There are few places on earth more alluring to outdoorsmen than the northern half of Canada.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that Canada is the second largest country in the world (only Russia is larger), the federation of Canada is made up of ten provinces and three territories and that the three territories occupy nearly the entire northern sweep of Canada. Bordering Alaska in the north is the Yukon Territory. To the east is Nunavut Territory and in-between lies the Northwest Territories.
I first saw the Northwest Territories (NWT) over a decade ago, on my first Dall sheep hunt, and I fell head over heels in love with the place. The Northwest Territories is a vast sprawl of land – nearly 450,000 square miles ¬¬– with few roads, few people (the human population is just over 41,000) and a treasure-trove of wild places and wildlife. Since that very first sheep hunt, I’ve been back to the NWT to chase additional rams, both Mountain caribou and Central Canada caribou, wolves and even Muskox. The Muskox was hunted on Vitoria Island in the Arctic Ocean, nearly 450 miles above the Arctic Circle.
Just a few weeks ago, I traveled back to the NWT to hunt moose and Mountain caribou.
A big part of the allure of the Northwest Territories is its remoteness. Just getting there is an
adventure…and patience is the watchword for the trip. I began by flying in a commercial jet from Denver, Colorado to Edmonton, Alberta, where I overnighted. Early the next morning, I caught a smaller jet to Yellowknife, the capital of the NWT, and then on to the northern subarctic village of Norman Wells. In Norman Wells, I transferred to a much smaller twin-prop Otter aircraft and flew west across the rugged McKenzie Mountains to a bush airstrip very near on the Yukon border. That strip was literally a creekside clearing on the tundra. There, I met my outfitter - Stan Simpson of Ram Head Outfitters. Stan loaded us up in yet another, smaller bush aircraft and flew us off to his moose-hunting base camp. That camp was located just 150 miles below the Arctic Circle.
Base camp proved to be a small collection of snug plywood and tin cabins situated on a lake in the middle of a broad river valley. All around were miles and miles of stark moose bogs, meandering arctic creeks and rolling ridges. On every horizon sat snowcapped mountains.
To set the mood, I was handed a foam sleeping pad for the hunter’s cabin with a huge set of grizzly bear tracks imprinted on the tan foam. Last spring, the bear that made those tracks nearly destroyed the entire camp, breaking in and ransacking the cabins. The pad was a good reminder to be on my toes at all times in grizzly country. Since only residents of the NWT can hunt the area’s grizzlies, and few do, the bears are often a bit cheeky.
After meeting my guide, downing a hot meal of sheep chili and cornbread, and a very careful repacking of my gear (read throwing out everything I didn’t absolutely need for 3 to 6 days in the bush), I was again loaded into a tiny bush aircraft and whisked away to a distance moose valley. My guide and his gear went in on the first trip to our valley. I went in on the second trip. After three days of traveling and five different aircraft, I was finally going hunting.
We backpacked our gear a relatively short distance from our drop-off point to a round-topped hill where we could look out over much of our brushy moose valley. The camp we quickly set up consisted of two NorthFace Talus tents, sleeping bags, ThermaRest sleeping pads, an MSR backpacking stove, freeze-dried food, what clothing and optics we would need, our rifles and little else.
We positioned our spartan camp just over the crest of the hill. From that strategic position, we’d be able to glass and hopefully locate and evaluate moose without venturing far out into the surrounding terrain and thereby contaminating the region. In such remote reaches, the animals aren’t used to people and so won’t tolerate much, if any, human contact before simply clearing out of the country.
On such spot-and-stalk hunts, I always bring my own spotting scope and tripod, as I’ve found that many of the young far-north hunting guides simply can’t afford the best optics. On this hunt, though, I need not have bothered as my guide proved to be an optics nut. Surprisingly, his binoculars were the exact same as mine - Leica 10x42 Geovid BRFs featuring built-in laser rangefinder. And his spotting scope was the superb Swarovski HD 80mm 20-60 power. Holding up that big spotter was arguably the finest hunting tripod in the world – the Outdoors Medium Tripod with pistol grip head and extra height extension. We were definitely set on optics.
Shortly after camp was set up and organized, a cold drizzle began to fall. Rain and driven snow were to plague us throughout the hunt. In fact, over the entire weep of the next 12 hunting days, I wore my rain gear all but maybe 10 hours. Things were that wet and that cold.
This was a classic spot-and-stalk hunt. We climbed high and glassed as far as we could see, often sitting for hours in the cold drizzle and wind, looking for just the right bull in the moose bogs.
