The Caribou Hunter

A city girl learns how it feels to pull the trigger

Photograph by Benoit Aquin

My boyfriend and I were driving from the airport to a cabin north of Corner Brook, on the west coast of Newfoundland, to look for caribou. We had milk and tea and fresh Atlantic salmon and bread enough for three days. The cabin’s garden would provide all the potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, and lettuce we could eat. It was mid-September, and we wore rubber boots, rain pants, rain jackets, and sweaters. We had orange toques, and I’d bought a cheap orange safety vest that was so large I had to tie it in a knot at the front.

“How do I look?” I asked.

“Like you don’t want to get shot,” he said.

Michael had grown up hunting, but it was foreign territory to me. I had never shot a pellet gun, let alone a rifle. Never caught a fish or skinned a rabbit. But I do eat meat, and I wanted to see if I could stomach a kill, seeing as that’s how we come by it. In the spring, when Michael had applied for his caribou hunting licence, I was curious and felt a challenge. I asked if I could go with him. Maybe even take the shot. He agreed and drew well: Area 56. Either sex.

Then I began to rationalize my decision.

Although caribou are endangered in BC, in Newfoundland at the time the herd was still populous. If I couldn’t make the shot, I told myself, I would consider giving up meat altogether. There was something about taking responsibility for the invisible acts of violence committed to sustain our diet that was coming to the fore — an almost moral purpose to the trip. I was still trying to justify my choice as we flew into Deer Lake and got into our rented car. But more than that, I was trying to justify the growing excitement I felt at the prospect of big game hunting.

Michael had bought thin white cotton gloves.

“What are those for?”

“So you don’t cut your hands when you’re gutting,” he said. “You won’t be able to see your hands sometimes, they’ll be so deep in blood and guts.”

We carried a cracked, waxed army surplus bag that was heavy for its size. There were bandages and a lighter in an old tobacco tin, a compass, a topographical map, one small axe, a hunting knife and whetstone, a disassembled handsaw, and a yellow cardboard box of cartridges. The shells were for our Lee-Enfield .303, an English rifle made in 1943 that may well have killed a few Germans in its time. In one of those nice twists of fate, it is the same type of gun my father used at the rifle range in Bisley, England, when he was a fifteen-year-old in the British Army cadet force. He used to win competitions. Maybe it was in the blood.

On the first afternoon, we parked at the edge of a quarry to site the rifle and take a few practice shots. I was nervous about the kickback — that was all I knew to worry about. We got out of the car, and I slung the gun over my shoulder. Wearing the first warm clothing of the year, I suddenly felt like some northern glamourpuss from a Bond film; I was about to ski down an alpine slope in a tight white one-piece, with fake fir trees bouncing behind me in the background. I also had an accent. It went like this: You know nussing about me. You only sink you do.

When you carry a gun, you step into the realm of mythology. I could have stood beside the car for half an hour, with the gun strung diagonally across my back and the gravel quarry looming grey above the scrubby trees, then turned around, gone home, and felt as if I’d been on a pretty satisfying adventure. But that wasn’t to be the end of it. There was shootin’ to be done.

I managed to hit the target some fifty metres away, but what shocked me wasn’t the kickback; it was the noise — very loud and very sudden. This was not the noise cracked celery makes in a sound studio but a real detonation. This was gunpowder. This was assassination.

My ears were ringing, and there was adrenaline in my fingertips. My heart was racing. I put the gun down, as if to denounce the power of it.

“Fuckin’ hell, you didn’t warn me about the noise. My God.” I shook my hands loose at the wrists. “I have no idea whether I hit that or not.”

“Let’s go and have a look.”

I started off at a walk and ended up running. I was expecting disappointment, but as I got closer I realized that not only had I hit the box; I was five centimetres shy of the bull’s eye from fifty paces out.”

That’s pretty impressive,” Michael said. “I think you’ll be fine.”

