yukonterritoryit00cana-28

Caribou

By

When you come to my house and eat the caribou stew I’ve made, I want you to feel the rifle heavy as lead in the grip of my hands, the shiny brass bullet between my fingers, and how smoothly the bullet slid into the chamber. I want you to feel how fast my heart beat as I crept a little closer and flicked the safety to “fire.” I want you to understand how sure I was that I was going to shoot that animal and how overwhelmingly awful I felt five seconds before the shot, when I knew I couldn’t miss.

You may wonder how a suburban East Coast girl arrived at a point in her life where she was pulling herself uphill through head-high grasses and belly-crawling around rocky outcrops to stalk, and hopefully shoot, a caribou. It would be fair for you to ask what I was doing hunting caribou, anyway. Maybe I was unpacking some of the luggage I’d brought to Alaska—not the backpack and the duffle bag, but the pile of strongly held beliefs that I’d lugged up here as well. One of those beliefs was the assertion that it was wrong to hunt. How could anyone kill something as beautiful as a caribou? That’s what my mom told me when I told her I was going to learn to hunt.

“I just can’t imagine you…doing that,” she said on the phone, and I wondered if she was right, if I wouldn’t get more out of simply observing the caribou and leaving, so that others could do the same. I want you to know that during that moment when I knew I couldn’t miss, that shooting that caribou was, in my mind, exactly what I wanted to be doing.

Perhaps it was curiosity. An acquaintance brought freshly killed moose to a potluck. The following year more friends began showing up to gatherings wielding not only freshly caught salmon, a staple of Alaskan diets, but moose, caribou, and sheep. When my friend Matt Rafferty, a fellow nature lover and adventurer, started hunting, I started to wonder if I had the gall to try it too. Like me, Matt was from the suburban East Coast where we tended to associate hunting with rednecks and Bud Light. Matt worked for a nonprofit environmental group, hosted a bluegrass show on Alaska public radio, and campaigned for progressive political candidates. Big game hunting seemed like an odd addition to his liberal-leaning pursuits. Which made me wonder: Was hunting part of the range of experiences I hoped to collect here, too?

Despite thirty years of East Coast indoctrination, Alaska would change Matt’s opinion. And Matt would change mine. He extolled to me the virtues of hunting: knowing where your food is coming from; taking responsibility for your decision to eat meat; challenging yourself to face something as natural and universal as death more closely than you ever have; cultivating gratitude toward your food; being able to eat hormone-free, antibiotic-free, free-ranging meat; and, throughout the year, being able to share delicious, nourishing food with friends and family.

I began to wonder if I was capable of hunting. Could I bring myself to look a living creature in the eye and kill it? I decided I wanted to try. I decided to challenge my own idea of who I was. I began to implement a plan to hunt, knowing that I could, and would, stop if at any moment in the process I felt uncomfortable. I applied for a number of hunting permits for hunts close to home. A person has to get extraordinarily lucky in the lottery administered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to draw a permit for one of the prime hunts close to Anchorage, the preferred hunting grounds of the area’s 300,000 residents.

Matt called me the moment the names were released: I’d drawn a permit for the Kenai caribou hunt, a challenging but much sought-after hunt just two hours from my house. “You should know,” he told me, “that out of the 235 drawing permits issued for that hunt last year, only seventeen got an animal. Don’t let that discourage you. It’s not because the caribou aren’t there. They’re just hard to get to.”

We aligned our calendars and circled a long weekend in August.

Matt let me borrow his rifle, a 30.6 he’d bought used from his own hunting mentor. He took me to the shooting range and showed me how to position the butt against my shoulder. I had never held a gun before, much less felt the recoil of a powerful rifle. I held the rifle tightly and braced for the kick. Once I knew what to expect, it was manageable. We shot for about an hour. I consistently hit the bull’s eye at 100 yards. “Nice job, A!” he said. “You’re a great shot.”

I grinned.

“Now that you know you can do it, don’t practice again. Don’t wreck your confidence by practicing.”

“Okay,” I put the rifle down and looked at him. “But how will I know what to aim for when we’re out there?” I asked.

