By Larry Hatter
Resolve has a tendency to elude us as we toil through life. Days of repetitiveness become years and losing sight of purpose can be a commonality. Every once in a while, however, we are granted a brief moment of absolute clarity, a moment where the most important aspects of our life become vivid and we’re steadfast in our conviction. I was privileged to experience one of these moments in late September, 2011, but much to my chagrin, it occurred as the icy waters of an arctic river swirled relentlessly about my neck and its frigid grasp stole the breath from my lungs like a silent thief! The largest moose I ever encountered had fallen not fifty yards distant across the churning river and after close inspection I realized wading the channel would not be feasible. My only hope of reaching the downed beast was to shed my clothes and swim.
Moose hunting is a time-honored tradition in Alaska, a means of survival bequeathed from family to family. In other locales, the sight of wild game gracing the bed of a pickup is met with a raised eyebrow, but not so in the “great land”. Here a large set of palmated antlers, adorning a rusted out old Chevy or Ford, is greeted with a handshake or a smile. It’s not just about the procurement of sustenance for the brutal winter ahead, but a comforting sign. A sign that, even in these ever changing times, life in Alaska will go on, just as it has for the last hundred years and will remain so for generations to come.
And so it was in quest of this, the largest member of the deer family, my partner, Ben, and I turned our compass north. We’d worked diligently for the past several months preparing for the logistical and physical demands of the hunt and by the time the calendar turned to the tenth of September, we felt we were as prepared as possible. Our destination was no small trek. From Fairbanks alone, a day’s travel still remained. Even though we were aided greatly by the lead foot of my friend, Gordon, we still arrived at the base camp with our tails dragging.
We were met instantly by one of our hosts, Deb, whose reassuring personality was a comfort this far from home. She quickly ushered us into the cook tent where a hot bowl of chili was waiting and before long it felt as if we had been friends our entire lives. There was little time to waste though, as dusk was quickly approaching and a restless night was all that separated us from tomorrow’s flight into the vast northern wilderness.
I arose the next morning to the frozen earth crunching beneath my feet. This far north, fall was in its latter stages. The brilliant colors typical of the boreal forest were starting to wane as was evident by the shimmering, gold birch leaves which were gallantly clinging to the limb, but faltering and floating softly to the ground with even the slightest breeze. What was left of the once burgeoning blueberry crop was being hastily consumed by marauding grizzlies, busy preparing in earnest for the long slumber ahead.
We hastily portaged our gear down to the lake shore where our pilot, Howard, already had the engine warm on his sleek little Maule. Two trips would be necessary to haul both hunters and enough provisions for the duration of our hunt and after a brief deliberation it was decided I would make the first. We loaded the gear and me expeditiously and after making a nominal turn to gain advantage of the wind, the plane roared off the water like a cannon shot! This was my initial flight in a Maule and I can’t say enough about the nimble, yet powerful craft or the man behind the yoke.
Soon we were soaring along the outstretched finger ridges of the snowcapped mountains. To my right, a boundless expanse of unbroken tundra laid unassuming in the distance, directly ahead, a meandering river bottom wound its way through heavy stands of black spruce and willow flats. This was classic moose country and the sight of it made that familiar anxious feeling well up inside of me.
Eventually, a glistening lake began to reveal itself in the distance and as Howard eased off the throttle I knew this was where I would sojourn for the next several days. He executed a perfect landing and slowly taxied to shore at a location that looked suitable for pitching a tent. After unloading, I busied myself with the chore of making camp as the plane lifted back off the lake and disappeared over the horizon. If I could complete the lion’s share of the work before my comrade arrived, we’d have plenty of time to scout for bulls before the long Alaska day drew to a close.
A few hours later found me erecting the UDAP electric bear fence. Grizzly problems are a rarity, but one can never be too cautious, as that minimal chance could be catastrophic! I was placing the last few stakes when I heard the drum of a distant engine signaling the arrival of my companion. We emptied the Maule in short order and after seeing Howard on his way, readied for an evening of glassing.
One of the main objectives, when first hunting a new area, is to acquire a solid perspective of the terrain. A rock strewn hillside approximately a mile to the east seemed to accomplish just that, so we headed in that direction. What I originally assumed would be a brisk half hour hike quickly turned into an hour and a half struggle. Tundra just has a way of latching onto your feet and its boggy and uneven nature makes every step worth two or more.
