A CARIBOU HUNT
Story By: Tatum Monod
Location: Wernecke Mountains, Yukon, Canada
Two years ago, the idea of killing an animal terrified me. I don’t even like the idea of setting a mouse trap. I’d rather just let the darn critter live. But the reality is, I eat meat. I was raised with meat on my plate and every significant life event was celebrated with a roast beef dinner. As an athlete now, I feel that I perform my best when animal protein is included in my diet. But a few years ago, I began to think if I could hardly fathom the idea of a dead animal, what business did I have eating one? It became important to me to know exactly where my protein comes from and feel more connected with what is on my plate.
I must have pondered that concept a little too hard for a little too long, because next thing I know, I’m lying on my stomach in the upper Yukon territory, looking at a large bull caribou through the scope of a 6.5 Creedmoor. But the reality is it took two long years to get to the point where I could pull that trigger. It was a lot more difficult than I could have imagined and required the preceding twenty-four months to educate myself and prepare for my first hunt.
Most days, I’m a professional freeskier. I spend the better part of the year chasing winter and skiing backcountry lines. Skiing is also how I met Jessie; when I was thirteen, we both were in the local ski-racing program, Banff Alpine Racers. Jessie was the cool older sister I never had. Her work ethic, talent, and determination made her a force to be reckoned with on the racecourse. When she decided to hang it up after three successful years on the team and dedicate herself to taking over her family’s hunting business in the Yukon, I knew she would excel at that, too.
So when I became curious about hunting for my own meat, I immediately thought of Jessie. I can’t think of a better mentor and guide for my first hunting experience. “Tay!” her bubbly voice lights up the other end of the line. Even though it’s been almost ten years since we have connected, it feels instantly as if no time has passed. After a lengthy phone call, I realize I’ve got a lot of work to do.
To obtain my hunting license in British Columbia, I need to complete the CORE program – a course that concludes with a written test covering conservation, ethics, law and regulations, animal identification, and firearm safety. Then to possess and acquire a firearm, I need a PAL, which is a license that requires an in-person course and exam. On day one, the teacher singles me out as the underdog. I must have looked as out of place as I feel, strolling into the classroom with a pair of white overalls and mint-green fingernails. I’m intimidated by the whole process. But I am motivated to learn everything I can, and when the teacher grills me on rifle terminology, I get every question right.
“Are you a hunter?” the airport agent asks, pointing to my rifle case. I try to nod confidently but in my head, I don’t know how to answer that.
I call Jessie to tell her I passed and got my license, and how I was immediately pigeonholed as least likely to succeed. She’s a little incredulous: “Yeah, but you’ve always been a raging outdoorswoman. Do they know you jump out of helicopters and ski down insane mountains?” I have to laugh. I appreciated her confidence in me, and I’m glad to prove her right.
One very long and educational year later, I’m finally at the airport to embark on the hunt.
“What are the contents of this oversized item?” asks a stern airport official as he points at my travel case.
“A rifle,” I respond sheepishly. The words feel foreign leaving my mouth.
“Are you a hunter?” He asks, scanning me with his eyes from head to toe, with judgement that has almost become familiar.
I try to nod confidently, but in my head, I don’t know how to answer. I intend to be. But I’m still skeptical and afraid, and feeling all the insecurities I previously projected of being labelled as a “hunter.” It wasn’t long ago that I didn’t care to have any understanding of why someone would want to hunt. And I let that turn me away from opening my mind to the good that hunting can do.
As I step onto the plane, I’m still skeptical and afraid, and thinking, “What am I getting myself into?” even though I’ve studied, earned my licenses, and am committed. But it’s too late for second guessing; I’m Yukon bound.
The plane lands in the small, former gold-rush town of Dawson City. Here, I meet up with Sloane and Sam, two very experienced hunters who I learn won’t be doing any hunting. “Maybe if I’m not feeling it, you can take the shot,” I somewhat jokingly offer to Sloane. His friendly reply is simple: “You have the tag, you’re the hunter.” I’m the only one permitted to shoot. I guess there’s my answer.
