This is the story of my first Alberta mule deer hunt. Being a late-in-life hunter, I’ve had a lot of firsts between the tender ages of 30 and 35. A perfect storm of circumstances initially inspired me to take hunting up, and it has enriched my life in ways nothing else could have.Living in Ontario, Canada, the ecology and topography limits hunting methods to a few- primarily ambush or still. While I love these, any time I see anything remotely mountain-hunting related, from a magazine ad to watching the Land of Giants: Idaho mule Deer episodes of Meateater for the umpteenth time, the little boy and grown man in me say in unison – “I’ve gotta get out there.”
I’m an active guy, so the allure of a spot-and-stalk hunt is something that checks a lot of boxes for me. With that being said, there are a lot of barriers to entry for a DIY mountain hunt as a resident of Ontario. Mainly, there aren’t any provinces with tags for non-residents without a resident hunter host or guide. I could always take the guided hunt approach, but have you seen house prices in Toronto recently? So unless I make a friend who lives in Alberta or BC, move, or find a duffle bag full of cash, the chances of huffing it up a mountain with a tag in my pocket were slim….that was until I randomly came across a Kijiji ad for a mountain Mule Deer hunt in Alberta. That’s right, a Kijiji ad.
Obviously, there was some initial skepticism on my part, but after reading positive feedback on forums, my intrigue was peaked. Now the final piece was cost, and with a last-minute cancellation by one of his other clients, it became manageable. All this combined with starting my own business and then the passing of my father, it seemed like another perfect storm of circumstances to take a risk and go for it. And so, with a “here we go” attitude, I sent my deposit.
With eight weeks to go, I started to put my gear and myself in order. I’m a gear junkie, so researching was an excuse to geek out extra hard. I relied a lot on various forums like Rokslide and local classifieds for things like tripods, but when it came to items like merino underwear, I thought it best to buy those new.
The physical aspect was an odd one, as it required me to train for something that I couldn’t actually do in practice: climb a mountain. While I can do thousands of lunges, the general consensus is there’s no substitute for actual mountains. This brings us to the Centennial Park bunny hill, a Mystery Ranch frame pack and a 30kg (66lb) bag of gravel from Home Depot. While less than a foothill, let alone a mountain, it’s as hilly as it gets within the Greater Toronto Area and hiking that thing was no walk in the park figuratively. I also have the distinction of becoming the only male to use the Stairmaster at my gym. 100 floors were a chore at first, but by the end, I was crushing 400. With all these combined, I thought I was good to go…….thought being the keyword.
Alberta Mule Deer Hunt Day 1
Fast forward to my landing at the Calgary International Airport. My guide Sam Laforce of Laforce Outdoors picked me up . His muddy white truck, possibly the worst color choice for an outfitter, made it easy to pick him out.
Several hours later, and a failed attempt at taking a dump in an already clogged and nearly overflowing gas station toilet, and we were at our first camp, then we’d head to the river valley early the following morning.
Come morning, we loaded our gear and headed out. The road was thick with hunters, but we were heading to a place that few people were willing to hike to, (only seeing one other hunter in six days is a testament to that.)
Once the camp was set and gear in order, we headed down the mostly frozen river to glass. And soon thereafter, I was doing something I’d been dreaming of for years; glassing for mule deer in the mountains. Looking back, I’m not sure I soaked it all in, but I’ve got a grin while writing this.
This was my first full day of hunting. Saying I’m not a morning person is an understatement but getting up was easy on this day. After gearing up, we hiked the mountain behind camp, which has some great vantage points. Although the hike was tough, I was holding my own, which was a satisfying feeling.
The peak offered a great view of the bowl behind the mountain and the faces on the other side of the valley, while also offering heavily used trails within shooting distance. I mainly stayed at the spot that offered a shot and made a La-Z-Boy of snow to make it extra comfortable.
I had a small victory in that the layering system I had put together worked like a charm and I never got uncomfortably cold. Then as the sun dipped below mountains, this day was done and we headed down into the darkness.
We started this day by glassing from the river bottom up into the mountains. Not long into the sit, Sam came over to show me a buck on the mountain behind me. This 3×3 was at least 3.5 years old and full-bodied.
And now came a decision that was years in the making – do we go after him? I had a lot to consider. First off, I didn’t want the hunt to end. He also wasn’t the deer I had pictured, which admittedly was greedy of me and a rookie mistake. There was mention of 4x4s in the area and that got stuck in my head. If this was Ontario, I’d already be hiking upwards. Lastly, we knew we were getting snowed in the next day. Something I didn’t consider, was how a whiteout would affect our ability to hike. I’ll chalk this up to inexperience, but in hindsight, it’s obvious that a snowstorm will make everything tougher.
