For three days there were no caribou, but that night wolves woke us, howling in the mountains.
“Wolves say caribou coming,” whispered Tommy, our Inuit guide.
The next morning we hiked to the top of the ridge behind camp and began glassing the vast expanse. Tundra mosses had already turned red and gold, and there were snowflakes in the wind. I spotted a big black bear rolling rocks half a mile away. We watched three wolves trotting single file along a little creek.
Then Tommy breathed the word I wanted to hear. “Tuktu,” he said softly.
“Two looks away,” Tommy replied in Inuit vernacular, indicating a great distance.
Then I saw them. A couple of miles north of us, thousands of caribou were streaming through a mountain pass. Long strings of the enormously antlered animals were moving on the hillsides. Whole herds were flowing up out of folds in the terrain that had kept them hidden. The country was suddenly alive with caribou, all heading our way. Tommy smiled at me.
“If you camp in a good place and be patient, they always come,” he said.
Where to Go
Quebec has the densest caribou population in North America, nearly a million animals roaming a subarctic, glacier-scraped tundra landscape that is larger than Texas.
The hunter-success rate is extraordinary in Quebec. Your chances of seeing caribou within shooting range are better than 90 percent with most well-established caribou outfitters there. In addition, the province’s caribou herds are also the easiest for most hunters to access. Their range is directly north of the largest population centers in the United States and can be reached by flights from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, Great Whale, Povungnituk, or Schefferville. From these frontier bush-plane hubs, hunters are shuttled to hunting camps far out on the tundra.
** What It’s Like**
When the annual autumn migration to their winter range begins in late August, small local bands of caribou join up with others and begin to drift south and east. To find them, you’ll spend each day hiking high land, glassing for caribou on the move. Despite the openness of the country, caribou blend in and are surprisingly difficult to spot. Distances are hard to judge on the open tundra because there is nothing of known size to compare things to. Although you are looking for animals larger than whitetail deer, what you see may appear as a tiny line of ants, depending on the distance. Often, smaller migratory bands of caribou will act as magnets wherever they pass, attracting ever increasing numbers until the growing herds become huge masses of animals that get jammed together at water crossings, or strung out in lines that pass for hours.
Choosing an Outfitter
My most memorable caribou hunts have happened when I’ve stayed in a remote outpost camp or a simple spike tent camp with a small party of hunters, sharing a guide.
Make sure the outfitter understands what kind of hunt you want. Most offer a range of accommodations, priced accordingly. Least expensive are spike tent camps where your small party shares a guide and boat, provides its own food, and does its own cooking. Remote cabins with meals and guides provided are slightly more expensive, and full-service lodges with private rooms and dining room service are top of the line.
Two outfitters with excellent long-term reputations whom I can personally recommend are Jack Hume Adventures, 877-563-3832; www.jackhumeadventures.com and Norpaq Adventures, 800-473-4650; www.norpaq.com. A six-day trip costs about $2,500.
For further information, contact Quebec Tourism, 877-266-5687; www.bonjourquebec.com
Clothes: Be sure to bring a comfortable daypack with room for an insulated vest and gloves, warm hat, lunch, water bottle, rain suit, and bug dope. Weatheer changes fast and can switch from warm and sunny to cold rain, sleet, or snow momentarily. Plan to dress in changeable layers.
Arms & Optics: Most caribou are killed at relatively short range, even though the open country permits long shots. Any rifle of .243 caliber or larger is permitted (.270 to .30/06 are most popular). Scopes should be 4X to 9X and sighted for 150 yards. Lightweight 7X to 9X binoculars are very helpful for spotting caribou at long distance and for assessing antlers when choosing your target.
Extras: Caribou country is rocky, wet, and slippery. Comfortable lace-up, insulated, waterproof boots with rugged soles are preferred for hill walking. Insulated knee-high rubber boots are useful when hunting from boats. You’ll need a sleeping bag rated to zero degrees.
Field Guide: Caribou
There are more than 30 caribou herds in North America. The largest— the Western Arctic herd—consists of more than 400,000 animals.
A caribou’s life expectancy, in years: 13
Bulls average 350 to 400 pounds, although there are records of some weighing as much as 700 pounds.
At more than 5 feet long, the main beams of the world-record Quebec-Labrador caribou are nearly as long as the average Inuit is tall.
In winter, a caribou’s diet consists mainly of lichen, but they’ve been known to eat lemmings, which they stomp to death with their forehooves.
Caribou can run up to 50 miles per hour.
On spring calving grounds, it is not uncommon for golden eagles to catch and eat newborn caribou.
Caribou were once found as far south as Maine.
21,000 Average distance in miles that barren-ground caribou migrate during the course of their lives.