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The caribou is one of Alaska’s most iconic big game species—an animal that occupies the dreams of many hunters. Caribou have always mesmerized both sportsmen who dream of hunting Alaska, and the people who fill their freezers with them each year. The spectacle of a migrating herd of thousands of caribou is something to behold, and as powerful today as it’s ever been.

If there is anything to be said about caribou, it’s that change is constant. Some of those changes make caribou a hot topic, and the subject of efforts to close millions of acres of public lands right now. Populations and migrations are constantly in flux, and the best answer to give a hunter inquiring about their whereabouts is always: “They are where they are when you find them there.” 

Caribou always seem to do the unexpected, and perplexing behavior is often the norm. I’ve watched young caribou running with reckless abandon—in random, frantic directions—just to escape harassing insects. In August, I’ve had lone bull caribou come running up to me while I was carrying a pack with a set of caribou antlers riding on top. This past hunting season, I shot a nice bull with my bow. I watched him run back into the herd, run in a short circle, then stop. As soon as he stopped another bull ran up, hooked his antlers, and threw him on the ground—throttling the shot bull like he owed him money.

Freel archery caribou
The caribou is a handsome, iconic, and sometimes perplexing species. Tanner Denton

Aside from entertainment, old stories can hold the value of perspective—particularly here in Alaska. Frank Glaser was a legendary Alaskan, and I find myself referencing his stories often. A series of them appeared in the pages of Outdoor Life in the mid 1950’s—written by Jim Rearden—chronicling some of his adventures between 1915 and 1955 in Alaska’s untouched wilderness. This story about caribou is one of my favorites. It’s written as it appears in the January 1956 issue of Outdoor Life.

The Crazy Deer

By Frank Glaser, As Told to Jim Rearden

There were seven big, white-necked bull caribou single-filing my way. For three days I had been watching for caribou from behind a spruce-tree lookout not far from my cabin on Savage River, on the north slope of the Alaska Range. It was early September, crisp, the hills red and yellow. An early snow powdered the tops of near-by peaks. Winter was coming, and I needed meat, so the seven bulls seemed heaven-sent.

They moved slowly, heads drooping as if the huge yellow antlers were too heavy. Occasionally one nipped at a bunch of grass.

I waited until they were opposite me and about 30 yards away. Then I poked my .30/06 through the branches of the tree and entered on the lead bull’s neck. The shot dropped him without a twitch. Quickly I swung the rifle to the rearmost animal and triggered another neck shot. I saw hair fly as the slug hit, and the bull hit the ground so hard he bounced.

The other five caribou stood confused, some staring in perplexity at the downed leader, others at the one in the rear. Three more quick shots toppled three more bulls. Then I jammed two additional shells into the gun and fired twice more. Seven neck shots, seven dead caribou. I had my winter’s meat. It was two months before I saw another caribou. After that they poured across the hills in an endless stream and wintered all around my trapline.

All this happened many years ago, but caribou still act like that. Sometimes they’ll stand around wondering what it’s all about as you shoot. Other times they’re off at the crack of a gun, gliding swiftly across the tundra with a seemingly slow and awkward gait. One day they’ll be in the country by the thousands, the next day there’ll be none.

For years and years they’ll move into a region each winter until you think you know what a given herd will do. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, they’ll disappear. Caribou won’t be seen in that area for years.

Sometimes caribou migrate in straggled bands; other times they’ll crowd into a massive herd, the way they did near Healy, Alaska in August, 1926.

Three miles out of Healy, walking toward my cabin, I started seeing large bunches of caribou. Soon I hit a solid mass of the animals that literally flooded the mile-wide nine-mile-long valley. They opened a lane maybe 100 feet wide as we met head-on. Two wolf-dogs I had with me, usually eager to chase caribou, huddled close as we walked into this corridor.

Then the lane closed behind me. The noise was like that made by a great herd of cattle. Cows continually grunted, and calves bawled with their peculiar doglike sound. Twigs and brush snapped and hoofs clicked, all creating a continuous low roar. I walked for five or six miles solidly surrounded by caribou.

After crossing the valley I decided to cache the traps I was packing to my cabin and return to Healy. When I got there the wind had picked up from the east, and black smoke from a switch engine on the railroad was blowing into the herd. The animals had stopped to feed and some were lying down.

I told the people in Healy about it, and everyone in town, some 25 or 30 people, walked out to see. It was only a mile and a half from town to where the animals had stopped to mill. One fellow brought a rifle, but after he fired it a few times two men took it away from him. Everyone wanted to leave the herd undisturbed.

As a group, the townsmen soberly decided that there were at least two million caribou in the herd. My guess had been half a million. There were so many it was impossible to count them.

Next morning I went to see them again. All the brush and grass was gouged from the ground and trampled flat. The smell of manure and urine was stifling. The herd was traveling again, streaming over the hills south and west of Healy like so many thousands of ants.

