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The caribou, nearly 500 of them, were little more than a stone’s throw away. I could pick out at least 50 mature bulls and two or three of them were real heart-stoppers, with double shovels and sweeping main beams that towered above the sea of milling bodies. Had I been carrying a rifle, the hunt would have been over, but as my grip tightened on the longbow, I knew we were just getting started.

When we’d been dropped off at the little headwater lake two days earlier, we had been greeted by unusual weather for the western slope of the Alaska Range-clear blue skies and balmy temperatures. The heat had pushed the caribou high into the hills, and throughout the first day of our float-trip down the Mulchatna River we glassed scattered herds silhouetted on distant skylines or lolling about on isolated pockets of snow.

One such small snowfield lay in front of me now. It was about half the size of a football field, but it had been crowded with scores of caribou the previous evening when we scanned the hills from our camp. At first light, my hunting partner, Ray Stalmaster, set off into the tundra across the river as I headed up to the snow with my son Nick and Ray’s son Joe, both 15 years old. The sun had begun to warm the hills by the time we reached our destination, and the caribou appeared with the rising temperatures. Now all I had to do was convert this situation into a shot for one of our bows. I really wanted that opportunity to go to one of the boys.

Since the terrain was too open for us to stalk within range of the herd, the boys positioned themselves on opposite sides of the snowfield while I crawled through the rocks planning to try something I had never attempted before-a caribou drive.

Sixty yards from the snow, I ran out of cover, but when the nearest animals finally saw me, the whole herd began to move toward me. It was obvious that they were all going to pass by me instead of either of the boys, but by then it was too late. Those three bulls in the herd were large enough to tempt me, but they kept disappearing in the riot of hide and antlers and I never had a clear shot. Finally, there was nothing to do but rejoin the boys and watch the last of the herd disappear.

Sometimes triumphs of wildlife biology are the result of carefully planned management and hard work, and sometimes they just occur. The dramatic growth of the Mulchatna caribou herd falls into the second category. When I moved to Alaska 15 years ago, there were about 30,000 caribou scattered across the tundra west of the Alaska Range in the vast remoteness along the Mulchatna River and the north shore of Lake Iliamna. Today, there are more than 150,000 animals, and biologists admit they have no idea what caused the population explosion.

Whatever the explanation, this burgeoning herd offers some of the best hunting for barren-ground caribou anywhere. Trophy-quality animals abound, and the terrain is among the most beautiful in Alaska. Because of the herd’s rapid expansion, seasons and limits are the most generous they have been in years. And while the remote location is a disadvantage to those in search of a bargain-basement hunt, it’s a genuine wilderness experience, which is as important a part of a caribou hunt as the caribou themselves.

The usual method of hunting migrating caribou in open country is to locate a good population of animals from the air, determine their general direction of travel and set up camp ahead of them on that travel route. (Remember, however, that Alaska law prohibits hunting big-game animals the same day you have been airborne.) While this is undoubtedly an effective approach, I’ve long been partial to floating the area’s wild rivers instead. The logistics are a bit more complicated, but floating allows you to see new country every day and hunt in areas that are inaccessible or overlooked by air. And no matter how intent you may be on fiing a caribou tag, it is worth remembering that this region’s waters support some of the greatest sportfishing in the world.

The afternoon after our failed caribou drive, we broke camp and drifted on downstream. As we floated, silvery shapes passed beneath the rafts like ghosts, and we knew that we couldn’t go on without stopping to break out our rods. The shapes were grayling and they struck with abandon. The largest weighed over three pounds, which is a fine grayling. We fished longer than any of us meant to, but it didn’t matter; the country we were in offered us all the time in the world.

On our next hike into the hills, Nick and I climbed a ridge to glass a hidden valley that probably hadn’t seen human footprints for years. There were isolated caribou scattered everywhere, but they were all cows or immature bulls. Before I finished surveying the valley, I also spotted three black bears and a grizzly. The former made me regret the decision not to purchase a bear tag; the latter reminded me that visitors to this region always need to keep their eyes open, especially if they are armed with nothing but a bow.

