I trudged along grimly as I neared the canyon rim. I was in a foul mood, and more than a little worried. Two days earlier I had been pushed to my physical limits on the jumbled granite mountains while packing out a Dall sheep. My body had not yet recovered, and each step took me farther from camp. I stopped and whistled softly to alert my guide that I was near. Moments later, Cory appeared and waved me forward. The spotting scope was set up and he motioned me to take a look. Through its lens I looked upon the largest caribou I had ever seen, feeding leisurely on a bench almost a mile and a half away.
I looked at Cory in shock. He grinned and said, “I figured I needed to show you a nice caribou, since you have been cussing me for the last mile.” When I winced at the accusation, he looked at me seriously. “And don’t tell me you haven’t been,” he said.
It was true. Cory had wanted to check this drainage for caribou. Trouble was, it was four miles over rough country from camp, most of it downhill, and he had figured correctly that I would have declined the hike in favor of a second recovery day. After all, this was only the third day of a 10-day combination hunt, and a caribou was a distant second prize to my Dall sheep.
So Cory did what good guides do. He figured out a way to get his hunter to go where he wanted his hunter to go. Corey’s stratagem was not to lie to me out right, but merely to mislead. That morning in camp he had pointed toward a flat a mile from camp – a relatively easy hike.
“We may stay there all day, just glassing,” he said. It sounded reasonable to me. Naturally, after we’d arrived and glassed a bit he decided we needed to move. The next stopping point, another mile farther from camp, was apparently not optimum for glassing the valley below. And the next, another mile along, was clearly not suitable. I was confused.
Cory finally came clean. “I just told you that to get you out here. I really want to look in that drainage over there,” he said, pointing to a distant ridgeline. I had indeed been cussing him that last mile.
Now we had to decide what to do. If the caribou bedded down, we had an excellent opportunity for a stalk. If not, and we began the stalk, it would be impossible to know if he moved off and impossible to intercept him if he did. Cory suggested we wait and see. I was glad to oblige.
That Quebec-Labrador hunt had been billed as 98 percent successful on two caribou. Some friends and I had decided that we wanted as close to a sure thing as we could get on such a hunt, my first hunt outside the U.S., and only my third outside Texas. Though it was considered an economy hunt, it was a ton of money to me.
I learned several things about hunting on that excursion and about myself. I confirmed that I hate to lose. I learned that if the animals aren’t there, no amount of hard work will get you one. I learned that large hunting outfits catering to hunters en masse sometimes lose sight of the best interests of individual hunters. I learned that I was willing to go home empty-handed rather than shoot an immature animal. But I also learned that memories of the wonders of nature remain vivid long after the bitterness of a frustrating hunt fades. I saw an eagle swoop and snare a fish from a lake, and watched ravens harass it as the eagle struggled to fly away with the fish in its talons. I heard my first wolf howl and my first ptarmigan chuckle. And, perhaps best of all, I saw the northern lights in all their glory.
Now, nine years later, I had again seen the northern lights, this time hunting with Stan Simpson’s Ram Head Outfitters in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada’s Northwest Territories. I was again looking at a caribou, though I had never seen anything like this old bull.
The bull never did bed down. He would nibble at a plant and then move to another, but he never left the bench. Cory asked me what I wanted to do. The bull didn’t seem inclined to leave the bench, so he felt we had a chance at a stalk. I told Cory that if he felt we had a 50 percent or better chance of success, I was for it. Cory said he was all for attempting the stalk, if I thought I could make it. That was all it took – testosterone can be a wonderful thing. Off we went.
The first mile was sharply downhill. Then we circled to put the wind in our faces. We covered more than a mile without knowing whether the caribou had remained on the bench. He had, and was now only a quarter mile away, still feeding. We stalked steadily into the wind, slowing when we were within 200 yards of the bull. Because the foliage was thick, we would have to get close, and an offhand shot would probably be necessary.
Here is where I am supposed to write that we crawled a mile, our stalk culminating in a spectacular offhand shot at a running caribou at long range through heavy brush in a howling crosswind. Well, the shot was offhand, and there was some brush. We crept to within 40 yards of the big bull. He was now feeding at the edge of the bench, only yards away from a steep downhill into the next drainage. A light screen of limbs partially obscured his vitals.
His head came up and I had to shoot right then or lose the opportunity. The bull, hit hard, stumbled toward the edge of the bench. I did not want him going downhill and away from camp, so I shot again. He dropped.
During processing we discovered why the big caribou had not bedded down. His teeth were worn to the gums. He could eat only the most tender of plants, and had to feed constantly to sustain himself. Either the approaching winter would have killed him or the wolves would have pulled him down the following spring. He was a perfect animal, with a beautiful rack.
My exhaustion on the sheep hunt had been due in part to my failure to maintain adequate nutrition and hydration. I did not make that mistake this time. I helped Cory as much as he would let me, but I had plenty of time to eat the lunch in my pack and to drink my fill from a small stream nearby. I literally felt energy flow back into my body as I rested and stretched in preparation for the work ahead.
We carried the head, hide and meat about a quarter of a mile uphill to a small bench and cached them where it would be hard for bears to find. Then we started back to camp. It was five plus miles, four of them uphill. But it was anything but grim, for I had my caribou at last.
Cory told me he thought the caribou was huge when he first spotted it, but had downplayed its size because he had no idea whether the stalk would be successful. He was right. My mountain caribou scored 478 4/8 SCI and is currently ranked in the SCI top 10.– R. Bruce Moon