A subarctic moose bog is an amazing place. It’s wet spongy ground, head-high willows and miles and miles of wandering creeks, potholes assorted tangles. One way to describe is to image a huge area blanketed with at least 16 inches of soft foam rubber. Under the foam are scattered countless bowling balls. At least two-thirds of the area is also covered with dog-hair-thick willows that range from four to seven feet tall. Then flood everything with water. That’s a reasonable facsimile of a moose bog.
The long-legged moose plow through their bogs with ease. We sloshed and slugged our way through only with the greatest of effort. Going a mile might take us hours. Actually, I’d guess that a subarctic moose valley is 5 times tougher to transverse that any hard ground hunting area anywhere else, including the high mountains of Colorado. Three miles in a moose bog is like 15 miles in the mountains.
By the end of the first day on our little vantage-point hill, we’d spotted 9 different bull moose and assorted cows. Some were close and many were a long way out. None proved to be what we were looking for.
A few days later, at 7am in the morning, we finally spotted two bull moose that looked promising. The only problem was that they were a LONG way away. Later, we’d discover - by using my GPS - that they were exactly 3.6 miles from our hilltop camp. That’s really too far in a moose bog.
We talked it over, slowly talked ourselves into throwing logic out the window, and started hiking. Five exhausting hours and three creek crossings later we were within 1,000 yards of where we’d seen the bulls. They’d been fighting over a cow and we hoped they’d still be around.
After a tense thirty minutes, we finally spotted the biggest of the two – just the tip of white palms above the gray willows 800 yards to our right. He’d moved a bit, but not much. The smaller bull was nowhere to be seen. Maybe the bigger bull had driven him out of the country.
With the guide manning the spotting scope, I circled far out to the right to get the wind in my face. Then I began to move in. It was slow going and tough to be quiet in the flooded marsh and thick willows.
At 200 yards, I slowed down even more. At 100 yards, he heard something, stood up and began walking toward me to investigate. With almost every step he would grunt and rake the willows with his antlers. I was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea. This bull had already whipped a lesser bull and now he was closing in on me.
As he hit about the 85-yard mark, I found a narrow hole in the willows and was finally able to plant my scope’s crosshairs on his chest. The safety snicked off as he turned broadside. I squeezed the trigger. Boom!
I’d thought long and hard about my choice of a rifle for this trip, and had settled on a lightweight Remington M700 Alaskan Ti in .300 WSM. With Talley mounts and Leupold VX-III 2.5-8 scope, the setup weighed just 6 pounds 15 ounces and proved ideal in the moose bogs. Tough, accurate 180-grain Barnes TSX bullets completed the rig.
The Barnes bullet hit the bull’s shoulder with a resounding whack and staggered him. He wallowed 15 yards or so before I located another opening in the brush and walloped him again, dropping him on the spot. Damn he was big!
It’s hard to put into words just how big a really big NWT moose is. But to get an idea, I carefully took some measurements. From the bottom of his front hoof to the top of his front shoulder measured 85 inches. That’s over seven feet! And that’s just to the top of his back. That measurement doesn’t include his head and antlers. From nose to tail he measured 115 inches, or nearly ten feet. A big moose is really big.
For the next five hours, my able guide and I worked nonstop on that bull, caping out his head and boning out and salvaging every scrap of edible meat, even including the meat between his massive ribs. Then we moved the meat to a nearby ridgetop clearing that we enhanced with much willow-cutting into a landing strip for the outfitter’s bush aircraft. When that was finally finished, we started back to our little, backpack camp, which lay 5 long hours across the moose bog and up the hill. As we began that long slog, it started to once again rain.
I should have been ecstatic when our two little tents finally loomed up out of the inky blackness and drizzle, but I was far too exhausted for that. By then, it had been raining for hours, we were soaked to the skin, were suffering the early signs of hypothermia and it was nearly two in the morning. We quickly heated and wolfed down some hot chocolate, took a handful of Advil tablets, stripped off our wet clothes and collapsed into our tents and sleeping bags. It had been a long but very good day. We’d worked very hard and taken a good moose.
Just as the trip up to the NWT takes patience, hunting that far north is best accomplished with even more patience, particularly when it comes to the region’s unpredictable fall weather. The very next morning, we awoke to snow.
After a hot breakfast of oatmeal and tea, we used the guide’s satellite phone to call the base camp, informing them of our success and requesting a pickup. We got congratulations and a promise to fly when the weather cleared.
