Caribou for Two

The "Golden Boys" double down on monster bulls in the Canadian wilds.

"Well, we've done it again," I thought as I hunkered down and focused my camera on Jack Atcheson as he and our guide, Bruce Football, crawled to the crest of a low ridgeline. Just beyond, within easy shooting distance of Jack's muzzleloader, was a nice bull caribou. I could see only the tips of the bull's widespread antlers turning side to side, but otherwise he was standing still. The shot would be embarrassingly easy and the "Golden Boys" would have pulled off yet another of their famous last-day-of-the-hunt successes.

Jack and I have picked up the Golden Boys label over the years because of the many times we've managed to find outstanding trophies in the last hours (even minutes) of a hunt. It's happened in the Lower 48 time and again, as well as in Alaska, in Canada and on several African safaris. Here in the lonely wilderness of Canada's Northwest Territory it was about to happen again. Some might call it luck, but mostly I credit Atcheson's never-give-up style of hunting. When you hunt with Jack you hunt until the last ray of light on the last day.

Jack is not one to dawdle with his shots, firing quickly when the sights are on target. After a moment or two of silence I knew something was wrong. Had the caribou turned and was he waiting for a better angle? The antlers began to move away and then the whole animal appeared, trotting off over a stony ridge and disappearing.

Jack's inline blackpowder rifle has two safeties. One works conventionally while the other is a locking knob on a threaded rod; when engaged, it prevents the striker from hitting the percussion cap. Apparently the vibration of our boat's outboard engine had spun the loose knob and blocked the striker. Jack hadn't noticed what had happened and at first thought the rifle had misfired when he pulled the trigger. By the time he discovered the problem, the bull had spooked and was lost. At last the Golden Boy's famous luck had run out. The sun had passed its zenith on the last day of a hunt that had held great promise only a few days earlier. Now Jack would be going home without the trophy we'd hoped for, and I felt the sting of defeat as keenly as he.

Six days earlier, when we hopped off the pontoons of the twin-engine plane that ferried us to Little Martin Lake, we had every reason to be optimistic about our prospects. The grinning hunters that had been in camp the previous week were departing with their arms filled with long-pointed antlers, and apparently all had taken their allowed two caribou. This would be too easy, I figured; with five days to hunt and the caribou migration in full swing, we'd have the luxury of choosing the very best trophies. I should have known better.

Our luck began going sour the first morning of the hunt when a cold north wind came roaring down Little Martin Lake. Our assigned hunting area was reachable only by boat and our direction took us into the angry teeth of a gale that grew more powerful by the minute and lashed the water into a violently heaving tempest. Head-on waves, which rattled our molars and alternately catapulted the boat's bow skyward or drenched us with buckets of bone-chilling water, became so dangerously high that we finally succumbed to common sense and turned back to camp for the day.

As I sat hunched over and shivering in the pitching boat with my back to the wind, the thought occurred to me that even with our powerful boats and far-reaching rifles we had no real advantage over the nomadic hunters who had followed the caribou across these barren lands centuries ago.

The camp was unlike any I've hunted out of before and a lot more comfortable than most. The big wood-floored tents with kerosene stoves were dry and cozy, and the village-like setting was surrounded by a solar-panel- electrified fence to discourage grizzly bears. The big kitchen tent, which could comfortably seat a score of guides and hunters, was presidedver by David Vaughan, the retired owner of a chain of bakeries whose idea of a vacation was preparing rich eclairs, cream pies and loaves of delicious breads for famished hunters. Imagine what a five-star pastry chef can do with caribou loin and you have an idea of mealtime at Little Martin Lake.

Camp manager was David Grindlay, a former Canadian Mounted Police officer with a passion for order and keeping everything running on a timely schedule. David runs Adventure Northwest, a year-round outfitting company based in Yellowknife that in addition to having first-class hunting and fishing concessions books game-sighting expeditions for tourists, who also come to view the northern lights.

Managing a camp with a dozen or more hunters, plus a guide for every two hunters, requires lots of experience and know-how, and ex-Mountie Grindlay kept the camp working as smoothly as a custom-built rifle. Jack and I were invariably the first hunters to the kitchen tent, and as we warmed ourselves close by the stove, stuffing ourselves with Vaughan's fresh-made doughnuts, Grindlay reassigned hunting areas to his guides so that every day the hunters saw new territory without seeing any other hunters.

Our fellow hunters were a group of Mexican-Americans from South Texas on the grand adventure of their lives. In addition to being old pals, they apparently knew by heart every Mexican serenade ever written and sang them long into the nights. Jack and I enjoyed the refuge of a small, two-bunk tent on the opposite edge of the camp, where even the loudest notes of the Mexican chorus were no more disturbing than the midnight wails of a Texas coyote.

Hunting caribou around Little Martin Lake is a mixture of boating and hiking. Skirting the rugged shoreline in flat-bottomed boats and threading around the countless inlets and islands is an efficient and relatively comfortable way to spot caribou, but eventually, as with almost all hunting, the hunter is obliged to set his boots on the rocky terrain and search beyond the shoreline ridges. On the second day of our hunt our route took us on a half-hour journey by water, and then miles over land to a long, glacier-gouged water- way, where a second boat had been strategically placed. This saved us miles of hiking and landed us on a shoreline that rose to a boulder-strewn ridgeline some two miles distant.

Our plan was to make it to the crest of the ridge and from there glass the surrounding hills and valleys. It would be an ideal place to spot the almost constantly moving herds of caribou and hopefully get my crosshairs on a trophy bull. (I'd won the first-shot coin toss.) Football was leading the way and had just reached the crest and peeked over a Volkswagen-sized boulder when he dropped back and silently hand-signaled Jack and me with a downward patting motion. "Keep low," the signal said. "Don't come any higher." Then with a curved finger motion he signaled that caribou were just beyond the ridge. "How close?" I wondered as I slipped the backpack from my shoulders and quietly fed a cartridge into the chamber of my rifle.

