Alaskan Caribou Adventure

Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune, December 4, 2011

The welcoming party was a grizzly.

Rick and Matt Morgan, father and son from Lakewood Township, had just landed by float plane on a small lake in Alaska's Brooks Range for a week of caribou hunting.

"We weren't even off the floats of the plane when a grizzly started walking into our camp," said Rick Morgan, 57. "All the gun cases were locked, and the ammunition was in different packs."

The grizzly, about 300 yards away, ran toward the plane about 100 yards, Rick said, stood up, then ran another 50 yards toward the hunters.

"We were unlocking the guns, but he saw what we were, and he left," Morgan said.

That was just one of many powerful moments the Morgans experienced on their first Alaskan hunt, which they made in late August and early September. They went in without a guide, flying first to Fairbanks, then to the tiny village of Bettles, and then by Beaver float plane over the crest of the Brooks Range to an isolated lake on the tundra.

They were the only hunters in the area for miles among the broad valleys and 4,000-foot peaks in that part of the Brooks Range. They would hunt migrating caribou from the Western Arctic Caribou herd, which numbers about 350,000 animals.

The Morgans were as taken with the country as they were with the hunting opportunities.

"The true vastness of the area is something else," said Matt, 26. "You think you can prepare yourself for no trees on the tundra, but you sit there for a week and don't see a tree."

Rick Morgan said when he reflects on the trip, three images come to mind.

"One is the flight across the Brooks Range. That's awesome," he said. "Second is the color and beauty of the tundra. Third is the almost unlimited number of rivers you could drift down."

And flowing over the land, almost always moving west on their annual migration, were the caribou. On the flight in, Matt had seen only a few and Rick none. Scouting that evening, they saw a few about three miles away.

The next morning, though, they hiked about three miles from camp and saw a herd of bulls. They stalked the bulls, and Matt was able to bring one down at 309 yards. They had measured the shot on a rangefinder, a tool they found essential because distances can be so deceiving on the tundra.

While Rick was butchering that bull, another good-sized bull came by.

"I just dropped and rested my gun on my pack. I shot that one at 105 yards," Rick said.

It was 2 in the afternoon. Matt noticed that despite their success, Rick didn't seem particularly excited.

"I was thinking, we have two animals down and had to go about three miles back to camp, down through the wetlands, up, down, up, down," Rick said.

Rick butchered, and they both hauled meat. The daylight was almost endless. The meat and the antlers were cached near camp by 10 p.m.

"Unlike the Cabela's ad where they leave the antlers next to the tent, we left the antlers and meat on a high ridge three-eighths of a mile from camp," Rick said.

That was out of respect for the grizzlies. The Morgans saw four grizzlies during their week on the tundra. Except for that first one, all were at a distance, and none bothered the cached meat.

This was not the kind of trip the Morgans typically make. It's the kind a hunter saves up for, at about $3,500 per person. Most of that is for the flights.

The Morgans had made many fishing trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and to remote lakes in Ontario. They also had paddled the Bloodvein River in Manitoba. They had hunted extensively, and Rick Morgan had once worked as a bush pilot in Ontario. They felt completely comfortable camping in the Brooks Range.

It was a physically demanding trip, hiking the tundra and hauling caribou meat over the land.

"Matt's 26, so it doesn't matter," Rick said, chuckling. "I go to a fitness center five days a week. I did increase my cardio workouts for about six months. A trip like that could be miserable if you were not in some level of physical shape."

The Morgans were allowed up to five bulls in the zone where they hunted, and they each hoped to take one more nice bull.

"We saw caribou every day," Matt said. "The best day, we saw between 800 and 1,000. It was pretty amazing ... how they're just always moving. It's kind of a gentleman's hunt. They really move mostly from 10 a.m. to about 6 p.m."

Most of the caribou groups were smaller, Rick said.

"We measured them in the hundreds, not thousands," he said. "And all the bulls were migrating together, in groups of about 12 to 20."

Matt had a chance at a group of bulls the next day, but they were milling so close together he couldn't take a shot without concern for shooting two bulls at once.

Later, Matt was sitting atop a ridge when a group of about a dozen bulls rumbled right at him.

"They came by less than 15 yards away," he said. "It was a thunderous sound, absolutely heart-pounding."

"They just about ran over him," his dad said. "He whistled and one bull stopped. He shot that one."

It was a big bull, but the next day, Rick had a chance at an even larger bull. He had seen the animals moving up a broad valley. He repositioned himself twice to get in the right spot.

"That one was a true trophy," Rick said. "It was bigger than any of the ones I saw in photos in the books I had read."

The Morgans brought home the meat and the antlers from all four caribou.

Rick is ready to go back.

"The thing I would return for is a drift trip down one of the rivers -- a hunting or non-hunting trip," he said.

"It was truly trip-of-a-lifetime status for us," Matt said.