Staring out the window of a cramped floatplane, high above the tundra of Nunavik, my mind swirled with questions about what lay in store for me over the next four days. In just over an hour of flight time out of Kuujjuaq, Quebec, awaits my destination: Ptarmigan camp. There, I’d spend the next few days hunting caribou and experiencing life on the tundra for the first time. Hypnotized by the sound of this veteran floatplane, filled to the brim with seven hopeful hunters, a pilot and a wealth of essential – and not-so-essential – gear, I scanned the ground for any signs of life. For as far as I could see, there’s nothing but tundra dotted with lakes of all sizes. I knew these lakes helped sustain the hundreds of thousands of caribou that migrate across the area as well as other wildlife, but more than anything at the moment it was also a relief to see so many places for an emergency landing – should the need arise. This part of the world is unforgiving in every sense of the word, so I took comfort in the things that were in anything but short supply: eager anticipation of hunting in an exotic locale and a surplus of improvised runways available to our veteran pilot.
Our floatplane circled a small group of buildings that lined a shore of one of the larger lakes before making a gentle landing on top of the water. Built in 1995, Ptarmigan camp is one of 32 similar hunting sites operated by Safari Nordik that cover northern Quebec. As we eased up to the dock, camp manager, Elvis Fequet, greeted us. Over the next four days, Elvis and his hardworking staff would be our hosts as we hunted for caribou across the arctic tundra. Operating on Canada’s northern frontier for more than 25 years, Safari Nordik has established a well oiled outfitting service that provides hunters with access to North America’s most substantial caribou herds: the Leaf River and George River herds. With a population estimated at 650,000 and 450,000 caribou respectively, Safari Nordik publishes a success ratio of 95% or greater over the last 15 years. Once on the ground in Ptarmigan camp, it was nice to see these figures, literally, as several of the other hunters already in camp greeted us with stories of big bulls and photos of their game.
After getting settled in Ptarmigan camp, we met with Elvis Fequet, the camp manager, who briefed us on the agenda for the next couple of days. Guides were assigned and zeros were checked on our rifles from an improvised shooting bench atop a large boulder to assure that our rifles and optics had made it through the multiple airline connections unscathed. For this hunt, the rifle I opted to use was the new Thompson/Center Arms Venture bolt-action rifle. Chambered in .30-06, the T/C Venture is designed to compete on all quality levels, while maintaining a very accessible price point. Manufactured for accuracy-driven shooters, the T/C Venture sports a Thompson/Center Arms 20″ barrel with 5R rifling and match grade crown. I confirmed the rifle’s guaranteed of Minute of Angle (MOA) accuracy at my local shooting range before I left home. After confirming the rifle and its Nikon optic made it through the unharmed, I headed for my bunk to recover from the rigors of travel, anxious to begin my first hunt in such an unfamiliar place.
Day 1 – A Ride of a Lifetime
Grabbing my gear for the day’s hunt, I met my guide – Wade Nadeau – who informed me that we would be heading south across the lake by boat where we would begin glassing the area for the migration. After a cool and somewhat wet boat ride across the lake, Wade dropped me off on the western shore. He told me that he would be taking the two bowhunters who had accompanied us in the early morning boat ride up the lake a little farther to the south before returning to my location. He instructed me to hike up to the closest ridge where he would later join me. As I glanced back across the lake towards the direction of the boat skipping across the water, I realized just how isolated I was from anything resembling civilization.
Roughly two hours after leaving, Wade returned to my position, riding an ATV that was used by the guides for packing out harvested animals. Wade pointed to a far hill on the skyline and said that we would reconvene there to get a better view of the territory. As I hiked off in a direct line towards the hill, Wade took the ATV in a wider circle in an attempt to bypass the rockier terrain. In a few minutes, he was gone from my sight and I quickened my pace across the tundra. After walking for almost a mile, my concentration began to diminish as I tried to acclimate my body to the new environment. With little to block its path, the wind howled across the tundra, hitting me directly in the face.
While the wind acted as great relief to the numerous black flies that inhabit the area, it also penetrated every portion of my skin not covered in Gore-Tex. While I attempted to button the top of my jacket, my attention to the landscape declined and before I could realize what was happening, my foot sank in a marshy bog that I had dismissed as merely a small puddle. With the momentum of my next step already pushing me forward, my second foot sank even deeper into the bog, cementing my entire leg in mud. As I swayed to regain my balance in an attempt from falling face first, I reached out with my shooting sticks that I had been using as a cane. The quick act prevented me from taking a belly flop in the bog, but now I was in a more precarious position with one hand clutching the T/C rifle sling and the other holding on tightly to my shooting sticks. While I tried to regain my balance, the feeling of cold water rushed into my boots instantly chilled me from the ankle down. I was stuck and the more I tried to move, the tighter the mud formed around my legs. My heart paced as I tried to push down a feeling of panic. In what seemed like an eternity, I slowly pulled up one leg after the other until I was once again on solid ground. Cold, wet, muddy and most of all embarrassed, I stumbled across the tundra relieved to be out of the bog.
As I came over the next ridge, Wade had returned on the ATV, wondering why it had taken so long for me to join him. With one look at my mud soaked clothes and dejected face, Wade yelled out, “So you found a bog, did ya.” I gave him a weary smile and waved. Glad to be free and on firm ground.