Dragging my backpack behind in case I might need it for a rifle rest, I bent low and made the final yards to where Football was now standing. There, scattered over several acres of a saucer-shaped valley, was a herd of about 30 caribou, the closest roughly 250 yards distant. Most were cows, along with a few young bulls and three or four adult bulls. The largest of these was a good but not great trophy-I'd taken better on earlier hunts-but he had a fairly wide shovel, good points and an exceptional coat. On a one-bull hunt I would likely have turned him down, but I'd have a chance for a better one on this two-caribou hunt and didn't want to be too choosy and keep Jack from getting his chance at an early shot. My other option was to forfeit the shot to Jack, who by then was beside me with his binocular focused on the largest of the bulls.

"If you want him I'll pass," I said.

"It's a good bull but too far for my muzzleloader," he whispered back. "If I were you I'd take him."

That was all the persuasion I needed, so I hoisted my backpack on top of the boulder to make a soft, aim-steadying nest. The rifle I rested on the pack was a favorite old .280 Remington built by Ultra Light Arms back when the company, now famous for its lightweight but accurate rifles, was first getting started. Even with a 3-10X Swarovski scope, the rig's total heft barely makes six pounds and the tough fiberglass stock is a match for northern Canada's arctic rigors. Turning the scope's power ring up to full 10X, I made a quick calculation of the range, which was about 260 yards, briefly considered and dismissed the effect of a quartering breeze, snuggled the stock tight against my shoulder and with my left hand pressing the forearm firmly into the makeshift rest, began putting pressure on the trigger.

I'd brought two different batches of handloaded ammo for this hunt: one loaded with my old favorite 140-grain Nosler Partition bullets and the other with the new sleek-looking 150-grain Sciroccos made by Swift Bullet Co. The plan was to shoot a caribou with each and compare results. A limited comparison, to be sure, but one that might prove interesting. For this first bull I'd chosen the 150-grain Scirocco.

The bull was standing almost broadside, headed to my left, and for a long moment after the Scirocco hit he seemed untouched. So much so that I quickly bolted another round into the chamber and steadied the crosshairs for a second shot. What I saw when the scope came on target was a big caribou literally dead on his feet, with blood gushing from a fist-sized hole low in his chest where his heart had been. Then, in the space of seconds, his legs gave way and he fell where he had been standing.

Bruce Football is of the Dogrib Dene, a people whose existence has been intertwined with the caribou from an age when time was measured only by the seasons. When missionaries came to the Canadian Northwest and set the natives' names down in writing, they couldn't find letters that mimicked the sound of Bruce's ancient family name, so it was recorded simply as Football, and the name stuck.

Bruce is stolid and quiet, befitting the dignity of his hunting heritage, with an almost mystical, perhaps even genetic, understanding of caribou and their habits and reverence for his people's timeless relationship with these animals. After my bull was dressed, with the choicest cuts protected in cloth bags, Bruce reverently covered the remaining bones with a piece of hide, offering, I think, the traditional prayerful thanks for the caribou's bounty. He gave no explanation and I expected none.

The following two days offered little except octhe largest of the bulls.

"If you want him I'll pass," I said.

"It's a good bull but too far for my muzzleloader," he whispered back. "If I were you I'd take him."

That was all the persuasion I needed, so I hoisted my backpack on top of the boulder to make a soft, aim-steadying nest. The rifle I rested on the pack was a favorite old .280 Remington built by Ultra Light Arms back when the company, now famous for its lightweight but accurate rifles, was first getting started. Even with a 3-10X Swarovski scope, the rig's total heft barely makes six pounds and the tough fiberglass stock is a match for northern Canada's arctic rigors. Turning the scope's power ring up to full 10X, I made a quick calculation of the range, which was about 260 yards, briefly considered and dismissed the effect of a quartering breeze, snuggled the stock tight against my shoulder and with my left hand pressing the forearm firmly into the makeshift rest, began putting pressure on the trigger.

I'd brought two different batches of handloaded ammo for this hunt: one loaded with my old favorite 140-grain Nosler Partition bullets and the other with the new sleek-looking 150-grain Sciroccos made by Swift Bullet Co. The plan was to shoot a caribou with each and compare results. A limited comparison, to be sure, but one that might prove interesting. For this first bull I'd chosen the 150-grain Scirocco.

The bull was standing almost broadside, headed to my left, and for a long moment after the Scirocco hit he seemed untouched. So much so that I quickly bolted another round into the chamber and steadied the crosshairs for a second shot. What I saw when the scope came on target was a big caribou literally dead on his feet, with blood gushing from a fist-sized hole low in his chest where his heart had been. Then, in the space of seconds, his legs gave way and he fell where he had been standing.

Bruce Football is of the Dogrib Dene, a people whose existence has been intertwined with the caribou from an age when time was measured only by the seasons. When missionaries came to the Canadian Northwest and set the natives' names down in writing, they couldn't find letters that mimicked the sound of Bruce's ancient family name, so it was recorded simply as Football, and the name stuck.

Bruce is stolid and quiet, befitting the dignity of his hunting heritage, with an almost mystical, perhaps even genetic, understanding of caribou and their habits and reverence for his people's timeless relationship with these animals. After my bull was dressed, with the choicest cuts protected in cloth bags, Bruce reverently covered the remaining bones with a piece of hide, offering, I think, the traditional prayerful thanks for the caribou's bounty. He gave no explanation and I expected none.

The following two days offered little except oc