Paddling lazily in the slack current of the river, the canoe swept around a sharp bend to the right. Straight ahead and a third of the way down the cutbank a commotion caught my eye, and my heart skipped a beat at what I saw. Just a hundred yards ahead a lone wolf loped down the sand of the cutbank headed for the shore. The big .45-70 slid out of the scabbard and leapt to my shoulder just as the wolf reached the water. But, noticing me she turned and fled along the bank in a long curve for the bush. A cartridge slid into the chamber and gunfire disrupted the silence of the scene...
This moment was the result of a second trip down the Big Salmon, a major tributary of the upper Yukon River in the Yukon Territory. The river heads at Quiet Lake, Y.T. and flows through a chain of two more lakes, Sandy and Big Salmon, before winding its way through some of the most beautiful country the central Yukon has to offer, finally losing its identity in the murky swirl of the Yukon River 80 miles above the little village of Carmacks. Because I had the first ten days of August available to me for hunting before I would be guiding in northern B.C., I had determined to make a second trip down this river. I had seen a lot of animals on it the year before. 5 AM of August first saw me casting off into the perfect quiet of Quiet Lake, for once indeed quiet, mist rising from its surface in the pre-dawn stillness. Trout rose near the canoe as my paddle jayed it along, the wake being the only other ripple marring the perfect surface. The miles went by and at last I felt the welcome tug of water on the bottom of the canoe and a surge of electric anticipation at the thought of the days of river travel to come. Then we, Canoe and I, slipped through the channel connecting the Quiet and Sandy Lakes, and I occupied myself with pondering what might lie around the next bend of the wet-behind-the-ears river. Sandy Lake, also calm as a painting, had a blackness to the water which spoke of great depth. Though not a large lake, the surrounding country made up for it, and I gazed with delight at the mountains and especially at the point of land jutting out from shore, where I knew the second connecting link of river would inhale the craft once again and give my arms a rest. Then, after a short meandering ride through the spruce and marshy backwaters, Big Salmon Lake appeared. The wind picked up when I reached this large body of water but the sun was shining and right around noon I entered the gate of the Big Salmon River. Here, on the left bank, there is an old trapping cabin. This was my goal for the first days effort and I pulled the canoe in, had dinner and took it easy the rest of the day, just enjoying the place and delighting in the solitude. Next morning I ate well and hit the river. It rained off and on as I drifted, now and then paddling hard to avoid a big wave or to steer through a corner. Saw two mink, one with a small fish in his mouth! Salmon were running heavily and I counted a hundred of them before I lost track. I was glad to see the big kings as I was after grizzly and this would surely attract a few to the river. Also found a fifty inch moose rack on the right bank. Around six or seven I was heading down a slow stretch of river when I suddenly heard the heart-stopping commotion that usually accompanies a terrified large animal in the bush. Looking up, I saw a few glimpses of the large grizzly, almost pure black but with a yellow shoulder hump which lifted when he hurtled an old dead log. He either scented or saw me before I did him, which I thought was a terrible shame for that had been an exceptional bear. There had been no chance for a shot with rifle or camera. My diary, written up that night, says, "camped around 9:30 or 10 on a nice spot on the river. Beaver splashing and owls hooting. Called in a screech owl by imitating him. He flew right overhead and landed in a tree. Too dark for a picture. Good to be back in this country again." Next day I was after sheep. After an early breakfast I ferried across the river from camp. Maybe three or four hours or hard climbing and brush busting got me to the high country. I began hunting westward along the top of the mountain, hit a game trail and followed it over a pass, just for a look. A large basin opened in front of me and about three hundred yards down a large, dark object caught my eye. Even by looking through the 200mm lens of my camera I couldn't be sure, until it moved its head sleepily and swayed the caribou antlers he owned. Watching him until he bedded down I tried to decide whether to shoot this animal or not. It would ruin the sheep hunt for sure, not to mention the work of getting him down the mountain, but then again, he was a very fine bull... I started the stalk down the boulder strewn mountainside taking pictures as I went along, eventually getting right up on him. I was maybe 20 yards from the bull when he