North to Alaska with Ram Aviation
By Michael Duff
As a young boy, I would often dream about someday making my way on a caribou hunt. Their massive antlers are so impressive and when they are in the velvet, they look even bigger. When I close my eyes, I can still see the image of a giant velvet bull from the pages of an Outdoor Life magazine that started this dream well over two decades ago. When I first looked into caribou hunts, they could be done for just over $5,000 as a fully guided trip. That might as well have been a million as I had a wife and young daughter and was just starting out and I figured that this would just remain a dream; until I met Mike Deming and learned about the Pro Membership Sweepstakes where trips like these are given away every ten days. I quickly signed up to become a member in hopes of winning a trip like this.
I would often hang around Mike’s office and talk hunting and help out with work that needed to be done. Little did I know, this effort would be recognized when the next caribou hunt would take place. I wasn’t drawn in the sweepstakes, but Mike said that he had an open slot and could use the help on this lucky winners’ hunt. I about exploded when he said that he would personally cover the cost of this drop camp trip. It was for real and my dream of hunting a caribou was actually going to come true.
Sportsman’s News purchases this hunt every other year for their Pro Membership Sweepstakes with Ram Aviation, who is one of their Platinum Approved Outfitters. They provide world-class Alaska hunting out of Kotzebue, AK and have done so for several decades. Owner, Bryan Albert, runs one of the very best operations around; transporting unguided caribou hunters into the wild landscape of Alaska. They take the extra time to make sure you have all the proper gear and meals you will need for the entirety of your hunt. They have the local knowledge and experience to put you in the optimum position to get that giant bull you have been waiting for as well as being able to see lots of caribou.
This particular trip was won by Pro Member Shad Hulse of Cedar City, Utah. When Deming randomly pulled his name out of the drum and contacted Mr. Hulse, he was like a kid at Christmas. Shad is one lucky guy; he has won several bonus prizes from the Pro Membership Sweepstakes over the last three years. He also had the opportunity to bring his wife, April, along on this trip as this was a trip for a winner and a guest.
Deming had this once in a lifetime trip planned for a group of four, but due to unforeseen circumstances, which has been typical for 2020, that came to a crashing halt.
When traveling to the state of Alaska, the department of health requires all travelers be tested and cleared of Covid-19 within 72 hours prior to flying. Mike and I went to the local test facility together to be tested and get that part of our “to-do” list out of the way. We could then focus on packing and preparing to leave. Shad and his wife did the same. The very next day we were given good news, and bad news. Three out of four of us tested negative and the one person who put all the work into this trip, Mike Deming, tested positive for Covid-19. This ultimately gave him no other option, but to stay home. This was devastating news as he was the veteran traveler and had been to Alaska numerous times and was basically our guide for this drop camp hunt. I had been looking forward to this hunt together for a very long time and I was a bit distraught. Since I had been to Alaska before to hunt moose, Mike had faith in me that I could still go and make the best of this experience and help Shad and April to get the job done. Mike set me up with everything I would need to get the three of us through this epic hunt.
After a few long flights, I landed in Anchorage and met up with Shad and April, before taking off together to Kotzebue. We once again had to show our negative Covid-19 results, and once we all got through the mess and finally on our final stretch to Kotzebue. Shortly after we landed, we had a warm welcome by the team at Ram Aviation. After getting our packs and gear ready and organized Bryan announced that he had some good news! He said we would be having some great weather in front of us and wanted to get us out in the field a day earlier than we had planned. My response was “I like your style, let’s do it!” This meant we would be leaving the next day. Megan the manager from Ram Aviation took the time to educate us about the native town, took us to our hotel and showed us places we could eat. We got a good night’s rest and Megan was there to pick us up at 9:00am the next day. We met Bryan at the hanger and in no time we had our gear loaded and we were off into the Alaska gray sky, flying over the ocean and miles of tundra and shale rock peaks that were absolutely breathtaking. After about two hours of flying in a four-passenger plane, Bryan landed at one of his base camps where he had a super cub plane waiting for us. These super cubs only hold one passenger and a pilot, so Bryan flew each of us to camp individually. This was a 1-hour trip each way and I went first. As we neared camp Bryan said “there’s your home for the next few days. This is where I had seen several giant bulls a few days prior”. We then made a giant loop and we touched down on the wildest patch of ground in America. As I exited the plane, all I could smell was the ocean, since we were only 30 miles from the Bering Sea. Bryan pointed out where to pitch the tent and where our water source was, then we quickly unloaded my gear and he was off to get Shad and April. Bryan is not just your average pilot he is truly remarkable and very talented. He has over twenty plus years of flying as well as years of guiding in his home state of Alaska. He is an absolute beast and the one thing I noticed most about him was that his clients are his main priority.
As I stood there in the wide open all by myself, I took a deep breath and expressed my gratitude for God’s beautiful creation. I then began setting up camp, starting with my Browning tent. After a few minutes, I stood up and looked into the distance and spotted a beautiful giant bull caribou standing on a snow slide 150 yards from me. I got the biggest grin on my face and quickly grabbed my PhoneSkope and Carl Zeiss Gavia spotting scope and immediately started filming this magnificent animal. In Alaska you cannot hunt the day you fly into camp, so I was able to take in all the scenery and got plenty of pictures and video of some incredible wildlife.
It wasn’t long before Bryan and Shad were in the distance making their way to camp. After we got his gear unloaded, I showed him the video of the bull I had seen. It had us both pretty excited. Soon, April arrived and we had everything for the next few days so we finished setting up camp.
