The Caribou of Montreal
The population of Montreal is approximately 1,650,000 people, but to me this place is as desolate as the North Pole. It is devoid of greenery – concrete and asphalt are everywhere I look. Buses, cars and scantily clad Canadians clog the streets. Their see through shirts and overly tight fitting clothes make you want to shield your eyes at every turn. I don’t know why the males feel the need to dress that way here, I find it very strange. Most appalling of all, I have yet to see anyone wearing a single piece of camouflage. Does anyone here hunt?
It’s Sunday morning and after dropping my wife off at a work conference, I’ve retreated back to our hotel room in an attempt to return to some sort of normalcy. The TV is more worthless here than anywhere. Half of the channels are French, half are English, but none of them are about hunting or fishing. The internet has a lot to offer in that regard, but at a cost of $16,95 per day for access, I’ll pass.
Sitting here reminds me of my last trip to Montreal (Bonjour!) in the year 2002 when it served as a waypoint on a trip to northern Quebec to do a little Caribou hunting. There were four of us in our party – me, my dad, and two coworkers. Our destination was Deception Bay Valley, which sits at the northern tip of Quebec on the south side of the Hudson Strait. It was no short trip to camp as the distance from Montreal to Deception Bay is the same as it is from Montreal to Jacksonville, Florida. Hours spent on prop planes covering endless miles of tundra consumed an entire day.
Along with a herd of 200,000 caribou working on their summer tans, there was a massive building that housed product from the mine as it waited to be loaded onto freightliners. Only one road existed and it led from the bay to the mining operation somewhere off to the south. A gravel landing strip near the road served as our airport and a French Canadian man named Jean-Claude was waiting to pick us up in a yellow school bus when the propellers on the plane came to a halt.
Aside from the miners, the caribou outfitter was the only other operation that used the road. The “Camp” consisted of trailers the outfitter had shipped in and the school bus served as our mode of transportation. Each morning, hunters would load into the school bus and would be dropped off at designated locations along the road. It was a little different than we were expecting.
The absence of trees played games with my ability to accurately judge distance. Hills that appeared to be only a couple hundred yards away were in reality miles away and ten times the size. We could easily see other hunters and their guides sitting at their designated locations and even heard a few shots. It felt as though we were right on top of each other even though there was a great distance between us. How strange to travel to such a barren place only to hunt within sight of other hunters.
At the end of the first day the school bus came rolling back through and picked us up. One hunter in his mid to late twenties, Bubba, had filled both of his tags on small bulls before noon. “That was one hell of a day!” he excitedly claimed as we filed into our seats. With both of his tags filled, he could only fish for the remainder of the week, but the wild look in his eyes and the excitement in his voice left no doubt that he didn’t regret pulling the trigger one bit.
As we continued along the road to pick up the remaining hunters, we spotted a small group of bulls feeding along the lakeshore not 100 yards from the road. This area of Quebec served as the summer feeding and calving grounds for the caribou and they had not yet started their migration south for the winter, so the bulls were in no hurry and fed along without fear of the school bus or the young college student simultaneously stepping off the bus and loading his .270. The bulls were still in my designated territory and one carried a coveted double shovel on his head. His rack was wide but didn’t have much for points, but he was easily the biggest bull I’d seen all day and much larger than the two Bubba had shot. With two tags in my pocket, I had seen all I needed to convince me to fill my first. After traveling thousands of miles to reach the barren land of the caribou, I laid down on the gravel road behind the yellow school bus and waited for the bull to turn broadside.
The exhaust from the bus was blowing in my left ear and a literal busload of hunters anxiously waited for me to pull the trigger. When the bull finally turned, I squeezed the trigger and he dropped where he stood. The other bulls, sensing danger (school buses don’t normally make that kind of noise, do they?) had started to run. I handed the rifle to my dad who picked out another bull which ended up falling less than 100 yards from mine. It was a great show for those on the bus, and the pack out was hardly any work.
Long shots from the road require much practice to execute efficiently. Because of this, the first evening we arrived in camp all hunters were encouraged to check their rifles to make sure they were still sighted in after the long journey to the north. Jean-Claude, one of the French-Canadian guides, hopped on an ATV and drove towards a man made mound of dirt that was approximately ten feet high and about 100 yards from the shooting bench. He parked the ATV and set up a target, then he calmly walked behind the mound of dirt and disappeared. Another guide in camp, A French Canadian man named Jean-Claude, motioned for the first person to sit down and shoot.
We all stared at each other dumbfounded. Is he serious? Doesn’t he know that guy is still there? Eventually, someone became convinced enough to sit down and take the first shot. When Jean-Claude radioed Jean-Claude and told him the shooter was finished, he wandered back around the dirt pile and checked the target. Jean-Claude’s voice came over the two-way radio letting Jean-Claude know where the bullet hit, who would then attempt to relay the information to the shooter. The broken English was difficult to understand and I don’t recall anyone adjusting their rifles as a result. It made for a quick sight in on the range. Thankfully Jean-Claude survived the shooting session as well.
By the third day of the hunt the weather had turned unseasonably warm with temperatures soaring into the seventies. The black flies saw this as an opportunity to take part in a late summer breeding festival and had returned in full force, a true testament to their reproductive capabilities. Our guide, a French Canadian named Jean-Claude, had picked up on our displeasure of hunting so close to the only road within 15,000 miles and opted to take us by boat to the opposite end of a lake a half mile long lake. We had all filled one tag and were anxious to fill our second. The warm weather had suppressed the caribou movement considerably, so it felt good to be a little more aggressive on our hunt and to get away from the road.
