Article and Photos by Craig Gillock
“What do think?” I asked. The buck was heading away from us. He wasn’t running but he was definitely intent on being somewhere other than here. It was now or never.
“What are we doing?” I asked again.
“Yeah. Let’s take him,” Logan, my guide, answered.
“What’s the range?” The buck had shifted his course and was now headed away from us at an angle, moving right to left.
“623 yards,” Logan gave as the distance.
I adjusted my scope, turning the turret to 650 to allow for the buck’s pace. I chambered a round, settled the crosshairs, and squeezed the trigger.
Into the Wildlands
When I boarded the plane headed to Alberta for my first mule deer hunt I had certain pictures in my head. I envisioned huge agricultural fields of canola and soybeans. I imagined having to stalk my quarry by crawling on my hands and knees. But most of all I believed I would be hunting in miles and miles of flat, open prairie. I could not have been more wrong.
As we drove south down Highway 2 from Calgary to our outfitter’s house in Claresholm, I couldn’t take my eyes off the mountains to the west. I was looking at the Livingstone Range of the Canadian Rockies, and I would spend the next week getting to know them and their foothills well.
We pulled into the driveway and were greeted by our outfitter, Frank Simpson. We spent a few moments finalizing the forms for our hunting licenses then Dad, Frank, and I piled ourselves and our gear into Frank’s truck and headed west. The trip from Frank’s house to the ranch we’d be bunking on took a little over an hour. The closer we got to our destination the more the terrain changed from flat, open prairie to timbered ridges and deep ravines. By the time we arrived on the ranch at the entrance to the Bob Creek Wildlands we were in the heart of the Whaleback foothills.
The Whaleback encompasses the most extensive, least disturbed and uninterrupted Montane landscape in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain natural region. It is considered the best representation of montane landscape, which only occurs where Chinook winds blow away the snow cover for most of the winter, in Canada. This phenomena makes the area one of the best and most important wintering ranges for elk and mule deer in Alberta. The presence of these ungulates, along with white tail and moose also make the area home to predators such as grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes. I didn’t see any of these animals but we did cut several cat tracks while hunting and we did come across a fresh elk kill.
Our hosts, Craig Vancuren and Pam Didier, were waiting as we got out of the truck. Frank had phoned ahead and Deb had a delicious home cooked dinner waiting for us. Not long after we finished eating, our guides, Lucas and Sheldon, came by to introduce themselves and we came up with a game plan for the morning. At first light we would drive a couple miles down the road so Dad and I could take a few shots with our rifles to make sure nothing got moved or damaged during our flight. Once we finished that we would head back to the ranch, get the horses, and ride into the wildlands.
Everything went well at the range and by 9:30 we were a few miles into our hunting grounds. I’d never ridden horseback before but the beauty of my surroundings was so awe inspiring that the pain of being in a saddle for the first time wasn’t registering in my brain. I wish I could say my attention was focused solely on looking for elk and muleys, but the truth was I couldn’t help but wonder at the country we were riding through. It was like I was in one of the outdoor shows I had watched in my youth. Snowcapped mountains filled the western horizon. The Old Man River glistened in the distance, marking the southern border of our hunt unit. The Whaleback ranges stretched as far as I could see to the east and the north. Groves of pine, fir, and spruce covered the northern slopes of the ridges while the seemingly ever-present winds kept snow and all vegetation save prairie grasses from settling on the southern faces. Aspens grew in abundance along drainages and small patches of willows dotted the countryside.
After riding for an hour or so Lucas suggested we stop and glass for a while. Growing up learning to hunt in the Appalachian Mountains and hardwood forests of Pennsylvania, using quality optics to find and hunt game was a new experience for me. I’ve used binoculars while hunting of course, but I was usually never looking more than a couple hundred yards across a farm field. Here, the wide-open terrain and sheer vastness of the region demanded that we utilize not only binos but spotting scopes as well.
Our first deer sighting came within minutes when Dad spotted some muleys making their way across a clearing near the top of a ridge a few miles away. Sheldon immediately set up his spotting scope and began to search the clearing for bucks. There was a small fork horn but the rest were doe. We spent a couple more hours glassing from this spot before moving on. We saw a few more small bucks, and several does but nothing that made us want to put on a stalk.
We lead the horses down off the ridge to the trail, mounted up, and rode on. We came to another ridge that Lucas and Sheldon felt would serve as a good lookout so we tied off the horses and set up camp there for the remainder of the afternoon. As the day wore on we spotted more deer but none that met our criteria. Dad did find a giant whitetail chasing some does but we only had mule deer and elk tags. Around three o’clock I glassed a small herd of cow elk moving down a drainage. As evening approached we headed back to the ranch. Dad and Sheldon would continue north then turn west and loop back. Lucas and I went south, returning the way we had ridden in.
As we rode we would stop and glass up to the ridge tops and into the coulees. We saw a few deer, some of which we had been watching throughout the day, but darkness was settling in fast and shooting light faded away. Riding through country I had never been in before with a full moon as our only source of light was, I admit, a little unnerving. But, one thing I learned quickly on this trip was to trust my horse. They don’t see like we do, they know where to step, and call it instinct, call it heightened senses, they always know the way home. And even though I couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction, in less than an hour from when we last stopped to glass, we were at the gate leading to the corrals and stables.
The next couple of days passed in much the same way as the first. We would ride out before dawn, stopping along the way to glass. Near mid-morning we would lead the horses to the top of a ridge and spend the next few hours scanning the country with our optics. Then as evening approached we would lead the horses back down to the valley floor and slowly make our way home.
