Caribou Hunting in Canada

June 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles

By Scott E. Becker

This was a lonely part of the Torngat Mountains, where the caribou trails ran up to the sky, where the caribou roamed with falcons and danced in the shadow of clouds. The ground rumbled. Above the rocks, two, then three sets of white tines appeared, like fingers reaching for the heavens, four by four antlers rocking gently back and forth in cadence. I drew back my bow. The first bull passed too quickly to get a good shot. Behind it sprinted the biggest bull of the group. I led it by a nose and loosed my last arrow. Its neck stretched, foaming at the mouth, muscles tough and defined; my arrow sped towards the target…

The Twin Otter vibrated as a result of the two Pratt and Whitney turbo props. Six fellow hunters sat in fold up seats, noses pressed to the windows in eager anticipation, each hoping to be the first to spot a caribou. Strangers with different experiences and backgrounds, we were thrown together in what we hoped would be the experience of a lifetime. All traditional bow hunters, we didn’t stay strangers for long. We were to see icebergs, seals, whales, rivers alive with Arctic Char, and country so stunning, so remote, so harsh that one wrong step meant death.

Roger Barrette, a French Canadian, and his Inuit ran Torngat Outfitter’s base camp partner, Daniel Annanack. We didn’t see any caribou as we broke through the clouds at about 2500 feet, but we did see thousands of trails worn deep by centuries of migrating animals.

It was time to hunt. Torngat’s base camp sat on the flats at the foot of a fiord of Ungava Bay, Northern Quebec. Comprised of six Quonset hut structures covered with nylon, on cement and wood slabs and lino­leum, it had all the comforts of home heated running water and a full kitchen. We felt at home at once, but we didn’t stay there for long. We unpacked, dressed for the hunt and off we went, even though most of us didn’t know where to begin. The base camp accommodated the Twin Otter but it was limited for hunting. In the arctic, tides rise and fall five to six feet. We could get to the mountains that closely surrounded the camp by taking the canoe or wading through several streams, but we could not get up the fiord for the best hunting until high tide.

It would be the fol­lowing day before the Inuits could get us to spike camp. So we waded. Bill Price, of Sacramento, California, and I teamed up and stayed together for the remainder of the hunt. We asked Roger where we should go to find the caribou. He looked at us from his desk, smiled and said, “Up.” He’d been around the Inuits too long. When you asked Daniel a question like, “What to do now?” He would respond, “We walk.” I would ask where. He would say, “Up.” I would ask how far. He would say, “Until we shoot the caribou.” “Then what?” I would inquire. “We walk again.” Then he would giggle.

There were two directions in the Torngats; up and down. Devoid of trees, teeming with blueberries and blackberries, the mountains ascended dramatically from the dark blue fiord. In order to get the caribou you had to get above them. The idea is to see them before they see you. Caribou can see movement at 3/4 mile and I swear they can smell you at that distance. Resting on a rock with binoculars 3000 feet above camp, off the fiord and hidden by camouflage, we scanned the sides of majestic mountains of granite and shale that magically changed colors from grey and brown to hues of red, gold and purple with the coming of the setting sun.

Bill had been hunting the high country for forty years. This was also his second trip to the Torngats. I learned quickly to rely on his judgement. The other hunters, Wayne Miller, Chuck Jones, John Sturtevant and Joe Fettie, went around to the other side of the mountain range. Bill and I stayed on the near side to catch the game the other hunters chased over to us. On that mountain I saw my first Inuitchuk.

Stones were stacked to look like four or five foot people. “Those Who Went Before,” the “Old Ones,” to mark caribou trails or caches of food and supplies, used these “Stone Children” or Inuitchuks as the Inuits called them. The caribou would get used to these figures being on their trails. Intuits would stand behind the figures, blending into the land in their seal and caribou skins, and kill these animals with spears. I only saw a couple of Inuitchuks that were built like figures, but I saw several loose piles of stones that looked casually raked together.

For all I knew the piles may have been put there by the last group of hunters. However, such piles of stones are found high in the mountains of Tibet and Mongolia, in the Andes and in the Southwest United States to mark trails or caches, or as an offering to the trail gods. I felt an affin­ity for those who had lived and survived here for centuries in the harshest country imaginable, so I added stones when I stumbled upon a cairn. Bill suggested we sit tight beside some heavily used trails. He climbed higher and about 15 yards further down the trail before settling down. We sat for about an hour scanning for “bou” and basking in the afternoon sun.

Movement! About three-quarters of a mile along the ridge, at about the same altitude I no­ticed a white spot moving. It had to be a caribou. I threw a small stone and got Bill’s attention. For about a half hour, we watched that caribou slowly make his way over the trail closer and closer until he disappeared over a ridge.

