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Arctic Red River Outfitters, Part 1

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Words and Photographs by Daniel Wakefield Pasley.


THIS IS A FIELD REPORT ABOUT A WORLD THAT ALMOST NO LONGER EXISTS and a sport that requires three days of travel, several hotels, two commercial flights, one semi-commercial Twin Otter flight, a number of 4-wheeler commutes, the rushed, near-forced consumption of a chunky bowl of stew made with meat of indeterminate origin, and one helicopter flight operated by a pilot prone, rumor has it, to seizures—all of this not to mention weeks if not months of preparation in regards to kit and fitness, as well as some serious cash and a large duffel bag should you be returning to America with a dead animal(s)—just to show up at the start line.

The start line in this case is a wide, flat strip of gravel in the middle of a river in the middle of Arctic Red River Outfitter’s (A.R.R.O.) hunting area: a road less area 250 miles wide and 450 miles long, an area in the middle of the northwest corner of the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.), all of it some 60-odd miles south of the Arctic Circle.


We are here because the A.R.R.O. in the N.W.T. is one of the last places on Earth where Mountain Hunting is done right.


A.R.R.O. is a vestige, a last-bastion, an outpost. It’s one of the few remaining coordinates on Earth’s space-time continuum where the venerable, near-extinct tradition of Mountain Hunting persists, survives, continues, etc., unmolested (no government oversight!), undomesticated (no shrinking, withered, subjugated nature), unchanged (hard-man backpacking required!), unperverted (no helicopters! no long-range sniper-style whacking!), etc.


That said, we are also here because, bottom-line, this place is thick with rams and the caribou stack.





Shortly after an email introduction by a mutual friend, Jason and I spoke on the phone for the first time – for two hours straight. Two months later we backpacked across a moaning, rapidly melting British Columbian glacier in pursuit of a Stone Sheep. Four months after that I spent ten days in Western Alaska floating a nearly nameless river learning about hoar frost and hummocks while watching two brothers (one of whom is legendary Guide in Alaska) hunt a Grizzly Bear. And now six months after Alaska, Jason and I are here in Norman Wells, town of. Jason intends to kill a Dall sheep, preferably a “fully-tipped, classic-looking ram”2 and, time permitting, a Mountain Caribou with “trash everywhere and junk in all different directions,” – it turns out Mountain Caribou or Reindeer, as in Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer, have numerous horn arrangements and point counts, typically the more symmetrical the better but Jason is interested in an asymmetrical and “busy-“horned animal – and  I intend, God permitting, to witness-slash-record this Mountain Hunting Campaign (M.H.C.) which, side note,  this M.H.C. costs roughly $35,000.00 not including various trophy and shipping fees.


Before you can hunt (legally) you basically need to leave civilization.


You need to go to the very edge of everything you associate with modern society, you need to run The Grid all the way out, you need to take smaller and smaller and smaller planes until finally you reach the end of the line from which traveling any further North or West (or whatever) is only possible by private or chartered craft: i.e. bush planes, helicopters, horses, etc. Norman Wells—“Where Adventure Begins,”— is that kind of place.


MONDAY 2:30PM – TUESDAY 1:18PM, BECAUSE OF THE WAY SCHEDULES AND WEATHER and travel work in these parts, it’s not uncommon to spend 24 hours in a kind of limbo on your way into (get psyched) and out of (reentry decompress) the bush. Here is what Jason and I did with our time  in Norman Wells on our way to A.R.R.O.

  1. Jason and I met and dined with several hunters (five total) over the course of our 24-hour+ layover, all of whom were also headed to the A.R.R.O. to Mountain Hunt. Outfitters work in batches; they bring five or six or seven guests in at a time, assign each (guest/hunter) a guide and drop each pairing (guide + hunter) off somewhere deep in the bush, where and with whom all depends on the animal being hunted and the hunter’s skill level.
  2. I met and hung out with the owner/operator/concierge/driver of the Heritage Hotel, who, widely circulated legend has it, will sizable discount the cost of your room in exchange for a carton of American cigarettes – see below item #4.
  3. I packed all my soon to be utterly unnecessary civilian trappings like my laptop, my driver license, my low-top Vans, my iPhone (there was no internet or reliable wi-fi or 4/3/2 G or similar in Norman Wells anyway, so whatever, but shit started to feel very real at that particular moment), my jeans and other domestic-type apparel, and so on and so forth into a duffel bag and packed the duffel bag itself into Heritage Hotel’s combination IT, Laundry and Storage Room near the loading dock where the hunters keep their rifles and dead animals.
  4. I spent one day purchasing overpriced Cokes ($4.00 for a 160z bottle) and cans of Copenhagen, and watching Jason and some old white lawyer dude from the Midwest, who rumor had it brought an external frame pack and a bona fide Boy Scout sleeping bag—the kind that rolls up into a 35-pound super-absorbent cotton flannel tree stump—for his ten day backpacking hunt, sight-in their rifles behind a dump on the edge of town.
  5. I spent the following morning (post-breakfast) lying for two anxious hours on a bed in room 107, fully-camo-kitted out, boots and all, waiting for a Twin Otter to depart, which Twin Otter couldn’t depart due to bad weather. “Low ceiling,” they said.

