In 1998 my hunting buddy BNoe and I traveled to Kuujjuaq in far northern Quebec for a week of hunting caribou. Kuujjuaq is in Innuit region of Nunavik and sits on Ungava Bay at the 58th parallel, due south of Baffin Island. It is reachable only by air. Besides BNoe and I there were four others in our hunting party that we met for the first time at the Kuujjuaq airport. We were all stuffed into a twin Otter bush plane along with several 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel and flown to a very short dirt landing strip out in the bush.
There we were met by Fabian who was our guide and host for the week. He escorted us to a remote camp on the edge of a lonely lake in the middle of the tundra. Camp was a row of wooden huts with canvas roofs that served as bunk houses, mess hut and storage shed. It was the end of September and cold, but the snows had not yet begun in earnest for the winter. The scenery was stark, but beautiful. The golden of the arctic willows and larch contrasted to the red and orange ground cover. At night the sky was ablaze with spectacular displays of the northern lights. There wasn’t a soul for hundreds of miles other than our group of hunters, our guide Fabian and his wife who cooked for us.
The battle-cry of our guide Fabian all week was “You should have been here last week – there were caribou all over the place!” Our outfitter was Sammy Cantafio's Ungava Adventures, and he boasted in his brochures of “thousands of animals” and a 98%+ hunter success rate. Unfortunately we were the other 2% who came home empty handed who Sammy didn’t mention in the brochure.
We hunted hard all week but for naught. We had come too late and the herd had already migrated south. It was only pure luck and good shooting that allowed BNoe and another hunter in our group, to kill two bulls that happened to wander by camp.
We had all come back to camp after another fruitless day of hunting. No one had seen anything, and we were pretty discouraged. There was talk of moving us to another camp to see if there were any animals there. I had taken one of the boats and gone fishing on the lake in front of camp, while the other three in our cabin relaxed waiting for supper. BNoe was sitting on his bunk in his long johns, sipping on my bottle of Wild Turkey when he jumped up and pointed, "Look - there's something moving way over there!"
The other two hunters in our cabin, Barry and Tab reached for their binoculars and scanned the far horizon. Sure enough, there were two caribou heading south, about two miles away on the other side of the lake. They grabbed their guns, jumped in the other boat, and roared across the lake toward the caribou. Jumping out of the boat they ran up to a little ridge and flopped down. BNoe lost his mocassins in the muskeag at the edge of the lake and continued the chase barefoot in his longjohns. I don't know if it was his hunting outfit that did the trick, but he bagged one of the bulls with a 400+ yard shot. Barry got the other one at about 200 yards. Tab, the best shot of the group, emptied his gun and missed every time. The boys didn't have any time to pick up any extra shells on the rush to the boat, so what they had in their guns was all they had. I was completely oblivious to all this, happily fly fishing at the end of the other arm of the lake, and didn't find out what had happened until it was time to dress and haul the animals back to camp. These were the only animals any of our party saw to shoot at for the entire trip.
Our guide must have found a receptive ear with his reports of no caribou, because at the end of the week the twin otter landed at the little airstrip and flew our entire party to another camp to give us a chance and seeing some caribou. When we got to the new camp the guides cheerily informed us “You should have been here two days ago. A group of 200 animals crossed the river right in front of the camp!”
Barry and I saw four animals swimming across a lake about two miles away one day. They were too far to get to in time, however, and the only thing we could do was watch them from our hill-top through binoculars and wished we were closer. Those were the only living caribou I saw on the entire trip.
I lugged my rifle around the tundra all week long but never fired it. Tab (Dr. Aftab Khan) and BNoe joined me for an afternoon of ptarmigan hunting with the shotgun I had brought along, and we had fresh birds for supper one night at camp. However as far as caribou my first trip was a complete bust.
Hunting the James Bay Taiga
When my son Jim suggested in early March that we go winter caribou hunting in the James Bay area of northern Quebec, I was understandingly skeptical. I remembered how difficult it was to get that far north in Quebec and how disappointed I had been to come home with only a few Ptarmigan to show for the cost of the hunt to Ungava Bay.
“This caribou hunt will be different,” Jim said. “We’re going to an area in northern Quebec where the animals over-winter, and there are thousands in the herd. Tom Gerhardt (my grandson’s father-in-law), his brother Jack and his friend Joe were there last year and each filled their two caribou tags on their first day of hunting. They’d like us to come with them.” Jim added.