In any event, that evening found us scanning the surrounding valley with my Leupold HD spotting scope. By seven o’clock only remnants of cloud cover remained and the setting sun shined like a beacon in the western sky, lighting the surrounding landscape ablaze with orange hues. A half dozen lakes sprawled across the basin before us, with the river snaking its way into the distance directly aft of them. I was intently watching a large silver-tipped grizzly forage in the distance, the evening light glowing off his massive hump, when Ben remarked how fortunate we were to be experiencing such a sublime moment. I wholeheartedly agreed.
The weather for the remainder of our adventure wasn’t quite as pleasant. A cold front enveloped the area and never relinquished. Most days could be described as dreary and cold with the thermometer never breaching the mid-forties. Hip boots and rain gear accompanied us at all times as well as extra pairs of gloves and socks, but in reality this is exactly what we had hoped for. Moose are highly evolved creatures when it comes to survival in northern latitudes. They sport a tremendously thick coat of long, hollow hair which aids in survival of a winter which is capable of temperatures of fifty below for weeks at a time, but what that immense bulk and natural thermal blanket mean is they get hot in balmy weather. When this occurs moose seek relief in shady stands of spruce, birch and aspen, moving only sparingly in the daylight hours. To experience the rut at its full potential, a hunter must endure cold temperatures.
The next day we headed for the lake country. Our only inhibitor was an inconspicuous, willow-lined tundra stream, maybe ten feet in width. It seemed docile enough in appearance only to discover it waste deep with my first step! We couldn’t subject ourselves to wet britches with every crossing of this mighty watershed and for a while we stood and pondered our predicament. Only then did the MacGyver-esque Ben spy a downed spruce seventy-five yards distant. We hustled over, loaded the dwarf timber on our shoulders and carried it back to the crossing. After hacking off the limbs and sliding it across the stream, it was time to see if our logic was sound. I gingerly took a step and braced myself by grabbing a willow, then repeated the act, then again until I leapt to the opposite bank in triumph Ben followed shortly thereafter. It was decided that such a monumental accomplishment deserved a name; “Bridge Over the River Kwai” it was.
We hunted relentlessly for the next couple of days, breaking only for food, a drying fire, or to cast a number one Panther Martin at a hungry grayling. Glassing from a high knob we spotted several moose, mostly cows, calves and a few average bulls, but nothing the caliber which we desired. As the third day drew to a close, I powered up the Iridium satellite phone, which I had rented at the Surveyors Exchange in Fairbanks and checked in with my pilot. The folks at base camp genuinely cared about their clients and requested they make contact on a daily basis, if possible. I also conveyed to Howard during that call, if time permitted, a move to a different location might be beneficial to our plight. His response was instantaneous, “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Around eleven o’clock that night, I was contently snuggled deep in my sleeping bag, only the tip of my nose being exposed to the chilled arctic air. My mind was currently in that gray no-man’s-land between consciousness and sleep, when suddenly, the unmistakable sound of footsteps squashing in the water-soaked ground came to my attention. I instantly rose and fumbled frantically for my 300 WSM, as I was certain an obstinate grizzly had come to visit! For a moment my partner and I both sat motionless in the middle of our tent, not even bothering to take a breath. When no other sound came, I cautiously eased toward the door, rifle in hand. I unzipped the flap ever so quietly, just enough to squeeze, first my barrel, then my face out the opening. The moon had risen to its peak, illuminating the lake and its surroundings with a pale blue light. Just then I heard another heavy footstep to my left. I instinctively swung my Model 700 Remington in that direction and stared straight down the barrel at the most confused cow moose you will ever see!
She stood there for the longest time trying to make sense of the situation and after convincing herself that we were not a threat, strolled right out into the water, not ten yards distant and commenced to dine. As the moonlight danced around her, she went about her business. First, she would submerge her head making a bubbly, gurgling sound, then surface with a mouthful of lake weed, water careening in every direction. Ben and I both exhaled a sigh of relief and had a light chuckle about my propensity to draw down on cow moose. We both climbed back in our bags and quickly fell asleep as the old girl concluded her midnight snack.
The next morning found the wind and rain assailing our camp with reckless abandon. At times our voices were almost inaudible as the elements lashed the Cabela’s Outfitter tent. When I poked my head outside the flap and saw the white caps forming on our little lake I resigned myself to the fact that our pilot would be grounded today, which explains my state of utter shock when the low drone of the Maule became faintly audible through the swirling winds.
