October 28, 2010
By Alex Mabrey
A sudden storm in caribou country proves just another day for a Newfie guide.
By Alex Mabrey
We had made the tough two miles, slogging across a spongy, boot-sucking bog, then shin-tangle scrub, the wind ripping at our clothing to find seams while dark, angry clouds scudded fast across the sky. Wayne found the distant stag bedded tight in the rocks, out of the wind. Even across the reaches we could see he was tremendous, with the top points we had been looking for--finally something to compliment a decent set of bez and shovels. Though the creeping cold and icy fingers of wind had made me lose interest long ago, we were suddenly very much in the game. It had turned from a search into a stalk, and I could feel my enthusiasm and nerves coming on. A wide expanse of marsh to traverse meant water over our rubber trapper boots, followed by a long, thin pond. We still remained a long way out from our objective, with the gale blowing at our backs as we circled through a thick, grabbing woods to bring the wind in our favor. Through it all I could not help but remember an earlier stag missed because of nerves, as well as the nasty weather that made it impossible to leave the lodge, robbing me of two precious days of hunting. Time was running short.
I tried to ignore these thoughts and visualize a perfect, smooth draw, everything just right for a clean shot, placing a pin just so (I use my 30) and finally watching that perfect arrow sail right into the crease behind his shoulder as he lay bedded. It was beginning to come clearly, and I knew I would be just fine.
"Okay, aye. Ya takes it from 'ere, boy," my Newfie guide said, bringing me out of my trance. I could have been on the Scottish moors hunting red stag had I closed my eyes and listened to only his lilting accent.
I recognized the point of rocks, though we were now nearly 180 degrees around from where we had spotted him. I was pushing ahead into the wind with my rain gear flapping wildly, my hood dropped and my exposed right ear feeling as if I'd thrust my head out of the open window of a speeding car. I stopped and nocked an arrow, clamping it onto the rest with an index finger and stealing ahead one careful step at a time. Suddenly, I could see the stag's antler tops. He was close. He was too close.
I swerved around the downwind side of the stag's sheltering rocks and peering through fir boughs saw the stag's nose and shovels. I pulled my face back and crab-crawled backward. I skirted the opposite end of the screening boughs and found the stag's tail and hindquarters, leaning from around the cover with the wind racing parallel to him. No shot. I could not skirt farther without giving him my scent. I backed away again. I looked back and Wayne was chewing a grass stem, leaning against a boulder. I shrugged and his expression remained unchanged. I began picking my way through the middle of the ground-hugging evergreens, pulling branches aside, placing my boots while crouching low, holding myself up with my shooting hand, pushing against handfuls of springy boughs for balance.
Time ceased to exist, as did Wayne, as did the wind, but only the way the rock underneath a parted bough would support a step without slipping, or a fork in the low-growing scrub could be used as a foothold, maintaining balance through it all. I had begun to see pieces of buffed mahogany antler and then white patches of hide and they began to matter, the way they lay or the way they moved. I could make a sudden rush and stab the stag with my arrow spear-like (unlikely of course), or I could keep it all tightly and neatly wound in forced patience.
The patches began to move and the antlers tilt, and instincts told me to draw my bow. For the first time I could remember, being left handed became a boon. The stiff wind actually pushed the arrow against the plunger. Neither was I fighting my pins with target panic taking hold. I'd forgotten all about them. The stag was just there, point blank, and I don't remember anchoring and admit I may not have. When the arrow struck, he hopped and spun like a dog chasing his tail, and I didn't know what to make of it until he rolled onto his side and expired.
"I was think'n ya was gonna tree'n ride 'em, aye," Wayne all smiles after he walked down and tossed his grass stem. "He's a very purdy stag, aye?"
"Yes, very pretty."
It had begun spitting pellets of hard ice by the time we had the stag caped and quartered, the meat boned and stashed into packs and the head skin and antlers lashed on with rope. We began to stumble across the open barrens we had crossed earlier, less agile with heavy loads, and soon both of us were flooding our boots with missteps and yelling to be heard above the wind when we stopped to talk and catch our breath.
