The Serengeti Of The North – Alan Dabb’s Spatsizi Safari

As I write this I sit before a breathtaking panorama, shades of red and gold, dotted with splotches of dark green where spruce and subalpine fir have disrupted the cover of willows and swamp birch stretch out to the horizon. I am on the Spatsizi Plateau and it is one of the most painfully beautiful places I have ever seen. Although my hunt for caribou and grizzly bears has not yet been successful, I have found everything I had hoped for, and so much more. I wish that I could bottle and keep for a gloomy day this amazing feeling, these waves of joy that I am experiencing as I drink in the wilderness of the Spatsizi. I yearn for the day when my children and my children’s children can also partake in the beauty of this land.

Looking around me, the Spatsizi is not really what I had envisioned before the beginning of my journey. Rather than being one large, flat, elevated piece of wilderness, the Spatsizi I see is a series of interconnected, flat-topped ridges that stretch for miles, many of which I’ve walked today. It is a glorious day, notwithstanding that I’ve yet to cut a tag. The weather is almost tropical (particularly for mid-September at 6500 feet), the scenery spectacular and the wild animals plentiful. So far I have counted fifteen caribou, thirteen goats and three moose, with the evening hunt still to come. It is day four of my adventure but we should probably start from the beginning…

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (1)Colin, Adam and I could not have picked a better day for our floatplane flight to the Spatsizi. The weather is perfect – an absolutely bluebird day with nary a cloud in the sky. According to the pilot, it’s the first time this flying season he’s been able to see the mountain tops; on every other day they’ve been shrouded in a cover of mist and clouds. We take off from Tatogga Lake and head North and then East, passing over the Red Chris Mine, a major copper, silver and gold mine that is just going into operation. The pilot mentions that, ironically, the mine is only a short distance from the cabin of well-known environmentalist David Suzuki, which is located on a nearby lake we also fly over. Perhaps even more worrisome to Mr. Suzuki is the fact that the company putting this mine into operation is the same one responsible for the recent Mount Polley Mine disaster here in BC, where the dam on a tailings pond gave way, releasing 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of slurry into Polley Lake in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (2)The flight in covers some spectacular country and we manage to spot several groups of mountain goats while glued to the windows of the Cessna 206. Swooping down over the lake, the pilot banks the plane around the Southeast end, highlighting several very “moosey-looking” swamps at the outflow from the lake. The pilot touches us down gently on the glass-calm waters (an especially rare scenario on this lake the pilot informs us) and beaches the plane on the rocky shore. We unload our packs and other gear, and snap a number of photos as the pilot departs for his return to the float base. The three of us are here to hunt moose, goats, caribou, stone sheep and grizzlies for the next week – a trip we have been planning for the past year.

After admiring the scenery and glassing a couple of goats across the lake in the Ecological Reserve that’s closed to hunting and some additional goats Northeast of us in an area that we can hunt, we haul our gear up to the cabin we’ve arranged to rent. It’s fairly rustic, to say the least. There are a few mouse traps scattered around inside the cabin, some of them “occupied”, and a number of chewed up green foam mats hanging from the rafters. Outside, nailed to the front of the cabin, are two enormous moose sheds, including one from a bull that must have grossed 200” or more, and a broken, hand-made wooden paddle. When I return from the Spatsizi, I learn that another of my hunting partners nailed the sheds and paddle to the front of the cabin. Even when in the wilds of the North, the world is indeed small. The cabin’s other amenities include basic wooden beds, a wood stove, and an ancient Coleman Stove that Colin eventually masters during the course of our stay.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (3)The next day, the first one on which we can legally hunt, Adam wants to go after the goats that we glassed up the day before. He’s the only one with a goat tag for this area, but I nonetheless agree to go with him while Colin plans to take the Alpacka Raft down the lake and into the creek and some nice looking swamps and moose meadows we’d seen from the plane. Adam and I hike Southeast down the horse trail that parallels the lake and creek, hoping to get a better look at the goats we’d seen the day before. At various likely-looking spots (and there are quite a few) we stop to cow call, hoping to draw in an amorous bull moose. There’s no shortage of grizzly sign on the horse trail.

