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Duluth man dropped in Alaskan bush for 1st caribou hunt

DULUTH, Minn. -- The first hint of gray had seeped into the Alaskan landscape on a September morning last year when Mike Schrage left his tent. He was alone on the land.

He pumped life into his camp stove and had begun boiling water for his breakfast when he saw a small band of caribou moving up the valley of the Salcha River. That's what Duluth's Schrage had come for.

"I threw up my binoculars," Schrage said, "and I thought, 'Holy buckets, there are bulls in that group.'"

Schrage grabbed his .30-06 and abandoned his plans for breakfast. A wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Schrage had been dropped off by a bush pilot the day before. He was making a solo caribou hunt in some of Alaska's wild country just west of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

A guided Alaskan caribou hunt can be pricey. Schrage figured doing an unguided trip would save him some money.

"Part of this was an economic thing," he said. "But I had a friend in college who had guided hunters in Alaska, and he made a comment one time. He said that everyone should spend some time alone in the Alaskan bush, to test yourself and see how you do. Doing a solo hunt seemed like the way to experience that."

He had flown to Fairbanks and then had contracted with Quicksilver Air to drop him on the tundra for up to eight days. The charter service told him he could bring no more than 60 pounds of gear, plus his rifle.

Schrage spends a lot of time in the woods for his work, often involving moose research. And he had made a 10-day canoe trip down Manitoba's South Seal River to Tadoule Lake one year, so he was at home in the wilderness.

He had pared his gear down to the essentials -- food, tent, sleeping bag, rifle, a change of clothes and tools to butcher and pack out his caribou. He and his pilot had seen black bears from the plane on the 120-mile flight into the bush. And this was grizzly country, too.

"I will say I had bear on the brain the whole time I was there," said Schrage, 45. "I never saw one on the ground, but I never went anywhere without my rifle."

In camp, he had kept his hunting pack and rifle ready at a moment's notice. Now, with caribou moving toward him up the valley, Schrage grabbed the pack and moved to intercept the animals. When he had first spotted the caribou, they were about a mile away. He waited for them at a saddle between two ridges.

"There were five bulls in the group," he said. "I picked out what looked to be the biggest and shot."

He had miscalculated the range, and his shot fell short. He shot again but couldn't be sure whether the bull he was shooting at went down. He moved along the edge of the ridge to get in better position and saw that the bull he had shot at was unhurt. Finally, he lay down, took one more shot and dropped the bull at 284 yards.

"I was pretty excited," he said. "Then, it was like moose hunting -- a few minutes of elation, and now I have to go to work."

As he worked with the caribou, he looked up and saw more caribou. Two bulls were sparring about 100 yards away.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's what a big bull looks like,' " he said.

But he was happy with his bull and his quick success. He spent most of the day skinning and quartering the animal, then packing it up to the ridge top. He called his pilot on a satellite phone and told him he would be ready for pickup the next day. But high winds prevented the pilot from arriving until three days later.

Where Schrage was camped on the alpine tundra at 4,000 feet, one night got cold enough to freeze the water in his water bottle. Schrage spent his days watching caribou move through the country and checking on his meat cache on the ridge where the pilot had dropped him off.

One morning when he went to check on the cache, he had a surprise.

"Coming over the ridge from the other side was a wolverine at about 40 yards," he said. "It took off running."

The wolverine apparently came back again that night, Schrage said. "I found its tracks in the snow. I had five bags of meat, and he took a bite out of four of them. He got one front quarter. But for the chance to see a wild wolverine at 40 yards, it can have a front quarter."

Schrage figures the trip cost him about $2,400 including the bush flights, hunting license and a new tent. He also had to pay for his commercial flight to Fairbanks and a couple of nights in a hotel.

"I feel like I got what I wanted," he said, "an Alaskan adventure and a good caribou."