The Call of the Yukon
Eva Shockey and Her Pursuit for Caribou and Wolf in the Yukon
The enormity of the Yukon Territory is unfathomable for most hunters, unless experienced. The Rogue River Outfitting territory encompasses more than 12,000 square miles of hinterlands and wilderness…without a city, town or highway to spoil its purity. Few places have changed so little over time; with its vast wilderness, spotted with magnificent moose, caribou, grizzly bears and wolves, the Yukon is magnificently beautiful and incomprehensibly massive.
Luckily for me, sometime before 1988, God decided to plunk me down to earth under the parental supervision of Jim Shockey -- professional hunter, outfitter and glorified caveman -- Jim Shockey, whose dream it was to run an outfitting company in the Yukon Territories since he was a boy; and Jim Shockey, who accomplished that goal 30-odd years later, when he took ownership of the exclusive hunting rights to the Rogue River area in the pristine Yukon. Skip ahead another 25 years or so, and here I am, merely a pin point in the middle of this huge chunk of prime hunting real-estate with a caribou tag in my pocket and a week of father-daughter time ahead of me.
This is my third season hunting in the Yukon. The first year was a test run with training wheels; we hunted from the main camp with cushy, plywood cabins and propane heaters – practically a five-star luxury resort, in an outdoorsy-middle-of-nowhere kind of way. The second year was a baby-step further into having a true Yukon experience, heading a few miles down the valley and putting up a spike camp, with a few cold, damp nights included. This year I graduated to the ranks of a true Yukonian, hitting the hills and eating just enough calories to make it through the day. Last year’s spike camp seems like the Taj Mahal compared to this year’s camp, which is an eight-hour Argo ride into the middle of nowhere. Heaters are non-existent; there is no such thing as warmth or comfort. And sharing a muggy tent with three over-sized men is an extravagance -- only granted in the event that we return to our spike camp, rather than sleep under the stars wherever we end up at nightfall.
As part of my Yukonian graduation present, along with my caribou tag, I have permission to shoot a wolf if I get the opportunity. As a hunter with a clear understanding of the symbiotic relationship between hunting and conservation, wolves in the Yukon are definitely no friends of mine. Wolves live off large prey, mostly moose and caribou; a wolf can kill 30 to 50 moose and/or caribou in a single year. With approximately 5,000-plus grey wolves in the Yukon, it only makes sense that the population of moose and caribou, without ‘protection’, would start slowly and steadily declining…enter Eva Shockey, self-proclaimed, Queen of Predator Control.
It’s the last day of August, and the start of the moose rut is still a few days away. At first light, we glass caribou cows dotting the higher reaches around us. We see one huge grizzly, right from camp, as we begin our eight-hour journey to spike camp. The mountain alders flame bright red as far as one can see in either direction. Bright yellow willow runs cut through the crimson as unexplored valleys open up to the flat plain below us.
Since I was little, my dad has said that a big part of what keeps him traveling and hunting around the world for so many months out of the year, is the wonder he feels when he looks over the next hill, and the next, and the next. This philosophy not only induces 300+ days a year of compulsive world traveling, but also comes into play here in the Yukon, where the ‘unknown’ is as potentially awesome as the land is endless.
Darkness approaches after a long day of thumping and bumping on our Argos through the thick willow runs, deep creeks, rushing rivers and seven-foot-high hummocks; with darkness comes our final destination for the day – spike camp. The mountain caribou we seek reside only in the southern mountains of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and the northern mountains of British Columbia… at the very tops of the mountains to be exact. Early in the season, herds of these beautiful beasts can be found on the highest glaciers, at the farthest point of elevation from our spike camp (down low in the valley). Tucked in tight in my sleeping bag, I fall asleep as the first raindrop hits the roof of our tiny tent.
My wake-up call comes well before sunrise, as I open my eyes and realize half my body is soaking wet from sleeping against the side of the drenched tent. The rain has slowed to a drizzle, so I layer-on my heavy rain gear, tie up my sleeping bag to stop it from getting damp and wriggle past the large bodies, making my way out into the fresh, damp air.
