A Dream Becomes Reality

Big Fin

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Having been on the road, almost non-stop, since August 11th, I’ve been a bit absent here on Hunt Talk this fall. Got home late last night following the 32-hour drive from far northern British Columbia.

This hunt has been a dream since I was a teenager. Sometime around 8th grade, I read an article in a hunting magazine about hunting Mountain Caribou in the Cassiar Region of northern British Columbia. Since that time, Mountain Caribou in the Cassiars has bounced around in my mind and when asked what my ultimate hunt as, such would be my reply without a second of hesitation.

I can’t tell you why that article struck me. Maybe it was a kid from the thick flat woods of northern Minnesota who trying to conjure the most foreign and unattainable hunting idea he could imagine. Maybe it was the images of the landscape and the caribou. Or, maybe it was just a bad day and this article took my mind to a place that seemed more enjoyable.

Roll forward forty years and I find myself on the road to Watson Lake, Yukon Territories, where I would have my last connection to the digital world before driving an hour south to the small camp of Backcountry BC & Beyond, an outfit owned and operated by Dustin Roe, a person I’ve known for a few years.

A couple years ago, when he was in Bozeman for a Sitka event we were both invited to, I had Dustin on my podcast. When we finished, he asked me what my dream hunt would be. I suspect he thought it would be sheep or some other highly cherished hunt. When I replied, “Mountain Caribou,” he got a big smile and asked, “Really?”

“Yup, really. Been dreaming about it since I was a teenager.”

He then told me he had just bought a new territory that included the best Mountain Caribou in BC. I thought he was jerking my chain. He had some pics on his phone of past caribou the prior territory owner had taken. They were impressive, at least to a guy who had never seen a Mountain Caribou. He told me to think about it, though 2017 and 2018 were already booked.

I came home that evening and kind of hinted to Mrs. Fin that I learned about a Mountain Caribou operation. Well, maybe “kind of hinted” is the wrong way to say it. “Obsessed about it” would probably be a more fitting term.

Imagine my surprise (and glee) when Mrs. Fin said something to the effect of, “You going to talk about it the rest of your life, or you gonna go and do it?” I think she had tired of me making mention of the Cassiars and Mountain Caribou whenever my mind had some time to drift without distraction.

I looked at her with the “you serious?” look. She smiled and gave me the lecture of how I always tell other people to follow their dream, do what they want, hunt when they can, etc., but for some reason I find reasons to not do some of the things we both know I want to do.

They say your spouse knows you better than you know yourself. Whoever said that is correct, at least in my marriage. I laid out my dilemma, excuses, or whatever you want to call irrational deferral of dreams.

Having saved hunting funds for years, finances were not a legitimate excuse. Having scaled back my CPA duties and no kids at home, time constraints we no longer an excuse. I used the “but it’s a guided hunt” excuse and she lectured me about the fact I had previously told her that I had two options if I wanted to hunt Mountain Caribou; go guided or don’t go. She was having none of it.

I found myself without any well-presented rebuttal; thankfully.

I contacted Dustin for some more details, as the price would likely be more than Mrs. Fin expected. And it would require at least another two weeks on the road when including travel, sandwiched in between all the other obligations and travel I have in a fall filming season. I got the details and Dustin said he would tentatively hold a spot for me in 2019, pending further consideration on my part. He also told me the full cost, including licenses, tags, goods and services tax, and transporter flight. Dustin also suggested adding moose, as the area is known for some of the biggest Canada moose in BC.

I added it all up. Gulp! How to justify that? Dinner was another conversation, more like a lecture, about all the friends and family we’ve know who were going to “do that someday” and who lost their health or lives before “someday” came around. She’d walked me out the plank and she knew it. We agreed that I would call Dustin and she lectured me of the stupidity of not adding moose as a possibility, given he only charges for the second species if you are successful.

So, at the next trade show in January 2018, I signed up with Dustin for late September/early October of 2019. He told me that is his best Mountain Caribou dates and that was my primary goal, I should go then. Deal!

My worry of this hunt was that no hunt, no outfitter, no outcome, could live up to decades of romantic daydreams about what the Cassiars would be like. No animal taken could ever equal the visions of thick, long-beamed, double shovel caribou that I convinced myself must exist somewhere in those mountains. I worried my years and years of dreaming had set expectations where even the best hunt would still fall short of expectations I had built.

