The Cook’s Caribou

cooks-caribou-landscape-112416Boy it was cold. Really cold. I was lying under a spruce tree at 4 in the morning in the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada’s Northwest Territory about two miles from the where the Carcajou River originates out of McClure Lake and about four miles from Mackenzie Mountain Outfitters’ McClure Lake base camp.

Dawn was about three hours away and it was pitch black dark. The temperature was -4 degrees Celsius. No tent. No sleeping bag. The sky was clear. All the stars were out and the moon was a waning, thin, golden sliver. The northern lights were spectacular, soaring down from the heavens, shifting and moving across the sky, filling the entire northern horizon from west to east.

I’ve never seen anything like it and probably never will again. The only sound was that of a nearby unnamed creek rushing its way down the mountain to the Carcajou. I was so cold I wondered if my guide, Jody Peck, could hear me shivering. Jody, who started the day as the camp cook, was about four feet away and just as cold as I. Neither of us dressed very warm. Jody had a light down jacket, but other than that we were just wearing early fall weight hunting clothes and rain gear. We decided it was time to rekindle our little willow brush fire.

I heard worldwide hunting personality Jim Shockey say on one of his television shows one time that once in awhile when hunting, due to bad weather or other extreme conditions, that sometimes he has wished he was anywhere else in the world except where he happened to be at that moment.   I’ve been there, but this wasn’t one of those times.   We were both very cold, and it wasn’t comfortable, but we both knew we could tough it out. Besides, the setting was so awesome and just a few feet away we had the beautiful antlers, cape and meat of a hard-earned trophy mountain caribou bull in our possession.

When recounting my hunting experiences to my family and friends, I’ve often told them it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong. That’s probably not quite fair, especially for the hunter experiencing his first horseback or backpack hunt. And certainly, too, because every hunt that you make and every animal that you take brings its own special thrills and excitement, it never really is routine. But when something does go wrong, things can get pretty interesting.

cooks-caribou-camp-112416This was my third trip with Stan Stevens Mackenzie Mountain Outfitters. I had previously taken two hunts with them for Dall’s sheep. Stan, his wife Helen, their sons Dan and Glen, and the rest of the guide staff do a wonderful job of putting their hunting clients in position to be successful. Client is probably not the right term; you’re a friend the minute you get off the plane. The Mackenzie Mountains are magnificent. The alpine scenery is spectacular. Game is abundant. It truly is the last great wilderness in North America. There is absolutely no resident hunting pressure here. Stan’s hunting area is a massive 9,000 square miles.

I was there primarily for Alaska/Yukon moose. My guide was Glen Stevens, Stan’s youngest son. Glen is 28 years old, in great shape, a bit of a free spirit and great fun to hunt with. He’s been packing and guiding for at least 10 years, knows how to take care of a 66-year-old hunter, and most of all knows how to hunt moose. We had been dropped off the day before along the Mountain River and set up our tents just off the river in a small clearing among the willow brush, dwarf poplar and spruce trees.

The next day after waiting out early morning fog, we finally broke camp about 10 a.m. and Glen suggested we make for the shoulder of a mountain protruding out into the river valley from where we could gain enough elevation to glass for moose. The going was pretty tough through willow brush and muskeg, all the while climbing. The last hundred yards or so got pretty steep. We made it in about 90 minutes. According to my GPS we were situated about a mile and a half southwest from our spike camp and 725 feet above the valley floor. We were facing east.

We could see for several miles north and south along our side of the river. Across the river was off limits as that hunting area belonged to the neighboring outfitter. We settled in for the glassing. The day was cloudy and overcast with a slight breeze. Occasionally the sun would break out for a few minutes. We had stripped off some of our clothes to hang on the willow brush to dry the sweat off from our hike and climb. We saw absolutely no game for about five hours. Glen managed to get in his afternoon snooze. I stayed awake, content to glass for game and soak in the magnificent mountain scenery. There is a lot more to these hunts than pulling the trigger.

cooks-caribou-terry-and-moose-112416About 4:30 Glen woke up, glassed up and down the river, and spotted a bull moose about five miles north of us and about a mile off the river. He put the spotting scope on him and said, “That’s what we’re looking for Terry. He’s a good one.” We watched him through our binoculars and spotting scope browsing and raking the willow brush, and working his way toward us for a couple of hours. Eventually he lay down. Glen figured he was down for the night. At that point, he was about mile and half north of our camp. It was about 6:30 so Glen said we should go back to our camp and that he would be able to call him in in the morning.