When the alarm went off at 5 a.m., there was only wide-eyed blackness. With flashlights and kerosene lamps to dress by, we made a fry-up of greasy eggs on awkward, thick slices of bread, and bacon that we didn’t eat but made sandwiches with. We drove through darkness to a dirt road off the highway that Michael’s dad had told us about—a popular caribou crossing between the barrens. The road was like Swiss cheese, and we couldn’t go over twenty kilometres an hour. “That’s why you should never buy a used rental,” Michael said, bottoming out again. “They’re cars nobody cares about.

“We reached the spot on the map and turned off our high beams. There was a pickup truck already there. Dawn was just breaking. A woman was sitting behind the wheel holding a 35mm camera to her chin. We nodded and slowed down. “See anything?”

A man in a trucker’s cap and a green quilted shell over a beige wool sweater came around the back of the truck. “Saw two moose about a half-hour ago.”

“You’re after moose, then, are you?” Michael’s accent changes a bit when he goes back home.

The alder bushes parted with a noise of scratched plastic, and another man walked out in a green and navy windbreaker, also wearing a trucker’s cap. Not a spot of orange on him anywhere. A gaunt man with porridge skin. He was carrying a rifle on his shoulder. His face was tight, and his eyes were wide, and he was breathing hard. “Jeez, boy, I almost got him. Would’ve had the two of them if we’d been here sooner. If you sees them, shoot one of them for me, will you?”

The men got back into the cab and slammed the door, the woman started up the truck, and they drove off down the road. They stopped again after a couple of hundred metres. The men got out again and rustled back into the bushes.

“Interesting method,” Michael said.

“What do you mean? ”

“All that noise.”

For a moment, I had felt a wary camaraderie — competition and brotherhood. The exhilaration on that man’s face spoke of the wild life off road. The bleak desolation of the open marshes, then bordering these the dark woods, and in the woods, the silent herds of caribou tucked in along the treeline, breathing quietly in the exact spot you’re staring at, but all you see is nothing.

We walked into the woods, where it felt darker, and we got lost for a little while, cracking our way through a web of spruce boughs, over moss-covered logs, holding the compass ahead of us. We checked the map. But things looked the same in all directions — dark green. There was a grey sky growing lighter overhead, above the treetops. We came across a patch of flattened grass in a small arbour. “That’s where they slept,” Michael whispered.

We found our way out and onto the open marsh. The ground was soft and made a soggy suction against my rubber boots. Or else it rose in a dry hump, crunchy with lichen. The sky turned white, and a breeze sighed over the land, making the shadows move. I felt like I was breathing with my eyes. “There,” one of us would say, and then, “No.” We walked slowly and stopped often to raise the rifle and scan the treeline through the scope.

Apparently people don’t hunt like this much anymore. Michael said that most Newfoundlanders go out on atvs or stay in their trucks. They dart out for a little detour through the woods on their way to work and wait for the animal to come to them. Nobody in their right mind walks this far from the road when they know they’re going to have to drag the carcass out on foot. Not many hunt for caribou, either — you get more meat from a moose.

At ten o’clock, we saw a big stag in the distance. It was my first sighting, thrilling and a little eerie. The stag simply emanated out of the background — beige and grey and white. It moved quickly, but I couldn’t really tell it was moving until I noticed it was somewhere else. And how big it looked in proportion to the marsh.

That was all we saw that day.

The next day, we saw nothing until the afternoon, when we followed a good-sized female with small antlers across two connected barrens. She was 200 metres away, and we bent forward at the waist and lifted our feet high, and rushed as quietly as we could in our plastic rain pants. She moved like a spirit — soundless and without effort — and we couldn’t gain on her.

On our fourth day out, we saw a magnificent stag. He looked magical, something out of Norse mythology or a child’s Arctic fairy tale. He had a rack of antlers like a huge, inverted wishbone, and a yoke of white fur. His back must have been two metres off the ground. He pranced out of the woods like a prince and sniffed the air. The stag turned and went back into the trees, then walked out again leading four does and two calves. They started to graze, but he was skittish. He knew something was up. I was using the rifle like a spyglass. “I have to get closer,” I said. We were downwind and managed to get within 150 metres of the group.

