The wind catches my Swani hood and pulls my balance slightly. I let the hood pull back baring my late season mop of hair. In places my beard does not cover my face, it is red and stung from the driving pellets of snow. No matter, I am acclimatized and comfortable in the elements by this stage of the hunting year. I am weather hardened and hopeful, loving the high plateau wind and the energy it brings to my stride! I am looking for him. He is up here somewhere in his white mane grandeur, living his last glory! He alone has made it possible for me to feel so alive each year within this same time. He alone and his deep browned antlers with broken tangs from battle fury leave butterflies of anticipation knotted in my stomach. I will find the Mountain Caribou of my dreams in this blowing snow of plateau crests. I will send my hunter, who courageously or mistakenly has chosen to partake in this most wholesome late season adventure, home proud of his efforts and thankful for their rewards!
The snow and ice cake up in the catch of my saddles stirrup, like so many other memorable times. I pick at it and grab my skinning knife from my belt scabbard to use the butt to smack away. The mounded smooth ice chips away and then shoots off in one big chunk. I know it will be back within an hour from the constant on and off routine we have fallen into to keep the circulation flowing within our potentially numb limbs. I grab my second pair of wool gloves. My first pair is now damp and iced from the pelting snow build up on my riding reigns. My horse’s mane has an iced sheet over it. Taking note I feel my beard to notice it just the same. Off to my left and down into the broken land, I see the valley is clear and spotted with sun. This storm cloud is about to blow over and give us some grace before the next. I swing my external frame guide pack up onto my shoulders, signalling my hunter along with the rest of our group, we are leading on.
The black gators keep the snow from slipping down into my pack boots and warm toes as I break through another drift. I wonder how I existed in my teenage and early twenties without them? Those were the years I learned just how important it was to keep your feet dry and comfortable. “If the feet were good so was my enthusiasm”. I think discovering the use of leg gators was one of the key developments of my guiding ability, and most of all, my longevity! They are my courage needed to stay late into the day. They create dry and warm feet, friend’s that assist in breaking yet another snowdrift as we walk on.
I toss a thumb’s up jester back and all start to position their horses to climb aboard. Being stopped the horses quickly throw, their rumps into the wind, listening to their primal instincts, a lineage of instincts originating from the great steppes of Asia where their first ancestors roamed freely on high plateaus in similar storms. These Perch Ron, Quarter horse and northern Morgan cross bread horses, wrinkle my cheeks in a smile at how easily they travel such land. It is like the ghosts of time have brought these stocky bread horses around full circle back to the high plateaus where they belong!
Our strong friends of the steppes stride out easily in what worked us double. The snowdrifts are tromped over without even recognition. My mind wanders over possible areas of retreat where caribou herds have gathered on stormy days such as these. What slight role is offering the best shelter with a North West wind? What pocket basin nestled into the side of this unbothered plateau will be the choice spot for the biggest herd bull? Will many of these little rutting herds come together in the same pocket? Even now could the old white main masters be mustering up their adrenalin to defeat a newly pronounced rival and claim his band of ten or more cows and calves? What is the most Mountain caribou I have seen in a group, “maybe one hundred and eighty”? How long ago was that? Maybe eight years and I think my brother Clay was with me? Yes that was a good group and I would like to see another like it!
I look down to see the last partial prints of a herd of caribou travelling with the wind. I ride on and discover where they fan out that there is about fifteen to twenty head. A couple large bull tracks bringing up the tail end. The bulls track pattern have more scuff to their out step. No doubt they are tired from running off potential thieves in the younger bulls. One of these sets of prints will be the satellite bull maybe one year off of being a ruling herd bull himself, but big enough to offer the old white main champ some headaches. The tracks diminish and come into view sporadically, wind swept to bare ground with only compact frozen caribou prints as high as an inch off the ground, here and there. I presume by this that sometime after the calm of the nights gentle snow the herd moved through the area sensing the mounting winds. Now I have my suspicions, within a mile of our location is a pocket basin that I have not caught the herds visiting for several years. The tracks I know will be the truth saver!
