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Lead Head Bullets
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2003
Volume 1, Number 3
Number 3
On the cover...
Cover Photo Mike Barlow
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There are few sights as spectacular as a large herd of caribou silhouetted against a skyline with necks stretched displaying their unusual C-shaped antlers, which always seem large in comparison to their body size. I watched countless herds everyday for a week, and even though I was holding a very busy fishing rod at the moment, I couldn’t help but watch yet another almost endless “stream” of caribou some 300 yards above on the skyline.

I had been in this arctic wonderland for a week and was reluctant to leave. When my ears picked up the distant sound of the bush plane preparing to land on Lake Ikirtuuq, I reeled in the line, harnessed my pack and headed back to camp to board the plane. It had been an adventure I would never forget.

When my old friend Dave Brown invited me to join him on a caribou hunt in late August, he simply stated, “Brian, it’s a great time, trust me.” So I accepted but gave it little thought until it was time to begin making final preparations and sorting out the details, such as passport, type of firearm, clothing, boots, rain gear, etc. Nothing Dave could have said would have prepared me for the great time that was ahead.

Caribou are not particularly difficult to hunt, so it seemed that selecting a favorite nineteenth-century Winchester levergun like a Model 1876 .45-60 or Model 1886 .45-70 would add a certain element of fun to the hunt. On second thought, there is always a risk that airlines might lose or damage them, or they might get held up at customs - risks I was not willing to take with hard-to-replace antique guns.

So why not a modern Model 1886 made in Japan or maybe a Model 1874 Sharps reproduction from Shiloh or C. Sharps Arms Company? Canada doesn’t permit replica firearms, so they were unfortunately out of the question too. Because of strict weight limitations on bush planes, only one rifle was allowed, and I toiled over what to bring.

Realizing I was making it way too difficult on myself, a Ruger Model 77 MKII stainless steel 7mm Remington Magnum was finally selected. This particular rifle has always held its zero in a variety of temperatures and being made of stainless steel and synthetic materials, it would handle the daily rains in northern Quebec without a hitch. If it somehow failed to make the trip home, it would be easily replaceable. Another reason the Model 77 MKII was chosen is that it has one of the most rugged and reliable actions available today, and the 7mm Remington Magnum cartridge is ideal for hunting caribou, as it offers a flat trajectory and enough power to anchor them reliably at any reasonable range. (To fellow handgun hunters, Canada prohibits handguns.)

The only complaint with this particular rifle is that it doesn’t have iron sights as a backup (in the event the scope is damaged). Certainly this is unlikely, but unlikely things do happen! To help reduce the possibility of scope failure, a top-quality Swarovski AV 3-9x36 variable was installed, and a second scope was mounted in Ruger rings, sighted in, then scope and rings removed and taken as a backup should it become necessary.

This particular Swarovski AV model features a one-inch tube and readily mounts in standard Ruger rings. While Swarovski makes an extensive line of premium scopes, this particular model is my favorite for a big game rifle used in this application, as it only weighs 11.6 ounces, which keeps the rifle from feeling top heavy and the overall rifle weight reasonable. Optical clarity is still excellent.

Being an avid handloader, a 7mm Magnum load was developed using 70.0 grains of Alliant Reloder 22 and a 140-grain Barnes XLC coated bullet. This produced a muzzle velocity of 3,123 fps, and four-shot groups consistently clustered into less than .75 inch at 100 yards. Besides being accurate, the X-Bullet offers a level of terminal performance that is coveted by other bullet makers, as it peels four petals into an X shape (when viewed from the front), then acts like a solid (which technically it is) to penetrate incredibly well - at least for an expanding bullet. This combination produces a shock and wound channel that few bullets can equal.

At the risk of sounding like a travel report, I flew to Montreal, spent the night and flew out early the next morning, north to Kuujjuaq (pronounced just like it is spelled). Kuujjuaq is a small Inuit village of less than 2,000 people, located about 30 miles south of Ungava Bay, but to the east of Hudson Bay. Besides being friendly, the people and culture were fascinating to say the least.

