Reflections: A Caribou Hunt, By Scott Keim

It was September, and the mountains stood perfectly calm around us. The silence broken only by the intermittent croak of a ptarmigan. A ceiling of light clouds hovered above us in the brisk morning air. As I rolled up the tent, I continued to take stock of our surroundings. The snow that had welcomed us three days prior had receded generously toward the peaks. I shifted my vision to the east just in time to catch Emery emerging out of the narrow creek valley with a full bottle of water in each fist.

“Ice on the creek?” I asked, “Nope” he replied, kneeling down beside his backpack. I noticed a gentle rain spitting on the back of my neck as I stood hunched, strategically sliding the next Tetris piece into my pack. After three days of covering ground and familiarizing ourselves with the area, we had decided to relocate our spike camp. We would cross a large alpine basin where we had seen a decent amount of caribou sign along with the odd passing caribou. It would be here where we would search for a legal mature bull, that would need to meet the required minimum of at least five points on his upper tines.

A few moments later, camp loaded, we strolled southward across the tundra. The next few hours made for fairly routine hiking, scanning for critters as we rambled our way through the alpine. After hopping across a narrowing in the creek we proceeded to ascend the south side of the basin.

“Caribou!” Emery whispered excitedly to me. We dropped on the spot. Laying in impossible stillness, our backs were pressed against the dank tundra. My heart was racing. I was slowly and carefully dragging my hands up my torso. I inched my clammy fingers onto my binos and brought them to my face, executing great caution to not breathe into their eyecups. I was instantly focused on his uppermost tines as I counted, “1..2..3..4..5..6.” It was game on.

The bull was savvy to our presence, half curious and half pissed that we were a mere eighty yards from his two ladies. As he proceeded to step forward, momentarily swivelling his head away I could hear him huffing and grunting at us. We quickly seized these precious seconds to drop our packs. He suddenly hit the brakes, casting his glance backward. We became statues, Emery three-quarters of the way out of his pack and I with my hand frozen to my bow. The bull having surveyed our position once again, turned his attention back to his two-cow harem and made off in a boss-like trot toward them.

In unison, Emery grabbed the camera, while I clicked the pack straps off my bow. Without discussion, we immediately descended from our position in a full sprint toward the bottom of the basin. We had been up, down, and all around this basin during the last three days, and knew where the caribou were headed. Jogging amongst the stubby creekside spruce in the lower part of the basin, we headed for what we had begun referring to as “the pinch point”. Soon we found ourselves moving in a much more reserved and calculated manner uphill towards the spot where the rocky crags and tundra merged. Wading through the alpine brush we settled into our chosen ambush location.          

Concealed by some head height spruce on our flanks and bordered by a brushy aspen patch immediately to our front, we laid in wait for the bull. I made an effort to calm my breathing while ranging a few spots, figuring the bull would pass by us at fifty yards. While ranging the possible shot windows, I noticed my rangefinder wasn’t working as well as usual, having to press the range button an extra time or two to get it to display a yardage. I quickly discarded the thought and turned to Emery, who was roughly three paces to my right.

“Can you see em?” I ask, my arrow already nocked. “Yeah, they just dropped down. They’re headed our way”, he whispered back to me. A moment later Emery motioned his hand. I was shadowed by a tree tight to my right, and the caribou had not yet entered my field of view. Then without warning, I had a glimpse! A cow, and then another… My heart leapt! I saw those six tine tips cresting the rolling hill! Neglecting the pace of the bull I drew back my bow quickly. Waiting… waiting…getting tired… “I should let down” I think to myself. Before I can finish the thought the bull stepped into full view. He strolled broadside in front of us. I knew he was at forty yards, however, there was a cow immediately behind him and I couldn’t risk the shot. I waited even longer.

He took a few more steps away from our position, standing broadside, quartering slightly toward me. In a moment I released the arrow. He stumbles but I see no wound. “Is he hit!!?? Is he hit!!??” I whispered frantically to Emery. “Put another in him!! Get another arrow!!!” He sounds back equally as distressed. The next arrow is nocked and the bull has now retreated away from us. I snapped the range finder to my face as if it were a magnet, pressing the range button. Click… nothing… click.. nothing… click nothing. Click, click, click, click, click…I mashed the button frantically. 

“How many yards!” exclaimed Emery. “It’s dead” I muttered back dejected. With the bull wounded I figured I had no other choice. I drew, settled the sixty-yard pin on his lungs and released. Poof! Dust shot up behind him and he took off. My stomach turns, I had launched the arrow over his back. The silence breaks. “Shit!” I blurt, no longer in a whisper. The bull disappears in the direction he came from.