Regardless of those unrealistic expectations, September 22nd found me and Marcus in the Titan, showing our passports at the Canadian border, with wild visions of what the next two weeks might hold in store. A dream, my greatest of all hunting dreams, was about to be lived.

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Big Fin

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It was 32 hours of drive time, putting us in Boya Lake, British Columbia late-afternoon on the 24th in plenty of time to fly out the following morning of the 25th. The weather had socked in by the time we arrived and were greeted by Dustin’s wife Heather and his partners, Dean and Katie. Quick introductions were made, and we learned Dustin was out in the field, substituting as a guide for one of his staff that blew out and MCL in the middle of a hunt.

We also met Jim, the hunter from Iowa who would be in the camp with us. He had arrived the day prior and was very welcoming as we situated ourselves in the shared cabin. Jim, Marcus, and I were quickly engaged in excited chatter common to long-awaited adventures. He was here for moose as his primary focus and had grabbed a caribou tag in the event such opportunity was presented.

We awoke the next morning with heavy rain and low clouds. We were informed that the weather did not show any relief until late in the day, which may preclude us from making the one-hour flight in a Beaver to where we would meet up with our guides and wranglers.

Not wanting to let boredom make the time pass slower, the three of us jumped in and offered to help with the meat cutting operation that happens at the ranch HQ. Three moose had been flown out the day before and needed to be processed before the hunters came back to camp and headed home. Given my joy of guttin’ and gillin’, nobody had to ask me twice. By the time it was done, we had two of the moose cut, wrapped, and in the freezer.

Around 2pm, the inReach message came in that we would not be flying in today. A ten-day hunt just went to nine days. As is often the case, when on these hunts with difficult logistics, you are often at the mercy of the weather. We spent the rest of the day reorganizing gear and cutting more moose meat.

Before hitting the rack that night, I checked and rechecked my gear. Marcus and I asked a ton of questions that allowed us to refine what we would bring for cameras, gear, batteries, etc. Final inventory of cameras was a bunch of Sony gear; an FS5 and lens kit, A7III and spare lenses, A6400, and two GoPro 7. Add a ten-day supply of batteries, tripods, audio, media cards, and spares of many items, and the production kit starts to add a lot of weight. Thank goodness we were taking horses to the outlying camps.

The next morning the rain had lessened, but still a lot of mist and low cloud deck. We had planned to head to Watson Lake at 6:30 am, only to defer when a message came from the transporter that it would be later in the morning. Hedging our bet, we decided to drive to Watson and hang out at the transporter’s dock in the event the weather allowed. Good decision. Around noon the pilot came down and told us to get packed.

We lifted off the lake and started dodging through some broken clouds. It would be about 85 air miles to camp, from which we would ride horses to an outlying camp known for better moose hunting and within a day’s ride of the best caribou camp. About half-way in, the Cassiars started to show why they are so alluring. Snow-capped peaks with expansive valleys of timber, rivers, and brush. The vastness and isolation became more evident the closer we got to the landing lake.

Within an hour, the pilot, Rachel with the missing index finger, was adjusting the flaps to land this old DeHavilland Beaver on a small lake. Smooth as silk. We taxied to the south end where two hunters were waiting to take our seats and head home after filling one of their two moose tags earlier that morning.

There to greet us were the guides James and Braden. Along with them was Blythe, the wrangler who happens to be James’ sister. Their first sentences on introduction made it apparent why we were told our destination was “Camp Kiwi.” All three were from New Zealand and as soon as the other wrangler, Marty, was able to join us from a different camp, a fourth Kiwi would be in the mix.

I am fully aware that I am getting old, though looking at the age of this crew, I felt even older. The age of the two oldest among them, when added together, was still four years less than age. We started with a quick ribbing of me and Jim having many years on them, then started hauling the gear up to the old trapper’s cabin that served as the base camp on this lake.

There, it became apparent why a wrangler was necessary. Ten horses and two mules were tied up and would be our means of transportation over the mountains to the camp we were supposed to spend the night. When I inquired of the multi-day plan, I was told that since Jim preferred moose and I placed higher priority on caribou, this camp eight hours to the east would allow both of us to have increased chances.