We would be hunting the Leaf River (Rivière aux Feuilles) herd, the same herd of migrating caribou that BNoe and I had missed connecting with further north at Ungava Bay several years ago. According to the Quebec Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife, the Rivière aux Feuilles herd numbers 628,000 and has tripled in size over the last 14 years. Caribou are a unique migratory animal and the herd may travel up to 6,000 kilometers a year in search of food and shelter and to avoid wolves and insects. No other land animal on Earth travels this far and wide.
In winter, a large portion of the caribou herd migrates to the Taiga and spends several months there. Taiga is a Russian word meaning land of small evergreen trees. This is the area that we would be hunting in.
Tracking Caribou Migration
I knew from first-hand experience that caribou hunting is a challenge and difficult to plan because of the animals’ migratory behavior and the vastness of the country through which they travel. Jean Doucet, a wildlife biologist friend with Hydro Quebec suggested that I log onto the Cartes des migrations du caribou system that is used to track the general migratory movements of the Leaf River herd and the George River(George Rivière) herd.
Jean explained that biologists have put radio tracking collars on about thirty females in the two herds as an aid to wildlife management. These thirty animals are tracked by the Argos satellite system, jointly operated by the United States and France. The signals from the radio collars are used to generate a weekly map that shows an approximation of the location of the migration. The program has been in place since 1991, and has a resolution to locate the collared animals within 150 meters. Since there are more than 1 million caribou in the two herds altogether, the location of only thirty animals can give only a very rough location at any one time, but it is at least a small help in locating these elusive animals.
The historical record of migrations seemed to confirm what Jim and Tom were saying. There were usually thousands of animals in the area where we would be hunting in the James Bay Taiga. Although I had missed the out-migration at Ungava Bay on my first trip, it promised that I would have a better chance at bagging a couple of these elusive animals this time. I told Jim that I would come with him, and we started planning our trip.
Getting Ready for the Hunt
I don’t know who was more excited about the hunting trip, Jim or Tom. Jim sent me money via Pay Pal for our initial deposit, and then over the next few months sent me additional money until the complete hunting fees were paid in early July. In the meantime, Tom called Jim nearly every day getting more and more hyped up about the hunt in November. Jim in turn called me, and the six months leading up to our hunt were a flurry of phone calls and e-mails debating gear, clothing, food and all the other minutia of the trip. Jim bought a new 7mm Weatherby magnum hunting rifle and spent countless hours at the range getting the scope adjusted and selecting just the right ammunition. As the departure date approached, the excitement and anticipation built.
I don’t think that Nansen spent any more time preparing for any of his arctic expeditions than we did. Jim’s enthusiasm was contagious, and I started to collect my own hunting and cold weather gear, piling it on the dining room table. Nearly everything was already on hand and I only had to locate it. My Sorell snow boots were fine, but I did put a fresh coat of SnowPruf on them. My heavy camo from Ungava was still in good shape, and I tossed in a hunter orange snowmobile suit just for good measure along with a couple sets of long underwear and a woolen face mask. I took my 42 year-old Remington 30-06 down back of the barn and sighted it in to make sure the aim was still solid. The newest 180-grain shells I had for it were purchased in 1991 (I mark the purchase year on my ammunition boxes), but Jim said he had picked up a couple of boxes for me with a new design and not to buy new ammunition.
The Long Drive North
The information we received from the outfitter and that I downloaded from the Quebec Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife said that the hunting area is more than 1,000 miles north of Montreal. Access to the Leaf River herd is via the Trans Taiga Highway, a gravel road built in the mid-1970’s for the James Bay hydroelectric facilities of Hydro Quebec. The highway snakes 666 km, almost to Labrador, through low-growing spruces, firs and tamaracks in the heart of the Canadian taiga to the hunting area. At approximately the 54th parallel it is the most northern road in Quebec, and the farthest you can get from a town on a road in Canada!
I went to the AAA office in Portland to pick up maps for our trip north. "Please let me have a Quebec map, and also a city map of Montreal," I asked at the counter. I opened the Quebec map. It only went as far as the little town of Matagami, nearly 350 miles short of our destination.
"Do you have anything that covers the northern part of Quebec," I asked?
"We have a map of all of Canada," the clerk said, pulling another map off the shelf and passing it to me. This map showed a very faint line stretching north from Matagami and heading into a vast unmarked white part of the map. This was my introduction to the Trans Taiga Road, but Jim and I were to gain a much more intimate knowledge of it over the next few weeks!
