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Bernie Kuntz: Caribou hunting in '96

Barren ground caribou bull take by Bernie Kuntz in 1996 in the Kuskokwim Mountains of southwest Alaska. Bernie used a .338 Win. Magnum with handloaded 225-grain Hornady Spite-Points. Submitted photo

In September 1996, a couple Montana natives and I flew to Aniak in southwestern Alaska, where we met a pilot who owned a flying service.

He flew us about 50 miles into the Kuskokwim Mountains, flying a Polish Wilga plane, and dropped us off on the tundra near a patch of alders where he had an unheated tent set up for us, and enough food to last us a couple weeks. (We wouldn't learn until several months later that the pilot crashed the Wilga plane shortly after inserting us. Thankfully, there

were no casualties.)

This was my third caribou hunt in as many years, and I was still looking to take my first caribou. I had been plagued earlier by bad weather and bad luck. The weather was very good for Alaska—crisp and cool, sort of like a normal day in North Dakota or eastern Montana in October. I set off on my own to hunt, my partners took off in the opposite direction.

I spotted a bull, cow and calf moose that first morning, sneaked into the arctic willow and

selected a good ambush spot. The cow and calf came walking right by me; the bull disappeared and I never could locate him again during the entire hunt.

I was glassing later that morning when with my binoculars I spotted several caribou far up in

the mountains, right below the crest of the range. I set up my spotting scope and gasped when it

revealed the top of a very big caribou antler sticking up over the ridgeline. I put the scope in my pack and set out at a brisk clip. It took me more than an hour to reach the base of the ridge, and staying out of sight I slowly climbed the ridge, stopping frequently to glass.

At one point I located several cow caribou and a fair bull caribou feeding right below me on a sheer slope. But I knew it was not the bull I was looking for. The one I had seen in the scope was much larger.

I crept toward a car-sized boulder when suddenly several cow caribou came running by me from

my right rear. They had been feeding behind a fold in the steep tundra, and I hadn't seen them. Then a huge bull, obviously spooked by the running cows, leaped up from behind the boulder, ran a few yards, stopped and looked at me from about 35 yards! I wasted no time in firing two quick shots from my .338. I had my first caribou and it was to be the largest of three bulls I'd take over the next three seasons.

I field-dressed the bull, caped it, and packed a load of meat back to camp where my partners

later joined me. (One of them had shot a nice bull.) The next day the three of us hiked to the top of the mountain and packed the rest of my caribou carcass to camp. It wasn't long after this when the snowstorm came, covering the country in a foot of snow and dropping the temperature to well below freezing.

Day after day we would set out to hunt, sometimes seeing small bands of caribou at a distance, and several moose that were on the move and unstalkable. I began to be concerned about our safety when we were in there for two weeks.

Finally, the pilot zoomed over our camp in a Piper Super Cub and shouted from the window,

"Stomp a runway!" So the three of us stomped a runway for the small plane. The pilot landed and pulled us out one at a time, depositing us at an airstrip at an abandoned mine. A day or so later his partner flew us back to Aniak in a Cessna. My caribou antlers were still sitting in a shack at the mine, and I doubted that I'd ever see them again.

However, a couple months later, the antlers showed up in a big box at my door. The mounted

head of that barren ground caribou still represents one of many adventures I enjoyed in the prime of my life.