I was then questioned about my horsemanship, to which I laughed. I told of my three aborted attempts, a long time ago, to rides a friend’s horses over the course of a few elk seasons. Of all the logistics of this hunt, the long horse rides and my lack of horse riding experience, were my greatest concern. When they realized I was being honest about my lack of experience, they looked at each other and in unison, agreed I would ride the horse named “Chance,” the largest of the horses, all of which seemed to be far larger on average than any horses I’ve ever seen.

It was weird to stand idly by and watch others do all this horse work; saddle them, weigh and balance loads, and tie some sort of knots called “diamonds” that allowed the entire pack to stay atop the horse. I told them since I would only be a hindrance with anything horse related, that they would have a smoke break when the time came to guttin’ and gillin’ anything I might shoot. Least I could do to be of some value. At least Marcus had the task of filming to make himself busy. Me, I was useless, so I decided I would use the moment to enjoy the beauty of the place.

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Big Fin

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Prior to trying, key word being “trying” to get atop the saddle, I did my best to let Chance know that I meant him no harm and would trust his instincts. Not sure how you talk to or console a horse, but I was giving my best efforts. I suspect it provided humor to all. Jim, having been raised on a ranch in South Dakota, was kind enough to be giving me pointers all the time the crew was getting the horses loaded. That’s a pretty brief crash course on horses for a hunt that required 5 to 10 hours per day in the saddle.

Within two hours, everything was ready to go. I tried my best to not look apprehensive, but given the humor James, Braden, and Blythe found in my actions, I suspect I didn’t do a very good job of trying to look comfortable. What the hell, if this horse and I were to have mixed signals, best to have them right here at the lake where my broken body could be extracted via airplane.

It is hard enough for a tenderfoot to climb atop a super tall horse without a pack. Add a 30# pack of gear and the situation becomes comical. Seeing my predicament, Blythe came over and trailed the horse next to a two-foot high rock. She suggested I use the rock as a step stool. Success. Chance just stood there, twitching a bit as he tried to adjust the load of a 210# human with 40# extra of gear, binos, and rifle. I felt like I was riding on one of those High Rack platform trucks you see them hunting from in Old Mexico. This high perch provided some serious visibility, proportional to the distance to the ground if I somehow got tossed from this ride.

Within a quarter mile Chance proved his steadiness while crossing a small rocky creek. While the other horses slipped or had to weave among the wet rocks, he did a straight line down into the creek, across the flowing water, and up the other side, all the while not slowing a step. Examining the grizzly tracks in the mud on the far bank, I figured he probably was big enough to make any grizzly second guess the sanity of bothering him.

All of us were across and James pointed the horses up the trail that gained gradual elevation toward the basin that would go south, then wind us east, up and over the pass, before heading down the other side where I had been warned the trails were nasty and could be a bit “tricky,” whatever “tricky” means to a Kiwi who has spent his entire life on horses traversing mountains. Following James was me, then Jim, Marcus, Braden, and Blythe. James, Braden, and Blythe each trailed two additional pack animals behind their rides. With exception of me, this looked like people who knew what they were doing.

Reaching the basin lip, James dismounted and suggested we all get in our rain gear. The mist was turning to a heavy rain and he predicted it would be snow by the time we would around to the east side of the mountain range. It turned out to be the first of many accurate predictions he would have on this hunt. Shameless plug here for the Sitka Stormfront Rain Gear system. Yes, it is an investment, but days in Southeast Alaska hunting deer and bears in torrential rains has given me great appreciation for this item. I noticed that James, Braden, and Blythe all shared the same appreciation for that set up.

We had now gained about a thousand feet of elevation as the basin flattened as it sprawled beyond what I could see in this spitting rain/snow. James suggested we get off and walk to give the horses a break, though I suspect he was worried about my muscles and joints not having been conditioned to the rigors of riding horse for long sessions. Regardless, I obliged, as the ptarmigan numbers were gathering my attention and being on foot seemed like a chance to inspect them even closer.

After about an hour James as if anyone needed a break and inquired how his three subjects were handling the ride. We were all smiles. James mounted his horse and we followed suit, with me remembering the trick to trail to a big rock before trying to swing my leg over the saddle.

