Caribou Slam

Joe Hosmer wrote the caribou article and submitted it before he passed away. It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to our great friend and SCI Foundation Past President Joseph H. Hosmer. He passed away on January 6, 2020 at age 70.   Professionally, Joe had a highly successful career of over four decades in corporate business as a professional and as an entrepreneur. 

His international business experience parlayed directly into his volunteer work with Safari Club International.  Joe was the first president of the SCI Foundation from 2010 until 2016. He was elected after SCI Foundation’s historic realignment aimed at increasing the Foundation’s effectiveness. Joe was instrumental in defining the SCI Foundation’s mission and goals, ensuring that the Foundation is dedicated to conserving wildlife and promoting the benefits of hunting and sustainable use. When he became President, Joe remarked, “I am extremely honored as a lifelong conservationist to take on the role of SCI Foundation President.

The opportunity to lead Safari Club International Foundation toward the highest levels of conservation goals is truly unmatched.” Before becoming President, Joe served as Chairman for the SCI Foundation Conservation Committee for four years and was a member of the SCI Foundation Conservation Committee for over ten years. Joe was actively involved in SCI and SCI Foundation for over twenty years. Joe served on the SCI and SCI Foundation Executive Committee from 2003 to 2010.

During those years, he was elected Vice President and also served as Corporate Treasurer. In 2010 he stepped away from the Executive Committee to serve the SCI Foundation as its President. SCI honored Joe in 2017 with the Hall of Fame award for his dedication, achievements, and efforts in worldwide conservation. For many of us who read about Joe’s love of caribou species, we will remember “Papa Joe” as a man of passion, who like us, fell in love with big game hunting and traveling the world in pursuit of the next adventure.  It is also a good reminder of the importance that a good story, camaraderie and giving back can be some of the essential things in our lives. 

Joe was a lion; in business, hunting and the international conservation world. He gave selflessly to his family, friends and philanthropic passions. Always optimistic, with a big smile and his glorious white mustache framing it.)

One of my best hunting buddies, Richard Huntley, invited me to join him in Montana for a “ranch hunt.” It included pronghorn antelope and mule deer.  It would be my first hunt west of the Mississippi. Richard was joined by his wife, Bunny and I brought my brother-in-law, Joe Frost.

Our accommodations were ranch bunk houses:  basic bed, wood stove, table and a couple of chairs. Entertainment was to play cards or read. I opted to read. What I found was an old SAFARI MAGAZINE, published by Safari Club International (SCI). The article that caught my eye was one by a Colorado doctor by the name of Doug Yakjo. He had completed his Caribou Grand Slam and had submitted this short story and some photos. What the heck was a Caribou Grand Slam, I asked myself? How many different types of caribou are there? As I read the article, I thought, “What a neat quest that would be.”

Living in the Northeast, Quebec was our neighbor. I could drive up there and get one of the Quebec Labrador caribou, no problem. Whoa, there is another caribou in Newfoundland.  This one was the woodland caribou. Again, with a ferry ride I could drive there easily as well! The others might take some doing, but I could eventually get to them, couldn’t I?

Although it was trickier than I had thought, getting to Quebec to hunt the Quebec Labrador caribou was accomplished first. The journey took a couple of commercial flights into Nunavik, then a charter into the base camp. Before the week was out, I spotted and stalked my two allotted caribou. I learned a lot while there. I learned how the indigenous people, the Inuits, hunted caribou. About inukshuks (stone makers or cairn); what the caribou food sources are, and I tuned into the clicking the sound their hooves make while traveling. I learned how to care for the meat and the most efficient way to field dress the animal. Actually, I even had a chance, on a challenge, to physically touch several live caribou by hiding in the dense spruce brush where they exited a lake.

The next caribou was the non-migrating woodland caribou of Newfoundland.  This was to be a combination bear/caribou hunt on Victoria Lake. Although not the Arctic experience that Quebec was, the terrain was similar to what I was used to in parts of Maine. Most of it was walking through a swampy, dense and remote area of the island. But I finally found a small but representative caribou to claim as my own. The black bear hunt resulted in no bear. In hindsight I wished I had spent more time pursuing caribou rather than harvesting the one I took to move onto the bear hunt.

My guide there had never hunted caribou. He had taken a course offered by the Newfoundland Government to retrain fishermen to become hunting guides, as the cod fishing grounds were becoming decimated. Between what I knew from my whitetail deer hunting and what I had learned in Quebec, I handled the field work and he handled the lugging out of most of the caribou.

I opted for the largest caribou next, which was the mountain caribou of British Columbia. I had a new guide, who also had never hunted caribou before. This guide was a wrangler-turned guide. He did have good horse sense and since this trip was a horseback trip high into the mountains, he still earned his tip. Many days into the hunt, we spotted a great bull and I eventually took him after a long stalk.  To date, he is my highest scoring caribou.

On my next trip, I went into Alaska for the Alaskan barren ground caribou.  My wife, Sandy, and daughter, Brittany, joined me for the first half of the trip to Alaska.  We played tourist in Denali and had a great time. The second half of the trip the girls took one of the cruise boats down the Alaskan coast to Vancouver, British Columbia, while I flew to the town of King Salmon, then chartered a flight to Baranoff Lake. Here I would caribou hunt while the girls cruised.  We would meet in Vancouver the following week. We all had successful trips.

I was relieved that my guide was a well experienced hunter, but nonetheless had two strikes against him in my book. First, he was about 6-feet, 6-inches tall and all inseam. One of his strides was maybe three of mine. His second strike was he didn’t cook. “What’s for supper tonight?” I would ask. He would then toss me a can of Spam or can of tuna. Lunch was a peanut butter sandwich, that was IF he remembered to make one in the morning before we struck out for our 15-mile daily jaunt.

