More Than A Road Trip

In all of the natural world, there are few sights that can match the spectacle of the great barren-ground caribou migrations. In the Yukon, we are fortunate to be home to one of the largest migratory herds of caribou in North America, the Porcupine caribou herd. Recent estimates suggest that herd numbers are at just over 200,000, but in the last 50 years, these numbers have fluctuated between 100,000 to 200,000 animals. Evidence-based recommendations, from amazing organizations such as the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), have facilitated joint conservation efforts between the Yukon, Alaska and N.W.T. and have helped to contribute to the success of the herd in recent years. Porcupine caribou are an important source of food for people who live in the North, and one of the main mandates of the PCMB is to ensure that we can maintain a sustainable harvest.

Despite their populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the fact that these animals are typically on the move and cover so much ground makes them tricky to find, let alone hunt. Every year, these caribou participate in a 2,400-kilometre trip through Alaska, the Yukon and the N.W.T. before heading back to their calving grounds on the Coastal Plain of Alaska. With a range encompassing 250,000 square kilometres of largely intact, pristine northern landscape, the only way to hunt them successfully is to be in the right place at the right time.

In the winter of 2020, I set out with three of my good friends, Kequyen Lam, Raphael Pelletier and Tom Craddock, to try to harvest one of these amazing creatures. We had it on good authority that the herd was passing through the northern Yukon, but we knew that getting to them was going to be tricky. With only two scheduled days off work, I picked the guys up immediately after locking the doors of my day job at the pharmacy on Friday evening. With a fully loaded truck packed with our warmest clothes, emergency gear and four childishly ambitious grown men, we began the 900-kilometre drive north.

Despite having done much bigger road trips in my day, I knew this mission was going to be tricky. Covering that much ground in remote country, in the middle of winter, at night, with very few people around and with temperatures dropping as low as -40 C, would mean that the consequences of anything going wrong would be amplified. Unpredictable Arctic weather meant that road conditions would likely be variable, at best, and that the threat of severe blizzards, snow drifts and possible highway closures, due to accidents or passing storms, were all working against us. On top of all this, we had only two days to get it done and over 20 hours of combined driving time to squeeze into that window.

Against all odds and fuelled by ample amounts of caffeine and good tunes, we pushed on.

Four hundred kilometres into the drive, the northern lights lit up the sky and, as the show increased in intensity, we pulled over to take it in. As we drove up and down big valleys, we were impressed by the dramatic temperature inversions and watched it go from -34 to as warm as -6, in just a few hundred metres. Although it was the middle of the night, the northern lights didn’t let up for several hours and illuminated the mountaintops and the tundra so that we could still enjoy the views. At 4 a.m. and 10 hours after having left Whitehorse, we reached our destination.

After a quick three-hour sleep, we ate breakfast and jumped back into the truck. It was showtime. We had another 60 kilometres to cover before we got to where we thought the caribou would be passing through, and we wanted to be there before the sun came up. As it got brighter outside, everyone in the truck was on high alert. All eyes were scanning to see if we could spot any lone bulls or smaller groups of caribou. Tom was sitting shotgun, so he and I had a big advantage to see wildlife (over Raph and Keqs, who were in the back). We made a bet that whoever spotted the first bull that was within range wouldn’t have to worry about his next bar tab—a little extra incentive for an already motivated bunch.

As the sun came up over the mountains, we were treated to an absolutely beautiful morning. The temperature sat at a comfortable -16 and there was barely a gust of wind, nor a cloud in the sky. Despite this gorgeous weather, we had been warned about a severe storm that was forecasted to hit later on in the day, so we knew that we would have to stay pretty close to the truck. None of us were experienced in dealing with severe conditions in the Arctic, during the winter, and we certainly didn’t want to push our luck or take any chances. Thirty minutes before we arrived at our destination, I heard Raph scream from the back seat—“Caribou!”

A small group of 16 caribou sat west of us, just 400 metres off the road. Perfect. While the majority of the herd was composed of females and younger animals, there were two distinct, larger bulls in the group that stood out to us right away. We quickly got out our binoculars and spotting scopes to confirm the sex. Because it is illegal to harvest female caribou, and their antlers can often grow quite large, spotting the penis sheath on males is the correct way to confirm a positive ID. Females can be identified by spotting the distinct black vulva patch on the hind of the animal.

