October 28, 2010
The glorious end to a grinding far north hunt.
When you're still holding two tags on the fifth day of a four-day caribou hunt, you aren't in position to be picky. So, when I finally spotted a decent bull slowly feeding my way, I knew this was it. Given the events of the previous four days, taking a bull -- any bull -- would be a minor miracle.
Little did I know the next several hours would be among the most amazing of my bowhunting career.
The Best-Laid Plans'¦
Like many hunts, my trophy caribou quest in northern Quebec didn't exactly go according to plan. The whole adventure started with an invitation from good friend Dave Ehrig. Dave is the most experienced caribou hunter I know, having made eight trips to the Far North and taken more than a dozen caribou over the past two decades. Dave is also chairman of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association's Longhunter Society -- the Pope and Young equivalent for black powder shooters -- and was hoping he and his trusty flintlock could add a couple new caribou entries to the Longhunter record book.
Joining Dave and I on the trip would be host Mark Mazour and cameraman Robert Fanning from Cabela's Ultimate Adventures television. The goal was for the three of us to put some big bulls on the ground and film an exciting television episode.
Northern Quebec is home to a lot of caribou. Official estimates from the Ministry of Natural Resources place the Quebec-Labrador caribou population at roughly 1 million. About 650,000 of those animals are part of the Leaf River herd we were hunting in the Hudson Bay region, while the remaining 350,000 animals comprise the George River herd in the Ungava Bay region. Non-residents are required to use an outfitter, and licenses permit hunters to take two caribou.
To help get into the thick of the action, we recruited the assistance of Mirage Outfitter, which has a proven track record of providing first-class service and successful hunts. We booked our trip for the first week of October, which is part of Mirage's "trophy hunt." By early October, most bulls have shed their velvet, and with the rut fast approaching, dominant bulls actively seek out cows and merge into huge herds.
Combined with Mirage's experienced guides, strategically located outpost camps and the ability to stay mobile with floatplanes and helicopters, we had good reason to feel confident. Visions of Pope and Young bulls danced in my head.
But when we gathered in Montreal Oct. 3 for our pre-hunt meeting, eight months of caribou-hunting fantasies were shattered by harsh reality. A nasty storm had dumped up to a foot of early snow on the tundra and prevented the previous week's group of hunters from even making it to the hunting grounds. Worse, the poor weather made it impossible for Mirage's bush pilots to fly, meaning they had lost track of the caribou herds.
If there was a silver lining, it was this: the weather had cleared. Sure, we'd be heading into unknown conditions with virtually no intelligence on where to find caribou, but at least we were going hunting.
North to Adventure
The next morning, we joined 20 other Mirage clients on a two-and-a-half hour charter flight from Montreal to Mirage's main lodge at La Grande 4, roughly 1,000 miles to the north.
We were assigned to the Le Gaspésien camp, and after a quick lunch at the lodge, we climbed aboard a de Havilland Otter for a two-hour, 220-mile flight. The scenery along the way was spectacular, and I marveled at the vastness and beauty of the taiga (a semi-barren region just south of the tundra that's covered in lichen and sparse stands of evergreens and tamaracks) and the seemingly endless network of well-worn caribou trails criss-crossing the terrain.
With so many caribou on the ground, you'd think they would be easy to find. However, caribou roam freely across an area of more than 400,000 square miles and are constantly on the move. Herds can easily travel 25 miles a day, and caribou may walk 3,700 miles a year in their never-ending quest to locate food and avoid biting insects and deadly wolves.
After waiting nearly five days for the opportunity to take his first caribou, BOWHUNTING Editor Christian Berg needed just three hours to fill his second tag with this nice bull.
As the Otter pilot approached our destination and circled on his landing approach, I got my first look at Le Gaspésien camp, which consisted of three sleeping cabins, a cook shack and a meat house nestled against a small, sandy beach. For the next five days, this was home sweet home.
The Hunt Begins
On Sunday morning, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast before checking our weapons to make sure everything was still on target after the long journey. Then we joined guides Billy Coulombe and Trent Nadeau and headed out for a brisk hike along the lakeshore. By brisk, I mean heart pounding. It was obvious Billy and Trent were in better shape and moving across the soft, spongy ground a lot easier than than we were!
