Even though I was there, the scene didn’t seem real. Mile after mile of barren tundra sailed beneath the freshly refurbished, million-dollar DeHavilland Beaver floats. Through the plane’s headset, we were listening to Zydeco music on a digital audio system, and occasionally, outfitter Sammy Cantafio’s voice would silence the music as he pointed out a landmark or more caribou below.
As we passed over a large lake, we saw an amazing sight. A string of caribou stretched from the top of a distant hill, down to the lakeshore, into the water, up onto a large island, across the island hilltop, back into the water and up onto the opposite lakeshore. The unbroken herd literally went on for miles. Sammy banked the plane hard and swung to the back of the herd, high enough not to disturb the animals, but low enough to make great television through the Beaver’s window. As slowly as he could safely pilot the plane, Sammy cruised above the herd while “NAH-TV” videographer Lonnie Garland captured the migration in high definition. I sat in the back seat marveling at the sight, thrilled to be there at that moment.
This feeling was familiar, having just spent a week hunting in Sammy’s Ungava Adventures Gordon Lake Camp in the northern reaches of Quebec, more than 100 miles from the outpost town of Kuujjuaq. Though I’ve been to the tundra nearly a dozen times to hunt caribou from the Alaskan Peninsula to Newfoundland, this trip was the first in which I’d witnessed the legendary migration.
From Famine To Feast
Our trip to Gordon Lake Camp had been an adventure in itself. With gusts of nearly 60 mph, the wind jostled the twin Otter, but our pilot did an amazing job of putting us down atop an esker. Fortunately the wind was blowing straight down the runway. We quickly unloaded the copious gear required to make television and walked a half-mile to a cluster of cabins. On the way I joked with my hunting partner, Alan Linnenkohl of Realtree. Alan’s a devoted bowhunter who brought only his Mathew’s bow and a supply of arrows to pursue his first caribou. I ribbed him about how much wind allowance he might need for even a 20-yard bow shot in this kind of weather. He took the teasing in stride, but seemed a bit wide-eyed at the prospect of making a successful stalk on the unmercifully coverless tundra.
At camp we were introduced to our guides, Fabien Kennedy and Bucky Adams. Both are veterans of the tundra, Gordon Lake and Ungava Adventures. After ensuring that hunting licenses were in order and stoking up on some hearty stew, we set off for caribou. Conditions the first afternoon and the following day were about as tough as it gets for caribou hunting. Temps were cool, the wind relentless and there were few animals to be seen. When the wind did die down the second morning, heavy fog and drizzle set in, making the animals that were there very difficult to spot at any distance.
Then, on the second night, it happened. Somewhere to the north a mystical hand turned the tap handle and caribou poured forth. Sometime around 3 a.m., I heard the door bang shut as one of my cabin mates returned from a trip to the outhouse. He stood in the glow of his flashlight and announced, “They’re here!”
Lying silently in my bunk and listening intently, I could hear the first caribou herds, grunting contentedly as they shuffled by only 100 yards from camp. Too excited to sleep, I lay in the dark listening. Once in awhile caribou would come so close to the cabin I could hear the distinctive clicking of the tendons just above their hooves. The migration was definitely on—and we were in the middle of it! At daybreak, we climbed onto the airstrip again and could see caribou in every direction.
Hunting for the next 3 days was nothing short of spectacular. Sometimes herds drifted past, very near camp. At other times, we spotted lines of caribou moving miles away and covered big tracts of ground to intercept them. The ten hunters in camp had no problem filling out with two big bulls each. Alan arrowed two terrific animals for the camera, as did I with my Thompson/Center Encore rifle.
While every return to camp saw the cache of impressive racks on the beach grow and grow, there was something much deeper and even more meaningful going on. Even after hunters filled their tags, they’d head back out just to sit on the tundra surrounded by caribou. Each of us somehow recognized this opportunity as potentially a once-in-a-lifetime event to actually be a part of the mystery of the migration. It was an experience you’d certainly never see back in suburbia USA!
Paying the Price
The price you pay for the chance to hunt caribou and perhaps experience the power of the migration gets steeper every year. A Quebec hunt with a top-notch operation like Sammy Cantafio’s Ungava Adventures can easily run $5,000 these days, and that’s without transportation to and from Montreal. Yet when you consider the overhead involved in Northcountry outfitting, the prices aren’t difficult to understand.
