Alpenjaegerin hunts reindeer in Norway
It’s day three. We’ve covered more than twelve arduous kilometres stalking the prey and our legs are beginning to hurt. The straps of the 90-litre backpacks are already cutting into our shoulders. Bringing home 35 kg of finest reindeer meat is certainly no easy endeavour. Our knees shake a little more with every step, and it’s becoming harder by the minute to find safe purchase on the moss-covered, slippery rocks. My thoughts start to wander as I absorb the stunning natural scenery and go over the events of the last few days. I enjoy the incredible solitude of this seemingly endless wilderness. This alone is more than enough to compensate for the rigours of the last few days. We continue on, approaching our destination step by arduous step. And then we finally arrive ... The adrenaline rush of the hunt slowly subsides, and I realise: Norway is an experience I will never forget!
What’s so special about hunting in Norway?
Rewind a few days: huddled in a tiny plane, we touch down on the south coast of Norway, at the quaintly small airport in Kristiansand. Norway’s particular flair is immediately apparent: everything seems so laid-back and thoroughly likeable. Our guide Are picks us up from the terminal. He will be our companion over the next few days of hunting. But first of all we need to set off on a three-hour drive into the sprawling interior. Our destination is a small and rustic hunting lodge at the heart of the Norwegian plateau, close to a reservoir. In many ways, the journey reminds me of Canada. Largely unused roads, endless expanses of birch and pine forests, pristine nature and stretches of water, as far as the eye can see. We head north along a small river, turn off onto a gravel road skirting the reservoir and soon reach the almost 30,000 hectares of hunting land. Our home for the next five days stands at the end of the lake, light years from modern civilisation: an idyllic little hunting lodge framed by autumn colours.
The fair weather that greeted us when we touched down in Kristiansand has almost disappeared by the time we arrive and we feel the buffets of a blustery north-easterly when we alight from the car. The mountains around are shrouded in impenetrable mist and thick clouds. As we unpack, Are tells us that reindeer tend to move into the wind. So the wind direction is an important factor when hunting these animals. His intention is to gently warn us that the weather is not quite so favourable as was originally forecast. After all, the reindeer are likely to drift beyond the hunting grounds in this kind of weather. Our only comfort when evening arrives is that many factors in hunting can be planned and that it remains a pleasant experience, provided you bring the right gear. But the weather is not one of the things you can influence.
Hunting reindeer means taking things to the limit
Adequately fortified by an ample breakfast the next morning, we split into three groups of two hunters, each with its own guide. I am accompanied by Thomas, a friend from Germany, and our hunting guide Birgo. He has stalked prey in these hunting grounds since childhood and claims to be familiar with every rock. We set off for a second reservoir located higher up, from where we continue on foot. Dashing our hopes, the weather has continued to deteriorate and we are still stubbornly cloaked in mist – with visibility sometimes dropping to below 50 metres. Undaunted, we venture out to stalk reindeer, lugging 15 kg rucksacks stuffed with the utensils we will need over the course of the day. Quite quickly I realise that adequate physical fitness and stamina certainly make hunting an easier pastime here in the northern territories. I am definitely glad that I had been out on the hunt in the mountains of Tyrol, again schlepping a loaded backpack, in the months before.
But after around three kilometres we come to the sobering conclusion that we are likely to spook more reindeer than we will ever see in this strong wind and dense mist. So we decide to take shelter at the foot of a large rock and wait for the visibility to improve. After around half an hour sitting on the sodden turf, Birgo gets up and suggests we stalk up to the next high plateau. Perhaps the weather will be better up there? Shivering with cold on the wet soil, Thomas and I eagerly accept the proposal, if only to warm up during the hike.
So we continue our ascent, and indeed: visibility improves suddenly as we reach the top. Immediately I am struck by the incredible vastness of the landscape. Only now do I realise that a good view and visibility make it so much easier to spot reindeer amidst these rocks and lakes. But there is no game anywhere around, so we still need to be patient. Even the incoming radio message from Are – perched high on the opposite slope with two other hunters – that he can see a herd of reindeer moving in our direction doesn't change anything. But at least we feel a gradual flicker of hope: there must be reindeer around here somewhere.
Stalking reindeer in Norway: mist, wind, cold and harsh weather are constant companions...
Visibility deteriorates again as the mist descends as quickly as it lifted just moments before. We can barely see further than a few metres. So Birgo, Thomas and I head off for a spot to have lunch and wait for the game. Birgo is guessing that the reindeer will come down from the mountain slopes in front of us. And if it happens, we can either pick a clear shot from our vantage point or slip in behind and stalk the animals.
