Two Firsts: One Trip

Here’s some wild northwest caribou hunting from Ethos Tanner Conlon:

Two Firsts : One Trip

 Ever dream of a hunting trip where there was such an abundance you didn’t know which one to take? Well I have been fortunate enough to say this dream came true.

My name is Tanner, born and raised Alaskan. On September 8, 2013, 5 friends and I boarded a plane out of Fairbanks headed for a week long caribou hunt at Kavik River Camp, while my dad and brother took a different plane out of Happy Valley.  For those of you who don’t know where Kavik is, you’ll have to watch ‘Life Below Zero’. Sue Aikens runs the camp roughly 200 miles above the Arctic Circle on the North Slope of Alaska.

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Tanner’s Father Jerry top left, brother Troy bottom left, and Tanner bottom right along with a few other North Slope hunters.

I was the youngest out of the bunch flying up on our plane and guess who got the co-pilot seat! Shotgun seat flying over the most breath taking country you could ever see. Flying through the Brooks Range seeing countless sheep, moose, wolves, musk ox, and caribou.

When we landed we were welcomed with hugs and open arms. It was almost surreal meeting Sue, as I had been watching the show she’s on for some time leading up to this.  As far as you could see, not another sign of humans. If you think you’ve been in the middle of nowhere, think again. There is nothing around these parts but the most beautiful views of the Brooks Range, and more wildlife than you could imagine.  Looking out across the Kavik River valley it was like a moving blanket of caribou. Some small single digit herds, some a hundred, and some were thousands.

We were soon shown around the camp and picked out our rooms. Yes that’s right, rooms. This place was a hunters dream, like a hotel in the middle of the greatest caribou hunting valley in Alaska. As we awaited the arrival of my dad and brother, we sat in the dining hall and got to know one another over a few beers.  When they arrived, the welcomes started all over again, all I could think was this was truly an amazing atmosphere. After they got settled in, we all gathered back in the dining hall to go over hunting strategies and partners over more beer and a freshly cooked dinner.

 “The Itch Sets In”

Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night thinking about all those caribou out there, picking the one I wanted and putting the stalk on. On top of that this was my first trip out with my bow. We were all up about 6 am eating a hot breakfast, having coffee, and discussing hunting plans. Before we were done eating, one of the guys came into the dining hall to grab his brother. He had spotted a giant brown bear on the hill side about three miles away. Within ten minutes the two grabbed their pre made lunches out of the fridge and were off on foot to put the chase on, little did they know they would never see the bear again. Shortly after they left we split into two groups, and were off on fourwheeler to go after caribou. My dad, brother, and I made it about three miles down the trail before spotting a group of nine great sized bulls laying down on a small riverside plateau. We got about a mile from them before beginning on foot.  The nerves were unbearable, so nervous I found myself almost running towards them before being settled by my dad. We were only able to sneak up to about 100 yards before they started to get up and move around. My dad handed me his 30-06 and was letting my brother and me take the first ones. As we crawled up the hillside undetected, both got into great shooting positions and picked out the one we each wanted. We thought this was too easy, well both shoot on three and that’ll be it for the first ones. One…Two…Three..BANG..BANG…….we pulled away from our scopes to get a good look. We BOTH missed completely. Unreal we thought. Thats why they call it hunting and not killing. Judging distance out here in these flat rolling hills is harder than it looks. We thought we were 100 yards, but we soon found out with the range finder it was 250 yards shooting uphill. Our range finder became our best friend after this incident. We returned to our fourwheelers to continue up the trail towards the direction the group of bulls went. About two miles up the trail we spotted them at what looked like miles away. These caribou walk across that tundra faster than we could ride. As we sat glassing around trying to find another herd we looked back right where we came from. Here come horns cresting over the hill we just shot from twenty minutes prior. We ducked down into a drainage ditch with the only brush there was around for miles to wait, hoping they’d continue walking right towards us. With my bow in hand I though, “Man, this is perfect,” I got cover and their walking right into range. Well, as my luck would have it, they turn right before bow range and start heading away from us. Knowing I wasnt going to get a chance with the bow my dad and brother hopped up out of the ditch and the lead starts flying. One drops first shot from my dad, while the other one stands in shock perfect broadside position. After the second shot from my brother goes high, the caribou takes off in a dead sprint. One more shot is all it took, he dopped him on a dead run. He couldn’t hit a standstill target, had to be moving. Meanwhile as my brother and I were walking up to his caribou, my dad starts yelling. His caribou just got up and took off running, all we could do is sit and laugh while watching him run across the tundra chasing this thing as it crested back over the hill where he couldn’t get another shot. Finally we hear two more shots a few minutes later. It was my brothers first caribou so we took it all in and got some great pictures. It was short lived because only minutes later the fun was over, now the work begins.