We arrived back at our spike camp between 7:30 and 8. Glen went to the river to get some water for cooking and I began gathering dry pieces of wood and breaking them up to start a fire to cook our supper. When he got back from the river Glen went to his tent to get our food. He quietly called back, “Get your gun I think that bull is coming in!”

At that point we could not see him back in the poplars and spruce trees, but we could hear him raking the trees and coming toward us. Glen began calling and banging a couple of sticks together. The bull kept coming. After about 20 minutes of calling, he came out of the trees and into the willow brush about 150 yards away from our tents. We still could not see his body but his horns were clearly visible above the brush. Glen kept calling and the bull kept coming. He didn’t stop until he was about 40 yards away, looking directly at us and the tents. His head and huge horns were above the brush, but we still could not see his body. Glen and I were kneeling next to the tents.

Then the bull turned and slowly began quartering away from us from right to left, not frightened, but definitely leaving. He cleared a brushy thicket, stopped, looked back, and presented a broadside shot at 50 yards. I heard the thump of my bullet hitting him behind the shoulder and he bolted, quartering away to the left. He again cleared some brush and a few trees and stopped again at 88 yards. Now I was standing. I shot him again in the same place and he fell over. We got ’im! We walked over to him and I realized that this was easily the biggest bull moose I had ever shot! How you gonna beat that? The noise I had made gathering and busting up sticks had drawn our moose right to our camp! Maybe nothing has to go wrong after all to have an adventure.

The next morning Glen radioed Stan. He picked our trophy and us up about noon and took us back to base camp. The real adventure was about to begin.

As Stan and every other outfitter can tell you, things don’t always go as planned. Every once in a while every outfitter, despite meticulous planning, because of unforeseen circumstances through no fault of his own, will find himself in the situation of having more hunters than guides. Such was the case when we got back to base camp. Stan needed Glen to guide another hunter for moose. This was my third trip to Mackenzie Mountain Outfitters so Stan somewhat apologetically approached me to ask if I would mind it if the camp cook filled in as the guide to help me fill my caribou tag. My new guide would be girl. Not a problem. This was no ordinary girl, this was Jody Peck.

cooks-caribou-jody-112416I had known Jody for almost seven years. I first met her when she was cooking for Tuchodi River Outfitters in British Columbia. She had been virtually raised in hunting camps. She is a descendant of the Peck family that had helped pioneer the outfitting business in British Columbia. Starting from the time she was four years old helping her mother cook in hunting camps, she had held every hunting camp job imaginable (cook’s helper, cook, camp hand, wrangler, packer and guide’s assistant).

I knew for sure that Jody was capable of putting me on a trophy quality caribou. We were transferred from Mountain Lake base camp to better caribou range at Stan’s McClure Lake base camp.

It took a while to get the McClure Lake camp re-opened, getting the water going again, lighting the propane appliances, etc. Shortly after noon the next day we decided to make a little scouting trip to see if there were any caribou migrating through the area to their winter feeding grounds. It was a beautiful clear sunny day, temperatures in the mid 50s. We grabbed a few items for our backpacks and headed north out of camp to go around the north end of the lake.

We made our way across some marshland, crossed a small creek emptying into the lake and then climbed the steep hillside rising above the lake’s west side. It was not an easy climb. There was plenty of opportunity to get winded. We rested twice. Once on top, we hiked straight west toward a range of dark purple mountain peaks. The area we were on was a rolling plain of grassy hummocks interspersed with the occasional boulder field. Both can be tough to walk on.

We found several vantage points from which to glass the valleys and slopes that we encountered. For a couple of hours and a couple of miles we saw nothing but grass and rocks and hillsides. Then Jody spotted a small herd of about a dozen caribou far to the south, maybe three or four miles. They were just black spots on the green hillside and could have been mistaken for rocks, but they were moving. We decided to get closer and get a better look.

After about a half a mile, Jody pulled out the spotting scope and was able to pick out the white mane of a bull. Another half mile of closure revealed a great set of antlers! It was now about 4:30. Jody said, “Its decision time. He’s definitely a shooter but he’s a long way off.   Do you want to go back to camp, or go get him?” We hadn’t seen any caribou flying in, so there didn’t seem to be many around. Also, I knew from experience that caribou don’t usually hang around for long. I made the decision to go for him.

cooks-caribou-terry-112416The stalk took another couple of hours. We stayed as high as we could, side-hilling the slopes leading up to the mountains in order to stay out of the hummocks. We lost sight of the caribou herd for periods of time due to the undulating terrain. As we got closer, though, we discovered more and more caribou in the drainage occupied by our targeted group. When we finally came around the edge of the last outcropping, we realized that we were surrounded by a herd of perhaps 150 caribou! Maybe more! They were in several bunches of 15 to 30 animals and were grazing their way down the drainage toward the Carcajou River. What an amazing sight!