We also camped right off the beach on a little sandy knoll. It was a steep drop-off of maybe 20 feet to the beach. Two nights we were awakened by a brown bear trying to visit our tent. In the morning we would see where it tried to climb up the sandy 20-foot cliff but slide back down to the beach after making it about halfway up. The soft sand would give way under its weight and down it would go, grumbling in frustration. Thankfully, it never bothered to try another access point.

Next was the central barren ground caribou. For this trip, Don Richard, another longtime hunting buddy, joined me. We flew into Churchill, Manitoba, spent the night and chartered a flight into the Baker Lake area of Nunavut. The caribou were nowhere to be found. We each had two tags and were lucky to bring home one caribou apiece.

I was personally more comfortable now being back in the Arctic and able to use some of the skills I carried around since Nunavik. One of the guides (not ours) recognized that I had a clue about what was going on beyond simply harvesting another caribou. He became my continuing education program.  He showed me where ancestral families would camp and why. Where Eskimo hunters preferred to be buried. How to position yourself to spot the caribou herds when they started to come. Navigation via inukshuks became apparent too.

I explored the area a lot by myself while Don and others in camp played cards. With my new knowledge, I was able to find several old grave sites and one large camp site with stone rings and a tundra style (underground) refrigerator. It even had a fire-pit. I dug around in it and found several bird bones and something that looked like an auk beak.

Eskimos were one of the cultures that had also developed their art. Why? Because they did not have to hunt every day for their food. They had developed a means of storing their food or preserving it, so they could have food stockpiles. Thus, they had time for other endeavors beyond hunting and gathering.

I should note here that Don and I shared a guide who was a constant complainer. We have numerous stories of his ineptness but beyond that he was always asking for antacids or medicine for his stomach-ache. Turns out the poor soul had a ruptured appendix and almost died the following week. He had to be flown out to Churchill, but apparently survived.  Having had a ruptured appendix myself, I cannot imagine running around the tundra, tending to two downed caribou, while running a boat between points with a rupturing appendix.

I now had my SCI Caribou Grand Slam. I had successfully hunted five of the six North American caribou: Quebec-Labrador; woodland; mountain; Alaskan barren ground; Central barren ground. The sixth caribou was the Perry caribou or what SCI calls the Arctic island caribou. The central barren ground caribou and the Perry caribou can run together north of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut on Victoria Island. Through an outfitter I had tried to get a permit for one of these caribou for several years. I finally got one, but more on that shortly.

I hunted caribou initially because I was taken by the challenge of hunting the different subspecies of the critter and very frankly by the fact that I was so entranced by their huge antlers, majestic stature and ability to survive in the environment that they did. But as time went on and hunts passed, it became more to me. On most hunts I would watch wolves, bears and other predators that were also watching the herds from their vantage points, to sort out the weakest member. I came to see arctic fox, muskox and a variety of birds found nowhere else. But most of all I think I was taken by the way of life of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. I felt very fortunate to have hunted all across the top of North America and to have learned so much from them. So, what the heck – I might as well keep on going!

The other two subspecies of caribou (per SCI) are the European reindeer and the Asian reindeer. The European reindeer can be found in its wildest form in Iceland. (No, not Greenland – Greenland is North America, whereas Iceland is Europe). So off I went to Iceland. Wow, what a neat country. I understand that the cities have commercialized a lot in the last couple of decades, but the countryside still remains wondrous. This was a pure spot and stalk hunt, but the kicker was there are not a lot of trees to hide behind, so plan on a long shot (300 yards, plus) in many cases. All caribou and reindeer are pretty, as I said earlier. However, I found the European reindeer to be one of my favorites.

Next, Don Richard joined me again and we went to Siberia for the Asian reindeer. Once again, a totally new experience and adventure. Frankly, it was not the most challenging of hunts we had expected but the total package of getting there, staying in the little villages before the hunt, helicopter flights that would scare most people, home and city excursions more than made up for it. Don opted for a nice large caribou which the local guides were not impressed with. I, on the other hand, took the “Grandfather” caribou that was past prime and no longer tended the herd. I think Don was a little miffed that I got the thumbs-up, high-five reaction from the locals, whereas his caribou was very matter-of-factly acknowledged.

I finally got a permit for a Perry or Arctic Island caribou. Don had now become hooked on the idea of getting his Caribou Grand Slam and decided to join me on my trip to the far north. We were to hunt with Fred Webb, who was a crusty and well-known guide and outfitter with some Maine and New Brunswick roots, which we liked.

We arrived in Cambridge Bay, spent the night and chartered a flight onto Victoria Island early the next morning. Don wanted a muskox, too, so we hunted for him first. He got a heck of a good one early in the trip, which meant we could concentrate on caribou now. As I mentioned earlier, both the central ground and Perry will run together in the summer months. However, the Perry does not leave the island to go south for the winter.

The central barren ground does go south and enjoys some protection and perhaps food from the low spruce trees. The Perry stays above the tree line for the winter and scratches a living out of the mosses it can uncover. Rocks become its only wind break.

The Perry is typically smaller and has a bit different shaped head. It is tricky to tell one from another while they are in a herd together, but you can do it with the help of a good native guide. Do they cross breed? I do not know, but I would expect so. Don again chose the biggest set of antlers he could find. The caribou was a beauty, too! Was it a central barren ground or Perry caribou he took? Well, let’s say it was an Arctic Island caribou, which is what Don wanted. I wanted to play purist, however, and had my guide lead me on to an animal that we were both certain was a good Perry caribou stag. He was certainly that and turns out to be by far the most symmetrical caribou I ever took.

Wait…  What is this? I hear that SCI has now recognized yet another caribou subspecies? I gotta check this out. Stay tuned!–Joe Hosmer

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