My Predator recurve and a carbon PC arrow with a Journeyman Brodhead rested on the rocks next to me. I played with my binoculars, my mouth dry with anticipation. A grunt behind me! I jumped. Not fifteen yards away was a huge bull. He was staring at me. I’ve never heard of a caribou attacking a man, but the size of those antlers made it all too easy too imagine! Sweat poured down my face, and my hands shook. Bill watched the trail ahead, looking for the first bull. I inched towards my bow. My bull stood until I picked the arrow up, then he turned and nonchalantly trotted back up the hill. I shot. The “Stone Children” got my first arrow. It sailed over his shoulder. Of course I didn’t aim at a spot – I shot at the entire animal. Bill didn’t see him until after I shot. It was too late.

I know better than to shoot at the entire animal but in the excitement, I forgot. I had shots in those first few days, but none that easy. Caribou may not be as intelligent as whitetail deer, but they aren’t stupid and the terrain they occupy is not designed for human habitation.

We would rise at dawn, hunt all day and attempt to get back to spike camp before dark with e­nough energy to eat. This we did from various spike camps along the fiord for the next five days. Caribou would be munching on bushes or sparse grass a mile or two off, migrating in no particular pattern, alone or in a small group. We’d have to back off the ridge, run or fall down one side of the mountain and up the other, jumping from one granite or shale rock to another in order to get around, behind and down wind. All the time we prayed the “bou” had cooperated by staying on the same path and that our heart and lungs would last.

On the last day the Inuit guide, Daniel, Bill Price and I were cruising down the fiord in Daniel’s over­grown 16 foot rowboat with an 80 hp. jet prop engine when we spotted three bulls, two cows and a calf. The fiord was only a half-mile across at that point and they saw us at the same time we saw them.

The race began. It was a rainy 30 degrees with 40-knot winds and I was wet to the skin. The caribou ran paral­lel to the fiord and about thirty yards up the slope on an ancient caribou trail. We accelerated ahead of the “bou” until we rounded a bend in the fiord and were out of their sight. Daniel cut the engine and grounded the boat. Bill and I tumbled out and ran up slope to best cover the deep two- foot trails they were likely to cross. Bill went low and I went high, trying to hide behind one of the many four-foot rocks.

The “Stone Children” had received most of my arrows as an unwilling offering for taking shots at caribou that should not have been taken. The quiver on my recurve bow held just four arrows. The ground shook with increasing intensity. A distant rumbling came from behind the rocks. Two, then three sets of white antlers appeared. Three big 350 – 400 lbs. bull caribou crested the ridge, veering off at an angle at the last minute.

I knocked the arrow and made ready. I drew and fired at the second bull. The arrow sailed over the shoulder of the retreating animal. I wiped the rain off of my face with my sleev­e. That was another shot I shouldn’t have taken.

In the open, head down, posterior up, I searched the bush looking for my arrow. Between my legs I saw three sets of antlers, attached to BIG caribou. And they were looking right at me. Mag­nificent animals, the white and tan capes on their necks and backs contrasted with the barren ground. I didn’t move. They probably thought I was a bald cow. An arrow floated over their backs; Bill had fired from below. They turned and looked in his direction. I dove to the ground, scraping my face over the rocks, and bellied over pointed rocks and wet blackberry bushes to get behind a four-foot rock.

I was breathing so hard I thought I was going to hyperventilate. They saw me and they may have seen Bill. There were only two ways they could go: my way or back down the trail. The mountain at that point was too steep, even for caribou. If they came my way my shot would have to be between two rocks, eight feet across.

This was a lonely part of the Torngat Mountains, where the caribou trails ran up to the sky, where the caribou roamed with falcons and danced in the shadow of clouds. The ground rum­bled. Above the rocks, two, then three sets of white tines appeared, like fingers reaching for the sky, four by four antlers rocking gently back and forth in cadence. I drew back my bow. The first bull passed too quickly to get a good shot. Behind him came the biggest bull of the group. I led it by a nose and loosed my last arrow. Its neck stretched, foam coming from it’s mouth, muscles tough and defined; my arrow sped towards the target.

My arrow appeared to pass through the animal, with no reaction from him. As it advanced, I noticed a red spot growing near his stomach area. He never slowed. The others passed. I collapsed. My heart was pounding and my hands shook. Adrenalin warmed me and gave me energy. I wiped the rain off my face and hastily collected my gear. Bill had come up, picked up my ar­row, and smelled it. He passed it to me and continued down the trail. I was amazed. It was the first arrow shot at a caribou on this trip that I recovered. I too smelled it. It was a gut shot. Not good, but it would slow him down.