There were three or four other mature bulls but none as big as the one we were after. He was across the creek that bisected the drainage and at the very back of the herd, still a half a mile away. Our problem now was to stalk him through the middle of the herd without spooking the whole works.

After waiting for a group of 15 to pass within 20 yards of us, we dropped down into the creek bottom and snuck toward our guy, using the creek bank and the willow brush for cover. We made it through the majority of the herd and came up out of the creek about 650 yards from the group in which the big bull was grazing. We then crept toward him through the grassy hummocks without any cover until the whole bunch started to get nervous and began pulling out. It was time to shoot.

With nothing available for a rest, I got down on one knee for the shot. Jody ranged him at 270 yards. We waited for the bull to clear himself of the cows and calves. I shot and he went down! The cook’s Caribou! I don’t know who was happier, Jody or me! I usually get a handshake and a slap on the back, this time I got a hug!

We didn’t have much time to celebrate. It was then about 7 pm. The sun would soon be down behind the mountain peaks to the west and we had a lot of work to do. The caping and butchering took us about two hours. Jody proved herself an expert at caping. I pitched in as I always do, doing the dumb (back) end. We had everything packed up and ready to go about 9:30.

We both had tremendously heavy loads; caribou aren’t small. Jody took the spotting scope, cape, antlers and as much meat as she could carry. I took the rest of the meat and my rifle. Thankfully, neither of us had much personal gear. We were starting to run out of daylight and had five or six miles to get back to camp.

cooks-caribou-112416Our plan was to follow the creek down to the Caracajou River, follow the river upstream to where it came out of McClure Lake, cross the river and then follow the shoreline along the east side of the lake back to camp. We made our way back down through the hummocks to firmer ground along the creek bank. It still was not easy walking, but we made pretty good time until it got dark. We then put on our headlamps and kept going.

I was having a pretty hard time. The pack was too heavy and I was doing a lot of stumbling because of night vision problems due to cataract surgery a year or so earlier. I fell a couple of times and began to drop behind Jody a bit. At one point, not realizing how close we were to the creek, I stepped off the creek bank and fell head first about eight feet into the rocks below! The barrel of my rifle secured on my pack and extending about 10 inches above my head hit the rocks first and flipped me end over end onto my back. Luckily, I came back up the bank with only a couple of scratches on the top of my head. It scared the heck out of Jody. A half hour later, about 11:30, we realized we weren’t going to make it back to camp and decided to look for cover to spend the night.

Somehow, in the dark, in the middle of nothing but willow brush and hummocks Jody had managed to find a lone little spruce tree. We had no tent and no sleeping bags—just our “Spruce Tree Hotel.” We managed to get a little fire going with willow brush and shared the one can of fish we had for supper (we decided to save the only candy bar we had for breakfast). Because there was so little fuel available we let the fire go out about midnight and crawled under the spruce tree to wait out the night.

After splitting our candy bar for breakfast, we got enough daylight to begin walking again at 7:30. We followed the creek downstream for about a half a mile, forded it, climbed the bank and set out for the south end of the lake.   We had to slog it through hummocks for more than a mile. The going was terrible. We had to rest about every 100 steps. Jody had to reset her pack several times because the caribou antlers were digging into the back of her legs.

About 10 we finally reached the lower end of the lake. We dropped our packs, forded the Carcajou, and walked the two miles of shoreline to camp, arriving about 11:30. Jody, reverting back to cook mode, made us a couple of BLT sandwiches for lunch. Later in the day another guide arrived from Mountain Lake and he and Jody took a motorboat back down the lake to retrieve our packs. What a hunt!

cooks-caribou-jody-terry-antlers-112416I can’t say enough about Jody. She performed every guide duty as well as any guide I have ever had. Not to mention, she walked me into the ground and out packed me–and I’m no slouch! Mackenzie Mountain Outfitters has never let me down. They have a terrific game rich guide area and, as exemplified by Jody, a very talented staff.

Eight hunters had come into base camp on the first day. Every hunter in our camp left tagged out, which is the norm. Thinking back, I’m not so sure anything really went wrong even though Jody and I did have to tough it out through a sort of difficult situation. But I’m not going to hesitate to describe this hunt as a real adventure.–Terry Gerber

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