The Final Season of Quebec’s Caribou Hunting
After decades of seemingly limitless abundance, Quebec's caribou herd is in decline, and hunting has been stopped. Out on the tundra, the author waited for a migration that never came
Outside in the dark, the wind whistles around the cabins of Charlie Lake Camp, insolently flapping a piece of loose tin on the cookhouse roof. To me, it is the doleful pulse of desolation. But to Peter Wellman, the host of this huddle of metal-sided cabins plopped down on the northern Quebec tundra, the wind carries notes of promise and redemption. “Sometimes the wind gets ’em moving, trailing down from the north,” Wellman pronounces to no one in particular but to every one of us eight caribou hunters sitting around wooden tables in the lantern-lit kitchen. We are drinking—beer for some, whiskey for others—and grumbling about the absence of animals over the course of the last four days. The camp has seen only a single caribou so far, and I’d killed it earlier in the day. I wouldn’t call Wellman an optimist. He had told us when we arrived, the drone of the twin-engine Otter trailing away from Charlie Lake’s rocky airstrip, that we should expect a week of tough hunting. “Last two groups, they have to really work for ’em,” he said in his singsong French-Canadian accent. I’d call Wellman a pragmatist. Here he was, presiding over a camp full of disgruntled hunters who were sipping drinks and nursing simmering frustrations. He needed to seed some hope. “Some years, after a good wind like this, we’ll wake up and have bulls walking around the cabins.” The kitchen crowd stirs. Someone mumbles “bullshit” under his breath. But we each imagine what it might look like, bulls with wrist-thick antlers knocking around between the generator shed and the tin outhouse.
Doug Fraser takes the baton. A retired PE teacher from southern Ontario, he has hunted caribou out of this camp for 14 seasons.
“Nah. It’s happened,” he says. “I’ve had two or three years here when all of a sudden there’s hundreds of caribou right behind camp, this side of the airstrip. Everybody’s tagged out in a few hours. Guys still in their pajamas, guys shooting caribou from lawn chairs. Course, most years you have to put in a little more work, but there’s a reason this camp is right here. It’s on the migration.”
Everybody around the table perks up. We’d all seen the pictures in the promotional brochure of the meat shack filled with hanging quarters and a line of caribou heads on the rail by the lake. Then Doug looks into his mug. “But this is unusual. I’ve never seen a year like this. Has the herd gone down over the years? Yeah. Sure. But nothing like this year.”
Tommy Joyce is next. He’s here from Long Island with two of his brothers and his 10-year-old son, Mikey. Joyce is on a years-long quest to shoot all 29 species of huntable North American big game, and he has come to kill a Quebec-Labrador woodland caribou this year, because he has heard—as we all have—that the government is putting an end to the season after this fall. Joyce has been in a lot of big-game camps, and he knows that a little levity goes a long way when the hunting is tough.
“If I had known how this was going to go, I would have brought a lot more beer and left the bullets at home,” he says.
The Pipe Smokers
Then there’s me and my hunting buddies, Aaron Hitchins and Ryan Chuckel. We’re also thinking we should have brought more whiskey, but before dinner, we hatched a plan in our bunkhouse. If the caribou won’t come to us, we’ll go to them. Tomorrow, we’ll walk until we find the migration, even if we have to spend a night out on the tundra.
We’re looking for a couple more bulls, but I’m mostly looking to reprise one of the best days of my life.
That was 15 years ago, maybe 50 miles southwest of here. I was three days into my first hunt for Quebec caribou, elbow-crawling awkwardly across the tundra toward four bulls bedded together on the blind side of a moss-quilted ridge. When I started my stalk, all I could see of them was their antlers arching above the treeless landscape like the backs of bent-wood rocking chairs at an interstate Cracker Barrel.
I worked into bow range of the bulls and waited—mesmerized by their velvet-fuzzed antlers, I stoically suffered dozens of blackfly bites—until they got up to stretch. My rifle shot was almost apologetic. I had spent so much time with those caribou that I felt required to shoot one, but I could happily have kept watching them, their horse nostrils flaring when the wind shifted, their frost-white shoulders twitching with fly botheration, and their square jaws reworking a day’s worth of lichen cud. They were the perfect embodiment of the landscape, engineered to make a living on the treeless barrens of the subarctic.
