In retrospect, a mother daughter caribou hunt is more special than I first appreciated…
As an Alaskan Hunting Guide, I am obliged to be a trophy oriented hunter for months. But when guiding season ends, my focus changes. My brain switches from Boone and Crocket to Spoon and Crockpot. I pursue fat, young blacktail deer, caribou that haven’t found a herd and are less likely to survive winter, and old nanny mountain goats. The experience is first, the meat second, the trophy often an afterthought. Trophy hunting has its place, but given a choice, I choose delicious, organic, free-range, non-bar-coded meat before antlers, horns, or pelts. And one year I chose to pursue that protein with my mother.
Filling the freezer is exactly what my mother and I were after as we set off on a hunter-gatherer expedition one late September morning — two choice caribou plus wild berries. We stuffed our day packs with granola bars, blueberry bags, binoculars, and rifles and started out.
A vast expanse of blue sky stretched as far as the eye could see. Berry bags in hand, we began picking our way towards the spotting hill, chatting and laughing. Once atop that knoll, we started glassing the wide-open grassland. The autumn air was crisp and cool, but the sun still offered considerable warmth—enough comfort to take a nap out of the wind.
An hour later, Mom came scurrying over from the opposite side of the hill. Breathlessly and in a hushed voice she exclaimed, “Two caribou are coming this way!” We ran to the other side of the hill. A half mile off, a pair of bulls were indeed making their way in and out of alder thickets, headed directly toward us. Grabbing our guns and crouching so as not to skyline ourselves, we bailed off the hillside. Worried they would quickly get downwind of us, we began to hustle! Sucking air, sweat running down our backs, we raced through the swamp, tripping over tussocks and through bog holes sucking at our boots.
The caribou were headed toward a nearby hill, and I began agonizing over which way to go — the stealthier, longer approach, or the more exposed, direct way. Suddenly both caribou dropped into a ravine and out of sight making the decision for me. We would go the faster, more direct route.
Higher ground at the next hill allowed us a good vantage point. I searched for a glimpse of antler. I’d almost decided they’d gone around the hill when we spotted them still in the ravine, 200 yards away. With limited cover between us, we slid out of our packs and dropped to hands and knees for a fast-paced crawl. Glancing back at Mom, I was struck by just how special it is to stalk an animal with one’s mother.
I peeked over the waist high grass to see a set of antlers bobbing just 70 yards away. In two steps a caribou exited the ravine. “Want to take the shot?” I quietly inquired.
“Okay,” Mom leveled her rifle at the moving animal. “Wait,” I said. “Shoot the the one right there!” Turning, she saw why I’d stopped her. The second caribou was staring directly at us only 30 yards away. “Wait for the shot,” I coached her. “Wait… wait…There!” The animal had whirled to run, but hesitated, giving her a quartering away shot. She took it. With a blast of the rifle, the animal staggered. “Shoot it again,” I advised. She did, this time missing as it began to run. Then a third shot. I handed her my rifle. She took it without pause. As she pulled the trigger, the caribou toppled over.
Retrieving my rifle, I turned back to the other animal and shot as it, too, bolted. And then, just like that, we had two caribou down. We were meat hunting but had, nonetheless, shot a pair of gorgeous bulls. They had been the only attainable caribou we’d seen.
In the moments that followed, I realized for the hundredth time that day just how fortunate I was to be hunting with Mom. How privileged we were to be surrounded by a million acres of wilderness with two beautiful bulls we had harvested. Meat we had both need of and appreciation for. We hugged, giving thanks to one another and the animals. I laughed, teasing my mother about shooting my Echol’s-built 416 Remington. Only moments after shooting it she’d exclaimed “Wow, that 416 doesn’t even kick!” But I’d watched as the recoil sent her small figure hopping back more than a few paces. Funny how that works in the heat of the moment.
That evening we hung the meat to cool and tenderize in our shed. We cleaned and washed our berries. Mom prepared a pie crust while I boiled caribou tongues. Then we dined on fried heart, liver, and grilled tenderloin followed by a fresh, wild blueberry pie.
And the antlers? Well, you can’t eat them, so there wasn’t much point dragging them home, but we did. We washed them and cleaned chunks of meat from the skulls. We treasure them not for their trophy properties, but for what they are, an important reminder of the day I shared blueberry gathering and caribou hunting with my mother.
As a professional Alaska guide, Tia Shoemaker leads hunters and anglers to their fields of dreams — and sometimes leads herself and her mother on memory making adventures, too.