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A Canadian caribou hunting adventure

A Canadian caribou hunting adventure

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Gary Carman
Special to the Wilson County News
March 19, 2014
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The barren ground caribou herd is concentrated in the province of Manitoba. Manitoba is due north of Texas, and on several occasions, I had flown to Winnipeg and fished lakes in the province. Consequently, I developed a familiarity with Manitoba and began to research outfitters, who offered caribou hunts.

In 2012, I made a down payment, and began to plan a hunt in September of 2013. Should I fly or drive? Well, I decided to drive over 2,000 miles to Thompson, Manitoba, where I would make contact with the outfitter and fly into caribou country. Obviously, flying would save me days of driving, but frankly, flying horns and meat back to Texas is a big hassle and expense.

The drive took two and a half days each way, and the road from Winnipeg to Thompson is a good, two-lane road. All of the highways in the United States were four-lane, except where construction was occurring.

In the end, the border crossings into Canada and back into the States were hassle-free. At the Canadian border, American hunters have to produce a passport and a firearms declaration form. I paid a $25 fee when I turned in the firearms form, but my rifle and shotgun were not inspected. On the return trip, the American officials required that I complete a certificate listing the caribou meat and horns, but again, my cargo was not inspected.

At Thompson, the outfitter provided a turbo-prop aircraft that transported about 20 hunters to the outfitters’ lodge on Eigenhof Lake. The next day we were flown by Beaver and Otter float planes to a camp on No Name Lake. This camp is about 800 miles north of Winnipeg on the tundra near the tree line. It is west of Churchill, which is the polar bear center of Canada. And, no, we did not see any black or polar bears. As the plane landed on the water, I observed that the conditions were windy and the waves were choppy. Consequently, the pilot tied one of the plane’s pontoons to an anchored block of wood, which was approximately an 8-foot-by-8-foot square. I was leery about attempting to walk on the bouncing wood, but with the assistance of the pilot and a guide in a boat, I quickly plopped down in the boat.

The camp consisted of a series of shacks covered with ratty tarps. Small wood-burning stoves heated the shacks, but in order to keep wood burning, the stoves had to be stoked every two hours.

Yes, it was cold in the morning! We slept on wooden pallets covered with a roll of foam and our sleeping bags. The wind blew constantly, and made a racket as the tarps and door banged with every gust. At night the temperature dropped into the 20s and 30s. Electricity from generators powered lights and freezers.

The cook shack was more of a building, because it was framed, insulated, and had a composition roof. The cook turned out all of the eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, soup, and caribou roasts that we could eat. He used propane to fire his kitchen. One day he baked two turkeys, and we feasted on turkey with all of the trimmings. But, my favorite meals consisted of caribou tenderloin sautéed with onions and mushrooms. Delicious!

The barren ground caribou herd numbers approximately 450,000 animals. The tribes of the Canadian “First Nation” regulate the harvesting of caribou. In total, outfitters are permitted to harvest only a few thousand caribou. Most of the camp’s guides were members of these tribes, although my guide, Tom, was a Canadian from southern Manitoba. Tom was a retired school superintendent who loved to guide at caribou and moose camps.

On day two at the camp, the hunting part of my adventure started. Tom cranked up the outboard motor, and our small aluminum boat started across 10 miles of water to the north side of the lake. The wind coming off the water was cold, because the air temperature was in the 30s and the water temperature was in the low 40s. Several times we beached the boat and walked in the direction of caribou seen from the boat. It is difficult to walk on the tundra, because it has a highly irregular surface -- sometimes rock; sometimes water-filled holes; and sometimes a squishy soil that is compressed when you walk on it.

Then, we saw some bulls, and Tom raced in their direction. He was carrying a boat paddle for a rifle rest; my rifle was not loaded. We stalked through small trees and tall grass on the edge of the lake. Finally, after several hundred yards of constant effort, we got within range of several bulls. He indicated that I should shoot my Browning A-Bolt in 7mm Remington magnum. I cranked in a round and since I had four additional rounds, I prepared to shoot.

I downed the running caribou on the second shot at a range of less than 200 yards. We took a few photos, and then with minimal assistance from me, Tom deboned the animal, and salvaged the head and antlers. He had brought special bags for the meat, and he wasted very little of it. All in all, I brought back to Texas close to 60 pounds of some of the best organic meat that can be found on the planet.

It only took two more days for all of hunters to fill their caribou tags. Then, we waited three more days for the floatplanes that would take us back to the main lodge. Fortunately, none of the hunters became ill or were in need of medical treatment. At a minimum it would take hours for an emergency floatplane to arrive, or under extreme conditions, a helicopter could have been sent. The camp did have a satellite phone for important messages, but the cost ran $8 per minute.

All in all, the caribou adventure was a great trip for me. As a senior citizen, I did not have the physical capabilities of younger men, who were physically fit. Also, from our southern climes we are not accustomed to moving about with bulky clothes, boots, and carrying an 8-pound rifle. However, my guide and everyone at the camp were friendly, courteous, and helpful. It was fascinating to hear the hunting stories of a diverse group of men from Maine, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Indiana, Iowa, the Dakotas, and the Canadian provinces.

Now, in the months ahead, I will relish every bite of caribou that I eat. And, as I gaze at the mounted head, I will be reminded of my caribou adventure on the tundra of sub-Arctic Canada.

Gary Carman is a resident of Floresville.

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