As I quartered that bull, I resolved to hunt caribou every chance I got. It was a rash resolution, failing to account for children, deadlines, disposable income, and archery elk season. But how could a hunter not gravitate to this ultimate big-game animal, a mule-deer-size critter with elk-size antlers that moves in braided herds with seemingly no beginning or end?
I mention this to explain my desire to return to Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula—that’s the thumb that pokes north out of the continent to separate Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay. I hope it also excuses the hyperbole I used to persuade Hitchins and Chuckel to join me on this self-guided caribou hunt. The three of us try to hunt together somewhere every year, but together we’ve been snakebit when it comes to caribou. Our first non-encounter with the species was in Alaska, where we failed to turn up a single caribou on a fly-in hunt on Kodiak Island. It was on that trip that we turned to smoking corncob pipes as both a distraction and a luck-changing talisman.
Our Quebec plan was to book a charter flight to a caribou camp in the interior of the peninsula, and then to bowhunt our pick of bulls over the course of a week, fishing for brook trout and shooting clouds of ptarmigan only after we had arrowed a bull or two apiece.
“The way you describe it, we’ll probably blow a few stalks, but there are so many animals moving through that we should have a couple of chances at bulls every day, right?” Hitchins asked me before the trip. Oh yeah, I told him, recalling the hundreds of caribou I’d encountered on my previous Quebec hunt. We’d pick between ambushing bulls as they emerged from lakes, flanks heaving and wet, and posting up on ancient migration routes on the ridges, arrowing bulls when they strode past.
It was only after we had sent our deposit for the hunt that we got the news: Ours would be the final season for sport-hunting Quebec’s caribou. So when we departed for the hunt last August, it was with equal parts anticipation and apprehension. With a bit of my own pragmatism, I packed a rifle along with my bow and pipe, just in case hunting was tougher than I remembered.
The Best of Times
For about 30 years, from the early 1970s through the 1990s, Quebec caribou occupied a special place in the hearts and seasonal calendars of American hunters, especially those from what we now call the Rust Belt. The Canadian herd was growing almost exponentially. Outfitters were popping out of the landscape like mushrooms after a rain, and for a population of American hunters with abundant interest and disposable income—and a week’s vacation from a union job—a Quebec caribou hunt represented a big-game paradise that they couldn’t find at home.
A couple of generations of these workaday hunters made a semiannual migration northward, crossing the border at Windsor or Buffalo or Champlain. They hunted caribou out of Schefferville, then drove the meat and antlers back home.
Their efforts were enabled by an industry of guides, outfitters, bush pilots, and meat processors who made good wages during the caribou migration, then went back to fishing for cod or Atlantic salmon or running their traplines in the off-season.
Wellman and his brother-in-law, Donald Buckle—our boat driver and navigator—are a couple of those cogs in the caribou outfitting machine. Between the two of them, they have worked in caribou camps for more than 65 years. And it wasn’t just them. Their entire village on the Gulf of St. Lawrence would empty out every June; all able-bodied men and women took jobs in interior Quebec.
“The outfitting companies would charter a plane,” Buckle tells me. “Everybody who could work would have a job up here as a cook, dishwasher, guide, or skinner. The only people left in our hometown would be kids and grandparents.”
When the provincial limit was raised to two bulls per hunter, outfitters threw up more camps on the tundra. Two outfitters in particular built an empire in the middle of the wilderness southwest of Kuujjuaq, in what the maps call The Barrens, right on the caribou’s ancestral fall migration route. Safari Nordik had 20 separate fly-in camps. Ungava Adventures had another 12. Two-bull hunts cost $3,500. There were waiting lists of clients hoping for a cancellation so they could get in.
The Worst of Times
The Ungava’s caribou roam in two distinct herds. The Leaf River herd spends the spring calving season at the northern tip of the peninsula and migrates south to winter habitat on the icy east shore of Hudson Bay. At its height, in 2011, this herd numbered about 430,000 animals.
The George River herd has a shorter migration, moving along the Quebec–Labrador border. Its size has dropped from an estimated 800,000 animals in 1985 to just 5,000 caribou today. Hunting was stopped in 2012, but the population continued to decline anyway, from 27,000 in 2012 to 14,200 in 2014 . The George River caribou is now considered an endangered species in Canada.
