Saturday November 18, 2017

Filling the freezer for winter: Stalking caribou in the Yukon

Caribou hunting on the Dempster Highway 0:37

Listen 14:14

By Karen McColl

"Look through your binos and confirm he doesn't have a black vulva patch."

"The one who's walking?"

"Yeah, he's facing uphill."

I'm lying on my stomach on the snowy tundra, listening to two women have a serious discussion about caribou genitalia. Is this what I thought hunting would be like? No. But am I enjoying myself? Very much so. 

"He doesn't, he's white, right?", Sydney van Loon whispers to Cheryl Ritz, who has her gun loaded and ready. Van Loon wants Ritz to agree with her about the sex of the caribou before Ritz pulls the trigger.

Cheryl Ritz looking for caribou

Cheryl Ritz is trying to pick out a bull caribou. The males have all white bums, whereas the females have a black patch. (Karen McColl, CBC)

As I've recently learned, shooting cow caribou — the females — is illegal, so it's good not to be too trigger-happy in this situation. 

Never in my life did I think I would take an interest in hunting. I grew up in Calgary, with no exposure to either guns or shooting things other than the odd paintball game at birthday parties. But now that I live in the Yukon, I have lots of friends who are always talking about a hunting trip they just went on or one they are planning to go on.

I started to get curious. What's it like to track and stalk an animal? And how do people experience the great outdoors without a trail to hike or a peak to bag?

Caribou in the distance

A group of caribou cross a lake in the distance. (Karen McColl, CBC)

I called up van Loon a few weeks back, because I'd heard so much about her hunting prowess. I knew about the time she carried a sheep for five kilometres on a solo hunt and when she spent 12 hours butchering a bison at -30 C. 

I asked if I could tag along on a hunting trip with her and, oddly enough, she agreed. 

Some people were surprised when I told them I was going hunting. Aren't you a vegetarian? 

I am — mostly. I guess I fall more into the category of a "Yukon vegetarian," someone who only eats wild game. I don't seek it out, but from time to time I do enjoy eating my friends' homemade moose stew or bison chili. 

Sydney van Loon glassing

Van Loon uses a spotting scope to look for caribou. They blend in well with the brown foliage. The sign in the background tell us that Inuvik, N.W.T., is 633 kilometres up the road. (Karen McColl, CBC)

I didn't know Ritz or van Loon before this trip, but I've since learned that they both grew up on farms and became familiar with guns at an early age. Ritz grew up in Manitoba and started tagging along with her grandpa on duck hunts as a kid, getting into deer hunting as a teenager. Van Loon, who grew up in B.C., was a competitive cross-country skier and canoe racer, and didn't get into hunting until about eight years ago, when she started coming north. Now she spends most of her weekends hunting or trapping. 

Cheryl Ritz crossing a creek

So much for dry feet. Ritz' hiking boots are soaked, but at least her gun is dry. (Submitted by Sydney van Loon)

Ritz is at the wheel of her pickup truck, inching us along the Dempster Highway, when van Loon spots the caribou. The Dempster is a gravel road that travels through wide valleys and mountain passes, and if you follow it long enough, crosses the Arctic Circle. 

Caribou, van Loon tells me, have poor eyesight but a good sense of smell. Luckily, the wind is in our favour for us to sneak up on them. Leaving the road behind, we cross a couple of creeks and thrash through some thick willow to close the one kilometre distance to them. Ritz leads, with van Loon and I stepping in sync with her, to try make less noise. 

When we are close enough, we get down on our bellies and watch the caribou. That's when van Loon and Ritz have the discussion about caribou bums.

"If that cow steps out of the way, you get that big guy if he turns broadside," van Loon instructs. 

Cheryl Ritz taking a shot

Ritz lines up a shot. She adjusts her rifle based on how far away the caribou is. (Karen McColl, CBC)

Ritz needs a clear shot of the vital organs before she can pull the trigger. I watch and wait. At this moment, I'm surprised to realize that I'm caught up in the thrill of the chase. I'm silently cheering Ritz on. 

"I can't see," she says. Something's wrong with the scope of her gun. 

Van Loon tries to help her out but it's too late. The wind changed direction and the caribou have caught our scent. They move quickly out of shooting range.

We'll never catch them now. 

That night, we debrief the hunt over dinner in van Loon's wall tent. It's a canvas shelter with room for three cots and a small stove — pretty plush accommodations compared to the tents I'm used to. 

Wall tent

Winter camping at it's most luxurious: a wall tent complete with a wood stove. (Karen McColl, CBC)

Ritz is super bummed about today's missed opportunity, more so than she has been other times.  

"I've missed on tons of deer before, like when I first started hunting." 

But that was before kids. She and her husband have three young daughters and Ritz really wants them to be able to eat caribou meat this winter. This weekend is her last opportunity to shoot one. 

The next morning, we head out just after first light, which isn't until about 10 a.m. this far north. I always knew hunting involved some dumb luck, but it really hits home when we round a corner and startle a group of caribou beside the road. 

Cheryl Ritz marking her hunting tag

After the animal is dead, hunters have to mark their caribou tag with the date and location of the kill. (Submitted by Sydney van Loon)

"We have to act quickly," van Loon says.

Ritz parks and the girls grab their guns. Careful not to slam the door, Cheryl sets herself up for a shot. Since the caribou are a lot closer, van Loon quickly spots a bull. 

The time is right, but Ritz hesitates.

"You want to get your gun out Syd? I don't think I have the—"

"Yes you can," van Loon encourages her friend.

Bang!

Ritz is on target. The caribou eventually drops to its knees and then to the ground. We all cheer, even as I feel tears springing to my eyes. 

I wanted Ritz to shoot the caribou, I really did. But I didn't really want the caribou to die. Unfortunately, I can't have it both ways. 

When we get to the caribou, I run my hands through its fur. It's warm and soft. 

I search for something meaningful to say or do for the caribou to pay my respects but nothing feels natural. It's all new and kind of overwhelming to me. 

Walking through snowy tundra

The author and Ritz walk back to the truck after one of the unsuccessful attempts on caribou. (Submitted by Sydney van Loon)

Van Loon and Ritz are respectful of the bull, but they aren't overly sentimental. This isn't their first hunt. 

But for Cheryl, it's still an important one. She has a big weight off her shoulders.  

"I feel relieved. I'm happy, I'm ecstatic actually. Now I'm going to have a little meat for the winter, I don't have to buy any at the store." 

It took van Loon and Ritz about three hours to "field dress" the animal. That's when the hide and guts are removed, and all of the edible meat is packed out. I gagged a few times as I watched, but mostly I just found it interesting in the way I imagine dissecting a frog in Grade 12 biology would be, but on a much bigger scale. 

The mood is a lot lighter in the wall tent tonight, as we celebrate the success. Although I'm not sure I will ever shoot an animal myself, I enjoyed the learning experience of being along on a hunt. 

Van Loon told me I should come sheep hunting with her next summer, which involves hiking into the mountains for days at time. If that's a sincere invitation, I just might say yes...

Three hunters

Van Loon, left, and Ritz, right, gave the author her first introduction to hunting. (Karen McColl, CBC)


This documentary was made with support from the Doc Project Mentorship Program