We pushed on with the marsh stretching before us, each lost to our own thoughts eventually because it was simply too much effort to talk over the wind. Finally, we reached the trees at the edge of the lake, pulling our hoods away and able to talk in the sudden stillness of shelter.
We reached the boat two hours before darkness, a 12-foot aluminum scow with a puny seven-horse outboard. The cove where we were moored was calm and glass-like, burnished only occasionally by small swirls of wind that dipped over the wildly waving firs. Beyond we could see breaking whitecaps and churning water far across the arm of open water.
"Rough out 'dere, aye," was all Wayne cared to offer. "Bedder wear ya float'n vest, aye, 'en case we hav' ta go fer a swim."
We started across the cove and came out into the rough water with the motor wound out, the light boat climbing over the waves without taking on water, sliding down the backsides as if sliding downhill, pausing to catch its breath before taking a run at the next uphill slope. Another wave hit as it crested and spilled freezing water over the plowing bow, but most spilled away over the painter and we tipped up and then came down hard with a hollow, metallic slap. We rocked dangerously then hit the next wave and rose on the crest, the water lifting us then falling away in a sudden sinking gesture. Wayne was still standing, steering the bucking boat.
We came to the mouth of the arm, to the larger water of the main lake where the lodge lay waiting far across. The wind-pushed water moving around the point was nothing if not worse. The small motor was running at full throttle, and I saw that Wayne was determined to make it home. We came around the rock point and a wave hit us side on, rolling the boat steeply and sliding me into the low gunnel while I clung to the gunnel above me. Then, remarkably, the boat righted itself and Wayne turned her into the next wave that crashed over the bow and filled the bottom with icy water. Wayne turned us into shore, and the next wave crested over the gunnel. The water level reached the tops of the seats, floating pieces of our cargo. We were nearing shore, and the scow was responding sluggishly as the next wave moved us sideways without spilling in any more water.
The hull rib touched bottom. I scrambled over the side and fought the bow, pulling mightily on the entire boat while another wave pushed the boat side-on to shore. Wayne was soon beside me, and together we grunted it higher onto shore until it would not move. We began unloading her, throwing gear out onto the rocky beach. It began to rain--hammering rain that fell in heavy columns, pelting everything around and swallowing us whole. Wayne was unscrewing the motor from the transom, and when she was empty we tugged on her until we were able to roll the water out then move her away from the lake, bottom-up with the nose propped on a boulder.
We shoved everything under the boat and wedged ourselves beneath and out of the rain to begin the long wait. The rain, the pounding waves, the wind made talking too d
ifficult. We only waited, in silence, cramped beneath the overturned boat. Somehow I slept and and awakened when the rain stopped. It was dark, and I was growing cold.
We floated the boat around the point, half in the rough water, seeking more shelter from the wind, leaving the rest where it sat. Wayne walked up into the nearby woods and returned with an armload of twigs and branches, which he stomped into a cut in the rocks to then pack tightly. He dumped gas from the outboard tank onto this, dipping a stick into the top of the tank. He lit this after several attempts with a cigarette lighter and flicked it into the gas- soaked sticks that exploded into hot flame. He departed for more wood and I followed. When we had a fair fire going, horizontal sparks streaking 20 yards out over the water before fading, Wayne retrieved half a caribou backstrap and tossed the entire chunk straight into the flames.
"Wee bit gamey," Wayne said after the fire had died and we had fished the charred lump from the ashes. "Jest carve off thee outside parts 'en eats the middle, aye," noticing my lack of enthusiasm.
Soon we were both eating with enthusiasm, pieces of charcoal stuck between our teeth, blood running down our chins from the underdone middle. I had eaten better, and I was complaining. I understand it's not Spartan to admit this, but it just wasn't that good. Wayne had tea bags and a pot to boil water and that was the best part of dinner.
