F&S Adventure: Bill Heavey Bowhunts for Caribou in Quebec

For the past 40 minutes, ever since the floatplane lifted off the lake in Schefferville, the scenery below has been singularly constant. It's a land of glacier-smoothed hills, little lakes, stunted shrubs, and spruce. Each piece of water, with its surrounding hills and tundra, is a carbon copy of the last and the next. It must be how a wet beach towel looks to a sand flea.

This is partly because Quebec is a big place, three times the size of France. Unlike that country, it is almost devoid of human presence, since practically all the population resides in the cities of the south. Get lost here and there's a very good chance nobody will find you until the ravens and wolves pick your bones so white that they show up like a signal mirror against the dark lichens.

The pilot cuts the de Havilland Beaver's airspeed to 60 knots, touches down on a small lake, and coasts to a stop by a tiny gravel beach just past three walled tents. Waiting on shore by the little wooden trucking pallet that passes for a dock are four hunters from Michigan. They're headed out with impossibly wide caribou antlers still in velvet, green plastic meat boxes, gun cases, and duffels.

The pilot unloads propane and cooking oil, then passes out my duffel and the SKS double bow case that allowed me to bring both a bow and a .270 without violating the airline's two-bag limit. The Michigan boys cram inside, laughing and joking. The absurdly big, complicated antlers only fit by being stowed at crazy angles on their laps. One bad air pocket and some caribou will take his revenge on the hunter who shot him. The plane whines out into the lake, lifts itself into the sky, makes a half circle, and disappears over the trees. This marks the end of the officially supervised part of my hunt.

A strange confluence of factors have induced me to book an unguided hunt. Number one--and the trump card for all of us in the Brotherhood of Skinflints--it's cheaper. Number two, I wanted to see how I, an Eastern hardwoods whitetail guy who mostly hunts small farms and patches of woods, would fare chasing big deer in even bigger country. Number three, the editors of this magazine, fully aware that I'm the kind of guy who leaps before he looks, have apparently decided that sending me up here without adult supervision could be a discreet way of reducing payroll without having to shell out unemployment.

I stow my gear and take a practice shot at a stump with a judo point. The guides, waiting for a party of four due in the next day, are instantly intrigued by my bow, a slick new Mathews LX with a Trophy Ridge fiber-optic sight, a Whisker Biscuit arrow rest, and LimbSaver dampeners. I tell them my plan is to hunt three days with the bow and the final two with a .270 if I haven't gotten anything by then. "She's a fine one, all right," says Sam, hefting the bow. He's a sinewy Newfoundlander with a whiskey brogue and a red beard you could hide a set of cutlery in. "But I wouldn't take her myself." I ask why the hell not. "Bow like that, you got no excuse if you miss." He hands it back and winks.

There are about three hours of sunlight left, and I want to get the lay of the land before dinner. Sam tells me to head up the narrow trail that winds a third of a mile up from camp to another small lake and the big bowl surrounding it. "Stay on the trail and you can't get lost. There's a rock up there, good place to sit and glass for 'em." Sam is obviously overestimating my navigational skills. I can get lost in my own laundry room. I pull out my GPS, calibrate the compass by turning slowly around twice like some nutcase monk in prayer, then lock in the camp's location as a waypoint. Because of the tendency of high technology to transform itself into junk at the slightest excuse, I'm also packing a compass and a roll of orange flagging tape. And two butane lighters, waterproof matches, fire paste, a candle, a plastic bag big enough for me and a caribou to spend the night in. Plus 50 feet of parachute cord, a water bottle, a Mini Mag flashlight, and energy bars.

The bowl is several miles across, and I glass it for a half hour, seeing nothing, though there are prints in the mud all around me. Any whitetail hunter would quickly identify 10 good rifle stands: saddles, bench overlooks, points of timber, transition zones from one kind of cover to another. The guides have told me that a lot of good bulls have been taken right where I'm sitting, a small gap between two hills.

I decide to move, crossing a stream and heading up through the woods, keeping the bowl's lake in sight. There are blueberries everywhere, and I stop to pick them, feeling like a boy back at summer camp in North Carolina. I take up a position downwind of where a caribou trail leaves the woods and settle in. After 90 minutes, just as I am about to leave, I spot them through my binocs: six antlike silhouettes on the far rim of the bowl, at least 3 miles off and 1,000 feet above me. They're here, all right. I just need to close the distance a little.

