Caribou in the Empty Land

You sit astride a rock, facing into an emptiness that can't be imagined by people who have not seen it. And then, if you're lucky, you'll see them appear on the horizon...

You sit astride a rock, facing into an emptiness that can't be imagined by people who have not seen it. And then, if you're lucky, you'll see them appear on the horizon: gray-brown bodies, white necks and underparts, with the antlers of the bulls outlined against the Arctic sky. Slowly, slowly, they will work their way toward you, noses into the wind, anklebones making a curious clicking sound, following age-old migration trails, traveling in singles, pairs, family groups, and herds.

They operate on a timetable that no one has ever understood¿¿or ever will. They will stop and feed for minutes, or hours, or days, but eventually they will move on, and once again the life will be sucked out of that most desolate of landscapes.

If you have never hunted caribou before, the first time you see a herd, you may think you've gone mad. For its body weight, the caribou probably has the largest antlers of any North American ungulate, and no two sets are alike.

Finally, if you see enough of them, you'll begin to recognize combinations of shovels, bez points, top points, beams, and back points that make one caribou stand out from another. If you have a guide, listen to him. If you don't, keep your finger off the trigger and remember that the really big ones look huge. Sneak or Run
When you see a bull you like, you'll have two choices: If you're lucky, the animal will be grazing and you'll be able to sneak within range. If he's moving, you'll have to figure out an intercept point, use the contours of the land to screen yourself, and then run like hell. You'll find that the leisurely looking trot of a caribou is something that you'll have to sprint to match. Once a herd has passed you, forget it. You'll catch them only if they stop.

Smart hunters often will set up an ambush at a river crossing that the herds use year in and year out. But that has its pitfalls. Caribou migrations are unpredictable, and you may end up looking at an empty river for your allotted time. It's either feast or famine. You may shoot a trophy literally in your camp, or you may walk your legs off for a week and never see one caribou.

The migration is not one huge, tightly controlled herd; it can sometimes cover hundreds of miles, front to back and side to side. If a herd is late, there will be advance guards days ahead. If a herd is early, there will be stragglers. If a migration has changed course, there will always be a number of animals that didn't get the word. This can work to your advantage, because the biggest bulls are often outriders, especially in the vanguard of the herd.

Mission: Impossible
Sometimes it simply cannot be done. Many years ago, when I was attending mountain warfare school in Alaska, a couple of us took off for a long weekend of caribou hunting. We had little gear and less time, but someone told us there were caribou near the "highway," a gravel road between Chicken and Eagle. So off we went, parking a borrowed truck near the appointed mile marker and hiking west into the tundra in search of caribou. We got lots of exercise but never found any. We learned that near is a relative term in Alaska; this particular herd had hung up about 50 miles from the road and was reachable only by air.

When it seems that your luck has run out, you have several choices: (1) You can give up, stay in camp, and play cards. (2) You can go to the historical crossings and watch, trusting to blind luck. The caribou of your dreams may straggle your way, but most likely you'll just have a long, boring wait. Or (3), you can get out and walk, which is what you'll do if you really want one.

So you go out into the empty lands, farther and farther each day. The silence and the sameness bear down on you. With every ridge you cross, you will look back with increasing anxiety, wondering if you can find your way back to camp. The Arctic sun hangs differenttly in the sky, and its path is different. Many years ago, I marched to the far horizon in search of a herd that had already passed -- in itself, a mistake. I never caught up, and I got seriously turned around, alone and frightened. I finally figured my way back to camp, but ever since then I've paid much closer attention to landmarks¿¿and carrying a GPS is not the worst idea in the world.

With caribou, unlike most Northern game, there is a limit to how much a guide can help. He can provide your camp, make sure you don't get lost, help you judge antlers, and even pack your trophy out for you -- but he can't manufacture caribou if the herds are elsewhere.

** The Caribou Lesson**
Fifteen years ago, I hunted northern Quebec's caribou during a fall when the herd changed its migration route significantly. They vanished. Some of the hunters in my camp despaired. Others persisted. Even though my guide and I walked endlessly, we went for days without seeing a living thing in those barren lands.

But the land was only almost empty. Late into the hunt, we found a lone, white-caped bull with wide, white antlers. We took a line that would cut him off, and our paths intersected in a field of boulders. Those of us who hunted were successful. Those who stayed in camp were not. I've never forgotten the lesson.