The weather didn’t clear for two days, days that we mostly spent on our sleeping bags to stay warm as rain, driven snow, fog and high winds buffeted our little camp. I read one paperback book, started another, made notes and tried to be patient. North Face claims its Talus tents are two-man tents. Bull! Not in the NWT territory with wet hunting gear and a storm raging. The guide and I each had a Talus tent set up. That tent’s footprint is about 80 inches long, is tapered at both ends and measures just 50 inches wide in the middle. Stuff in a ThermaRest pad, sleeping bag, a small duffle bag containing a few extra items, a wet pack, wet boots, wet rifle, wet clothes and one working-hard-at-being-a-patient hunter, and it’s a decidedly a cold, damp ONE-man shelter.
When the weather did finally break, the outfitter flew in, grabbed the moose meat, cape and antlers first, then plucked us off the hilltop. We spent a warm, restful, drying-out day in base camp, then planned our assault on Mountain caribou.
Whereas the NWT’s moose are primarily hunted in the willow-choked river valleys, the caribou are hunted in the foothills leading up to the sheep mountains. The elevation in those foothills is higher, meaningful vegetation is very sparse and the terrain shockingly open. The caribou like it that way.
I’ve always liked caribou hunting. I like the glass-for-mile caribou country, the occasional sightings of moving bands of caribou and the fact that big caribou bulls have more antler mass per body weight of any animal on earth. As a bit of background, there are five types of commonly hunted caribou – the Barren Ground Caribou of Alaska, the Mountain Caribou of British Columbia, the Yukon and the NWT, the Central Canada caribou of eastern NWT, the Quebec/Labrador caribou of northern Quebec and the Woodland caribou of Newfoundland. I’ve hunted then all, but the Mountain caribou may be my favorite. Mostly that’s because of their coloration, typical remoteness and the fact that they are, well, found essentially in the mountains and foothills.
We flew deep into the foothills, landed on a rocky ridge and again set up our two little tents. The view from camp was expansive.
Just before we landed, we spotted a grizzly sow with her cub scampering off our ridge. We didn’t think too much off it until after the aircraft had left, but then we discovered that our ridge was populated by parka squirrels and that the bears than been busy digging out those ground squirrels all along the ridgetop. Many of the diggings were just hours old. We set up our tents with loaded rifles close at hand.
The very next morning, we awoke to a cold biting wind and scudding gray clouds. While the wind made glassing a chore, by evening we had located several bands of distance caribou but no really big bulls. That continued for several days - long hours of glassing and much hiking along the ridgetops and up and over the high passes.
Then things happened quickly. “There’s a big bull,” my guide said. We were glassing a distant basin from a cold and windy pass. “He’s interesting. Let’s set up the spotting scope and take a better look.”
Even with the big Swarovski set on 60 power, it was hard to tell. He was that far away. Through the spotting scope we could see the fuzziness of what appeared to be tall main beams and a blur that was his bez and shovel area. The bull was bedded on the open tundra with a six cows.
Even though we’d have to lose all the elevation we’d gained by climbing up to that high pass, we decided that we’d simply must get a closer look at this bull. I’m glad we did.
After packing up the scope and tripod, we bailed off the ridge and struck out for the far basin. After our trial in the moose bog, the hike seemed like a breeze even though it was over fairly rough ground. A hour later we were within 500 yards of the bull and had the spotting scope set up again.
At that distance, it was clear in the spotting scope that he was a superb bull – tall, wide, good tops, impressive bez and shovel, and an old-man white cape. He was everything a first-rate Mountain caribou should be.
“Let’s try to take him,” I whispered.
The guide dumped his pack and spotting scope, and we began to crawl forward, using every available dip and swell in the terrain to close the distance. At 400 yards, things were still looking good and the caribou remained bedded. At 350 yards, a cow stood, but seemed not to see us as we hugged the open tundra and she fed.
When we finally ran out of all cover, my Leica binocular/rangefinder said 285 yard. I slipped out of my Kifaru pack and double-checked the distance by raising up just high enough to get an accurate reading.
I set up for the shot. More of the cows stood and started feeding. Then the bull stood, turned and started walking straight away. Oh no! Don’t do that.