The wind was whipping pretty good now. Based on this weather, it seems we had threaded a needled to get flown into the lake when we did. There would be no flights in these conditions. I was happy to be here, my imagination expanding with each rodent-chewn caribou antler I passed along the trail. James would stop and glass at all good vistas, slowing our progress, yet giving my mind even more time to soak in the beauty of this place.

I spent most the next two hours trying to understand why Chance did what he did. He was an independent thinker. While other horses would bob and weave around obstacles, Chance was more of a “straight liner.” He must have taken horse geometry and understood that the shortest distance between two points is a line. I later would rename him “Two Dot,” as he would connect two dots by taking the most direct possible route.

After crossing over the pass, James again dismounted and suggested we walk the horses for the next hour, as they would be tested on the trail that descends into moose camp. We followed suit. It felt good to stretch my legs and walk for a while. While glassing, the conversation was upbeat and humorous. I explained to this crew that I hadn’t brushed up on my Kiwi. Maybe it was my rain jacket hood that interfered with audibility, but when these three spoke to each other, the Kiwi was thick as syrup. I asked Jim and Marcus if it was me or they also struggled with the Kiwi’s annunciation. To my relief, both guys smiled and nodded.

At James instruction, we remounted for the last hour of trail that would take us down to moose camp. He cautioned that if I felt uncomfortable in any stretches of the trail that I could get off and walk. I nodded, though my pride would prohibit me from admitting such discomfort.

We continued down this wet, muddy, rocky, and miserable trail as the snow converted to rain and the sun dropped below the pass we had just traversed. This was a terrible trail. Horses were slipping and grabbing extra steps. I held the saddle horn and gave Chance all the rein that allowed him to do what his instincts directed. He slowly and steadily worked his way down the slope, at times waiting for the other horses to lead and going to school on what his mates encountered. It was remarkable to watch this animal do this and do it without the slightly hesitation. I concluded that Chance and I were going to have a good hunt together.

It was dark when the horses started to chatter, knowing they were close to moose camp and the grass that awaited them in this swampy meadow. Rounding a large patch of spruce, an old trapper’s cabin roofed under a bundle of blue tarps appeared in the faint light. Old hitching rails and a wall tent were just downslope from the cabin.

We dismounted and Blyth tied off the horses. The process of unloading gear was one my limited talents could help with. The panniers, gear, and supplies all had a place and I was happy to do something useful in toting them to the locations James and Braden pointed. Not much need for my accounting skills out here, so I hoped my offers and enthusiasm would be appreciated.

Watching this teamwork showed that they had been at this a while, since July 14th for this season. While James cleared the debris in the cabin doorway, Braden started unpacking the pannier boxes for a quickly prepped dinner, all the while Blythe was removing saddles, readying the horses for a night of grazing, and putting tarps over everything that needed weather protection. Jim, Marcus, and I were shown the wall tent where we started the process of unpacking gear.



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JBS

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Helena
After my first trip to AK I wanted to go back and take a really big barren ground caribou and follow it up with a mountain caribou. I am looking forward to the rest of the story.
 

Big Fin

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In the mix of us getting unpacked, Braden was able to create some sort of backcountry miracle that was a cross between Moo Goo chicken and chicken with dumplings. Maybe it was the warmth a hot meal provided, or I was actually that hungry. No matter the reason, Braden got a thumbs up from me, Jim, and Marcus.

Following dinner, a strategy session was held. Since Jim was focused on moose, he and Braden would hunt near this camp. It was what they felt was one of their top two moose camps. James asked if I was up for another ten hours in the saddle. I replied that I was up for however long it took to find a legal Mountain Caribou. He smiled and noted that my enthusiasm for long horse rides should be measured in the morning once I had a chance to see how my body responded to today’s ride.

James explained that the best caribou camp was a ten-hour trek. Since no other hunters had caribou as a primary focus, that camp had not yet been hunted this season. He said we might encounter caribou on our ride over and that the closer we got to the camp, the number of caribou would likely increase. Sounded like a great plan for me.

He asked if I was OK sleeping in a small Hilleberg for the next five nights. Since I am already close to 30 nights in a Hilleberg this season, five more nights for the sake of a lifelong dream seemed to be a small discomfort. I told him such with a big smile, to which he replied with an equally wide grin, “Then so it will be.”

