Chasing Food, Woodland Caribou By Jenny Ly

Prepping for the backpack hunt had awoken from a deep slumber, a primal instinct I never knew existed. The adventure that lay ahead made me feel uncomfortable, challenged and left me restless on most nights. I’m addicted to the adrenaline, the uncertainty, and the challenge of it all. Reconnecting with the source of my food; fur, bones, guts and all has been the most liberating adventure I’ve pursued.

Food is a channel for change. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with food. I’ll admit I associate most memories with the meals I’ve had during periods of delight, despair, and victory. It only made sense if I took my obsession to the next level and learned how to hunt and gather my own food.  

But let me tell you, there were some obstacles. I live in a city, I did not know anyone that hunted, I did not own a car, and my outdoor survival skills were nonexistent. Folks say the only time you’re growing is when you’re feeling uncomfortable. I would say experiencing a constant cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around your head is a pretty miserable situation to be in for any first timer in the bush. That being said, with some persistence, I got all my ducks in a row in about eight months time.  

While getting my licenses in order, I connected with two other rookie hunters. We had sussed each other out as worthy “potential” hunting partners; then the true test came when one of us won the LEH (limited entry hunting) draw for a five-point, Woodland Caribou.  

I remember during a BHA (Backcountry Hunters and Anglers) Pint Night, I stood, surrounded by hunters, folks I trusted, urging me to go on this adventure of a lifetime. I sputtered out a series of objections and concerns, “What about the Grizzlies, the unfamiliar terrain, and getting lost?”  

Walking away from that night, I decided to heed to the (crazy) call of my inner wild and commit to the hunt.  

Before the trip, a lot of anxiety came from the fact I wasn’t going to be able to keep up or pack out as much meat as the guys. I didn’t want to feel like a burden or that I wasn’t pulling my weight. The insecurities made me feel like I was interfering with the “boys club,” even though that was far from the truth.

It had an adverse effect on me because I was always on the defense or felt like I continuously had to prove my worth; which often doesn’t translate well. Reflecting back on it, I now realized vocalizing my thoughts would have strengthened and developed a more intimate, and close relationship with my crew. Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness, it can be your greatest strength.  

The positive was that I had used these insecurities to motivate myself to adhere to an intense training schedule of running, weightlifting and rucking. While up in those peaks I was grateful I put in the work. I wouldn’t advise anyone to plan a backpacking hunt without some sorts of conditioning, but I hope this doesn’t discourage anyone from conquering our magnificent mountains. The only limitation to doing what you want is yourself. Persistence equals success.  

The reality of it all came crashing down on us when the floatplane took off, and we were left in the complete silence of the wilderness.  

The game plan was to fly in early and spend a day and a half hiking in and setting up camp. We each manage to squeeze everything we needed — rain gear, extra layers, an ultralight tipi, and a wood burning stove — for a ten-day trip in our packs which was good for ease of travel, but the weight was slowing us down. We were all eager to reach a place we could call camp. Mountain conditioning is only half of it, the rest was a mental battle as we trekked from the lake through wetlands, forest, and inactive volcanic landforms.  

On opening day, we crossed paths with a group of three packing out after a successful morning, and it just so happened I knew one of the fellows. For those that are curious about hunting, the hunting world is small and supportive, you’ll quickly make friends. Unearthing this community has been a delightful surprise, since starting this journey I have only stumbled across the kindest and most welcoming individuals.

The trio was generous in giving us advice, words of encouragement and even feeding us a few bites of sizzling caribou ribs that had been roasting over an open fire. They were caught somewhere between admirable astonishment and genuine concern that three rookies were attempting such a massive hunt, entirely unguided. We apparently were, “doing it all backward.”

The following two days we hiked up and down the ancient shield of volcanoes, weighed down by sheets of ice-cold rain, hail, snow, and fog so thick we were often turned around trying to walk a straight line. The good news was the cold weather allowed us to see animals every day. We had heard horror stories of those that are up here in early September, battling with the sun so hot they’re hunting in boxers and they don’t see a single soul for days because all life is bedded down in the woods. The bad news was it was either too far or too foggy to take a shot. I recalled feeling so defeated, I had tucked away a sun-bleached deer jaw bone into pack belt; accepting I was going home empty handed. You have no control over the conditions, but you have full control of your attitude — easier said than done in moments like this. Did I dream too big?  

But with grit, on the fourth day, after what felt like a two-hour stalk, we finally connected with a bull caribou. He was perched high on a hill, bedded down enjoying the lichen and basking in the crisp morning sun. Watching cows feed, the young prance around, and two bulls fighting. His antlers glistened gold in the sun. He was the type of animal, where you took one glance through your binoculars and just inherently knew he was legal. It would have been redundant to count the points. Besides, by the way, he sat, this was his herd, he was their leader. We knew we had our eyes on the biggest one in the crowd.

