By Joseph Robertia
When some people think of a caribou hunter, it is not the image of a 58-year-old grandmother that comes to mind, but Joyce Snow, of Clam Gulch, has been surprising people with preconceived hunting notions for a long time.
“I didn’t get into hunting until my husband asked me to join him on his annual hunt with his brothers around Grand Rapids, Minn., back in about 1974. Being the only female in the party at that time, I was not well-received by all of the hunters in the group. Some didn’t believe I’d make it through the first day. But, after a weekend of trudging through prickly brush and falling sleet and snow, I earned their respect. I kept up and worked the drive like everyone else, with no complaints and five months pregnant to boot,” she said.
Snow was no stranger to shooting sports, even though she hadn’t ever hunted before that trip. Her father was an active and experienced woodsman.
“Growing up in Minnesota, our porch was filled with the huge racks of unlucky whitetail deer that stepped into the crosshairs of my father’s rifle or shotgun. My dad was known for his steady hand and deadly aim. He could knock down an animal at 400-plus yards. I once saw him trimming branches from trees that were too close to the power line with a .22 rifle,” she said.
Some of those genes must have been passed to her. While she was unsuccessful at bagging a deer on her first arduous hunt, it wasn’t long until she did level the crosshairs on an eight-point buck.
“Eventually, I got the chance to experience the ultimate rush. That adrenaline-pumping moment, when the perfect specimen is in your crosshairs and you slowly squeeze the trigger. Then standing over the animal with a sense of supreme satisfaction and accomplishment,” she said. “One doesn’t come down from exhilaration like that for a while. And, of course, the story lasts a lifetime.”
In 2005, Snow and her husband, Stanley Snow, moved to Alaska and she didn’t leave her passion for hunting behind. Like many hunters who eventually make a home in the Great Land, Snow dreamed of a big-game hunt. She’s tried unsuccessfully for moose a few times, so this August she opted to set her sights on the caribou of the Forty Mile herd that resides north of Fairbanks.
“It was quite a bit different than hunting in the woods of Minnesota. Having those wide-open spaces for a half mile was amazing,” she said. “Looking across to the next peak illuminated by the morning sun with half-hidden fluffy cumulus clouds behind it, we realized that we were indeed at the ‘Top of the World.’”
About midmorning, not far from Circle City — a boomtown in gold-mining days — the two spotted caribou on a ridge.
“We parked the truck, got our rifles out and scoped the animals. One had a small rack and the other a fork, at best. Since it’s much more difficult identifying a bull in a species where both sexes have racks, we needed to see some evidence of sex. We decided to trek on out to the ridge and try to get a closer look,” Snow said.
Unlike stalking whitetail in the hardwood forests of the Lower 48, the northern tundra offers few places for hunters to hide.
“After about a mile on foot, the caribou keeping 500 feet or more ahead of us, we could not make positive identification. Sneaking up on these animals in terrain with few trees proved difficult,” she said. “We retreated, feeling exhilarated by the rush of stalking big game, and hopeful that we would have the opportunity to see more.”
The couple saw more caribou that evening, which bolstered their confidence they were hunting in the right area. The next morning they decided to take up a spot on a high ridge and wait for caribou to come to them.
“As we traversed the sloping, moss-covered plateau, enjoying the warm, fall breeze, we were thrilled to see a pair of caribou about a half a mile away. We crawled the rest of the way up to two high points on the ridge. We wanted a slightly different vantage point to be prepared for them to move in different directions. There we could lie down and observe the caribou. One had a nice rack, bigger than a female, I thought. My husband didn’t agree and we knew we had to be sure,” Snow said.
Luckily for Snow, the animals made a positive identification easier. The two caribou moved closer and Snow and her husband, lying prone 20 yards away, began excitedly whispering to each other. Only the tops of their heads were visible to the caribou, which approached to within 250 yards. Snow’s husband gave her the go-ahead.
“I knew he was giving me the first shot and was prepared to back me up if need be,” she said.
She hoped all the target practice she had done in the backyard of their 7-acre property would pay off. Snow leveled the scope crosshairs of her 30.06 Remington rifle on the center of the healthy, gray-colored animal’s chest. His velvet-covered rack swept from side to side as the beast scanned the horizon.
“I squeezed the trigger and the big bull dropped in his tracks,” she said.
Not wanting to take more than they needed, the couple quartered the animal. Using a sled her grandchildren play with in winter, Snow and her husband packed out the meat, skull and hide.
They had such a great time they plan on making the hunting trip an annual adventure and Snow said she also doesn’t intend to give up on her desire to bag the biggest species of deer.
“I still want to get a moose one of these days,” she said. “So I guess I’ll keep hunting for as long as I physically can.”
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