North American caribou.
The main reason for the lack of interest in hunting caribou, besides the bone chilling cold, is because they are too damn easy to kill. The thrill of the chase and the stalking is absent. Just aim anywhere into the herd and you’ll get at least one.
Oh, the poor deer.
Years as a sniper with the SOAS, the Canadian equivalent of the Delta Force, have made you a very patient man, capable of lying still without moving a hair, for hours at a stretch, melting into the scenery, just as a stationary inanimate object would. That is one of the basic skills you have learned when stalking prey, human or otherwise.
As per tradition, they let you keep your Lapua and the Nikon Monarch scope after retirement and you found no cause ta upgrade. At 5000 feet, the Lapua-338 Magnum can put an 8.58mm round right between the eyes of a whitetail if he is facing you and he won’t know what hit him. If you are situated to the side, you’ll aim for his neck or the side of his head. Either way, he is going down.
But you’re not here for the whitetail – they don’t venture this far north. You are after caribou and this isn’t exactly gun country. In the sub-zero environment and a windchill in the minus twennies, a gun is useless. Your frozen fingers will take forever ta reload. Moreover, the caribou roam in herds and a gun shot can start a stampede. You don’t want ta die, crushed under ten thousand hooves.
A cross-bow won’t start a stampede and therefore you have brought out your TenPoint Vapor – lethal at 60 yards. The range seems little but won’t be a problem since the caribou don’t mind it if you get real close.
You don’t want ta end this too quickly and so you wait, with the TenPoint’s string stretched taut, the two limbs bent and held back by the latch. The last time you used this mother, the bolt had gone right through the left shoulder of the moose and exited the right shoulder, not forgetting ta bore a neat hole through her heart. The arrow had gone on flying through the air and buried itself upto the fletching, in the ground, twennie feet away.
Let me give you a brief about the caribou. The word caribou (like ‘deer’) doesn’t have a plural. A hundred stupid caribous are still ‘caribou’. A close cousin of the more popularly known reindeer, the caribou has the same magnificent antlers but is larger and heavier. The other basic diff is that while the reindeer can be domesticated, the caribou cannot. You won’t see any pet caribou but go up north and nearly everybody has a pet reindeer or two. It is interesting that, while the caribou’s grey-white pelt is a perfect camouflage against the snow, the reindeer has a much darker, more brownish hide. Perhaps nature saw this and decided ta make the reindeer easier to be domesticated and thus, protected.
Aside from that, the two sub-species of the rangifer family share the same habitat – regions of the world situated above the 60th parallel. Weighing in at around 250lb, the caribou is way smaller than the moose (at 1500lb), but still larger than the North American whitetail deer (at 150lb). (More about moose and the whitetails in Part-2).
There are other differences – unlike the moose or the whitetail, caribou roam in large, tight herds of hundreds, sometimes thousands. And like any beasts that live in a herd, they are way dumber – misled by the faux security in numbers. It makes them easier ta kill than moose or deer. The only thing that seems ta keep them from being hunted with the same gusto as the whitetail and the moose is their habitat – an environment that is hostile and forbidding for us humans. We have gotten too used to our creature comforts. Today’s hunter doesn’t want ta f–k around in the -50℃ cold and face the very real possibility of losing his fingers, toes, ears and nose from frostbite, when he can just drive an hour east of Montreal and get to kill a nice juicy whitetail and be back by sundown.
This is the Canadian Tundra and here September is late fall. Your Casio Rangeman says its 2pm and the temp is -20 with wind chill. By the end of November it will have crossed -50. You have been outside the shack two hours and already the tips of your fingers and toes are numb and you are beginning to lose feeling in your feet, even with all your fancy gear on. That is a sign that you don’t have much time left, before you have to get back inside the truck, which is of course idling.
You are 20 miles south of Whapmagoostui, a Cree (North American Indian tribe) village (population : 20), at the edge of James Bay, the little spit of water which makes the 500,000 sq.mile Hudson Bay look like it is sticking its tongue out at the rest of Canada.
Tundra Adventures, the outfitters at the nearest town, Kujjuarapik, had provided the private charter flight to haul you from Gaspé, where you’d left your own Ford150 at the Auberge sous les Arbres hotel. For 6,000 smackeroos you got a fully stocked shack, a skiddoo (snow mobile), a Toyota Tundra with 100 free gallons of gas (ten bucks a gallon thereafter), a satellite phone and an insurance policy (subject to having a valid driving permit and gun and hunting license). It also covers a free airlift to the nearest emergency ward, wherever that might be. Of course, you would have to be able to get your frozen fingers to reach for the phone. Frostbite and hypothermia are unforgiving to fingers.
It was a scary flight, on a Pilatus PC-12 with a single Pratt and Whitney PT-6 turbo-prop. Scary only because of the forbidding sight of the terrain 12000 feet below – sapphire blue lakes and snowy white pines, little patches amid a horizon to horizon expanse of white nothingness. If your plane went down in there and you survived the crash, you were a dead man, for sure. Even a satellite phone might not save your ass in time.
There had been six others in the charter flight, four hunters just as insane as you and two local Cree businessmen. Those four were hardened arctic hunters – thrill seekers who have done this multiple times and got a kick out of – as did the American alpinist, Dave Hahn, who went back to the Everest fifteen times between 1999 and 2013. The four have always hunted in a group, but you were alone. Lone Daniel Boones aren’t unheard of, but still they command a certain respect in the tribe and the four admired your spirit for that reason.
You are of course stupid to be alone. The Tundra is singularly unforgiving toward folks who venture out into the wilderness alone. The chances of you making it back in one piece, not frost-bitten and not bear-mauled, are less than four in ten when you’re alone. You won’t hear a North American black bear coming until it is lightening your weight, removing pieces of skin and flesh off your back. Don’t worry, he won’t eat you. He just wants to maul you ta death, that’s all.
Or say your Toyota Tundra broke down on the hard-packed ice a hundred miles from Whapma-whatchamacallit. Or maybe you just switched off the ignition for a few minutes, inadvertently. In the Tundra you don’t switch off the ignition. From the time the outfitters handed over the truck to you, right up until you hand it back to ‘em three days later, the engine will be running, non-stop. You just have ta keep gassing it up, time to time.
But it can happen – the Toyota is a machine after all – and when it does pack up, that is another way ta die in the Tundra. For that reason, Caribou hunting is always done in groups of at least four, in two trucks.
Besides, you are permitted by law, four caribou per person and caribou are dumbos who move around in tight herds and unlike the whitetails and the moose, they don’t appear to be concerned that they might get shot at. They just amble around, packed so close that they constantly bump into each other. There must be a lot of caribounese for ‘watch it , asshole’ or ‘oops, was that yore butt?’ or ‘stop steppin’ on my hooves, richardhead’.
You’ll get your four kills within the first half hour, easy. But if you are alone, what are you going ta do, carry them all on your back all the way to the truck? And if you try picking them up and lugging them one at a time to the truck – when you’re back for the second caribou, there’ll be just blotches of blood left on the snow and a pack of arctic wolves as a welcoming committee.
But then you are just that – a loner – and you are prepared ta face the challenges that come with being one. Heck, there’s no one waiting back home, so you really don’t give a crap about this living on the edge thing that you seemed to have embraced ever since you got your honorable discharge.
(to be continued…)