I hadn’t realized until this moment that everything and everyone on this trip is here for me. Pressure I hadn’t been feeling before is now weighing down on me as we board a tiny prop plane for the next leg of the trip, going farther north still. But now that I’m with the crew and we’re journeying together, I understand that they’re here purely to support me, and I start to get it – hunting requires teamwork. After an hour of flying over Canada’s vast and beautiful Yukon territory, we finally make a bumpy touchdown on the grassy runway. I can see Jessie’s beaming smile from a hundred yards away. Being in one of the most remote and wild places I’ve ever been and greeted by my close friend is such the reassurance I need.
I can hardly fathom the idea of getting more remote than we already are, but we’re loading up yet another plane – this time one on floats to dive even deeper into the Wernecke Mountains. Approaching the small lake we’ll be landing on, Jessie points out the small hunter’s cabin below: home for the next twelve days.
“You can tell this is an old cabin because it’s smaller,” explains Jessie as we unload our gear. “The pioneers didn’t want to use more wood than they had to to heat the space.” It’s the coziest 20x20 home with a table, kitchen, and cot. But holy smokes this thing is tiny.
While we’re quite literally very far from my comfort zone, it’s awesome to watch my friend come to life in hers. Jessie has dedicated her life to this place and the animals here through her family’s outfitter, Midnight Sun, that she now co-owns with her brother. Jessie explains, “We truly want what’s best for the animals. We’re definitely in their space, but we’ve been here so long, it feels like we share it.”
The first morning starts with cowboy coffee – which is when the grounds of the coffee are mixed with hot water and (hopefully) settle to the bottom. Certainly not the oat milk vanilla latte I’ve admittedly become accustomed to. With the horses gathered and given their feed, it’s time to saddle up. I grew up with horses and have been riding all my life – so it’s nice to finally know what I’m doing when everything else is completely foreign. Even the clothes I’m wearing are not my typical backcountry wear. Summoning confidence and feeling like John Wayne in an old western, I slide my rifle into the weathered scabbard attached to the saddle and set the horse on the trail.
“Uh, we’re crossing that?” I call out to Jessie, looking at a section of a raging river. “It’s no problem!” Jessie calls back cheerfully. My stirrups just skim the surface of the water but we make it across. The horses take us up steep hills, dodge tight trees, tip-toe across narrow sections, and travel over ruthlessly rugged terrain with grace – these impressive, strong horses have earned this green grass clearing where we leave them to graze while we start our hike to the summit.
With big-mountain skiing, we research and plan, know the conditions, identify a certain window of time, and execute a very specific goal. But out here, I quickly learn there’s no “destination.” As we’re hiking along, I ask Jessie, “So, do we have a plan?” She kind of laughs, and I’m thankful to be taking on this wholly new experience with someone I trust and can be myself around. Jessie replies somewhat joking and says, “The plan is to hike around with binoculars.” She explains that animals have their patterns, but they’re pretty much just cruising around. But a few moments later, Jessie points out caribou tracks in the snow, indicating our hunt has begun.
For the next several days, we trek deeper into the mountains, riding up valleys, crossing rivers, and hiking into the high-mountain draws, all in search of a mature bull caribou. Between my courses and Jessie’s guidance, I understand that the older, more mature bulls will prevent younger bulls from breeding, so targeting a mature bull allows more breeding opportunities and increases the genetic diversity of the herd. This is the most important aspect for me, to find a mature caribou that likely wouldn’t make it through the winter. One that had lived a full life in a wild natural habitat.
A few days pass where we get to observe herds of giant moose feeding on alders, Dall sheep scrambling over rocky cliff sides, and a gargantuan grizzly fish his way down a meandering river. It’s a privilege to be completely engaged in looking out and taking in the beauty of this place, and I’m so grateful for it.
As a skier, my surgically repaired knee can only do so much time in a saddle, so I jump off my horse to stretch out my legs. Leading my horse in hand, we round the river bend to see Sloane, Jessie, and Sam looking intently into their spotting scopes up the valley. I instinctively know they’ve spotted a big bull caribou. My heart flickers nervously and starts to race. I peer through Sloane’s spotting scope to see a beautiful mountain caribou with antlers soaring sky high.
“Tatum!” Jessie calls out to me in an excited whisper, “This is the one.” She helps me see the characteristics we’re looking for in addition to the well-developed antlers.
Going in for the final approach, my palms are sweaty, hardly able to grip my rifle as I pull it out of the scabbard. I follow Jessie as we creep silently through the thick bush, pausing to read the direction of the wind. All my senses are lit. Every moment is precise. My heart is beating out of my chest, and I have never in my life been so nervous.
