The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Spinal Attraction
Dennis Dunn 03.31.14
Twenty-two years was a long time to wait for a return contest with the caribou of Quebec-Labrador. I had been planning the trip with my older son, Bryant, for nearly two years. When August 20, 2006 finally arrived, he flew directly from Idaho to Montreal, where we rendezvoused and then joined all the other hunters who were also going to be clients for the week with Jack Hume Adventures, Inc. This company is one of the best in the Quebec outfitting business. Because they have 25 camps scattered throughout much of the northern half of the province, they are able to solve the “feast or famine” problem—most of the time—by switching hunters from a camp with few or no caribou around it to another camp.
Spending one night in Montreal near the airport, we all flew to Schefferville the next day, where we then spent a second night in the Jack Hume bunkhouse that sits on the edge of their big float-plane base. The following morning greeted us with good flying weather, and before we could say Jack Hume three times Bryant and I were winging our way out over the “bush” to a distant camp called Pon’s River (aka Pon’s Island). The flight in the twin Otter lasted nearly an hour and a half, and the colorful base camp with its yellow-and-white-trimmed cabins looked awfully cheerful and inviting as we taxied up to it on the smooth surface of the lake. Only moments before touchdown, I had spotted right beneath the aircraft a large bull with double shovels bedded on the ridgetop not 400 yards from camp. I took that to be a good omen and suspected Bryant and I were likely to have one terrific hunt. We were not to be disappointed.
Waiting to greet us out on the dock were Bert, the camp manager, Odette, Bert’s wife (the camp cook), and the rest of the camp staff. Odette proved to be the finest cook I’ve ever run into at any wilderness hunting camp I’ve been to. Our assigned guide was an older fellow named Doug Wellman, whom I took a shine to immediately. He had guided for many years, much earlier in his life, but—after dropping out of the fall guiding routine for a while—he decided he missed the excitement of the hunt too much. Doug was about to cut his second set of guide’s teeth on Bryant and myself. Although not a bowhunter, he had guided many bowhunters before, and he knew well how quickly-lethal our weapons could be.
By the time the Otter was unloaded, and Bryant and I had managed to get all our gear up the hill and organized inside our cute, little cabin, Bert announced that a hot lunch was waiting for us in the big cabin he and Odette lived and cooked in. That’s where all our meals would be taken. After lunch, Bryant and I put our archery tackle together and made ready to venture forth on our first afternoon of hunting.
My two sons are both avid hunters, but unlike their dad, they’re not at all averse to hunting with a firearm on occasion. Some 10 years earlier, Bryant had traveled with me and his brother to the Northwest Territories on a caribou hunt. While there, he had harvested two very nice bulls—one with a bow and one with a rifle. Since this hunt we’d booked in Quebec came with two tags for everyone, I knew in advance that Bryant had the same idea in mind this time.
The first afternoon we sallied forth with our guide, Doug took us by boat down the lake a couple of miles to a pair of well-used crossings. En route, a small band of four bulls swam the lake well in front of us. Nothing stood out as being of trophy quality, but the sight was sufficient to get us excited. Doug dropped Bryant off at one crossing, and we continued on to the second, just 200 yards away. During the course of the afternoon, a few animals made the short trip across the water, but nothing that either of us felt like shooting.
Shortly after 6 p.m., as the light in the overcast sky began to weaken, Doug and I went to pick Bryant up. No sooner had he jumped in the boat than a pair of venerable old bulls came out of the brush at the water’s edge—not 10 yards from where our boat had been tied up all afternoon! Using our binos, we all watched with rapt attention as the two bedded down at the lakeshore. Bryant and I both knew that we would take either animal in a heartbeat, if given the chance.
Such a chance was not to materialize that evening, however. After 20 minutes, the bulls got up, entered the water, and swam the narrows—exiting the river about 150 yards across from us. As soon as we attempted to ease out into the river with a quiet motor, in order to approach their new feeding location, they became wise to us and bolted into the brush. On our way back to camp, we did catch one, good, twilight-glimpse of an enormous, solo bull, on an open hillside just above the shore. That one really got us excited! There was no way of going after him so late in the evening, but Bryant and I were agreed that he had to be a 400-class bull.