It wasn’t long and a lone bull large enough to shoot was spotted on shore, and Jean-Claude maneuvered the boat to a gravel landing three to four hundred yards away. Not long after we beached, the first of the second tags was filled. This process repeated itself a short while later and soon only Dad and I had tags left. The following day the five of us headed back to the same area again, two of us with rifles and two with fishing poles. I sat in the bow of the little Aluminum boat and watched the Arctic Char dart away in the clear water as we buzzed overhead. The amount of fish in the water was unreal. The limit of five fish for the week seemed overly conservative, but if any of the Jean-Claude’s thought a released fish wasn’t going to survive it was counted toward your total. There were no exceptions for exceeding the limit.
My second bull came after Jean-Claude beached the aluminum vessel on shore and we had climbed half a mile up the side of the ridge to gain a clear vantage point. Having finally reached an area that felt truly barren, I wondered if anyone in the history of the world had ever stepped foot where we currently stood. It was a surreal moment. I can’t recall if we had spotted the bull from the boat and had climbed up that location to intercept him as he moved along the side of the hill, or if we had decided to hike up to gain a better vantage point of the surrounding area. Whatever the reason, we were up there and so was he.
We first caught glimpses of the bull’s rack just over a small outcropping between the two of us. I crawled into position on the rocks, my French Canadian guide Jean-Claude on my right and my dad behind me. The bull was not far away – perhaps seventy yards when I squeezed the trigger and sent a round through his boiler room. Blood poured from his side unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before. I wanted to shoot again, but Jean-Claude would not let me because he didn’t want to risk ruining any meat. The Inuit’s in the region were given a share of the meat from every kill, so he made me wait out the bulls final breath instead of speeding up the process. At that range it would have been easy to put another round at the base of his skull as he stood motionless, but I didn’t argue with him. I also didn’t care for it.
It was a decent bull, his bases were better than my first one, but overall his rack wasn’t as big and he only sported a single shovel. We gathered around the fallen bull and Jean-Claude proceeded to butcher it after we snapped a few pictures. This trip had been the first time I’d witnessed an animal butchered without first removing the guts. It felt like a whole new world had been opened up. When he was finished we carried the meat and antlers to the boat and proceeded back to camp.
Every hunter in camp tagged out on caribou and limited out on Arctic Char. Neither should be considered a difficult accomplishment but were definitely fun. I gathered that it wasn’t the place to hunt if you were in search of a bull that would make the record book as none of the bulls were particularly big. My first bull was one of only a few that had a double shovel and the width and height of the rack was as big as any other shot that week. Some other bulls had better tops that carried multiple points but nothing so impressive that it would make your jaw drop. Still, I didn’t get the feeling that anyone was in camp that week to shoot a monster, everyone was there to have a good time and shoot a few caribou, and that’s exactly what we did.
The trip home, however, was an entirely different story. The plane that came to pick us up tried twice to land on the gravel strip but each time there was caribou in the way. On the third and what would be the final pass, someone on the ground noticed that the plane had a flat tire. Since the gravel landing strip at the camp was not smooth enough for a plane with a flat tire, it was diverted to an Inuit village about an hour away that had a smoother runway, though it was still made out of dirt. This was a problem, as the plane was carrying incoming hunters and had to get them to camp and get us out.
The airline company, as well as the outfitter, thought it made the most sense to shuttle the new hunters to camp on a smaller plane located at the Inuit village. The only problem was that there wasn’t room at camp for the incoming hunters and the outgoing ones. We had to leave, but without a large plane that was operational that meant we had to stay the night in the Inuit village while we waited for a larger plane with fully inflated tires to retrieve us the next day. Inuit villages, especially ones 3000 miles from anywhere populated, are not exactly known for having the necessary accommodations for large groups of people. As far as the outfitter was concerned, we were no longer his concern so we were left to fend for ourselves.
Fortunately for us, there happened to be some people there that were nice enough to find us a place to sleep. There was an empty one room building in town that served as an emergency shelter. The locals opened the doors and dug out ten to fifteen cots for our large and unexpected group. I laid my head down that night wondering if we were actually going home the next day and if the older men in the group were going to snore that loudly until morning. They did.
The following day we learned that we would be shuttled back to caribou camp to meet up with a larger plane. All of our meat, antlers, and gear were still there as well as three of the original hunters who had slept like babies and eaten like kings. Those of us who had the privilege of staying in the Inuit village were exhausted and hungry, having been up all night listening to the endless snoring and having had very little to eat. The villagers may have had a shelter for us, but they didn’t exactly kill the fattened calf upon our arrival. I don’t blame them, either. It’s not like there was a grocery store on every corner.
High crosswinds on the approach contributed to the scariest plane ride of my life, but we landed safely without plowing through any resident caribou on the runway and thankfully all tires were properly inflated. An amazing amount of stuff was crammed into the plane for the flight back to Montreal. We had arrived with plenty of gear but now added meat and antlers of approximately thirty caribou (two per hunter) to our total. Somehow it all fit, and we eventually made it back to Montreal with memories I hope to never forget.
A glance at the clock forces my mind to return to reality as I look over the concrete jungle just outside the window of our hotel room. I’d venture a guess that when I leave the room in a few minutes to navigate the barren wilderness dotted with French street signs below in an attempt to find my wife that I’ll be the only one hunting caribou within the confines of Montreal. At first glance it doesn’t look like the natural habitat of caribou, but they are here; you just have to know where to look for them.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to spend here on The 4 Pointer! Please be sure to come back again!
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2002 was about the end of the good hunting for that herd. Seems the population crashed without explanation. That was my last trip up, although we had wilderness camps . The hokey school bus rings true, however, as people definitely make do up north. Talk about animals that aren’t very afraid of humans ! That’s a treasured trip, indeed.