Although fresh caribou tracks and droppings were everywhere -- along with some very large bear tracks -- we saw no animals. After hiking up a nearby ridge and glassing with the same empty result, Billy and Trent decided it was time to get back on the Otter and find some caribou.
Looking for caribou from the air entails lots of circling, and between the banking motion and constant smell of aviation fuel, I had a splitting headache and a touch of nausea by the time we landed.
The good news was we found a decent number of caribou crossing the taiga about 65 miles from camp. The Otter touched down on a nearby lake and dropped us on the shoreline. However, virtually the entire herd consisted of cows and calves, with a few small bulls mixed in. Although we elected not to take any of these animals, at least we got our first up-close look at caribou.
Frozen at Full Draw
The next morning, we flew back to the same area and found an even greater concentration of caribou. Along with a handful of ot
her hunters from camp, we landed on a lake and spread out along the shoreline in an effort to intercept migrating bands of animals. Groups ranging from a few to a few dozen crossed the lake throughout the day, and I estimate we saw 800-1,000 animals over the next seven hours.
Christian Berg proudly shows off his first-ever caribou on the taiga of northern Quebec. Berg took his bulls using a BowTech Admiral, Easton A/C/C Pro Hunting Series arrows and Rage 2-Blade broadheads.
Like the day before, most were cows and calves; but there were some good bulls sprinkled in, and a good pair of binoculars made it easy to glass caribou on the far shore and determine their likely landing point on our side of the lake. Within 30 minutes of our arrival, a father-son duo from camp had dropped a pair of good bulls with their rifles.
Billy, Dave, Mark and Robert headed down to the lower end of the lake while Trent and I tried to set up an archery ambush on the upper end. After glassing for a while, I spotted a particularly nice bull in a group that seemed to be headed toward a small outcropping of rocks along the shoreline. I slowly crawled into position and nestled myself amid the bushes. The big bull's rack looked monstrous floating over the water, and my heart was pounding when he stepped out of the water at just 20 yards. As I slowly raised my bow and drew, a calf stepped in front of the bull, blocking his vitals. I reached anchor and slid the 20-yard pin on target, but my movement caused the entire herd to spook and go crashing into the shoreline brush.
The rest of the day was a frustrating game of cat and mouse as I glassed caribou and bounced up and down the shoreline trying to identify likely ambush locations. I did manage to get to full draw on two more good bulls; the first moved through my shooting lane too quickly and the second stopped facing directly toward me with his vitals obscured by a fir tree. By day's end, I was exhausted from all the scrambling and the constant pelting of a steady, cold drizzle. On the Otter ride back to camp that evening, I relived the near misses in my mind -- frozen at full draw.
The taiga of northern Quebec is vast, with spectacular views that stretch for miles in all directions. Make a wrong turn out here and you're in serious trouble.
That night, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we awoke Tuesday morning to find the camp socked in with dense fog. There was no chance of flying, and since virtually no caribou had been spotted in the area around camp since our arrival, we weren't exactly in high spirits. Unlike whitetail hunting back home, chasing caribou is very much an all or nothing proposition. When you are into them, it's great; and when you're not, it's not.
Tuesday afternoon, a pilot from another outfitter radioed in to report caribou moving along the ridge above our camp. This news literally sent us scrambling for our gear and running into the bush. With Billy and Trent's help, we found the caribou and Mark dropped a nice bull with a perfect, 65-yard shot from his in-line. Robert got the whole thing on camera, and after three days of coming up empty, it felt awesome to finally exchange some high fives and put our hands on one of those big reindeer racks!
Our spirits were further buoyed the next morning when we heard that Mirage's scout plane had located a large concentration of big bulls about 60 miles away. But just as quickly as things turned in our favor, they went south again. When we arrived in the hunting area, the number of caribou we found was much lower than expected. Simply put, the entire day's effort was a waste.
Back at the cabin that night, I began the unpleasant task of mentally accepting my fate. It had been a great adventure, but the hunting was tough and I was very likely going home empty handed.
The next morning, I packed my gear, stuffed my sleeping bag in its sack and piled everything onto my bunk in preparation for the flight back to the main lodge. Still, in the back of my mind, I held out slim hope. Those hunters who had already killed their bulls took the first flight out, while those with tags left were on the second trip at 3:30 p.m.
Suddenly, a pair of hunters who had gotten up before dawn and headed out to the far end of the lake returned and reported that thousands of caribou were streaming over the ridge and into the camp area. Unbelievable, I thought. Could this be the miracle I'd been praying for?