[CARIBOU EVERYWHERE--AND NOWHERE] The next morning, the plane returns and disgorges four hunters. I head up the trail as they're storing their gear. It's chilly and spitting rain under gray skies. I station myself on a bench halfway up the bowl where a draw full of timber runs down to the lake. I stand behind a clump of stunted trees that break the ever present wind and glass constantly, though I can only do so downwind. The moment you turn into the rain, your binocs fog over and you spend the next 20 minutes trying to wipe them dry. After about an hour, I notice two antlered animals with young slowly grazing their way over the open ground 300 yards above me. Caribou are the only deer in which animals of both sexes sport antlers, but the females' are much smaller. These are two cows with calves. You can take cows, but I move deeper into the cover to let them pass upwind.

The deal with caribou, I know from doing a little pre-trip research, is finding them. At last count, the George River herd in Quebec numbered somewhere around 700,000 animals. That's a lot of caribou. Quebec covers 700,000 square kilometers, however, which is a considerable hunk of real estate. Caribou are migratory beasts, with wintering grounds, calving grounds, and extensive ranges in between. An animal may move 20 miles a day, especially while heading to wintering grounds in early fall. The enduring campfire tale among hunters is of emerging from a tent to take a leak and finding yourself surrounded by thousands of 'bou streaming past in an hours-long parade. This indeed happens, but it is fairly rare. (I find out later that none of the four guides in camp, with nearly a century of combined experience, has ever seen it during the hunting season.) Much of the time, the animals are widely dispersed. Now, in early fall, it's common to see groups of bulls traveling together. This presents the hunter with a choice based on his inclination and endurance. You can walk around looking for them, but you have to be sneaky because they are adept at picking up movement at great distances. Or you can do as most hunters do: spot and stalk or simply wait by a likely saddle, river crossing, or other travel corridor, and ambush them as they walk by. Your hunt may end the same day you arrive in camp, or you may still be at it when you hear the whine of the plane coming to pick you up.

Two hours later, my bones stiff from standing motionless in raw weather, I spy two bulls making their way along a ridge 1,000 yards up from me. There's no hope of a stalk; everything between them and me is less than 18 inches tall, a long way to belly-crawl, and they're moving fast, as though they've got someplace to be. I watch them hoof it out of sight and over into the next drainage, taking a piece of my heart with them.

In the afternoon, the skies clear and I run into Sam, who has jogged ahead of his new clients coming up the trail, for a quick look by the glassing rock. Silently, he points to the bench I just left half an hour ago. Through my binocs I see two bulls there now, one with white antlers, another, bigger, with a chocolate brown rack still in velvet. They are feeding along slowly. If I'd stayed where I was another 45 minutes, I'd be drawing on them now.

At this point, I have no real idea whether a given animal is one to pass up or a trophy. Caribou antlers are notoriously complicated. You have all the normal measurements to consider--main-beam length, inside spread, mass and length of various points. But on a caribou you're doing it for the shovel (which may be single or double), the bez (the secondary mass of antler halfway up the rack), the size of the top palm and its points, whether there are rear points behind that, and if so how long. It takes practice to judge them, something I am very short on.

"Both nice animals," Sam says casually. "They've got it all." I stand there like a doofus for a few minutes, watching the caribou as if they were lobsters in the tank at my local supermarket. Finally, I ask Sam what he'd do. "I'd get my ass back over there fast," he replies.

I take off on a headlong run through the mud and bushes and trees. "Get below 'em and use that seam of shrub to sneak up," he calls after me. I arrive 20 minutes later, sweating and sucking wind, and stalk up to the bench. The bulls are no longer there. I theorize that they've headed upwind if I haven't already busted them. I parallel the bench from below, occasionally creeping up the ridge for a look. Still no bulls. They might be just over a little ridge in the swale between the lake I'm hunting and the one above it. I creep down to where I can see if that's where they went. It's a risky move: I'm traveling crosswind, and the wind probably swirls once it hits the swale.

But it pays off. There below me are both bulls and eight cows and their young, all feeding contentedly. I guess the distance at 150 yards, though with almost nothing for reference between them and me, it's hard to say. With a rifle, I could limit out now with two well-placed shots and spend the rest of the week patting myself on the back. With a bow, my only hope is a wide backtrack to station myself in the thick stuff by the lake's edge in the hope that they will graze that way and offer a shot. By the time I have the group of caribou back in sight, all I see are cows. The bulls have vanished. Suddenly I hear loud scraping sounds. High above me on a ridge I see the rears of the two bulls, side by side, walking fast. They saw or heard me and left the belt of trees to walk straight up the loose shale toward safety, setting off mini rockslides with each step. The cows are still there, so I probably wasn't scented, but it doesn't matter. The bulls ascend the steep ridge, silhouette themselves vividly for a moment at the crest, and are gone forever.