At about 9:15 am we stop above a small lake southeast of the cabin. I let out a couple of bull calls and thrash a tree and the surrounding willows with a dead limb. Almost immediately I hear the Wuuh! Wuuh! of a bull moose, and it sounds like he’s coming. I encourage him along with more thrashing and a couple more bull calls, but suddenly four shots ring out several hundred yards away. Adam and I traverse the lake we were calling from to find Colin just upstream of the creek mouth with a beauty bull moose he’d called in laying on the ground. Amazingly, we’d each been calling back and forth with two different bulls! Much to my and Adam’s chagrin, the edge of the creek is an absolute mud pit that grows deeper and deeper as we skin out and cut up Colin’s moose. It’s an awful place to have to deal with a moose, but we manage.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (4)Adam and Colin float (tow to be specific as it’s against the flow of the creek) the moose meat and antlers back to base camp in the Alpacka Raft, while I hike back. We set up a couple of meat poles about 150 yards from camp to hang the meat, but in the process I manage to saw the index finger of my left hand very badly when the saw jumps on me while limbing a tree. It’s a serious issue as the cut is to the bone, and if infection sets in I will need an immediate flight out to civilization. It’s not the ending to the hunt I’m hoping for, so I head back to camp immediately and with some coaching from Adam proceed to clean the cut with antiseptic wipes, coat it with Neosporin and tape it closed. It’s a process I repeat daily for the balance of the trip. When I finally return to civilization eight days later, I spend two hours in the emergency ward waiting to have my wound looked at by a doctor, only to discover that my backwoods medical treatment and the healing powers of the human body have done all that is needed. There’s no nerve damage, no severed tendons, and no infection – the cut has healed well, although I will have a vivid scar.

On day two we sleep in after the grueling task of dealing with Colin’s moose the day before. Certain individuals, who shall remain nameless, are feeling a little rough from celebrating yesterday’s success, so it’s not a hard-hunting day. We do some moose calling, but it proves less effective than the day before, perhaps because of Adam’s constant urging of me NOT to shoot another moose, as he wants to go high for sheep and goats the next day. Although we do not see any moose, just after dark we hear one splashing around in the bay next to our cabin. Needless to say, the moose are on the move.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (5)The plan for day three is to pack up our gear and head up to the alpine. I’m still lying in bed when I hear what sounds like a moose grunt outside. I decide I’m imagining things and then Colin gets up and heads outside to relieve himself. Moments later he rushes back inside, exclaiming that there’s a huge bull moose in the bay. I hastily throw on some pants, grab my rifle and head outside. It’s barely shooting light but I can see a good bull on the lake edge across the bay from the cabin. Colin suggests that I not shoot as he’ll fall in an especially nasty and muddy part of the bay, and with that and Adam’s admonition from the day before in the back of my head, I hesitate. In an instant, the opportunity is gone and the moose fades into the timber. I circle around to try to get ahead of the moose, but my efforts to relocate him are futile. I curse myself for not shooting – I know better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, and a big bull moose right next to camp is about as nice a gift horse as you will ever receive on a Northern hunt!

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (6)Following my unsuccessful attempt to find the bull, we pack up camp and head out on the horse trail, leaving it after a kilometre or so to strike out through the brush towards the alpine. It’s a slog – very steep and thick brush in places. After a few hours we make camp near a small pond in the alpine, with the skull and bones of a nice bull caribou scattered next to it. Adam and I head up a nearby ridge for an evening hunt. I spot a young bull and a cow caribou, the first of the trip, but the evening is otherwise unproductive. We turn in exhausted from the day’s activity.

The next morning Colin elects to hunt near camp, while Adam and I head up to the ridge in search of sheep, goats and caribou. We spot a group of four caribou on a distant ridge, three young bulls and a cow, but none of them are big enough to interest us. We then spot a group of three goats in the opposite direction. There’s a nanny and kid, along with a third goat that’s too far away to determine the sex, but which is likely also a nanny given the company it’s keeping. Adam and Colin have tentative plans to pack up and head back down to the lake so that they can move further down the horse trail and hike up to where we have seen the greatest numbers of goats, but now Adam is uncertain about whether to do that or to go after the three goats he can see now. Mid-morning he heads back down to our spike camp to find Colin, still uncertain as to whether they will try for the goats. He tells me that if their tent is gone, then it means they’ve gone back to the cabin to drop their heavier gear before heading elsewhere in search of more goats. I tell Adam that I’ll spend the rest of the day and that night on the Plateau, before hiking down the following afternoon to join up with them again.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (7)I continue down the ridge, finding caribou shed after caribou shed as I go. The walking is easy, particularly relative to the previous day’s grueling hike to get up on the Plateau. Late morning I spot a larger group of caribou, containing several bulls. Although they are the biggest bulls I’ve seen yet, they are smaller than the three caribou I already have on the wall. That, combined with the fact that they are three or four kilometres away from me, is enough to discourage me from trying a stalk. I continue down the ridge, glassing up a couple more small caribou in a small basin off the Northeast side of the ridge, before crossing over to the West side to sit and glass some more. I almost immediately spot four goats feeding just below a series of cliffs. They are about 450 yards away – two nannies, a kid and what appears to be a young billy, probably 3 or 4 years old. I spend some time watching the goats and wishing that Adam (who has the only goat tag) had stayed up on the Plateau with me. Eventually they climb up into the cliffs to bed down, rendering themselves invisible behind several rock outcroppings.

