by George Grey
The hunt was a miserable affair. It was cold, so cold that despite my Walmart parka and Sears boots, I was still shaking in the sunny part of the short day. My fingers and toes were tingly and tender and my cheeks and nose were red in the mirror and sore to the touch. I wondered what frostbite felt like. I also wondered if I would have a face and fingers and toes left by the time this hunt was over. Maybe I would return home and have parts melt off in the warm.
I was camped with a miscellany of other guys near Shefferville, Ontario, Canada, hunting caribou. We were camped near a frozen lake somewhere in that wilderness, having been flown in by small plane. The plane was a teeny yellow one with the passenger squeezed in behind the pilot and hardly any room for gear. I was wishing I had gone on that diet that I had planned but didn’t do before the flight was over. I was also wishing I hadn’t eaten before the flight. I was thankful for a barf bag.
The pilot, a surly French speaking grizzled old Canadian who must have flown Hurricanes against the Germans in WWII, thought he saw a pack of wolves from the air, and I guess thinking that I wanted to see them up close, peeled off and dived on them. I mean he turned that plane up on one wing then over on its back and down we went, headed straight for the ground. I was panicked out of my mind, thinking we were going to crash. I screamed, seeing the ground rushing at me, but he thought I was really enjoying the experience and cranked that little plane around in a turn so tight that it took the blood rushing away from my head. First I was scared, then I was sick then I damn near fainted. I screamed again and the faintness disappeared. I noticed the pilot was grunting. He must have been scared, too. We whizzed over the trees, I swear I could feel the branches of the scraggly pines whapping the wheels and struts.
“Didja see thet big Alpha male?” shouted the pilot. What Alpha? Isn’t an Alpha a wolf? What wolf? I didn’t see any wolf. All I could see was breakfast hitting my throat and the red haze of a high G turn. I swallowed hard, trying not to throw up. My face was sweaty and that nasty spit that comes just before you vomit was hot in my throat. I gagged out an answer, which seemed to keep the pilot happy. My knees were so weak I almost fell in the snow once we landed.
By that time I was almost sorry that I won this hunt in the club raffle. The outfitter had donated the hunt for the club fund raiser. I bought a ticket and won. Not a bad bargain, a $3000 hunt for a $3 ticket. Hunting in March would be a new adventure, as would hunting in the cold. Hunting caribou would be a new one too. The only game I had ever hunted before was turkey and pigs.
I had brought along my new White Super 91 muzzleloader, a 504 caliber job that shot a huge 460 grain bullet, the one that I begged off Doc White after going on a pig hunt with him. His rifles were so effective against those pigs that I just had to have one. Being a writer qualified me to beg one off him. (I even get published once in a while)
This was the second gun I begged off Doc. The first was a Tominator turkey shotgun. I loved that shotgun. I loved the rifle, too. It was so easy to load and manage, and cheap to shoot, compared to others. (Cheapest is when you beg bullets off the manufacturer, too, that’s really cheap) I had even practiced with it, and hit a bucket at 100 yards with all 3 of my practice shots that I took before the hunt. I had the 17 bullets left in the 20 pack ready to go.
I didn’t quite know quite how to bring along the Pyrodex for the rifle, and the caps, since the airlines prohibit explosives, so I squeezed the loaded Super chargers and caps into a bottle of fancy coffee, so the drug dogs couldn’t smell the powder.
Even at that, the German shepherd I encountered in the Montreal airport gave me a mighty suspicious look. He sniffed around my luggage than sniffed around me, pulling his handler closer. I could see I was in trouble. Wished I had asked someone how you do this. I was sure I was going to jail. The handler scowled and said, “looks like you spilled your dinner” Sure enough, there was a big greasy stain on my pants from the hamburger I had been eating for lunch. I guess the dog liked hamburger. I was glad he did.
Now we were here in the Canadian wilderness, freezing to death in a white hell. Everything was white, even the tents and the trees. Frost stuck to everything in sight. And never melted. It was pretty flat, too, with slight undulations and small hills here and there. The trees were stunted pines and not many of them. The snow was about a foot deep. At least it wasn’t crunchy underfoot. It was so cold that the snow never melted and got a crust on it, it just stayed powdery all the time. No way could you make a snowball.
At least the tents were padded, and the stove worked. If you kept the stove going, it would actually get warm inside the tent for a while. Meals were served in a big tent that was always cozy, if not too hot. At least I could thaw out a bit while I stole tidbits from Cookie. He tolerated the thieving with a smile, he could see that I was a hungry man and needed the extra sustenance.
I was also delighted when Doc White showed up. Didn’t know he was going to be here. He and that crazy pilot were yacking about airplanes. Evidently, he had shown Doc the wolves, too. Doc was telling stories about shooting wolves from a Super Cub when he lived in Alaska. Aiming behind their tails to hit them with an auto shotgun, of all things, as the plane went past. Sounded fishy to me. Still, made me jealous. Wished I had a story to tell that would keep the crowd entertained.
