Sunday, September 9, 2012
Persistence- Family Style
The caribou season was moving along nicely into week 6, albeit without bagging a critter. I had been hunting pretty consistently over the last month- always seeing animals, got in a few stalks along the way but never connected. My best opportunity had occurred on opening day- I crawled to about 350 yards of a really nice bull at first light. The shot was pretty long for the opening bell and I didn't want to stretch the barrel out that much- I passed figuring we'd see more caribou later in the day. I didn't see another for a week. I went on several short day hunts, more akin to pre-season scouting than hunt in the summer heat.
Later in the month, a couple of weekend forays into the high country revealed that the unseasonal heat and bugs were keeping the caribou in the high hills near the vegetation line for their comfort. Hunting was slow even though I made a couple of unsuccessful ventures above 5000' in what resembles sheep country in the hopes of bagging one. Chasing a caribou that far, that high is pretty much a fools errand (although great fun) since there is little in the way of cover. Although they aren't the most wary of creatures, simply pursuing them over open ground is rarely successful.
A couple of day hunts into the area revealed high winds and not a creature stirring and a weekend hunt with a friend that pushed thirty miles into the Alphabet hills yielded brief glimpses of bears and bull moose but only fleeting glimpse of caribou- running flat out, on the wrong side of the swamp, or at the top of the mountain that, all intents and purposes, could have been the surface of the moon. But one common factor remained- none of the animals we were seeing were in large groups, just a few groups of three or four but mostly singles and cows with calves. Despite the September date on the calendar the animals were acting more like summer caribou- in small groups, in summer range, not moving much during the day. In short- a lot of hours of eyeballing past the great beyond.
As a partial subsistence hunter, this endeavor isn't merely recreational (despite having a genuine good time) as a major portion of my family's calories come from wild game and fish. By week five, I was really ready to get my hands bloody and displace some of the air in my freezer. Another weekend long hunt revealed nothing of interest except seeing groups of caribou on mountaintops- at least the herding behavior was a precursor of the migration when the animals would come down into range of the rifle. A long vehicle ride all the way to McLaren Summit revealed a group of 12 caribou being pursued separately by at least 8 hunters in 3 different groups at a range of two miles. Entertaining, but not doing anything about the air in the freezer.
Week six rolled around and as much as my pride in my prowess hates to admit it- I was getting desperate. I bailed out of work as early as I could on Thursday and packed a few meager articles and headed down on a solo search and destroy mission. A lot of spotter time on Thursday night revealed absolutely nothing and with a lot of reservations I horsed down a freeze dried meal and climbed into the cargo hold of my Pathfinder to catch some sleep. Before I drifted off, I spent an hour reading Steve Rinella's new work- Meateater, remembered some of the camping trips with my late father, and stared at the stars for a little while. The heavy and melancholy thoughts soon had me chasing sheep in the alpine meadows of my dreams.
First light found me already drinking coffee waiting for enough solar radiation to make the binoculars work. As the dawn turned from grey to pink to orange I had a renewed sense of optimism. Halfway through my second cup, I turned to glance north to a high saddle and bigger than life I saw a large bull sky-lined about a mile and a half away on the east side, at the base of a 6000' peak. I thought I heard angels singing. I had packed for the field the night before and I only needed seconds to verify the contents of the pack, lock up the vehicle with my Spartan camp and start heading up.
I practically sprinted up the mountain, at about 2000' I passed the snow line, a small squall had left the red and gold and grey of the tundra with a skiff of snow on the ground. In the gloom of dawn I pressed upward. By the time I reached the apex of the saddle at about 4000' I had shed nearly all my layers and was sweating heavily in just a light merino wool T-shirt despite a temperature of about 28F. My breath escaped in great clouds of steam as I fought for breath after the hour long climb through the rough tundra.
Cooling down just enough to use the binoculars without fogging the lenses, I glassed the half mile wide alpine basin I was on the rim of. I spotted the small herd in just a few moments- in the intervening hour they had moved further east and were in a small, green growth bowl at the base of the higher peak on the opposite side of the basin. I quickly made out a plan to approach using a series of shallow ravines and depressions. As I moved east as quickly and quietly as I could, I only had intermittent visibility on the caribou. I was desperately afraid as dawn turned to day the animals would turn and move up the high slope and out of practical reach. I had seen it time and again the last few weeks.
After dodging a maze of ravines I finally got to the spot I just flat ran out of cover. The caribou had become aware of my presence but still showed no sign of alarm. I did a quick count- 9 animals including a very nice sized bull. I glanced back toward my camp- 2 miles or so but all downhill. The pack out would really take a long time. I decided to move slowly forward and see how close I could get before needing to fire. After a mere 50 yards the caribou all stood and stared in my direction.
