Caribou: The Deer That Never Stops

The Deer That Never Stops: by Anthony Licata I saw my first big band of caribou sidehilling on a ridge about 500 yards from the one I was sitting on. Through my binoculars I counted 14 animals - mostly cows and calves, but mixed in were three nice bulls. I grabbed my pack and rifle and sneaked to a lone spruce on the open tundra that would give me some cover to take a better look. Despite the clear view I now had at the open ridge, I couldn't find the herd. Finally I spotted them, still walking at the same steady pace, but in front of where I expected them to be by about 200 yards. This should've been my first clue that caribou aren't whitetails. Trying to stay out of sight, I worked my way up to the head of my ridge, where I figured I could get in front of the herd, meet up with my hunting buddy, Joe Arterburn, and put us in position to have bulls cross 200 yards below us. I got there in five minutes and told Joe the plan. The two of us set up and waited for the herd to show. But we weren't there 30 seconds when Joe said, "Wait a minute. Is that them?" I looked up just in time to see the last of the caribou slipping over a ridge way off on the western horizon. Caribou spend much of their lives moving, traveling thousands of miles a year, every year. I knew that, but it still was not easy for this deer hunter to believe they can cover hundreds of yards in the time it takes me to round up my stuff and brush off my pants, without ever breaking the pace of a determined walk. Over the next six days, I'd have plenty of chances to learn the hard way.Brad Fenson
The Long Run: Every fall, two great herds of caribou filter out of the far northern reaches of Quebec, where they spend the summer feeding, calving, and trying to find relief from swarms of mosquitoes. Before the breeding season, they start to stream south on their annual migration, pushing to reach their wintering grounds. The larger Leaf River herd numbers 700,000; the George River herd, about 400,000. With over a million animals, it's understandable why hunters head north with visions of rivers of caribou flowing past their camp and the idea that hunting them is little more than picking out the critter you want and pulling the trigger. But as I found out on my first caribou hunt last fall, the truth is far different and the hunt much more interesting.Brad Fenson
The bigger the herd, the more stress on food supply, which causes caribou to change migration routes from year to year. Also, as caribou populations have grown over the last 20 years, the animals are breaking into smaller groups to better find food. On my hunt we saw animals in twos and threes and bands as large as 30. Most often we saw five to eight animals traveling together. Of course, it's still possible to see massive groups, but that's the exception. There may be a lot of caribou, but there is even more country. Outfitters deal with the situation using a mix of old skills and new technology. Experience gives them the knowledge to predict routes and behavior, but they also rely on satellite telemetry studies run by the Quebec government and their own scouting flights that keep close tabs on the herds' progress. Most maintain a series of primitive camps stretching across hundreds of square miles, and they place hunters only in camps that they feel certain will have active migration routes close by. But that doesn't mean the caribou will show up within hiking distance. And even if they do, there are a lot of ways for caribou to vanish.Brad Fenson
First, there is more timber, mostly jack pine, black spruce, and larches, than you'd expect in the low country. Up high the tundra stretches for miles. Vibrant colors - blue rock, pale green lichen, red lowbush blueberries, black fingers of spruce - make the whole scene look like an impossibly pretty watercolor painting. But what at first glance appears wide open is actually interlaced with countless ridges and hills and dips and rises that can hide the animals. And everywhere you look - high or low - is water. Big lakes, small lakes, mucky bogs, creeks, and rivers. One of the easiest ways to spot caribou is when they plunge into open water. Caribou have no qualms crossing any water, because if they hesitated every time they came to a lake or river they'd never get anywhere. Wolves know this, too, and often wait for swimming caribou, one reason why they're on high alert, heads swiveling, when they climb up on the bank and shake water off their hides. Packs of wolves follow caribou for the whole migration, and the howl of a wolf is as good as a fresh track to tell you that caribou are near.Brad Fenson
One Step Behind: I was hunting with outfitter Jack Hume on what's typically called an "American Plan." It works like this: After a series of flights, the last on a floatplane, you're dropped off in a primitive camp made up of a few plywood-and-tarp shacks. A cook prepares meals. A guide chops wood, shuttles you around the lake by aluminum skiff, and points you in the right direction. After that, you're on your own. Depending on the guide's time and inclination, he may help you pack out a caribou, but this is a do-it-mostly-yourself hunt. A lot of hunters, spooked by the wild, isolated country, stick close to the home lake. There is also the sobering fact that the farther you travel from where the boat can reach, the farther you're going to have to pack meat if you get a bull. But you'll have the most success if you're not afraid to cover some ground. The best way to hunt is to hike and glass, working the ridges and checking out as much country as possible. Once you spot caribou, the trick is to get into position for a shot before they move on, something that I had trouble grasping.Brad Fenson