I had first met Doc on a turkey hunt, then later wangled my way onto a pig hunt with him. He seemed to be able to find adventure when he wanted. He told about hunting big Brown Bears and Cape Buffalo with muzzleloaders while the gang of hunters gathered around. I could see that not everyone believed what he was telling. Sometimes sounded bigger than life, maybe just tall stories.
Hunting caribou didn’t seem to be much of a new thing to him. He told about hunting caribou in Alaska, stalking them while carrying a kite-like white affair on snowshoes. He had hunted mountain caribou in western Canada too, killing a nice bull with a 250 yard shot using a muzzleloading rifle of his design. It became obvious that he was after a trophy. The other guys in camp didn’t seem to care, they were more after the meat than the horns. Me, I was after anything I could kill. I was after blood.
The first morning of the hunt was a dilly. The cold fog was thick enough to cut with a knife, heavy ice crystals hanging in the air, so bright that I was blinded. I had picked up some dark glasses off the $3 rack at Alco and even they didn’t help much. I could see about far enough to know that a herd of animals had come through camp during the night, but the tracks just disappeared in the fog.
That night, Doc said that the small animals in the herd would drift through first, with the biggest bulls hanging back. Last would come the wolves, picking off the sick and lame. I narrowed my eyes , pretending I was a wolf, checking the shadows for sign. I sniffed the air and my ears tweaked this way and that to pick up the slightest sound. My mouth lolled open and I licked my fangs, panting with the heat of the chase. I became aware that there was a sudden quiet, the quiet that follows the master predator as he steals fearlessly through the brush. Oops, it was the quiet that comes before a big laugh, the crowd of hunters grinning at me. I wondered d if they knew what I was thinking. Mt wolf imitation sure hadn’t scared them. I swallowed hard and grinned back, trying not to show my fangs.
The next few days were better. The sun came out and burned the ice crystals out of the air, at least we could see about as far as the horizon would let us see. All the white was still brilliant, blindingly so. Doc said the Aleuts in Alaska made sun shades with a slit to peer through. Sure enough, if I peered through my fingers the bright blinding shine was obliterated. I wondered what the wolves did?
Small groups of caribou were drifting through, sometimes 15-20 at a time. They marched steadily on in a shambling half trot. I saw what looked like a big one and tried to cut it off. It shambled a mile through the snow while I was making 400 yards, no way could I catch them. Only way was to see them coming, get in front of them and try for an ambush. The airstrip for the camp was really a road. They said the road came from Shefferville and was rough and long. But it cut a nice strip out of the brush and the caribou had to cross it.
On the third morning I slept in a bit, thought I deserved it, and walked up to the road/airstrip late in the morning. To my disgust, caribou sign was everywhere. A huge bunch had come through while I was snoozing. Several big bunches crossed while I was standing there. It occurred to me that they were all crossing in the same places. I ran to the nearest crossing point and found a trail three feet wide in the snow. Aha! Here was my chance for an ambush. Heart thudding and fangs bared, I dug down into the snow behind a tree on the opposite side of the clearing.
I checked my Super 91, the one I begged off Doc. I had loaded it with 90 grains of Pyrodex P and a 435 grain PowerStar bullet that he had given me, same load as I used on the bucket. I figured that if I could hit a bucket at 100 yards, I could hit a caribou. The bucket and a bull’s chest area were about the same size. I checked the side safety, It was on and there was a fresh cap on the nipple.
There was a flash of movement in the timber opposite my hide. Caribou. The hair on my neck came up and a low growl came from my throat. My breath came fast as I sucked air, trying to get the scent of the animals. Squinty eyed, hungry, I watched the first animals, some small horned stuff, hesitate at the edge of the timber. I could see bigger antlers behind. They milled around for a minute, then suddenly charged across the clearing in a bunch.
I leaped to a squat and threw the Super 91 up to my face. My predator’s eyes spotting the big one in the back. In the back! Behind all the little ones. Damn! I snarled with frustration as they swept past, big eyes rolling at me from 10 yards. The biggest one was half again larger than the rest. Yes! I could try for a neck shot. I had heard Doc say that all neck shooters are liars. I would try to prove him wrong. I swung on the bull, now 7 yards away. All I could see was hair. The damn scope was still set on 9 power. I grabbed for the power ring and whipped it around to 3, just in time to watch the last of the bunch disappear in the trees behind me. I sat down in the snow, hot faced and heart in my throat, breath popping in short gasps. Several swearwords came to mind, none good enough to describe my frustration. Water got in my eyes.
