No Easy Lessons: Hunting Caribou
A couple weeks ago Padre and I got up to bad weather. It had been raining all night, so loud we sat up several times to shake our heads and wonder if the sound on the tarp could be replicated (maybe by filling a tumble dryer with nickels and other, smaller tumble dryers), but sometime before sunrise the wind kicked up so the rain was driving sideways into the quarter-inch ply that made one wall of our hut. Also the temperature fell, so when we did get up we sat in our sleeping bags a while, remarking how bad the weather was for shooting bows. Maybe wiser folks would stay inside, wait, not soak their boots—but I doubt it, because we’d only just made it to northern Manitoba. And anyway, we thought, we’d probably not see caribou in that rain until they were so close we could drill them with a slingshot, so we got up and ate some biscuits and went out looking for our guide, a real Canadian mensch named Paul.
Out on the tundra, the wind was exactly as bad as we’d thought. This was no good, because finding caribou is not like finding other big game animals. At least, not the ones I knew—elk, deer. To find those, you do climb hills but secretly, passing from cover to cover and glassing from rocky shocks. There’s not much cover in the tundra. It unrolls in long, unhurried vaults, like a sheet parachuting over a bed frame. To find caribou, you hike along the gentle peaks, watching for animals moving miles away. Once you’re close, the strategy changes, but still, we hadn’t seen any caribou, and so we hiked north of camp to where a rock cairn and an antlered skull marked Manitoba’s northern boundary, staggering against the wind.
We’d gone maybe a mile when Paul stopped at an esker to check a distant field, glassing through the rain.
I should name one other thing: Go somewhere new and it takes a while to see stuff. This is true in new cities, when all those crowded, unfamiliar sights come in together and make it hard to find a restaurant or a parking space. But it’s especially true in the woods. You have to know something pretty well to pick out exceptions, the way you have to know a person pretty well to know they’re acting off. Animals are usually exceptions. Paul had seen does and geese and other birds no one else could, and just then he saw the dark blot of a caribou bull, half hidden in the rain and grazing in the field a mile below us.
“There’s a bull,” he said.
Dad and I looked for a bit and picked him out. In the rain, it was hard to tell how big he was, but he looked good, and so we hustled down into the little valley where he was. Between us, there were tamaracks. In the middle of the field, there was a marsh. After a short conversation, we decided Padre and Paul would head to the far side, and I’d stay where I could see him, since several bulls had vanished unobserved the day before. Padre and Paul moved off, and when they hit a good spot, I snuck, bent over, to the edge of the trees.
There were maybe 10 caribou browsing in the rain, but only one reasonable bull, and he lay down, so I hunched up under a tree and got dripped on for a bit. Then one of those hunter’s instincts said Get back a little, and I saw that if the caribou moved, I couldn’t chase them without moving from cover, so I crawled back to other trees. Good thing—in a minute, the bull stood up, and the cows, the bulls, the one I was watching, all took off to my right.
The day before, Paul had said you can’t catch caribou. That is probably true, but I’ve tried with every new animal I hunt until I know it’s impossible; so I took off along the strap of trees. I pounded through a few marshes and broke some limbs and then came out just as the herd capped the next hill.
Dang. I figured that was it, but they were still milling over there, and there were trees on the leeward side, so I ran straight at them. I crossed a field, entered the trees, and rounded an evergreen just as the bull stepped out.
He wasn’t huge. I hadn’t seen many caribou, but he seemed fine. And he was the one I’d been chasing, which makes a difference. I stepped back, pulled an arrow from my quiver, nocked it, drew, and stepped back around the tree. The bull and a buddy were right there. I made a noise. They stopped. I took aim on one, the bigger one. Then I hesitated, and he turned and made to move off. I made a noise again, he turned, and I thwacked him.
It’s one of those moments bowhunters shake their heads at. The arrow punched a hole in one shoulder blade, then the other, slipping the boiler room where heart and lungs are all stacked up. Then the bull took off, and when I made the top of the hill to see where he’d gone, he was still running.
Everything about hunting is on the line then. It’s true that hunters kill, but it’s so little like the inadvertent killing people do everyday that the act is unfamiliar. The fact is, in this age, at this dispensation in creation, there is death in the world. In fact, as the theologian Norman Wirzba has pointed out, the very world lives through resurrection, making life out of death. So it’s also true that things die so that other things can live, and here’s the complicated bit. As men committed to restoration, we’re advocates for life. We fight for our communities and our friends and also for habitats and animals in how we live and shop and what organizations we give to. But that isn’t enough. Since there’s death in the world, there’s an obligation to rule it, to determine what the death of things will mean for me and my family. When it comes to that, I could outsource it, let other people kill anonymous animals on my behalf. But I don’t, and when I’ve hunted, when I’ve gotten close enough to an animal to make a decision about its death, we’re bound together more intimately than just about any creature outside a covenant. The caribou, the particular animal, a known thing, will sustain my family, and in exchange I’ll work to finally kill it in a way that honors it, is clean, diminishes suffering. An arrow slipping through both lungs is better than cold or starvation or other things.