But we wait and wait in vain. We hunker down on the squelchy ground for two hours, without seeing or hearing our prey. I have already put on all the clothes that I stuffed in my rucksack this morning. But the temperature is flirting with freezing point and the rain falling steadily, my fingers are numb with cold and my hair a sodden mess. So I am certainly open to Birgo's decision to start making our way back to the car to warm up and dry our clothes. We plan to head out again for a short evening hunt from our cabin, assuming the weather improves. But events unfold altogether differently ...
We bump into the owner of the huge hunting grounds on our way back to the lodge. We all call him ‘Landlord’ and he is one of Birgo’s close friends. Listening to a brief report of the day’s events from Birgo, he tells us that just the day before, his son had bagged a female leading its offspring in a herd on the other side of the reservoir. But there had been no opportunity to take down the calf as well. Our chance had come!
Reindeer in the crosshairs!
We speed to the other side of the reservoir to try our luck before nightfall. Thomas and I sprint after our hunting guide who is obviously in a hurry to reach the place that Landlord mentioned. It’s hardly a surprise, as it will be pitch black in three hours ... As we ascend, Birgo suddenly stops in front of me as if transfixed. He whispers back to me that he caught sight of a reindeer for a split second, but that it immediately disappeared back into the bushes. So Thomas and I are still waiting for our first glimpse of the animals. We proceed further upstream, reaching a high plateau after around an hour, where the ground is covered with moss and lichen, but without water and rocks. It’s the exact opposite to the terrain we covered in the morning.
The swathes of moss paint the plain in rich orange hues, a blaze of colour that overwhelms me completely. So I fail to notice the reindeer calf moving from left to right, but Birgo points it out straight away. We realise immediately that it must be the calf whose mother was shot the day before. It is meandering helplessly, searching for its parent, maybe 600 metres from our position. Birgo assumes that the reindeer herd will probably have moved on by now. The calf soon enters a copse of trees on the right, disappearing from view. We eke out a scheme to approach the animal without it noticing us first. Birgo decides to imitate the mother’s searching call to attract its attention. While he is braying, I prepare myself to get off a quick shot as soon as the calf steps back out into open ground. Our window of opportunity is small. I pick a slightly elevated, moss-covered rock on which I place my backpack as an improvised rest for a shot from the prone position.
Barely five minutes pass before the calf, heeding Birgo’s call, emerges from the trees on our right and steps tentatively into the field of moss. My chance has come! I whip out my binoculars with integrated rangefinder to gauge the distance – a tricky endeavour in these endless expanses. It’s just 250 metres across the field, but sadly still too far away. We wait for it to come a little closer. Lacking the time to measure the precise range, I twist my ballistic turret to just over 200 metres. The next time the calf stops for a moment, I’m sure I can get off a clean shot. But I aim too high, as the animal is now less than 190 metres away. It darts 50 metres to the left and then trots another 30 metres up the slope. Birgo whispers to me, “Shoot again.” No sooner said than done. I release a shot when the calf pauses briefly at a range of around 220 metres, dropping it to the ground. Waves of happiness, contentment and relief wash over me, all at the same time. Thomas, who was filming the action on his mobile phone from a little further back, scurries over to offer his congratulations.
Night is falling now and we need to be quick. After all, you’ve still a long way to go after setting off in the wilderness of Norway. After an obligatory souvenir photo for me, we set about dismembering the animal and packing it into my rucksack. Birgo explains that Nordic hunters mainly kill animals for the meat, and he deftly chops up the calf in no time at all. We pack everything into our backpacks and make our way back to the car. Thomas and I soon realise that physical fitness is even more important after the shot than it is on the way there.
A unique moment ...
The next day I let Thomas try his luck. The weather seems to have improved, and the rain and mist have lifted for the moment. We start to hope that we might see some more game and perhaps a few bulls today. Setting off from the same starting point as the day before, we know that the trek will be longer as we move eastwards in search of reindeer.
Arriving at our first resting place, I am struck for the first time by the immense expanse of landscape, a view we were denied on the previous day due to the swirling mist. Now we can see over 5,000 metres, but do not spot any game. So we move on, across snowfields and past many more lakes. By the time we pause for lunch behind the natural windbreak of a large rock, my sports watch tells me we have already covered eight kilometres. Suitably fortified and motivated by an ample meal, we continue on into the afternoon. And it soon becomes clear that we will need this sustenance.
We move on, stopping now and then to scan the rocks and plains, taking another break after around an hour. Thomas and I wait and have a drink while Birgo looks for reindeer behind a hill. Reluctant to sit around idly, I gaze across the plain beside the lake in front of me, searching for reindeer.