I eventually decided to pass, but not without Sam telling me old adage “don’t pass on the first day what you’d shoot on the last day”……..more than once. Other than that buck, we only saw does, so we hiked up the mountain to glass.
Once at the top of the mountain, Sam glassed up a 3×4, but this guy was noticeably smaller than the first. He spotted this deer in brush so thick that if that deer hadn’t moved, I wouldn’t have seen him.
We ended the day heading down the mountain in darkness again.
This was the dreaded snow day, and it was……snowy.
The last full day of hunting, I woke up excited but also nervous. I don’t subscribe to manifesting your dreams through positive thoughts, but like an atheist praying on a sinking ship, I told myself
“Today is the day! There’s going to be deer! You’re going to do this!”
And with my positive affirmations sent into the universe, we headed out.
At this point, I was ready to take Sam up on his advice of shooting what I would not pass up on the last day……because it was the second to the last day. As I watched a group of does feed, I thought to myself “it’s peak rut, where the hell are the damn bucks?!” And on queue, Sam shot up to me and told me to grab my gun, then showed me a picture of a great Alberta mule deer taken from his spotter.
“Oh, sh*t” was all I could muster up.
Once hiking, I immediately noticed how much more difficult it was with all the snow. As soon as it got steep, I was slipping everywhere. Every step took two or three attempts. Then 20 minutes in, things started to go south. I was getting more winded by the second and pouring sweat. Remember that layering system I was so proud of? In my excitement, I had left on four upper layers, and five lower layers, each of which had a down and Gore-Tex layer.
The Mountain Doesn’t Care
I’m humbled to say that this is when the mountain broke me. Every step was a challenge. Every slip like a slap in the face. And with the rising sun, I knew I was failing at the task at hand. Eventually, it got to the point where I was counting my steps in threes, then taking a break. There was a large part of me that wanted to give up several times, but I knew I’d never forgive myself. Sweating through my layers, I took to eating snow to rehydrate and cool down during rests.
When I got to Sam and he told me what I already knew, the buck had left. When Sam had arrived well ahead of me, the buck was up and stretching. He slowly fed a bit before leaving. Had I got there with Sam, I would have had a shot.
All was not lost, though, and there was a chance the buck could have bedded just over the saddle, giving me an undeserved second chance. So I ate some more snow, slouched over my trekking poles, and followed Sam’s tracks because I knew I couldn’t keep up with him.
A 2nd Chance
When I got to Sam he was smiling, the buck had bedded not too far away. I was so broken that I couldn’t be as excited as I should have. I had known there were two points of failure for this hunt – my gear and body – and despite my efforts, my body failed. Then, while deciding on our next steps, the buck got up, started walking, and headed into the tree line.
One plus side to being at your worst is that you can’t get much lower, so when the buck got up and again sauntered away, it seemed like the more deserved ending to this stalk. And so with the buck gone and me in shambles, we glassed. Sam, with his superior game-eye, spotted dozens of deer on the neighboring mountains. All too far for a climb that I probably couldn’t have done anyway.
Eventually, the sun went down. And with some time to reflect on the day, my enthusiasm returned, and I told Sam if, given the opportunity the next day, I was going for it.
I’d love to tell you I saw a buck this morning and put a stalk on him. In fact, I didn’t even bother with any positive mantras that morning as I somehow knew this trip was over. Not to say I was feeling negative about the trip, but I just felt as if it was over. I glassed up some does and being behind the glass watching them slowly feed into the tree line was a fitting end.
End Of An Adventure
Many hours later, we were back at civilization and it being my first trip like this, I loved the juxtaposition of obviously being a hunter checking into a hotel, and the sight of my filthy gear in their shiny baggage carts gave me a smile.
After everything is said and done, am I upset at myself for not going after that 3×3? Yes. And even though I’m considering it a lesson learned, it still stings every time I look at the pics of him on my phone.
As far as my breakdown, I honestly don’t know if it was due to overheating or being unprepared. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. One thing is for sure, I’ll be upping the intensity of my training for next time. Because there will be a next time. And a time after that because along with having a score to settle, that mountain beat the crap out of me.
Oh, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I can’t wait for my next Alberta mule deer hunt!
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