I had him in my scope. That stag walked right across it, but I had to admire him, so I lost the shot. He turned away and never gave me another chance. He must have caught a whiff of us, because he lifted his head and froze. He gave the signal, and they all trotted off nervously, except for one adolescent calf who lingered, who kept looking in our direction, curious and rebellious, defying his father waiting patiently at the edge of the forest.

A few minutes later, we heard splashing as they crossed a shallow pond out of sight.

That day, I learned that you had to be quick, that there might only be a fraction of a moment when the caribou is in the right position. You want it side on. Then aim right behind the front shoulder, through the lungs and heart. My greatest fear was shooting one of them in the ass and having it run off into the woods injured. I wanted a clean kill. But we were running out of time. I had to stop thinking about the consequences and the beauty of the animal. All I was supposed to think about was that spot behind the shoulder and the trigger of my gun, and matching those two things.

At about four o’clock, we saw a piece of fluorescent tape across the marsh. We walked the half-kilometre to have a look. The tape marked the end of an atv trail that led back to the woods road, close to where we had parked. If we could get a caribou near this trail, it would make the job of lugging it out so much easier. There were caribou tracks all over the marsh where the trail led out. “It’s Caribou Highway,” Michael said, confident that if we came out even earlier, sat quietly and waited long enough, a caribou would pass.

The next morning, we got up at 4:30. It was cold in the cabin, and I was stiff and sore. There was frost on the car. We agreed that if I didn’t get my shot today, I would hand the rifle over to Michael. We had a return flight booked in six days and needed to let the meat hang for at least three days before butchering it. Then it needed twenty-four hours to freeze for the flight back to Toronto.

It was so dark when we got out of the car, we had to walk the atv trail by flashlight. I heard creaking noises nearby and felt a little afraid, a city girl deep in the woods. This was not one of those moments, either, when you could start singing, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad . . .” We had to be as quiet as possible.

When daylight came out on the barrens, the clouds were plum coloured and it started to rain. We settled in under some low scrub and waited. I felt the hypnotic tap of raindrops on the rubber of my jacket, the soft ground underneath, the slow leaching of body heat as I fought off the urge to sleep. The day before, while we were crouched elsewhere on the lookout, I had leaned over until I lay down on the moss. I fell asleep right away and slept like an orphan out in the open, under the watchful eyeball of the sky. I slept deeply, dreamed erotically, and woke refreshed.

But this morning, I had to stay alert. This was our best site so far. The wind was northerly, and we were downwind from where we thought the caribou would appear. And so we waited, for the longest period yet, like soldiers in the trenches, feeling the cold rain. It made me think about my life.

Michael and I had been going out for nearly three years. We’d joked about getting married and having kids. I had rejected the idea of marriage early on, because I’d just gotten divorced. But now I was hankering for something permanent. I wanted to have a baby, but he wasn’t sure. These are the sorts of things you think about sitting in silence for two and a half hours, when the rain’s plucking at the back of your hands, and your shoulders have lost all their surplus warmth and started to ache. Suddenly, I felt miserable.

“Shall we call it a day?”

“Fifteen more minutes,” he said, checking his watch. I bowed my head. Ten minutes went by, and then Michael whispered, “There he is.”

I was on my knees.

“Take the shot,” he whispered.

“Take the fuckin’ shot.”

The caribou wasn’t far away. Maybe fifty metres. A noble stag, in profile, brown and grey and white. Maybe two years old. A crown of antlers. Nose high. Proud. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking: Behind the shoulder. Squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull it.

“Take the shot.”

My left leg forward, foot on the ground. Knee up. Left elbow on knee. Gun to shoulder. Fur through scope. What a shot. I squeezed. That shocking noise. And the animal went down. First his hind legs collapsed, then his head whipped back and the front of him went down like a slap. All I could see were his antlers above the bushes.