The Leaf River herd declined too, though not nearly as precipitously as the George River herd. But out of an abundance of caution—in an effort to avoid the terminal plunge of the George—in 2014, the province cut tag quotas to outfitters. A few marginal operations faded away, but the expectation was that after a few down years, the herd would rebound. Only it didn’t, which is why the province made the stunning decision last year to stop sport-hunting for the Leaf River herd.
As the Pipe Smokers arrived at Charlie Lake, we knew only that we had six days to hunt, and that biologists estimated the herd moving toward us was less than half the number of just six years earlier. And we had also heard that, as in the previous few years, the migration was late and patchy. Fly-in caribou camps are built on the expectation of abundance. They’re almost always on lakes, and most feature a fleet of runabout boats to intercept caribou filing along far shores. In Quebec, at least, caribou guides rarely hike or know much about the country beyond sight of camp. They don’t have to. The caribou have always come to them.
When we asked Buckle where we might expect to see the leading edge of an incoming herd, he pointed north, then west, then swept his hands around the lake. “Nahbiddy knows,” he said. His suggestion: Just wait. They’ll come. Meanwhile, the clock ticked, and Hitchins, Chuckel, and I drove around in the boat, glassing shorelines, for four straight days. We broke the monotony by casting to brawling, kype-jawed brook trout in spawning colors of tangerine and emerald.
But our eyes were ever searching for mouse-colored ungulates traipsing across the tundra. Chuckel saw him first, a lone bull browsing willows in a tributary of Charlie Lake. The three of us grabbed our bows. I looked at my Sako rifle twice before reaching for it, along with my Mathews, and joining the stalk. We got within 80 yards before I sent Chuckel ahead. If the bull worked around him, hopefully he’d head my way.
Hitchins and I held back. Chuckel sneaked into place, nocked an arrow, and was about to draw when the bull simply stepped into the lake and swam out of bow range. It was the only caribou we had seen in four days. I looked at my Sako again. When the bull emerged from the lake on the other side of the bay, I folded him, hoping like hell I hadn’t just killed the last bull in Quebec.
Back at camp, I was greeted by the Joyce clan as a conquering hero. Holding beers, they inspected every inch of my bull, as if it were a dragon that had fallen from the sky. That night, the wind blew, Wellman conjured caribou, and the Pipe Smokers packed for a long hike the next day.
We had Buckle drop us off at the far end of the lake, in the direction we thought caribou might come from. As we climbed out of his boat and checked our gear, Buckle kept shaking his head. He had never seen hunters prepare to walk as long or as far as we intended to.
“The land is scarce,” he told us as we climbed a rocky ridge and left sight of Charlie Lake.
He wasn’t kidding. We hiked a couple of miles, stopping to glass from the innumerable high points. The Barrens are a featureless tumble of house-size boulders, blueberry fens, ridges that lead nowhere, and water of every type and size, from finger lakes to potholes. And wind. It may not have brought us caribou, but the wind took our hats, the words from our mouths, and the fire from the matches we struck to light our pipes.
During one wind-whipped pipe-lighting session, I set up my spotting scope and scoured the terrain. I was about to pronounce the land empty when something caught my eye. It was khaki-colored and round. Then it moved. It was a caribou, nearly 2 miles to the north. I could just make out antlers in my quivering scope. Pipes were quenched, packs shouldered, and we covered ground.
Somehow, we found that bull, and after a couple of blown stalks, Hitchins sent an arrow through his rib cage. We smoked our pipes in thanks (and to repel blackflies), then packed our gear and the boned meat from that caribou 6 hard miles back to Charlie Lake, arriving at camp around midnight.
In the morning, nursing tired feet and bruised shoulders, we looked with fresh eyes at the hunter-scrawled graffiti in our bunkhouse. It was more or less chronological, starting with this from 2006: “Got to camp 3 p.m. First good bull 5:30. Too windy to fish.”
Then 2009: “The Father-Daughter Team: 4 great bulls, 12 ptarmigan, 1 bear, 25 lake trout. One hell of a time!”
And 2012: “Caribou in the water as far as the eye can see.”
On the back of the door, a hunter from 2013 had scribbled: “Charlie Lake: Thousands on the move. Massing of great bulls. Kill quickly.”
