Caribou Hunting with Mandow Agency
Photos by Neil Diamond
After hearing stories about the caribou hunt we felt we had to try it out first-hand and planned a totally Cree experience. We would fly in using Air Creebec, Chisasibi’s Mandow Agency would supply the guides and camp, and finally if we were lucky enough to get any caribou, Kepa Transport would bring it out.
MONDAY, JANUARY 11TH, DAY 1
We packed our equipment and left for Chisasibi. When we arrived in Chisasibi to experience the Mandow Agency’s winter caribou hunt the weather turned bitterly cold. It was a shock from the warm temperatures we left behind in Montreal. It was unseasonably cold even for the North as that same week saw Waskaganish, about 300 kilometres to the south, closing its schools due to the cold.
Mandow always warns its customers about the cold and gives advice on how to stay warm. I would advise all to heed it. We found out about the cold first-hand, but more about that later.
Setting out from Montreal, The Nation hunt team was composed of Neil Diamond, Alex Roslin, Montrealer Vincent Desrochers and myself. Neil and I would be using 30-30 carbines while Vincent went traditional and brought a bow. We were unsure whether or not it would be too cold for the bow but thought it would be a great experiment. Vincent was the only one of us who had never experienced the North. Alex would be our Sherpa. We promised him if he was really, really good we would let him try to kill a caribou with a knife. His enthusiasm was contagious.
In Chisasibi, we met with Sam Cox, general manager of Mandow, who informed us there was a change of plans. We wouldn’t be going to Cape Jones (where Hudson’s Bay meets James Bay) after all but Roggan Lake’s Camp Chapnickshii instead. The Nine O’Clock family’s hunting territory, usually a summer outfitter’s camp, has expanded into winter activities with the caribou hunt and ice fishing. Our guides would be Lawrence Scipio, aka Lorenzo, a 39-year-old grandfather with over 10 years experience with caribou, moose and goose hunting as well as fishing. He would be assisted by Gary, aka the Cutthroat of Seal River (a nickname he lived up to during poker and cribbage games).
Since bullets aren’t allowed on aircraft, Neil and myself went to the local store to pick up 30-30’s, .22’s, .410 shotgun shells and other necessities. We learned two Americans would be coming with us: Doug, who looked a little like Ned Flanders from the Simpsons, and Bill Clinton (not really… Lou hated looking like the U.S. Prez as he was a republican!)
Then we were off in a van eventually crossing over the mega-project of the century’s La Grande-2 Dam. The La Grande complex makes caribou hunting a little more difficult for
Chisasibi-ites. Caribou used to come right up to the village but the increased water flow makes the ice unstable and open water can be seen even in the coldest winter months cutting off the caribou’s access. As a result we traveled for an hour by van to where the snowmobiles were waiting.
Unloading the van and loading up the snowmobiles took a little time and it was about 8 p.m. when we took off for the camp. This is when we truly learned about the cold. Vincent arrived at the camp in the early stages of hypothermia. I rubbed his legs and arms to get the circulation going, while Ned/Doug put a down jacket over him as the fire was started. The North is nothing to play around in for the faint-hearted or ill-prepared. Vincent had put on too many socks and the too-tight fit in his boots had cut off the circulation. Vincent had four toes looking a little frost bitten.
We all warmed up, took a look at the northern lights and fell into a deep sleep in the toasty warm cabin. It was midnight.
Vincent’s feeling like he wants to take it easy today so we stay and hunt by foot around the camp. It’s a beautiful day, clear, sunny with the usual cold. The place where we are is amazing. To say it is beautiful is an understatement. Besides the camp itself the land is untouched and pure.
Lorenzo and Gary take the two Americans, Neil and Alex out at around noon. By three o’clock they are back with five caribou. The Americans bagged their limit of two per person and Neil got one himself. The butchering starts and filet minion tenderloins
are cut for that night’s supper. Lorenzo is amazing and he is asked how long it takes him to skin a caribou. He says five minutes. Lorenzo tells me that he feels good when hunters get what they want. “It’s a good trip when everything goes well,” he says. Everyone is happy and ecstatic. I look at Vincent and say “tomorrow.” We are starting to feel the hunt, as it is contagious. He’s tells me he feels like he is on an adventure. “We look like a full north expedition,” he jokes. He wasn’t far from the truth as it was -52 degrees with the windchill. “It was the first time in my life that I felt so cold,” he said.
After eating we play chess, backgammon and cards, talking and getting to know one another. There is no electricity or other distractions. There is a pleasure in communicating and using our brains without the pap of television. Doug and Lou quickly bonded with our group providing stimulating discussions about Henry Hudson (along with various historical trivia about the Bay) and UFOs. Doug claimed he worked for the U.S. government in some hush-hush capacity and wanted to defect to the Crees (as long as we raised his two-caribou quota)… I’m with the “Cree-IA” myself. However, I didn’t take Doug up on his offer.
