Earlier this year, the Quebec provincial government announced the closure of the Leaf River caribou hunt after this fall’s season. It’s a decision that had been rumored for a couple years, as game management in the province has been politicized, but also because caribou numbers have been declining and the formerly predictable migration has become later and more sporadic.
The closure will impact not only the hundreds of hunting guides, cooks, and outfitters who operate
remote fly-in camps across the Ungava Peninsula, but also the legions of hunters who have made bagging a Quebec caribou a milestone in their hunting careers. For generations of American hunters, driving north to Quebec was a rite of passage, the opportunity to graduate from whitetails and hunt caribou over the course of a productive week, with the ability to look over hundreds of bulls before deciding which two to bring home.
Outdoor Life editor-in-chief Andrew McKean, along with his buddies Ryan Chuckel and Aaron Hitchins, decided to participate in this final caribou hunt, not only to memorialize the experience but to record details of the Ungava for hunters who may not get the chance to pursue these white-robed lords of the north.
Here’s their story from late August and early September.
We’re headed to the center of the Ungava Peninsula, the big thumb of land that separates Hudson Bay to the east from James Bay to the west. All routes into this country start in Montreal. Andrew McKean
The jumping-off point for the interior is the First Nations village of Kuujjuaq, where a squadron of Beaver and Otter bush planes ferry supplies—and caribou hunters every fall—into the heart of the Ungava. Andrew McKean
You know you’ve reached the Far North when airline safety cards depict figures in seal-fur jackets and fur-lined mukluk boots. Andrew McKean
We’re headed to “Camp Charlie,” a remote camp that’s been operated by Ungava Adventures for over 30 years. The camp is comfortable, with a generator to power lights and freezers, oil stoves to keep the chill out of the metal shacks, and plywood bunks for our sleeping bags. Charlie is located on a historic caribou migration route. On our arrival, we notice two things. First, the outgoing hunters are glum. They’ve seen very few caribou and tell us that hunting is hard. “Better shoot the first caribou you see, whether it’s a cow or a bull,” one of the hunters tells me. Second, the camp managers regale us with stories about all the years when hunters woke up to find hundreds of ‘bou milling around the cabins. We don’t know which story to believe. Andrew McKean
After we get settled in to our cabin, we ramble over to the grub shack where we notice writing on the kitchen wall. It’s a tally that records the date of the earliest migration of caribou through Camp Charlie. We see dates as early as July. And we also notice that the first-caribou dates get later and later as the years advance. Last year, the ‘bou didn’t show up until Sept. 10—that’s almost 10 days away. Andrew McKean
We have come to bowhunt, bringing identical Mathews Halon 32 compounds with Tommy Hogg single-pin sights. We sight in our bows at camp, and are comfortable with shots out to about 70 yards, assuming that all variables—including wind and oblivious broadside animal—are right. But we’ve also brought a backup rifle in case we can’t close the deal with our bows. Andrew McKean
We settle into a daily routine. Every morning, we take a boat from camp to distant shorelines, where we climb to high ridges and spend the day behind our optics, scanning the horizons for caribou. For days, we see nothing except rocks, water, and sky. This is the thing with migratory animals: when they’re around, the abundance is staggering. But when they’re not, the desolation is discouraging. Andrew McKean
The land is not empty, not by half. It’s full of life, including all the ripe blueberries we care to grub out of the low-slung shrubs. Every glassing spot also turns into a foraging spot. Andrew McKean
And we see evidence of hunters who were here before us. On the highest ridges, we find inuksuks, Inuit landmarks made from stacked rocks. From afar, these totems look like human sentinels standing watch over the barrens. Andrew McKean
Every day, especially when the constant wind dies down, we are visited by another resident of the tundra: pestilent black flies. They buzz our faces and, when we can’t swat them away in time, burrow into our ears, eyes, and noses. Andrew McKean
A few days into our hunt, Ryan spots a lone bull milling around a willow bog. He beds on the shoreline of a lake, and if the wind gets right, it looks like we might be able to stalk into bow range. Ryan and I tote our bows. I look at my Sako rifle before deciding to bring it along, too. I hang back while Chuckle works within 80 yards of the bedded bull. Just when it looks like it’s going to happen, the bull rises, looks back at Ryan, and steps in the water. None of us are used to seeing animals so casually slip away by swimming away. We watch as the bull holds his massive antlers above the water line. Then I remember my rifle. While I badly want to hold out for an opportunity with my bow, I don’t want to watch the only bull we’ve seen to walk—er, swim—out of our lives. I decide that if he’s in range when he exits the lake, I’ll take a shot. He is, and I do. And we spend the rest of the day taking care of a beautiful Quebec-Labrador bull. Aaron Hitchins
Now that we have meat hanging, we continue our daily spotting sessions, but we also break out our fly-fishing gear. Andrew McKean
Here in the middle of the Ungava, we’re too far north for pike and too far south for arctic char. But every lake is full of lake trout, and every tributary is stacked with spawning brook trout. We catch big, colorful brookies on big mouse imitations, grasshopper patterns, and big, rubber-legged dry flies. Aaron Hitchins
All the veterans of Camp Charlie tell us to be patient, that the caribou will come. The three of us aren’t used to waiting, and we make longer and longer hikes, looking into ever-distant basins to see if we can find caribou. After a few days, we start taking shotguns with us. If we can’t find caribou, we can certainly occupy our time with willow ptarmigan. We put up dozens of coveys every day, and take a few birds on each hike. Andrew McKean
Finally, on a stiff-wind afternoon, we glass from a ridge and see a distant, blurry image through our Zeiss spotter. It’s a bull, easily 2-1/2 miles away. But he’s on his feet, and walking our way. We make tracks toward him, and after an hour of fighting through willows and boot-sucking bogs, we crest a low rise. He’s sleeping just below us, not 160 yards away! Unfortunately, he’s accompanied by a calf, and it has spotted us. The caribou rise and mill nervously before finally drifting away. We try a stalk, but the big bull crosses a lake, and seemingly out of our lives. We regroup and begin our long, 4-mile hike back to our boat. On a whim, we glass the lake, and spot the bull, standing in the water just off shore. Ryan and Aaron draft a plan. Ryan will stalk the bull, Aaron will wait on the far shore in case he swims again. He does, and Aaron arrows him when he emerges from the lake. Andrew McKean
From left: Ryan Chuckel, Aaron Hitchins, and the author. Aaron Hitchins
We’re stoked to have the plan come together, but we also have a problem. We have meat down miles from our boat in rough country. But Hitchins is a meat-packing mule, and after we bone out the meat, he loads it in his pack, straps the rack on his shoulders, and grinds the load out. It takes us hours to reach the boat; we return to camp around midnight, weary and sore, but happy to have made our own luck instead of waiting for the migration. Andrew McKean
We spend the next days hiking and glassing, but we never spot another bull. The migration simply isn’t happening. Andrew McKean
Finally, our week in the tundra ends, and our pickup plane arrives at camp. It’s full of fresh, bright-eyed, optimistic hunters—just as we had been when we arrived at Camp Charlie. We don’t want to burst their caribou bubble, so when they ask how the hunting was, we tell them it’s tough, but doable. Aaron has the last word as we board the bush plane: “Better plan to put some miles on your boots.” But privately, I wonder if even that will be enough. Andrew McKean