“Look on the Internet,” he said. “Search for photos of kill zones on caribou and elk. It’s funny, but now every time I’m out hiking and see an animal, I zero right in on where I’d shoot it.”

I shook my head in mock disbelief. “Who are you?” I said, smiling.

***

In mid-August, I met Matt after work. He showed me the knives and game bags he’d brought and gave me a huge hug. “This is so excitin’!” he shouted in his fake Southern accent. “We goin’ huntin’!”

We drove two hours to the community of Hope and camped near the trailhead. The next morning, we bushwhacked up through overgrown swamp, a tangle of spruce trees, and fireweed stalks higher than our heads toward a spot we had scouted a couple weekends before. As we approached treeline, Matt suggested I walk in front and carry the rifle just in case. I pushed through the giant fireweed stalks and emerged into a clearing. I slowly, quietly stepped over blueberry bushes and climbed up toward the first rocky point on the ridge. As I came over a little rise, I froze. There was something brown and moving. A caribou! But I was too close; if I moved, it would see me and run away. As I slowly knelt down, the caribou looked up and bolted. I ran back toward Matt, “There’s a caribou! I don’t know if it’s big enough. I was so close!”

“That’s unbelievable!” he said enthusiastically. Neither of us had expected to see one until we were much deeper into the mountains.

We hiked along the ridge until the caribou came into view again.

“It’s not huge, but it’s plenty big to shoot,” said Matt. He looked around trying to figure out how we could sneak up on it now that it knew we were in pursuit.

I want you to understand that we stalked that bull for hours up the steep ridge, along grassy knolls and around fins of rock. I want you to feel the adrenaline that I felt as I was pursuing this animal, how I felt like a kid clawing over rocks and ducking under bushes. How fun that was, how completely exhilarating, until I got close enough to shoot it and knelt down. I want you to feel what I felt then: crusty black- and mint-colored lichens crinkling under my knees, my hip pressing into a sharp rock, the loaded gun resting in the groove between rock and tundra. I want you to understand how beautiful that place was: purple monkshood, a tinge of red on the lupine leaves, sunshine on my forearms, a gentle breeze smelling like pure clean air sweeping across an immense green valley to my left, a wild caribou beside a band of rocks.

I looked through the scope of the rifle and lined the crosshairs on the caribou. Before I could take a steadying breath, the bull stepped forward and lay down behind a fin of rock. Through the scope, all I could see was the tip of one antler. I knew that when it stood, I would be in position to shoot it. I flicked the safety “off.” Matt shimmied up beside me, crouched behind the rock. We waited. Matt held the caribou in view with his binoculars. I breathed and waited, wondering if the caribou had just sat down for a moment or if it was in for a solid afternoon nap.

Next to us a ptarmigan clucked and dashed toward a rock. We looked up. A hawk circled the still air above our heads and dove down toward the bird. The ptarmigan scampered beneath a mottled rock and nervously looked for better protection. I whispered to Matt that I couldn’t believe they were doing this within ten yards of us, as if they didn’t know we were there. If the hawk swept down and grabbed the ptarmigan, I was sure we’d hear talons closing around downy feathers and fragile bones crunching. The hawk continued to circle, but we didn’t have time to watch. The caribou stood, broadside and motionless. A wave of panic washed over me. This was my moment.

“I’m going to shoot it,” I whispered to Matt. “Should I shoot it? I’m going to shoot it. Oh my god.”

I pressed the butt of the rifle into my shoulder, aimed the crosshairs at the lungs, held my breath, and gently pulled the trigger.

I want you to understand the incongruence of what happened next: a gun firing, like thunder in your chest, deep, cracking. The noise wrecking the peace of the mountains. The caribou flicking its head twice, as if trying to dislodge a fly from its nose, before staggering backward and down. I was completely out of breath the second I stood and tried to run to the animal.