Jim and I met in Albany, NY on Thursday, November 16. He had driven his two-wheeled drive Dodge pickup 1,200 miles from Florida and I drove over from Maine pulling my snowmobile trailer with my 25-year old Yamaha Exciter 340 snowmachine and dog sled. We rendezvoued at the Marriott Courtyard on Wolf Road, had supper and transferred all of my gear to Jim's truck. We hooked the snowmobile trailer on behind his truck and I parked my car at the home of one of the folks from our Albany office.
We left Albany in snow at 4:00 a.m. on Friday morning and met up with the rest of the group north of Syracuse, NY about 7:00 a.m. John Waldner rode with Jim and I, so there were three hunters in each vehicle. We headed north in convoy, planning to switch off drivers and drive all night so that we would arrive at camp Saturday afternoon. That would allow time to scout the country and possibly locate the caribou herd.
As soon as we pulled onto the interstate going north it became apparent that there were problems. The utility trailer that Tom was pulling behind his pickup had soft springs and no shocks, and bobbed and weaved like a drunken prize fighter. The bobbing from side to side became violent at any speed over 60 mph, so we convoyed north through the snow at a leisurely 58 mph. At the border at the 1,000 islands south of Ottawa we stopped to obtain our firearm reentry permits from US Customs, and Tom was pulled aside by one of the agents.
"Which one is Tom Gerhardt?," the agent asked. "I need to see your rifle. There is a problem." The agent escorted Tom out the door and across the street to the trailer to check his rifle. We learned that when customs did a computer search it came up as a stolen weapon. They were gone a long time and we thought we were going to lose both Tom and his rifle at that point. Happily, Tom and the agent reappeared, all smiles and joking. Tom had made a mistake when he copied down the serial number, and everything was OK. We had our permits and were free to continue north to the Canadian customs. There we presented our firearm declaration forms, paid our CAN$25.00 fee, and continued on our journey.
North we went, through Grand-Remous, Val-d'Or, Amos, and Matagami. At Matagami we picked up Highway 109, the James Bay Road, and refueled (the next gas is at Km 381 north). Here we lost cell phone coverage and our contact with home. Just north of Matagami at Km 6 is the James Bay Information Center where we stopped and registered. We would have to stop again on the way south to let them know we made it back OK!
The James Bay Road is paved but the pavement has heaved with the cold and sections of it were pretty bumpy. Tom's trailer, which we had by now nicknamed the "hula hopper" bounced merrily along, and my snowmobile trailer clunked and banged as we headed north. The James Bay Road leads to the small town of Radisson, built in 1974 to support some of the Hydro Quebec La Grande hydro projects. The road passes through our first glimpse of taiga, over rivers and around lakes. Snow is falling heavier now, and the road has a covering of two or three inches of light, powdery snow.
By this time we are travelling through the night so don't get to do much sightseeing. We don't stop to read the various interpretation panels along the way, such as "Boreal Encounter", "The Northern Trucker", "Fens and Bogs: More than just Peatlands", etc. We would have our own personal encounter with one of the Northern Truckers later in our trip.
About midnight and just past the "Boreal Encounter" panel at Km 161 we stopped and picked up a hitchhiker. He had been standing in the road waving a reflective sign, and I thought at first that he was in trouble. We hadn't seen a house or light since Matagami. He was a Cree Indian who was living with his father at a small house at the side of the road. His father was out on his trap line and spending the night at a line camp somewhere in the taiga, and his son needed to get to the Km 381 service area to pick up some winter clothes he had stored there. We made room in the truck and he rode north with us through the night, enlivening us with tales of trapping beaver and hunting moose and elk. His story about frying up unborn moose embryos "just like chicken" grossed us out, but he helped keep us all awake anyway.
It was 3:00 a.m. when we pulled into Km 381 to refuel and bid our passenger good luck. I got out to do a walk-around of tie-down straps on the trailer and knock off some of the ice and snow that we had picked up since Matagami, and noticed that one side of the trailer was lower than the other. I laid down in the snow and crawled underneath and discovered to my horror that one of the struts had broken and the trailer deck was resting on the tire. Probably one of the many bumps along the James Bay Road had cracked it, and it was lucky that we had gotten this far.
