Friday, December 26, 2008

A Raw & Savage Wilderness Experience

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One of the most fascinating things about northern Quebec is how many lakes and rivers there are, and how few people inhabit the region. Some Montaignais Indians and a small group of Inuit from the sub-Arctic coast, and that’s it for thousands of square miles of bush country.

My first Quebec-Labrador caribou hunt took place in 1971, and it left much to be desired. I saw two caribou, dropped the only bull with one shot, and that was it.

My next hunt was in 1974, and it was far different than my first outing. It was on the George River, north of Schefferville, Quebec, and near the Torngat Mountains. My Montaignais Indian guide, Peter Wanish, spoke very little pidgin English, a bit of French, but we managed to communicate with hand signals and a few spoken words.

We headed upstream through a series of rapids above Wedge Hills Lodge, and the sky was the color of soft putty. A cold wind blew out of the north, and we came to an area where the mighty river narrowed. My compound bow was ready, and we took up a position 10 feet uphill from the river bank as we kneeled behind some low-growing trees. We were near the edge of the tree-line, and our meager cover would have to do.

The weather turned colder, and then it began to snow. An hour later there was 12 inches of snow, and my Bushnell spotting scope was trained on the opposite shore a quarter-mile away. It wasn’t needed.

Wanish muttered a guttural “Caribou!” and lifted his finger just off his lap and pointed. Caribou were filtering down toward the river, and stood there looking across. We didn’t move, and the caribou stood at the waters edge, and more caribou began to pile up behind them.

The snow gained in intensity, and much of the time the animals could not be seen. And then, a stray gust of wind would flatten out the snow, and through the gauze-like haze of huge snow flakes, we would see them increasing in numbers on the opposite shore. I lifted my Bushnell binoculars, and when next the snow cleared, there was a steady string of ‘bou filtering down through the few trees off the hillside, and the animals just kept coming.

After many hunts, and having taken 28 caribou, I’m convinced only three things make caribou move. Cold temperatures, heavy snow fall and because the animals decide to do so. Cold and snow are the two things hunters can depend on.

We watched the animals pile up on the opposite side of the river, and then Wanish grunted. “Caribou. In water.”

He looked at me, signaled for me to get up on one knee and get ready for a shot. He motioned me to stay behind our skimpy shoreline cover.

I looked across the river, and at least 1,000 caribou were in the water. Their heads were sweeping our shoreline, their antlers interlocking with those of other bulls, and on they came as we remained motionless.

They would disappear from sight through the thick snow, and then we’d see them again. The current was strong but the caribou are strong swimmers, and their hollow hair serves as insulation and they seem to bob like a cork on the water.

Once they were within 100 yards of us, they became more visible. A big white-maned bull with long main beams, good mass on top, good bez tines and a double shovel was clearly the largest one that would make landfall near us.

My attention remained riveted on that bull, and as he reached shallow water, he lurched slowly up near shore. Dozens of caribou had already walked past us, and we were just downwind of them. They climbed the hill behind us and disappeared.

The bull stepped ashore, stood on the sand and rocks, shook himself like a Labrador retriever shaking himself off after retrieving a duck, turned broadside, and I came to a full draw. Aiming, I had to wait for a cow to pass in front of me, and then made a smooth release.

The arrow disappeared behind the near-side front shoulder, and the animal stood there for several moments, and started up the hill and fell. From shot placement to death took less than 10 seconds. It didn’t bother the other ‘bou, and they just passed by his position on either side, and for 15 minutes it was a steady parade of caribou walking past.

That bull was mounted but his rack was never scored, and years later, I had another bull scored that was slightly smaller, and it made it into the Boone & Crockett record books. This animal is a bit wider, a bit higher, and has more scorable points.

One day, that caribou may get scored but each time I look at him, all I see in my mind’s eye is a huge snow fall, strong winds, and a massive caribou migration that put 2,000 to 3,000 animals past us that day as they came past in waves of bobbing antlers.

Memories of other hunts may be forgotten but I’ll never forget my first bull with a bow, next to a lonely northern Quebec river, when the snow fell and the caribou just kept coming. It was a wilderness spectacle I’ll never forget.

Posted by Dave Richey on 12/26 at 04:21 PM
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