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Of Icebergs And Reindeer

Giant icebergs choked the bay and struggled against one another in their attempt to be first to reach the open ocean. 

Gazing out the window of the twin-engine turboprop at nearly twenty thousand feet, they seemed to me to be everywhere. 

From that height, a large swath of the eastern Greenlandic coast was visible, and the countless white dots of those bergs far below seemed like as many ice cubes chilling an immense glass of the deepest blue water. 

This first sight of Greenland filled my son and me with a jolt of excitement and renewed anticipation at the adventure that lay before us.

      Eighteen months prior, my wife surprised me with a birthday note, letting me know that her gift to me that year was a reindeer hunt in Greenland. 

She had paid attention over the previous decade as I had talked in passing about what an adventure I thought such a trip would be, although I was never certain I would actually go through with it. 

A growing family can sometimes make such things seem almost unattainable.  After reading her note, I glanced at my oldest son, who was standing nearby and his grin told me this was no joke. 

The two of them, it turns out, had been scheming for nearly six months to bring this gift about.  My son Croft, who was fourteen at the time, had taken it upon himself to do much of the research into which trip my wife should book for me.

      “If I’m willing to save my money, would you care if I go with you?”  Croft asked.  “I could be trip photographer.”

      Having been one of my best and favorite hunting companions since he was eight months old, there wasn’t any way I would say no.

      The next eighteen months passed quickly, with Croft working diligently to save what was necessary for his portion of the trip.  It’s something that could have been given to him to make his life easier, but where, I asked myself, would the value be in that if a young man failed to learn the lesson of work and dedication to attain such a lofty goal. 

The hours he and I spent together at the gym were passed excitedly, talking about what we each hoped to see and experience while on the trip.

      “I feel like we’re about to jump off the end of the earth,”  Croft said as we boarded the first of five flights that would carry us to Greenland.  This was his first trip outside of North America, which added another dimension to the excitement.

      After more than twenty-four hours sitting on airplanes and waiting in airports, we were exhausted.  But, as the jetliner began its descent into Reykjavik, Iceland, the adrenaline surge we felt gave us the renewed energy we needed. 

Our flight to Greenland left from Iceland, so we decided to take a few extra days to sightsee in the European nation.  Iconic tourist spots along the Golden Circle such as Thingvellir National Park, known as the meeting place for the Viking Parliament for more than eight hundred years, or Gullfoss waterfall with its awe-inspiring power, or the black beaches and rock formations of Vik to the southeast, gave us a taste of the Icelandic countryside and its people. 

One of the most moving places for me, though, was the Hofdi House.  It was in this relatively plain looking house set along Reykjavik’s waterfront that President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in October of 1986 for the summit, which many feel effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.  There we literally stood where history had been made and, as President Reagan said, the world was changed.

      It was a rainy day in Iceland when we left for Greenland on the twin turboprop, flying more than two hours to the southwest.  The grey skies obscured our view of the ocean far below until that first sight of the Greenlandic coast and the countless icebergs filling the ocean along her shores. 

The ocean immediately gave way to a frozen landscape of mountains and ice in every direction.  With quizzical looks at one another, my son and I wondered if that would be the country we would hunt in and if we were prepared for such extreme conditions.

      As the plane banked to the south and began its landing approach into the tiny native village, it was with relief that we saw hillsides free of snow and ice where hunting would be more practical.  Three more hours by boat in darkness put us in our well-appointed camp as the full moon rose over the hills to the east. 

      The first morning was gray and cool as we donned our survival suits before boarding the skiff that would take us to the islands between which the reindeer traveled.  The suits are intended to keep you afloat and alive, at least for a time, in the frigid waters should one be unfortunate enough to go in.

It seemed unlikely to me, though, that anyone could survive the ice-filled water very long, even with the suit, but the added warmth it provided from the wind, rain and sea spray as we bounced along the waves was appreciated.

      We hadn’t been out long when we spotted a herd that had several bulls in it.  They were in a depression, making it difficult to judge their size, so our guide, Bear, and I hurried to shore to get a better view.  It turned out that none of the bulls was what I hoped to take so we eased back down to the boat.

      “Maybe Dale would like to try for that larger bull,”  Bear suggested as we walked.  Dale was another hunter in our group who was older and had physical difficulties that made much walking or climbing a challenge. 

With the direction the reindeer seemed to be moving, Bear thought there was a good chance we could get Dale into position to intercept the bull.

