DIY Alaska Moose Hunt Report
As the distant sound of a plane approaching echoed off the trees and into our tent, the end of our 13 day moose hunting adventure into the wilds of Alaska became a reality. It was in fact bittersweet…..but at that exact moment, it was mostly sweet. Enduring the wettest September in nearly 25 years, the plane had promise of a warm, dry house to sleep in, a phone to order food for delivery, and the infinitely granted feeling of hard ground.
On September 10th, 2013, Josh and I left Seattle on the first of three planes to reach the land of milk and honey, the first two by way of commercial airlines and the third on floats. Upon reaching our second destination, we were surprised to say the least when we heard word that the bush and float planes were digging out of a 3 day backup. The pounding wind and rain, which was nowhere to be seen, made landing to the north impossible. Not mentally prepared to deal with the potential of sitting indoors for the next 3 days as the outfitter did his best to shuffle hunters into the field, Josh and I passed the first morning drinking coffee and listening to the weather report in hopes that on the off chance we would get the “go” from the outfitter.
The geography to the north doesn’t change more than 300 vertical feet for over 60 miles until rolling over a mile wide meandering forest and then hitting an inland mountain range, just north of the Yukon River. The majority of the DIY hunters land just short of this range, on one of the thousands of lakes that have existed here since the ice ages. Because of the relative geographic consistency up until the sudden ascension into the mountains, landing short of the peaks and onto the lakes makes the odds of acceptable flying weather substantially better than for those headed to the guide camps further up the range. To our surprise, late that morning, we got the call and in 30 minutes we were packed and ready to fly, waiting for our ride to the hangar.
We arrived that evening on the banks of an unknown lake, the first float plane ride for either of us in our short 30 year span on this earth. With several moose sightings as the plane circled our would-home for the next two weeks, the experience we had meticulously planned for was about to begin. The stories of those who came before our time, the very reason for our longing to tackle the far north of Alaska filled our minds. Successful experiences read about from the likes of Art Young, Gordon Eastman, Jack O’Connor, and many more from even our own era were all we could help but dream for.
Day one was the most action we experienced until day 12. We quietly scouted the immediate surrounding terrain to the north and west of camp, by the far the best looking ground around and the location of a 70”+ moose we had spotted from the air the day before. We were camped along the edge of the forest that followed the Yukon out of mountains and west toward the coast. We had a lakes to the south and west, trees to the north, and endless tundra to the east surrounding us. Enduring the heavy wind and rainfall for most of the day, good thing for good rain gear. The final hour of light found us close to camp at the mouth of long, grassy meadow leading up into the trees. Our first calling sequence of the day proved to be the best of the trip. Within seconds of thrashing our elk scapula up and down the bark of a single stunted willow, movement erupted 200 yards in front of us along the edge of the dark forest and a mature bull appeared, his chocolate paddles stretching what looked to be well over 60 inches. He took a quick glance behind him and then he was gone. Emerging from his position, three more moose stepped out, far more interested in the racket we were making than he was. The biggest remaining bull was pushing 50” and coming in hot. We raked and thrashed him all the way to 60 yards before I whispered the word “pass” to Josh. The decision to pass on that bull is one we will always question but never regret, for we were only one hunting day into our adventure. The following three days were slow. Rain, rain, wind, and more rain. Temps in the mid 50s to start, winds over 60, and the onset of another storm rolling in over the next 48 hours.
The dry, cool weather of Day 5 found us wandering further away from camp. We had covered what seemed like every walkable pocket and meadow, calling, raking, and thrashing with no other shooter bulls making themselves available to our calls. We made a decision to head away from the edge of the forest that day and wander out into what seemed like an endless prairie of creepers (stunted blue hucs) and scattered lakes. The scenery was in its own right, amazing. Each day, the leaves of the creepers turned a slightly darker red, the sun took just a slightly lazier route across the sky, and the temperature dropped a consistent 5 degrees. As we wandered over the rolling tundra, doubting our decision to hunt this far away and the ability of a moose to hide out here, we were awestruck when we glassed up a bedded bull. His antlers were tiny, I mean real tiny, and he was likely only a year and a half into life. He was with a cow and almost 300 yards straight upwind, only a wall of willows and a rising berm to his bed between us. We scanned the edges of the brush with no additional moose in our view, before moving forward directing ourselves around the bedded bull. We stood and took three steps before each of us blurted something in Neanderthal, “ohmmggghhhhhaaaa.” There he was, like an elephant, almost prehistoric looking and majestic all at once. The words, “Shoot him,” and the squeeze of my trigger came almost simultaneously as the bull endured the impact and ran towards the willows and out of sight. Josh and I separated, covering all angles of the willow patch only to find the bull a mere 10 yards from where he stood on impact.
There were a lot of thoughts running through my head as Josh and I walked up to this northern giant, though none which I remember more clearly than when we both seemed to ask the same question through expression alone. I think you know which one that is. It’s the one that keeps most hunters from embarking on a DIY adventure like this. The one that causes you to doubt what you’ve learned over the countless autumns spent perfecting this pastime. This question has made you doubt the gear that has performed flawlessly for you, season after season. It’s the one behind the purchase of a bigger pack, bigger caliber, bigger knife, bigger saw, extra-heavy nylon cord and the largest game bags Caribou sells, the bottle of extra strength Tylenol included.
The Question: What do we do now?
