My Father’s Caliber


Coming from the eastern half of the continent, mountain caribou hunting was completely unfamiliar to me. That changed when I inherited my father’s classic 1960s rifle made expressly for Western-mountain hunting and chambered in the now obsolete 7 mm magnum Sharpe & Hart. Before his passing, my father was keenly interested in ballistics and target shooting. I didn’t share those passions and so never knew of his interest in long-range hunting and how it had been molded by Western-mountain hunting legends like Jack O’Connor. In his youth, he had taken the first obvious steps in preparing for a Western hunt by handpicking what he believed to be the finest long-distance caliber for his rifle and scoping it with a Balvar 8a (some of the then best available glass). By the time I came along, he had put such dreams in the back of the closet. Perhaps he felt there would be future opportunities. If so, they never materialized. Being the recipient of his rifle and books, I began to realize the depth of his youthful ambitions. More than carved walnut and machined steel, that rifle was a testament to unfinished business.

If you’ve never heard of the 7 mm Sharpe & Hart, an entire chapter is dedicated to it in Terry Wieland’s Great Hunting Rifles. As Wieland explains, from the late 1940s to the early 60s it was the envy of elite mountain hunters in Alberta, B.C., and the Yukon. In a time when long-distance cartridges were almost inexistant, it was designed to reach out flatter, further, and with authority. From the standpoint of efficiency and accuracy, it has been equaled but arguably not surpassed. Unfortunately, the cartridge failed to be mass marketed and was eclipsed by more powerful but less efficient rounds. As I learned to handload the cartridge (the only way to now obtain rounds), I realized that in leaving me his rifle my father had also passed on his dream of hunting the West. It took hold and I began reading O’Connor for myself while listening to the latest Western hunting podcasts. If I was going to finish what my father began, I wanted to do it in similar fashion with pack horses deep in the Western mountains. And, of course, with my father’s caliber.

That is what led me to book with Gundahoo River Outfitters in Northern B.C. They offered a mountain caribou hunt that was precisely what I was seeking. The owner, Quintin Thompson, understood my desire to place the focus of the hunt on the experience. As I began to gather the essential gear, a sobering moment came when I realized that the entire trip hinged upon the single pull of a fifty-year old trigger. Modern media insistence on the newest equipment made me question my choices. Velocity, energy, ballistic coefficients, adjustable scope turrets, everyone has their reasons for a preferred rifle, caliber, bullet, and glass. While my choices were rooted in nostalgia, I was reassured that my S&H handloads were achieving 1” groupings from my vintage 1968 Schultz & Larsen rifle with 3x9x36 Swarovski scope.

At the range the braggadocios long-distance shooters pointed out that the costs of a new rifle and high magnification scope with adjustable turrets were a fraction of the overall costs of the trip. Why shun them? Missing from their consideration is the fact that ours is a sport with a long history of adoration and conservation of the mountains and their game. By handloading a classic Western caliber, I was fostering a sense of continuity with previous generations of hunters. Using a classic cartridge necessitated memorising the bullet trajectory and its maximum point-blank range, or MPBR. A throwback to the days before range finders and adjustable turrets, MPBR is, in my opinion, an ideal hunting limit. By zeroing two inches high at 100 yards, my MPBR was +/- 5.5 inches at 300 yards. If an animal was further than that, I would just have to work closer.

The desire to bring a caribou home required packing three extreme coolers and making a six-day drive to Northern B.C. As the mighty St. Lawrence gave way to boreal forest, plains, and Rocky Mountains, each day increased the level of anticipation. Crossing the Peace River, I knew I had come to the Promised Land when I saw my first Stone’s Sheep on the side of the Alaska Highway. Pulling into base camp, I passed a landing strip with wind bags floating in the air. Moose and caribou antlers were arrayed at varying angles against the cook house – a scene right out of an O’Connor text. I verified the rifle’s zero under the gaze of Quintin. No, he hadn’t heard of Sharpe & Hart – he simply pronounced the grouping good. A horseman, he was more interested in discussing my leather scabbard designed and had handmade based upon a 1960s O’Connor sketch. At supper I met Art, Quintin’s father. Retired, he had ample time to talk. Art told me that he vaguely remembered the S&H cartridge. At the end of the evening, he informed me that I would be flying into caribou camp in the morning. There, I would be met by his grandchildren Isaac and Anna. 

We landed a few hours after sunup. As I climbed out, it was another perfect setting. Across the Gundahoo sat the camp. Isaac the guide, and Anna the wrangler, were all smiles as we shared a mountain sheep stir-fry for lunch. They introduced me to Mack, a horse with a gentle disposition whose clear aim in life is to leave no edible plant untouched. That afternoon we started for a line of mountains paralleling the Gundahoo. Isaac led, I followed, and Anna trailed with Pete the pack horse. We were on and off the saddle numerous times on the way to the ridgetop – a test of my physical preparations. From there, we glassed several valleys as we made our way along the ridgetops.