“Wait a second, what was that”, I mutter to myself incredulously. I zoom out with the binoculars and catch sight of some reindeer, grazing 600 m away between the rocks. “Won’t you just look at that”, says Thomas with a laugh. I zoom in with my film camera as close as possible. It’s true! We look at each other in disbelief. There are five reindeer or more over there, at least three of them bulls. Thomas immediately leaps to his feet to fetch Birgo, who is still looking for game behind the hill. Meanwhile, I keep an eye on the bulls and try to get a clear view of the other animals. I suspect there are two females there as well, although I can’t be certain with my binoculars at this range.
When Thomas returns with Birgo, we decide to slowly approach from behind to elude the attentive reindeer. Birgo reminds us again to be extremely careful. Not only do reindeer have extremely acute eyesight, we will have to pay attention to the wind to make sure that our scent does not give us away. We set off, moving first down the hill and then skirting the high rocks where the herd is grazing. We are panting with exertion after just 15 minutes, but only 150 metres away from the reindeer, still hidden from their view and sensitive noses. We clamber up a rock to reach a good vantage point to shoot from – in the prone position, of course.
Happy hunting: two strokes of luck in Norway
Following Birgo’s instructions, Thomas has already assumed firing position, but I am still waiting. Birgo gave me a female, but only in case Thomas drops the bull and I get the chance for a second shot. Suddenly I see the antlers of a bull, right in front of me, moving swiftly in our direction. Another one emerges directly behind. But the first one is bigger and certainly older. That was the one. He exposes his whole flank. “100 metres away”, I whisper to Thomas, who takes aim at the shoulder blade and releases his shot. I follow the bull with my scope. The clean shot hits the mark perfectly and the bull drops to the ground on our left after less than 30 metres of flight.
The rest of the herd races behind, galloping straight towards us. We used a suppressor, so the animals cannot tell the direction from which the shot was fired. We're lucky, and they are bearing down on us now. Birgo gives me a female, which breaks off to the right. I pull the rifle forward, drop the rucksack and quickly assume a strong shooting position. I still have time to measure the range: 105 metres, the perfect distance for my RWS 6.5x55 SE double core. The reindeer doesn’t manage another step and is brought down with a single shot. Our happiness is indescribable. What an exciting hunt!
We remain seated for a moment to let the last ten minutes sink in and to gaze at our prey. But Birgo soon breaks the reverie. We do need to hurry, as it will be dark in two hours and we have miles to go before we reach home. First we gut my female and cover it provisionally with a cloth we brought along. We would not be able to carry both of the reindeer back home anyway. So we decide to leave my animal there overnight and to take the bull with us. It is now six in the evening, the bull is gutted, dismembered, sliced into pieces, and the meat is tucked safely away in our backpacks.
Once again we notice the need for physical stamina on the way back. Trudging home with a rucksack weighing over 40 kg, fully loaded with game, is not for the faint-hearted. It is difficult hiking terrain as well – wet, slippery and covered in moss. There are numerous streams to cross. But help is already on its way. The two other guides, Are and Tommy, come towards us with Nils, a fellow hunter and friend, to take the heavy load off our shoulders for the final kilometre. Exhausted from the exertions – we hiked five kilometres with a backpack weighing more than 40 kg – we reach the cars at nightfall. And after an evening in the hut with my fellow hunters, filled with conversations about hunting adventures and washed down with some richly deserved gin and tonics, I fall into bed and think fondly of the eventful day.
Last attempt on the third day
We switch teams and hunting strategy on the third and last full day of hunting so that our companions get a chance as well. After all, we do have a license to shoot another eight. Are and Nils hike with Thomas to the plateau where we killed the bull and the female the day before. They will look out for the rest of the pack and then recover the game we left up there yesterday.
Birgo and I accompany Jan who had seen some bulls in the days before, but had never found an opportunity to shoot. First we take a tiny boat to the other end of the lake and walk from there along a canyon and into the interior. Arriving at the first outcrop, we discover plenty of moose and reindeer droppings, but no game. The weather is also deteriorating steadily, and the rain has returned. So we follow the same pattern as the first day, wandering from vantage point to vantage point, punctuated only by short breaks to scan the terrain, before trudging on again. Not until we stop for lunch do we see two older bulls and a younger one on the opposite side of the slope. But Birgo dashes our hopes when he tells us they are moving too quickly from right to left, saying that we would never catch up. They are too far away and too fast. Sadly, the other teams share our misfortune, so we return from the hunt empty handed.
Although the weather was not on our side and we saw far less game than we had anticipated, I still feel richer for the experience and delighted that I was able to make the trip. It taught me two things: preparation and targeted training are vital when hunting in the north. Both of these factors help to ensure that the wilderness adventure does not turn into a nightmare that ruins the sheer joy of hunting. Hunting in the north means doing things the traditional way, so it is difficult and demanding! But these are the aspects that I find especially appealing about Nordic hunting and that make the experience altogether special.