The Yukon

Going to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory from Tennessee is not for the weak of heart. “You can’t get there from here!”  But, when you do, your body may leave, but your heart and mind will never be the same. My grandson, Parker, and I hunted there in 2016. He was awarded SCI Cabela’s Young Hunter of the Year in 2017. I recently asked Parker if he thought much about the Yukon. His reply was, “I think of it every day.” The Yukon has massive mountains towering into the sky, valleys that never end and nature’s own fireworks show, the northern lights.

My wife Vicki, son Bill and I arrived for a family trip to Jim Shockey’s Rogue River Outfitters for a moose, grizzly and mountain caribou hunt in the middle of nowhere.  It was a return trip for me and the first trip for Vicki and Bill. I had hunted with Parker who harvested a wolf and caribou in 2016. Vicki was the “official photographer” for the trip. Bill hunted moose, caribou, wolf and grizzly. I hunted caribou, and it did not matter if I were to shoot or not. Being there again was of prime importance; shooting was secondary.  Any father or grandfather reading this will relate in many ways the joy of hunting with family. Hunting is not shooting. Hunting is the adventure, the chase, being in the outdoors and matching wits with the quarry.

Our plane touched down on the mountains mirrored on the lake. Within 30 minutes, we were treated to a rare show on the mountainside behind camp. A mama grizzly with a cub did not take kindly to a boar rising on his back feet for a closer look. Faster than a racehorse out of the gates, she charged the massive male jumping on his back much to his chagrin. He wanted no part of that encounter and made a hasty retreat.

In the Yukon, hunters are required to wait six hours after arrival at camp prior to going out to hunt. My son, guide Bob Stacey and cameraman Jesse Blaskovits, made a grueling two-hour climb up the mountain where the big male grizzly was still hanging around the female with a cub. The stalk/climb was foiled at the last minute when the wind shifted ever so slightly just before the group topped the rise. The grizzly was last seen clearing the top of the mountain although the female and cub where still 150 yards away out of the wind currents.

On the second day of the hunt, my guide, Will Schenn, who is finishing his PhD in biology specializing in moose research, spotted a caribou about two miles to the north. A hunter can see forever when glassing from the mountainside, and that day was no exception.

The next day saw us again in the same area. These hunts are conducted from an Argo using binoculars and spotting scores from different vantage points. Vicki was in the Argo with Billy following Will and me.

The bull we spotted the previous day passed them close enough for Vicki to take several pictures of his rack. Since Will and I were in a ravine crossing to the next hillside, we missed seeing the caribou. Upon viewing the photos Vicki had taken, and realizing it had two main beams, the hunt was on. One problem was that we had lost sight of him in the willows. It was back to our previous mountainside perch glassing. After two hours, the bull stood up in the willows about 150 yards below us. I am convinced you would be able to hide a yellow school bus in the Yukon willows. Being almost straight down below us and constantly moving, there was no shot opportunity.  And, just like before, he bedded down in the willows 500 yards away. Down the hill we went and were able to get within 100 yards for an easy shot binging my first mountain caribou down.

While glassing the next day, we spotted a bull moose and cow in the willows far across the river. Bill, Bob and Jesse took off on a two hours hike with us staying back giving hand signals to the moose. Finally, they were in position with the rifle on the shooting sticks. We waited breathlessly for the ensuring shot that never came. Next thing we saw was the three of them heading back toward our vantage point. The bull was only about 50 inches, which is very small for a Yukon moose. Unfortunately, we were too early for the rut and no moose were harvested during this trip. We only saw one more bull moose after that.

An ensuing day saw us in the Argos hoping to spot a shooter bull moose or male grizzly. Making matters worse for spotting game, it poured rain all day and we found out no matter how good your rain suit is, there is no way to stay completely dry. Our bad luck for that day continued when Bill happened to be in the following Argo with me while heading back to camp. Will and Vicki in the lead Argo encountered a grizzly at 20 yards. By the time we arrived, he had fled to parts unknown. That made grizzly number nine we had seen with no shots fired. That evening was spent with our clothes over the propane heaters in camp drying.

We were well into the hunt with Bill not having fired a shot. While on a high vantage point, Will spotted a monster 400+-inch bull caribou. Although Bill was wanting a moose, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Across the river we trekked in the Argos climbing a very steep bank for a better look. Immediately I spotted the massive antlers protruding from the willows across the creek on the hillside at 400 yards. Bob, Bill and Jesse took off down the hill and were climbing the other side with me giving them hand signals. As if on cue, the tremendous bull caribou stepped in the open giving Bill III a 180-yard shot. We heard the bullet strike and watched the animal run back and forth until it disappeared into the willows. Spotting the downed animal was a time-consuming venture considering how thick the foliage is.

When Will, Vicki and I arrived on their hillside, Jesse was already filming Bill with the magnificent caribou. There were plenty of hugs, backslapping and handshakes to go around. I green scored the caribou at 418-2/8″ before deducting for the velvet on the antlers.

On our last day in camp, we visited the gut pile from my caribou and spotted a large and beautiful grizzly circling the kill site. Bob, Bill and Jesse took off down the hill to a 150-yard vantage point across from where my bull had dropped. As luck would have it, fog and sleet moved in for 15 minutes and we lost sight of the bear, which was never seen again. We saw eleven grizzlies during the trip with no shots fired.  As it has been said, “It is hunting and not killing.” It was a trip to be forever etched in our memories.

You come home never the same having been in the Yukon. There are the nights filled with colorful streaks of light emanating from seemingly nowhere, wild animals in abundance that have never seen a human, and scenery that we can only conjure in our wildest dreams. We cannot wait to return!

–Bill Swan