“You got him, baby, you got him!”

The stag was pulling his head around in a circular motion, trying to create some momentum to stand up. It was awful to see. I put the rifle down and burst into tears. I wept with an intensity that was both alarming and cathartic. I was wild with unselfconsciousness. My hands were on my face, and I kept repeating, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you’re so beautiful, I’m so sorry, you’re so beautiful.” I had shot something that was alive — unequivocally, majestically so. And knowing life only as a human knows it, I had to personify: the caribou had a soul. I had seen it in the way he had carried himself a minute earlier. And now that soul was thrashing around inside his broken body. “We have to kill him,” I said.

Michael crawled over. He hugged me. I could see that he was proud and excited. “Let’s just leave him alone for a bit. He’ll die quietly enough. That’s the best thing we can do for him.”

But I saw the neck tugging around. “Please,” I begged, “I can’t bear to see him like this.” It didn’t look as if he was dying. There was too much effort in his struggle. “Please!”

We walked quickly and cautiously over to the caribou. I crouched, still crying, about five metres away. Michael reloaded the gun and approached. The caribou was pulling himself in a circle to get away from him. Michael had to follow him around to get a good shot at the head. He held the rifle low. He looked up and realized I was in a direct line with the shot, squatting behind the caribou. He waved me aside. I got up and moved to the right, distracted with emotion. The caribou moved again, and again I was lined up with the shot. Michael waved me aside, then held the rifle to his hip and fired at the caribou’s ear. All its limbs dropped, and the empty stillness of the foggy early-morning countryside rushed back in from where it had been forgotten and engulfed us. I noticed the rain again, and the vast, lonely spaciousness of the landscape. I felt grateful for the privacy, like the discrete quietude of a church. Not to be observed in the act.

“We have to cut his throat.”

I was afraid to touch the caribou, afraid he might attack me. Michael nudged the body with his foot.

“You do it,” I said.

He got the hunting knife with the fifteen-centimetre blade from the army surplus bag, lifted the stag’s head by the antlers and pierced the white fur at its throat, joggling the knife around forcefully. “You want to cut through both jugulars.” The blade made a hollow sloshing noise inside the stag’s neck, and the blood started to flow. Michael stretched the throat so the blood would drain out easily. I willed myself to touch the stag’s body, and my fear dissolved. I stroked it and admired the softness of its hide, the warmth of it, and knelt to touch its velvet muzzle.

Michael spat on the whetstone and sharpened the blade. He handed me the knife and gave instructions. “Careful, it’s sharp.” First there was the breastbone to saw through, like the side of a plastic bucket. And the windpipe, like a clean white vacuum hose, to hook a finger through and pull down toward the belly. We rocked out the pale blue-green stomach and bladder and intestines, encased in their white but semi-transparent and veined sacs, which spilled out like loose water balloons onto the ground. Aggressive whisky jacks flew in from nowhere to begin their five-day feast, which is all it takes for the mass of offal to disappear.

There was the head to remove with a handsaw, and the inch-wide strip of hide to slice off the backbone, so that when you saw through the spine the fur doesn’t get into the meat. The vaulted rib cage, emptied of the organs it once protected, stood up like the inside of a small red cathedral. Lastly, the antlers had to be carved out, the blade slicing through just above the eyes, making the ears wiggle. That was the hardest part. The face so undeniably a face.

I have never felt so intimately connected to the food chain as I did in the rain, on that windswept barren, squatting over those bright red blocks of freshly killed meat. Or as fertile. Or as powerful. Or provided for. I was at one with, not in opposition to, nature, and I felt I could survive without civilization, on my wits alone (provided I had a Lee-Enfield .303). It was a heady independence that I felt. What could intimidate me now? I had shot and eviscerated a caribou.

That feeling did pass, but it was specific and convincing at the time. Nor was I prepared for the feeling of what can only be called love that I had for the body. I realized that in killing this animal I had not become indifferent to its worth, but more aware of it, and more concerned about being a faithful steward of the earth.

