By Kraig Richardson
My 2017 adventure was hunting Woodland Caribou in the Portland Creek area of Newfoundland. I was with three other hunters on this trip, who all hunted moose. Everything about this trip was an adventure from the travel, the weather, hunting a place and animal I had never hunted before, hunting with a guide and spending a night under a rock.
Our schedule was to fly into camp mid-day on Sunday and fly out the following Sunday. We arrived in Portland Creek Newfoundland on schedule and the weather was rough. The wind was blowing at 30 miles per hour and raining, so we couldn’t fly into camp. We had to check into a motel to wait for the weather to calm down. We flew into the hunting camp around midday Monday and started hunting that afternoon.
The first evening, my guide Don and I saw some young stags, and doe caribou and a large bull moose. The next two days we spot and stalked small groups of caribou. We would glass them from miles away, then stalk to find out there wasn’t a shooter in the group.
The terrain was primarily open hilly country with patchy scrub spruce, boulders and ponds that dotted the landscape. The ground was wet everywhere. The ground sloshed with every step. There were areas where the ground seemed to float, because it was like walking on a mattress under foot. There were many hidden trenches cut in the ground by running water, and brooks to cross by jumping from rock to rock. The most amazing thing was that the ground was as wet on the hill sides and on top as it was in the valleys.
It is easier to approach Newfoundland caribou than other big game animals in North America. We could move in plain sight of caribou without them spooking, if we stayed down wind. On our approach to a group of six caribou, Don asked me how we should approach the animals. I suggested we circle back over the ridge, and approach out-of-sight from above them. He said, “we’re not going to do that.” We are going to walk from tree clump to tree clump, bent over so we look like a caribou, until we are in shooting range. Don was wearing a flees pullover that was the same color as a caribou for that reason. It worked. We got within 100 yards of the group of does and a small bull, and they didn’t move.
Hunting a New Area
It rained Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Around daybreak, my guide and I left camp on the 4-wheeler to head an hour north to an area Don had never hunted. We tried this new area because we couldn’t find a shooter caribou near camp. As we rode up a hill just outside of camp, one of the rear wheels on the 4-wheeler went into a hole. The 4-wheeler tipped back, and I rolled off it and down the hill, with my pack and rifle. That wasn’t a good start to the day.
We continued on and came across a group of moose hunters that told us where they found caribou a few days earlier, so we headed in that direction. The rain continued, and I was soaked to the skin by the time we got to the area where we started glassing. My binoculars were wet, pack was wet, rifle had water in it, but it was reasonably warm, so I wasn’t too cold. The forecast was for rain in the morning and clearing in the afternoon. I packed my heavy jacket, hat and gloves in my pack, so I could change into dry gear when the rain stopped.
My guide spotted some caribou on the other side of a valley to the northwest about a half mile away. We rode as close as possible, then walked to the bottom of a valley where there was a series of ponds connected by brooks. The brook flowed out of the ponds and down the valley heading south. We crossed the brook and I left my pack in a tree before stalking the group of Caribou. On previous days, we had left our packs for the final stalk. We could see from that spot to the caribou, about one third of a mile way, so I didn’t think there would be any problem getting back to my pack later.
Fog Rolling In
While on the stalk, fog set in. My guide took off his rain coat about half way there and put it on a large boulder. The boulder was the size of a car. We got within 30 yards of the caribou. I didn’t shoot an animal in that group, because the three stags we found were too small. We watched the animals feed until they wandered off and disappeared into the fog.
We headed back down, but had a problem finding the boulder where Don left his coat . After finding the coat, it seemed to me, we were going too far south and not far enough east. Neither one of us used a compass or GPS. I didn’t think I had to, because I had a guide, right?
After walking awhile, my guide pulled out an old Garmin and turned it on to find north. The Garmin wasn’t showing north, so he tried to calibrate it. He put the Garmin away and we continue walking. I suggested that we walk down hill to the left, where the brook should be, then we can follow it back to the ponds where my pack and the 4-wheeler were. He thought that was a good idea, so we turned and headed downhill.
Soon after turning down hill, the guide stopped and turned to look back, and following behind us, about 50 yards away, was a bull
moose! He stood half in the fog and half out, silhouetted in black, facing us head on. He had antlers about 36” wide. It was an awesome sight. After a minute, the bull turned and trotted off. The guide said he probably saw us in the fog and was curious.
Spotted More Caribou
We continued downhill, but then the guide said, “There’s caribou up the hill!" Sure enough, up the hill to our left, was a doe and three stags. I could see one stag was larger than any we saw all week. I ranged them at 125 yards and I decided to take the largest one. It was raining again, and my scope lenses were wet, everything was a blur through the scope, and I didn’t have anything to wipe the lenses with. I moved up the hill to get a clearer shot and cleaned my scope lenses the best I could with my fingers.
