Northern Canada caribou hunt delivers epic adventure
With retirement on the horizon, I was looking to mark the milestone with a "big hunt" to an exciting place, but suitable for old guys. Conway Marvin of Hosted Hunts in Warroad, Minn., suggested a caribou hunt in northern Canada and recommended I get a hunting partner.
Tim Anvinson, a longtime hunting buddy from my hometown of Oslo, Minn., immediately came to mind. Tim is well known for his proficiency at practical jokes. In fact, I wrote an article previously about Tim and his tricks.
As we planned the hunt, I assumed Tim again would lambast me with creative and exasperating mischief. So, when he expressed doubts about his ability to manage the rigors of the hunt and showed signs of dropping out, I decided to get the jump on him. I gave him my best sales pitch, suggesting the hunt involved cruising around in a boat until spotting a good bull caribou.
Basically, "you jump out and shoot 'em," I said.
Of course, I knew that wasn't what spot-and-stalk caribou hunting actually entailed, but the line worked, and Tim committed to the hunt.
I have zero guilt about stretching the truth in this manner. I learned long ago that lying about hunting and fishing isn't true deceit; it's just good storytelling.
"Bull. Good bone. Need closer look," whispered Dean, our French-Canadian guide of few words, as he peered through his binoculars. I checked his direction, squinted into my own field glasses and asked: "This side of the water or across?"
"Across ... across the second lake ... just below skyline ... about three-4,000 meters," Dean measured.
"Jeez," I grunted. I studied the distant rolling tundra, pockmarked by small lakes and dotted with stands of dwarf pine. My big game hunting of the last 30 years has been confined to bushwhacking whitetails from a deer stand in the Missouri hardwoods, where 50 yards is a long poke. It was the movement of the tiny tan spot that finally caught my eye, but before I could make out anything more distinct, Dean challenged: "Gotta move ... up for it?"
I've been fortunate to hunt a lot throughout my lifetime, from the thin-air altitudes of Montana for elk, to the lowland swamps of Ontario for moose and across the rolling prairies of Kansas for quail. I chose this northern Manitoba hunt with due consideration of my advancing years and the physical limitations that go with that age.
I had prepared by hiking an hour a day in knee-high rubber boots hauling a loaded backpack and had actually shed a few pounds in the process.
So, in a wiser man's mind, Dean's question might have triggered some reflection: "Was I really up for it?"
It was 4 p.m., and we were already 2 miles from the boat that would transport men, meat and horns back to camp. (If that tiny speck in the distance was a shooter, if we could stalk close enough and I didn't have a heart attack in the process, and if I managed the shot.)
The terrain between us and the bull was about one-third rolling mossy tundra, a third "yellow grass" muskeg swamp, where every 10th step would be into a muck hole inevitably just deeper than our boots, and the final third strewn with ankle-breaking slabs of granite stacked up from glacial activity eons ago.
Was I up for the challenge of a speed stalk of more than 2 miles just to get a closer look?
"You bet," I heard myself say with what I hoped sounded like manly confidence. "Good," Dean said, and before I could sling on my backpack, he was already 50 yards into the stalk.
I had a memory flash of my mother, who often cautioned me during my youth: "Careful ... don't bite off more than you can chew." That's the thing about older age; we have a rich bank of wise memories on which to draw.
We trudged across the tundra, and an hour later, we had closed the distance and determined the bull was a shooter. In fact, it was a dandy—thick palmated tops and heavy bottoms.
So began a quarter-mile, thigh-busting "duck walk," keeping below a line of rocky esker outcroppings, which brought us to a single scrub pine just 250 yards from the bull.
I took several minutes to calm my pounding heart. I made the shot and harvested a beautiful barren ground caribou bull.
I won't detail the trek back to the boat, but I'm proud to say I carried my fair share of the load. I'm sure of that because my "Guide-of-Few-Words" didn't complain once about the heft of his bulging backpack.
Dinner at camp that evening included delicious grilled tenderloin and a festive dose of bragging.
My hunting partner, Tim, on the other hand, was a bit cranky. His sour mood began at the dinner table, when he let slip his expectations to "jump out of the boat and shoot." The guides all had a good chuckle at that notion.