I continue North, eventually reaching what I take to be the edge of the Spatsizi Plateau in the late afternoon. I sit to glass and write the beginning of this story. I phone my wife to share my experience with her, and while I’m on the satellite phone I see what appear to be two large white paddles several kilometres further north. I pull out my binoculars and see the largest bull moose I’ve ever seen, and perhaps ever will see. His antlers have enormous palmated fronts, great paddles and at least a dozen points per side. He will easily go book, but there’s no way we would ever be able to pack him out without horses, even if I was able to get to him. I admire him for some time before gradually hunting my way back towards camp, spotting several more goats on the way and arriving just after dark. I’m disappointed to discover that Colin and Adam have in fact packed up their tent and headed back down to the lake, but elated to have seen 37 animals during the course of the day.

After spending the night on the Plateau, I pack up camp beneath a blanket of clouds with the rain spattering around me. It’s the first day we’ve seen anything but clear skies and warm weather. I head up past the small pond that had been my water source to a saddle that provides access into the next valley. Although I glass this valley for some time, I’m not able to turn up any animals. My descent back to our lake and the cabin takes me about two hours. Initially the way is steep and relatively free of brush, but as I lose elevation I enter thick patches of willows, 10 feet or more in height. Knowing that the Spatsizi has one of the highest density grizzly bear populations in British Columbia, it’s a nerve-racking experience working my way through willows so thick that at times I can scarcely see five feet in front of me. In many instances I have to bull my way through the brush, but for the most part I’m able to follow game trails and creek beds as I make my way down.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (8)Upon reaching the cabin, I dump my gear, have a quick lunch and then head out to resume my search for a moose. I decide to follow the horse trail down the lake to where Adam and I had heard the bull moose grunting the day Colin shot his bull. However, part way down the trail I run into Colin and Adam returning from the creek near Colin’s moose kill where there was a good spot to glass for goats – and do they have news! They discovered two grizzlies feeding on the remains. They initially saw just one bear, which Adam glassed for a while and assessed the options for intercepting the bear once it left the kill, but then a second bear emerged from the willows along the creek edge. The second bear was smaller, creating uncertainty in their minds as to whether it was a boar and sow together, or a sow with a two year old cub (in B.C. it is illegal to take a two year old or younger bear, or any bear in the company of such a bear) and therefore decided to back out. After this explanation I was dying to have a look for myself.

Four Of The Five Grizzlies On The Kill
Four Of The Five Grizzlies On The Kill

We hurry back down the horse trail, abandoning that for a trail that forks south towards the creek where Colin had shot his moose. About 100 yards from the creek we leave the trail to sneak through the swamp birch, willows and scrub spruce trees so as to come out directly opposite the kill site, about 150 yards away across the creek. As we near the creek we can see the kill site through the brush. I glass the site and immediately see bears – but not just two. I count three, then four, and finally FIVE grizzlies on the kill! It’s a tense situation with that many bears together, particularly given that they are on a kill and will likely respond aggressively to any perceived threat. I snap a couple of quick pictures and take a short video. After watching the bears in awe for what felt like hours but in reality was merely a few minutes, we back out carefully without incident, keeping trees and cover between us and the bears as we go.

Sow Off To The Left Of The Other Bears

Sow Off To The Left Of The Other Bears

After seeing the bears Adam and I spend a great deal of time talking and thinking about how or where we could set-up to catch the bears coming off the kill and therefore safely harvest one or two of them away from the carcass, but we cannot come up with any creative plans that don’t end with one or both of us as bear scat. With the thick willows and black spruce stretching for miles around the kill site, the prospect of following up on a wounded bear or two with three or four other unwounded bears running around in the vicinity is remarkably unappealing.