Without hesitation, I take off in an urgent sprint back down the basin. I look at nothing but what’s in front of me. Not back at Emery, not at the ground beneath me, but straight ahead. There is no more thinking just pure instinct and adrenaline. I slowed as I approached and began to climb a small cliff. My heart has never beat so fast before or since. I could not believe my body could run like this. I paused on a shelf two-thirds of the way up the precipice. Hunching over with hands on my knees I shifted my gaze back. Emery was in sight, also completely out of breath, waving his arm in an attempt to converse with me as he jogged below me to the cliff base. “They stopped” he panted. We quickly caught some breath and subsequently mustered up the hill to our abandoned packs. I manhandled my pack upon arrival, snatching my rifle out of the carrier. We took a short breather, and I took a moment to gather myself. I was disheartened by the whole situation. “What happened!? I’ve never wounded an animal before” I thought to myself, but there was no time to think about that now. I had messed up and wounded an animal, I needed to take responsibility and dispatch this unfortunate caribou ASAP.

We sauntered off, rifle in hand. The injured bull was bedded, and flanked by his two now very alert cows. We snuck within eighty yards. Every time I attempted a stalk his cows would spook and he would limp off. Putting my pride on the back burner I promptly scrapped any notions I had of dispatching the suffering bull with my bow. He struggled around a knoll, Emery and I followed up the jutted peak. I lay prone now, my rifle cradled firmly against my cheek. The bull half limping half jogging, appeared in my scope. As he slowed I fixed him in the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger.

In a second the ailing bull dizzied and tipped over. I stayed planted, prone and still on the knoll. Collecting my thoughts while breathing a seemingly endless sigh of relief. My sense of guilt had diminished only slightly to a feeling of contentment. Though I felt bummed and guilty for my poorly placed arrow, I found satisfaction in the efforts we took to ensure that the animal did not live on in a wounded state. We had run until our hearts had almost exploded from our chests. I had put the bow and my pride aside and put the bull down as fast as possible in the scenario I had put us in. I most certainly would have preferred a successful plan A, but was relieved that plan B had gotten the job done.

We hiked our way up to the magnificent bull. Throughout the week, I had admired these animals from afar, and I was now blessed to see and feel every intricacy it possessed up close. The bull’s snow white mane passed rearward around his shoulder. His cape a mixture of browns, silvers, and shiny jet blacks all fading seamlessly amongst one another. His big rubbery nose was almost moose-like in character. He also carried a great head of antlers, full of character and personality. I was especially impressed with his overall size. We would be eating well this year!

We took time for a few pictures then quickly got to skinning and deboning. The corpse warming our frigid hands as we worked our knives, attempting to harmonize speed and meticulousness. Upon inspection, it had become evident that my first arrow had flown low just under the vitals, striking the bull’s hind leg. As darkness settled we stashed our last game bags of meat in some brush a distance from the gut pile. Donning our packs and headlamps we traipsed into the night, en route to our camp with all the meat we could carry. Later on that night Emery got to caping out the skull, then turning the lips, and ears — shaving pounds off our load. During this time I did my best to char up some tenderloin over the small fire we had built from whatever scattered dead alpine brush we could find. The small tinder wood producing next to no coals to cook with. In any case, we happily gnawed and scarfed down the rare meat. It was a grateful departure from our diet of freeze-dried foods and oatmeal. After the feast we laid back, enveloped in the warmth of the fire, our bellies full of fresh fire-cooked caribou meat!

We continued to reminisce about the day, making our plan for the morning which would have us temporarily abandoning our tent and camp while we packed out the meat, head, and cape. It would take us the better part of the next day to shuttle our priceless caribou meat down the mountain and into Emery’s 1994 Jetta — yeah, we hunt on a budget. Once the car was loaded we would make the long drive back to civilization. Upon arrival, we looked for a place to store our sizeable load of meat and immediately drove back to our hunting grounds. Making our return in the evening, we spent a night sleeping in the tuna can that we had been driving. Finally, the following morning we rucked back into our mountain camp in an earnest attempt to fill Emery’s caribou tag.

Needless to say, the following days provided even more adventure and excitement. We did a little more tundra sprinting, in our vain efforts to cut off and ambush the unstoppable roaming caribou. We were fortunate enough to have a few more close encounters with these amazing creatures. On our second last day of hunting, Emery ended up being only a shift of the wind away from bringing another bull off that mountain!

Several days later we limped our beat up bodies back down the mountain. Our trip was full of ups and downs, successes and shortcomings. To say I learned a lot from this trip north would be an understatement. The tense moments of that shot still repeat themselves in my head often, constantly pushing me to become better. To practice always, utilize discretion, and grow in patience. In the end, I believe this acute sense of self-awareness and consistent self-evaluation will make me a better hunter.

Posted by jomh