The views of windswept grass on the ridgetops, lines of white water far below, and ponds here and there reflecting the blue sky made me realize how privileged I was at that moment. “Sublime” is the expression the romantic poets of the 19th century used to describe what I felt. I spotted an impressive bull moose with my 8×42 binoculars, Isaac drew our attention to a brown bear, but no caribou were seen. Our last stop was Quintin’s Valley, after which we’d call it a day. After twenty minutes, Isaac noted something in the spotting scope. “It’s a lone bull,” he remarked. “How nice? I asked. “Look for yourself,” was the reply. All I saw were massive dark antlers swaying above the willows in the valley bottom. He was worth pursuing.

It took longer than I anticipated to zigzag to the valley bottom, leading the horses on foot. While we left Anna to tie them up, Isaac and I made our way as silently as possible through thick willows into a grove of spruce where we could just see the bull. Then, the wind betrayed us. He scented us and we distinctly heard a snort. Off he headed into the thick stuff. With a sigh, I thought the stalk was over. Isaac climbed the valley side for a better vantage and found the bull about 250 yards distant. He made a sign to join him. I slipped several times on wet roots and moss as I balanced the rifle in one hand and used the other to pull on willow branches as I made my way to him. The terrain was steep and my footing, as well as that of the improvised shooting tripod, wasn’t stable. “How many cartridges in the magazine,” he asked? “The chamber is empty, and I have three in the magazine,” was my reply. “OK,” he said, “get ready to shoot and hand me a couple of spares.” After ten minutes of intense watching the caribou, he worked his way into a small clearing. Isaac ranged him at 235 yards. “Take the shot when you’re ready,” he whispered. Trying to calm my racing heart and keep the rifle as steady as possible on the dancing tripod, I squeezed the trigger. As the report echoed across the valley the caribou stood motionless. I had missed cleanly, forgetting to aim low on a steep incline. I berated myself while working the action and putting the crosshairs lower. In the interval, the bull remained motionless, undoubtedly surprised by the unfamiliar sound. This time the bullet connected, and the bull went down. He struggled to his feet but just barely. “Don’t let him into the thick stuff” ran through my mind and broke my concentration. My third shot was again high. The magazine was empty, and the bull was labouring towards the willows. Isaac, who had anticipated this contingency, was a step ahead of me. As I opened the action, he handed me a cartridge. Jacking it into the chamber and taking a deep breath I focused on aiming low. At the shot, the caribou collapsed.

Since spotting the bull I had been running on adrenaline. If anyone tells you that coming down a greasy mountainside – with a substantial horse at your heels – is easy, they speak not from experience. Having to partially climb a valley side, and rapidly shoot four times off an instable platform, didn’t help my state of wellbeing. With the caribou down, it took some time to realise that this was the successful culmination of the trip and all the preparations. Smiles broke out as we approached the bull. He was massive. Isaac though he must have had the valley to himself and had been fattening there all summer. This was Anna’s first caribou hunt, and she was as elated as me. After taking photos, we began dressing the bull in the rain. Night crept up on us and the sky was without moon or starlight as we packed the last meat panier onto Pete. We were now too heavy to leave the valley the way we came in. Isaac remembered that his father had taken a moose here several years ago and that it was possible to continue down the valley to the Gundahoo River. The next hours, sometimes following steep streams, sometimes narrow moose paths, sometimes breaking brush, were a rodeo with willows constantly trying to remove my glasses. Worse, in the dark Pete tried to follow right on Mack’s rear, giving Mack momentary fits. It was after midnight when we reached the Gundahoo. 

Once we made it to the river I wanted to stop for some tea, a bite to eat, and get some circulation into my stiff knees. Isaac and Anna were adamant, however, that because of the combination of meat and bears, it wasn’t wise to stop. We crossed and recrossed the Gundahoo countless times, the only light being Isaac’s headlamp as he led the way. Stiff, exhausted, and struggling to stay alert for each crossing, I took comfort in an O’Connor sermon about trusting the eyesight of your horse at night. I patted Mack on the neck and whispered that there was an apple in his future. On several occasions my eyes closed. It was the surefootedness of Mack that saw us across the river. Around 2 a.m. I became queasy from the constant rocking, as if I was on a boat in heavy seas. I only fully came back to life when a whinny of greeting broke the night air as one of the pack horses left in camp vocalized his pleasure at our return. It was past three in the morning, and I couldn’t extricate myself from the saddle without help. My last memory of that night was the delicious hot chocolate Anna passed around the camp table.

Looking back, we returned that night with a magnificent set of antlers that I left with Peace Taxidermy, and which now hang in our home as a reminder of the trip. It may be cliché, but O’Connor had reason to write that it is the sublime mountain scenes that remain the most vivid memories. My only regret is to not be able to share them with my father. But it was his caliber that took the caribou, and I know that fact would have gratified him. Considering the logistics involved in returning across the continent with hundreds of pounds of frozen meat, things worked out to near perfection. I say “near” because after all the preparations and positive thinking, I had envisaged the hunt ending with a single trigger pull. As I fondly retell these stories at the dinner table, my son disabuses me of such naïveté. “So what if it took four?” he notes between mouthfuls of caribou steak, “everything worked out in the end.” 

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