Above the Circle: DIY Alaska Caribou Hunt

Last season, onX Ambassador Beau Martonik headed north to Alaska for a once-in-a-lifetime caribou hunt. He brought back game meat and antlers, but also a photo series showcasing the realities of this bucket-list trip. Here’s a recap of the hunt, in Beau’s own words and images.

—- — —

From Beau: 

For as long as I can remember, it has been a dream of mine to hunt “The Last Frontier”— otherwise known as Alaska. The idea of getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere in a bush plane to hunt the wild animals that call this place home has long been etched in my mind. 

What I didn’t know all these years was that, with proper planning and preparation, hunts such as this are within reach.

Two men in a bush plane heading to hunt Caribou in Alaska.

Going on an unguided, do-it-yourself hunt for caribou in northwest Alaska allows you to save money and still have an incredible experience. The logistics that it takes to embark on a journey like this are a big part of the overall adventure, and certainly doable with a little homework and dedication.

Arrival to the hunting site in Alaska, on a gravel bar with a bush plane in foreground.

My best friend Michael Paladino and I had never flown in a bush plane before (which was kind of nerve-racking, to be honest) but it didn’t take long to forget about our nervousness when we were looking out the window at incredible mountains. We flew in on a bigger Cessna 180, which held the three of us plus the pilot. Once we got close to the final destination, the pilot landed on a runway and we each jumped into a smaller Super Cub plane to “puddle jump” us into our camping location.

Two hunters hiking across mountains in Alaska as they hunt for caribou.

We took the first day to set up camp. Day two was dedicated to glassing, which resulted in finding caribou bedded on a rock cliff face about two miles from camp. While planning our stalk, we spotted two grizzly bears in the saddle just to the right of the caribou, complicating matters. Using the Hunt App with our maps downloaded for offline use, we planned our long stalk up the small drainage and onto the backside of the steep ridge.

Two hunters standing on a mountain in Alaska overlooking a drainage.

A storm blew in, causing the caribou to move before we got to them. With no other option, the search continued as we hiked further away from camp in an effort to relocate the herd. The landscape was breathtaking, making the long hike well worth it.

Two hunters glassing a drainage in Alaska while hunting caribou.

After a long day of hiking, we ended up seeing the herd right in front of our camp. It was a situation which would’ve been ideal, but we were still nearly four-and-a-half miles away. The tundra is like walking on moss-covered bowling balls—the going is slow—so there was no way that we could get close enough in time to get a shot.

Hunters set up camp in cold, wet Alaska weather.

The weather in Alaska was as unforgiving as I imagined it would be. It transitions from sunny skies to hail, wind, and rain in a matter of minutes. Mother Nature and these mountains definitely don’t care who you are or what you’re trying to accomplish; they’re on their own program. Having good gear is a must, and even more important is knowing the ins-and-outs of how to use your gear. Being in the mountains always reminds me of the comforts that we take for granted back in civilization, and has taught me not to complain about the minor discomforts that we experience in everyday life. The animals that call this place home are as tough as it gets.

A hunter glassing for caribou while hunting in Alaska.

Using your legs to hike miles upon miles across the tundra in search of caribou will break you down quickly. With the ability to see long distances while glassing, we spent ample time behind the spotting scope and binoculars rather than wearing down our bodies.

Caribou grazing on the Alaska tundra.

Finally, we found what we were looking for on the morning of day four. The fog lifted in the valley and we spotted a herd working its way down towards the river bottom. Scrambling to get our gear together, we made the move up the river bottom using the bank as cover. As the caribou crossed the opposite bank at 250 yards, I got into position and squeezed the trigger on my Bergara .300 Win Mag.

Plan Your Season With onX Hunt
Dreaming of a bucket-list hunt of your own? Try the Hunt App for Free.

The old, grey-maned bull dropped in his tracks and put me in a loss for words. I had been dreaming of this day for as long as I could remember, and it finally came to fruition. Walking up on the bull, I noticed he had double shovels on his antlers. This was the only double-shoveled bull that we saw on the trip, but that really didn’t matter to me. All I wanted to do was shoot a respectable caribou.

Two hunters pack out caribou after a successful hunt in Alaska.

The tundra can be deceiving and difficult, since it all looks similar. After I shot my bull, Michael ended up doubling up with a great bull of his own. We marked a Waypoint where each of our bulls expired so that we didn’t lose track of them while cutting up my bull first to pack the meat back to camp. It was critical to get the meat back to camp so that we didn’t have a run-in with a hungry bear who heard the dinner bells sound off.

Two hunters carry out caribou meat after a successful hunt in Alaska.

Doubling on two great caribou bulls with one of my best friends was more than I could’ve ever asked for. In my head, I had envisioned us killing two bulls at the same time over and over again leading up until this hunt. Ever since last year in Idaho when I killed my first bull elk with my bow and Michael was right there to help me pack the bull off of the mountain, I wanted to repay that favor. As it turned out, less than a year later I had that opportunity. 

Loading caribou meat and mount into an Alaskan bush plane after a successful hunt.

Hunts like these are more about the journey than the end goal, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wanted us to come home with frozen boxes of lean wild game meat and antlers that will generate conversation for years to come. As the last morning dawned we packed up camp, I sent out a message on my Garmin inReach and waited for the bush plane to come in to pick us up. It was bittersweet. When the world seems like a crazy place, you can always count on the wilderness to escape the chaos and reset your mind. It’s a process which ultimately hardens you to become a better person in your life, job, and family. 

Happy hunters in camp after a successful Alaska caribou hunt.

During the hunt, we recorded video for my podcast, East Meets West Hunt, to capture on each day and hopefully bring viewers and listeners “with us” on the tundra. Sharing camp with Michael and our camera guy Justin Mueller furthered our friendship, and we spent plenty of time plotting out future adventures. Justin filmed the entire hunt and we released the film Above the Circle to show you that if a couple of regular guys from a small town in Pennsylvania can do it; anyone can.

Make Sure You’re Opener Ready. Try the Hunt App for Free.

Jess McGlothlin

Before taking the role of onX Communications Writer, Jess McGlothlin worked as a freelance photographer and writer in the outdoor and fly-fishing industries. While on assignment in the past few years she’s learned how to throw spears at coconuts in French Polynesia, dodge saltwater crocodiles in Cuba, stand-up paddleboard down Peruvian Amazon tributaries and eat all manner of unidentifiable food.