Dean, our guide, explained that while an easy hunt was possible, the stalk part would be hard work. Day 2 bore that out, when Dean and Tim tried to intercept a large bull with an end run around a lake and a slog through a grassy swamp. The wind and cover were perfect as they closed the distance. Tim was wheezing like a rusty windmill, and I started to wonder how far I could "pack" my partner if that became necessary.
Just when it looked as if he'd get the shot, the caribou turned and seconds later was over a hill and gone.
Dinner that evening included bologna sandwiches and, for Tim, leg cramps.
Day 3 dawned with cold temperatures, gale-force winds and stinging, icy rain. Tim was grousing about the weather and lamenting his cramping and aching legs. He was particularly cross as he discovered his rain pants had split right in the crotch; thus, his spirits were not the only thing dampened.
I always carry duct tape—always, everywhere—so I threw the roll to Tim but clarified that because of the tear's location, "You're on your own fixing it."
'Good bull, gotta go'
Suddenly, Dean announced, "Good bull, gotta go." We scrambled off the rock ridge and into our boat. Fifteen minutes later, we had crossed a mile of white-capped lake, and the small outboard motor was idling us toward shore.
"Get out .. hold the boat ... don't let it hit the rocks," Dean whispered to me.
I dutifully leapt out, missed the flat rock I had aimed for and slipped thigh-deep into icy water. Tim and Dean slipped off the front of the boat onto a driveway-sized, perfectly flat slab of granite that sloped gently toward shore.
They "strolled" 30 yards up an easy rise on shore to a picnic table-sized rock at the crest of the hill. Tim settled behind the rock and easily bagged a beautiful bull.
By the time I wrangled the wind-bucked boat through the rocky surf to shore, emptied my boots of icy tundra water and arrived at the kill, they had all the pictures taken and half the field dressing complete.
The distance from the boat to the bull: about 100 yards—er, meters.
I graciously congratulated Tim. He had managed to pull off the unlikely; he had indeed "jumped out" of the boat and shot a nice bull.
Maybe it was Karma when Tim bagged his second caribou about an hour later. After toting the meat and horns of the first bull 100 yards to the boat, he had decided to "take a nap ... rest a bit" close to the boat.
On the other hand, Dean "Of-Limitless-Energy" took me on a scouring tour of the northern reaches of the province. About two hours and 4 miles into our rangy hike, a shot rang out from Tim's direction. Shortly afterward, we heard Tim's voice crackling on the walkie-talkie: "Boys. Got another one—about 40 yards from the boat."
"Oof-da!" I sighed.
I managed to take my second bull that same afternoon, just over 2 miles from the boat, with plenty of "yellow grass" to muck through hauling it out of the bush. So, Tim and I (the two old guys in camp) were tagged out on the third day of a five-day hunt.
That night, we did our best to brag, tease and generally get under the skin of the younger hunters in camp. I suspect our advanced years provided some protection from reprisal.
The excitement of the adventure didn't end there. On the morning of Day 5, we discovered our camp meat pole had been raided by a bear during the night. Fortunately for Tim and me, our meat was already safely packed in a makeshift freezer, but two other hunters in camp forfeited more than 100 pounds of caribou meat to the bruin.
The size of the tracks indicated it was either a grizzly or polar bear, both of which are present in the area.
Because of the risks to both bear and human, the situation was reported immediately by satellite phone to provincial conservation officials. After such an easy meal, a return visit by the bear was likely and we needed to be prepared.
"You can protect yourself if in physical danger," conservation officers informed us.
"What constitutes physical danger?" we asked.
One of the guides suggested, "If the bear is gnawing on your arm, you're in danger." I believe that's called "guide's humor."
Tim and I spent Day 5 walking and casting from shore on the lake where our camp was located, catching northern pike, lake trout and grayling. We took turns carrying a rifle on guard duty.
Dahlstrom grew up in Oslo, Minn. He is a semi-retired psychologist who lives in Missouri, where he spends his time hunting quail, fishing for crappies and preparing stories to be told.