Ungava Caribou Safari

Like all great adventures, it began with a map and a dream.

If you look hard, cock your head and squint, a map of Canada east of Hudson Bay becomes the head of a caribou, gazing across the North Atlantic.

It was to the eye of this great caribou, Lac Bienville, that I ventured, with a dream that I might not only acquire my own caribou, but somehow capture the hunting experience of my distant ancestors. That I did, and much more.

With some vague notion of chronicling this trip, I kept a journal, which has come to resemble a wad of campfire starter.

Hunting A Moon-Like Surface
August 18, I am landing on the moon. Or so it seems, because the terrain rising quickly to meet me has a lunar quality, featureless but for a strange spiderweb spreading as far as I can see. As we descend, the land gains life. The barrenness is actually waist-high bush interspersed by occasional stands of dwarf pines. The spiderweb becomes a myriad of trails made of countless cloven hoofprints.

Upon touchdown, we have our first encounter with caribou. I feel the bush pilot gun the engine. My stomach reels to the floor of the floatplane cabin and bounces back into place as we narrowly miss a band of swimming caribou. Caribou, I realize, can be dangerous game when you’re 800 miles from help.

The next entries are hard to decipher, because of the blotches that are brandy, or some other crimson substance, but I remember the events well. There was a flurry of unloading the 1958 DeHavilland Otter, Roland paying particular attention to the food, Jean-Guy, the fishing gear. They’re both seasoned hunters who live in the bush of northern Quebec. I’m the novice on this expedition, and the only hunter whose primary language is not French. There’s a little apprehension whether I’ll succeed in their eyes — and my own.

When I first met Roland a few years ago, we hunted as guide and client; now it’s as friends. In early summer, planning this trip, I spoke with my friend: Would the last of August be a good week?

“We were there this week last year,” Roland says. “Each morning, you come out of your tent, and there are maybe 1,000 caribou. You cannot know which way to go.”

Hunters Speak Common Language
While Roland speaks little English and I no French, we share the common parlance of hunters. I read now in his body language — urgent arranging of gear, mixed with long pauses to gaze far in search of caribou — that he is as eager as I to begin the hunt. We hurriedly settle into the comfortable wood-frame and canvas cabin furnished by Carmen Menard of Lac Lucault hunting club, and head for the boat.

The freighter canoe cuts tea-colored water, bow aimed toward the north end of the lake, where Roland says the best bowhunting can be found. While migrating caribou seem to dive unhesitatingly into a frigid lake rather than go around it, there are exceptions. Their straight-line determination is just part of an overall scheme of conserving energy. Caribou swim because they know it is impossible to go around all the lakes they encounter. But they also sense they can conserve energy by skirting a nearby point, rather than swimming, and their trails often funnel around lake ends. If the lake is one in a series where the points line up, there can be a major funnel there. This is such a lake. As we reach the beach, we are mesmerized by a steady stream of caribou ears and antlers that pass just on the other side of the berm.

Roland: The Hunt Master
But while Roland is in a hurry to hunt, he is not in a hurry to kill. The unofficial hunt master, on his 19th caribou hunt in as many years, watches.

“OK, this is good, there are caribou here,” says Roland in his French-Canadian accent. “Oh — there goes a very good bull — too bad you do not have your bow ready. Let’s go!”

Roland guns the motor, and the drifting canoe lurches for open water. Jean-Guy and I communicate for the first time as our eyes meet in mutual disappointment of leaving such a bounty of game behind. But we share Roland’s childlike enthusiasm and curiosity for seeing more of what the lake holds.

The lake is a vast, shimmering basin of iron-stained water, bordered by dwarf pines, muskeg, and marsh, with a few low, tawny hills rising in the distance. It’s interesting topography as far as caribou country goes. There’s a waterfall entering the lake here, a group of islands there. Always within sight are several bands of caribou gliding through the water. We examine each closely, fascinated, but always from a respectable distance.