stood up suddenly and the lever-action put him right back down, the shots echoing through the river valley. He rolled a long ways down the slope, finally coming to rest on a bit of a ledge. He was even bigger than I had thought. The antlers, still in velvet, were massive and very long in the beam, certainly a grand animal by anyone's measure. After taking hero pictures I went to work butchering. Cramming the trapper nelson full of meat I swayed to the vertical and swung the antlers up top. No doubt I'll pay for this trip some day in old age. Part way down the mountain I entered the heavy bush. An so began an unbelievable struggle, the likes of which I never hope to repeat. Eventually the bush got so thick and choking and the going down so steep that dozens of times it looked like another Canadian Impossible Dream. I kept at it too, though, in the true spirit of the Yukon, even though at one point I scrambled down a forty-five degree stream bed, strewn with slippery boulders (from the rain) which had been waiting thousands of years for just this moment, sometimes rolling the horns ahead of me and locating them again by the crashing of brush down below. Perhaps six hours of this brought me finally to the river. The velvet had taken one awful beating, and so had the now-not-so-mighty hunter. Along with the joy of reaching my goal came the realization that I really couldn't have packed that load of meat and horn another step! It was that bad. I came out a couple of miles downriver from camp so I cached my load there and made my way through the thick bush and upriver to camp. Finally I realized I was looking at a wonderful sight, the canoe and my camp. Upriver something large and white was moving across current. A wolf, perhaps? I still don't know as it disappeared behind an island. Weary but satisfied I paddled across and tied up, walked into camp and passed out on my sleeping bag for the night. Next morning I overslept, (I hope I can be forgiven) packed up camp and left around nine. Picking up the meat and horns I stuffed them in the bow of the canoe. The horns looked good up there. The salmon were running strong and I saw fresh grizzly tracks on a few sandbeaches. It was raining off and on all through the day, just enough to keep things nice and wet. During one of these drizzles I heard a low moan off in the distance. Wolf! I wanted one pretty badly so I beached the canoe around a bend and began howling back. He responded two or three times but I guess I must have told him to clean up his room for he quit and that was that. Carrying on, I travelled right until dark, made camp and cooked a meal of fresh caribou steak - which went down very well! I quote my diary for August 5: "On the river from 9-9. time is pressing me on, but not so heavily as to prevent me from loitering here and there. One interlude in particular deserves mention. I looked downriver about three hundred yards in time to see something move. It proved to be a yellow bear, but I didn't get a good look at it. Grizzly! I beached the canoe behind a bend, picked up the rifle, and worried about the slight breeze at my back, headed very carefully down the riverbank through the thick willow growth to where I had last seen him. My mouth was very dry and my heart was pounding like crazy. Mosquitoes and black flies were thick in that tangle but I paid them no heed. Eventually I reached the spot where he should have been. Nothing! I then headed up a nearby hill for a better look. Still nothing. About half an hour of hard searching failed to turn him up so I got back in the canoe and carried on. I looked at some fresh black bear tracks a little downriver, concluding it had probably been just a blond black bear. I still say it was fun sneaking up on that "grizzly" in that thick tangle. Also I stopped a few times and panned for gold in the creeks joining the river, finding no colors. Easing downriver, through that mountainous country, the water clear and green in the shadows, watching the odd king salmon go by on its date with death journey upriver, was my idea of what good living is all about. Camped ten miles past the junction of the South Big Salmon river. For supper? Caribou by candlelight." August six was another full day. Hitting the river at 6 I fought a strong wind all day. Nothing too special happened until around one o'clock when a couple of well-spaced shots rang out in the bush to my right. I rounded the bend and was signalled to the left bank by two men in a canoe. They had a moose down, a young bull. He had kicked his way into the river from off the bank. I helped them get it back on shore. They said they had seen one cow and another cow and calf before this bull, which may have explained why I'd seen so little game this day. Eager to continue hunting I passed on the request for help with the butcherin, though they probably would have given up some fresh meat. An hour later I met my wolf.