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We field dressed both of them, loaded’m up on the fourwheelers and headed back to camp. After heading back out for another round we spotted another herd not far from where we just shot the other two. Four nice bulls sat out on the tip of the gravel bar laying as if they were sun tanning. It didnt take long to spot one of them that I liked and the pursuit started again. I grabbed my bow and we crawled along the rivers edge for a couple hundred yards. We made it about 150 yards from them when I decided we wouldn’t get close enough with nothing for cover to shoot with my bow, so I left it there. We kept crawling and eventually got up to 30 yards from them, at this time I was kicking myself in the butt for leaving my bow behind. We climbed up the river bank about fifteen feet or so to get a clear shot. I got in a good shooting position, again with my dads 30-06 and got focused on the one I wanted. I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. Poof…….the water splashed right above him…..I quickly reload as my dads yelling “LOWER”, I shoot again….Poof….there goes the water again!!! I couldnt believe it, all I could hear was LOWER..LOWER..LOWER. Finally i put the cross hairs about six inches below his body and squeezed for the last time. He dropped instantly. My first caribou!!!!!

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Tanner Conlon with his first caribou!!

Having all shot one caribou the first day we decided to take it easy the second day. We were now trophy hunting. Although we didnt see any that we wanted, we watched thousands. The rest of the goup all brought in caribou the second day. By the end of the third day our group brought in a total of nine caribou. We had filled all the meat poles in the tent. Knowing there wasn’t going to be enough room in the plane headed back, we called and had the plane come over from Happy Valley to take what we had back to an awaiting semi truck with reefer trailer on the highway.

The fourth day we woke up early as normal to a hot cooked breakfast and coffee. Sitting atop the “Perch” (a seat on top of one of the ATCO units) glassing all the flats and hill sides around to determine which direction to head that day. We headed down river in one group, nine of us on five fourwheelers, what a sight that was. Crossing rivers, up and down banks, across the tundra in search for our next herd. We spotted many brown bears feeding on the ground squirrels, pouncing on their dens and grabbing them as they popped their heads out. We all had tags for the bears but was very difficult to get into bow range. The wind tends to swirl too much in the valley and once that bear caught any bit of our scent it was gone. Heading down river more we spotted a herd of roughly two hundred on the flats off to the side of the river. Since there is absolutely no cover at all out here the trick is to get ahead of them in whichever direction they’re headed and wait. It sounds a lot easier than it is. We got up to a drainage ditch in the direction they were headed and decided to walk up it about a mile and a half to wait for them. There was eight of us sitting in the ditch waiting for the herd to come by when all of a sudden a little calf walks right up to us. These are like the scouts, curious little critters, coming up to see what we are and as soon as they get about twenty yards they take off running back to the herd. The herd doesnt run away, simply changes their direction and move a little farther away from us. After another half hour of watching some very big bulls in the herd, they all came to a stop to feed at the base of the hill about 350 yards away. Just then we noticed we were missing a guy from our group. Glassing around for a while we soon spot him crawling at the base of the hill where all the caribou were feeding. He chose the right way, all the caribou walking right at him. It turned to all eyes on him, he was in a better position to shoot than we were, so he was getting first pick out of the herd. Moments later he shoots a nice bull. Little did we know he misplaced the shot and hit its leg taking the lower half off. Then we hear another shot, watching the animal from our bino’s we see he took the lower half of another leg completely off. After one more shot, well placed this time, the caribou was down.