I laid my pack down on a small rise and assumed a prone position- how far? No idea. In good light across known terrain I'm not a good hand at eyeballing range and on the high barren plateau in the dawn's flat light I simply had no idea. The animals began to act fidgety, not panic but I knew what would happen next. The caribou would simply move higher while browsing faster than I could walk. Now was the time. I lined up on the bull and flipped the safety off. How far? Still no idea, but the shot looked doable albeit long. I placed the crosswire just behind the bull's shoulder and took up slack trusting my rifle's ballistics would carry the distance.
The crack split the unearthly quiet of the dawn mountains and I looked for signs of a hit...nothing. I cycled a fresh round into the chamber and stared intently as the caribou stared back at me apparently bewildered at the sudden peal of thunder. I re-evaluated the distance- it must of been longer than I thought. I broke every rule in my personal book and elevated the crosswire to hold on the bull's back line and took up slack on the trigger a second time.
The bull didn't register any sign of a hit but the whole group had had enough of my predations and started browsing uphill and while they were probably out of rifle range when I started, within moments they would certainly be out of rifle range. I cycled the action a second time to pick up another cartridge.
This was stupid.
No idea how far, by myself miles from camp. The only thing worse than missing a third shot would be connecting on one. I jacked the live shell out of the chamber and looked across the divide at the caribou moving steadily up the slope. This distance was really farther than I thought (or wanted to believe) it was. Keeping my eyes on the bull I watched to see if he'd suffered a wound. He moved without hesitation or limp- I had missed clean.
After the caribou had walked clean out of sight over the east summit I lay there in the snow for a long time. As the fatigue and exertion of the climb caught up to me I began to just feel defeat. Sometime prior to achieving hypothermia, I put my layers back on and started the long trek down the mountain to camp. In retrospect, I'm glad no bears were there on the mountain because my head was down and my thoughts were miles away. When I reached my camp, I drank some water and made another freeze dried meal. After eating it- I threw all my stuff back into the rig haphazardly and headed for home.
It began to snow.
I awoke the next day in a thorough funk. My wife is used to seeing this sort of melancholy behavior toward the end of hunting season. We got a slow start to the day and I must admit- I moped my way through preparation to go again. My wife and son would go and we'd make it a Saturday picnic outing with the possibility of scoring an animal. I wasn't hopeful, but we set out anyway.
After arriving in the hunt area, it didn't take long to find a group of caribou moving west along a ridge about a mile distant. We drove further and got in front of them and I started a half-hearted stalk with my son in tow. The caribou were feeding away from us on a parallel ridge and would pass about a mile to our south across a wide band of alders and head high brush. We watched them a little while and when they crossed the ridge we turned back for the vehicle. I paused a moment and decided to walk to the east side of the ridge and look back up the valley to the area that paralleled the area's only highway.
Movement caught my eye.
A group of five caribou were feeding to the north- toward the highway, about a half mile to the road and a half mile from us. I looked again. They were just browsing, not really making distance. A long ravine would put us on an intercept course if we hurried. We quickly slipped over the ridge and started a quick sprint to close the gap. I felt hope creeping in again. After a few minutes of steady travel, my wife glimpsed them sky-line themselves as they crossed a small rise. As we came to the base of a small ridge I looked up and there on the ridge, just below the summit was the band of caribou.
I wasted no time and crashed into a prone position- I looked at the group, they consisted of a small bull and a large cow as well as three yearling calves. I zeroed in on the large cow and fired.
Boom! No reaction. I cycled the bolt and fired again- Boom! The caribou humped up at the impact of the bullet and went wobbly-legged over the summit of the ridge. Given the reaction I was sure the caribou had taken a good lung shot and would certainly be dead on the top of the ridge and I picked my way there past a small lake and up the brushy slope.
When I topped out I saw the entire group standing around a downed animal. That reaction isn't really unusual as I've had to shoo caribou away from one I've just shot before. What did surprise me is that the cow stood up when I approached to about 50' from dead astern. That wasn't supposed to happen. The cow turned her head to look at me, obviously very ill from my earlier shot. I quickly raised the rifle and placed the crosshairs between her eyes with a sense of personal failure for the moments of suffering she'd endured.
The rifle cracked and she was down for good.
The family gathered around the fallen animal, the largest bodied cow caribou we'd ever seen. The rest of the band of animals ran about a quarter mile off in the distance and stood there and stared as these odd grey and green coated harbingers of death gathered around their matriarch. My first two shots had both hit her low in the lungs and I'm surprised she had the steam to move at all when I got to her, if she'd have ran she'd have been down in mere seconds. We would work together as a family in the cold wind and butcher this caribou- hauling it off the mountain in our packs on our backs. We finished just as the sun began to set and turned the tundra into the most radiant red and gold.
It was a good day. I was exhausted and bloody, but it was a good day.