Since we had the rest of the afternoon and some time to kill, we decided it was a great time to find a vantage point and start glassing. It didn’t take long before we started spotting bulls. They were nearly everywhere we looked. They were on the steep shale rock slopes and covering ground out ahead of us. We were all in shock and couldn’t believe how many we were seeing! Caribou, grizzlies, wolverines, and foxes were also in abundance. It was too bad the dates didn’t line up to be able to hunt wolverines, and we didn’t have a guide to be able to hunt bear, but it was still pretty amazing to see it all. Just before dark, Shad and April glassed up a few good bulls that they really liked from their spotting scope and made a plan to go back after them the next morning.
We woke up early the next morning and were exiting our tents when we spotted 4 bulls 340 yards from camp. We quickly gathered our gear, but they were onto us and moved down off the hill away from us. It got the blood pumping and we attempted to go after them, but being so close to the coast, fog becomes your worst nightmare and they vanished right before our eyes. As we waited for the fog to clear, we made our way to the vantage point we had found the day before. As the fog cleared, it wasn’t long before we started turning up bulls. We decided it would be best to split up so we could cover more of the mountain range. Shad and April headed back to where they had glassed up the bulls from the previous day. It didn’t take long to turn up the bull that Shad had his eyes on. He was able to get within 150 yards and took a shot free hand. When the bull didn’t drop, he took off running, which didn’t give Shad another opportunity to get a follow up shot. He grabbed his binoculars and saw that he had hit the bull in the leg. After I heard the first gunshot, I was able to grab my spotter and pick them out from over a mile away. I was able to see the direction the bull went. After we met back up, we decided to keep our distance so we didn’t push the bull and hiked to each vantage point to see if we could spot him. With no luck, we returned to camp for the night. Following Alaska’s hunting guidelines, once you draw blood on an animal you are done hunting. Not exactly the way we wanted to start off our trip, but it is part of hunting.
The next morning, we knew we had to find Shad’s bull, so we hiked back to where we had seen him the evening before. After glassing for two hours, we spotted him nearly five miles away. We were in disbelief at how far this bull had traveled with a broken leg, but his limp made him very obvious. We patiently waited for him to bed and we moved in. We hiked through marshy bottoms and waded through a river to get to where he was bedded. April and I settled on a hill 500 yards away from the bull and allowed Shad to go in after him alone. He was able to get into a good position and was able to finish off the bull he worked so hard for. We heard Shad yell and knew he had got the job done. Congratulations Shad! All your hard work and persistence finally paid off. Knowing this would be a 13 mile round trip to bring the bull back to camp, we had our work cut out for us; but we made it and had some phenomenal backstraps and tenderloins for dinner. We slept great that night.
The next morning, I woke up to foggy conditions and decided to eat some breakfast as I waited for the fog to clear. As the sun was peaking over the horizon, I caught a glimpse of five bulls right from camp. I quickly grabbed my binoculars and was able to pick out the biggest one. I whispered quietly to Shad and April, who were still in their tent, that we had bulls near camp. There was no response and I knew I had to act quickly because the bulls were on to me and starting to trot. I grabbed my Browning X-Bolt 26 Nosler and my ALPS pack and tossed it on the ground near my tent and ranged the bull at 358 yards. I laid on my pack in the prone position and had a good solid rest. I was able to get a high shoulder shot and dropped him in his tracks. Right then, Shad and April yelled “Thanks for the wake-up call” I replied back “Guys, that’s how you kill a caribou; near camp” we all laughed. This was a moment I had been waiting a lifetime for and wished Mike Deming could have been there to share it with me. As I approached my bull, I was very humbled and excited and took a few minutes to let it all soak in. After communicating with Deming over the Garmin InReach device and letting him know we had two bulls down and not wanting to take the chance of any grizzlies coming in to camp, he reached out to Bryan and we were lucky enough that he was flying in the area and was able to make a stop to get our meat. Now the pressure was on April to get the job done. We had her on a bull that evening that she had shot at and missed.
As day-five rolled around, we ventured out for the morning hunt and never saw a single bull. After several hours of hiking and glassing we decided to head back towards camp when we saw a lone bull in the distance. It was like we had him on a string and he came right to us. We got April into a comfortable shooting position where she was able to harvest her bull caribou at just 90 yards away. I was able to sit back and watch Shad and April celebrate a job well done. This also meant we were done with our trip of a lifetime and it was time to reach out to Bryan and his crew to get us out of the field as soon as possible. Lucky for us, we had great weather conditions in the forecast and we were picked up the very next day.
It was a very exciting and eventful camp and we all had the time of our lives. We look forward to returning again in the near future. We can’t say enough good about the people of Ram Aviation. Become a member of the Pro Membership Sweepstakes and you could be our next winner.
Guided caribou hunts have surpassed the $12,000 mark and some are as high as $15,000 or more. These drop-camp operations for barren ground caribou are an excellent option for someone who has hunting and camping experience.
Bryan and his team are going to get you into an area where there are plenty of caribou. You can send in your own camp and food, but we recommend renting the entire camp setup through Bryan’s recommended resources. They provide top quality gear and have everything you will need to be comfortable and get the job done. You will be provided with all the food you need for your week of hunting. This will include freeze dried meals as well as other fresh options to the menu. Fresh caribou tenderloins and backstraps are a great addition to your menu once you get your animal on the ground. When it comes to the hunting side of things, this is very open space and caribou are fairly easy to spot with good optics. Alaska is big country and these nomadic animals are always on the move. Just because you don’t have a caribou in sight today doesn’t mean you won’t be covered up with them tomorrow. Once you are successful, you are required to quarter and pack your animal back to camp for pickup.
Bryan and his team have a great information packet available on their website, which will tell you everything you need to know about this great and affordable hunt. Bryan is usually sold out a year in advance, so if you are interested in hunting in the future, book early. August and early September hunts have the bulls still in the velvet. They go hard-horned in mid-September. The weather this far north is starting to turn fairly cold during these late hunts so be prepared for anything.
-- Mike Deming