Offhand Shots: Going the Distance

Even the best preparations for an Alaska caribou hunt come up short

Offhand Shots: The Distance

offhand shots

The musings and memories of our backpage columnistJoel Kimmel

I don’t care what my GPS says. From where Scott Olmsted and I sit on the side of this mountain (Alaskans call these the Trimokish Hills, but they’re mountains to me) to camp where the Super Cub dropped us off a few days ago, it’s much, much more than 1.46 miles.

Similarly, the distance to the spot where we cached waders after crossing two rivers is much more than the 681 vertical feet indicated by my Garmin. Each leg-tiring step in the spongy tundra is like walking in a foot of heavy snow. And each step here usually includes one or more of these hazards: tripping tangles of alders, boot-sucking bogs, muscle-screaming climbs up steep trails, and ankle-turning sidehills as we inch from one alder-choked, rocky ravine to the next.

From the wader cache, it’s another 411 nearly vertical feet up to camp. It’s a slow trudge, especially under a pack that seems to get heavier with each step. Luckily, reviving blueberries are within easy plucking reach as I lean against my Trigger Stick to keep from tipping over.

Scott and I are soaked coming and going, from sweat inside and intermittent showers outside. Twin drips of sweat roll along the bill of my cap, falling one after another, the cap unable to absorb any more perspiration.

I prepared for this caribou hunt, knowing it would be hard. I increased the frequency and length of my early-morning walks with Quigley, my yellow Lab, on an up-and-down golf course near my Nebraska home. I sought out the rough edges and steepest hills. I added weight to my pack—10, 20, 30, and, finally, 40 pounds. I cut calories and lost weight. I called it my four-word diet: Exercise more, eat less.

But it wasn’t enough. Trudging into camp and dropping our packs, Scott and I agreed the next day would be a recovery day. Bret Overturf—an Alaska sheep and caribou guide for 20-some years—said (mercifully) that that was a good strategy.

“We’re seeing new caribou coming through now,” Bret said. “Better to be rested for when we have to go fast after a moving herd.”

From our elevated camp, he had seen a few ’bou pass through, high-stepping their way toward Big River. A big bull might show anytime, he told us.

As we spent the day recovering, talk turned to sheep hunting. We had seen rams on steep rocks, far above camp, prompting each of us to talk about our wish-list sheep hunt, hunts we planned to take some day.

From camp, we saw caribou—some far, some near. Scott set up on one that we ranged at just 295 yards away. He’d be an easy downhill carry to camp. Scott let the little bull walk. As much as we wanted meat, we agreed we had come not to kill just any caribou, though we’d come so far, sweated so much—the hunter’s conundrum.

But there was a bigger reality, and it kept haunting me. That other day, when my Garmin calculated the distance to camp, it occurred to me that real distance isn’t measured in miles, but rather in years.

Over those years I’ve hunted and fished—not as much as some, but quite a bit. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been around. More important, I’ve raised three boys, teaching them to be hunters, teaching them that there is a big world out there, a world that includes places like interior Alaska and things like wild rams.

Gazing up at the sheep from camp, Scott caught himself: “If I ever do this again…. Wait. I’m never doing this again!”

This is the haunting reality: Sheep hunting has passed me by. As for you, don’t wait too long.