Thursday, September 22, 2011
Evan, the Hunter.
We pulled into our favorite spot at Octopus Lake (where we had camped a couple years ago) and got out to stretch after the long drive. We saw several parties of hunters working on caribou they had down and after a few moments with binoculars spotted several small bands of caribou moving through the drainage. As we ate our lunch a gunshot punctuated the fact that the caribou were still in the area. Evan was, of course, delighted at the prospect. We left the wife and dog at the van with the spotting scope. She would follow our progress down the drainage and watch the animals intermittently while she picked berries, played fetch with the dog and worked on her sewing.
I shouldered my pack and we moved out, Evan pressing ahead eagerly through the rough terrain and we followed the creek as it drained out of the lake and headed for the Gulkana some miles away. He was undeterred by bands of alder and bushwacked his way through with abandon. After a mile or so of hard won progress, I decided we should cross the creek to get on a low rise to the east that split the drainage into two irregular shaped canyons. Evan approached the water tenderly- clearly reluctant to get his feet wet. I waded out to the other side and dumped my gear, waded back and retrieved the boy high and dry. He'd only be little once and my feet would dry- eventually.
Arriving on the low rise, we pressed binoculars to our eyes and watched several bands of caribou further down the canyons as they fed and moved. Evan wanted to chase the closest group and shoot one immediately but I reminded him that chasing caribou like that was a fool's errand. The creatures wouldn't bolt and run- they'd simply continue browsing and outpace you. A much better tactic was to simply wait in ambush until one wandered close enough to shoot.
Evan's patience was certainly growing because after an hour of steady glassing I'd not heard a peep or grumble despite a slightly chilly wind and light drizzle of rain. We watched as a band of caribou had moved from one canyon to the other several times without getting close enough to launch a stalk when on the last move a small bull separated himself from the herd and began moving through the bottom of the drainage toward us. Still about a mile away we crept forward perhaps a hundred yards to the limits of our cover. With extreme patience we sat with baited breath as the bull moved to within 400 yards of us and simply stopped approaching and began feeding intently on some morsel he found growing there. Evan remarked to me in hushed tones- "I know what happens now...he's separated from the herd...that means he's gonna die, all the nature documentaries say so."
I asked him back in low tones, "Well how do you figure that Evan?"
Deadpan he replied back, "...cause we're gonna shoot him."
I informed him that he was still too far away to shoot and if he wanted me to shoot the bull he'd have to find us a way closer in. We backed slowly off of our advanced position and realized that there was no way to get off the hillside without the bull easily spotting us due to the dearth of cover available. Evan exclaimed very excitedly, "I've got an idea..." and laid out his plan.
I've got to confess its something I would have never considered in all my years in the field. We simply stood up and walked off the hill away from the bull...in plain sight. Evan had explained his plan- he didn't think that the bull would spook if he saw us walking away from him, getting further away instead of closer. Skeptical of the plan but feeling it might work we did just that- walking a quarter of a mile away as the perplexed caribou watched us retreat. I saw a couple of guys on ATVs at the top of the hill with a sense of dread. They likely thought we'd called off the stalk and would soon swoop in on their machines and shoot the bull. As the caribou disappeared from view behind a fold in the terrain Evan cried out "Let's go!" and took off for the creek at a dead run.
Arriving at the creek there was no hesitation this time, he plunged into the icy water up to his waist and forged across. I followed and we made our way up the slope past the bank and hooked back to where the caribou had continued feeding. We crossed several smaller streams and rivulets draining into the swollen creek and I hate to disclose I had a hard time keeping up with Evan through the alders- his smaller body contorting as he passed easily through the gnarled and twisted branches. I hadn't heard the ATVs yet and hoped the hunters had decided this small bull was a good one to pass up. We soon topped the small fold in the terrain that had held us concealed from the bull.
There he was! Evan's unconventional approached had halved the distance to something like two hundred yards. Evan was down on hands and knees now moving over the tundra in a scramble carefully keeping some low growing foliage between him and the bull to conceal his approach. I followed the best I could. Finally arriving at the last dwarf willow between us and the bull I was quite proud- we had followed the hunter's dictum to a 'T'. If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier. Evan beamed with pride as he looked at me with a smirk..."How's that for close?" his eyes said merrily.
I looked at the bull. He was feeding unconcernedly a mere hundred yards away. I cast a glance over my shoulder to the van back at the head of the drainage- a mile and a half. It was going to be a long evening packing this critter back that far. I crept around the willow and raised the rifle. Not wanting to stand offhand and risk startling the bull but unable to assume either prone or sitting due to the sloping, tussocky terrain; I simply crouched in an unconventional position that's best described as "Rice Paddy Prone meets Saturday Night Fever." I looked through the scope at the bull- he was huge in the 6x scope at this range and wonderfully steady. I glanced over at Evan, he was practically vibrating with excitement with his fingers in his ears to shield them from the muzzle blast. I slipped off the safety, looked through the scope and took up slack on the trigger as the crosshairs found the fold of flesh immediately behind the bulls shoulder.
Boom! The gun practically fired itself as I applied the final fractional pressure to the trigger when the crosshairs found their mark. The bull staggered at the impact. The shot was too close for the kugelschlag to sound separately from the muzzle blast but the shot felt good. The bull took a wobbly step forward, a good sign. Evan yelled out, "Shoot him again!" but there was no need. He took several more wobbly legged steps before his brain succumbed to the inevitable- he was hit hard but stubbornly stayed on his feet. I explained in quiet tones that additional shooting would only frighten the animal and that he was already as dead as he'd ever get at this point. I've always hated shooting a second time once an animal has been fatally hit. Besides, where do you shoot an animal you've already double-lunged?
After perhaps 5 seconds the bull tipped over on his nose and was stone still. I stood up and looked back at Evan- he looked triumphant and a little bit sad. I had apparently done that bit of parenting right.
"Good job Evan, that was a great stalk. You got us so close I just couldn't miss."
"That was the best strategy and stalk I've ever seen. You guys are awesome hunters! You worked in so close and smoked that guy with one shot! We'd be happy to haul that guy back to the road for you if you like." he said, much to my relief.
I pointed at Evan and said, "He's the guy who planned that one. Now if I can just teach him to shoot the big rifle and grow him big enough to pack meat, I won't even have to leave the house." We all shared a laugh as Evan beamed proudly with the small antlers in his hand.
Days just don't get much better than this.