Caribou have the largest antlers, proportionate to body size, of any North American deer, but they aren’t very belligerent in using them. The one time I saw caribou bulls with locked antlers, they got down on their knees, straining, as I approached, and suddenly broke free.

Even during the rut two big bulls are usually through fighting after a few clatters and a push or two. Yet the actions of the herd at this time are spectacular. The herds are big during breeding season, which takes place from about September 20 until mid-October. The big bulls try to collect as many cows as they can. Other bulls make the rounds to try to take them away. That’s when a lot of sparring and antler clashing occurs, but it’s never really serious.

Early in the breeding season a bull will stand and curry a cow with his tongue, obviously excited and nervous. Soon the cow will urinate, at which time the bull stops licking and swallows the urine. Sometimes a gallon or more of this will accumulate in a bull’s stomach. The meat of these bulls at this time is smelly and strong—actually inedible. I’ve offered it to hungry sled dogs that wouldn’t touch it. Occasionally a hunter who doesn’t know much about caribou will shoot one of these bulls and then howl about the “gamey” flavor. It’s gamey all right. Even handling the meat will make a person’s hands so strong that the smell can’t be scrubbed off with soap. (Big bull moose are just as bad during breeding season and for the same reason.)

During the height of the breeding season a cow caribou will be standing around feeding and acting perfectly normal, then suddenly throw up her head, look wildly about, and light out running full speed. The moment she starts running all the near-by bulls chase after her. I’ve seen as many as 20 pursuing one cow. The tundra is generally wet at that time of year and the spray flies in all directions as the animals run crazily.

The cow will circle with all the bulls panting behind her, dash back into the herd, and come to an abrupt stop, usually near a bull that’s rolling his eyes and hooking at a little tree to show the world what a he-man he is. The breeding act most often takes place right then. I have seldom seen a bull actually chase a cow and catch her.

At the end of the breeding season the old bulls have a peculiar act of their own. The first time I saw it I couldn’t figure it out. I looked out of the window of my cabin at Savage River and saw a bunch of 15 or 20 big, white-necked bulls running full speed away from the herd, but there was no cow in front of them. Were wolves chasing them?

While I watched with binoculars, they stopped and looked back toward the herd, then turned and started running again—no wolves, no nothing. For the next few days I noticed other bulls leaving the band. Some ran, looking back over their shoulders; others simply walked off. Breeding season was over for them, that’s all.

During the summer and fall, caribou are easy to stalk. In extreme cold it’s a different story, especially if wolves are near. The moment a man comes in sight they start running.

When it’s 40 below or colder, a herd of caribou out on a big flat, digging, grunting, and fighting to get under the snow for something to eat, can be heard for miles. When wolves gather to run them, it’s tough on caribou. Ordinarily a caribou can outrun a wolf, but not in the extreme cold. Frequently a wolf will run alongside a tired, tongue-dragging caribou and leap up to bite off the tongue and eat it. I’ve actually seen this happen several times and have often found dead caribou with their tongues clipped off.

Unlike other deer, caribou can’t see well at night. When wolves chase them after dark, caribou often blunder into trees, rocks, and frequently fall. The wolves follow them easily. Many nights I’ve heard my dogs hit the ends of their chains with a roar, and the next morning have seen tracks in the snow near by where a wolf had chased a caribou. I’d find places where the fleeing deer slammed into some obstruction in his path. Almost invariably the wolf caught the caribou.

One September I blundered right into a big caribou herd bedded down for the night. It was dark, but I could look behind me and see objects silhouetted against the western sky. Hundreds of caribou antlers were sticking up and waving behind and around me. Just then I fell over one animal—actually sprawled across its back.

That deer leaped to its feet, throwing me six or eight feet. Then it bolted, grunting in alarm. Instantly the whole herd was running, knocking one another over with loud thuds, grunting, and clashing antlers.

I scurried to the edge of the ridge on my right, where I knew it dropped off pretty steep. Feeling ahead with my hands, I traveled below that protecting rim for half a mile before I was clear of these crazy animals.

Near the end of June, when the calves are a month or so old, the caribou move up into the high country near the glaciers. There they drop the parasitic bots that pester them so badly. By late July the bots hatch into flies, and then the caribou will leave the glaciers to range among the old snowdrifts on the sheep hills.

During the botfly season they dash madly about trying to escape the big insect. Young caribou seem to suffer the worst—I’ve seen literally hundreds of bots in the backs of yearlings. Old caribou have learned to get in the shadow of a cutbank, or behind a bushy spruce tree. For some reason botflies don’t move about except on bright days, and they don’t bother animals that are in shade. I think that’s why caribou take to the woods in late July, through August, and even into September.

Running Bull Caribou
A bull caribou that thought I was another caribou—and just realized I wasn’t. You can see the shadow of the antlers on my backpack. Tyler Freel

One year there were probably 8,000 caribou out in front of my Black Rapids Roadhouse, on the Richardson Highway south of Fairbanks. It was breeding season, and the bulls were fighting and grunting, clashing horns continually. Cows were running here and there. All in all, the herd was making quite a fuss.

