Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Northward Ho!

     The over-sized tires of the twin otter bounced along the make shift airstrip as the pilot nose dived the plane to a stop before running out of room. Finally, back on somewhat solid ground. As we unloaded our gear and made the half mile hike toward the quonset huts of our camp, I was glad that I had swallowed two dramamine. Air travel is not my thing...

     Seven days of caribou hunting lie ahead on the tundra of Nunavut in northern Quebec. For this dedicated mid-western whitetail hunter, this was going to be a hunt of a life time, a real adventure and completely different than anything I'd ever known. The hour had gotten late and by the time we shook hands with our camp manager and guides, we barely had time to grab a bite to eat and get settled in. Night comes quick this time of year at this latitude and it was lights out in the camp by 10pm when the generator shuts down. Short of being in a cave, I had never seen darkness like this...total stillness, pitch black except for the stars in the sky. Absolutely priceless...We were in true wilderness, just shy of the arctic circle and hundreds of miles from the nearest road.

     The next two mornings broke cold, mid 20's with heavy frost. Our days started with a hearty breakfast, packing our lunches and then a 20 minute boat ride across an unnamed, mile wide lake. The boats were boats in name only. More like pieces of weather worn plywood, screwed together in the shape of a boat with a 15 horse outboard hanging off the back. As the guide tilled us across the lake in a cloud of blue smoke, it was the job of the hunters to constantly bail water and pray that we made it across the white caps!

    
     Once we landed on the far shore, it was up to a ridge top for glassing and more glassing, looking for any distant caribou...from daylight 'til dusk, glassing, hiking and again glassing. No caribou and the satellite phone reports from other camps didn't bode well for my group. I did see three wolves hunting the tundra. One jet black and the other two gray. Hunting as a team, hop scotching one another as they paced along looking for a meal. As we sat atop the wind swept ridges waiting, my lack of patience got the best of me and I struck out on my own to fling a few arrows at something...anything! Those "anythings" were found in the form of ptarmigan, a chicken sized bird with an annoying laugh! Just when you thought you were close enough to get a shot, they'd flush and fly another 200 yards. Before I knew it, I was over a mile away from my group after chasing the fool birds! I did manage to thump one for our pot though! Not a caribou, but I was hunting...

     The third day of our hunt started the same...no caribou to be seen. Our outfitter agreed to fly us into another camp later that day in hopes that the caribou would come through. A handful in my party agreed to stay behind and break camp and pack up our gear for the flight out. After we packed up, one of the guides thought it'd be a good idea to cross the lake one last time...So, I dawned a life jacket, said a prayer and hopped in the "boat"...Just before motoring away, my buddy suggested that someone ought to grab a rifle "just in case." His optimism wasn't shared by the rest of us, but he brought along a left handed Browning .308 for good measure...We peaked the ridge top and our guide's jaw dropped! "Boys" he said, "Get your glasses up"...As we peered through our binoculars, every direction you looked on the far hills and ridges were covered in migrating caribou...thousands of animals. They were still miles away and literally looked like ants to the naked eye...Our guide quickly hatched a plan and we sprinted a couple hundred yards to a narrow crossing in yet another unknown lake. The guide was sure the caribou would head that direction. As we doubled over, hidden behind dwarf spruce and boulders catching our breath, we could hear splashing just over the next hill...the caribou were in the water. The guide whispered "Look up there"...there they were, lined up across the top of a ridge 75 yards away, looking down at us. There must have been 200 animals...it was surreal! Steam rolling off their backs from the water, breath coming from their nostrils, bleating and grunting, antlers everywhere...I couldn't help but think that this was how it was for primitive hunters from another time. A real National Geographic moment! Our guide asked me if I would be willing to use a rifle to take an animal and I agreed. I was there to bowhunt, but since my bow was packed up two miles away at camp, a rifle would work...As the animals started to slide down the hill on their haunches, the noise became deafening...the four of us would have to share the same gun...the guide would point out a good bull and the shot was taken. I was the last shooter in the group and my intended bull was 30 yards away. I managed to rack in a round in the left handed rifle and took aim. The bull was so close that I could see individual hairs behind his shoulder...Steady, exhale...the shot was made and the bull immediately hit the ground. The rest of the animals weren't phased by the gun's report and continued through for the next five minutes. Imagine a stampede scene from a western movie, but with caribou rather than longhorns... 

Caribou on the hill
Note the "Lucky Hat!"
     When it was all said and done, the four of us all had animals on the ground and the real work of getting them back to the lake began. We spent the remainder of the day packing meat and antlers and put several miles on our boots. The ride across the lake was interesting to say the least as we ran out of daylight and no flashlights with about 2 inches of the "boat" showing above the water line, but there was no place that I'd rather have been at that moment...As we pulled into camp in the blackness, the Northern Lights started their show and I breathed in all that I could...