For the next couple of hours we glassed the tundra, looking for caribou and our first glimpse of a mature bull. After a quick lunch, Wade spotted a small herd of caribou feeding on a hillside about 3 or 4 miles away. While we couldn’t make out any bulls from our position, Wade asked if I wanted to get a closer look. I responded with a definitive yes, happy to get on the move in an attempt to re-circulate the blood flow through my legs.
Following closely behind Wade and the ATV, we approached the herd of caribou and who had now moved closer to our original location. From here, we half crawled/half stooped our way to within range of the herd, all the time hoping a mature bull might be found in the group. My hopes were soon realized as we spotted a bull some 500 yards off. After watching it closely through my binoculars, Wade advised that it was definitely a shooter but approaching the herd on top of the hillside would be no easy chore. I told Wade I was up for the challenge and we began to devise a plan to get within a comfortable shooting range.
Soon after crawling up one side of the hill, downwind of the herd, we got within 300 yards. From there I laid prone over my pack watching the animals through my riflescope. After determining which bull was the shooter as the herd milled around resting and eating in the late afternoon sun, I settled my sights upon the target. I did my best to suppress the “bull fever” already growing rapidly and asked Wade for a distance. He said that the bull was just outside of 250 yards, a distance that I felt comfortable with taking. After waiting patiently for the bull to step away from the four or five cows that surrounded his location, I took dead aim with the Venture and eased back on the safety. As I placed my finger lightly on the trigger, I worked even harder to calm my emotions. Once comfortable with my position, I eased back on the trigger and heard the loud boom of the 150-grain Hornady GR GMXÔ bullet flying out the end of the barrel with a muzzle velocity of 2,910 fps. While I had adequately accounted for the bullet drop my wind estimates were off and bullet sailed just to the right of the bull, landing harmlessly in the rocky terrain.
I looked again through the scope half believing to see the large animal in a slump on the ground but was met only with the sight and sound of clicking hooves as the herd scattered. I glanced over to Wade who had been quietly watching the scene through his binoculars. “You missed,” he said as calmly as if he was watching paint dry “and now they’ve moved out of range.” I cursed myself under my breath as I replied, “I think I might have rushed the shot, any chance we can get back on them?” Wade nodded his head saying that if we moved quickly through the bottom of the ravine we might have a chance of cutting them off before the herd moved further to the east.
With a lot of ground to cover and very little time to do it in, Wade suggested that I jump on back of the ATV. I did so obligingly and we were off across the tundra moving faster than I believed possible across such a rocky and rough terrain. As I gripped on to the back of the ATV with one hand, trying to maintain my position behind Wade, we hit one large rock after another. The bouncing of the ATV across the Tundra was enough to make me grind my teeth as I hung desperately on with one hand as the other tightened its grip on the rifle. As Wade did his best to navigate the uneven landscape, I couldn’t shake the feeling that two men were not suppose to plow across the tundra, at times going faster than 20 mph, on the back of a small four-wheeler. As we bobbed and weaved our way along the terrain, we unexpectedly came to a small ridge that was hiding on the other side of a waterway. With no time to react, Wade was unable to drive the ATV at the required angle across the ridge and instead tried to climb the ridge straight on.
For anyone who has driven ATVs with any regularity, you are no stranger to the sinking feeling of knowing that despite its horsepower and sturdy frame, a four wheeler is meant to have at least three wheels on the ground at all times and anything less presents an opportunity disaster. As the four-wheeler tried desperately to climb the ridge, both Wade and myself instantly realized it was a losing battle. Before I could say one word, I felt the ATV tip and was immediately pitched to the left side of the four-wheeler. Wade movements mimicked by own and we were both thrown at a slight angle off the side of the ATV. Trying to cushion the landing as best as I could, I positioned the rifle to my other side as not to fall on the gun, knowing that even though the gun was unloaded, I didn’t want to damage the rifle across the rocks. My efforts paid off and I landed on my left side, with the Venture balanced on my right. As we both hit the ground with a resounding thud, both Wade and I instinctively kicked out a leg to help brace the ATV that remained pitched at an awkward angle. With a slight kick of the leg, the ATV propelled itself over the ridge and came to rest on the other side on all four wheels. Stunned at the narrow escape, Wade jumped up quickly, as the look of dread slowly washed off his face. He immediately asked if I was okay and after replying that I was and asking him the same question, he apologized for the bumpy landing. Without giving it a second thought, I told him it was no big deal as we were both okay and free from any major injury despite a few bruises.
After a quick inspection of the ATV, we were off again across the tundra in search of the herd. Despite our best attempts, we were unable to get within range of the caribou as no doubt the missed shot and sound of the quickly approaching ATV had put them on a heightened sense of alertness. Bruised, battered and still a little muddy, we decided to ascend a nearby hill and glass again for more caribou. Still upset with myself over the misplaced shot and encounter with the bog, I was wondering what other obstacles I might run into on day one. As I was going over the earlier shot again in my head, a call from Elvis back at camp came across the radio. The call was to inform Wade and the other guides that the hills were full of migrating caribou back across the lake on the northern side. Several large bulls had been spotted and Elvis was calling a Class 4 migration, that was all the encouragement that Wade and I needed to head back to the boat en route for the northern shore.
To be continued…