As the bugs hatched out and became unbearable, we relocated camp to a large gravel flat near a large lake. The wind from the lake would help knock down the bugs and the lack of vegetation gave the wee beasties fewer places to hatch from. While most folks concentrate on the ubiquitous mosquito, the most dreaded insect in this corner of Alaska is the biting gnat. The creature goes by several names- the biting gnat, the biting midge and the "no-see um" the proper name is the one almost no one refers to them by, Ceratopogonidae. No matter- they all refer to a terrible creature, who gnaws a bloody hole in your skin and then apparently craps in the hole for spite. The gnats lay eggs and hatch out in the tussocks of damp mountain tundra and walking across it can raise unbelievable clouds of them. Once they detect a mammal- the females home in and commence to feed on blood as part of the reproductive cycle. Many people have terrible allergic reactions to the proteins in their saliva and break out in huge welts. Camping on dry gravel bands and bars, particularly in wind prone locations can reduce the exposure. Insect repellant is largely ineffective.
As insignificant as the gnats are- they would play a larger role later tonight.
After relocating camp, we finished butchering the caribou and hung it up beneath a tarp. The tarp would protect it from sunlight and rain while allowing the cooler breeze to reduce the temperature of the meat. In the cooler temps the meat could safely hang in camp for a couple of days without risk of spoilage. My friend Gary joined us in camp that evening and after a quick late lunch, we assembled his inflatable raft and set sail down a series of chained lakes for an area we'd been successful last year. It was a short trip and we made quick work with a small outboard on the raft.
We arrived and beached the raft. We climbed a pressure ridge and established a glassing post on the most prominent ridge top. The dry gravel at the top combined with the non-stop breeze of the lake channel kept the gnats at bay, only an occasional one would stray into the area. Finding caribou took less than 5 minutes. A large bull fed his way into view. He looked a long way off but as typical on the tundra, ranges are difficult to estimate. Gary got into a prone position over his daypack and lined up. I did likewise with my .270.
I asked Gary if he was comfortable with the shot, "It looks long, are you steady on this one?"
He replied, "Yeah, I've got it. No problem."
His .338 boomed and I watched the bull hunch up at the impact. It was a solid hit and the bull staggered and stumbled. We waited for a couple of moments waiting for the bull to tip over.
Except, he didn't. He started walking and stumbling away.
"Give him another." I called out- watching intently through the binoculars.
Gary fired again. Miss. And again....miss. With each successive shot the bull put more distance on the range and got more intent on fleeing.
"Shoot him now!" Urged Gary. His voice was intent now that the bull was obviously wounded and his rifle was empty. I peered through the scope on the .270... the bull was strongly quartering away and I simply aimed for the middle and fired. Boom! No reaction. I fired again with no effect. The .270 is zeroed for 250 yards the fact I was undershooting him made me think this bull was a distressing distance away. I held the horizontal wire on the bull's back line and as carefully as I could manage, squeezed a round off. Boom! With a significant delay I heard the kugelschlag, the sound of the bullet striking game come back. It was a sharp crack rather than a hollow whomp which indicated I had struck bone. The bull collapsed with a shattered rear leg. I fired my last round out of humanity trying to end his life as quickly as possible. It broke my heart when I saw a clump of dirt fly up in front of the caribou.
My remaining ammunition was located in the boat, along with my rangefinder. It was about a 5 minute hike back down and then a 10 minute climb back up. As I got ready to tear off, Gary found 2 rounds in his day pack. Rather than fire them from our perch, we made a plan. I would stay on the ridge and guide Gary through hand signals to the wounded bull which would allow Gary to dispatch it at close range. I would follow with the packs once he located the bull. As Gary picked his way across the tundra on a near dead run through the brush, it was apparent the bull was much farther than either of us though. A little map and Google Earth work would later reveal the initial shot was very near 450 yards- much farther than either of us would have knowingly attempted- and the final shot was on the order of 550 yards. After an agonizing period of time I saw Gary enter the small basin with the bull and heard the report of the rifle, followed by another.
I followed a few minutes later after retrieving the packs from the raft. The bull was huge. The first hit had hit the bull a little too far back, in the liver. The wound would have been fatal but the caribou could have went a considerable distance. The second wound had smashed the upper femur of the onside rear leg. The bull was bleeding heavily and would have died fairly soon had Gary not shot it in the neck to end the suffering. We both felt horrible at how this happened. We both really try very hard to avoid this kind of thing. It was Gary's first experience with anything but a bang, flop, DRT shot. It was unfortunately not my first. We both hope it to be the last. I know that it does happen, occasionally animals just die hard. It doesn't mean I like it.
We set about to field dress the animal, more somber than usual, without the chit chat or cheerful way we usually go about the work. It also became uncomfortable as the breeze died and the gnats came out in force. It also got far worse, once Gary realized he had forgotten his headnet which is the only way to seek refuge from them. We tried every trick in the book, we gutted the animal and then pulled the carcass several yards away- hoping to lure the midges to the pools of blood and entrails. It worked, but only a little. After a brutal 20 minutes, Gary resorted to putting pieces of rolled up toilet paper in his ears to keep the gnats out of his ear canals. I would occasionally hear him cursing under his breath but otherwise he was silently suffering the bugs and a heavy heart.
After perhaps a half hour, I looked up and saw something moving across the tundra. A large bull was walking right toward us. I still had a tag in my pocket and a rifle full of ammo. I decided against it and went back to work butchering. I looked up again, the caribou's larger cousin had joined them and they were standing there, staring at us stupidly. The second bull was perhaps, the largest bull I've ever had opportunity to shoot. I went back to cutting, the wheels turning. We had to finish Gary's caribou and pack it to the raft, it would require two trips through the buggy tundra. Then we had to travel an hour up the lake to camp. If everything went right, we'd arrive right at dark. Right at dark provided I didn't shoot a second bull.
I looked up again, the bull was only 15 feet away as I held the rifle in my hands. I only had to raise it and shoot. I could have killed it with a spear. I thought very hard about what to do next. I looked at Gary, he had a trickle of blood coming from his ear and his face was looking puffy from the bites. Midges were all over our bare arms mixing our blood with that of the caribou. I knew he'd never say a word or complain if I doomed us to another two hours out here in purgatory. He'd never complain about a ride across the lake in the dark guided by headlamp. Internally, I couldn't wrap my head around causing any more death today. Or additional suffering. I'd had enough.
"I'm going to regret this tomorrow." I said as I snapped the safety on and dropped the rifle on my pack. Relief swept over Gary's face and my heart sank a little. I'd just had enough of it all for today.
The caribou snorted loudly and walked away in a long wide circle and disappeared over the edge of the plateau.