From Kuujjuaq we took a bush plane to Lake Ikirtuuq, which is approximately 130 miles west. (More specifically it is latitude north 57.40.00, longitude west 71.20.00.) The amount of water in the form of lakes and streams was unbelievable, and the ground became barren tundra with only an occasional tree but with plenty of brush and vegetation. There was no sign of civilization that could be seen from the air, although there were other caribou camps in the region; the closest was probably 50 to 75 miles distant. To put this in perspective at just how far north this camp is, polar bear are occasionally seen in the area!

Upon landing (on Lake Ikirtuuq), we were welcomed by our host Cliff White, who runs a first-class wilderness camp for Arctic Adventures. The food was fabulous and could be compared with any five-star restaurant. I liked it there from the start, as the view was spectacular and there was a feeling that cannot be described but can only be enjoyed from a truly remote wilderness camp.

Best of all, this was a self-guided hunt, something I prefer, as I don’t care to let others do my work, and sometimes it’s nice just to be alone to study and ponder this beautiful world we live in. (I suppose this is the hermit side of me coming out.) That afternoon I reorganized my pack, grabbed my rifle and took a walk to get familiar with the surrounding area. It wasn’t long until I found some pretty respectable bulls as they crossed the open county in their peculiar running gait, wherein they lift their hind legs high, yet gracefully, as though traveling in deep snow. They always seem to be on the move and only occasionally slow down to browse or lie down to rest. This was the first day, and it would have required an exceptional bull to take one this early in the hunt.

Before leaving Idaho, Dave Brown forwarded a new German-made Leica Duovid 8x42¥12x42 dual-power binocular, which is unique and innovative. Basically each barrel can be adjusted to 8x or 12x. There are no settings between these two numbers. This is a practical glass, as terrain, conditions and light change regularly and usually 8x is best, but there are instances when 12x is ideal and can be an advantage. It’s the best of both worlds in one glass.

The Duovid is a first-rate roof prism binocular. Many hours were spent observing caribou, a variety of other game - including a very entertaining two-tone arctic fox - and gorgeous sunsets. There was never a “pull” or eyestrain felt, which is an indication that collimation (or alignment) is correct. And the optics were brilliant, as the scenery and game were remarkably clear, without distortion. Their construction makes them one of the toughest glasses made, so they should provide trouble-free service for generations.

It was a casual camp, with hunters coming and going at will. On the second day, after eating a good breakfast, I loaded my pack with coat, rain gear, bug spray, camera, lunch and other essentials and headed out to zigzag several miles around the countless lakes and streams that seem to take up more territory than did the tundra. (Notice I didn’t call it dry land.) The Inuits have an appropriate name for this region, which roughly interpreted means “waters you cross many times.” Perching myself near the top of a hill, endless streams of caribou could be seen making their way along various trails and strips of land, so I repositioned myself beside two large rocks that were close to a couple of joining trails. Before noon, I must have seen close to 700 head of caribou, and there were many good bulls.

Caribou don’t have a reputation for being especially brilliant; however, they are smarter than commonly believed and possess all the senses necessary to survive in their world, which is sometimes infested with wolves and bears. Keep in mind that most caribou have never seen a human, and they don’t understand the potential threat, like whitetail deer that have been around people, living in their backyards since birth. I intentionally made myself visible just to watch the caribous’ reactions to my presence.

They apparently have pretty good eyesight, as they were quick to spot me, even when I was lying flat on the ground and dressed in suitable green-based camouflage clothing. The young ones seemed especially curious and often stopped, then walked closer in an effort to identify me, some approaching within 10 or 20 feet. The mature bulls, on the other hand, generally indicated they wanted nothing to do with me by either changing direction or breaking into a run. Again I changed positions so oncoming animals might gain my scent without seeing me. When the scent was picked up, they usually stopped instantly or reversed their direction, as they clearly knew that something wasn’t right, and took the long way around.

I was thoroughly enjoying myself, but the wind slowed down, and the black flies came out of hiding and began to snack on, and then devour, me. So rather than coat myself with bug spray, I harnessed my pack and began traveling to see new country.

After drinking and filling my canteen from a crystal clear lake (and, yes, they are absolutely safe to drink from), a lone bull traveling straight toward me caught my attention. He was an estimated three-fourths mile distant, so I climbed the ridge and waited. Like all caribou bulls in late August, he was still in the velvet, but what was especially impressive was that his antlers were quite wide. By those who judge trophies by points, he wouldn’t score particularly well, as he was weak on top in terms of points and his shovels weren’t the heaviest, but I liked his impressive width and decided to take him.