Within moments Howard had me loaded and en route to our next campsite. We conversed only when necessary as he was constantly adjusting trim and managing his instruments as we cut through the heavy gusts with the precision only a seasoned veteran could exhibit. Maybe thirty minutes expired before we were circling a substantial lake where we would reside for the remainder of the hunt. Time was of the essence today as the inclement weather and dwindling daylight hours might hamper Howard’s ability to retrieve my companion before nightfall. I appreciated the company of my friend, Ben, but to be perfectly candid, he still possessed my tent and it was the thought of spending an unpredictable Alaska night in nothing but my sleeping bag that didn’t exactly set my world on fire! Suffice it to say that the groundwork was accomplished in a precipitous manner.
Thankfully, the plane returned with my tent and Ben as well, as evening was drawing to a close. We just had enough time to finish setting up camp and consume a much needed Mountain House meal before the last moments of light eluded us. Hopefully, Lady Luck would find us soon.
An uneventful day passed and the following morning found my partner and I entrenched on a long escarpment overlooking a substantial drainage. An imposing mountain stood perhaps three miles away, at its feet lay several thousand acres of dwarf spruce. From this vantage point, perhaps a mile of the river was visible and our binoculars were glued to the tangled stands of willow which lined its shores. With such a commanding view, it didn’t take long to find moose. A pair of cows calmly fed, necks outstretched, on a distant embankment. It didn’t seem plausible that such prime targets of a bull’s affection would be isolated this time of year, so we looked on intently. Eventually, two small racked suitors entered the scene and commenced a light joust, hoping to gain the cow’s attention. As they half-heartedly pushed each other in circles, the girls mostly ignored them and I began to become disenchanted as I ascertained that no respectable bull would stand by idly as two inferior specimens threatened his harem.
That moment all hell broke loose on the willow flat! The two young bulls abruptly ceased their sparring and beat a hasty retreat for the thicket. From the brush a hulking, dark leviathan emerged, head lowered in full attack mode, intent on inflicting as much damage as possible on the intruders. No sooner did he reveal himself than he disappeared into the willow stand, long swooping brow points buried in the rump of one of his agitators.
I may have only realized a momentary glimpse of him, but I knew in my heart that the object of the quest was within my grasp. Now I must act quickly and decisively! I shouldered my rifle and headed down the gradual slope at a half trot. Ben would remain vigilant. The stalk would be through three quarters of a mile of spruce, willow and alder and making twice the noise and leaving twice the scent had little merit.
At the halfway point I rested for a moment to load my weapon and quench a nagging thirst with my Katadyn water filter. The wind was blowing steadily from right to left and as I continued on, made it a point to angle more to the downriver side of the moose. But at this juncture doubt was starting to creep into my mind. The place in the river where the melee had occurred had long since disappeared from view and I was traversing through the dark spruce forest by instinct alone.
Now, within a few hundred yards, when stealth was most important, it became the most challenging. The entanglement of downed trees and thick brush made it virtually impossible to be silent and after I cracked my third or fourth branch I made a bold decision. If I couldn’t fight the noise I needed to “own it”! From that moment on, with every twig that broke, I would grunt like a traveling bull and at the same time pray my quarry would buy the charade.
As the river came into view, I approached a uniform cluster of spruce that lined the water’s edge and selected the most ample to conceal myself. I dared not expose my outline to the opposite bank for at that moment I wasn’t positive of the whereabouts of any moose I’d seen earlier. Satisfied that I was sufficiently concealed, I gradually maneuvered my head in order to peer through the branches and as I did was met squarely by the intense stare of both cows not forty yards distant! Their ears were erect and their eyes fixed on my exact position. I broke out in a cold sweat and felt as if the blood had drained to my feet. I new the jig was up, in moments they would bolt, hijacking any chance I had with them. In desperation I produced a brief tending grunt and then repeated. The largest of the two cows took a half step in my direction and looked on inquisitively as I remained motionless. Allowing perhaps a minute to expire, I repeated the soft call and the only response I received was a flicking of ears to the side and then directly back at me. For five minutes I refused to move while grunting at the pair sporadically. Mercifully the wind never changed and when the oldest cow casually reached out to nibble on an overhanging willow, I almost leapt out of my hip boots! Soon, confident that I wasn’t an imminent threat, both returned to the chore of foraging. This allowed me to take a knee and exhale a monumental sigh of relief.
Shortly thereafter, the younger bulls appeared fifty yards downriver. As they sauntered up the beach, I waited with bated breath for the ol’ monarch to show. When the swaggering, bearded pair came within sixty feet of the cows, they locked horns in an attempt to display their dominance to the marginally interested pair. At such a close distance, the sound of the gray and white river rocks creaking and grinding below the hooves of well over a ton of moose was plainly audible, but still, he remained in seclusion.