But at exactly 302 yards, he turned and posed broadside. I was ready. Shooting from prone, off of my Kifaru Late Season pack, is my all-time favorite field-shooting position. In this case, I knew the exact distance and my crosshairs were rock steady. For the past few years, I been using Leupold rifle scopes equipped with Leupold’s Boone and Crockett Big Game Reticle System. With that system, you sight-in the main crosshair intersection for 200 yards, and then use the additional B&C marks on the vertical wire below the main crosshairs for 300, 400, 450 and 500 yards. I’d practiced throughout the summer with the 300- and 400-yards marks and found them to be dead on.
As the bull paused broadside, I placed the 300-yard mark in the scope on the center of his chest and crushed the trigger.
At the shot, the bull stumbled but didn’t go down. “He’s well hit, but shoot him again,” said the guide. I obliged and the second shot flattened him. Both hits were centered on his chest and just inches apart.
Most big-game trophies seem to get smaller as you approach. This bull got bigger. He really was an outstanding Mountain caribou.
He had it all, with 50-inch main beams, strong tops, imposing bez points, broad shovel, back points and he was also uncharacteristically wide for a Mountain caribou. His inside spread measured a remarkable 43 inches. It was clearly another good day in the NWT.
Over the next two hours, we caped and boned the bull for transport, then set out. It was 2.5 up-and-down miles back to our little camp. As we neared our tents late in the day, we pulled up short to watch three grizzly bears on a second ridge just a half mile from our camp. Our tents are the two white dots just above the spotting scope and the little lake in the following photo. My guide is trying to take a photo of the largest of the bears through his spotting scope.
Fortunately, we passed an uneventful night in camp. Where all the bears went, I don’t know, but they didn’t come our way. Still, we kept our rifles close.
By morning, another storm had descended upon on. Big surprise. At dawn, the wind blew fiercely, rattling our lightweight tents and the rain turned to snow. When we finally crawled out of our sleeping bags and braved the weather, here’s what we faced.
And continued to face for the next two-plus days. Again, the outfitter couldn’t fly, and again we spent two days in our tents and sleeping bags, cooling out heels and trying to be patient. With a good moose and caribou down, though, the rest was almost welcome.
Back in base camp a few days later, we finalized work on the capes and antlers, caught buckets of grayling and lake trout in the nearby streams and lakes, and walked the creek banks looking for wolves. All too soon, the hunt came to an end.
The Northwest Territories is special. It’s very remote, wild and rugged. If you’ve got the patience to deal with the terrain and the weather, it can be an extraordinary place to visit and hunt. I can’t wait to go back.
EQUIPMENT NOTES (for those who may be interested)
As mentioned above, I choose a Remington M700 Alaskan in .300 WSM for this hunt. That pick proved excellent. The cartridge offered plenty of power for moose and a flat trajectory for caribou. The lightweight rifle also handled the wet weather and the constant bumps and knocks of the hunt very well. This is a very impressive rifle.
The Federal factory ammunition I used, loaded with 180-grain Barnes TSX bullets, performed flawlessly. The first shot on my moose punched straight through his on-side shoulder and I found the bullet up against the hide on his opposite shoulder. My knife clicked against it when I caped him. It had mushroomed perfectly and retained 179 grains.
As is often stated, the clothing key for such hunts is to dress in layers. For me, a synthetic base layer started things out, as did Smartwool socks and liners. When the temperature dipped, I added an
insulated polypro zip-neck top from REI. Topping that was typically a Cabela’s Microtex shirt and pants. Microtex is amazing stuff. It light, quiet, warm and dries with amazing quickness. Over that, on cool days, I wore a Cabela’s Berber Fleece Jacket with WindShear. When extra warmth and rain and snow protection was needed, I slipped into Cabela’s MT050 raingear.
To deal with the constantly wet tundra, occasional creek crossings and rough country, I used Cabela’s Meindl Canadian leather boots and Kenetrek gators, and never once had a wet toe.
Two digital cameras were utilized – a Canon G9 that rode in my pack and a smaller Canon SD750 that was constantly in my shirt pocket.
And, of course, my pack was a Kifaru Late Season, which proved ideal for this far-flung hunt. It rode comfortable and carried everything from rain gear to moose meat. Its GunBearer System proved just the ticket for keeping my rifle instantly ready in grizzly country. Another hunter in base camp strapped his rifle to the side of his pack for a trek across a moose bog, came face to face with a momma grizzly with cub, and his unarmed guide jerked the hunter right off his feet trying to un-strap the rifle. Fortunately, the bear broke off her charge at 10 feet. The guide swears he’ll never go gunless again, and the hunter will likely be calling Kifaru after inspecting my Late Season pack with GunBearer System