Two days later, we had drifted another 20 miles of river, and I finally felt like hunting for the most primal reason of all-we were getting low on food. Unfortunately, we were in a meandering section of river where miles of dense brush separated us from the hills. The river broke up into channels littered with fallen trees, and we spent hours dodging sweepers and walking the rafts through trouble spots. By the time we finally came to a dry gravel bar where we could camp, we were too tired to do anything more than eat and crawl into our sleeping bags for the remainder of the brief Arctic night.

At first light, I awoke to a commotion on the gravel bar. At first I lay in the sleeping bag and listened in the hope that I had made some kind of mistake, which is often the case when strange noises awaken you in bear country. But there it was again-splashing in the river, followed by the scrunch of heavy feet on gravel right outside the tent.

My right hand closed on the smooth metal action of my shotgun. I chambered a slug and burst out of the tent clad in nothing but boxer shorts-looking more like a mass murderer than the contemplative outdoor writer my friends know me to be.

As soon as my bare feet hit the sand, I spun in the direction of the river and found myself face to face not with a grizzly but with half a dozen mature caribou bulls. Even in the fog-filtered light of dawn, I could see that the closest bull was a dandy, and less than 10 steps away. My relief at the discovery that I was not facing a marauding bear instantly gave way to regret: I was carrying the wrong weapon!

As startled by our encounter as I was, the caribou galloped straight through camp and disappeared into the willows lining the riverbank. I doubted I would ever see them again, but I just couldn’t ignore all those antlers. I had to pur-sue them. I dressed quickly into more hunting gear, exchanged the pump for my longbow and set off after the caribou. My encouragement aside, Nick wouldn’t leave the comfort of his sleeping bag.

I defied my own prediction by locating the bulls a quarter-mile upstream. For reasons known only to the caribou, they had crossed the river again and were now grazing on the opposite bank-just out of bow range. The river was too fast and deep to cross on foot, so I rushed back to camp and the rafts.

Five minutes later, I was tying my raft to a tree on the other side of the river. The foliage along the bank provided excellent cover as I worked my way back upstream. I caught up with the caribou as they were feeding along the edge of a little slough, and almost before I knew it, I was in bow range.

The wind had been dead-calm all morning, which always makes me nervous. As I was working my way into position for a shot at the largest bull, I felt the first breeze on my back. Caribou have excellent noses, and now I was stalking a group of very nervous bulls. I made a rapid executive decision: With only two days left and short food supplies in camp, I would take the first animal that offered a good shot. Just then, a bull in velvet walked through a gap in the brush on the other side of the slough; I came to full draw and released.

Perhaps I had made a noise, perhaps the wind had given me away; whatever, the caribou lunged forward just as I shot, and the arrow struck far back. The broadhead from my 70-pound longbow produced excellent penetration, however, and I knew that the bull was dead. After an appropriate wait, a short stalk along a good blood trail and a second arrow, it was over for the bull, 100 yards from the river.

It took most of the morning to dress my caribou and pack the quarters back to camp. But once those chores were out of the way, my only responsibilities for the rest of the trip were to cook, guide and await the vanguard of the silver salmon run that I knew was due to start pouring into the river’s lower reaches. position for a shot at the largest bull, I felt the first breeze on my back. Caribou have excellent noses, and now I was stalking a group of very nervous bulls. I made a rapid executive decision: With only two days left and short food supplies in camp, I would take the first animal that offered a good shot. Just then, a bull in velvet walked through a gap in the brush on the other side of the slough; I came to full draw and released.

Perhaps I had made a noise, perhaps the wind had given me away; whatever, the caribou lunged forward just as I shot, and the arrow struck far back. The broadhead from my 70-pound longbow produced excellent penetration, however, and I knew that the bull was dead. After an appropriate wait, a short stalk along a good blood trail and a second arrow, it was over for the bull, 100 yards from the river.

It took most of the morning to dress my caribou and pack the quarters back to camp. But once those chores were out of the way, my only responsibilities for the rest of the trip were to cook, guide and await the vanguard of the silver salmon run that I knew was due to start pouring into the river’s lower reaches.

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