By this time the entire herd headed up and over the hill out of sight. The other bow hunter in the group, Lance, and I realized we weren’t getting an opportunity at this herd with our bows, so we took off back down the ditch to follow the herd hoping they would cross the river. We walked the river bed down paralleling this herd for five miles. We would climb up and down the steep forty foot high river bank about every half a mile to keep an eye on them. The herd finally walked down into a valley which was miles away and there we decided we had to end the chase. We sat down to have a snack and some water up on the river side plateau. Not halfway into my sandwich we spot three bulls that broke away from the herd and were headed down to the river about a mile down from us. I dont think I’ve ever ran that fast in my life, bow in one hand, sandwich and water in the other. By the time we had made it down to the river they were nowhere to be seen. We continued walking and spotting, when all of a sudden like ghosts, there they were out on a gravel bar with nothing around. It took us a half hour to slowly make our way towards them using what little brush was around for cover.  They moved onto another gravel bar where they started to feed which was covered in small brush. The nerves were setting in, about 100 yards away three nice bulls sat. All that was running through my head was that Ted Nugent song, ‘Fred Bear’. Carefully placing each step, we inched up to them within 7 yards! Watching them very closely and listening to them eat. I couldn’t believe it, first time bow hunting, and here was as great of an opportunity as it gets! While Lance started filming them I got ready. Just like target practice was what I kept repeating in my head. I decided to take the closer of the three. I crawled up on the bank and by this time I was really shaking. I think I could’ve touched him with my arrow at this point. I slowly stood up and proceeded to draw back. I had been spotted. They ran and I thought to myself, I ruined it. Luckily, curious as caribou are, they all stopped at 45 yards. I aimed patiently and released. He dropped like a sack of rocks! A perfectly placed shot and he didn’t move an inch. My first shot with a bow and it was perfect!

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A second caribou for Tanner this time with a bow!

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We gave it a couple minutes and no movement. I got him, the adrenaline was pumping and knees were shaking. There is no better feeling than a successful hunt! After field dressing and wrapping it all up in meat bags and a tarp we started our trek back. The other members of our group had no idea how far we’d gone or in what direction. But good instincts led them right down the river bank and we met up about two miles from our kill site. High fives all around, everyone was excited to see the first one taken with a bow.  We took the fourwheelers back down and retrieved my caribou.

After getting back with the group we shared stories of the hunts. I was told they nominated my brother to carry the entire caribou out with horns across the two miles of tundra where they shot the one earlier that day. That was enough for a day. We started our eight mile ride back up river to camp. Stopping everytime we saw another herd on the way to see if there were any giants with them. We soon spotted what looked like a group of black bears on the hill side. After getting them in the spotting scope we realized they were wolves. These wolves were as big as any black bear I had ever seen. We watched them chase these caribou back and forth on the hill sides for some time, all the while staying out of range for a good shot. Getting back to camp was always great to get out of the hunting boots, a quick shower, and head in for some beer, dinner, and share some stories.

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A proud Father, happy boys, meat in the freezer! Rock n Roll

Over the course of the next two days our group brought in another eight caribou. We went out, scouted the river sides and went after the herds when we found one we liked. Some of the older guys were a bit tired by the last couple days so they would hang out on the river and take the easy ones while others continued the long tough walks across the tundra. We ended up with nineteen caribou all together. Now thats a successful hunt!

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The last night was bittersweet knowing we wouldn’t be waking up to go out and hunt again. We all gathered our stuff up from around camp and set up for some great pictures. Everybody was extremely happy, everything went as smooth as you could ask for. What better way to spend a hunt of a lifetime than with family and friends. This camp is truly one of a kind, with its breath taking views of wildlife and scenery.  Anybody thinking about caribou hunting should look into the North Slope of Alaska. I’ve lived here my whole life and never experienced anything like it.

Thanks for letting me share my story, as I hope you enjoyed it and it inspires you to get out and experience the wild as I have.

Tanner Conlon

Thanks a lot Tanner we can’t wait for more!  Louis

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