We jumped into the boats and sped out. Sure enough, caribou were everywhere, with dozens more popping over the ridgetop every few minutes. Although my initial setup didn't produce any results, some careful glassing eventually revealed a rocky flat along the ridge where just about every caribou group was passing. Yes, I thought. This just might work.
Unfortunately, the only cover available where I wanted to be was a lone tamarack tree about 3 ½ feet tall. I eased over and sat down behind it.
A few minutes later, a group of caribou emerged from the tree cover below and slowly fed toward me. A couple decent bulls were in the group, and though the range was going to be a tad further than I would have liked, I bounced laser beams off the closest bull -- 66 yards'‰'¦'‰53 yards'‰'¦'‰47 yards.
The bull was feeding with his head down, offering a perfect quartering-away shot. I slowly rose up on my knees and drew the bow in one fluid motion. Settling the 50-yard pin on the bull's vitals, I squeezed the release and watched as the arrow found its mark, sending a wide swath of crimson streaming down the bull's side as he bolted down the ridge.
Christian Berg raises his bow triumphantly as he approaches camp with his first caribou bull. After waiting nearly five days for a shot at a respectable animal, Berg made the most of his opportunity with a perfect, 47-yard shot.
As the rest of the herd continued sprinting into the bush, my bull slowed, stumbled and fell within sight. I let loose with the loudest war whoop of my life, and a week's worth of frustration evaporated into the cold northern air! It was just after 2 p.m. -- 90 minutes before I was supposed to be on the plane. Nothing like cutting it close, right?
I immediately hiked over to find Trent and Dave, who had passed several good bulls that didn't meet record-book standards. We took some quick trophy
photos of my bull, quartered it and loaded up for the short boat ride back to camp, where I was greeted with a plenty of fist bumps and high fives.
Surprisingly, the Otter wasn't coming back to pick the rest of us up until Friday morning. "Everyone is staying here tonight," camp manager Eric Parent said. "Chris, you should go back out and hunt. You still have two-and-a-half hours before dark."
I honestly could not believe what was happening. Yet at the same time, I was getting a distinct feeling this was meant to be.
"OK," I said to Eric. "But I want you to take me out. You know this area better than anyone else, and I know you've been dying all week to get out of camp and go hunting."
Eric grabbed his frame pack, we hopped back into the boat and sped down the lake. It was 4:15 p.m. Hiking up from the lakeshore to the ridge, we spotted a group of caribou and then more as we crested the top.
"We're going to put on a little stalk," Eric said. "Follow me."
Quickly, we scurried from tree to tree before coming to rest beside a sofa-sized boulder that shielded us from the approaching caribou.
"This is the best I can do," Eric said, obviously implying the rest was up to me.
I grabbed my rangefinder and aimed it at a rock on the closest edge of the trail where the caribou would pass. Fifty yards. What the heck; I had just killed a bull at 47, and I was feeling lucky.
As the caribou approached, I picked out the closest bull -- by this point, I had long since given up counting points or estimating scores -- and came to full draw. The bull was walking at a good clip, so I placed the pin in front of his shoulder and let the arrow fly.
I don't remember seeing that arrow hit, but I remember Eric shouting, "It's a hit! He's going to die." And I vivdly remember seeing a swath of crimson spilling down the bull's side as he sprinted out of sight.
Eric scrambled higher onto the ridge and followed the bull's departure with binoculars. "Running. Running. Running. Still running!" Eric exclaimed. My heart sank a little lower in my chest with each update. I suspected the shot was a little far back, and all that running didn't ease my fears. Eric, however, didn't seem too worried, which I took as a good sign.
After a couple minutes, we walked down the other side of the ridge and Eric glassed the area, spotting my bull's rack sticking up off the ground. He made it about 300 yards.
I looked at my watch. It was 5 p.m. Just three hours after arrowing my first bull, and just 45 minutes after leaving camp for the second time, my second bull was down! I slapped Eric on the back, let out a hearty laugh and ran over to claim my prize.
It would be dark by the time we got this bull back to camp, but it didn't matter. I was going home with incredible memories, delicious meat and a pair of tall, flowing racks that will serve as a permanent reminder that it ain't over 'till it's over -- even if you have to work overtime.