Our second day afloat and afield presented us with frustrations very similar to those of the first day. Day three was to be our Good Luck Day, however. Bert decided in the morning to come with us, so as to show Doug a trail that led up into some of the higher country around, and eventually to a distant promontory. Over the years, according to Bert, that vantage point had produced a lot of trophy animals in late August. Once Bert was able to point out the distant rock, he headed back down to his own boat, while the three of us hiked on.
The semi-open tundra country was quite beautiful, with its early autumn colors and its carpet of whitish, slightly chartreuse-colored lichen (commonly called caribou moss, because it is so favored as a prime food-source by the caribou). The sky was showing definite signs of clearing, and of offering us bona fide sunshine for later in the day. The walking was quite easy, as there were countless game trails crisscrossing the tundra in every direction. Even before we reached our target destination, we started seeing bulls. Yet where were the cows and calves? Save for one cow on the first afternoon, everything we were seeing was carrying antlers and testicles. Doug explained that sometimes in the early part of the seasonal migration, it was just so—the “women and children” would be coming along later in huge numbers.
The three of us reached the lookout rock a little before 11 a.m. In no time, we had spotted three different groups of caribou on the move. One group of 12 was swimming a lake, coming our direction. They were all bulls. After glassing for half an hour, we decided that one of us should try to get in close to a smaller band of five which was moving slowly, some 400 yards below us. There was one really fine bull among them. They were feeding from our right to our left, through a large, somewhat-open area of small, scattered tamaracks. Our collective thinking was that one of us could possibly, if we really hustled, circle down and around and get out in front of them, putting the wind in our favor. Bryant insisted I be the one to “give it a go,” so I took off running—hoping I still had enough time to get there. Bryant and Doug would keep an eye on the band with their optics. If necessary, they could give me hand signals to guide me in on my quarry.
The chase was on. Once off the top of the ridge, and out of sight of the caribou, I turned on the afterburners, knowing that on the uneven tundra a walking caribou can usually outpace a running man. I just prayed they were hungry and were doing a lot of feeding as they moved along. Twenty minutes later, I decided I had probably gotten myself far enough out in front of where I imagined them to be that I could take the chance of heading straight for their previously-observed line of travel. One check with Doug and Bryant through my binoculars gave me the reassurance I needed. They were motioning for me to continue on my new path, while at the same time indicating that the herd had bedded down. I couldn’t have asked for more!
Sewn into my hunting cap was a camo head-net, which I now pulled down over my face and tried to tuck in under the collar of my camo shirt. I intentionally began to sneak as quietly as I could right into a rather thick grouping of tamaracks, hoping that I would find the bedded bulls just on the other side. When I arrived at the far edge of that stand of still-green larches, I saw nothing at first view. Then suddenly the velvet tip of an antler moved slightly about 60 yards in front of me. Taking a step to the side, and raising my binos slowly to my eyes, I recognized the herdmaster bull bedded in a position quartering away. A quiet sneak might be possible. Yet where were the others? I could not see them.
Since the big fellow was lying down, I felt in no hurry to rush matters. I stood still for a minute, hoping to spot more movement elsewhere. Nothing. There was a line of small trees extending out another 20 yards or so in the direction of the bull. This would give me some cover to get that much closer, anyway. I got down on the ground and started crawling, ever so slowly. The wind was right. I had covered no more than 10 yards when I spotted another bull up ahead, slightly off to the left, at less than 20 yards, bedded on the far side of a little larch. I was shocked at how close he was, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen him earlier. Happily, he was still oblivious to my intrusion into his space.
But what now? I couldn’t proceed any farther without alerting the closer bull. And where were the others? The herdmaster was still a good 50 yards distant. Too far for a barebow shooter, for sure. I needed something to happen. Suddenly three additional sets of antlers came into view from down below the big bull, whose bed lay on the break of the hill. In a matter of seconds, they passed him right by and headed obliquely my way. He rose immediately and began to follow. Fortunately, I had already nocked an arrow. Ever so slowly, I rose to my knees, sat back on my heels, and made ready to shoot.