Walking out to look the animals over, I noticed a cow sleeping on the gravel bar with her head tucked over toward her flank, just like a dog. I walked to within 15 feet and took her picture. She didn’t even raise her head, just twitched one ear. I decided to catch her.

I ran and pounced on her, grabbing one antler with my left hand and holding across her body with the other. She stood up on her hind legs and fell over backward, but I clung to the horn. I quickly worked around in front of her and tried to hold her down with a knee on her neck. I had on a new pair of wool pants, and she somehow hooked her dewclaws into them. She’d nearly pulled my pants off by the time I got both knees on her neck.

Then E.B. Collins, a visiting lawyer friend, came running with a rope. We crossed her front legs, tied them, and did the same to her rear legs. Thinking that would hold her, I stood up to rest for a minute.

She jumped to her feet and ran a good 30 yards with her legs tied. Then she stumbled and fell. I rushed over and pounced on her again. Collins got more rope and we made a hackamore for her, then untied her legs and tried to lead her up to the barn at the roadhouse.

She was a big cow, and when she braced her feet we couldn’t budge her. But I’d pull on the rope and Collins would push on her from behind until suddenly she’d lunge ahead and go past me to the end of the rope.

Thus we finally got her to the roadhouse and tied her to a fence. Just then eight bulls came rushing up, grunting. They came within 20 feet, acting as if they were going to attack us. I fired a shot into the ground with a handgun I was wearing, and they ran back down the bank. I’m certain those bulls wouldn’t have come near if it hadn’t been breeding season.

We put the cow in the barn, and I went out and picked a couple of gunny sacks full of white lichens—caribou’s favorite food—and got a bucket of water. She ate and drank immediately. While she was drinking I put my hand on her back. She trembled but didn’t fight. Within a few days I could pet and handle her all I wanted.

I didn’t have any sled dogs that winter, so I made a harness and broke the caribou to pull a dog sled. I made many trips of 15 and 20 miles with her that winter, and had very little trouble. What bothered most was meeting wild caribou while I was driving her. Then I’d have a pretty wild ride until I could get the sled wedged around a tree to stop her. If I held her there awhile, she’d go on peacefully.

Once, while returning to the roadhouse from a long trip, my harnessed caribou just stopped and lay down about a mile from home. I picked her up and got her on her feet, but she lay down again. After two or three of these futile efforts I gave up. It was getting dark, but we were on the ice of the Delta River and had easy sledding, so I worked the caribou on to the sled and pushed her home. As we neared the barn she struggled, so I turned her loose. She ran the last few hundred feet and turned into her stall.

Come spring, I was leaving for the summer and didn’t have anyone around to care for her, so I turned her loose just as a big band of caribou was passing. At first she simply whirled and ran back into the barn, but after I led her closer to the caribou she got the idea and ran to join them. I never saw her again.

During the 1920’s and early 30’s, reliable estimates of the combined Alaskan and Yukon Territory herds of caribou varied from one to two million animals. But the herds dwindled, mostly because large numbers of wolves suddenly showed up. Herds of several hundred thousand caribou were reduced drastically, or even disappeared. In 1947 the official count for all of Alaska was only 160,000.

Today the caribou seem to be coming back. They’re found in good numbers on the arctic slope where caribou were not abundant even in the past. Because of the intensive wolf control carried on by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, herds in the interior regions have also built up rapidly in late years. Take the Steese or Fortymile herd that works from the White Mountains north of Fairbanks into Yukon Territory. Not too many years back it consisted of only a few thousand; now it’s up to 40,000. The Nelchina herd which ranges parts of the Alaska Range has built up from about 4,000 in 1949 to well over 10,000. There have been good calf crops, and wolf predation has not been excessive.

Most of the big herds in the interior are now followed the year around by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilot-biologists and predator hunters. Wolves are thinned out. Ground observations are made of the animals during calving season, as well as at other times. The pattern of increase seems to hold true over most of Alaska.

Years ago, when Harry Lucky and I market-hunted for sheep, we were hauling sheep off a mountain in the Alaska Range with two dog teams. Each of our sleds had a big load and the dogs were running pretty wild, dashing down the steep slopes. We had two or three dog chains wrapped around each sled runner and were riding the brakes for all we were worth.

Suddenly we broke over the brown of a bench above Reilly Creek and into a herd of at least 1,500 caribou. They leaped to their feet and started running, and the dogs sped up, trying to catch them. I immediately dumped my sled on its side and climbed on top of it, trying to slow my team. Lucky elected to ride it out.

Caribou were everywhere, stampeding. They knocked down dead spruces in their path as if they weren’t there. Flying snow obscured everything, and the hoofbeats and grunts sounded like thunder. Caribou zipped past me and my team. One actually leaped over my dogs. Lucky was in the thick of it, and for a while I thought he’d be trampled to death.

Finally the snow settled and the deer were gone. And lucky, unharmed, turned to shout, “These damned deer are crazy!”

I think Lucky sized up caribou about right. THE END  

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