Since the fall of 2005, when this trip took place, the herd has not fared well. Coyotes are on the increase. Perhaps I won’t ever hunt again. Certainly I will never hunt for pleasure, sport, or trophy, because the life force that runs through my veins is what animates all living things, and to dishonour the value of that is to dishonour the value of my own life.

For a long time afterwards, whenever I ate a piece of caribou, I felt as if I was making love to the world in the strangest way.

We took the heart and put it in a plastic bag, and started to carry the quarters out — each weighing roughly forty kilograms. Michael heaved one onto his shoulder, one wrist hooked over the hoof to use as a counter-lever. It looked easy enough, but I could only walk a hundred paces before I felt pinched by the weight. Michael would throw his quarter to the ground, then hoist mine off my shoulder and drop it, hide down, onto a pillow of tiny, wet, shiny green leaves. We would go back and make the same trip again with the other two quarters, then a separate trip for the rifle, gear, antlers, and heart, moving forward in increments of a hundred steps.

Shouldering a quarter was like carrying a dog or an injured lamb to safety. This was a paradox, I know — or a delusion. But I felt this strange, fierce affection for the still-warm density of fur and meat nestled against the back of my neck, an affection that seemed to arise from an act of goodness, not slaughter. I felt no shame or guilt. Maybe this was because I knew I was going to eat this animal — and eating is in some sense our greatest expression of love. It is consummation. There is no greater intimacy. It is what we do to our gods, a spiritual act, communion: “Take, eat, this is my body that is broken for you.”

We took a break in the woods, where the shiny meat looked so shocking and yet picturesque. As we carried it out, I thought how useful a wheelbarrow would be, and gradually the following “Ode to a Stag” arranged itself in my head, in the manner of a William Carlos Williams poem:

How beautiful
the red meat

trimmed in
white fur

on the green

We’d already laid two quarters of the animal on the hood of the car. Michael was a hundred paces back in the woods. I was walking out with the rifle and antlers. There was a middle-aged guy in a trucker’s cap by the car, idling on his quad, admiring the meat.

“You got that this morning?”

I grinned.

“Lot of caribou in there? ”

“Saw a few.”

He seemed embarrassed and drove off quickly. Was it odd to see a woman on her own, holding a rifle and the rack of a freshly killed animal? I had blood on my face and clothes, and my white cotton gloves were now a solid crimson. I liked the idea that he thought I was alone.

I held up the antlers and counted eighteen points. Caribou grow new antlers every year — the fastest-growing bone on the planet. This rack was about sixty centimetres high but not as wide. The velum was loose and came off like tissue paper. The bone underneath was smooth and the colour of oatmeal. It would blush over the next few days, as the blood rose to the surface and then faded again. I mounted them, and they hang in the living room now. I still marvel at their pleasing symmetry, the tines sweeping up from the brow stem, each fingertip split into three prongs, like the paws of an Inuit dancing bear.

We set off for Michael’s parents’ house, and when we arrived the dog went crazy. He leaped and bucked in the air, came down on his side, and then jumped up again. He whined for two days outside the basement door while I skinned the hanging quarters and scraped off the fat with an ulu knife and salted the hides for drying. We hung the meat for three days and then took it to a butcher, who cut and packed it in cellophane labelled prime rib, roast, soup bones, ground. Nothing was wasted, and what bones were left over after a meal would be boiled for stock. We froze the lot, packed it in four styrofoam boxes from a fish plant, and checked it onto the plane for our return flight.

Back in Toronto, I cried again when, for the first time, we sat down to eat caribou in the comfort of our apartment. It seemed such a long way from the barrens, and all I could see was that slap as the caribou’s hindquarters dropped, his head whipped back, and the front of him went down. And how beautiful he was the moment before and how innocent. I never knew how much I loved the world until I killed that caribou.

Christine Pountney