Minutes ticked away as the scene unfolded and after half an hour of watching the status quo I began to feel uneasy. Would the currents change and spoil the whole affair? Had the big bull sought refuge in the timber and laid down for a siesta? I could glean no answers to my questions until suddenly the two combatants froze in their tracks. Their unbroken gaze at a thick willow patch not thirty yards to my right spoke volumes! I frantically dissected the stand with my Swarovskis looking for any sign until finally I could definitively make out a set of amber colored tines through the maze of branches. The beast had been concealed within a stone’s throw the entire time!
With the giant in such close proximity I decided the moment of truth was at hand. I grunted loudly and defiantly directly at him causing him to swing his head and massive, bladed antlers straight at me. I remember vividly the unrelenting stare of his fierce eyes. I grunted again and this time snapped a couple branches off the spruce tree. This sent the bull into an unmitigated rage! He roared through the brush in a heated frenzy, parting the seemingly impenetrable willow stand in the same fashion as Moses must have parted the Red Sea. Now at the river’s edge, he dared his tormentor, ears pinned, imposing head gear swaying back and forth. His nostrils flared and the sound that emanated with each exhaled breathe resembled the exhaust from the stack of an old locomotive.
Rifle in position, I braced myself against the tree, feet spread as if waiting for the impact of a hurricane. As the bull turned downriver I cut loose with everything my 300 had to offer sending a shockwave through the valley! The titan plunged into the river, making a beeline for my position as I emptied both of my reserves. When he reached the midway point of the boiling channel he abruptly turned and retreated for the opposite shore, reaching a belly deep slew just out of the current. As I chambered a fresh round the old bull stood stoically in the stagnant pool. He knew his will was escaping him, but still remained defiant as I revealed myself from behind the spruce. There was no need for my finger to approach the trigger. I simply rested my little rifle, butt first on the sandy bank and looked on as the brute buckled and then collapsed into the murky arctic water.
By the time Ben reached the scene, I had already garnered a substantial case of nerves. Initially I was confident that I could find a suitable spot to cross the channel in order to reach the downed bull. After close inspection, however; I realized that the unusually high volume of rain this fall had raised the river substantially, turning the normally manageable waterway into a rushing obstacle capable of taking a life if a mistake was made.
As we discussed different options to no avail, it became painfully obvious what the only course of action was. Swim or face the consequences! I selected the widest section of the river I could find hoping that it would be the shallowest. As I began to disrobe and stuff my dry clothes in my waterproof backpack, Ben, and I exchanged few words. Both of us were aware of the weight of the situation and to be honest, I was scared.
I waded into the icy river sporting little more than when I was brought into this world. My pack rested comfortably over my shoulders and rifle strapped securely around my neck and arm. I managed steady progress until the water level reached my stomach, at that point the unrelenting current rendered me helpless on my feet. I paused a moment to catch my breath and then lunged forward toward the waiting shore. My torso wasn’t prepared for the absolute frigidness of its surroundings and it didn’t take long for my uniform crawl stroke to become a convoluted mixture of kicking and flailing. Soon I was bludgeoned by the stark reality that I was making no headway as the river reefed on my gangly form. I was completely forlorn and a feeling of submission began to overwhelm me. At that moment, time stopped. I saw the faces of loved ones I’d never see again if this river in the middle of nowhere was to be my final resting place and above the sound of the raging water I could hear my partner cheering me on as if he could read my exact thoughts. I mustered one last burst against the current, fighting with every last drop of conviction I could muster. As the channel swept me closer to the bank, I reached out and corralled some overhanging buck brush, pulling myself from the freezing quagmire. For a moment I lay on the opposite bank, my frozen skin a bright cherry red, exhausted, but unscathed.
Rendering the bull underwater was no nominal task. After a full day of skinning, quartering and dragging him with a rope, piece by piece, back across the river, we managed to make it back to camp that night just as the last bit of light was fading. It took four arduous days to retrieve every last edible portion. It seems I spent most of my time leaning heavily against the Stoney Point walking staff gasping for air. When we reached our cache on the final day, both of us fell to the ground in relief.
We started a bonfire in celebration that night as our pilot would arrive first thing in the morning to start our journey home. I’m sure it was no different than countless other fires, through the years, ignited in reverence of the spoils of a successful journey into the Alaska bush. I recall peering over the leaping flames at my partner’s whiskered face, a look of accomplishment and satisfaction evident in his eyes. Today Ben wasn’t just a physical therapist and I wasn’t just a taxidermist. Today we were something more.