After our hunt at Gordon Lake we had some time to kill in Kuujjuac before the flight back to Montreal, so Sammy showed us some of the “in-town” part of his operation. He took us to warehouses filled with brand new generators, boats, outboards and ATVs; dozens of storage containers filled with foodstuffs shipped from the South on barges during the summer; hangars with airplanes and parts; inspected meat-storage and packing facilities; and much more. There’s a complete radio communications system on which all camps check in with base at least a couple times each day. And full-time expediters in town ensure hunters’ luggage is where it needs to be, when it needs to be there!
While all of this comes at great expense, Sammy takes pride in Ungava Adventures’ ability to keep several camps well-supplied and operational during the fishing and hunting seasons. If a generator or water pump goes down in any of his camps, a replacement can be flown in and installed in 24 hours or less—tundra weather permitting of course.
And now there’s the spiraling cost of aviation fuel! The sky seems to be the limit on where the price of this liquid gold will finally settle, and it could spell the end for all but the most entrenched and well-financed Northcountry outfitters. Few hunters see the infrastructure of operating in these remote regions, and perhaps that’s as it should be. The reason for going is to temporarily escape those kinds of concerns. But the next time you book a caribou hunt, don’t be so quick to question why it costs so much.
Smack in the middle of tens of thousands of migrating animals, taking a caribou might not seem that difficult. Yet to maximize your chances of taking a mature bull, there are preparations and actions you need to take. Just because you and the caribou have ended up in the same general vicinity doesn’t mean sausage for the freezer and a Boone and Crockett Club rack for the wall!
1. Carry Good Glass: The standard hunting method for caribou is to reach the highpoints in the glacial landscape and watch for herds moving in from as far as 7 or 8 miles away. The only way to do that comfortably is with good optics—both binoculars and spotting scopes. One of the most frustrating things in hunting is to be hamstrung by poor glass, or worse yet no glass, while your guide is calling out the location of bull after bull as he looks through his binoculars and spotting scope.
2. Be In Shape: Caribou can really move, and when the herd is at a steady walk, you’ll never catch up to them from behind. After spotting a bull you want to stalk, you either need to already be in front of him or figure out a way to cut him off. Even so, you’ll be crossing boulder fields, bogs, tundra, ponds, flowing streams and unbelievably thick spruce pockets to get into shooting position. And if you have a guide, he’ll want you to do it at a jog. If you’re successful getting into position, you might have only seconds to steady your heart and nerves to make the shot. Following that shot means carrying the meat, hide and horns back across all that ground you covered in the first place.
3. Know The Range: Estimating shot distance on the tundra is a deceiving proposition for anyone who comes from country that has trees, cactus or fences. Those landmarks give you perspective as to the size of the animal and how far away it is. Boulders are unreliable because they come in so many unknown sizes. If you’re hunting with a bow or shooting a rifle at maximum ranges, it’s essential that you know the exact range to an animal. A reliable laser rangefinder is worth far more than its weight in your pocket or around your neck. Knowing the range will dramatically increase your confidence and allow you to focus on dealing with fickle tundra winds.
4. Know Your Rig: Caribou don’t require magnum calibers or long-range shooting, particularly if you’re in shape for stalking. It’s far more important to have a rig you know well and shoot well. Standard calibers like the .270 Win., .280 Rem., .30-06, 7mm-08 Rem. or a couple dozen others are fine caribou cartridges. On this trip with Ungava Adventures, I used a Thompson/Center Encore in .308 Win. topped with a Kahles 3-10X scope and loaded with Federal Premiums carrying new 150-grain TripleShok bullets. My first bull was taken broadside at about 150 yards after a long wait for him to rise from his mostly concealed bed. The shot literally flipped him over in his tracks. While viewing the tape, another hunter commented it looked like the wind picked up a sawhorse and flipped it upside down. My second bull was walking at 179 yards. The first shot hit precisely behind the bull’s shoulder, directly through the heart. His reaction was to spin around and stagger; my second shot tipped him over. On closer examination the two entry holes could have been covered by a silver dollar.
5. Take A Rest: The northern Quebec tundra is a rifleman’s dream. It’s covered with rock-solid rests—namely giant rocks. I took both of my bulls with my rifle rested on a rock, and one was even padded with a mitten. Even so, my pack contained collapsible shooting sticks for the rare location where there wasn’t a nearby boulder. A rifle that you know well and shoot well, paired with a solid rest is an unbeatable combination.