The first 500 grain cast bullet erupted a huge cloud of sand just behind and at the heels of the loping wolf. Chambering another round, I fired again. The wolf missed a stride but kept going! At the third shot she began spinning round and around, finally falling on her side at the rivers edge. My first wolf! I let the canoe drift the hundred yards down, having trouble believing what had just happened! Then I photographed and skinned her, took the skull and pushed off, travelling right until dark. Reaching the confluence of the Little Salmon river that night I camped and managed to make it all the way to Carmacks, my destination, around three or four in the afternoon of the next day. The "River Rats", as they call their group of jolly jet- boaters, were enjoying the waters of the mighty Yukon. The five boat group from Grand Prairie, Alberta took a special interest in my caribou horns and I and fed me a great barbecue while they listened to my story. Next day I enjoyed a faster ride on the river with the jet spray rooster tail streaming out for forty feet behind us. What a contrast!! I have only positive memories of this trip. I always enjoy spending time in a wild sweep of country, but often the full appreciation doesn't hit until later. It's sometimes possible to forget you're having the time of your life when you're soaked from mop to toe with rainwater and you'd just as soon die as pack that load of caribou another mile. But I'll always enjoy the memory of leaving the sandy beach with the huge antlers swaying in the bow and the freshly rolled wolf hide under the seat of my canoe, and the peacefulness of sitting near the evening fire, long after dark has closed in, listening to a loon calling from some lonely lake deep in the bush and planning the next days hunt.
"Working as guide and horse wrangler in northern B.C. and Yukon I've seen hunters board the out-plane with songs in their hearts and gratitude in their eyes. And I've seen them leave with sinister expressions, plotting revenge on the guide, the outfitter, and (for all I know) maybe even the cook's cream-centered hotcakes! What constitutes a good hunt? Would a good definition be one from which a hunter leaves satisfied that his objectives were met? If he lands in camp and expects to shoot one each of a Boone and Crocket ram, moose, caribou and grizzly before noon he is going to leave with a broken heart. Likewise if he expects to be waited on hand and foot 24 hours a day like the ever-lovin' Queen o' the Nile, things are apt to go sour for him!
Certainly the game taken or not taken is a big factor in determining the quality of the hunt but contrary to what many believe the hunter-guide relationship is a lot more important.
What changed my perspective was a hunt I was involved in Canada's Yukon late one fall. Let's rename the characters to protect the guilty for now. If there are any.
At this time I was serving as horse wrangler in a camp from which two other guides operated. The hunters flew in by float-plane and we got acquainted over supper. This was a "Dad and Son" hunt with a twist. The "Dad" was 78 years old! A retired welder, he had prepared for this hunt by literally running up and down the eight steps of his back porch at least once for every year of his life, no breaks!
The son was a "Doctor of Means" away from his family (he almost never missed a chance to call them on the camp radio) for this special hunt. He wore a four-hundred dollar cowboy hat with a real rattlesnake mounted in the "attack" position on the front. This made a real impression on us all as did the mountain of luggage which accompanied him.
I admit to becoming a leettle resentful when I was told to leave my spare jeans behind so we could pack his gear over to the other camp. It was hard not to compare my want for clothes in late fall with his need for a 110 volt electric razor, all the more considering hydro lines had not been thought of within a hundred miles of any of us!
Both men were jovial and eager to begin the hunt of their lives. It always seems that when new hunters arrive there is a bit of ice that needs breaking. The more experienced man began asking about the equipment we as guides used. The pair were from the deep south and when he drawled, "What kinda sleepin' bags do y'all sleep in?", one of us came back fast:
"Three sep'rate ones." So much for the ice.
The camp boss, "Johnny", and "Roy", the other guide took them out that first day and later that night Johnny pulled me aside and told me to guide The Welder next morning. He was impressed with the man's physical condition but really drove it home that I was to take good care of him, hold his horse at every mounting and dismounting, that kind of thing, if only because of his age. I was eager to oblige.