There were still other groups of caribou coming through. I could hear scattered shots here and there. It didn’t seem to bother them. I ran down to the next closest crossing point and dived into the snow. Nothing showed, then a small herd crossed where I had been before. I ran back there and threw myself down. I was in perfect snow camo by then, a snowman in the snow. A herd crossed on the other side, about a hundred yards away. I dashed over there, doing the hundred in about 20 seconds. As soon as I snuggled down in the snow, another herd crossed where I had been seconds before. I ran back, just in time to catch a glimpse of tall antlers coming through the trees. A lone bull!
I knew this was the one. Lone bulls are usually big bulls, or at least that’s what everyone said. I was in perfect position. The bull would come out of the trees about 30 yards away. He didn’t even hesitate, just kept up his rapid amble, hooves clicking as he half shambled, half trotted along. He was moving fast but I was moving faster. Rifle was up, nipple checked, cap in place, bullet on powder, fresh load that morning, scope set at 3 power, low as it would go. Crosshair on the bulls chest as he strode at me. Crosshair right at the ‘V’ formed by that magnificent white mane he wore.
Just at the right moment, I slipped the side safety and pulled the trigger. He was 20 yards away and right out in the open. The rifle didn’t fire so I pulled harder, must be trying to caress the trigger too gently. It still didn’t fire. I pulled with all my strength, gritting teeth, bull now ten yards to my front. I was up in a cowboy squat, me and rifle facing bull at point blank range. The damn gun wouldn’t go off!! I must have made some noise, maybe that silent scream coming up in my throat wasn’t so silent after all. The bull’s eyes suddenly bugged out, He’s seen me, How could he not see me. I’m 15 feet from him and jerking that trigger in a passionate frenzy. His mouth dropped open and he kicked into high gear, head way up and knees coming up to his chin as he put on the gas.
He disappeared in the trees with me swinging on him. Somehow I slipped and fell in the snow, I jumped to my feet right into the underside of a tree. Snow cascaded all over me, rifle and the ground. I went down again and this time stayed there. The burn of frustration flushed over me. Acid came up in my throat, bitter gall to my taste. Damn White rifle. Damn Super 91. Damn….yes, damn… the secondary safety. I forgot to take it off.
Next day I watched Doc knock over a pretty good bull. One of the two guides had a big Ford truck with crew cab. I managed to wangle a ride in it up to the airstrip, (whining and faking a limp is a good way to get a ride), planning on repeating yesterdays performance less the safety boo-boo. The guide planted Doc about a hundred yards from a crossing with me another two hundred yards down the strip. He told me to stay put this time. I glumly agreed.
Here’s Doc with his ‘middle sized caribou. He took a100 yard plus shot with an M98, using 100 grains Pyrodex P and the 435 grin PowerStar saboted Hollow Point. It slammed the bull down like a truck hit him.
The herds crossing today were fewer in number but the animals were bigger. “Middle sized” said Doc, indicating the size of the antlers. He was toting a Model 98 Elite Hunter in 504 caliber, had a 2 X 7 scope on it. He was shooting a 435 Power Star saboted bullet over 100 grains of PyrodexP. While I was watching, a pretty good bull tailed a small herd across he strip. Doc waited until all the animals had cleared the strip and the bull was by itself before shooting. One shot was all it took. I ran over to see the bull, to find Doc standing by it. He said, “best get back to your stand, there’s caribou crossing there now” I spun around, only to see a string of caribou strung clear across the clearing. They were 300 yards away. No shot for a muzzleloader.
There weren’t any shots the rest of the day either. I about froze sitting in the snow waiting for caribou to cross. That afternoon I heard a long series of shots coming from the west. They were explained when Doc got back to camp that night. After cleaning up the bull killed that morning, he had walked west down the road just to see what was there. He had another license to fill and was looking for an even bigger bull. He ran into a French Canadian and his Athabascan wife, the wife dressed in colorful local costume, who were killing caribou for their dog team. They had a 4X4 truck half full of carcasses and another half dozen scattered about on the ground. The man had run out of ammunition for his 22 magnum with a smallish bull still staggering. He asked Doc to finish the animal off.
The man was amazed when Doc’s muzzleloader thundered and the bull went down. “Do eet agin” he cried, pointing out some cows coming through the trees. “Keel more’ in his Frenchified Canadian English. Doc explained that he wanted only a big old bull, a trophy. “Non”, cried the man, “Keel heem for me” So Doc did, expanding nearly all the bullets he had with him. Only when the back of the pickup was full to overflowing was the Indian satisfied.
The amazing thing, he said, was how fast the woman was with a knife. She could gut and lop off legs and head almost faster than he could shoot them down. What a worker. No wonder the Frenchie stuck around. He was probably scared to death of that knife.
