Sunday, 4 October 2015

Feeding Your Family by Hunting Discussion

     I received a package from North Pole, Alaska today. I opened it up to find two precious pints of home-grown honey with a thank you note enclosed. This package was not from Santa, rather, a fellow named Eric. Here is how it came to me.

     We cross the Yukon River on the ferry at Dawson City early in the morning headed toward Tok, Alaska via The Top of the World Highway in the Yukon and the Taylor Highway once in Alaska. It is mid-September and this highway will soon close due to winter arriving in the high country. Autumn colours are brilliant and there is little traffic on this high mountain road. Once in Alaska, we decide to drive slowly toward Eagle, AK. To see what the country looks like. We are met by several vehicles, obviously hunters and we wonder what they are hunting for. I stop behind a fellow who has just loaded a bull caribou onto his trailer and we chat. “It is caribou hunting season,” he explains. This hunter is from around Anchorage and is here to fill his tag with one of the “Forty Mile” herd of barren ground caribou. He is excited to have made his harvest to provide meat for his family.

Forty Mile Caribou Bull
     I find out later that the Forty Mile caribou herd has about 50,000 members and migrates across this section of the Taylor Highway annually at this time of year. Alaska game managers are allowing 340 bull caribou to be harvested in this region. My guests are not too happy about this hunt as we are all on a photo safari and hoping to get some great shots of caribou. This is the emotional conflict between hunters and environmentalists we are all part of in this modern day.

       Do we agree with hunting for subsistence or trophies or not?

      It really doesn’t matter what we think, this hunt will go on and we will have to work with or around it. We will have to be very careful that we do not cause any conflicts and that we do not get mistaken for a caribou. As we continue our drive I pause often to talk to hunters walking the road or sitting watchfully for game. We try to be respectful and understanding of their hunt.

Distant Caribou Herd
    I spot a herd of about 30 caribou making their way up an open hillside and think we may be able to intercept them from the other side. As we drive up the road we see that a hunter has also spotted this herd and is preparing his stalk on our herd. We find the right place to begin our stalk and with cameras loaded we begin our stalk that I estimate to be about half a mile up hill. We struggle up the hill and start hearing rifle shots when only half way to our expected interception point. We count at least ten shots before all is silent and we are near the ridge line. I spot a hunter, rifle slung on his shoulder so we continue our advance. He has a caribou down and is examining it as we approach. “How many did you get,” I ask with a smile on my face.

     “Only one,” he smiles back sheepishly. “Pretty bad shooting on my part. I was running up this ridge and breathing pretty hard so had a hard time getting this bull. I sure am happy now though, I have meat for my family.” We chat for a while and explain what we are doing. “I am real sorry that I interrupted your chance at getting photos of this bull,” he apologized. “I sure hope my buddies come up and give me a hand to get this caribou down to the road,” he smiles wistfully. “I have my work cut out for me now but it is worth it.”

     We leave the hunter to his work and make our way along the ridge line to where I finally spot what I think is the remains of the herd we were stalking. They are a good mile ahead of us across a valley and making their way up another ridge. We sit down to enjoy the spectacular scenery and watch how effortlessly the caribou make their way through the timber and up the hill. It is a good spot to sit and marvel at the size of this country and how small we are.

Chicken Mascot
     As we continue our drive south toward the small settlement of Chicken we discuss the pros and cons of hunting. My guests are wealthy men from big city China and have never hunted or gathered for their families. They have never had the opportunity or need. Neither had their ancestors. These men have ideals of where they get their meat; from the butcher down the street. They are also noticing the equipment that the hunters are using. 4x4 trucks worth more than $50,000.00 towing enclosed trailers containing ATV’s as well as the guns and miscellaneous gear worth probably in excess of $100,000.00 totally. “If you have that kind of money, you probably don’t have to hunt for your food,” my skeptical guests note. They do have a point there.

     What they don’t understand is the age old quest and tradition of man providing for his family through his hunting skill and matching wits with the game. My guests suggest that, “it does not seem fair to hunt using all this expensive equipment and high powered rifles. They see that the challenges might be equalized if they used a bow and arrows where they would have to get very close to their quarry.”  I have to agree with them on this and try to explain how bow hunting might work with caribou.

     Of course, the gun ownership debate comes up. They do not understand the right or desire to bear arms in the USA or Canada. In China, they are not allowed weapons of any kind. One of my friends find a couple of cartridge cases and asked me if it would be okay to take them. I said to go ahead. One of his friends said, “No, you can’t take it home. They will confiscate it from you.” He goes on to explain, “The authorities may think that he is trying to build a weapon and the empty cartridge case will make it easier for him to do so.”

     We see several caribou and moose being hauled out in the backs of pickup trucks and trailers, antlers proudly mounted prominently on the tops of their loads. Most of the kills we see are well taken care of. We do see some hides and gut piles left beside campsites and in ditches, abandoned to the wild scavengers.

      “Is there no requirement to use these skins?” the photographers query. I explain that the only requirement is that the hunters salvage all edible meat but they do not have to keep the skin. This seems to them to be wasteful, especially to one who had just purchased about $700.00 worth of tanned fox skins to take home for decoration. This very intelligent man does not see the hunting/trapping connection to his purchase of wild fox skins that have been trapped in this wilderness and sold to him through a couple of middlemen. The trapper also used his skills to harvest these fox skins to help provide for his family. He wonders if foxes are raised on a farm as if that would make the fox’s life-sacrifice any different or humane. I do allow that the farmed fox death may be more humane than the wild trapped one but the death of the fox is inevitable in either case.