Next day the four of us, Roy, the hunters, and myself rode off in search of moose. There was some very good moose country an hour or two from camp so we aimed our mounts there, got up on the shoulder of a mountain and began glassing. Around one o'clock Roy noticed a couple of white spots in a spruce grove across the valley. These proved to be the antlers of a fine Yukon bull. "What're we waitin' for?" asked the feisty old man, "Let's get 'im!"
So we crossed the valley on horseback and tied up at a dry lake a half mile from the bull. During the stalk it impressed me that the "old man" wasn't breathing as hard as twenty-three-year-old I was! We made it to the bull but it was standing among four or five cows making a shot from our position impossible. The Welder and The Doctor "argued" about who should shoot the moose. Finally The Welder "won" and son Doctor stalked closer and killed the bull with his .270. Roy and I butchered and caped it, (he wanted everything, even the feet) and we rode back to camp in the dark, glad the horses knew the way, we sure didn't! The yellow glow of the gas lamp in the cook tent, visible from miles away, surely was a welcome sight that night! I knew Roy had wanted the older man to shoot the moose and I think this may have been the start of the rising tide of ill will which later climbed the beach swamping everything in sight!
Next day we moved base camp and hunted awhile from there. The Doctor got a ram in the next few days and Johnny took The Welder out on a flycamping trip.
The outfitter flew in with a letter pertaining to Roy's divorce and from subsequent events I gather it was not good news. From this point on things took a definite turn for the worse. As I attempted to bring the horses closer to camp one rainy day, Roy met me and, yelling at the top of his lungs, chased all the horses away, then screamed unprintables into my face, his visage all red and inflamed and only inches from my own. This was a new experience for me, but only with Roy, and I didn't know quite how to take it.
The snow and wet socked in tighter and hunter and guide opted for the comforts of camp. I mentioned seeing some bear tracks on the trail a quarter mile from camp and The Doctor was intrigued. Roy made some gravelly comments about having to saddle a horse for the little stroll, so The Doctor said to forget the horse, he'd walk. With a curse, Roy tore the uncinched saddle off the horse, and The Doctor decided to drop the whole deal. They each retired to their own quarters in a pair of huffs. Ohh boy, four days remained in the hunt, and I had a hunch, a slight premonition, they would not be blissful, idyllic ones!
The Doctor wanted to hunt with his Dad who was supposedly hunting out of a fly camp one days ride from our base camp, so the next morning we packed horses and pulled out of camp with eight head. Snow lay a foot deep and the mountains were breath-takingly beautiful. I took pictures on the way on the sly to avoid being called a tourist, the worst insult in all the Yukon.
Fresh wolf tracks crisscrossed the trail and once we saw a cow moose and calf. Up on a pass someone had sprinkled fresh fox tracks on the snow. Animals were on the move!
Roy was riding a bit of a tingly horse by the name of Kenny. Suddenly there were hot moose tracks on the trail and the little squirt just refused to step over them. I rode on ahead on Buster and led the string for a few miles. We dropped down into a neighbouring valley with no snow and up along a creek to Johnnys fly camp, arriving just before dark. A small bull moose standing in the lake curiously watched us ride into camp and find no one. By the signs Johnny and The Welder had left that morning for yet another camp. The politics between Roy and The Doctor deteriorated further still when it came to light that Roy hadn't packed the cooking pots. We actually set up two tents that night! In the morning Roy decided to pull camp and take up Johnnys trail. Though he had never been to the other fly camp he was sure we could track them down. We got camp packed up and headed out. I was leading two pack horses halter to tail and anticipating trouble, looped the front horses halter-shank over my saddlehorn. Sure enough, as soon as he felt his halter pull, little Kenny, the squirrely one began to arch his back and buck. This set Ike off and Buster, also skittish, went crazy too, flinging The Doctors .458 from my rifle scabbard. Finally we all settled down and trotted off after the others. The trail was clear but the sky looked like snow. The trail crossed the creek above camp and switchbacked up a very steep hill. Hugo, a gelded appaloosa, was trailing free a bit ahead of our little string. On the steep hillside his pack rolled on his wet back. He started bucking and staggering wildly around above me and Buster, thankfully finally coming to rest against a poplar tree, the clutter of his bulky pack strewn all over the hillside.