After getting a positive ID on the bigger bull, I grabbed my 30.06 and stepped off the road to get set-up for a shot. Despite the fact that I was comfortable shooting out to and beyond 400 yards, this was a much more dynamic challenge than shooting at the range. Rather than sitting still, the caribou were moving around and interacting with one another, weaving amongst themselves, which made tracking the mature bull quite difficult. One second, he was in my scope; the next, he was lost behind a group of females. Not an ideal scenario. I watched the bull for nearly 20 minutes and resisted the urge to chamber a round, as he wasn’t giving me any good looks. In order to get an ethical shot, I would need him to step out and away from the group so that I could make sure there wasn’t any risk of wounding other animals.

When hunting remote areas, sometimes it’s easy to forget there’s a chance you might not be the only person around. Just as the herd was starting to settle down, another hunting party rolled up in their trucks right behind us. Great. Excited and eager to witness the action, they got out to watch, which added to the pressure of an already intense moment and caused the caribou to stir. As if the stakes couldn’t have been much higher, another truck appeared on the horizon—coming from the opposite direction. The classic white pickup with green stripes, dall sheep emblem and big grill were all hallmarks of a Yukon conservation-officer vehicle. The COs parked back farther, so as to not disturb the scene, and I turned and watched as they pulled out their binoculars.

With a full audience present to watch me take my shot, I made the decision to push in a few hundred yards closer to get away from all the noise. I trudged across the tundra, through the snow and the shoulder-high brush, in search of a clear shooting lane. With limited cover, I did my best to keep my approach hidden from the herd, but the racket back on the road, and the willows slapping against my parka, made this difficult. At 250 yards from the animals, I found a clear, shoulder-high shooting lane. A tricky shot. With the help of my shooting stick, I got set-up and waited patiently for an opportunity.

After 20 minutes, the other sizable bull in the group came over to engage the bull that I had been watching. Much to my delight, they locked antlers and separated from the group. Finally, a chance. As they turned broadside, I did my best to steady the scope while I slowed my breathing and gently began to squeeze the trigger. BANG. A clean hit. Down he went.

We waited the necessary 15 minutes, before walking up to the downed animal, and I notched my tag and hiked back to the truck to grab extra supplies. Upon returning to the truck, I received a very warm welcome from the conservation officers who were able to watch the entire scene unfold. It can always be nerve-racking when authority figures are present for big moments like this, but, in my experience, when you make sure to keep things by the book and do right by wildlife, these interactions are always very positive. We shared a few laughs before the guys and I hiked back to field dress the caribou.

With only a few hours before the storm was supposed to hit, we got down to business and made quick work of the processing. Kequyen and I had been on hunts together before, but it was Tom and Raphs first experience harvesting a big-game animal. All the guys were keen to learn and to get their hands dirty and, with all the extra help, it took us less than two hours to get the bull quartered up and back to the truck. As we were pulling away, another bull caribou came out of nowhere and passed by us at less than 100 yards. Watching this bull, while the sun was setting over the mountains in the background, is a memory I will never forget.

Twenty minutes into our drive back to shelter, the storm hit and gale-force winds felt like they were going to blow the truck off the road. At times, the snow squalls and whiteouts completely blocked our views and we had to slow down to a crawl to avoid driving into the ditch. We couldn’t have been more thankful for our timing and feared for any hunters that were still out on the tundra. Several friends of ours, who were also in the area that day, were not so fortunate and narrowly escaped with their lives. A few hours later, we made it back to shelter and had a warm meal before calling it a night.

The next day, the storm lifted and we enjoyed a relaxing 900-kilometre drive back to Whitehorse. Once back in town, we hung the animal in our buddy’s garage and spent the next couple of days getting it butchered up and into the freezer. It was very cool to watch Tom and Raph being so engaged in the process, and their willingness to help with every step, despite it being their first big-game hunting experience. Since then, they have both gotten a lot more into hunting and managed to harvest a mountain caribou, together, the following year.

We are incredibly fortunate to be able to hunt caribou in such a pristine part of the world. The gratitude I feel, for opportunities to experience this magnitude of adventure, is difficult to put into words. To this day, the novelty of reaching into my freezer for caribou steaks has not worn off, and I don’t know that it ever will.

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone looking to hunt caribou for the first time, it would be to do it in the fall, under safer, more-controlled conditions. Despite the fact that our “Hail Mary” mission was successful, our lack of experience in dealing with Arctic storms, at that time, could have made for a lot of trouble had things gone wrong. While barren-ground caribou tend to pass through only accessible parts of the Yukon in the winter months, their larger-bodied cousins (mountain caribou) can be found all throughout the territory, much earlier on in the season.

It is also important to avoid harvesting caribou when they are in the rut, as hormones in their bloodstream at this time can render their typically delicious meat, nearly inedible. Getting to know the biology of these animals, as well as that of any animal that you plan to harvest, will increase your chances of success and make for a much more immersive experience.

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