Again we swing down to stretch stiff limbs. I catch up my binoculars and glass beyond in the dying wind. The valley looking so fresh, offers us a good view in the clear after storm light. Though today we seek caribou tomorrow is another day. White plywood sheet paddles will not be so easy to pick out with a white glimmering blanket spread across the timber reaches at the valleys edges, but a moose and its pronounced snake like trails of snow less willow, dark in the pronounced whiteness, is! Our day is still early and no day is ever lost in the admiration of looking upon nature, especially if there is a prehistoric looking bull moose to be discovered!
In a short time we march on urging our horses who’s rumps hold taunt into the now dying wind. Their droopy eyes tell us we have glassed for moose to long and they don’t seem to offer congratulations for locating five! They care more for having a mid-day siesta no matter the temperature. Yes the idea seems good but the plateau is a massive expanse and we must track on.
I get a sense of deja vu, like I have experienced this exact moment before. Truth has to lye in the fact that I have experienced so many like it. After a while all these similar recurrences become what we call living, and to the lucky ones we get to call it great living! It all seems so familiar and I get caught in a wake of recollection and don’t here my wife “Callie” and cousin “Charlie” calling to me. I look back over my left shoulder and she is pointing up to the right. I spin back around and look right in unison with “Mischief” my horse. A small herd of caribou has caught up, and being inquisitive creatures, they’re closing ground fast. I smile like the rest of our group. The caribou are tremendously graceful over the potted landscape. The way they run, the way they move, and I can’t escape the sense that I have lived this exact moment before! But in the end I accept, “it’s the feeling I have lived before.
Afternoon has arrived and yet another black wall has arrived with it. The resemblance of power is being carried in the shoulders of the storm cloud. It shows promise of dropping heavier and longer than the last. It treks down the valley cleansing any sign of passing in its wake. The silent approach resembles our mind-set.
The caribou tracks are not much fresher, but are at the crest of our potential storm basin. We will use a run off creek cut to create our stealth and scent safe stalk. Head and tail tying the horses will ensure they are in the same spot when we return. The horses relish the opportunity to catch their earlier desired siesta and before we are done prepping their heads are sagging and eyes drooping. We will be back to them before the storm catches us. It is yet two miles off and is hitting with more force and less fury.
Our adrenalin distresses our breathing. There are several small herds congregated into about fifty head. Scanning we finally find our old white mane monarch. He is bedded and surrounded by four cows. His massive dark antlered frame is lying on the ground and only the top of his left side is in view. He is tired and is making the best of his last year as champ. Many of the cows in the group already carry his promise of the future and by the look of his one top it is a great promise! Patients, needs to stay on our side. We take note of all the bulls and more than a couple bare tall frames and a tangle of points, but the old bedded bull carries the mass in his beams and the respect of all the others bulls, who lay on the outskirts of the main herd.
The brown almost black frame rises and so does the old white main bull, shovel and long bez’s to boot. In his grandness this Mountain Caribou bull is like Ole Hessiberg and Espen Lynne’s white main bulls. He is like Bruce Davis bull, Kenny or Kirby Swansons. He is like so many of the great monarchs but today he could be Lorne Funks great bull!
We have tracked over the plateaus. Pushed through waste deep drifts and sheltered our faces from the driving wind. Our fingers have been numb at times and our eyes blind from the winds tearing affect. We have challenged the late season elements and been rewarded with weather that was bearable. Through it all we have arrived here, a destination that has us rested over a backpack with riflescope zeroed in behind the shoulders of a wounded king.
The old white main bull is edging along the hill with a slight limp. Maybe it is a recent war wound or age catching up on him? We do not know but we respect every aspect of this bull, the adventure he gave us, and the rewards he offers to our future! Lorne touches off… His echo is heard in my ears like so many others. A tremendous gratitude is felt through out my veins… Oh may the years bring me many more, late season Mountain Caribou hunts such as this!!!