Winter Caribou

winter caribou

by Frederick Prince

Snow, wilderness, and a touch of madness in the land God gave to Cain.

Cold air stung my face as I stood up on the snowmobile. Cresting the low ridge, I could see for miles. Our trail, the only mark in the snow, led directly north, with spruce and rocks sporadically breaking the white world before me.

This was Labrador, only a century ago still uncharted, one of the last places on earth to be mapped. Not far to the east was Disappointment Lake and the region where American adventurer Leonidas Hubbard met death on his ill-fated 1903 journey into terra incognita. To the west, the dominant lake of Hubbard’s time has been enlarged by damming to become the freshwater sea now called Smallwood Reservoir, a body of water that nature would have needed an ice age to produce.

The feel of unknown Labrador was all around me, a landscape still rugged and wild. I thought of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s comment after viewing the Labrador coast in 1534, calling it “the land God gave to Cain.”

I hadn’t been on a snowmobile in 30 years, and now, perhaps 50 miles north of Churchill Falls, there I was. More than two days of hard driving north from New England, endless miles of steady travel on snow, and my mind seemed left somewhere. It was a bit surreal. The nature of travel can distort time, space, and thought.

We were following our “guide” into the unknown, no plan as yet revealed. Argentinian by birth, Western Canadian by previous profession as a New Age cowboy, the man was a recent arrival to Labrador. He claimed he’d relocated to Labrador by choice, repeating this several times. Of course, I wondered why.

In addition to being a drinker and a character, he was an entrepreneur in the truest sense, with no experience in the Labrador woods nor with caribou hunting. Thus he’d become a caribou guide. The prospect of easy money can explain many things that otherwise make no sense.

When we were researching our trip, these winter caribou hunts—all of them—had advertised 100 percent success rates. It seemed to be a sure thing. My cousin, two other hunters, and I planned to hunt together; hence we booked our trip with a reputable outfitter. However, the business had recently sold, and we’d fallen just between the cracks of a changeover.

These turned out to be significant cracks.

I’ll call the new outfitter Slam, and Slam was a man. He said so himself. My gut instinct at our first meeting was to get in the truck and drive south. When our group of four hunters arrived at the base lodge—his trailer—we were soon joined by four other hunters. Two of them spoke decent English, and two spoke only Spanish. My cousin said they were from South America; I thought maybe New Jersey. One was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.

In the cramped trailer space we discussed licenses and tried to understand exactly where we would be going, while Slam’s girlfriend was in the next room devouring a bag of potato chips and glued to an afternoon soap opera. Before passing the money for my part of the trip, I asked Slam about the four extra hunters. He looked me straight in the eye, did not blink, and said there would be three cabins, one for him and his three hired assistants, and two cabins for the two groups of hunters. I gave him the money.

It was like falling into a Jack London story about northern survival, except I couldn’t put the book down, because I was in it.

A day later I would find out just how easily Slam could tell a blatant lie. After 50 miles by snowmobile, we pulled up to a single cabin just before dark. Our hunt was double booked. The snow was three feet deep, and we all floundered around unpacking our gear. The guide cabin was a mile away. The air was cold, damp, and felt like a storm was soon to be.

Just as we finished getting our gear into the cabin, a single snowmobile rapidly approached and stopped. The uniform was obvious: Sergeant Preston was here. As the game officer stepped off his machine, he sank waist deep in the soft snow and almost fell over. He struggled to regain composure, and then, with a very serious tone, stated that this territory was closed for hunting.

He informed us that our guns would all be confiscated. Slam’s three associates sat in the background looking worried, and we hunters stared at each other with looks ranging from confused to furious. This development didn’t help ease the tensions built up thus far, but after a half hour of drama we were allowed to keep our guns.

The camp was in disarray from the previous year. A woodstove and a large table took up most of the space, with a few small, poorly crafted bunk bed stuck in the corners. Blankets that appeared to be of 1950s vintage were piled high on the bunks. I expected to see mice and other vermin scampering about. The cabin was made for four, but it would have to shelter eight. We all had little choice but to adapt.

It was like falling into a Jack London story about northern survival, except I couldn’t put the book down, because I was in it. The small cabin was a sanctuary from the elements, far from human habitation. The isolation, deep snow, and impending storm elevated basic survival above everyday emotions. My impulse to call out Slam on his blatant lie was, for now, of no pressing need. I was surprised how easily I dismissed his deceit.