At various times we wander out into the night to look at the northern lights and the stars. It is so clear out, it’s unbelievable unless you experience it first-hand for yourself. There are no competing lights of a town or city, no smog or anything like that. In short you are privileged to have an unequalled look at creation and the universe that we live in clearly. The stars are truly countless to the naked eye but are so beautiful you wouldn’t want to count them even if you could.
There is a sighting. No second-hand reports for Neil or Alex this time. It’s a real UFO. It is night and they see a light blinking just above the trees slowly moving without making a sound. It’s a genuine mystery. What was it? A satellite in orbit? Too low. Swamp gas? Too cold. A TV-deprived imagination run wild or something from another galaxy? To this day we don’t know. That’s why they call them Unidentified.
That night I learned why Gary was known as the “Cutthroat of Seal River.” Before I knew what was happening I had lost my rights to shoot my caribou to Gary in a cribbage game. The next game was double or nothing. Up for grabs: my smoking privileges for the rest of the trip. To tell the truth I would have gladly
given them up to get my shooting rights back. I won and the Cutthroat looked at me and smiled, asking for another game. I settled back in my chair and said I’d think about it for a while. I never did play crib with the lad after that. It was poker after that and for money only! It was too close a call to do anything else.
Lorenzo told Vincent and me to get ready; it was our turn to hunt. We set out the opposite way from yesterday’s hunt going north-by-northeast. During part of the ride there was a caribou looking at us down the trail. I ran to get my gun and as I set up to shoot the caribou started walking back into the bush. I shot only to hear a click. The safety was on. I had no time to take another shot. We quickly jumped on the snowmobiles and went to where the caribou hit the bush. I was off the machine in a flash and tracking the caribou. Lorenzo went in from the other side. We were too late; the caribou was gone but an unexpected surprise awaited us… partridge. By the time we left the area we had six for that night’s supper. I didn’t regret losing the caribou because the land had provided for us.
We continued on after dropping off the partridges, Gary and Alex back at the camp. We came across two herds standing on the ice. One moved off so we went for the other one using an island to mask our approach. I felt calm knowing it was the choice of the caribou whether or not to give itself to me. I shot low the first shot and adjusted my aim. I could see the bullet hit, it was so clear. As the caribou fell, the others started moving and Lorenzo fired. I shot again at another; it instantly dropped. I stopped firing and realized I had killed my first caribou. I gave thanks to the caribou and the land for my luck.
The first one I had hit was a spine shot and the caribou was still alive so I asked Vincent to finish it off with his bow. It was nearly instantly killed. I gained a lot of respect for the bow after seeing the results.
Then came the hard task of gutting the caribou. Vincent helped me. As we were working on the first one, Lorenzo finished two and came to help. Vincent was impressed with Lorenzo’s expertise. “When you’re on the lake and the weather is -60 with the wind and you see this guy bare to the elbows gutting a caribou, you ask yourself how can he do this? How is he built?” said Vincent. Vincent later told me that just to see Lorenzo and Gary working in the bush made his trip a success.
We play poker that night and I’m not winning. People joke with me about it and I just smile and tell them I used up my entire
luck earlier in the day.
Vincent and me take it easy around the camp while the rest head out to set a net through the ice. It’s peaceful and relaxing. I ask Vincent about what he feels about the trip. He says while he’s not a fan of the weather he’d return. “I learned about the caribou and the problems the Crees have had with the dams. This trip let me understand it and the Cree community. When I come back I’ll be more prepared because I know what it’s like,” he says.
I feel good knowing the Crees have a new friend and this is something that Mandow’s a part of. Not only do businesses like this bring money and jobs to our communities but they also educate people in what the North is all about.
We head back and miss the plane. Ernie Webb’s parents put us all up until the next flight. His parents, Eliza and Tom, are notorious for picking up strays and taking care of them. We certainly qualified. A big thanks go out to them, Lorenzo and “the Cut-throat of Seal River,” and also to Rhonda Sherwood (who helped out beyond the call of duty),
Mandow, Air Creebec, Kepa Transport and Sonny Orr (for the memories) for all they did to make this trip the success that it was. As a hunt put on by outfitters it was an experience I’ll never forget.
One memory I’ll always carry with me was when we were leaving the camp I saw the caribou for one last time.
Two of them were standing off to the side of the snowmobile trail and as we came closer they started running. They angled themselves so they joined up on the trail, first running ahead of us and then beside us before heading out. It felt like they and the land were saying goodbye and it was a harmonious finish to the hunt. Meegwitch.
Mandow Agency: American Plan $789 (includes skidoo, guide, food and camp), European Plan $450 (includes camp and guide only). Both plans are for five days and four nights. Phone I -800-771-CREE
Tags (for two caribou): $50 Quebec resident, $270 non-resident (tags can be bought at Mandow)
Air Creebec: Phone 1-800-567-6567. Rates vary depending on conditions.
Kepa Transport: Phone 1-800-567-6420. Rates depend on distance and weight.