We saw deer every day and even put a stalk on a couple of bull elk. We snuck into just over two hundred yards only to discover that both bulls were young and wouldn’t score much better than the mule deer we were after. The only thing of any real significance that occurred was when I got a new guide Wednesday morning. Lucas got a call Tuesday night after we got back to the ranch and had to return home to handle some personal affairs that had arisen in his absence. Logan, his replacement, proved to be equally skilled and did an excellent job guiding me for the rest of my hunt.
When we awoke on Thanksgiving Day we were greeted by strong winds with gusts of over sixty miles per hour. We came upon some good bucks early, but the weather had them holed up in the timber. We made a stalk on a nice five by five but after getting a good look at him through the binos at only 83 yards we decided to pass.
We continued up the valley and found a small herd with a few decent bucks in it. They were bedded down near the top of the ridge, in the wide open. Logan suggested we ride past them, find a spot to tie off the horses, and sneak in from the north, keeping the wind in our face. His plan worked, and we managed to crawl within 120 yards of the deer. The two bucks we could see were both small but there was a third just inside the tree line that looked like a possible shooter. It was almost noon, so we crawled to some cover, had lunch, and waited for him to come into the open.
Sometime around three o’clock the buck emerged from the timber. He walked into the grasses unaware of our presence and completely unconcerned about anything other than checking the does that were scattered down the hillside. We scrutinized the buck as he worked his way from doe to doe, checking to see if any were ready to breed. I settled my crosshairs on his vitals and looked at Logan for the thumbs up. He shook his head no. I lowered my gun and watched the buck cross the valley floor and disappear up a drainage on the next ridge.
The deer in this part of the country grow quite large and when trying to harvest a mature animal the size of their antlers can be very indicative of their age. Typically, a four pointer will score in the 170’s or better once they’ve matured, while a four by three will score 160 or better. This buck still had some growing to do. Unfortunately, that buck would be one of the last deer Logan and I would see that day. Dad and Sheldon, however, were having a little more luck.
The two of them were hunting a few miles east of us. Early that afternoon they had spotted a good buck slipping along a cattle trail and into some cover. After getting into position to ambush the buck if he came back out, Dad got set up and started to play the waiting game. It wouldn’t be a long game. Less than forty minutes later the buck stepped into some brush and Dad dropped him at 81 yards. As they were packing the buck out they found another, bigger buck less than half a mile down the valley from where Dad had taken his deer. That night, as we sat around the table eating dinner, Logan and I decided to go after that buck.
The next morning, to get to where the buck was last seen as early as possible, Logan and I loaded the horses onto a trailer and drove to the head of the valley rather than ride out from the ranch. By the time the sun crept over the eastern horizon we had almost reached our destination. As we were getting into position Logan spotted a group of bucks a mile away on the next ridge. They were dogging a lone doe and one was a huge four by four. Suddenly, we were left wondering if we shouldn’t ride on and try to close in on the group we had in the spotting scope. We still hadn’t found the buck from the night before, in fact, we hadn’t seen any deer where we were at.
Logan and I discussed it and decided to wait it out for a while. The big buck across the valley didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere so Logan kept tabs on him while I watched the ridge we were on. A short time later I had just finished glassing a clearing when I caught movement coming out of the trees to our right. It was him. I tapped Logan’s leg to get his attention and pointed towards the buck. Logan spun around but only managed to get a quick look at the buck before it slipped behind a small knob.
The next several minutes can only be called controlled chaos. Logan wanted us to move to the next rise in the hope of cutting the distance between us and the buck. He felt the buck would take some time to work its way through the timber, giving us the opportunity to make our move. We grabbed our gear and began to run. We’d only gone fifty or sixty yards when the buck broke from the trees. We both immediately dove to the ground. I slipped off my pack and laid it in front of me for a rest. After the conversation between Logan and I that I wrote about in the beginning to this article, I took my shot.
After the shot, I watched through the scope as the buck fell dead in his tracks. Logan was up, celebrating and jumping around, before me but I guarantee no one was more elated than I. This hunt had been one of the most physically exhausting experiences of my life. Two years ago, I honestly doubt I would have been able to climb these ridges or maneuver into a position to be successful. I was out of shape and my cardio was a joke. But, I realized, if I wanted to go on these types of hunts, or even lead a full life, I was going to have to change. And that’s what I did. I hit the gym, changed the way I ate, and hammered my cardio. My success on this hunt was a direct result of this lifestyle change.
To make the moment even sweeter, my dad got to watch the whole thing happen. He and Sheldon had ridden to the top of the ridge next to us and they watched it all unfold through their binoculars. As I sat on the hillside admiring my buck I looked across the valley and saw them riding our way. In that moment I remember thinking how, when someone loses a parent, you will often hear them say they wish they had done this or done that while they were still alive. There’s a lot of things my father and I do together, and I hope when that time comes for me there won’t be much left unsaid or undone. When he got there my dad gave me a huge, said congratulations, and told me he was proud of me. Then we burned up the cameras taking pictures.
Back at the ranch, after we had packed out my buck, the celebration continued. We finished the butchering process and asked Craig and Pam to invite their neighbors over for a belated Thanksgiving feast. The conversation at the house that night was light-hearted and full of laughter and stories. And as I looked around at my dad and the strangers who had become friends, I was reminded, once again, that the best part of these adventures is rarely the kill. Alberta may not have been anything like I expected, but as it turned out, it was everything I could have asked for.