There was a series of small ridges between us, and as he topped the last one, about 80 yards, from a standing position I placed the crosshairs on his heart and squeezed the trigger. The 140-grain Barnes X-Bullet found its mark, the bull jumped, then reared up high on his back legs and collapsed.

After taking a few photos, he was field dressed wilderness style by peeling back the hide from the center of his belly to his back bone and removing front and rear quarters and back strap. He was then rolled over, and the same procedure was followed on the other side. The body cavity was not opened except to retrieve heart and liver. At this point meat can be boned and placed in cloth sacks and loaded into a pack with cape and antlers tied on top. In this manner a complete caribou can be packed out many miles and no excess weight is carried.

That evening, after visiting with good company and enjoying a fine gourmet-style meal, the northern lights (aurora borealis) came to life, and even though I have seen them from other angles including Alaska, this was a distinctly different show and can only be described as spectacular.

The hunt was only half over, as each hunter was allowed to take two bulls, and there were still several days to fill the second tag, or so I thought. The next two days were spent carefully looking over every bull that came into view, and there were some magnificent specimens. All the hunters in camp filled both their tags, with the exception of myself and one other, so they spent their time caping trophies and playing tug-of-war with the 20-plus-pound trout in nearby lakes. One of the cooks even managed to take a nice sized black bear, across the lake in front of camp, with a custom .264 Winchester Magnum built on a Remington Model 700 Titanium action.

About this time, the number of caribou dramatically dropped, and only small bunches were observed here and there. It was possible they could totally disappear for several days at any moment, and the decision was made to take the next good bull.

Late in the morning, I found two respectable bulls across Lake Ikirtuuq, and even though slightly larger bulls had been passed up the day before, they were uniform and beautiful specimens. I gathered my rifle and pack, boarded the canoe and had Cliff leave me on the other side of the lake.

After locating the bulls about a half-mile away, I moved along at a robust pace in an effort to catch them for a closer look. There was a series of small draws, and as I came to the top of one, they looked back and spotted me at something around 450 yards. I hustled and tried to lessen the distance, but they were on the move, as they knew I was following them. They stopped near a patch of brush and small trees, and I was able to narrow the gap to 331 yards, which was later determined by a Leica rangefinder.

I quickly shed my pack, put my Filson hat on a large rock (as it makes a great rest), took several deep breaths and assessed the bulls through the binocular. The better one stopped and turned almost broadside. I rested the rifle across the hat-covered rock, brought my right knee up to rest the right elbow on, aligned the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, the bull went straight down, and the familiar “ker-whack” of the Barnes X-Bullet reported back.

Again, a few photos were taken, the cape removed and the meat placed in the backpack. Like most of the other days, the rain and snow came and went, which was no problem as my clothing and equipment handled it without a hitch. This was one of those enjoyable afternoons that will stay embedded in my memory forever. After the meat, cape and antlers were packed to the edge of the lake, Cliff returned with the canoe, and we made our way back to camp.

Incidentally, the Barnes 140-grain X-Bullet entered just behind the left shoulder and exited the right shoulder. The wound channel clearly showed it had expanded almost immediately upon impact and held a true direction even as it broke the shoulder and exited. The first bullet that took the bull at 80 yards expanded and completely penetrated, leaving a large wound channel. Can’t ask for more than that!

There was still plenty of time to prepare antlers and meat for shipping, get all the paperwork (export) in order for the airlines and do a little fishing. The fish are unbelievably big, so big you would probably have to catch a few to believe me.

Just minutes before the plane arrived, a respectable bull wandered across the hill just above camp and Mark, the only hunter with a tag left, dropped it with a .300 WSM. All hunters had now scored 100 percent - pretty normal.

Someday, I’ll go back, but when I do, there are a couple things I will do differently. First, I will take an antique rifle, probably a Winchester or Marlin levergun, or maybe an original Sharps. And if it gets lost, that’s a risk I am willing to take. (Incidentally, there were no problems getting rifles through customs, but there is a small fee and registration.) The second thing, I will bring one (or more) of my young sons and then we can share a memory together that will last a lifetime!

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