TUESDAY 1:40PM, JASON AND I, AS WELL AS (OUR NEW FRIENDS), depart Norman Wells in a Twin Otter loaded with rifles, ammunition, a large number of brightly colored barrels full of gasoline and a life-sized fully operational 4-wheeler. The Twin Otter is flown by two high school students in jumpsuits. Shortly after takeoff the pilot on the left spends nearly a minute bent over and rummaging under his seat for a dropped map, like a Disneyland-bound husband in a rental T&C.3 Moments later the pilot on the right addresses us over the PA about exits, aft and fore, and about how our flight is expected to take forty-five minutes. A dimly lit sign posted on what serves as the wall separating the “cockpit” and “main cabin” reads NO SMOKING and INTEDICTION DE FUMER. Somebody asks about peanuts and an in-flight movie. The flight takes an hour and half and more critically, it requires a hole/break in the weather before finally we are able to land in the dirt at the end of A.R.R.O.’s quarter-mile long “driveway.”


TUESDAY 3:10PM, UPON EXITING THE TWIN OTTER WE SEE SEVERAL HUNTERS (on their way back to Norman Wells) standing in front of an orange tarp on which rows of horns and piles of capes (the fur or pelt of animal) are laid out. Behind the hunters several women, a few small children, two dogs, an old man wearing a baseball cap and an oil cloth duster, several young men astride 4-wheelers as well as a handful of seasoned looking guide-types stand watching us. Here and there sit, or just are, all manner of Self-Supported Commune apparati; head-high stacks of red-blue-and-orange metal barrels, a wooden windowless garage-shaped building, a couple of rudimentary water pump-looking pumps, a large quantity of white plastic buckets, about 100 yards of 2” black plastic hosing, some of it strung-out some of it coiled, solar panels mounted on pieces of lumber stuck in the dirt just kinda wherever, etc. Behind A.R.R.O’s “airport” a path (the driveway) leads off into the woods toward camp.

Centered around a Main Street of sorts, Basecamp is a collection of low, log-cabin and log-cabin-looking buildings, storage sheds, utility sheds, tool sheds, bunkhouses and the Kitchen, which kitchen, the oldest and most important building in camp, is (apparently) the center of activity not just three times a day but nearly almost always – if you’re at Basecamp (i.e. not in the bush) you’re eating cookies and drinking coffee basically all day long. Off to the side, just beyond a trickle of a creek (the camp’s only sink and water fountain), is the Meat Shed and Horn Shack. Both are surrounded by a low, blue electric fence—for the Grizzly bears.


TUESDAY 3:30PM, WHILE JASON EATS A BOWL OF CARIBOU (or moose or similar, nobody knows) stew and talks to Tav (the owner of A.R.R.O.) while he refuels his Super Cub, I talk to Dave, the duster and baseball hat dude from earlier. Dave’s daughter Rebecca is married to Tav. Dave is here (in camp) doing “various things.” Dave is an old Bush Cowboy, or depending on which part of Canada you’re from, an old High-Country Cowboy. Dave tells me about Tulies, Riding for the Brand, surviving 13 plane crashes, the time he was run over—as in literally run over—by a steam train, and what it’s like to have cerebrospinal fluid running out of your nose in the process of surviving what should have been a fatal kick to the head by a horse.

TUESDAY 3:40PM,  TAV TAKES JASON INTO THE BUSH IN A SUPER CUB. Thirty minutes later I am assigned to be flown into the same bush in a helicopter operated by a pilot in a BMX helmet.6 The pilot, I later learn from Kent (our guide) over a reconstituted (Mountain House) Buffalo Chicken dinner, has seizures and was likely “got” at a serious discount. Before we depart the helicopter pilot gives me a number of very basic rules regarding properly passengering in a helicopter, i.e., when the helicopter is on never walk around behind it. The flight is powerfully scenic—helicopters are practically all glass and they fly nose down. After a 45-minutes of thuck-thuck-thucking over several mountain ridges and countless massive drainages we land in an expansive, wide-open river valley on a non-descript (except for Jason and our Guide and their gear) stretch of rock and gravel. After crouch-scrambling off the airship which airship barely touches-down and never actually comes to an actual stop, I walk over to where camp is being pitched.

The guys, tent poles in hand,  fire nearly started and but just kinda smoldering now, have stopped what they’re were doing and are silently and cooly observing my arrival. The helicopter is long gone, it’s quiet like it’s never been quiet before. I’ve never been further from civilization. I am WAY out of my element and natural habitat. Not since childhood have I been more reliant on a single person. The Guide, who I’ve never met before now, I know carries a some-what reliable satellite phone and an assault shotgun. Of the three of us he is the only one with any experience in the N.W.T. My life depends on his ability to make good decisions and solve problems. He looks young and worrisomely basic, or normal. I stop in the rocks five feet shy from the two of them. It’s still quiet and still nobody has said a word. Jason smiles, the Guide smiles, I smile. The Guide looks at me and my pack and my empty hands and says, “Hey, you forgot your food bag.”