We make frequent stops to explore deep trails in the soft moss. Caribou sign, some centuries old, some still steaming, is everywhere. As the virgin caribou hunter, I have been graciously granted “first shot” privileges, and lead the way as we scout the trails. The idea is to avoid the monotony and black flies that come with waiting for caribou, to savor this quest, and make it last longer, by still-hunting. If we can’t walk up a caribou, we’ll have located the best trails, and will surely score by trail-watching the last couple of days.

An Exciting Still-Hunt
This is an exciting, invigorating way to hunt. My lungs and legs feel strong, and I’m confident in the recurve bow I carry. The air is cool, sharp. Each bend in the trail, each point and narrows, holds prospects for an encounter with game bigger and more plentiful than I’ve ever imagined. We stalk across a muskeg swamp, through some scraggly trees and, there! — Caribou!

Across the marsh trods a pod of caribou. In the lead are several cows and their calves, jogging in that straight-line, double-time pace caribou keep up incessantly to escape black flies, weather, wolves, and whatever.

Native legend is that the caribou’s intense metabolism is magical, and that if you drink its blood after killing one, “it is like drinking the whiskey,” Roland had told me. The wild beauty of this place and excitement of the hunt have me intoxicated already.

The main body of the herd comes into view, and amid the stumpy headgear carried by cows, we can see the long, curving antlers of a good bull. The wind is right; we have their course plotted, and there is good cover to an ambush point. Hunkered down, we dash back through the coarse branches of black spruce, circling to intercept the caribou.

Hustle Into Shot Position
Despite the herd’s urgent pace, we get into position, and even get Jean-Guy set up behind me with a camera. I’m shaking, ready for a wild, successful climax, because we’ve hunted well.

But not well enough. At once, the herd seems to sense us. Lead cows begin to whirl; the majestic bull instinctively maneuvers into the midst of the herd, protected by layers of cows. I get a view to the bull’s white mane, raising and drawing the bow at once, but pulling up as the bull dodges an opening and is again covered by cows. I can only watch, awestruck, as the herd thunders away.

“The caribou, he is not so dumb, aye?” Roland laughs.

The orange sun is settled on an endless, uncluttered horizon. From the comments and actions of my hunting companions, I surmise it is customary to defer from shooting a caribou at dusk, because of the difficulty and danger in locating, field dressing, and transporting in the dark.

There are more important tasks in the evening, like seriously enjoying the camaraderie of caribou camp life. We partake in Roland’s superb camp cookery, hearty Canadian refreshments, and conversation that is somehow affected little by a distinct language barrier. As the campfire dies, the wolves come to life. The hunting of caribou never ends.

Next dawn, we’re cutting the water again, destination north point, where we saw many caribou cross yesterday. We get out and explore, walking the deep trails that wind through the mud and rocks, moss and trees. The area is more water than land, a narrow peninsula between vast lakes sprinkled with potholes. Roland finds a bleached antler; its thick, sweeping beam, and massive palms make me think Pope and Young. It’s connected to a skull, and our imaginations are sparked.

“Caribou!”

Set Up An Ambush
I look up to see Jean-Guy crouched, gazing across the narrow strait. He turns and again whispers urgently, “Caribou!” Bobbing and weaving toward a well-used crossing are caribou, long, curving antlers among them. The animals intend to cross at the narrows, and will surely pass on the trail that runs within 15 yards of a perfect natural pine blind. Spontaneously, we duck down and break into a trot toward the cover.

The herd passes very close; there are anxious moments when we think we won’t get a shot. Then, with the herd quartering away, I see my opening. I draw and let fly at the herd bull with white-velvet antlers. The shot is good and I watch as the bull circles out from the herd and lays down.

The author and his Ungava caribou taken with his recurve bow.

I am delirious with excitement and success. Roland is equally cool. “You want to see it again?” he calls out. Puzzled, I turn to view an implausible scene: A woods-hardened Canadian bushman in a raw wilderness setting, watching instant replays on his video camera monitor.

We hunted and fished for several more days, and it was a fine adventure with three more caribou bagged. And I’ve hunted caribou since then and taken some fine bulls. But whenever I think about caribou hunting, it is that first white-velvet bull I remember in the beautifully wild country of Ungava.

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