I remained frozen, with one eye closed, as the first three lesser bulls filed past me at 17 yards. The other bedded bull had gotten up and fallen in behind Mr. Big. When the one I wanted reached a point fully broadside to me, I drew back and took dead aim at his rib cage. The motion of my drawing caught his eye, causing him to stop and look in my direction. The camo gloves on my hands and the camo netting over my face (leaving a hole only for my eyes) must have made him wonder what in the world he was seeing. I didn’t give him long to figure it out. The arrow left my bow, and a nanosecond later he hit the ground like a ton of bricks. I was stunned! The broadhead had not gone through his rib cage, but right through the spinal cord in the middle of his neck, and 10 inches beyond—he had died instantly!
Yet that was certainly not where I’d been aiming! What had happened was really bizarre: as I released the string, it picked up a fold of the netting fabric that had come untucked from my shirt collar. The surprise result was a misfire, which struck my quarry some two feet up and to the right of where I’d been aiming. It was almost as if the bull had been carrying a large magnet in his neck vertebrae that had attracted my steel broadhead right to it!
I thanked the Good Lord for my good fortune, rose to my feet, and then trained my binos on my ridgetop spectators. Bryant was pumping his fist in the air; Doug was taking down his spotting scope. It wasn’t long before they reached me, and we began congratulating one another, taking pictures, and admiring the truly wonderful set of antlers. The rack really had everything going for it: two long, broad, (double) shovels; two rear points (often missing); two very long bez tines; two 50-inch main beams, and 35 points overall. Not only would his eventual official score of 363-7/8 inches place him well up in the Pope & Young records, but it also came within about one inch of qualifying for the Boone & Crockett Awards. It was certainly the finest caribou of any of the five North American subspecies that I had been privileged to harvest.
Doug had obviously had a lot of prior experience butchering animals in the field, and he made quick work of my bull. Once all the meat was boned out, he and Bryant managed to get it all in their packsacks, and I shouldered the head, horns, and cape, as we began the three-mile trek back to the lake. What we didn’t know was that our return journey was going to be interrupted by a “close encounter” with another outstanding bull.
Bryant had left his bow in camp that morning, deciding instead to hunt with Doug’s rifle—if the opportunity presented itself for the right kind of bull. I don’t think we’d progressed a half-mile before Doug spotted a lone bull feeding only a few hundred yards away. Bryant wasted no time in deciding that this was, indeed, the “right kind of bull.” We dropped our loads and began to move in on our unsuspecting quarry. Once we had closed the gap to 90 yards, Bryant selected a large boulder to use as a rifle-rest, took meticulous aim, and slowly squeezed off a shot. The animal dropped instantly. The time was 3 p.m. After a second photo session, Doug’s work began all over again. This meat, however, was going to have to remain on the mountain overnight, until we could come back the next morning with empty pack-frames.
Day four was a welcome day of rest for me, as I stayed in camp enjoying the sunshine, stripping my bull’s rack of its velvet, and carefully measuring and compiling the “green” score of my beautiful trophy. Bryant and Doug returned to the same high ridgetop to get his meat, but Bryant had also taken his bow with him—“just in case.” The night before, he had carried his own rack and cape down to the lake, as I had carried mine. Needless to say, when the following evening I saw Doug’s boat coming back to camp with another fine set of caribou antlers sitting in the bow, I was delightfully surprised. I walked down to the beach to congratulate Bryant, and to inspect his new trophy.
“What a fine animal, Bryant!” I offered, sticking out my hand as he climbed out of the boat. “Where did your arrow strike him?” I asked.
“In the spine, just like yours,” came the reply.
“Like father, like son,” I chuckled out loud. All of a sudden, my fantasy theory went running through my mind, and I couldn’t resist giving expression to it.
“What’s with these northern Quebec caribou, Bryant? Do you suppose they all have magnets buried in their spines that attract steel broadheads?”
Bryant laughed. “I don’t know, Dad. Maybe you’ve got something there. It must be some sort of spinal attraction, I guess.” Smiling, Doug rolled his eyes, and I decided not to stretch out the metaphor any further.
Editor’s note: This article is the twentieth 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 nineteenth Chronicle here.
Images courtesy Dennis Dunn