A few hours later, we take the Argos to the base of the next mountain and hike nearly to the top to get the best vantage of the surrounding peaks and glaciers. As we hit the crest, daylight arrives; thick fog replaces darkness and it is raining hard on us. Our binos are rendered useless, so we play the waiting game, hoping for the nasty weather to lift. I shiver and hunch lower in my raincoat. I dip my head, causing ice-water to cascade down from the front of my soggy hat. Today is not going how I had hoped. More water drips down.
Slowly the sky begins to open and we see a glimpse of blue. It’s well past noon and I finally see faint shapes of mountains off in the distance. As if to reward us for not giving up, three caribou cows suddenly appear on the moss-covered hillside 100 yards above us. Where had they been? The hillside exhibited no sign of life seconds before! Just as suddenly, two bull caribou appear, standing directly below our vantage, one nice bull and one younger one. The bigger bull is definitely hard-horned at this time of year, but those hard horns are still covered in full velvet – perfect condition. From where we are sitting, all I see are antlers; they just keep getting bigger and bigger as he walks up, completely unaware of our presence. None of us speak, none of us dare to.
“He’s close.” My dad slips ahead of me, sliding carefully on the moss, getting out of my shooting lane, trying not to make too much movement. “Get ready Eve.”
With my Thompson Centre already resting and ready on the shooting sticks, the whispered urgency goes unnoticed; probably because I am going through the mental checklist I always go through before taking a shot. Breathe. Slow. Breathe. Squeeze the trigger. Eyes open. Don’t flinch. Breathe. “Right there!” This time the urgency in his voice is impossible to ignore.
The bigger of the two bulls has us pegged; which, since he walked within 50 yards of us, right in the open, is no real feat. “Take him Eve! He’s gonna run.”
My dad is nearly too late with the order. BOOM! The Nosler bullet does as others like it have done before; it thumps into the bull’s ribcage and carries on to the far side. The bull is done. He falls into some willows and rips off some of the velvet, leaving scrapes and velvet dangling. It’s an absolutely beautiful caribou, the biggest I’ve ever gotten, with double shovels and long, massive tines coming out everywhere. What a magnificent animal! Another great hunt with my dad – it’s always a bitter-sweet moment when I realize my trip is over.
It’s dark by the time we get the bull down the mountain, loaded on the Argo and back to spike camp. We decide to pack-up camp tonight and drive all night to get home instead of leaving early in the morning. We are all running on pure adrenalin and trail mix at this point as we start the eight-hour trip home. Somewhere around the 27th hour of being awake, the Argo hits the homestretch to our camp - just as the sun lifts from the mountain top. Dead tired, hungry, soaking wet and ready for bed, we round the corner into camp and see something we never expected.
Not far up the hill is a grizzly and wolf, the former chasing the latter back and forth through the willows. It doesn’t exactly look like a friendly game of tag, but I’ve never seen anything like it and watch in amazement. I’m not sure if it is the lack of sleep, or if I am just mesmerized by what I am seeing, but dad has my gun out of the case and up on the sticks waiting for me before I even know what is happening. “Eve, the wolf is 230 yards – think you can get him?”
Putting down his rangefinder, he stares at me anxiously. I snap back to reality and shoulder my gun. Breathe. Slow. Breathe. Squeeze the trigger. Eyes open. Don’t flinch. Breathe. I’m steady as a rock. This time it isn’t the urgency in my dad’s voice that I hear, but the urgency of my heartbeat in my chest. Every breath is met by a handful of loud thumps. I’m certain that my dad can hear the heartbeat coming through the layers of rain gear.
BOOM! He’s down. I remain steady for the 230-yard shot; but when it’s over, my hands start shaking uncontrollably. I got my finger stuck between the gun recoil and the sticks and there’s blood dripping to the ground, but I can’t feel a thing. I got the wolf! My Yukon dream! The Queen of Predator Control! The best part is that I just saved 50 moose and caribou lives in the coming year. Mission accomplished.
Just like my dad, I believe there are many spectacular, hidden places on this earth, places that will take your breath away; I want to see as many of them as possible before I die. Not only do I get to check-off the Yukon from the top of that list, but I get to check it off alongside the person who fired up my passion to find those truly special places in the first place. Thanks for another cool adventure, dad!