Caribou on the Tundra
By Reg Wiebe
For those of you who have never set foot on northern Manitoba’s tundra, I urge you to pay careful attention to every square metre of that vast savannah should you ever decide to make the journey. It’s the most awesome terrain you will ever encounter!
September 1998 seemed like it took forever to come! Earlier that year, six anxious hunters decided to go on our first caribou hunt. We had heard a few stories and watched a video of a caribou hunt – literally thousands of caribou, clicking hooves and all, filed by mesmerized hunters unable to make up their minds as to which caribou to shoot. So many caribou, so little time!
The day finally arrived – we packed up our gear and began our fourteen-hour journey north to Lynn Lake. There we were – two vehicles loaded with gear, six caribou hunters acting like young boys all wide-eyed, hoping to collect a trophy caribou sometime in the next six days. The hunting party had met a couple of times during the summer to go over plans, check maps and to organize equipment so that nothing would be left to chance.
Finally, Lynn Lake loomed in the early morning darkness after what seemed to be an endless overnight journey into no man’s land. We were to fly to a lake 275 kilometres northeast of Lynn Lake later that morning, but had made it to town early enough to enjoy our last decent breakfast before roughing it in the wilderness. The six of us were excited and anxious, hunters from the flat prairies of Manitoba committed to journey into the unknown!
With a big breakfast fest in our bellies, we decided it was time to check in at the airport, a two-room (three if you count the washroom) facility. Baggage carts and long line-ups at the gate were not going to be part of the routine! The lounge consisted of two old couches that had been spared a trip to the dump. When we checked in to see about our departure time, we were informed that the winds were too strong and that the flight would be delayed for at least of couple of hours. A "couple" of hours turned into a couple more, and it was decided we might as well have one more meal in town.
We returned to the airport only to discover that the winds had not subsided enough to convince the pilot to fly us out. The place had taken on a rather homey feel by now, and the couches looked ever so inviting after the long drive and two square meals! As the clock ticked ever so slowly toward mid-afternoon, our group was getting noticeably uneasy. Another group had arrived, and were waiting to be flown out to fish the plentiful northern pike and lake trout. We were astonished to discover these fishermen had driven all the way from Missouri, twice as far as we drove, just to go fishing!
After numerous hints to the pilot and his helper that the day was wearing thin (as were our hopes of reaching camp that day) it was finally decided it was safe to fly. Our vehicles were hastily backed up to the aircraft, a well-worn Twin Otter, and gear was loaded into the holds of the plane that would take us to the awaiting wilderness.
The flight was magnificent – the bird's eye view of that vast terrain was breathtaking. As I peered out the small window, the tundra appeared to have a sand-like texture dotted with swampy areas. A few small spruce trees, winding creeks and pond-like bodes of water dotted the land everywhere. Somehow, the scene resembled the surface of the moon. Our pilot finally backed off on the throttle and started our descent to the small lake where our camp awaited us.
Over the summer we had made contact with another group of hunters who were going in one week ahead of us. We agreed to share the camp – they would bring in the tents and set up camp and we would dismantle the camp and take the tents out with us. This arrangement would work well, as it saved us a little money since the plane wouldn’t have to make an extra trip. We unloaded our gear and helped the other party load theirs on the plane along with their caribou. We all took note of the size of the antlers, quizzing the hunters as to where the best hunting locations were. The plane took off and we were left to fend for ourselves for the next six days.
The tundra took on a completely different look once we were on the ground. I'm not sure there are words to describe the magnificence, beauty or vastness of the tundra! Although the surface looked flat from the air, this was far from true once on the ground. There were actually enormous hills and valleys with some of the most colourful plants, and blueberries dotted the landscape everywhere. Small shrubs in red, orange, and green and miniature flowers that looked like tiny yellow tulips covered the surface as far as the eye could see. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the paradise of the north – everything appeared so pure and untouched, territory begging to be explored!
After everyone had settled in for the evening, we decided it would be best if we hunted in pairs instead of striking out on our own in this unknown territory. I lucked out and ended up with Jim, my old hunting partner. We’ve hunted together for more years than I care to count.
The very first morning saw Jim and I wandering west, following a valley that meandered into the horizon. We had barely started out when seven curious caribou greeted us. Our first encounter ever… what an awesome sight! These animals were definitely the most eloquent and colourful of any big game species we had ever seen.
It was decision time – do we shoot one of these fine animals now or take our changes that we see more later in the week? We decided to pass on this bunch, and took pictures instead. We soon discovered that most caribou in the area were curious, and probably hadn’t been harassed by humans a whole lot. Some bulls seemed to stand there and pose for us, giving us ample time to study their rack and decide whether or not they would qualify for the trophy we had in mind.
