I am a lucky man. When I met the woman that was to be my bride eight years ago, my friends would ask me if she hunted, fished, or skied. When I answered all three questions with a no, the response was always along the lines of questioning my sanity for falling for a California girl. I knew her spark, though, and knew that once she fell in love with the mountains that she was my kind of girl. Turns out I was right.
We headed north on Friday afternoon, bound for a weekend caribou hunt. We were thinking of this more as a scouting trip, but of course we were prepared with rifles and necessary gear in case we found an animal. Mostly, we were just excited to check out a new area and to spend some time alone together. This was our first "just the two of us" outing since the birth of our son the previous year, so we knew the time would be wonderful regardless of the hunt itself.
We had the truck parked with ample daylight to spare, so we hit the trail and covered the miles quickly. Climbing out of treeline, we decided to continue up into the alpine as far as we could make it before dark. At about 10:00 that night I spotted the unmistakable color of a caribou on a distant mountainside. Just from the size of it I assumed it was a bull, but of course I had to stop to pull out the binoculars to take a closer look. As I focused in on him, it was immediately apparent that this was not just a bull - he was obviously large, both in body and in antlers. My wife took a look, and then we spent the next 20 minutes or so scrambling around the ridge we were on deciding whether a stalk was feasible or not. It was a tough decision to make, but we finally decided that it would be irresponsible for us to try with darkness falling. We didn't want to leave him there on the hillside exposed to scavengers if successful, and we weren't sure it would be safe to find our way back to camp in the dark which would have been necessary either way. Reluctantly we decided to camp right where we were, on the ridge in a semi-flat patch of gravel. As I climbed into the tent around 11:00 I looked up on the next mountain to see that he had grazed into view. With a quick prayer, we went to sleep hoping that he would still be there in the morning.
When we arose on Saturday he was nowhere to be seen. Our view further up the valley was limited, though, so we set out quickly up the mountain. Within about 15 minutes of leaving camp my wife whispered excitedly "There he is!" He had only moved about 1/4 of a mile further up the valley and sure didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to go anywhere. We took a few minutes to study the area as well as possible, and then came up with our plan. We would move further up the ridge that we were on - somewhere close to a mile and another 800' feet of elevation - and then cross down into the valley he was in, following the creek bed and rolls in the terrain to move into position. Here we are just after making our plans.
The next hour and a half of climbing was fairly difficult, made more so by the fact that we had to drop off the ridge and side-hill around some pretty steep loose rock. We wanted to stay concealed, though, so we just moved along slowly, checking his position every once in a while. We finally got to a point where we thought we could drop off the ridge without him noticing. As we descended we were exposed for about 500', but we were far enough away that it didn't draw his attention.
Once reaching the valley floor, it was obvious that my wife's excitement had hit a new level. She was very much looking forward to this hunt, but on the precipice of her first stalk with rifle in hand, she was downright giddy. From that point forward, things went better than we could have hoped for. We were able to close the gap to less than 100 yards before we saw him. We were slowly walking across a hillside expecting to see him over the next rise, when suddenly I saw the tops of his antlers swaying in our direction. We hit the ground immediately, almost panicked for a moment that he would walk right to us when we weren't quite ready. Thankfully, he angled slightly downhill and ended up in some alders. With his head still concealed, we slid on our bellies about 20 yards to a rock that made an ideal rest. My wife got set up in position, ready the moment the bull decided to show himself. For the next few minutes he rolled his head around back and forth, taking a few steps one way and then back the other, the whole time never giving us even the slightest glimpse of him. Many false alarms later after fooling us into thinking that he was coming our way, his antlers disappeared from view. We tried to be patient, but from our earlier survey of the valley we realized that there was a chance that he could head downstream out of view and we might never see him again. After a few moments, we decided we had to move. We slowly crept the 30-40 yards down to the alders he was standing in, then quietly around them, expecting at any moment that he might appear below us. A minute later we were absolutely dumbfounded, standing there in the exact spot where he had been only moments earlier, yet nowhere to be seen. We could see down the riverbed, across the hillside...what the heck just happened? Then we saw it again - the swaying of antlers above the brush - but this time he was standing right where we had laid in wait just a moment ago. He must have circled around the left side just as we walked around the right side, a sort of slow motion do-si-do with unknowing dance partners.
We then spent a few minutes poking around the brush, trying to find an opening that allowed us a clear shot with a decent rest. About halfway through this process he stopped moving in a relaxed manner and began to hold his antlers straight up, often in our direction. Whether it was our scent or our sound, he had detected something was amiss. Thankfully, he wasn't fully alarmed, just aware. We finally made the choice to move straight towards him through some brush. We were concerned that the noise would startle him, but his only escape routes would take him across an exposed hillside, so we were fairly certain that we would be able to get a clear shot. My wife moved to the left of me and we both slithered up through the willows, trying as well as we could to remain silent. Soon he came into view. We finally got to where we could see his head, but laying down he did not offer us a clear shot. I don't honestly recall what it was that caused him to finally rise from his bed, but when he did he took off at a pretty decent trot. I knew he would stop, though, so when he slowed down for a moment I encouraged my wife to shoot. As she would tell me later, she couldn't find him in the scope at that very moment, so nothing happened as he began to trot further. At about 80-90 yards he stopped again, this time standing perfectly broadside as he glanced back in our direction. This time there was no delay. A shot rang out from my wife's 7mm-08 and the caribou immediately flinched. He stood there for a moment seemingly stunned. I encouraged my wife to put another round into him, but apparently her gun became jammed after the first shot. She handed me her gun and I fumbled with it for a moment, but when we looked back up we saw the caribou stumble around for a moment, and then it was over. My wife let out a "YEAH" that was more melodic than any song I've ever heard. She was one happy, satisfied woman.