After re-packing we carried on up the trail and onto a pass. Here there was snow again and the trail was clear but it was also starting to snow.
I was beginning to lose hope for this project as we had no idea which direction to take should we lose Johnny's trail in the storm. A glance to the right showed a herd of some twenty caribou, with three very shootable bulls. Roy talked The Doctor out of the shot saying that we'd find his Dad and come back so they could each get one.
"Are you sure they'll still be here?" asked The Doctor
"Oh yeah, they'll be here." returned Roy
"Against my better judgement, I'll go along with it then."
Working our way down off the pass into the bush the trail became less and less distinct. From here one had a panoramic view of a vast valley filled with eight-foot tall brush, with two swamps in the middle. Not my favourite kind of country. But the heavier snowfall soon erased this view allowing us to forget what we were riding into.
Another hour or two and the fresh snow had completely buried the tracks of Johnny and The Welder, cutting off our last hope of a comfortable camp that night. It was nearly dark and there was no telling how far we were from the next camp or even what direction it lay in. Time to set up camp. But where? Hardly any burnable bush existed in the valley, just miles and miles of wet alder. But the Great Spirit pitied us or maybe the horses or possibly the whole sopping mess of us and gave us a small valley with some horsefeed in the bottom and a little wood to burn.
We set up our wet tent on a 20 degree hill in the wet snow and took our wet gear inside, though I'm not sure why, it couldn't have gotten much wetter! Somehow we got a fire going and "cooked supper" with our can-openers. Conversation that night was limited mostly to pained silences and strained tensions.
Warm air moved in overnight, melting the snow and sending a deluge of icy water into The Doctors sleeping bag. The horses did, at least, hang around all night. Where could they go? They didn't know the country either.
At "breakfast" next morning I began to feel truly sorry for The Doctor, so far from his family and practise, his now grizzled visage sagging from his facial structure, the rattlesnake clinging feebly to his hat, no longer in the "attack" position, having lost its teeth and succumbed to the rigours of the hunt.
The horses too, had my sympathies that morning as we saddled up for the two day ride home. They were already somewhat run down after two months of hunting on low rations. In addition, our gear was so water-logged it was hard to lift it onto their backs. I took the lead this time and found our backtrail. The sky was still overcast and visibility poor. Kenny went into his traditional bucking fit and succeeded in loosening his pack. It was hard to avoid seeing the humour in all this. Precious little was going right on this hunt.
But we made the pass. The Doctors knee was acting up so the heavy man led his horse but little. The temperature fell, it started to snow and the wind blew good and hard. It was a low point in the trip. Roman-nosed old Hugo, the clown of the string, stopped on the trail and lowered his head to the ground, allowing his wet pack to slide forward over his wet withers. He just stood there on the trail, the pack completely covering his head, shutting out his cruel surroundings. I laughed and groaned at the same time. We re-packed him and slogged on, finding our precious camp a few hours before dark.
As we started setting up for the night, The Doctor spoke. "Roy, let's go on to base camp tonight." Roy gave as many reasons as he could think of why it would be a bad idea but The Doctor wasn't satisfied.
"Roy, if you won't take me, why don't you let Doug?" He turned to me, "I'll pay you."
Here I had to agree with Roy, though. It just didn't make sense to push the horses any farther, especially considering the plane wouldn't arrive until the following day. So we spent another quiet evening in camp. I worked very hard getting fresh wood bucked up with an old swede saw, then splitting it and setting up an old stove in The Doctors tent. I know all this effort on my part irritated Roy. Maybe that's why I did it but I like to think I just wanted to keep things on a somewhat even keel. We were listing much too far to port!
At one point The Doctor cornered me and said, "You know, Doug, I'm worth quite a bit of money and when I get out of here I'm going to spend my last dime making Roy's life miserable." He winked, "I should, anyway." Then he gave me a hundred or two and told me how much he appreciated my help on this trip.