So we slept right there under the boat and during the night the rain returned. In the morning when we crawled from under the hull, stiff and cold and little rested, the rain was still slanting across the lake as the wind pushed waves hard against the opposite side of the point.
"How long do these storms last?" I asked, standing back to the wind, completely miserable.
"Weel, could last fer days, ya knows, these tim o'year. October kin be thee best o'thee year, o'thee worst, aye."
"So, what are we gonna do?"
"Me boy, we's gone ta walk. Brings ye stuff ya wants, 'en thee rest o'it we gets when de wedder lets up."
"How far to camp?"
"We should mak'er by dark. Lots 'o mish 'en a river ta cross."
We leave the meat, but I cannot bring myself to abandon a Boone & Crockett rack and my cape on the off chance a bear beats us back. So besides my bow I carry my rack, Wayne the cape and the other half of the backstrap we've made dinner of and a quart mix-oil bottle of gasoline. We walk into the tree shelter and fight our way through the belt of clutching, tearing vegetation. Upon reaching open moss, we bend into the wind and begin the march, clouds crowding lower to hug the ground ultimately, swallowing the land in a cold mist driven before the wind.
It's easy going, all considered: a few wet places to splash through, the standard unevenness and up and downs of moss and lichen ground arranged like a supernaturally sized salad. The wind has not relented but the rain has slackened, though we still trek on. Then the open tundra suddenly ceases and the crowded, clutching trees begin, like a wall, and we kick and fight through this, driven at times by anger alone. The trees thin out, and it becomes treacherously rocky. This is the river Wayne has spoken of, but it is not at all what I had envisioned. This is a real river.
"Feeds thee lake, aye," Wayne explains. "Great brook fer salmon and trouts."
"That's not something we can wade," I said, stating the obvious. "We're gonna have to swim. I'm not sure I'm up for it."
"No choice now, aye."
We are standing at the river's edge shivering in nothing but our backpacks, the two of us, studying the cold, tugging current and girding our courage. Our clothes and boots and other stuff not made for water are tied securely in plastic lawn sacks and inside our packs, my bow strapped on tightly.
"Weel, boy, we'll have a fire and lunch on thee udder side, aye," then he plunges in and begins wading out deeper. Quickly, he is past his waist, and begins to lose his footing and flails while pushing off the bottom, being swept downstream. Clutching protruding rocks, he holds himself against the fast flow, then pushes off and swims and bobs more. He reaches the other side and begins ripping into his aged canvas pack.
I wade into the rumbling water and lean against the current. The pack straps are pulling against my shoulders as I struggle to swim, making headway only by pushing off the gravel bottom, breathing only with difficulty and in gasps. It occurs to me I should be terrified, but I just keep flailing, washing past Wayne and wedging against protruding rocks, and I'm able to drag myself from the main force of current. I feel bottom finally and scramble to shore shivering in convulsions.
By the time I stumble back up to Wayne, he is fully clothed and has a fire roaring of green boughs and gasoline, and he's dipping water from the river's edge for hot tea.
"Made it, did ya?" laughing to see me in my state of undress. "I see's ya when ya made it to shore, so's I started de fire." I burn my tongue with the first cup of tea and hardly feel a thing. By the second, I begin to recover from the convulsions that come in waves from deep within my body. The fire helps too, and we have taken to tossing on entire Christmas-tree-sized spruces when the dead wood will not burn. It's quite a pyre, and this time we take the time to roast our meat on a hot rock. Because we are ravenous, it tastes just fine.
The clouds lift by sundown, but the wind is persistent and we see the lodge finally, yellow light piercing the big firs where the walking is easy, and then the deep thumping of the generator comes like a comforting voice. We leave our packs and boots at the door and stomp in.
"Hey boys," says Paul the cook. "Ye ready fer dinner? We's hav'n turkey en trim'ns." It's Thanksgiving in Canada.
I have expected more. I guess I also wanted more. "Yes, turkey sounds wonderful."
What more can I say?