So to shoot something and have it run off is about the worst thing that can happen to a hunter, not because I’m disappointed, but because I care about the animal. It’s sort of like mishandling a conversation with someone you love, but with dramatic stakes.
The caribou, though, had not disappeared. In fact, I almost caught it again, running first to a nearby lake where there were trees, then trailing it from cover. When you’re chasing any animal, especially a wounded one, you’d rather not it know you’re there, because adrenaline and other hormones will kick in and drive that animal across the continent. Moving by the water for a mile, I closed the gap to 60 yards, but with the wind I couldn’t shoot. And then I ran out of trees.
That’s another problem—in Manitoba, caribou season is a general season. You can hunt with anything legal, a bow, a rifle. I had a rifle in the hut. But if I went back to get it, I risked losing the animal, and in the rain, tracking anything is difficult work. So I waited a minute under some gnarled krumholtz, and finally figured I needed a gun.
Running the direction of camp, a number of things happened, notable among them that I cursed my bow and the inefficiency of arrows and my aim and everything else that makes hunting uncertain, forswore a number of things forever, and then found Padre and Paul, totally uninformed, in another part of the tundra.
“I drilled a caribou,” I said.
“What!” Padre said, I think trying to reconcile the news and my face. “Where?”
“Just over there.” I pointed. “In the shoulder. He’s gonna die,” I said, “I need a rifle.”
Padre and Paul, hunters themselves, understood, and we busted up to a hill, left Padre to watch the bull, and went back to camp. It’s hard to be thoughtful in a hurry, but I found the 30.06, loaded the magazine, sealed the bore with tape, and tossed a handful of ammunition in a rangefinder case hooked to my belt. Then I took off again, back with Paul to the hill, where Padre thought he had a bead on the caribou.
“He’s bedded down,” he said. He had to hole up inside his jacket and clear his binos with toilet paper, so each look was precious. “Think he’s on the far side of that field.”
That was enough for us—Paul and I crossed the marsh again and entered the trees on the far side. There were rocks strewn everywhere, like misshapen helmets, and slippery, and it took a long time to get down through the trees. Despite a lot of effort, all our binos but Padre’s were clouded with rain. We couldn’t see much, near or far, so we had only a guess about the bull when we finally came out of the trees.
The grass there was hip-high and soaked, the rain so many cold needles. Paul took a step right to see if the bull was near a little tarn, and then the bull stood up. That was it—I saw he bled from the shoulder; he was the same animal. I dropped to a knee and found a tree the wind had bent over and knocked him down quick.
It’s an odd moment. Any time you finally chase and kill big game, there’s heaviness. One time, out of college, funds were thin. Then, out of the blue, two friends not better off—really, worse off—than myself send me 250 bucks in the mail. I could barely take it, the generosity. I knew I couldn’t deserve that cash. I also knew deserving wasn’t the point. It’s one of a few things that gets close to the feeling of approaching downed animals. But also, the hunt wasn’t perfect. You’d like it to be fast, almost tidy, but hunters know it doesn’t always go that way; so it was with odd mixed emotions that I shouldered the rifle and walked through the grass to the bull. He was little, I saw now. Not his body, but his antlers, and while I didn’t care, I also sort of cared.
But then a few things. First, Paul slumped down and lit a cigarette. He took a drag and said, “Well, I’m proud of you. Some guys—they don’t work that hard to finish the job. You got it done.” That was true, and it helped. Next we dressed the bull, skinning down the spine for the quarters, opening the chest cavity from the spine for the heart. There’s an unshakable gravity there, the weight—I mean the spiritual weight—of the animal’s life. I don’t know anyone who could enter into that kind of communion and not feel undeservedly honored. Also, we found that the shot had been good—the arrow went through both shoulders and somehow missed everything important. That’s a mystery, but hunting is something you do with skill; it was good to know the skills were there. The real thing, though, was the Father. While I was running back for a rifle, I asked him what I should do, hoping for useful advice or, better yet, an offer to snatch the caribou’s spirit from his body, ending the thing.
Neither happened. Instead, the Father said, “There are no easy lessons.”
Not exactly comforting words, but true. Chasing the bull, catching him again, making decisions where life and death are included in the outcome—something was happening. Maturity was happening. The territory of discernment, of real perception and judgment, isn’t easily won. It’s heavy soil. It’s worse when I’ve got to stay judicious when hard work goes awry, when there’s a wounded animal and it’s my fault. But those are the places where maturity forms. It’s a process that flies in the face of the world, where things are fast and neat and cheap. Creation, and the kingdom, is an extraordinary place. Hunting, and that difficult hunt, is at least a revelation of how little I value it most of the time, on account of how cheap I think it’ll be to become someone who can live there.