I expressed my regret in the way things were going for him, and meant it.
As Johnny and The Welder had not arrived by morning Roy put two and two together and decided they must have gotten their calendar mixed up. They had been out eight days and should have been in this camp if they were to make it to base camp in time to meet the plane.
Roy left a note on the table in the tent frame for them and we pulled out. A couple of horses were following us in the trail, unpacked, and they were enjoying their freedom. Finally they showed up. I decided to lead them but they wouldn't let me catch them so I rode off, knowing they'd follow anyway. We took a fork in the trail back up to the first pass we'd crossed and waited for them awhile, our mounts panting. Then I tied my saddle horse and went back down the hill for Ike and the fool-headed Kenny. I groaned when I reached the trail and saw the tracks carrying on past the fork we'd taken. Hollering back up the hill, I set off on a dead run through the bush. There was no snow and I had no idea where this pair might be headed. I just followed their tracks as best I could for half a mile or more. Just as I considered getting my horse, I heard the familiar tinkle of Kenny's bell. It had come untied! Encouraged, I tried to work my way around and ahead of them, talking to them in low tones. But paying my pleading no heed, they broke into a gallop on down the little valley. I just didn't need this today! I failed despite my best efforts to cut them off on a sidehill and they plunged across the creek below me. I was pretty played out now but waded in after them. The water was up to my waist and very cold. Another mile and I finally got ahead of these knotheads on a switchback on the trail, caught them, head and tailed them, and led them back to my waiting saddle horse. He was the only one who had waited for me though and I felt the temperature rise within me.
I led these three horses up the hill and mounted up. I was totally soaked from head to foot and there were fifteen miles of snow coated country ahead of me. Buster was very excited about catching up and I had to hold him back a bit so he wouldn't overdo it. I started getting chilly on Airplane pass. Snowflakes drifted down on a northerly breeze. The sparse, gnarled balsam was all frozen wet and I was not the least bit confident in my ability to get a fire going, should I lose my horse. I dismounted and hung onto my nervous pony with one hand while I took off my gumboots and wrung out my socks again. Ice was forming in my boots. (The life of a guide is not always easy.) We carried on at a good pace, Ike and Kenny not feeling as frisky now. Finally I caught up with The Doctor and Roy and let my inner pig-dog out for a bit, letting them know just what I thought of being left behind, this before realizing they Had stopped to wait for me!
We made camp at dusk and clawed the freezing lash ropes off the frozen packs with our numbed fingers, gave the ponies some oats and cooked supper, happy, if only that the trip was over.
By 12:30 we were taking it easy in the cabin and worrying about Johnny and The Welder, when suddenly their jovial voices and the sound of shod hooves on the trail drifted through the plywood wall of the cabin. The Welder, dismounting on his own, remarked with as big a grin as I've ever seen, "Now I know why cowboys walk that way!" I could hardly believe this guy. 78 years old, having endured a fourteen hour ride in frigid weather and coming out "happier'n a gopher in soft dirt."
Puny caribou antlers now rode one of the packhorses, the only animal taken on his hunt of a lifetime. Later in the cabin, he was full of youthful vigour as was his guide. We all had to laugh as they told of their experiences of the last eight days.
When they'd first left base camp they had ridden the eight hours to the fly camp, and Johnny had been worried about the gentleman all the way, constantly asking him if he was all right. All at once, The Welder had hollered ahead, "Are you all right, Johnny?"
Later, Johnny had been packing camp when The Welder asked what he could do to help. Johnny told him the most helpful thing he could do would be to stand over there out of the way.
"Yeah, shut up."
The end result of all this was that the old man went away relaxed and happy with his piddly caribou while his son left miserable despite having bagged a huge bull moose and a good Dall Ram. No doubt The Welder suffered as much or more physical discomfort and insult, yet somehow got much more enjoyment out of his hunt. The difference lay not in what they took home from the hunt but in what they brought to it.