      With a little maneuvering, we were able to get Dale settled onto his shooting sticks just as the herd came into view.  Although Dale could see the herd, he had a difficult time making out which bull was the one Bear was directing him to.  Finally, he found the bull, but it proved too late as it moved behind rocks and was out of view before Dale could squeeze off a shot.

      Disappointed, we moved on and were soon looking over another herd of twenty or thirty animals.  Bear said he had seen a good bull in the group, so Croft and I followed him as we snuck along a rock outcrop. 

Peeking around the edge of the rock, the full herd came into view with the bull Bear had seen standing broadside straight away from us.  His rack had nice shape to it and, with a signal of approval from Bear, I moved forward slightly to where the rifle could rest steadily across the rock.  My single shot from the .270 fell the bull at 150 yards.

      Excitedly, we approached the bull but were surprised at the amount of ground shrinkage as we drew nearer.  This is something I had experienced before when hunting caribou in Alaska. 

The bull I took on that particular trip had a beautifully formed rack that looked to be the trophy of a lifetime through the scope at two hundred yards.  When standing next to it, however, it was only half the size as what it had appeared to be. 

Such was the case with this first Greenlandic reindeer; a well-shaped rack that was just half the size I had expected it to be.  No matter!  It was a great stalk with a good shot in a spectacular place and I was thankful for the opportunity to hunt this bull with my son by my side.

      With a second tag in my pocket, my son and I were out again two days later after the rain that had kept us confined to camp had cleared and the seas calmed enough that it was safe to take our skiff on the open water. 

Andres was guiding us that morning as we began climbing the slope of a distant island to glass.  We had nearly made our way across the island when our native boatman signaled that he had just seen ten bulls up ahead.  He crawled forward to have a better look, then quickly drew back, indicating that all ten were shooters.

      Circling around the slope to the south, we were able to make our way to the top of the rise undetected by the herd.  Lying prone with the .270 across my pack, one bull in particular stood out to me, due to his long top tines appearing like an oversized garden rake pointing up from his head. 

He was bunched with three other bulls and didn’t offer an immediate shot.  Within moments, though, he took several steps forward, which cleared the other bulls.  The .270 spoke, anchoring the bull to the spot 150 yards away once again.

      “So, is it Croft’s turn to hunt now?” one of the other hunters in camp asked when he heard I had taken my second bull.

      “No, I’m just an observer on this trip.” Croft responded.

      “Well, not exactly.” I said to my son.  Not understanding what I meant, I explained to Croft that I had never planned on him simply being an observer from the moment his mother had given me the trip and he asked to join me eighteen months before.  I just wanted to surprise him with it once we were in Greenland.

      “There’s no way we’re traveling all this way and you’re not going to get to hunt.” I said.  The look on his face was utter shock and pure excitement.

      The following morning was once again clear as we motored along island shores, glassing for reindeer.  We were with another hunter from camp named Eric, whose turn it was to shoot first that day. 

Two massive icebergs had moved into the open water and smaller ones choked the mouth of a small bay, preventing us from entering.  To the east of the bay, though, we spotted a herd and moved onto shore to get a better look.

      One of the bulls looked to be very nice and all of us encouraged Eric to take it.  Eric, however, had a very specific idea of what he wanted his bull to look like and this one didn’t fit.

      “Would Croft like it?” Eric asked.

      “Yea!” Croft responded with his eyes lighting up and his attention now focused.  Later, Eric would comment that, with a response as enthusiastic as Croft’s, there wasn’t any way he could choose to take the bull.

      Trading places with Eric, Croft quickly settled into the rifle and was on target, waiting for me to give him the range.

“Two-hundred and fifty yards.” I whispered.

  For the third time in our hunt, the .270 rang out and the bull was down.  I couldn’t have been prouder of my son and happy for his success, even if he enjoys razzing me about his bull being larger than mine.

Two days later, the fog was heavy when we finally made it back to the tiny native village.  We, along with the other hunters from our camp, waited all day in vain for the thick cover to burn off so the twin turboprop could return for us. 

Accommodations in the village were Spartan, which made for a long night of waiting and wondering how long it would be before a plane could make the trip.  A small window of opportunity finally opened the next day and there were cheers from our group as the plane touched down on the little runway. 

Lifting off a short time later, I watched through my window as we banked to the east, headed for Reykjavik and the rugged landscape fell away below us.  For a moment, giant bergs could be seen laying silent on the water before disappearing as we passed through the cover of clouds. 

Somewhere below, there were the musk oxen I knew would one day lure me back to this formidable place.

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