 

I’ll confess, I didn’t think we would be successful. As I stood looking up at the largest herd of Woodland Caribou in Southern British Columbia, on a hill with barely any coverage, against a picturesque blue sky, I thought to myself, “no way, we would get up there without spooking them, there were too many sets of ears and noses on us.” By then, we had figured out they had horrid eyesight, and as long as the conversation was kept to minimal low murmurs, and hand signals we were golden. With a few nods and waves, we were off. I had circled the base of the mountain in the direction I thought the bull would run down if he were shot and injured. With my rifle in one hand and my binos in the other, I sat and waited. The silence was finally broken by a handful of shots.  

The bull had disappeared from my line of vision into the basin, while flocks of caribou slowly started to filter out from the area, spreading out all directions like an orchestrated ballet. This was the largest collection of animals I’ve seen all trip, probably about a herd of forty or more. It was as if they all came together to celebrate the sun after the snow and ice storms cleared. Or maybe the cows and calves had banned together for protection, after all, we saw at least three bulls get taken down on opening day.  

I waited about twenty minutes before I started tumbling through the rocky and waist-high bush infested ground as fast as my petite five-feet-three inch-self could manage. My head was spinning with all the possible outcomes, while tears started rolling down my face. Now that I’ve had some time to ponder on the kill, I would say they were tears of tremendous relief and gratitude.  

Looking down at our harvest, there was a sense of calm. Intuitively we began to cut into the thick hide. We had attempted what we thought was the gutless method. At this point, we haven’t had a hot meal in forty-eight hours, and only had a mouthful of water left.  Much needed comic relief came when the caribou let out a slow and steady stream of farts while we were removing the quarters.

The results of five hours of work left us with 250 lbs of meat. There was a daunting pile consisting of four quarters and four medium sized game bags of deboned chunks. With the last bit of our energy, we hauled the harvest down the hill and across the valley into the tallest spruce tree we could find. Trekking poles are great for packing out but other uses included propping up your pack, steadying your hands for glassing, and now apparently hoisting up bags of meat. It took three trips to get everything into the tree and on the last go, I had a hind quarter and a medium game bag filled with deboned meat — for perspective, I weigh in at 140 lbs.  Every few steps I was readjusting my overweight pack, afraid to stand up straight in fear the weight would pull me down into the sharp volcanic rocks.

During that final trek down from the kill site was probably the only time during the whole trip I did feel completely drained and was about to give up. But when I connected with my partner’s equally exhausted eyes, who had looked back to make sure I was keeping up, I summoned the mental strength to shove that idea of a “break” out of my head. His expression read, “it’s dark – gut piles everywhere – grizzly bears.”  

I’m not too sure where the final dose of motivation came from, but we even lit a small fire in hopes that the residue smoke would steer a nearby predator away from our meat tree before hiking back down to the base of the mountain range to camp.

It took three days with a total of twenty hours to carry our harvest down the mountain. During this time, our crew often laughed at the fact that no matter what we talk about it would always circle back to food. We would banter about all the fantastic meals we’ve had on our travels to Denmark, Japan, and Portugal. Where to get the best burger, ramen, and tacos in Vancouver. The granular details included listings of our favorite items in our local specialized shops for teas and hot sauce. How ironic it was that we were packing out some of the most excellent quality meat while eating overly processed freeze-dried meals. But I guess it’s only fair our stomachs must suffer a bit for the reward.

Relief came when it started snowing heavily during out pack out, it meant meat spoilage was one less thing we had to worry about. But because of the storm, we had to hunker down for a few days, waiting for the skies to clear up. There was a public cabin only about a thousand meters away from the pickup site. The cozy haven had been maintained through donations of time and money from backcountry hunters, skiers, and hikers.  A reminder that despite our opposing views, we are all on the same side, we are all fighting to preserve our wild lands for future generations to enjoy.

After being snowed in for two and a half days, as soon as I heard the distant putter of the floatplane my first thought was, “I cannot wait to crush a burger and onions rings.” At first, the young pilot was confident we could make just one trip based on our size and light packs, but when he laid eyes on our meat pile, he nodded in acknowledgment of its size and said, “Yup, we are going to need two trips.” He later commented, “I’ve never seen anyone pack out so much meat before.”  

I firmly believe, if you are doing it for the right reason, everything will sort itself out. And for a momentary amount of despair and suffering, I now can look back on it and share a story of persistence, and the reward that comes with it. I take pride in knowing I worked hard for the food on my table. In this pursuit of my passions, my purpose in life has quickly presented itself.  My mission is to serve others by sharing the stories and lessons I gain from interesting individuals who hunt, gather, and protect our wildlands. I hope to encourage a movement of mindful eaters, erase the stigma of hunters and urge you to do what you love and do it often.

“There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

— ALDO LEOPOLD

Read more of Jenny’s adventures on chasing food club: www.chasingfood.club

Posted by Nolan Osborne