Hunting Caribou In The Yukon

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Hunting the majestic barren-ground caribou

Once you get a taste of the far north, I guarantee you will constantly yearn for more. It gets in your blood, your thoughts, your every wanton desire and if you are anything at all like me, you will find a way to get back there time and time again. The north does something that is hard to explain until you’ve been there yourself. I pointed the truck west and headed out to pick up my long-time friend Jeff McKee in Calgary, Alta., starting a passage that would take us into the far northern reaches of the Yukon, spanning over 8,100 kilometres by the time I would return home to Saskatchewan.

Our chosen species on this late October hunt would be the barren-ground caribou and we would be hunting the famous Porcupine herd with Blackstone Outfitters. Ever since I can remember, when I pictured the caribou of my dreams, it would have the long-flowing mane of a late season bull, with dark chocolate antlers and these magnificent caribou fit the picture in my head impeccably.

When we made a pit stop in Whitehorse, Yukon, I knew that this hunt was finally becoming a reality.

After a minor setback during our trip, we arrived late that evening, under a blanket of darkness, at our destination: Blackstone Outfitters, ran by Jim and Adrienne Fink. We quickly wolfed down a couple bowls of amazing caribou stew then headed back to unpack the truck full of gear we brought along, still surprised we were actually able to fit it all in. We were like a couple of kids in a candy store, and this being Jeff’s first trip of this stature, he was even more excited than I.

We headed back into Blackstone’s main lodge to discuss our plans for morning. Jim told us he and AJ, another pilot/guide, would fly us into the backcountry in the morning, where our two guides were already waiting. Our guides were Jim and Adrienne’s son, Logan, and fellow guide Clinton Alm.

We headed back to our bunks to go through our gear one last time and try to get a little sleep, anxious for what morning would bring.

The next morning, Jim and AJ pulled the wing covers off their Supercubs and Jeff and I were each loaded into a plane, along with our gear. The flight was incredible; my eyes were peeled out the window like a hawk, seeing the specks that were caribou off in the distance of the sub-Arctic tundra. We were headed deep into the Ogilvie Mountains, with terrain ranging from huge tundra flats to the high, plateau-type ridges that went right up into the rocky cliffs of the surrounding peaks. The veteran pilots made perfect landings on their makeshift runways, consisting of a gravel bar covered in snow along a small, half-frozen river, making things interesting as the tundra tires slid and skidded on the powdery snow until we came to a stop.

Standing there, waiting to open the doors of the planes, were two young fellows with huge grins, shaking our hands as they helped us off and unloaded our gear. This was going to be a trip to remember. Jim and AJ wished us luck and climbed back into the cabs of their planes. The roar of the engines and the wind drafts the propellers created snapped Jeff and I out of our trances and back to reality. We really were deep in the backcountry of the northern Yukon and this hunt was finally happening.

Logan and Clint helped us go through our gear and we headed back out to shoot our guns, just to be sure that they were still dead on. I had packed both my TC Encore muzzleloader and my trusty .300 Weatherby. I had hoped to take my monster with my smoke pole, but if and when I found the bull of my dreams, I didn’t want to be under-gunned if we couldn’t get within muzzleloader range. I wanted Jeff to have first chance at a bull, as I had invited him on this hunt and wanted it to be everything he had hoped it would be.

Daybreak on day two found us on a journey through the hills and ridges above camp and it didn’t take long for us to spot caribou. As we looked over a number of bulls, we quickly discovered each and every one of the bigger bulls had something different to offer. Late in the day on a distant ridge, we found a big, wide, old bull chasing a herd of cows around in circles and we instantly knew we needed a closer look.

We had to push ourselves to cover the distance, but when we crawled up onto the edge of the plateau, this monster bull was less than 300 yards away. Jeff gave the nod and I knew this was the bull he was looking for. Both Logan and Clint were excited about his tall tines, great shovels, super bez and wide antlers. Jeff made a great shot with his .257 Weatherby as I filmed the action, and just like that he had taken a giant caribou, the type of bull that he had dreamed about his entire life. We made quick work of the bull and with full packs we made our way back to camp, high on adrenalin.

Now the pressure was all on me as the next few days seemed to fly by, covering the ground, but not seeing the bull I was patiently waiting for. We had seen some tremendous caribou, but not the one bull with which I was hoping to cross paths. I had already told myself I would hold out as long as I possibly could. The weather had been decent, with highs in the -10 to -15 degrees Celsius range, but on day five we had tackled a cold one that made our teeth chatter and freezing our bones to the core. The wind was howling and it never warmed up much above the -20 degrees Celsius mark, making it almost unbearable to be sitting and glassing on these high ridges with frozen tears on our cheeks.

The hot lunch and the hot chocolate took the edge off a little, but the cold was wearing us all down. Near the end of the day, the clouds parted enough to show us a secret spot where the caribou were plentiful and bulls were all big. Suddenly we were feeling all warm and fuzzy, knowing that this would be the utopia we had been looking for. It was a little further, so we were going to have to cover some ground and it would make for a long, intense day, but I knew the bull I was waiting for would be somewhere in this hidden honey hole.

We made our way into this secret paradise early the next morning and as the sun poked over the mountains behind us, we spotted a great bull, one worth taking a closer look at. There was a small herd of caribou and with the slight wind, we would have to make a big circle around this group and come in from the other side of the ridge, a strategy that we hoped would take us within range of this monster. As we were making our way up over the top of the ridge, we unexpectedly came onto another herd of caribou and there was an even bigger bull in this bunch!

This big bull was a real stud and suddenly we were smack-dab in the middle of a group of rutting bulls fighting and chasing each other around. The caribou we thought was the biggest was suddenly dwarfed by an absolutely enormous bull, giving us a short glimpse before disappearing over the ridge and out of sight. It was go time.

Luckily, a hot cow had kept the bulls close and they were trying to get her away from my prize bull. He was having nothing to do with it, as he pushed off every bull away like the biggest, meanest bully in the playground. When we couldn’t get closer than 275 yards, I pulled out my .300 Weatherby to get the job done, as I didn’t want to make any mistakes with this giant. The video camera was rolling; Jeff captured all the action and my bullet left an incredible vapour trail in the crisp morning air as my Weatherby echoed through the tundra. The monster was down and the cheering started immediately.

Every step we took toward my massive Yukon bull, he seemed to grow a little more until we were finally at his side and I was able to lay my hands on the incredible set of antlers he had grown. He had it all: palmated, mahogany antlers, insane tine length, superb back scratchers, gnarly long bez and gorgeous, thick shovels. The four of us were awestruck at this truly unbelievable barren-ground caribou, a bull in a league of his very own.

It was long haul back to camp; our packs were loaded to the brim full of caribou meat, cape and antlers. We made the last four hours of the journey in the dark with head lamps and flashlights, but we finally arrived back to camp, safe, completely exhausted, hungry and dehydrated. We had all worked extremely hard for this bull, but it was worth every single ounce of pain.

Jeff and I had been blessed on this wonderful journey into Canada’s wild north, soaking up the surrounding splendour of the land and making amazing new friends with everyone at Blackstone Outfitters, a first-class operation. I had reached my goal and took a phenomenal Boone & Crockett caribou, reassuring what I’ve known all along. There is just something about the north that’s hard to explain. I hope you have the chance to find out for yourself one day, because you will then know exactly what I’m talking about. Just be prepared, because once you get a taste, you’ll be wrecked for life. There’s nothing quite like the lure of the Yukon.

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