The autumn of 1984 found Jeanne and me back in the wilds of northern Quebec, attempting once again to slay a caribou with our bows and arrows. Unlike the fall of 1982, she hadn’t brought her rifle this time. It was going to be the bow or nothing! My personal luck did change for the better, however—hence the cheerful title for this story.
Yet it was a strange hunt that also delivered a good measure of intense frustration to both of us. For a while, I considered writing a separate story about the hunt’s downside, and I was going to title it, “The Blizzard of My Discontent.” In the interest of brevity, however, I finally decided to combine the two in one—but using only the upbeat title.
This third hunt for Quebec-Labrador caribou took place out of Tunulik River Lodge, operated by a native outfitter named Bobby Snowball. The hunt proved memorable for several reasons. One was that my old mentor, Glenn St. Charles, was among the hunters in camp with us. Another hunter in the group was Carol Ann Mauch. She and husband Dick Mauch had hunted with Snowball two years earlier, and had returned to see if they couldn’t harvest even bigger bulls than they had on their first hunt. I think that for two years the Good Lord must have been whispering something to Carol’s subconscious, because before the week was out she had killed the new Pope & Young World Record for the species. To this day, her Quebec-Labrador bull still stands as the archery World Record at a score of 434 0/8.
I only wish the bull I finally managed to take had been half the bull that Carol’s was! Instead, it received a prize at the end of the week for being the smallest bull taken by any hunter in camp. I received a fair amount of good-natured teasing from my fellow hunters, because the animal was truly what we simply refer to as a “dink” bull. I doubt that his antlers would have scored any more than an average 4×4 mule deer, and that’s not much—given the size of a trophy-size caribou rack.
But “beggars can’t be choosers,” as the saying goes. Jeanne and I had seen very few animals all week. It was one of those “feast-or-famine” caribou hunts—with the emphasis on “famine.” Neither of us had managed even to claim the species with a bow during either of the two previous hunts, so when a small band of caribou came out of the trees, heading in our direction on the next-to-last morning of our third hunt, we both had blood in our eyes, and murderous intentions in our hearts.
Our native guide had led us up to a gentle ridgetop, about a mile or so above the lake. He explained that in the past he had had pretty good success finding caribou traveling along the top of this ridge. The scat and tracks in evidence seemed to back up his optimism. We had just taken up an ambush position behind a large boulder some 40 yards from a small lake, when the above-mentioned, half-dozen animals came trotting our way along a well-used trail that passed between us and the edge of the water. Jeanne and I both came to full draw and waited.
As the herd trotted past, at something under 30 yards, it dawned on me they probably had no intention of stopping. There was only one bull in the bunch, and he wasn’t much of a bull, but both sexes were legal, fair game, and Jeanne and I had two tags apiece in our pockets that were crying to be filled. Seeing the distance between us and the herd starting to widen, I took aim at a spot just in front of the bull’s brisket and let fly. A couple seconds later, Jeanne loosed an arrow at a cow caribou that had stopped upon hearing the sound of my bowstring. Her arrow passed completely through the animal somewhere amidships, while mine struck the bull just behind the near shoulder and was arrested by the far shoulder. All at once we had two stricken animals to recover, not just one.
My bull walked slowly into a small stand of trees and bedded down. “Good,” I thought to myself. “If we just leave him alone, he’ll expire there shortly.” Our guide obviously had the same thought, because he was already off trying to follow Jeanne’s cow. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no blood sign anywhere—nor did we find any sign of her arrow. After the pass-through, it had no doubt submarined under the tundra moss, never to be seen again.
The other four caribou had departed the scene very quickly. Whether Jeanne’s cow joined them for a spell or not, we had no idea, but two hours of searching the area yielded nothing. Finally we returned to find my bull, which had a good case of rigor mortis by the time we began field-dressing him.
Our guide had accidentally left our lunch in the boat back at the big lake, so by the time we finished taking care of the meat everybody was plenty hungry. Much to our delight, he tried to make amends for his crime by getting a nice fire going, cutting a good chunk of meat off one of the big strip loins, and spitting it on the end of a double-pronged, stout, willow branch.
“Backstraps roasting on an open fire,” I sort of hummed out loud, to no one in particular. Jeanne realized right away that I was thinking of the popular Christmas song. She chuckled, and then came back with, “Well, you sure pulled our chestnuts out of the fire on this hunt.” I laughed and marveled at her ability to engage in humor, in view of how much I knew she was hurting inside. No hunter likes to wound an animal and then not be able to recover it. That is every hunter’s worst nightmare. It happens very seldom, thank God, but even once is too often.
The only thing that could possibly have made our improvised, hot luncheon more delicious than it already was would have been a salt shaker! Wild meats, in my humble opinion, even more than domestic meats, really benefit from a liberal application of salt. As the sun chased away the last of the clouds, we kept cutting off more and more pieces from that backstrap, adding periodically to the hot bed of coals, and—in general—making pigs of ourselves, before finally falling asleep in the middle of the unseasonably-warm afternoon. Little did we realize the weather was about to do a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation over the next 12 hours.
The following morning, we awoke at the lodge to a real blizzard going on outside. This was our last possible day to hunt, but there was already nearly a foot of accumulated snow on the ground. I had been awakened briefly during the night by a high wind, but I never dreamed it might be sucking in a huge, arctic cold front and snow storm behind it. When our guide asked us if we wanted to try to hunt some that day, Jeanne made it clear she had no interest in tackling such nasty elements.