It was off to the tents for us as the crew made this small 12’ x 16’ cabin ready for a week of habitation. I silently questioned how they were going to make this work, especially when Marty arrived and made it a party of four. Given they had spent over two months in similar cabins, I suspected they had it dialed in.

Marcus exercised good judgement by offering to sleep in a smaller Hilleberg, mostly due to Jim’s warnings that he occasionally snores. Jim did offer us both ear plugs. Marcus declined and headed to the horse meadow and commenced to erecting his tent. Jim and I claimed our respective cots and within a short while, I was dreaming of big caribou. If Jim snored, I didn’t hear it. Next thing I heard was the sound of bells as the horses came back to camp before daylight, knowing Blythe would be parceling out grain while Braden started prepping breakfast.

We were called over to the small cabin where James had coffee ready and Braden was mixing the Krusteaz pancake mix. We were all pretty excited. The rain had stopped, and the coffee was really good. Braden’s pancakes were top notch, improved further with good Canadian raspberry jam to top them with.

Following breakfast, the plan was revisited over good doses of coffee. I assured James I was excited for five full days at caribou camp. He laughed, which I hope due to my enthusiasm and not my naivety. He asked us all how our muscles and joints felt following yesterday’s ride. I was feeling great and was quick to note such.

James instructed Blythe to get four pack horses ready for us to take to caribou camp. That number would carry our gear and five day’s provisions. Braden and Jim would hunt near this camp, using horses to navigate this rough ground, while expecting Marty to be dropped off as their wrangler in the next day or two. Jim and I both thought it very good that we each had a priority on a different species. To us, this plan seemed excellent.

I went to my tent and sorted what was essential for the next five days. Since this was my first caribou hunt, I decided to go with what I would need for five days in a remote elk camp and make do with that. While I did that, Marcus resorted camera gear to his basic essentials. James and Blythe got the horses ready while Braden led Jim out of camp and up the slopes to where experience told him the good glassing could be had.

Not too late into the morning, we were mounted and headed around the north end of a big lake just below the cabin. It was another stretch of terrible trail, part of which dropped down a flowing creek. Thank goodness for these amazing mountain horses.

As we rounded the lake, a bull moose crossed the trail and stood in the thick alders downwind of us. James and I dismounted, though I did not detect any great urgency in his actions. James watched the bull trotting away from what he had just scented, then turned to me and shook his head side to side, whispering, “We can do better.” I nodded in agreement.

Shortly down the trail, we reached the north end of this lake, where a creek entered from another lake a few hundred yards above. Two camps of residents were on that upper lake, having been flown in. I wondered how they intended to navigate this vast and desolate country on foot. Or, did they plan to hunt near the lake to use the benefit of close retrieval?

We crossed the creek and through a wide patch of alders. What looked to be a large wet meadow turned out to be a soupy bog. As James led, his horse had all it could handle to stay upright in the soupy mire. I wondered how Chance would handle this bog. I didn’t have to wonder long, as within a few seconds he entered the bog behind Marcus and his horse, Benson.

I watched as Benson started going sideways and pulling as hard as he could to get his hind leg out of the soup. Suddenly, Chance was struggling bad. As his left front leg slid down into the swamp, he raised his rump in hopes the power of his hind could extract him. Me and my 30# pack went over the handlebars in a nanosecond. Landing on my right shoulder, I rolled a full summersault and came to a stop in about six inches of standing water. I looked around to see Marcus suffering the same fate as he frantically tried to protect the camera in his hand and the other camera on his pack.

I stood to see what I could do. One of James’ pack horses was now down in the bog. Blythe, trailing behind, had het to enter the mudhole. Seeing me start toward Chance in hopes I could help, she yelled at me to stand back, as the flailing and struggling could result in Chance planting one of his big feet into me. It was weird to stand and watch this beat struggle to get back upright and not be able to do anything. It was good advice. Within a couple minutes, all three stuck horses had regained their feet and were fighting to get to firmer footing.

We were only an hour and a half into this ten-hour ride and we already had plenty of excitement. I stood on the firmer ground, almost laughing, happy that no horses or people bore any injuries from the event. Blythe reflagged the trail to go around this bog. Good idea.

James suggested we walk the horses up the ridge for the next hour or so. He explained they could use a break from that event and that the trail ahead was pretty wet and slippery. No argument from me. Off we went.