The next day we awake to low hanging clouds and a distinct drop in the temperature. Adam’s plan to go after the goats to the Northeast is out of the question so we hunt moose in the early morning hours and then Adam and I decide to head in the direction of the grizzlies again but this time by following the creek in the hopes the bears would use this natural “roadway” when they left the kill. With five bears all sharing the meager remains of Colin’s moose, we figured they’d be separating and dispersing into the timber and valley bottom sooner than later. Colin wants no part of this, and will no doubt claim for years to come that Adam and I have no bear sense whatsoever, but we prove him wrong. When we’re still some distance from the kill, Adam and I realize that we won’t have a clear view of the kill site until we’re within a hundred yards – too close for comfort with a now unknown number of bears possibly still on the kill or in the thick willows and timber around us. We abort the plan, thereby demonstrating at least a modicum of common sense, and hunt our way back towards camp. I can tell that Colin and Adam are not really into it – Colin already has his moose, and this style of hunting doesn’t suit Adam’s preferences. I call them on it and suggest that they go back to the cabin to celebrate Colin’s moose (again), and they take me up on it. I call until dark but am not able to turn up another moose.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Feature ImageThe next day is our last full day of hunting. I don’t bother trying to wake Colin or Adam. Colin had his bull and Adam’s heart had been set on a ram or a billy so with only enough time left to hunt moose along the valley they’d had a “late” night. I instead quickly get my gear together and slip out the door without breakfast, figuring that I will hunt for a couple hours before coming back to eat. I set up and call in two or three locations, the last position being right on the creek that flows out of our lake where I call across the creek to the south for about an hour with no response. This last spot is only about 500 yards or so from the cabin and as my hunger eventually gets the best of me, I head back to the cabin for breakfast. As I’m sitting down outside the cabin to eat with Colin and Adam, Colin says “I hear a moose grunting”. We stop eating and listen, and sure enough, there’s a moose grunting from the other side of the lake, just where it starts to narrow down into the creek. I grab my gun and binoculars and run down to the lakeshore. Glassing across, I immediately spot a big bull – he’s not quite the book bull I’d seen three days earlier, but he’ll most certainly do.

Adam joins me and we do a running stalk as the moose continues to work his way along the shore and into the creek. We lose sight of him as we circle into the willows to avoid being spotted and then come out on the edge of the creek, about 75 yards from where I’d been calling just twenty minutes earlier. I glass across the creek but can’t see the bull. As I step around a point along the creek edge I look to my left and there he is. He’s crossed the creek to our side and is within steps of my last calling location. I sit down, put the crosshairs on his shoulder and pull the trigger. He lunges forward into the willows, and as Adam runs by me I yell, “If you can see him, hammer him again!” Moments later Adam, who’s now up on a small rise, says he’s down. I can’t believe it and ask him several times to confirm his claim. I run up to where the bull has fallen, and put an extra round into him to ensure that he’s down for good.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (11)The bull is awesome. He’s not as heavy as Colin’s, nor does he have as many points, but he has fantastic fronts and stretches the tape past the 50 inch mark. Last day bulls don’t get any better than that, and to top it off he’s fallen in a great spot – dry, mossy ground within 15 yards of the creek. We spend the next several hours dealing with the moose, two of us skinning while the third keeps an eye out for bears. We are only about a kilometre away from the kill site where we saw the five grizzlies. Adam and I wade and float the moose down the lake edge in the trusty Alpacka raft and hang it next to Colin’s. The water is cold, but I don’t mind at all. I’m not so sure what Adam is thinking, though, as this is his second trip through the frigid waters hauling someone else’s moose, but he doesn’t complain. What a great hunting partner.

Sadly, the next day will be our last in Spatsizi. We pack our gear down to the lake, watching the skies with concern as the weather has really taken a turn for the worse. There are whitecaps on the lake and roiling clouds above, and we wonder whether the plane will make it in to take us out. Despite our fears, mid-morning we hear the musical sound of an approaching plane. We load up most of the moose meat, Colin’s gear, and Colin himself. Adam and I, along with the rest of the moose and gear, will have to wait for a second flight. Even so, the plane has trouble getting off the lake with the weight it is carrying. An hour later it returns, and Adam and I are also homeward bound. The flight out is neither as smooth nor as beautiful as the flight in, but we make it out safely, which is what really matters.

Subscriber Story 1 - November 2014 - Post Image (12)As I write the conclusion to this story, I’m on a plane again, although this one is a commercial airliner taking me home to Vancouver from Toronto, where I’ve spent the last few days on business. Although it has been six weeks since I was on the Spatsizi Plateau, I will forever have vivid and fond memories of that truly wild country. When I arrive home I will be able to admire the enormous antlers from the moose I was lucky enough to take and to reminisce about the week I spent in British Columbia’s Northern paradise, the Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park.


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Posted by JOMH Editor