When I had a shot, I took it. The caribou took off downhill, and I could see one rear leg was broken. I hit it poorly. We followed it and caught up to it when it was crossing the brook at the bottom of the valley. I finished it off with a 100-yard shot through the lungs. The bull died in the brook. We pulled the caribou out of the water, onto a small island, where the brook parted and ran around both sides. I offered to stay to gut and cape the animal while the guide went to get our packs, meat sacks, lunch and water. It was 12:30 in the afternoon.
When we were up the hill a bit, chasing after the caribou, we could see ponds in the distance to our south. I didn’t think that was where our gear was, but he did. I thought we walked too far south in the fog and passed by our ponds. I thought our gear was to the north, not the south. But I wasn’t going to tell him which way to go. If he was wrong, he would be walking past me heading north.
I finished my work on the caribou, and the weather was getting worse. The rain was picking up and the wind was very strong out of the Northwest. I found a rock to get behind and danced around to stay warm. I started to shiver. I wasn’t dressed for the weather and I was concerned about hypothermia. I was wearing a synthetic short sleeve tee shirt, a synthetic long sleeve tee shirt, a light weight Cabela’s hooded camo coat and a cheap rain jacket. I also had long underwear, camo pants, rain pants, Irish setter boots, wool socks, skull cap and baseball cap. My heavy coat and flees hat were in my pack along with a foil-type emergency blanket, water and granola bars. But I didn’t have my pack with me.
I estimated how long it should take to get to the ponds, find the gear and come back. I estimated 45 minutes. After 45 minutes passed, I decided to double it, and stay put for another 45 minutes. 2:00 p.m. came and went, so I decided to double it again, and stay put for another hour and a half. By 3:00 p.m. he still hadn’t returned, and I was very cold. I shot a round in the air, incase he lost his way in the fog. I waited until 3:30, then decided something bad must have happed to my guide, and I had to prepare to stay the night.
Either I needed shelter or I needed my pack. I couldn’t shelter in place without my dry coat and emergency blanket. Everything was too wet to start a fire. I went north to find my gear, so I could return to the caribou and shelter there.
In my pockets or on me, I had my rifle, two knives, matches and a lighter in a plastic bag, small flashlight, range finder, binoculars, watch and seven rounds of ammo. But in my pack I had a dry heavy jacket, a cell phone with GPS with down loaded maps, emergency blanket, headlamp with strobe, reversible orange/camo hat, bottle of water, granola bars, compass, backup battery for cell phone, knife, first aid supplies, parachute cord, rubber gloves, cloth gloves, chap stick and some paper towel. I needed my pack to spend the night in that weather.
I left my binoculars at the caribou, because my plan was to return. My first concern was not to fall in the brook and getting soaked. I had to jump from rock to rock to cross the small rapids that surrounded the little island. I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks because there wasn’t anyone that would find me until the next morning. I walked north because that is where I thought my pack was.
I also looked for places where I could shelter. Maybe about 300 yards north of the caribou, I found a boulder that was about 4-feet tall, that was undercut on the southeast side at about a 45-degree angle. The wind was coming out of the northwest, so the underside of the rock was sheltered from the wind and rain, and there were small spruce trees that grew around the open side, that help to enclose the space under it. I bent down and looked under the rock, and there was just enough dry space for me to curl up and stay out of the weather. This was too perfect.
At this time, the wind was blowing so hard the rain was going horizontal to the ground. The more I walk around, the more risk I have a getting hurt and getting wetter and colder, so the safest thing to do was to hole up and stay put. I knew my situation was going to be unpleasant, but survivable. I said a prayer for my guide and hoped he was okay.
I had about 2.5 hours of day light left after I found the rock. Every so often, I would pickup my head and look out at the weather. When looking out one time, I saw the same bull moose again, standing about 75 yards off looking my way. I watched him until he trotted off to the south. The wind was blowing so hard, that the sound of the wind was like hearing a busy interstate highway going right past me.
After dark, I would doze off, but wakeup when I started to shiver. I would roll around and kick my feet to warm up. The weather started to subside about midnight. I prayed for the clouds to stay, so it would stay warmer. But about 2:00 a.m. the clouds started to dissipate, and finally gave way to clear skies. It was a full moon that night. The moon was so bright, I could see moon shadows. I laid on my back and could watch the stars move across the southern sky.
When the Sun Came Up
The sun brightened the eastern horizon about 7:00 a.m. and it was light enough to walk at 7:30. The first thing I did was shoot a round in the air. I didn’t think anyone from camp was there yet, but I wanted Don to hear it, if he was still out there. I had six rounds of ammo left. I planned on waiting an hour, then firing a round in the air every half hour. Which I did until I was down to my last 3 rounds.
I continued north to find my pack. Not far from where I was, I found a series of ponds, just as I expected. In one pond was a cow moose feeding. The skies were blue, the sun was breaking over the trees and I had a cow moose in front of me to watch. I felt bad for enjoying myself, but I felt happy to be there. If I was supposed to be scarred, angry, sad or something, I wasn’t. I was enjoying myself.
From a hill top, I could see a plane flying into camp many miles to the south. Than I watched as the red plane came my way, but circled back and forth way too far south. I wasn’t sure if anyone knew exactly where we were. I looked to the west and saw black clouds and shafts of rain coming from the sky, “Damn! I’m going to get wet again.” I went back to looking for my gear.
The ponds didn’t look the same as I remembered. There were old Argo tracks from the moose hunters we met, around the ponds where my pack was. I didn’t see any Argo tracks, and I also didn’t find my pack. About than, I looked back at the clouds and the sun created a huge rainbow that stretched from ground to ground. That was probably the nicest rainbow I have ever seen. Soon after, a yellow plane flew in from the west and right over top of me. I waived my rifle and he must have saw me, because he started circling my position. It was 9 a.m. and I was found.
The rain came, and I got wet again. I walked in circles to stay warm, as the plane circled my location. I would occasionally wave at the pilot. I didn’t shoot any more rounds in the air, as I assumed the pilot reported me found and my location. At one point, the plane flew off to the west, I guessed to get more fuel, than returned to my location and circled again.
As the rain moved off, I still wanted to find the 4-wheeler to get food and water. I hadn’t eaten or drank anything in over 24 hours. I walked to a high point to get a better look of the area. The plane flew away from me and circled a different area and tipped it’s wings back and forth, so I walked in that direction.
I heard a gunshot, then some shouting from a few guys. I thought it was the other moose hunters we met the other day. I yelled back and went in their direction, but it sounded like they were going the other way. We all wore camo clothes on the hunt, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for an animal, so I shot a round in the air, so they knew another hunter was in the area.
I caught up with the group of guys, who happened to be the search party looking for me. It was 11:00 a.m. and I was found. The first thing I said to them was, “Have you seen Don? Is he ok?.” They told me that Don spent most of the night looking for me. He returned to camp about 5:00 a.m. to report me missing.
A Missing Person
Back at camp, I was reported missing to the authorities. The outfitter didn’t ask for emergency contact information when we booked the hunt, so they had no way to contact my wife. One of my fellow hunters worked with me, so he gave them our employer’s phone number. The Canadian authorities called my employer and got my wife’s number and contacted her. Not only did they make my wife worry, but my employer now also thought I was lost. But I wasn’t lost! I was left on my own, to take care of myself in harsh weather.
When I got back to camp, I was told that my guide found my pack and the 4-wheeler and spent the afternoon getting the 4-wheeler over to the caribou. The 4-wheeler got stuck in a bog, which took a lot of time. He finally got to the caribou about 4:30. He should have grabbed the packs and walked back. Since the weather was so bad, and my shelter was so good, I didn’t climb out of my hole, and couldn’t hear him when he was looking for me. In hind sight, maybe I should have gone south rather than north. But at the time hypothermia was my concern. I don’t know…
Poor Weather Continues
Weather caused problems the rest of the week. I was going to fly out on Saturday with my meat, but the weather kept the planes from flying. I flew out with one other hunter on Sunday morning, but the weather got bad again and the other two guys got stuck in camp for two more days. Fortunately, they both filled their moose tags on those extra days.
A Learning Experience
This was an unfortunate event, but I learned a lot from it. Whenever hunting away from home, I carry with me what I would need to spend a night in the bush. My mistake was not having my gear with me when I needed it. We both had GPS devices and I had a compass in my pack, but we didn’t use them. Taking an occasional way point or compass heading would have prevented this situation.
Another lesson is knowing when to make the decision to spend the night and committing to it. I could have waited at the caribou all night if the weather was better, if I had my pack or if I could have built a fire. In my situation, I felt that the closer to dark it got, the more serious my situation would get. I made the decision to take care of myself, and I committed to it.
My 2017 hunting trip turned out to be more of an adventure than I wanted, but it all worked out in the end. I may never make it back to Newfoundland, but I will never forget the experience.