Larry and Mike Shriner, a father and son from Waterville, recently completed a month-long hunting and fishing trip the likes of which most outdoorsmen only dream - a nearly 10,000-mile do-it-yourself adventure to the farthest reaches of arctic Alaska.
They indeed did it their way, driving all the way from home to Prudhoe Bay, the oil-drilling mecca, and back. Along the way they camped and fished for such exotic - to Ohioans - species as arctic grayling, and they bagged two fine bull caribou, hunting and camping on their own after dropoff by a bush plane in some of the most remote wilderness left in North America.
"It was part road trip, part spike camp for caribou," begins Larry. "We left Waterville with a new pickup, a truck camper, a bunch of miscellaneous gear, guns, rods, camp gear, two new spare tires, and 22 gallons of gas in four cans."
They motored west to Montana and turned north through Alberta and on to Dawson's Creek, B.C, to the beginning of the 1,422-mile Alaska Highway. At that historic road's end at Delta Junction, Alaska, they joined the Richardson Highway for another 101 miles to Fairbanks. That part of the journey took seven days.
"We camped and fished along the road in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon," Shriner said.
In Fairbanks their first stop was for an oil change.
"We picked up maps of the Dalton Highway areas from the [U.S.] Bureau of Land Management offices, then we filled our four cans of gas and hit the grocery store."
They drove up the Dalton Highway, originally constructed as the tote road for the Alaska Oil Pipeline to Deadhorse, near the oilfields. "It was 414 miles of a dirt and stone road north," said Shriner.
"It took us three days to get up the highway, camping and fishing at many streams along the way." They landed many grayling - a fine stream species with a large, distinctive dorsal fin - of 8 to 16 inches. "These were great for lunch," Larry noted.
The anglers used fly fishing tackle. "It did not matter what fly we used as long as it hit the water," Mike said.
On their way through the Brooks Range toward Deadhorse, they drove past and through what is called the Caribou Circus - "hundreds of people hunting caribou" - and carried on to the Arctic Ocean. At road's end they had lunch at what was enthusiastically billed as the Arctic Caribou Inn, "which is nothing more than modular trailers bolted together to make one large inn.
"Deadhorse is nothing but oil workers and refinery equipment. The gas station was in a trailer with a credit card for operation. It was $3.85 a gallon. All we did when we got to Deadhorse was eat lunch, get gas, and take pictures. Then we headed back down the Dalton Highway."
They took four days to return to Fairbanks, adding to their camp-and-fish itinerary some attempts at wolf hunting and caribou-stalking with a bow.
"Caribou stalking was like stalking a deer in a Wal-Mart parking lot. There was nothing to hide behind. It was just [treeless] spongy tundra and small, low hills."
Back at Fairbanks, they loaded their rifles - Winchester Model 70s in .338 magnum - and 70 pounds of gear onto a plane bound for the native village of Kotzebue, on the distant northwest coast of Alaska about 200 miles north of Nome on the Arctic Circle. After a 90-minute flight and spending the night in the native community, they reloaded their gear onto a Cessna 180 bush plane and flew to the remote Noatak River region, 120 miles north at the western end of the Brooks Range.
"We set up camp, thanked our pilot, told him we would see him in six days, and started scouting for caribou."
Larry noted that it is illegal to hunt the same day you fly in Alaska, so they just glassed the surrounding tundra lands for caribou on travel day.
Initially, Mike spied a large bull, watching it until it bedded down. The hunters saw many cows and small bulls as well. On their third day, Larry was up first. "I got up around seven in the morning and was just getting water around for coffee when I looked up and saw three animals about three-quarters of a mile away from camp. I grabbed my binoculars and saw two huge bulls and a smaller bull."
He rousted Mike, then they grabbed their rifles and binoculars and they took off on a circle route of nearly two miles to get ahead of the walking and grazing bulls. "We set up on a small hill overlooking their path, which was about 210 yards in front of us."
They lay in wait and presently the bulls emerged into full view from low scrub. Mike dropped one of the large bulls and the second large bull was nowhere to be seen, so Larry took the slightly smaller one. That was when the big work began.
They had to butcher and haul the two bulls back to camp, which turned out to be 1.7 miles away. "It took us four round-trips - meat, antlers, and hides," Larry said.
They erected a meat rack and meat pole to keep their arctic venison away from bears. Barren ground grizzlies and black bears are not uncommon.
They spent the rest of their time looking for wolves, target shooting, and tending to the meat on the elevated racks. They prudently kept short-barreled 12-gauge pump shotguns handy in case barren-ground grizzly bears decided to join them for a caribou feast.
Their flights back to Fairbanks, via Kotzebue, were uneventful. "We got on our plane [at Kotzebue] and met up with our racks and meat boxes at Fairbanks," Larry said.
They loaded up with gas, food, and dry ice, packing the latter in coolers with the caribou meat, and they pointed their pickup for the Lower 48. "We drove for 64 hours from Fairbanks to Waterville," the elder Shriner noted.
"It was 9,660 miles, round-trip, and 1,129 gallons of gas. We got gas 47 times. The most we spent on gas in the western U.S. was $2.60 and the most we spent in Canada was $1.49 per liter in rural Canada. That is about $5.15 a gallon in U.S. currency. The least we spent in Canada was $1.02 per liter in Calgary. The most we paid in Alaska was $3.85 in Prudhoe Bay."
Notably, they had no trouble traversing Canada with their firearms. "We had all our paperwork done," said Mike. "It cost $50 for all four to bring them through."
Looking back at the adventure, Larry summed it up this way: "The truck and camper are in good shape, but the windshield has some stone chips. The new spares never came off the rack; we had no flats and no problems whatsoever.
"I will do it again. I cannot leave soon enough."