The gas station attendant told us that there was a mechanic who came on duty at 8:00 a.m. and could probably fix it. Since we had several hours to wait, Tom decided to drive on to camp and scout the area. John moved back to their truck, and Jim and I stretched out and got a nap in the parking lot waiting for the mechanic to arrive. He arrived at 7:00 a.m., looked at the trailer once we had unloaded it in the shop, and said he could fix it up. For CAN$100 he welded a new steel brace, reattached the springs, and the trailer was as good as new. We got on the road again about 9:00 a.m. and headed north through the snow.
At Km 544 we turned onto the Trans Taiga Road, according to the James Bay Road website as "an extremely remote road and cautioned travellers "Do not approach a trip along it lightly." It is the farthest north you can travel on a road in eastern Canada. Jim was driving and we hadn't gone 10 Km when we came to our first upgrade. The truck got about half-way up the hill and we started spinning and the trailer started to jacknife. He slowly made it to the top and pulled over to the side of the road. We got out and found that the gravel road was covered with about two inches of ice with about four inches of unplowed snow atop that.
"Time to put on the chains," Jim said. "With our two-wheel drive and the trailer, we don't have enough traction to make it with these road conditions."
He had bought a set of tire chains just for this type of situation. They helped get us down the road, and the hills were no longer a problem, but the tire chains kept loosening up and the loose ends stove up the wheel wells badly. Our speed was cut to about 20 mph, so it was after 9:00 p.m. before we got to camp. We found out later that Tom had lost control coming down a hill and looked out to see the "hula hopper" going down the hill beside the truck. Luckily he was able to get it all back under control and stayed out of the ditch.
Welcome to Camp!
We were booked for a four day hunt starting on November 20 through November 23 with Donat Asselin Outfitter. The hunting package at Asselin’s included three nights of lodging and four days of hunting. Asselin has a row of aging house trailers set in a row along the Trans Taiga Road at Km 382, and is one of four outfitters operating in hunting zone 22B. Tom, Jack and Joe had hunted this area the year before successfully. They had stayed at Asselin’s last year and were generally satisfied with it, so we didn’t check out the other three outfitters. In April we got our confirmation letter from Jack and Barb Barber at the outfitters.
The snowmobile trailer problems and the tire chains delayed us, and Jim and I arrived well after dark the day before our scheduled hunt. We couldn't see much of the outfitter's setup and were bone tired. We checked in at the office, paid our $50 each for the extra night, and were told by Asselin "your group is in Trailer #3, room 8. Tomorrow you'll be assigned your regular trailer."
Trailer #3 is one of the two "bunkhouses" crammed with small bunk beds in tiny rooms. Loud hunters clogged the central corridor, standing and drinking or sitting on coolers and boxes. The lights in room #8 were out and was piled high with gear bags, boots, guns, and snoring hunters. Jim and I were worn out from the 12 hour drive on the Trans Taiga and weren't especially quiet as we climbed over things to find the only two (upper) empty bunks in the room. The rest of our gang woke up in the process, and told us that the caribou hadn't yet migrated south into the area but had been assured by guide John that they were "only 17 km north and would be here tomorrow." On that happy note, we unrolled our sleeping bags, inserted ear plugs to block out the poker game across the hall and tried to get some sleep.
The next day we were assigned to trailer #24 at the end of the row of trailers. Lodging was plain and simple, the trailers were heated and had electric lights when the generator was fired up, but that was about it. Trailers were equipped with double-decker bunk beds (our trailer slept ten), a small kitchen area with a two-burner gas ring, a table and chairs. There was a sink but the water only ran out.
The hunt was on the European plan, which means we had to bring our own food and cook our own meals. There was running water at the complex but it was not potable, so we also had to bring drinking water with us. There was one central, unisex heated bathroom located in the middle of the row of trailers with three sinks, six johns, two open urinals and four showers (showers from 8am until 8pm daily) that everyone used. There was also another unheated outhouse available, but the bitter cold wind whistling up through the holes discouraged most of us from using it more than once.
They’re only 17 km north of us, boys!
Asselin’s was an unguided hunt, although there were two “guides” on staff. One, John, a Quebecois, gave us our initial orientation about the game rules and seemed to spend most of his time in the office with a bottle of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I never saw him out in the field.
We often saw the other guide, Jack Barber, traveling the roads looking for caribou. Every night after supper he made his rounds of the trailers to update the hunters on what had been seen where, etc. He was very helpful, but increasingly frustrated as the week went on as no one from the entire camp had seen any animals much less shot any.
Snow Machines and Minus 35o F
The Long Drive Home
Last updated December 5, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree