The term 'epic adventure' rolls off the tongue very easily, but in this case it's an understatement! Will O'Meara takes a hunting trip never to be forgotten.
Greenland - so named as a marketing scheme by the Viking Eric the Red, Land of the People is the Inuit name - one full of mystery and romance. However, both names for this island seem misleading; 80% of the landmass is covered in ice and the population is somewhere around 50.000 – so not green and not so many people... The names did ring true for me, however, as | found it to be a land of mystery, abundance, surprises and incredible beauty.A Paddy, a Fin, a Dane and four Spartans - all on a half century old wooden boat, with an Inuit crew, a sheepdog, rods, reels, rifles and scatterguns – this trip had all the makings of an epic adventure.The freshly painted red hull of the Kissaq steadily heads north as she has many times before. We all stand on the aft deck drinking in the cold crisp air that flowed from the ice-capped mountains that flank us both starboard and port. As the sun sets, we get the opportunity to test our layering systems – the wind chill is cryogenic but not one of us can surrender this front-row seat of a maritime mountain marvel. The cliff faces come straight from the salt water, sheer slabs of rock punctuated by snow, shale and tundra. The night is upon us and the vivid blue waters have turned an inky black, contrasting starkly with the icebergs reflecting the pale moonlight.
Clear skies mean that we have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights and chance is on our side. The Aurora creates instant silence; all are in awe as they stare skyward, the colours shift and change direction. They seem to come to greet us, hovering overhead and the streaming into the distance – incredible.
Breakfast in the belly and we are breaking ice between our floating base camp and shore in our little fibreglass boat. It's the first day hunting and my spirits are high. Anytime I am hunting a new species or on new ground I am looking for that first glimpse of the quarry. It's as if I want to calibrate my eye so that my brain knows what to look for. I have hunted caribou before, and they can often blend in very well, especially where there is a scattering of snow and rock across broken mountain ground. We push from the shore straight up, glassing as we go. I am out in front, keen to catch the first glimpse. At the first stream I swap my desalinated water for the fresh pure goodness of the natural water. My guide Michael is also a food scientist and explains that the water is without harmful bacteria - no need for my Steripen gadgetry then!
An hour into our hike, my glassing efforts are rewarded with the first glimpse of caribou. I point them out to Michael, Jukka and Nick, all delighted at the sight. Michael seems a little puzzled when I say that they are too small to shoot and he explains that the Greenlandic way is to shoot the first opportunity you get. I smile and pull out the spotting scope and Spartan tripod. A few minutes later I have located a bull. Michael's smile turns again to puzzlement as I decide that the bull is not the right caribou to take. A fair period of silence later, his smile returns as I show him a mature bull on the screen of my phone, which is coupled to my spotting scope.
The wind is less than ideal and we have half a dozen deer scattered across the mile between us and the bull. “Nothing else for it lads. It's got to be up. over and around." I lead on up the mountain side to the ridge, and glassing before we crest over I spot another small group of caribou. We decide to leave them undisturbed as an option for tomorrow. I have already decided that I will offer the chance to shoot this bull to Jukka; it seems natural for me to do so, I'm not sure why, maybe it's from years of guiding. Also, it is his first caribou hunt. He plans to use my rifle and I don't really want my pursuit of caribou to be over on the first morning.
We boldly stalk down the rocky slope that promises to lead us to our bull. I stop and glass, the 10x power of my Steiner's pick up the bull and the laser of my Sig Kilo tells me that he is 520m away. I spot the remainder of the herd between us and the bull and I'm hopeful that we can sneak to within 200m of the bull. So on we steal, concealing our sneaky approach with rocky outcrops until we are at the edge of a sharp drop.
We peep over the edge of a limestone bank like school kids playing hide-and-seek. The closest deer are 180m, with the bull bedded on a patch of snow at 309m. I look at Jukka and smile: “1.3mils," I whisper. Jukka sets up in a seated position, knees high, Javelin bipod on, the bank of rock like a perfect shooting bench. The strong shooting position and no obvious route to get closer are further bolstered by the wind dropping off to a bare whisper from left to right.
The bull is bedded, we discuss a neck shot and agree that no wind means now is our opportunity. Jukka releases the safety. I am on the spotter. Jukka counts himself down – 3, 2, 1... I see the trace and strike as if in slow motion - great shot, perfect placement. We continue to watch the bull for some minutes to ensure the beast is dead.
We all admire this fine bull - strong antlers, beautiful hide, such huge hooves. Michael explains to us the traditional method of preparation and extraction; eviscerate and skin the caribou, remove the head, split the carcase in front of the rear hams. This Inuit method allows the rear quarters to be carried almost piggy back style, with the lower legs left attached for balance. The front quarters and ribcage are simultaneously carried on the back with the assistance of a strap that is placed on the forehead, Sherpa style. We go through the process out of curiosity but then remove the front quarters in order to share the heavy load more evenly. The liver, heart, kidneys, caul fat and tongue are all taken with us. Most interestingly, the tongue is removed with the lower jaw attached and is commonly boiled in one piece. The day's adventure concludes with our descent to the shoreline, punctuated with stops to take in the view and refreshing mountain water.
The next day is spent fly fishing for Arctic char, and after a lunch of fresh fish on the fire I decide it's time for a recce for some caribou. Tomorrow I will hunt again. We have one guide between six of us, so we take it in turns to hunt and to be honest I am enjoying the reintroduction to the fly rod in such idyllic surroundings.
Armed with binoculars and spotter I push towards high ground. I find a narrow cliff-sided gorge that leads me to a steep slope. I guess from my GPS mapping that the crest of this slope hides a high terrace — ideal caribou habitat. As the crest approaches, I check my watch — 90 minutes to our pickup — and decide that I have 10 minutes before I need to head back down. I gather myself before the crest and edge forwards slowly, glassing as I creep. There they are, six caribou, grazing in the evening sun. Well, we now have a plan for tomorrow.
Back on the boat, we recount our stories of the day. The guys with the guide had a good day — a caribou each but no big bulls seen. I tell Michael that I have a plan for the morning and I can see the relief on his face that I have found more deer on new ground. Michael has not hunted here before. All the land in Greenland is public ground and there is no private land ownership, so you never know what you are going to get when you try a new spot.
The morning starts with promise — false promise as it transpires. We retrace my steps from the evening before, through the narrow gorge to the land that time forgot. I spy the ridgeline of promise just before the snow comes in. I push on and stop about 100m short of the ridge. The hillside is wide open, the snow is driving hard from the north, our warmth from the climb dissipating with every icy minute. I spot an overhanging rock that harbours the promise of some shelter. We layer up and tuck in. The day before the forecast of snow was delivered via satellite to my Garmin Inreach, so I know it should clear by midday.
Michael is already shivering and I haven't the heart to tell him that our wait here will be for three hours or so. I simply encourage him to layer up. I tuck the muzzle of my Tikka under our limestone ceiling and take the drybag from my pack and use it as a blanket over our legs. I awake sometime later, still propped upright by my Spartan trekking pole (leg of tripod). Cold, sleepy drool lodged in my beard is the only indication of how much time has passed. I don't even attempt to unearth my watch from the layers but simply stare out at the valley below as patches of clarity tease us.
As the Garmin gods have promised, the sun starts to break through to us around midday and I stand to stretch at the prospect. I glance upwards and freeze at the sight of two caribou standing on the ridge not 80m above us. I remain still, somewhat dismayed by the fact that they are skylined and thus unshootable. They haven't seen me, it seems, and simply turn and walk out of sight. I grab my rifle and push quickly up the hill, Michael on my heels. Full clarity and a view of the plateau before us reveals no caribou.
I sit and glass, picking out some dead ground; I go and hunt it out but there's no sign. We double back for our packs and again gain the high ground. The mountain plateau lies ahead but the wind has switched and is now corning off the fjord, threatening to betray our scent to the deer. Michael buys my plan to go as high as possible and glass downwards, which should put our wind at 90° to any deer on the mountainside.
TAKING THE HIGH GROUND
The plan is rewarded within half an hour. I spy the caribou feeding below, not 300m from us. Michael agrees to stay put as I stalk closer. I start in a low crawl, rifle slung across my back, moving at first away from the deer to get the advantage of the wind. This also gives me the advantage of some dead ground, but the cost is that the deer are feeding into the wind and so are widening the gap between us with every step. Caribou are one of those deer that, when feeding, never stop moving. The dead ground allows me to move quickly and I pick out a high bank that should give me an excellent overview and shooting position. I edge, muzzle first. over the bank and smile as I see the closest deer is 80m away and it's a calf. I scan the group but there's no big bull. At this point I know that some of my buddies have yet to shoot a caribou and that the crew will share this precious meat with their families. The calf drops with a head shot and its mother circles around briefly, presenting for a neck shot. The remainder of the herd run to where Michael is hidden, which makes another shot unsafe —just as well, I reckon.
It's all downhill to the shoreline, so we pop the calf in the pack and decide to drag the female using some rope and my carbon trekking pole. As we approach the shoreline, patterns in the sand catch my attention. I inspect closer with my binos... looks like deer prints. I suggest the theory to Michael; he peers down but shakes his head with a chuckle. "Yes, yes, while we were up there, they were down here!" The caribou come to the beach to drink the salt water, it seems. Ironically their prints are exactly at the point where we came ashore that morning. I'm glad we worked for these ones though; it feels good and right to earn that valuable meat in these Arctic mountains at the top of the world.