In mid-September, the temperature and wind in the north can be brutal. The wind seemed to subside during late morning and pick up again later in the day, gaining momentum to nearly gale-force by nightfall. Temperatures ranged from around 0 to -5ºC. With the wind chill, temperatures were anyone's guess… definitely cold!
Day three was one of those days where the wind didn’t subside and the temperature hovered around freezing. When I say the wind didn’t subside, I mean the wind was blowing at about 60 kilometres per hour! Jim and I had decided to hunt an area about one kilometre from camp. The terrain varied from meadows splashed with colourful vegetation to large bleak rocky areas. A small stream approximately one metre wide ran through the middle of this area. The water was crystal clear and looked to be about four inches deep.
A small herd of caribou appeared out of nowhere. Jim and I decided to split up. He was going after one of the nicest bulls we had seen so far, and I wanted to move around to the side of the herd to see if there was another bull worth taking. We had just separated when I spotted a second herd across the small stream and down wind from where Jim was. I hurried over, hoping to get a glance at this herd before they caught wind of Jim, who by now had shot a bull and was making his way through some rocks upwind, about 100 metres from where I was about the cross the stream. I looked at the distance across, but decided to step in the middle of the perfectly still, shallow water. I could have (and should have) easily jumped across the short span.
What happened next was more that I had bargained for. That innocent-looking, shallow, perfectly still, clear water with a reddish brown porridge-like bottom swallowed me up to my chest in a split second! Fortunately, I had enough sense to thrust my rifle, butt-end first, into the opposite side as I was going down. I held on to that rifle, buried up to the trigger, with all my might! I moved my legs and I went down some more! It felt like I was suspended in mid-air, there was no bottom! I envisioned the rest of the hunting party finding only my rifle and maybe my orange hunting cap if I kept sinking any more. Jim was upwind, the wind was blowing fiercely, no one had really seen me go down and I was hidden from view by a number of large boulders. There wasn't much hope of Jim hearing me if I yelled or even if I managed to fire a shot. It was doubtful that I could get his attention.
I wasn't too anxious to move a whole lot, as my options were running out. It seemed like forever as I assessed the situation and decided that my only hope was to pull a little harder on the rifle to see if it would hold my weight and possibly help me escape this watery hell. I managed to pull myself over towards the rifle, jammed my elbow into the tundra and with one last attempt, rolled out of the grasp of that innocent-looking stream I had foolishly trusted. I was out! I was wet and the wind was driving the cold into me like I wore no clothing at tall.
I walked briskly over toward where I had last seen Jim. He was already field dressing a nice bull and hadn’t even noticed my absence. I must have been a sight to behold as he glanced up. "What the hell happened to you?" he gasped. I told him what had happened and then offered to help dress his animal so we could get back to camp. Jim insisted that I start heading for camp right away as there was no firewood or any fuel to start a fire so I could warm up and dry my clothes. Hypothermia was a real possibility. As I reluctantly turned to leave, we were greeted by the others in the hunt party. They caught a glimpse of Jim's fine trophy from a distance and decided to help transport the animal back to camp.
I started out toward camp feeling bad that I couldn't help my old hunting buddy. But I realized that if I didn't get those wet clothes off, I could be in serious trouble. That one kilometre walk seemed to take forever. Every step got harder, colder and more tiring. I reasoned that since I was moving, I would keep warm. With a fierce wind blasting you head-on and the temperature dropping, it doesn’t matter how fast you think you’re moving - you don’t warm up when you’re soaking wet from your shoulders to your toes!
Upon reaching camp, I struggled to get into the tent and out of the elements. By now, I was shaking so bad, I couldn't grasp my belt or any zippers on my clothing well enough to open them. For some reason, I suddenly felt warm all over, almost to a point where it seemed hot in the tent. I was still shaking profusely but managed to struggle out of my wet clothes. With dry clothing and a well-insulated jacket on, I fired up the propane heater in the tent and sat directly in front of it shaking and teeth chattering.
The rest of the hunting party was in camp now and one of our more accomplished cooks started making some hot soup. Much to my dismay, the rest of the guys kept me awake, but it was definitely the right thing to do at the time given my condition. I’m thankful and grateful that I was in the company of this bunch, as they were indeed looking after my well-being.
I’ve often reflected over those events, especially that stream and how it fooled me into thinking it was only four inches deep. If you ever make that trip to the paradise of the north, keep a watchful eye on the tundra – it can be breathtaking in more ways than one!