The answer is simple. For those of you who have teetered on the decision of whether or not to book a DIY moose hunt because of this simple question, here’s your simple answer. You do what you’ve done every other time you’ve killed a deer one ridge too far away. The same thing you did when you killed that bull elk in the dark timber at the bottom of the canyon and that bear a basin away in the re-prod from hell. You snap some photos, you bust out the pint of Crown you’ve been cursing in your pack for the last 5 days and you break him down, one quarter at a time! We had that bull skinned, quartered, picked clean, head ready for the beetles, and hung in a tree in less than two hours. Yes, moose quarters are a little heavier than elk quarters, but there’s no canyons to climb or re-prod to stagger through up here. Once you get that meat off the bone and the cool air swirling around it, you’ve got all the time in the world. I promise you, with a little planning and foresight and confidence in what you know how to do, the task is nowhere near as daunting as it seems from the couch back at home.
One down, one to go, but no moose to be found. Lots of rain, wind, grizzlies, a lone red fox and a lot of boot miles. These days were tough days and both Josh and I were individually able to do a lot of thinking. That nearly one week of my life was amazing. Although it felt like there wasn’t a moose within a hundred miles of us, it’s the only 6 straight days I can think of in the last 15 years when I didn’t have a thing to do. We were able to think about life, our families, God, work, dreams, goals, what we’re doing right and what we need to keep working on in life. If I could offer any insight to those interested in one of the many ‘long’ hunts you can experience in this world, it would be to stair step into them. Before this one, my longest hunt was a 9 day solo trip, one in which I was not successful. Mentally, there were some challenges during that adventure but I was always in control of my mind. The defeat of missed opportunities was the only challenge I faced that affected me. I was all there with the exception of some much needed social stimulation upon my return. Everyone seems to react a little differently to extended periods of solitude so my encouragement to anyone who hasn’t done a long hunt or just been all alone for a long period of time would be to get to know yourself before you come to Alaska. The grind of the hunt can catch up with you, the calorie burn rate, the weight loss, the low blood sugar, the elements, the quietness, it can all come together in a perfect storm and lead to a less-than pleasant experience for your group if you (and your hunting partners) aren’t mentally prepared. In saying this, there’s no need to read in between the lines here, Josh and I got along just fine, but we were alarmed to hear on our return just how many groups had issues amongst themselves, many of them arising amongst long time buddies. Ultimately, no matter where you fall in this spectrum, my takeaway from this is that what I admire most about the many great adventurers who spent countless days up here alone, was their ability to take the best from this great place without letting this place get the best of them.
Dawn approached as we both lay in in our bags, our breath faintly visible, pistols by our sides and rifles locked and loaded. It felt like just a matter of time before a grizzly would find our tent and the two human burritos wrapped inside of it. Although the odds make this scenario almost impossible, or at least extremely improbable, the thought was all too real. It was still dark but calm, not a breath of wind and whisper silent, but the presence of a nearby animal was strong. I lay awake, eyes wide open, alert to an unfamiliar feeling not quite clear enough to recognize or pinpoint. Something was close but how close? Not loud, but heavy. There was more than one.
Then the unmistakable call of a cow moose broke the silence just a few hundred yards from our tent. This barren, moose-less strip of seemingly forsaken land had come alive overnight! Josh and I slipped into our gear, adding an extra layer this morning. The temperature had dropped into the low 20s and a heavy frost covered the tundra floor. The rut was on! Slowly working the trail we had etched into the sinking blanket of tundra over the last 11 days, we made our way down towards a secluded meadow, our most promising piece of ground in the 5 square miles around us. “There, straight ahead. She’s in the water.” I whispered. We both watched as the cow moose moved further out, ears alert and scanning the far bank. Within seconds, there were 3 cows calling from around us. We could only see one but we were surrounded by several groups. Then the antler thrashing kicked in and the chorus of thrashing willows sounded off from several locations, as if on cue.
We positioned ourselves to make the most of the show unfolding in front of us. Although we couldn’t see or hear a bull nearest to the cow now half way across the lake, with the frequency of her call and the volume she produced, we knew it wouldn’t be long. Minutes passed and then appearing from the shoreline, a bull stepped out. He was a younger bull, but he had paddles and would easily measure into the 40s. With nearly a week of goose eggs behind us, it was easy for Josh to make the call that this bull was going to die. As we impatiently waited for the show to complete, I captured the scene before us, the camera capturing every detail. A second cow had entered the scene and both of the girls had nearly crossed the lake. The bull followed, aggressively trying to steer them out of the water and onto the far bank. The bull crossed and as he gained his footing, nearing the opposite shore, he broke into a full run in water nearly 3 feet deep. The splashing water from beneath this magnificent beast as he came into full stride running straight at us was a sight I’ll never forget. It was then I knew that I had what I came here for. The bull turned towards the cows and hit dry land and without adieu, Josh let the Tikka rip. The bull soaked it up but knew something was off and then took two more. He was hit in vitals three times but focused on his fleeing possessions. As he lunged back toward the bank, the 4th shot folded him and it was over.
And so the celebration began. The high fives, the retelling of our own versions of the moment and watching the film over and again. We opened the s-phone and got ahold of our wives to share the good news. Josh’s wife had given birth to their first daughter 3 days before we left and to Kristina, I will always be grateful.
As I sit and stare at the palms of my moose euro that sit on my wall, I can’t help but relive the experience. The antlers are an awesome memento of hunt but the experience we lived and the challenge we conquered was what we really took from Alaska. It’s an unbelievable place filled with unbelievable animals and they will never be forgotten.
A special thanks goes out to Outdoors International and to our transporter for making this dream a reality. They were infinitely helpful and always available by phone or email as Josh and I planned this hunt. Thanks for answering our questions and ensuring that we were as prepared as possible to make this hunt as successful as we dreamed it would be.
Call (208) 991-4868