It wasn’t long before we climbed out of the basin and on to a large plateau that rolled for miles, its smooth terrain only interrupted by a few knolls and knobs in the distance. James explained that caribou would winter on this big flat and they would stage for the rut on the ridges that run east off the other side, a far ten miles distant. It was an amazing view. The weather had cleared, and the slightly clouded skies were a nice change.

Before remounting on the horses, James said he heard humans talking. Sure enough, two hunters from the resident camps were just head on the trail. They looked back to us and waved. We rode forward and they explained they had a spike camp about four miles distant at the base of one of the knolls that rose from this big plateau. James explained to them we were headed all the way across, searching for caribou. They had been here for four days and had not seen much. We all wished each other luck and they quickly departed to their spike camp, taking a vector about 90 degrees of angle from the direction we were headed. Energetic guys, no doubt.

Shortly after, we saw our first caribou. My first ever Mountain Caribou. James explained the rules for legality; at least five points atop the main beam and a “back scratcher,” or at least six points atop the main beam. This guy met neither criteria. Yet, fun to watch as he came closer to inspect the horses. We got some footage and within about 150 yards, the bull had enough and moved off.

It was a very long drought before we encountered another small bull. Again, not legal. While switching between riding and walking, I started to realize how essential horses and mobility are when hunting vast lands with low game densities. I wondered how the resident hunters would cover enough ground to find many animals.

We continued this path, with James assuring me that camp was just over the next ridge….and then the next ridge….and the next ridge. It was good humor that added to the long trek. James did explain that last season he had glassed a very large caribou near where we were going, probably a mile from camp. He also explained that he had his best luck on the far east side of the plateau where the ridge lines sloped down into the next wide basin of alders and creeks. All was good with me. I was having a blast.

Blythe rerouting around the bog where Marcus and I got tossed.
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Close to Caribou camp now.....
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sneakypete

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Randy, this brings back many memories of hunting moose in northern BC! I still remember coming off a summit as we entered the trees it was dark and our guide told us " it's the sketchiest thing you'll ever do, is ride a horse in the dark in timber not seeing a damm thing"
 

Big Fin

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It was now about an hour from darkness and we had glassed a few more caribou in the far distance during our travels. One bull was possibly legal, though James explained that we would look for something larger. Thankfully, James didn’t entertain my curious desire to get closer for some footage. Had he allowed such, odds are the events that soon followed would have never happened.

We started off the lip of this plateau, following the long and gradual slope that drifted down into an immense basin of alders interrupted by long strings of rock and moss that traversed the valley. It was a pleasing scene. The far distance was snow-capped peaks. The transition from plateau to river bottom was as varied in vegetation as it was in color. I could have stood there until dark absorbing it all.

James informed me that we had to cross this small creek, up and out of the small pocket of rocks and moss, then descend down the gradual ridgeline that would intersect the trail to our next camp. We would set up for an evening glassing session on that ridgeline, hoping to spot some herds of caribou to start after in the morning. Forward and onward.

As we started down the ridgeline, we dropped from the open moss and scrubby alders to a slightly lower elevation where spruce patches started to be interspersed with the alders and open pockets of moss and rocks. I’m not sure what caribou country looked like, but from what my mind’s eye had imagined, this seemed to be it.

A short distance down the ridge, with James in the lead, me right behind him, and followed by Marcus and Blyth, a with patch was moving through the spruce just uphill and to our right. By James stopping his horse, our procession halted. We had barely come to a stop when a herd of caribou came trotting out of the spruce, going slightly downhill and moving across the trail from our right to our left.

There were two bulls in the group and to my inexperienced eye, one seems humongous. We were all dismounted at getting ready for action by the time the herd crossed the trail about 120 yards ahead. James was counting top tines on the bull that was closest to the herd. I was looking through my binos with a lot of thoughts going through my mind; mostly, “If that thing isn’t legal, how big of a bull will it take?”

James whispered loud enough for us to hear, “Six points on that side. He’s legal.”

He then looked at me with big eyes and said, “You should shoot that one.”

I had only spent two days with James, to this point, but this was by far the most intense I had seen him. I already had the rifle from my scabbard and had chambered a round. I smiled to James and said, “I will.”

The herd continued downhill from us, moving in and out of the spruce patches. The largest bull was moving with the herd and staying between the cows and the smaller bull, a nice bull I think was also legal. We followed in hopes they would slow to feed or maybe even stop to check out us or the horses.