I think I surprised the guide when I told him I was game, and asked him where he thought we might find some caribou in such weather. He explained to me that sometimes, in those conditions, they follow well-known travel corridors and cover long distances. He said he knew of one such major crossing two miles upriver from camp. I knew there was no possibility of going out on the lake, given the ferocious winds, but this other suggestion held forth some promise, anyway. I really didn’t relish the thought of going home with the prize for the smallest bull in camp. “Let’s go hunting,” I told my guide.
Our trip upriver was anything but pleasant. At least I could sit with my back to the blizzard, but my guide—in order to steer the boat—had to look right into the stinging snow. It was vicious, and I wondered how he could even tolerate the punishment his eyes were taking. I’m sure he’d have given almost anything for a pair of ski goggles right then. Upon leaving the lodge, I had donned my down parka, and now, as we plowed our way upstream against the current and the gale, I felt grateful I had brought it on the trip.
After a half-hour of fighting the elements, my guide began motioning for me to start watching the shore just up ahead off to our left. I assumed we must be approaching the crossing he had talked about back in camp. Suddenly the boat took a new tack to the left, and just as I heard the engine go silent I saw two ghostly forms moving through the blowing, horizontal snow roughly 75 yards off the river—down what appeared to be a snow-covered, dry creek bed. As I grabbed my bow and stumbled ashore, my guide made some motions with his arms over his head, which I took to mean that the “ghosts” were carrying some big antlers.
Trying to focus my eyes on what I was seeing up ahead, I realized they were, indeed, two very big bulls with impressive hat racks, and neither one seemed at all aware of our arrival on the scene. The howling of the wind had undoubtedly prevented them from hearing our motor. To my surprise, they both appeared to have their heads down, feeding! On what I had no idea, but they looked to be pawing through the white stuff and nibbling as they went. It seemed they were content to stay out in the open. My guide indicated he’d remain with the boat, and that I should try to get close enough for a shot.
When I had closed to within 50 yards of the bulls, I shed my parka and heavy gloves so I’d be able to make a shot if the opportunity presented itself. Not once had they lifted their heads to look toward the river! The two were feeding directly into the wind—which was blowing from right to left, at right angles to my line of sight to my quarry. At least I knew I wasn’t going to have the problem I had two years earlier in keeping the arrow on the arrow rest. The powerful blizzard would glue it against the riser of my bow.
The thick brush on either side of their open “travel corridor” was absolutely plastered with rime ice and snow, so I rejected any thought of trying to force my way through the undergrowth to ambush them at close range. Hindsight, of course, is always perfect, but the truth is I probably could have just walked right up to them within a few yards and plugged one or the other at point-blank range. I concluded later that they simply didn’t believe any predator would be crazy enough to be up and moving about in such atrocious weather, and they had evidently thrown all caution to the wind—both literally and figuratively!
The way I played things, however, was not very smart. At perhaps a bit under 40 yards, with no cover left whatsoever, I decided to try a shot. It was sheer foolishness on my part. I guess I just felt certain that at any moment, one of the bulls was going to pick his head up and spot me. That never happened. Allowing hugely for the sideways drift of the arrow, I took aim at a point even with the closer bull’s head and let fly. As my missile passed harmlessly a good two feet behind his rump, his head remained down in feeding position! They hadn’t heard or sensed a thing, yet it still didn’t occur to me to try to move closer. My next shot I aimed for three feet in front of the animal, but the arrow again went sailing past his lucky rear end—with exactly the same non-reaction. That just made me all the more determined to get this thing worked out by trial and error.
On the third launching, which I aimed at least five feet in front of the bull, I finally connected—but with his ilium, not his rib cage! With my broadhead now stuck just under his hide in that big, heavy bone, I at last had managed to garner the animal’s undivided attention. For a few seconds, he just stood there staring at my dark form, silhouetted against the solid, white background. Then, before I could send another arrow in his direction, he broke into a trot and began to circle around me to try to pick up my scent. I could well have been the first human being he’d ever seen before. As he circled at a trot, I began firing arrows until my quiver was empty, but I never did touch him again! They all missed cleanly, due to the monstrous wind.
Talk about feeling foolish, helpless, and downright disgusted with yourself! I turned around to see my guide back at the boat doubled over in laughter. But I certainly wasn’t laughing! I doubt that I’ve ever felt any more frustrated or unhappy with myself. This was, indeed, the bitter “blizzard of my discontent,” like none other I’d ever had to swallow. If there had been a cup of poison around, I might have joined the Hemlock Society right on the spot!
As soon as my guide and I joined up and started following the bull’s tracks, we realized it was pointless. Only one tiny drop of red was found in the snow, and then nothing for several hundred yards after that. My arrow had achieved almost no penetration, so we soon “gave up the ‘ghost’” and headed back to the boat, thence to camp. He had escaped with only a sore hipbone.
It was a story I didn’t even want to tell back in the lodge, but I knew all the guides, at least, would know about it by breakfast-time. At dinner I received my award for “the dink.” Everyone else at the lodge that week had taken at least one respectable bull. Everyone, that is, but Jeanne and Yours Truly.
The only thing to be really cheerful about was the fact that we did have a lot of wonderful caribou meat to take back home with us. Twenty-two years later, I would return to Quebec with my older son, Bryant, and finally have the pleasure of downing a true trophy bull with a single arrow. That story will be the next one up in The BAREBOW! Chronicles.
Editor’s note: This article is the nineteenth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the eighteenth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson