October 2005, my pal and I found ourselves secreted along a rolling hillside, huddled on the tundra just south of the Arctic Circle, watching a herd of caribou a mile distant. The herd had probably 100 or more animals, a mix of bulls, cows and yearlings. A wide racked bull with a heavy white mane was in the middle of the pack and drew my buddy's attention...
The wind blew and a spit of rain hit our faces as the herd ate up the ground with that long, loping gait that only caribou have. I peeked over my shoulder to see my friend sitting off to my left. I pulled the binoculars to my eyes, the animals now less than 400 yards. My partner whispers that when the herd is in range, the huge bull in the middle was his pick.
I propped my elbows on my knees and spied the herd through the glasses. 200 yards, 150 yards, 120...Arthur had tossed his backpack in front of him and took a prone position using the pack to steady his muzzleloader. I focused through the lenses on the white maned bull. Just as a smaller bull cleared and I anticipated the shot...The distinctive “crack-boom” of the muzzleloader shattered the silence of the tundra and filled the air with sulfur and smoke followed by the solid thud of the slug hitting home. The massive bull took the full effect of the shot. His legs wobbled and he immediately hit the ground and came to rest among the boulders and moss as the report of the shot echoed across unending landscape.
I hopped to my feet as Arthur stood up and gathered himself. There was no back slapping or fist pumping, just a heart felt handshake. I'm sure we had a couple of words, but most of all, I remember the deep, wide grin across my pal's face and his rosy cheeks. The smile was infectious and I returned with a grin and laughter of my own. We made our way to the downed bull, jumping from boulder to boulder and tip toeing on the spongy ground, not quite frozen, not quite thawed, so typical of this part of the world.
We stood there in the middle of nowhere, admiring the magnificent bull, the huge antlers, the beautiful coat, the landscape, the colors of the arctic autumn, all of it...Soaking in the moment, taking it all in. We didn't exchange any words, just a glance back and forth and we both knew this was a magic place, something special, something to be revered. The two of us got to work on making meat, still quiet, but knowing we were blessed to be where we were and to be able to share the experience with each other.
My pal passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly last week, far too young and far too soon. But, I hope that someday when I'm finally called home that we can once again sit on a cold, October hillside, watch a herd of caribou and their bouncing antlers and smile with the breeze in our faces. Arthur Ashcraft was a good man, a hunting partner and an even better friend and he will be deeply missed.