I followed Bill. He was behind a rock about 50 yards ahead of me. In front of him about 20 yards away was my bull. I could see his magnificent rack scanning back and forth like radar. He must have had a whopper of a stomachache. Bill was trying to “put the sneak” on him to get another arrow in him. I didn’t want to spook him. When the bull turned Bill shot and hit him behind the shoulder. The “bou” jumped and ran my way. I shot again using the only arrow left, the one already covered with the caribou’s blood. This time the arrow was true and passed through the heart. He went down and I had my caribou. So ended the hunt of a lifetime.

Well, almost. By the time Daniel, Bill and I got the caribou cut up, the tide had gone out and we were stranded. Tides here rise and fall about 6 feet, It was only about 10:00 am and would be 6:30 pm before we could float out. Rain saturated our clothes and white caps appeared in the fiord. Roger, Dan and Denny would be looking for us to pick them up before the weather wors­ened. We were looking for my arrows when Daniel spotted another caribou at about 1000 yards and Coming our way!

I tried to stay out of the way. It was Bill’s turn so I scooted behind and above the path the bull was likely to take. I was situated so that if Bill missed or the bull took another path I would be ready. The bull passed Bill and Daniel. With one shot from 25 yards, Bill got our second bull of the day. The weather was turning cold and the high winds brought the caribou off the moun­tain. It turned out that our party got five bulls that day.

The weather didn’t improve. As the afternoon unfolded the rain turned to snow. Daniel found an overhang and went to sleep. Bill and I built a fire under some rocks and tried to dry our clothes. By the time the tide came and we were able to float the boat over the rocks, the tempera­ture had dropped below freezing. The sun had set and visibility was further diminished by heavy snow. Camp was ten miles down the fiord. We had gone fifty yards and had six-foot waves crashing over the boat, covering us with water and ice. Daniel turned to us and over the deafening sounds of surf and the jet engine declared that we couldn’t pick up Roger, Dan and Denny.

Dan Bertalan and Denny Sturgis Jr., who were in their second week of the hunt, were hunt­ing with Roger Barrette out of our last spike camp near the mouth of Ungava Bay. Daniel had warned them that being so close to the Bay for another night was not a good idea. He had recom­mended they come with us and hunt closer to base camp. They had declined. Now they had rea­son to wish they had listened. The water was too rough for us to pick them up and we had their tents, cooking utilities and food. They’d have to make out the best they could.

Daniel turned the boat down river towards camp. The water in the boat was mixed with blood from the meat. We bailed water while Daniel stood impassively in the bow, driving. Periodically he would remove the snow packed tightly around his glasses

The nose of the boat rose dramatically as we plowed into the waves only to crash on the other side. The boat rocked back and forth, causing more water to pour over the gunnels. I couldn’t help thinking of the Stone Children watching us from the mountaintops and I wondered what the Old Boys were thinking.

As we got closer to camp the fiord became shallow and rocks suddenly appeared around us. I hoped the boat was sturdy. We crashed into one, slid past another and scraped the side of the boat. Daniel had a 400,000-candle power light that I held while Bill continued bailing. We lurched from one side of the fiord to the other following some vague channel that Daniel searched from memory. To go down in that water was death. It was below freezing and the water was at the most 35 degrees. With all our gear we’d sink. Even without sinking you couldn’t get out and dry before hypothermia would take you.

Off the stern Bill noticed a light. It was the canoe that was used by two other Inuit guides with the remaining hunters. They didn’t have the light Daniel did, so they had followed. A long hour later, a light appeared out of the darkness around the bend. It was the main camp. Daniel turned, smiling. Snow covered him. He asked if we were having fun. He smiled. If I hadn’t needed him to drive I would have thrown him out of the boat!

I tried to help unload, but I had no feeling in my hands and could hardly walk. Daniel and the other Inuits came in behind us, unloaded the meat, antlers and supplies while we dragged our­selves the last few yards back to the camp. Before I lost sight of the Inuits, I saw them laughing and jostling each other like a bunch of kids at a picnic.

At 6:00 am the next day, Daniel and the other guides went back up river and picked up Dan, Roger and Denny. They were some cold and hungry campers. They had improvised a shelter and had some awful soup concoction that Dan Bertalan made up out of Tabasco and powdered milk found at an abandoned camp. They had had lots of time to contemplate the errors of their ways. It seems that even professional hunters get to comfortable and forget that the wild is unforgiving if you are unprepared. They could have paid a much higher price. But for me God was kind – I had my caribou.

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