoy it, but I have three small children who can be very picky eaters. Others needed the meat more.

As planned, we arrived with more than a dozen men.

Half of them immediately sorted their gear and took off hiking, expecting to spend a few days camping while hunting caribou.

The rest of us went to see if we had a cabin. As it turned out, we did; we had electricity, at least some hot water, and two trucks.

After putting our gear away and getting most of a night's sleep, we planned and took off well before the sun came up. We drove south to where a couple of our experienced guys knew good caribou hunting was.

We hiked out around a lake and I quickly discovered I was carrying too much weight.

Once we cached some and marked that spot on the GPS, we spotted a few caribou on the mountain across from the lake.

My friend Dan and I hiked in that direction.

Evans is a very experienced hiker and hunter, having taken more than 60 caribou in his time in Alaska.

Thankfully, he was more interested in teaching me how to do it than doing it himself.

He showed me how to stay downwind so our scent didn't reach the animals.

He found the best place to peek over some rocks and spot them without being seen and showed me where to place my rifle and where to aim.

I had rounds in my 30.06 rifle, but we'd traveled with empty chambers, so now we chambered the cartridges and put in earplugs.

In my anxiety, my first shot missed completely.

Some caribou got up and started to leave, but others were still looking around curiously.

I chambered another round and fired again. Dan informed me I had 'spined' the animal and to take a moment to aim my next shot; I did, and the caribou dropped.

Dan knew that taking a life, even an animal life, bothered some people. He was watching me to gauge my reaction, but he need not have worried.

I've been around human death before, and was excited my kill meant food for people, but held my feelings in check because I knew we still had a lot of work to do.

We moved in to start field dressing. I quickly noticed something - my caribou's tail was still twitching. I'd used three bullets, hit it twice, and it was still alive.

Dan gave me two options - to shoot the animal at close range, or slit its throat.

I chose the latter. Dan felt around the neck and showed me where to stab it, and to cut outward. I felt a pang of guilt when the animal twitched once as the blade sank in.

I was then shown how to "un-zip" the skin and pull it off to get the meat.

We stretched out tarps on the snow and kept everything downwind of our harvest so hair wouldn't get on the meat.

I ended up cutting a chunk of my finger off during the process and spent the next few hours bleeding.

We left the antlers and hide, as the meat was heavy enough.

It took well into the evening to get back to the cabin; we wouldn't even have made it with all the gear if some kind people with an all-terrain vehicle hadn't stopped by to help out.

I was physically exhausted at that point and struggled to stay on my feet. They took our gear and meat and basically walked us back to the truck.

I thank God for their help.

I also determined I would never hike in unfamiliar terrain at night again.

By the end of the week, nearly everyone had gotten at least one caribou, and some ducks.

We came back with 15 caribou worth of meat.

It took a full day in Eagle River to process the meat with a couple rented grinders and several people helping.

We spread it around; a lot of families and single people got food.

Ultimately, the trip helped me feel better about taking advantage of the unique opportunities Alaska has to offer.

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