Ptarmigan Changing Colour
     The next day we return to the Chicken region to try for caribou photos. (Chicken got its name because nobody could spell Ptarmigan, the bird found most commonly in this region). We find a spot that caribou seemed to wander through and where we had a great spot to sit still and watch from. Hunters drive past continuously and some even stop to visit us. Two of my guests have wandered down the road while another sits patiently for a stag to appear in front of him. I am talking to a pair of hunters about their success. “My wife got her first caribou yesterday,” the husband proudly boasted. “She made a great shot,” he beamed as she sat there modestly trying to hide her pleasure. “We are now trying to get a moose. That would give us all the meat we will need for the year.” He explained. This couple did not have expensive equipment, rather, rode double on an older quad towing a homemade trailer.

Caribou Stampede
      As we chat I am watching the ridge across from us in time to see the most memorable sight of the trip. Down the ridge, through the scattered black spruce timber tumbled a large herd of caribou. Close to a hundred animals poured down the hill, across the small river and up onto our side and out of sight. I rush down to gather my lone guest in hopes of intercepting the herd before they all disappear. He has not seen them yet but thankfully he gathered himself and gear into the car without argument. He is as amazed as I am to this spectacle.  Another car has intercepted the herd as we arrived at the road crossing and the caribou are milling about, somewhat confused. Several more have paused in the timber above us and they soon begin to backtrack. We retreat to our parking place to watch. We get settled just as a hunter comes around the corner and spots the herd about 300 yards up the hill. He stops and quickly gets out with his rifle. I watch as he takes aim over the roof of his older Ford pickup. At his shot, I see a bull go down. The hunter is watchful and sees the caribou struggle back to his feet. He shoots a second time and the solid hit can be heard from our vantage point. This time the bull stays down. I quietly monitor the bull and the hunter as he makes his way up through the timber trying to find where his animal went down. They are very close together and the bull hears the hunter and struggles back to his feet. The hunter hears him and soon the final shot echoes over the valley. I watch as he carefully examines his animal. After about half an hour I watch as he struggles down the hill with the hind quarters slung over his shoulder. That is quite a load he has and I have to admire his strength. I meet him as he splashes across the river with his load. He is very happy and says, “Now I don’t have to tell my wife I am coming home empty handed. We have meat. She’ll be happy.” He proudly exclaims. “My name is Eric and I live at North Pole and work part-time and part-time in the military. We have six kids and my daughter was supposed to be here today but her friend is moving south so she wanted to spend time together. We can sure use this caribou,” he states. I shake his hand and tell him my name and mission.

     “Can you use a hand to get the front half out of the bush?” I ask him. He looks at me like I am crazy but shrugs and happily accepts my offer of help. I can hardly keep up to him as we climb the steep hill through the shin-tangle to his kill. The caribou has a great rack and will make for a nice trophy to remind him of this hunt.
     He has used a reciprocating saw to help with the butchering. “It works great he says and is not too heavy to pack.” He explains that he learned about it while helping out with road-kill collection which he also volunteers at. “It is very easy to use to quarter an animal like a moose to make it easy to load or to butcher. We use it all the time,” he tells me.
     Eric shoulders his rifle and I take the saw as we each grab hold of an antler. Good thing it is downhill but we struggle with the brush and hidden gullies for half an hour before we have the carcass at the river’s edge. Eric goes to get his old quad and we soon have the quad, caribou and gear tied down in his pickup. We shake hands and I offer him a business card as he thanks me profusely for the help. “I’ll send you some of my home raised honey for your help. I surely do appreciate it. You saved me a lot of work and time. I can send honey to Canada,” he tells me.

Barren Ground Caribou Bull with his Herd
     Lately, I have been waffling, riding the fence on the hunting debate. I don’t hunt any more but was raised on wild meat and did hunt for a few years to help feed my own family. I know the thrill and challenges of the hunt and enjoyed it for years. Hunting was a big part of our family culture. Meat hunting slowly evolved into trophy hunting through the natural competition that men get into by comparing antler sizes of their kills. Even the large antlered animals were used as meat but we refused to hunt once the rut was on for the deer and moose we desired. Even though the large antlered trophy game is easier to get when they lose their survival minds to a sweetheart, their meat is tainted and inedible while rutting. I think these experiences with the hunters we met on out Yukon and Alaska tour have reminded me and rekindled my understanding of hunting.

     Trophy hunting for carnivores such as bears and the big cats is something I still do not agree with. I do not see the need to kill a large bear, for instance, just to prove how tough you are. This testosterone fuelled desire to demonstrate to the world that you have total dominance over the world’s great predators is one of the personality traits I once had that I am not very proud of. I know of many other men who also enjoyed these hunts who have now come to understand, after time, the fragility of life and Mother Nature’s requirement for the big predators and in their role as habitat managers. Just because we have moved in and crowded out the wildlife does not give us the right to rid the world of the natural predators. We cannot do as good a job as they can.

Cow Moose with Calf
     Some people still need or like to hunt to help feed their families and I hope that they will be able to continue to enjoy the hunt and pass their skills on to their next generation.

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