By Peter E. Popieniuck
I can’t climb that. It’s too steep. It’s too far. I’m too old. I’m too out of shape. The rocks are too big. But what if I try? Well, maybe I can. Let’s go!”
Those thoughts that ran through my head on the second day of caribou hunting during my last visit to Leaf River, Quebec. Upon arrival at camp, I’d told my guide, Papou, that while I might not move fast, I could go all day. I didn’t think he’d take my bit of bravado so literally. On the first day, Papou, my hunting partner Curtis, and I headed upriver by jet-drive boat and stationed ourselves on a rise to glass for animals. We didn’t see any, so after a couple hours we moved by water to another spot. After again sitting for a while, Papou suggested we move once more, this time by land.
Despite the long walk, we saw few animals that first day—just a few caribou cows. For my own part, I surprised myself. I’d expected to take it easy the first day, stay close to the river, and not do much walking. Instead, I’d covered several miles of rocky tundra and, although my legs were a bit sore, it was that good kind of pain that lets you know you’re capable of doing more.
On day two, once again we were seeing just a few caribou cows. We hiked inland a mile or two from the river and were glassing the slopes when Papou announced that there were several caribou bedded on a high slope and that there might be a bull in the group.
Curtis and I looked wide-eyed at one another. The bedding area was probably a mile and a half distant and several hundred feet higher in elevation. In addition, the only route up was through several fields of boulders, most of which were the size of SUVs. Both Curtis and I said “no way” to one another. But then I started to wonder, what if a nice caribou bull was with those cows. There was only one way to find out.
With Curtis opting to wait at our current location, Papou and I set out. I did take a couple precautions first. I asked how long it might take us to reach the animals. Papou said a half hour so I doubled that. I also arranged a silent hand signal with Papou. When I held up two fingers it meant I needed a two-minute rest to slow my breathing and heart rate.
The climb was probably the most demanding I’ve tried in more than a decade. About an hour after setting out we reached the bedding area. No caribou. Papou climbed a bit farther and spotted the group of animals below a small ridge. As he returned to tell me this, the caribou approached closer and I noted they were all cows. I would have gladly taken one of them, but they turned and found a safe route away from our position.
Papou and I returned to Curtis’ downhill location and trudged back to the boat. Two days of hunting had yielded no caribou and quite a bit of mileage under our boots. Strangely, I felt stronger than ever. We covered more ground on day two than on day one. Perhaps I’d been underestimating my level of fitness.
On day three Curtis and I decided that if we saw a decent cow caribou we’d take it, thus ensuring we’d at least go home with meat for the freezer. Both Curtis and I each have several other caribou mounts and didn’t need yet another. Once again we headed upriver and hoofed it a mile or so inland.
Eventually we spotted a group of cows heading our way and awaited their approach. Curtis took the first shot and all the animals remained standing. Thinking he missed, Curtis took a second shot and a cow went down. I took a shot and watched as another cow crumpled. I asked Papou if I should take another shot and he told me to wait.
It turned out that Curtis had not missed on his first shot. He had taken two cows and his hunt was now over. My cow meant that there were three animals on the ground and at least a mile and a half of travel back to the boat. We joked with Papou that since he was 23 years old and Curtis and my combined ages totaled to 140 years, naturally he would be carrying most of the load to the boat. Curtis and I made one trip back to the river while Papou made two carrying the meat. The older I get, the more I appreciate the exuberance of youth.
Day four left me having one more animal to take. Curtis was a bit under the weather and decided to stay in camp. Papou and I headed upriver to the same area where we’d taken the cows the day before. I told Papou that I’d be happy with another cow or a small bull. Fate and Papou had other plans.
When we topped the rise where we expected we might see caribou, two other hunters and their guide were there before us in an area where they were not supposed to be. To make matters more complicated, several nice caribou bulls were rapidly approaching. Papou took charge and got the other two hunters in position for shots and then motioned for me to join them. The plan was for them to shoot first, then me.
There were two nice bulls in the lead and another respectable one at the rear of the small herd. One of the other hunters fired at the lead bull and it went down. I made the assumption the second hunter would take the next bull in line so I focused on the one at the rear. I waited until the second of the other hunters shot and then, about five seconds later, took my shot at bull number three.
As it turned out, the second hunter had passed on bull number two and instead shot at bull number three, my animal. His shot was a killing shot, but the caribou had not gone down immediately so the animal was his. Papou helped their guide with the field-dressing chores and then he and I assessed my situation. We agreed that we’d head to a far ridge where we’d seen a lot of caribou the day before and hope for the best. We didn’t have to hope for long. Almost immediately we saw several cows and a young bull. Once again I told Papou that I’d be happy with any of them. No response.
Over the four days of the hunt thus far, I’d learned that Papou was a man of few words. While we waited on that ridge, he asked me if I’d seen any caribou with my binoculars. I said I’d seen a few and he replied that he’d seen two or three hundred on a far distant skyline. That was definitely way beyond walking range, but would still have provided a small adrenaline boost. Papou seemed to have other ideas on what we were to do.
We kept traveling farther away from the river. I kept telling myself that with every step we took, we had to cross all that distance again to get back to our boat. Eventually we spotted a lake that had several caribou on its opposite shore, though they did seem to be slowly angling somewhat towards us. Papou didn’t ask if I thought I could make it the couple miles to the far side of the lake. He just headed out that way with me in tow and across another tundra rock garden.
While Papou was able to pretty much hop from one rock to another, I had to be much more conscious of my footsteps. Sixty-six year-old bones are a lot more brittle than those only twenty-three years old. The rock garden was about a mile across and every stone was covered in slippery wet lichen. In addition, many of the rocks were precariously balanced on top of others, having been haphazardly deposited there thousands of years ago by receding glaciers.
After successfully negotiating the rock garden, we reached a small group of stunted spruce trees and waited while a group of caribou approached. There were three nice bulls and the lead animal was the best of the bunch. At 80 yards I propped my rifle on Papou’s pack frame and took the shot. Down went the caribou and, as it turned out, he was a nicer bull than either of the two that the other hunters had taken earlier in the day. I believe Papou planned it that way.
At the beginning of the hunt I’d been apprehensive of my ability to walk any significant distance. But each day, by pushing my limits, I covered more ground, and tougher terrain at that, than the previous day. Taking that final long hike back to the boat seemed a breeze. Maybe there’s more life left in the old bones than I give myself credit for. Thanks, Papou, for helping me realize this. I trust my tip was a good one.