But a hunter from earlier in 2017 had edited the post, scrawling, “Very few caribou,” above Charlie Lake, and then declaring “NO!” in block letters above each of those three pronouncements.
It was hard not to draw the same conclusions. How could one of the continent’s great sport hunts sputter to a stop? Is the herd really in trouble, or is the migration simply changing its pace and pattern? And what’s the fate of the caribou camps sprinkled across Quebec’s Barrens?
As we waited for the Otter to pick us up from Charlie Lake and drop the season’s final crew of fresh hunters off, I asked Wellman what would happen to his camp when the caribou season ended in a week.
“We’ll take what we can haul out in a plane, but the boats, generator, freezers, all that—it stays here. Maybe somebody reopens this camp someday, but why? Who would put that kind of time and money into this? Nobody’s coming.”
On my layover in Montreal, as I headed home, I checked the province’s migration tracker, a website that reports the locations of GPS-collared caribou. The plots on the map showed tens of thousands of caribou above the Leaf River, still 100 miles from the Charlie Lake Camp. The weather forecast was calling for a strong wind from the north.
What Happened to Quebec’s Caribou?
Caribou are among North America’s most cyclical big-game species. Using tree-scar evidence, researchers say that populations of Quebec caribou have yo-yoed widely over the last 200 years, responding to weather and predator numbers.
That caribou are fickle creatures is about all that stakeholders can agree on. The engines of population dynamics? Depends on who you ask. And I asked a dozen people, including ministers with Quebec’s Ministry of Forestry, Wildlife, and Parks, who declined to comment.
In general, government officials attribute the decline to a bit of everything, including hunting, changes in vegetation, and climate change, which has likely limited the habitat on the tip of the Ungava Peninsula where caribou go to calve. Traditionally, this area has been devoid of blackflies and wolves during calving season. But changes in climate patterns have reduced the size and productivity of vermin-free calving grounds.
A 2016 report issued by Quebec’s provincial department of parks and wildlife states: “Recent documentary analysis has clearly revealed that the main threats to the long-term survival of migratory caribou populations are overexploitation through hunting and poaching, the expansion of occupation of the territory and the attendant industrial activities, as well as climate change.”
The report details population estimates over the past 15 years, noting that the Leaf River herd swelled to 430,000 in 2011, then declined to 332,000 in 2015 and to 199,000 in 2016.
Some suggested that while changes in migration timing may not have affected the overall population of the Leaf River herd, it has crippled the outfitters who have relied on a predictable pattern. And as the outfitters have gone out of business, First Nations are preparing to become more powerful stakeholders in herd management decisions.
Others question the population estimates themselves. The Quebec Outfitters Association, which of course has a large monetary stake in the outcome of the hunt, made the following statement in a news release: “What happened to the hundreds of thousands of caribou that disappeared since 2011, notably 100,000 during the past two years? How does one explain that neither guides, nor hunters, nor outfitters themselves have discovered any hides or carcasses during the months they operated on the land and during the hundreds of hours overflying the Northern Quebec territory? Given the fact that the native communities in Quebec and Labrador apparently have not had their caribou harvest quotas decreased by government closures, some are questioning whether the sport-hunting ban is as much political as it is biological.”
The government’s boilerplate statement, plus its decision to ban the sport-hunt, has opened the door for plenty of other theories.
“We didn’t see tag cutbacks until they started building hydro dams in caribou winter habitat,” says Ontario hunter Doug Fraser.
“They’re killing too many cows in the winter,” says native Quebecer Gordy Buckle. “The caribou migrate down where there are roads and places where snowmobiles can go, and they have dropped their antlers by then, so you can’t tell what’s a bull and what’s a cow. A caribou down there is worth $500, in hide and fresh meat, and here’s the thing: Every Quebec resident can fill tags for all the people in their household. So you have people killing 20 to 25 caribou.”
For my part, I imagine the reasons for the decline are equal parts climate change, pressure from predators (both two- and four-legged), and habitat alteration. With migratory animals, any bottleneck along their migration spells trouble.
Do I think stopping sport hunting will revive the herd? No. Sport hunters were issued only 1,366 Leaf River caribou tags last season. But I understand the desire to limit mortality until wildlife managers figure out the real causes of the declines. I’m confident several million acres of pristine subarctic habitat will sustain the caribou, as long as they have a chance to access it.