When you bring that first bite to your mouth, I want you to feel how warm that caribou was in the August sun, lying in a rock-filled gully, his tongue sliding out the side of his mouth, light red foam frothing around his lips. How soft and beautiful the young bull was that day—vibrant, feisty, pulsing with energy. It was still pulsing there on the rocks when I ran over to it and knelt beside the fallen animal. Blood sputtered up from the hole through his lungs and speckled his gray-brown fur with tiny pricks of bright red blood. I smeared the blood along his neck as I pet him, crying over and over, “You’re so beautiful. I’m sorry I killed you.” Probably a dozen times I said that. With the back of my hand I wiped the tears from my cheek.

I just want you to know that when I tried to close the caribou’s eyes, those liquid glassy eyes, they wouldn’t shut, as if he still wanted another look around. I want you to know that when I looked around, I felt as if something were missing, and I realized what was missing was the wild creature I just killed, and I thought I would almost enjoy seeing the caribou alive here more than I would taking its meat home on my back. And something else told me to endure that feeling, because the power of connecting this strongly with the natural world and the pride of procuring my own food might be worth it.

Matt gave me some time alone with the caribou, to make peace with what I’d done. He eventually hiked over, rested both of our backpacks on the ground, and admired the shot. “Right through the lungs,” he said. “Just like we talked about.”

We sat quietly with the caribou, and I said a silent prayer thanking the animal. I took photos of the caribou because to me, it was still beautiful, and I loved it. Yes, I loved the caribou. I had never experienced such a connection to a wild creature. I was filled with gratitude and respect for it. I had no interest in standing over it with my rifle and posing for a traditional hunter photo. I hadn’t conquered it. I loved it, and I had killed it. That’s a strange thing to reconcile.

The sun was beating down. We were high up on the ridge and out of water. We needed to get to work. Matt showed me how to cut the hide away from the meat, release the stomach cavity, and field dress it. We put the four quarters in separate game bags and cut off the meat around the ribs and neck. The work took hours. It was getting hotter. We had no water to wash the drying blood off our hands and arms. We nibbled salty nuts and swallowed dryly.

The meat was heavier than I imagined. Matt, who took the bulk of the load, carried 100 pounds. A hike that would normally take two hours took six that day. We hiked across steep fields of rocks. We balanced on a sharp rocky ridge and teetered under the crushing loads. Sometimes we stopped and rested after only ten minutes of walking, rolling each other over with our packs on to stand up again. We bushwhacked through tall grass and climbed over logs. It was nearly 11:00 pm and dark when we reached the parking lot. When we loaded the game bags into the back of Matt’s truck, the meat was still radiating heat, the energy of the animal refusing to die down. Exhausted and parched, I remember thinking that this level of exhaustion and discomfort was a small price to pay. Still, I want you to know that it wasn’t easy.

On the drive home, Matt turned to me and said, “Think of all the caribou crock pot meals you’re going to be able to make!”

I thought of the gatherings we frequently hosted and how pleased I would feel to provide the centerpiece to the meal. I thought, too, about the countless dinners my husband and I would share throughout the year, thanks to this caribou.

Just as I was feeling puffed up, Matt chuckled. “A,” he said, “You’re a killer.”

His words felt like an accusation until I turned to see his sincere smile. He was clearly proud of me and proud of himself for the hand he’d played in initiating me.

As Matt drove into the night, a quiet exhaustion settled over me. I stared out the window. A killer? Was that something I wanted to be?

I leaned against the door and rested my head in the palm of my hand. Staring at the empty highway, I contemplated all that had transpired in the last twenty-four hours. Had I really just intentionally killed a creature? What was this strange satisfaction I felt?

In a soft voice, Matt interrupted the silence and asked if I recalled watching the hawk and ptarmigan. The image was vivid in my mind: the ptarmigan’s nervous scampering, the sunlit wings of the hawk, its eyes following the ptarmigan’s every twitch. The hunt, the chase, the dance of predator and prey playing out before us.

Matt looked at me with a crooked smile. “I’m curious,” he asked, “when we were watching them, which one were you rooting for?”

***

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Adrienne Lindholm lives in Alaska where she works in public lands conservation. She's the author of A Journey North: One Woman's Story of Hiking the Appalachian Trail and is at work on a collection of essays about life in the Alaskan wilderness. She can be contacted at hall_adrienne@hotmail.com. More from this author →