I'd been warned by our guide Bernie Belvin, a 49-year-old from St.Augustin, Quebec, a tiny town hard on the Newfoundland-Labrador border. Belvin grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping and has been a caribou guide for over 20 years. One of his favorite things to do is take his 12-year-old son on extended trapping trips in the winter, carrying little more than a hatchet and some matches. He's one of the toughest woodsmen I've ever met but also one of the nicest. Once he had a camp full of hunters more interested in playing cards and drinking than hunting. They heard over the camp's radio that a supply plane was landing at a nearby outpost. After they arranged for the pilot to drop off three cases of beer and a jug of Crown Royal, Belvin hiked over and humped all the booze back in his pack. It was 6 miles each way. I would've let them drink lake water. But that's not Belvin's style. He wore a constant smile and would do anything to get his hunters into caribou. Besides showing us his best spots, he was eager to debunk a first-time caribou hunter's misconceptions. Taking a look at my camo, he shrugged and said, "You don't have to worry about concealment. Some of these animals have never seen a man. Just don't move if they spot you."Brad Fenson
But no matter how much he stressed it, I couldn't get my head around how quickly caribou cover ground. "They look like they're just ambling along, but they're moving, believe me," said Belvin. "They can cover 30 miles a day. You will never catch them from behind. You've got to get in front of them and be ready to take a long shot." I was starting to get the idea after Joe and I failed to cut off the group on that ridge, but we got burned again a day later. We were high on the open tundra, in a spot where we figured we could see for miles. When we spotted caribou, however, they popped out of an unseen fold in the land about 170 yards from us, walked across 10 yards of open space, and then disappeared into a finger of timber.Brad Fenson
We went after them, working our way into the trees, mucking across a small bog, and slipping through several openings, creeping and peeking into the cover the whole way. Finally we came to a cliff that overlooked a bog about 50 yards wide and 200 yards long, running parallel to the base of the cliff. We figured the caribou ended up down there, crossed the bog, and entered the timber on the far side - probably about three minutes into our 20-minute stalk.Brad Fenson
After that blown chance, we learned another hard lesson of caribou hunting: It's feast or famine. When caribou are moving through, you have lots of action. In two days we saw nearly 50 animals as group after group of caribou pushed through the area. On the third day they were all gone. We covered several miles, glassed every rock that even remotely looked like it had fur, and never saw a thing. It was as if the country had been emptied of every critter except a few jays. And it wasn't just us. Every hunter in camp saw the same: nothing.Brad Fenson
Wait A Second: On the final day of my hunt, I was back in the spot where Joe and I had begun our unsuccessful stalk. I was sitting on the same rock, in fact, when caribou began to file out of the same dip and went into the same timber. I quickly got into position for a shot, but it turned out that the best bull of the bunch was the first one, the one that was already gone by the time I mounted my rifle. I was determined to catch these caribou, even if that meant spooking them in the process. After the last one was out of sight, I took off at a dead run. I plunged into the timber. My only shot, I figured, was to get to the cliff and catch the caribou crossing the bog at its base.Brad Fenson
When I got there I was panting and blowing. I looked down on the bog. Empty. I was wondering exactly how fast you have to be to catch a caribou - like an Olympic sprinter? A trotting wolf? - when I heard splashing. The band was walking into the bog. There was no way I could hold my rifle steady after that run, so I dropped prone, rested my Model 70 on a rock, and tried to settle the crosshairs over the lead bull, a beautiful animal with a white mane and a rack in full velvet. He was just about to disappear into the trees on the far side when he stopped 170 yards away. It was only for a moment, but that's all I needed to make the shot.Brad Fenson
That night back at camp I was tired and a little homesick. It was my birthday, and despite my terrific hunt and the homemade cake (with candles!) thoughtfully baked by our cook, Bernie's wife, Josey, I was starting to feel the isolation of this vast wilderness and dreaming of home. But when I stepped out of the cook cabin, I was jolted back to reality.Brad Fenson
A giant green campfire had been built on one horizon out of spent nuclear rods, it seemed, and the fluorescent smoke curled into the sky, drifting across a dome of stars before melting into the outlines of spruce on the far horizon: We'd pretty much given up on seeing the northern lights, but now they put on an incredible show.Brad Fenson
We stood slack-jawed as the colors changed from green to red to purple and back to chartreuse, as the smoke seamlessly morphed into wide bands and clouds and then waves that pulsed across the sky.Brad Fenson
Josey, who as a lifelong resident of the Far North knows the aurora borealis the way we know thunderstorms, looked up and said, "Northern lights at night means dirty weather in the morning." She was right. Clouds rolled in and kept the plane away for another three days. But standing there that night, awed and humbled by this unbelievable place, I didn't care about Josey's warning. I didn't care if the plane didn't come for another week.Brad Fenson