[AGONY ON THE TUNDRA] Although I'm here as a single hunter I've somehow managed to attach myself to the gravy train being prepared for the other clients. The bottle of Scotch I gave to Lloyd, the cook, hasn't hurt. (I notice that he's slipping me turkey sandwiches to take for lunch while the other guys are getting peanut butter.) And I pass out plenty of Labatt's Blue to the guides, deceptively small men from dying fishing villages in Labrador and Newfoundland who can carry half their weight in caribou meat all day and leave you eating their mud.

The next afternoon, I find myself pinned down by two fairly small bulls--either of which I would happily shoot--that come feeding toward me and bed down in the open. I take their range at 142 yards. Once again, there is no cover over 6 inches high between us. I am crouched behind a rock, back and knees getting tighter all the time, trying to come up with a strategy. Finally I leave all my gear except for my bow and, keeping the rock between us, start to crab-crawl backward 100 yards to a line of shrubs. Meanwhile, the rain starts. I am wet, dirty, scratched, and bleeding slightly in two places when I make the shrubbery. Gloves might have been a good idea. I crawl around to the continuation of the path they were taking when they had bedded down and set up 20 yards downwind of it. The sweat I worked up now chills me. After an eternity, the bulls rise and mosey back the way they came.

I don't want to kill them now. I just want to punish them, tie them up and make them watch early Madonna videos until their caribou minds are mush. It is now dusk. I head back to camp and ask Lloyd if he can spare some Scotch.

On my last day of bowhunting I set up in the faintest of saddles set in a high ridge, a place where I've spotted animals crossing fairly regularly. It's all loose dark rock around me, no boulders, and I am tucked into the lone clump of bushes for 200 yards in any direction. At 10 A.M., I'm sitting there on my knees and heels when a group of cows and a few yearling bulls comes plodding over the saddle. Just as they're nearly in my lap, the wind shifts and they catch my scent but can't quite unravel it. They mill about nervously. One good-size cow turns broadside and stops long enough for me to laser the distance at 29 yards. It's an eminently makable shot, but I let her walk. I'm still holding out for bulls.

[GROUND WORK] On day four, I come over to the dark side, increasing my range from 40 yards to 250, thanks to the Winchester division of the Olin Corp. I set up above the same saddle. The reality of the situation has dawned on me: two days left, nothing on the ground, a yawning freezer at home. I resolve to drop the first legal bull I see. A few minutes later, I spot two cows with fawns in tow crossing 150 yards below me, stopping to nibble lichens. Then a young bull appears. I already have my pack in front of me to use as a rest. I put the crosshairs of the .270 just behind his shoulder and squeeze. He goes down, hooves in the air, legs churning. I fire again and he goes down for good.

You have to clean caribou quickly because a diet of lichen causes their stomachs to bloat within minutes. Wait too long, and they actually explode. I get the animal gutted pretty fast. In another hour, I manage to cut, hack, and saw it into pieces that might loosely be called quarters. Fortunately, I'm only half a mile from camp, almost all of it downhill. It takes me four trips to get it all into the screened meat house by the dock. There is a surprising sense of satisfaction in packing your own meat out instead of following a guide who is doing it for you. Sure, after my amateur cutting job, a lot of the meat is only fit to be ground into burger. But it's mine. I'm the one who stalked it, killed it, and carried it out. On the last trip down, I run into one of the other rifle hunters with his guide heading out for the afternoon. "You packing one out?" he asks. "Yep," I say. There is something very much like envy in his face.

That night, I discover that only one of the four other hunters has scored. Two of them are bowhunters; one missed an animal at 40 yards. It seems as if I'm not doing too badly on my own.

My last full day of hunting brings a 30-knot west wind and a cold, steady drizzle. I choose a spot along a path connecting two lakes. By sitting with my knees bunched up close to my chest, I can get much of my body behind a small boulder and blunt the wind and rain. Every half hour, when I start to hear my own teeth clicking, I get up and slowly climb 100 yards farther up the ridge to get some blood moving. Lloyd sees the look on my face as I trudge into camp that night, wipes his hands on his apron, and reappears with a coffee cup half full of 80-proof muscle warmer.

The plane is due to pick me up early the next morning. During the night, the weather turns. I rise to a rarity on this trip: sunshine and bluebird skies. I pack reluctantly, sure that today would have brought a big bull my way. I put on blue jeans instead of camo and settle down with coffee and a novel in a chair facing the sun. Then one of the guides tells me he just heard on the radio that the plane will be a couple of hours late. Something about extra propane needed in another camp. I drop the book and get out my rifle, a handful of shells, and binoculars. I jog up to the saddle by the lake where Sam told me to glass from the first evening. Two hours later, when I hear the whine of the floatplane coming to take me away, I'm still there, convinced that at any moment a big one's going to emerge from the trees and give himself to me.

"I watch them hoof it into the next drainage, taking a piece of my heart with them." "Only one of the other hunters has scored. It seems I'm not doing too badly on my own."