Blythe had come forward and grabbed the reins of all eight horses, allowing us to ease further ahead without the burden of the horses. We moved to where we last saw the herd disappear in a thick patch of spruce. I hope they would exit out the other side, offering maybe a 300-yard shot as they worked away and into the opening past that spruce grove.

Marcus was a few yards behind, trying to get lenses in place, audio working, and all other challenges that come with an unexpected encounter that needs to be filmed without a tripod. Most watching would call it chaos, though Marcus handles it like the pro he is.

(Sorry, character count requires this be made into two posts)
 

Big Fin

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As my eyes squinted in the lowering light, hoping to find a white patch in the spruce, Marcus whispered that some animals were moving to the left. James and I moved the small distance to Marcus’ position and watched as the herd came out the left edge of the spruce and climbed onto a small flat about 150 yards out. The herd was clustered tightly, with the biggest bull in the back, putting cows between us and him. He was obviously heavy in the rut, as one cow had him highly interested.

I had moved to the front, with Marcus on my shoulder and James slightly behind us whispering what he thought they would do. I ranged a nearby tree to 140 yards. I scanned for a shooting rest and realized there were none. I could not kneel, as the alders would block my view. This would be an offhand shot, or no shot.

I stood with the crosshairs on the bull, practicing my breathing. James was cautioning me to make sure he was clear of cows before I shot. Marcus was informing me that the was ready whenever I wanted to shoot. Still no shot.

I used this time with no clear shot to continue my breathing cycle. The bull looked huge at 15x at a mere 140 yards. The cows were staring out direction. The younger bull started to come in from down below. Feeling a need to show his dominance to the smaller bull, the bigger bull started to circle behind the herd.

By making that move, the herd bull cleared the cows. He was now quartering to me. My breathing was under control. He took one last step and raised his head as if to do a lip curl. Marcus again assured me he was ready. I steadied the crosshairs and waited to get to the bottom of my breathing cycle.

The reticle was still on the point of his near shoulder when the rifle fired. A 180 grain Nosler AccuBond from my 300 Win Mag passed through the front shoulder and out the ribs on opposite side. I chambered a second round and shouldered the rifle. James told me to hold off, as the shot was lethal. I stood ready, watching as the huge bull struggled to stay afoot while his herd trotted off with the other bull in tow.

True to James’ instruction, no additional shot was needed. The bull was down. I was stunned. All I could think was, “Did this really happen?”

Seldom am I at a loss for words, yet this encounter had me speechless. Not sure what I said to the camera. Odds are it is nonsensical. Almost four decades of dreaming, many years of saving and a couple years of planning, had all come to a culmination on this vast plateau. Such finality occurring so rapidly and without any warning makes it hard to realize what transpired.

I looked at James. He was smiling and extending his hand for a congratulations, commenting on the shot. Marcus was filming and asking me questions to the camera, none of which I had good responses to. Blythe was above, holding all the horses and shouting congratulations.

The moment seemed surreal. It still does, a week later. On this day, Friday, September 27th, I felt fulfilled. Fulfilled that I had not let this dream pass the same way I did the dream I had of spending a camp in the Brooks Range with my grandfather who passed before I could join him for a Dall Sheep hunt via the benefit of his Alaska residency. Fulfilled that I quit using false excuses to defer this adventure. And thankful for so many people recent and past, who have all played some role in me being in this amazing place experiencing something I had dreamed of doing my entire adult life.

Having left packs, gloves, and essentials back at the horses, we scrambled the shot distance up the slope to where Blythe had things under control. We were now in the happy and excited mode of retelling what had happened, what we had each seen from our perspective, backslapping and congratulating in the way as all successful hunts climax.

With about a half hour of remaining light, we started down to the bull. We tied off the horses and approached nearer, all standing back as I walked up to this magnificent animal that represented so much. I struck by the immense size, both body and antler. The lush winter cape and its starkly contrasted colors was a thing of beauty.

I turned to the others who were standing back about ten yards. They seemed as impressed as I was. James kneeled down to the bull and admired him. He told me it was a very large bull, possibly the biggest bull he had ever seen. He again thanked me for being ready to capitalize on a fire drill-type situation. I think him. I thanked Marcus. I thanked Blythe. Without them and all there help, this would not have happened.