“Load your rifle,” Jessie whispers intensely. The caribou is now at two-hundred yards. I load the bullets as quickly as I can into the cartridge and dial the caribou in though my scope. But bushes and trees are obstructing my view, and my confidence in the shot is low. This isn’t the feeling I want to have before I pull the trigger. My biggest fear is that I will miss, or worse, wound the animal and have to see it suffer.
I know in my gut this isn’t the shot I want to take. Even though I’ve never been in this exact situation before, I know how to listen to my instincts. “I can’t make this shot!” I tell Jessie frantically, worried that I’ll disappoint her.
“Okay, let’s try to get above him.” Jessie says without hesitating. In this moment I appreciate her trust and our friendship. She doesn’t try to pressure me to take a shot. Instead, she points us towards a different solution.
This was the most important aspect for me, to find an older caribou that likely wouldn’t make it through the winter. One that has lived a full life in a wild natural habitat.
As we move farther up the mountain trying to be as stealthy as we possibly can, my lungs are gasping for every breath of air. We aren’t speaking but instinctively know what the other is saying. Out of the corner of my eye, the caribou re-appears. It’s now standing above us on the summit of the mountain, its massive rack silhouetted against the sky. This is it – a shot I know I can make.
I had visualized this moment over and over: the exact position of my hands grasping the rifle, controlling my breath, crosshairs lined up perfectly on the target and then slowly squeezing the trigger. I can execute it in my mind, but can I do it now?
I’m lying on my stomach trying desperately to conceal myself. My rifle is propped on my backpack, the barrel pointing straight at the caribou. Through the scope I can see the bull standing behind a small pine tree. Jessie whispers in my ear, “When he steps out from behind the tree, shoot.”
My eyes are tearing up already. I’m extremely overwhelmed knowing I am going to end the life of this animal. I’m terrified to take the shot – I’ve never directly been in control of whether something lives or dies. I have earned this meat.
“Just breathe, Tay.” Jessie is lying right next to me, reassuring me while I concentrate on holding my rifle steady. It feels like an hour has passed, but in reality it’s about two minutes. The caribou steps out from behind the tree. I take a deep breath and, on my exhale, squeeze the trigger. I can see that my shot was perfect, right through the lungs and heart. I had done exactly what I needed to. He goes down quickly, and most importantly, without suffering. Tears are pouring down my face as I watch the animal lie down as if going to sleep.
It’s such a strange moment of celebration. I’m heartbroken and happy all at the same time. Jessie and I share a really emotional hug, one that connects you with a human on a different level. I’m not a religious person, but I find myself saying a prayer of gratitude. I thank the animal for its life as I walk up the mountain toward it; In this moment I know this is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.
Jessie wastes no time getting to work. There’s not one moment on this whole trip when she isn’t blowing me away. Every morning she’s up at dawn, cooking for everyone, and saddled before I’ve even had a chance to put my boots on. The work she puts in managing our ten horses, breaking trail, routing us, and setting up camp – she’s the toughest person I know. After just the first week, her hands were so bloody and muddy, and she wasn’t even phased. Her hands work deftly now, skinning and quartering this beautiful animal. I’m eager to help and do what I can to contribute but not slow her down. Learning how to field dress this animal is an eye-opening experience. I had never seen my meat in this form.
Riding through the mountains for fourteen days, sleeping under the northern lights, drinking water from the spring creek – this experience as a whole is incomparable to any experience in my life. I’ve learned that hunting gets you back to what’s important in life: food, shelter, water, love. The shared adventure forms a bond with the other people, and you share in having so much purpose in the moment. And, as we make our descent, the physical weight of our packs is a reminder of the responsibility that comes when you pull the trigger.
Not long ago I would have been ashamed to call myself a hunter, simply because I didn’t understand it. Now, I take pride in being connected with my meal, knowing the very mountain tops it roamed and the full life it lived.
MEET THE AMBASSADORS
MIDNIGHT SUN OUTFITTING
Yukon Territory, Canada
Jessie Young and her brother, Logan, own and operate the outfitter started by their father, Alan Young. Midnight Sun offers first-class guiding services and consistently harvests Boone & Crockett record class animals in what’s known as the “True North.”