I really had no intention of walking right into the middle of the herd. There was no stalk, no stealth and I didn’t even have my camera. Then, much to my surprise, and to theirs, we were all standing on top of the ridge together, sunshine glittering off the thin snow and frozen tussocks. I felt for a moment like I was part of the herd. There were 60 animals in the group. Mostly it was big bulls, racks heavy and stomachs empty, too engrossed in the rut to bother with eating. The cows were less preoccupied and more wary of me standing 80 feet away but none of the animals ran.
Bill and I flew into the Baird Mountains this October courtesy of Arctic Backcountry Flying (Thanks Eric). We wanted to scout some new country in the Western Brooks Range and wanted to see if we could find some big groups of caribou in the rut. We spent a comfortable week camped in a wood-heated tent and watched caribou bulls chasing cows. Mild temperatures and scant snow reminded me of late September but the 10 am dawn and rutting bulls with thick winter coats told us that November was not far off. Each night the river would drop another 8 inches and the ice in the shallows grew ever thicker. Freeze-up might be a month late this year, but the lack of migratory birds and the long nights made winter feel right around the corner.
I’d left camp, hiking alone just after a decadent lunch and I wanted to see the small limestone valley just east of our camp. We had seen a good size herd in that direction when we flew in a couple days earlier and Bill had seen several bands in the creek bottom on the previous day. Emerging from the open spruce woods along the flood plain and gaining the open tundra I passed 3 snow-free circles where we had spooked the resident wolves from their beds earlier in the day and I wondered how the big black one with the bad limp was faring. Walking on frozen tussocks isn’t much better that stumbling through them in the heat of summer but I plodded on, enjoying the views. When I reached the small creek I again wished I’d brought my rubber boots rather than my winter packs, but ever curious I waded the icy water and headed up the small rocky ridge cursing my wet socks and climate change. The caribou were now in sight and I could see bulls sniffing at the cows and pushing them around with their massive shoulders. We had been watching caribou for several days and most of the groups had run when I got anywhere near. Earlier in the day Bill and I had frightened a small band at more than a 1/4 mile despite what we thought was a stealthful approach.
After that experience I decided to walk directly towards the group head-on and figured I would stop when they started to get scared. But they never did panic. Some of the cows looked nervous as I got to 200 feet, but the bulls continued to round them up and keep them relatively calm. I inched closer and their movements brought them closer to me. Fear, curiosity, and hormone-induced insanity kept them on top of our ridge, hooves clicking on frozen stone. Wide eyes and white tails pranced in a circle all around me. Bulls held their heads low, nudging the cows together. The females edged away and then second guessing, walked back around to get a better look at me. The tempo steadily increased and in time the herd was swirling around me like the climax scene in the movie Never Cry Wolf (except that I was fully clothed). Eventually the excitement was too much and the caribou trotted off, cows in the lead, heading deeper into the Baird Mountains.
I, giddy from the encounter, walked back towards camp; a perfect ending to a wonderful season in the Arctic.
By Michael Wald. Co-owner and guide.