After some silent words of thanks, we got to the business of notching the tag and figuring out what to do for images. Marcus took over the picture taking and gave the instructions that would capitalize on his professional talents. I suspect James and Blythe were quite impressed by the efforts taken to get the best possible photos.

As promised, I instructed James to sit down and have a break as I dug out my Gerber tools to finish the most gratifying part of the hunt, the field work. With James’ assurance that we were only an hour from the next camp, I took my sweet time clean skinning the cape of the bull. This would be a shoulder mount. With the cape removed, the crew held legs and game bags as I removed the pieces from the carcass.

Autopsy showed a perfect shot. Yes, it damaged a bit of the front shoulder, but given the shot angle such was going to happen. The bullet passed completely through, taking the front of the near lung and completely destroying the off-side lung. No bullet to recover. Thankfully, the heart was untouched and is now in my freezer.

With game bags filled, we took all we though could fit on the already-laden horses. We carried the quarters away from the gut pile, placed them on alders where the cool 25F temps would cool them overnight. We took all but the quarters with us to camp, riding in complete darkness as the horses weaved up and down, left and right, into and out of the spruce clumps, eventually leading us right to the steps of this small 10’ x 12’ cabin.

What a remarkable evening. We hung the meat we carried out and started to prepare quick dehydrated dinners. It was late. The Northern Lights were showing off as I pitched my tent in the small horse pasture above the spring. The night had mostly cleared, allowing the stars to shine brightly and giving a crispness that told how winter would not be long distant in this country.

A short while later I was asleep in my tent, with my last waking thoughts being a prayer of thanks and gratitude for all that I had been given on this day and in this life I'm so blessed to live.

It was a great day.


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Big Fin

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13,994
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Bozeman, MT
Waking the next morning, I heard Marcus explaining to James and Blythe how impressive the Northern Lights were last night. Given the images he captured, it seems he was up taking pictures for most the dark hours.

I brushed the frost that had formed on my tent, crawled out to see the sun rising over this amazingly clear morning sky. Frost covered everything and the morning light gave the landscape an array of colors that only late September in high latitudes can provide. Video and images cannot do justice to what the eye sees, the nose smells, and the body feels.

While enjoying another Mountain House of Blueberries and Granola, I inquired as to the plan for the day. Retrieving the remainder of the meat was big on my list. Given James’ concerns about wolves and grizzlies, it seemed prudent to get that cache of meat handled sooner rather than later.

It was a short hour to the kill site. We approached slowly, from uphill and downwind, with the possibility a grizzly may have taken claim or that a wolf would be there and present the chance to fill my wolf tag. Neither situation was present, allowing us to walk down, load the remaining meat on the horses and take it back to the camp site.

When back at camp I took the time to remove the cape from the skull. Caribou have an amazing amount of tissue in the nose and lips. Never caped something like that before. James mentioned how many caribou capes he has turned the ears on and split the lips. He offered to finish off that part, which seemed like a good idea. Marcus and I moved over to where the meat was hanging and boned out the quarters, retrieving the tenderloins for marinating and cooking on a hot rock as a Cassiar dinner idea.

It was a relaxing day of meat care, cape fleshing, and all around pleasure as the sun continued to shine on our day. We discussed the plan to head back to moose camp the following morning, though not without finishing the meat and cape care here. And, allowing us to spend another amazing night in this camp that now has such fond memories for me.

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Carnage2011

Well-known member
Joined
Sep 28, 2012
Messages
703
Location
Whitehall, MT
Awesome hunt Randy! I met James last year while on a mountain goat hunt with Dustin. He is a solid guy and a great guide!
 

Dave N

Well-known member
Joined
Feb 20, 2013
Messages
1,914
Location
Illinois
Has to be one of the best stories ever. Congratulations on a job well done! On to the next dream?
 

Bambistew

Well-known member
Joined
Dec 10, 2002
Messages
5,519
Location
Chugiak, AK
Nice bull! Have to come back later and read the story. Caribou hunting is about as much fun as you can have in the north country.
 

fulldraw

Active member
Joined
Jul 8, 2012
Messages
526
Location
Iowa
Beautiful bou and great pics and write up. Looking forward to the rest of the story.😊
 
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