A young Australian had the adventure of a lifetime when he headed to a remote hunting camp in the Canadian wilderness.
Story and photos Phillip Moore
I had arrived in Canada on a one-year working visa when I saw an advertisement in a hunting store: ‘Wanted: Wranglers’. A company in the Yukon was looking for people experienced with horses, shoeing, hunting and shooting. A childhood spent on cattle stations in Western Australia and stints as a shearer, rouseabout and station hand meant I could do a few of those things, so I decided to give it a go. After an interview in a supermarket car park and a handshake, I was hired. Two days later I was packed and on my way to ‘horse camp’, a week-long preparation for wrangling in the wilderness.
The camp was near Dawson Creek in British Columbia (BC). When I arrived most of the workers were finishing the shoeing of the horses – there were 27 altogether. They would eventually be split in half and a string of horses sent to two separate hunters’ camps with wranglers and guides.
The rest of the crew was learning to pack horses with boxes secured with a special diamond knot. We ended up practising the packing for four long days. We also practised tail ties using a thin rope tied in the tail of the horse to keep the lead rope of the following horse from touching the ground. The lead rope of the horse behind it was threaded through this, and then tied to a neck rope, which was a thick rope tied loosely around the neck of each lead horse. This formed a horse train and, with the right horses, it was very effective.
After horse camp it was time to hit the road. We all woke up early, caught and unhobbled the horses (they were let out to graze each night), put them on a truck and sent them on their way. We all had a 1200-kilometre trip from Dawson to Teslin, near the border with BC, and the jumping-off point for our four-day trek to the hunters’ camp at Loon Lakes.
After two days of travelling and meeting up with the other workers – my group included two Canadians, a Russian and 14 horses – we were in the saddle and on the track. The minute we got going, I loved it. It was damp and cold but the sun was out and the scenery was surreal. We rode through streams filled with cool, clear water, over mountains and through green, lush valleys.
On the first day we spent seven hours on horseback and halfway through it started raining. Without waterproof pants, the wind and my wet jeans combined to chill me to the bone. We set up camp next to a stream where we unpacked and fed and watered the horses. We all huddled under a tarp and went to sleep, damp and shivering. Above us the sky was filled with black, forbidding clouds that promised rain or snow.
We woke early the next morning, packed up the horses and hit the track again. The sky was still black, threatening to make the day miserable. Then it got worse – we arrived at an area known locally (and misleadingly) as The Willows. It meant five hours of riding through thick scrub with branches clawing at our faces and attacking the packs on the horses. The horses became tangled in trees and ropes several times but we dealt with these little dramas swiftly. The idea was to keep the horses going at a steady pace – once the horses stopped, something invariably went wrong.
As we rode out of a valley, a huge mountain appeared in front of us. It was a magnificent red and orange monolith, jutting out of a sea of green. We dismounted and led the horses up the side on a tiny track. The summit and the remains of numerous rockslides were to our left and to our right the land plummeted into the valley below. We rode for 14 hours, continuing through breathtaking country and arriving at camp in the dark. The horses were unpacked, fed and watered by torchlight.
After just four hours’ sleep we were up and packing the horses for our destination of Zieks Pass, about eight hours away. We crossed countless crystal rivers, passed through verdant valleys and traversed mountains. At one point we were riding through marshy, boggy country, taking it slowly and carefully, when one of the guide’s horses fell into a hole. The guide tried to help him but was knocked out in a head clash with the horse. The rest of us managed to pull the horse out by the bridle and the guide woke up with an egg-sized lump on his forehead.
Tired and sore, we made it to Zieks Pass, staying in a small, cozy cabin next to a river on our last stop before Loon Lakes. The next day we spent a lot of time walking to save the horses on steep and rocky slopes. It’s a delicate operation when you have two or three horses tied together – if one of them spooks or trips, they could drag all the others over with them.
The valley we rode into after Zieks Pass was just beautiful. A tinkling river at the bottom was flanked by mountains covered in willows and pines, creating a wash of colour. The track was littered with last year’s moose and caribou sheds (antlers that fall off at the end of the mating season). We followed the track up the mountainside into the pines.
At about 5pm we arrived at Loon Lakes, thrilled to see our home for the next eight weeks. We unpacked the horses and relaxed for the first time. A small dock jutted out into a lake that mirrored all the magic colours and features of the surrounding landscape. The camp was made up of one log cabin for wranglers and guides and another cabin for hunters. They fly in from the Yukon capital Whitehorse to take on moose, bear, wolves and wolverines.
The next day, after a much-needed sleep-in, our first tasks were chopping wood, and hobbling and putting bells on the horses – but first we had to find them. Finding the horses every morning was a job I completed with varying degrees of success. It may sound easy but try to imagine this: you get up at 4.30am, start a fire in the cabin because it’s bloody cold, load your rifle or other ‘bear scarer’, grab your torch and halter and walk into the wilderness, listening for the bells. It’s always a relief to hear them ringing. If you don’t you’ll soon be hearing your own heavy breathing instead, from climbing hills and walking muddy tracks. You might also hear the soft flaky sound of leaves falling, or the quiet movement you think could be a bear, making you look around and hold your breath. That morning we found the horses relatively easily, jumped on them and rode them bareback to camp. But the task could take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on how far the horses had wandered.
With the horses back in the yard and saddled up for the hunters and guides, it’s on to the odd jobs. These included chopping wood and kindling, making sure the long-drop dunny had enough lime in it, fixing broken saddle gear, cleaning the meat shed and discarding the food scraps.
The camp was pretty relaxed, unless we had a kill – then it was a different story. We’d pack up horses for ourselves and the hunters, and follow the guides out to the kill. The beast was then quartered and each quarter put into a pack box tied onto a horse. Neck meat, back straps, tenderloins and ribs were also taken – hardly any meat was wasted. The antlers and cape (hide cut from the shoulder forward, including the head) were tied to the top of the pack boxes and the load was transported back to camp. This took three to six hours, depending on where the animal was shot.
Once back at camp, the meat was hung and the antlers tagged to prove ownership and legality. We then had to clean up the pack boxes and tarps, attend to any sore horses and fix broken gear. The horses were then hobbled and bells put on them and let go.
The following day the guides delicately prepared the cape – it was important not to puncture it with any holes, which was not easy as the skin around the eyes and lips was very thin. The fat and meat were then removed from the hide, turned inside out and salted for preservation. The whole package was then wrapped in a tarp and hung from a tree to let the moisture drain away. Manager Craig ‘Yak’ Yakiwchuk flew in after a couple of days and picked up the whole lot – meat, antlers and cape – and flew it out to be butchered and prepared for overseas transport. This was the general routine for the season, which included three hunts, each nine days long, with one changeover day.
When the season was over it was time to track out. We took the same four-day route out that we’d taken in, but everything was covered with a blanket of snow. The ground was frozen and any still water was starting to freeze. The trip was relatively uneventful. We took a steady pace, cruising through the magical snow-covered landscape, with the packhorses carrying the bare minimum.
The trees had lost their leaves and the ground was bright white, crisscrossed with animal tracks. The soundtrack to the journey was the horses’ hooves clopping on the rock-hard tracks. Since then we’ve all gone our separate ways, but it was an unforgettable experience that I carry with me every day. I’d recommend it to anyone with a love of the outdoors and horses.
This story excerpt is from Issue #52
Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2007