I was awakened that night, hearing clicking noises outside my tent. Sounded like caribou hooves. Couldn’t be, it was the middle of the night. Thought I was dreaming, maybe too anxious to get into the herd. Next morning I discovered I wasn’t dreaming. The ground in camp and for a mile around was plastered with fresh caribou tracks, big ones. Doc explained, “the moon was bright last night and the last of the herd moved through”.
He had got up to watch the sight. The countryside crawled with animals. He didn’t take one. It’s illegal to shoot them at night, besides, they were so thick that shooting would have been impossible. There were hardly any caribou around that next morning. The last of the herd was clearly past. All we would see now would be the stragglers. Doc grinned when he said so. I wondered why he grinned like that. He looked like the cat after the canary. I knew he was onto some kind of secret. I decided to stick close to him for the rest of the day. Something was going to happen.
Sure enough, the secret was the big old bulls that trailed the herd, all by their lonesome. There weren’t very many and you had to be in exactly the right spot to get them, but they were there. There were scatterings of small stuff too, I saw one lone cow that looked like she had sprained her ankle, limping along. I could hear wolves howl in the distance. She could too, and knew what it meant. She would be wolfbait soon if she didn’t recover quickly.
Halfway through the morning, one of the young guides came along in his Quad cab 4X4 pickup. He had become good friends with Doc. I saw him pick up Doc way down the strip and hurry my way. The guide was talking excitedly and waving his arms around in the cab. He was holding his arms way above his head, as if signaling ‘big’ or ‘wide’. Could only mean one thing.
I ran out into the middle of the strip. No way they could get around me as I jumped for the back seat as they slowed to pass. The guide looked a little startled but Doc put his hand on the guides arm and I knew it would be OK. We traveled another ½ mile, topping out on a low hill. Doc and the guide got their glasses up immediately, as if they knew something was coming. The guide grunted something unintelligible and Doc stiffened. Something was coming, something significant.!
Suddenly there it was! A huge bull, well, at least the biggest I ever saw. He was coming out of the trees just 100 yards away. Doc was still glassing. Didn’t he see the bull? Wasn’t anybody going to do anything? Well. If Doc wasn’t going to take that bull, I would. I jumped out of the truck just before Doc swung his door open. But I was faster, and had my rifle up as the bull stepped out into the open. Doc’s head was coming out of the door when my rifle blasted. The bull went down and Doc’s head jerked back inside the truck. He was holding his ears for some reason. Couldn’t he hear? He was making faces as if he hurt, too. I wondered if he bumped his head or something. No reason to want to hear, the bull was in the open and a fair target. The guide was red faced and shouting obscenely in French, obviously excited about my kill. Doc was holding him by the front of his parka, trying to calm him down, obviously wanting him to stay in the truck
I ran up to the bull. Wow!! Double shovels. And great tops!! This was the bull of my dreams. Doc and the guide followed more slowly. The guide was still red faced and excited, he kept trying to get past Doc to get to me and the bull, wanting to congratulate me I think, but Doc kept getting in his way. Finally he whirled and stomped back to the truck. Guess he was mad at Doc for getting in his way so much
Doc was kind enough to take a photo of me and the bull. He congratulated me and shook my hand but I thought in kind of a glum way. Guess he was jealous of my success. For some reason the guide didn’t help me gut the bull. He stayed in his truck until Doc climbed in with him. I guess they made up, they were laughing hard together when they drove away.
Doc had to leave the next day. I left a few days later. No more caribou showed up. The hunt was over. I didn’t tip the guide, he just wasn’t much help. I saw Doc tip him, and they gave each other one of those French hugs that men do up here, Doc said something that I couldn’t hear and they roared, throwing back their heads and laughing hillariously. I saw the guide roll his eyes at me, tears in his eyes. Now that was strange, that tough young guide weeping. I wonder why? Must have been really sorry to see Doc go.
TO TELL THE TRUTH- This story happened because of some shenanigans on a caribou hunt near Schefferville in Canada,as described. I was by myself, with another group of 9 hunters from Michigan. I was the only one using a muzzleloader. These guys were awful hunters. They obviously hadn’t done their homework, knew little about caribou so shot the small stuff that comes through early, then complained to the guide because their kills were not bigger. One asked for a refund. Another wanted permission to kill more animals, despite having killed two on his tag already. The episode with the hunter shooting the big bull before I could get out of the truck is true. His name was Steve, a very nice guy, so thrilled about the bull that I just could not bring myself to remonstrate with him. The guide, who was looking for a nice big tip from me, wanted to strangle him. The part about me holding the guide back is also true. Come to find out, these guys hunted Michigan whitetail together every year, most of the deer they killed were small 4 point Eastern count or spikes, and competition to get the shot was the name of the game. Steve was only doing what he had been accustomed to do. Well, he sure beat me out of a shot. Maybe I would have missed anyway.