I was up before dawn, and my backpack was still sopping wet from the caribou blood I washed off it from yesterday’s kill before I crawled into my sleeping bag last night. In the tent that morning were seven other hunters sleeping deeply, their non-harmonious snores a cacophony of wheezing and nightmarish sounds, and the combined stink and foul gasses of their rank breath and soured bodies and soiled hanging undergarments after a week of physical exertion with limited hygienic options was stifling and, so help me, visual.
This was the last day of an unguided caribou hunt near the Arctic circle, where each hunter was allowed two animals. Even the Innuits at Fort Chimo, the closest Eskimo village a couple hundred miles south, didn’t know when or where the annual migration would take place, and, as luck would have it, we missed it by miles and weeks. Only one other hunter and I were able to take an animal after miles of hard scouting and a certain amount of luck.
At 10AM we were scheduled to rendezvous on the lakeshore outside our tent for the flight back to civilization with the same duct-taped and snorting float plane that dropped us off. The exhausted hunters in my group were disappointed in their poor luck, but glad they got to sleep in a bit, and would soon be ready to start the first leg of an arduous trip back to home, with showers, and normal food and beds.
I figured as long as I still had a couple of precious available hours to hunt I’d give it one more try. I had emptied my backpack while cleaning it, and all my gear was haphazardly strewn about on any available patch of ground. I quickly grabbed my backpack and rifle and ten rounds of ammunition, and my saw and knife, and my camera. I muttered to myself: "Where’s my damn compass?" An awakened fellow hunter offered me his, but I declined, saying: "No thanks, I know where I’m going." After all, I had only a short time before I had to be back to pack to leave, and I planned to go just a couple of miles behind the camp, where I had been once before.
I traveled light and covered a lot of ground quickly. I marked my changing positions with unmistakable and deliriously beautiful clear virgin lakes with unique features and fingers and outcroppings. As I crested a hill, I saw two bull caribou a few miles distant, walking at their deceivingly fast gait that ate up miles with ease. I figured if I jogged a couple miles using the rolling hills and valleys for cover, it might be possible to cut them off and get a chance for a shot. I ran balls-out with not much hope for success, gasping for oxygen and soaked to the bone with sweat, until I came to a large boulder on top of a cliff, and clumsily peered over. Holy crap! There they were! Trotting as fast as horses and almost out of range! I gulped a huge swallow of breath, steadied myself and fired at the largest one. It dropped immediately, then so did I for a couple of minutes until I caught my breath.
He was huge! I couldn’t believe my luck! I dressed him and filled my backpack with the choicest cuts of meat, and fastened his cape and skull and antlers to my pack. This added an easy 100 pounds, but the hardest part was trying to walk, sinking into the uneven, spongy terrain at every step while steadying the heavy unwieldy rocking chair of his antlers on my shoulders.
I was bursting with pride and couldn’t wait to get back to the tent and show the others. I started back, with the aforementioned landmarks on my left, and went over a few hills, and a few more, and a few more, and a few more, with no tent in sight. Huhh? I couldn’t have been that far away. So, I trudged back to the carcass and went a slightly different direction. Same thing. The problem was that the unmistakable virgin lakes with such unique features and fingers and outcroppings were everywhere! They were all the same! The sky was a blanket of white, with no point of light from the sun, and the third time I went back to the carcass I couldn’t even find it. The terrain was like being dropped off on the moon, with lichen instead of dust and small lakes instead of craters. I was truly, truly lost by the Arctic Circle with no sense of direction, physically spent, and a smelly dead animal weighing me down. Then it started to rain. Never was a boy more truly and wholly screwed.
I gathered my thoughts and made a plan. I fired three earsplitting, evenly spaced rounds in the air, the universal signal for emergency, and waited for an answer. No reply. I did it again. No reply. And once again, and no reply. "Great plan, dumbass. Now you’re out of ammo!" Then I started to laugh. No, I wasn’t panicking or going mad; it was just funny that I was so stupid. I had just shot up all my ammo, had no lighter or compass or survival gear, it was just above freezing, and the rain was turning to sleet.
One thing I knew throughout this adventure was that I would probably be fine. Someone would find me eventually, still with my trophy, perhaps a bit worse for the wear. All the water was pure and safe to drink, and wolves hardly crossed my mind. I wanted an adventure, and I sure had one now. I put myself to work cutting down the gnarly scrub brush that grew sporadically on some distant hills with my saw, dragged them over to a dry spot, and wove them together into a small protective hut large enough for me to sleep in. My clothing was good and protected me from the moisture as I lay a few hours later in my new dwelling, on the ground’s tender covering of lichen, soft as a bed. I occasionally yelled: "Shirley!" my wife’s name, with a big moronic grin, as I took crooked self-portraits with my camera in front of my cozy frozen lodge next to my caribou.
I had on a fluorescent orange sweatshirt under my coats and cut off inch wide strips from it.
These I placed on the highest elevations surrounding my abode, as signal markers for any rescue plane. I had done everything possible to get rescued and to make my stay as comfortable as possible. I studied my monstrous caribou rack, drank sweet cold water from pristine lakes, and smiled sincerely as I relaxed and took some more photos. This was living. Later on that night, the sky cleared and the northern lights were my bedspread.
At dusk the next day, the God-sent pilot with the same duct taped and snorting float plane spotted my orange strips and saw me as I signaled. He took me to Fort Chimo where I stayed in a partially filled Eskimo meat locker for a few days until I was able to work my way home.
My caribou adorns the stairway on the way to my basement. He is a good friend that brings back memories of hardship and chance in a faraway land. His name is Compass.
Steven K. Ledin