They Remind You You’re Alive
By Cody Voermans, Experience The Hunt
So often in my life the adventures I’ve been fortunate to experience have started with questions. For example, questions such as “What’s over that ridge?” or “Can I climb that mountain?” have led to memorable exploits. The beginning of my adventure for Alaska-Yukon moose was no different.
It began over twenty years ago with the first time I inquired about an old photograph resting on a bookshelf in the basement of my grandfather’s house. The photo showed my grandfather as a young man, much younger than I had ever known him. He was standing with his hands on his hips, proudly supporting a large set of moose antlers strapped to his vintage pack frame. All 6 feet 2 inches of his lean frame were dwarfed by the antlers and I was captivated by his fiercely proud smile. It seemed odd that he could smile so confidently while straining every muscle under a heavy load, lost in a nasty tangle of twelve foot alder brush 200 miles from civilization on the Alaska Peninsula. Looking at that photo I couldn’t help but ask my grandfather what it was about a moose that made him so happy. His response was short and deliberate. He said “Son, there’s no better feeling than the strain on your back a great set of antlers puts there, but moose antlers do a little more. They remind you you’re alive.”
To this day I am not certain if my grandfather meant that as a challenge. What I am sure about is that he had a solid understanding of how to motivate a seventeen year old boy. His words poured fuel on my growing passion for arctic hunting and from that day I did more than dream of a northern moose hunt. I researched hunting areas and outfitters, read every available text on moose or moose hunting, and saved every extra dollar.
Choosing an outfitter was the easy part. At the time, my good friend Tavis (Tav) Molnar was a
guide for Arctic Red River Outfitters in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Each winter after
the hunting season he would recount wild stories of trophy moose living too deep in the
Mackenzie Mountains for even the most intrepid hunters to reasonably pursue. He joked of
remote giant bulls sporting huge antlers that defied the laws of gravity and forced them to walk backwards, dragging their heads under the weight. Tav was and is an expert story teller and he constantly fueled my ambition by describing the giant bulls of the Arctic Red River and assuring me that I could be the first hunter crazy enough to pursue them on foot deep into the mountains. It didn’t take many stories for Arctic Red River Outfitters to become the only choice for my future moose hunt.
The hard part was saving enough money. Through my college years and for many after, the cost of a moose hunt was growing faster than my bank account and the goal seemed hopelessly out of reach. Fortunately my college degree led to a good career and my bank account caught up to the cost of a moose hunt twenty years after I first set my mind to the goal. Coincidentally, it was about that same time that Tav purchased Arctic Red River Outfitters and began running the business with his wife and two young sons. Finally the stage was set for my own wilderness moose hunt.
I planned the trip for mid-September, right at the start of the moose rut and Tav allotted ten days for the adventure. Unfortunately, outfitting responsibilities wouldn’t allow Tav to accompany me so he assigned Kevin Wheale, one of his best and most ambitious moose guides, to lead the hunt. On a windy September evening Tav landed Kevin and I, via Super Cub airplane, in an area east of the Arctic Red River. Our plan was to hunt along the front range of the Mackenzies and move our camp as we traveled. If and when I took a moose we would then spend the remainder of the ten days searching for an acceptable airstrip, or even building one, large enough for a Super Cub to land and then move us back to base camp.
That first night a southern wind brought in heavy fog and steady rain that delayed our plan for
the entire first day of the hunt. The rain was of little matter but the thick fog reduced visibility to less than fifty yards and stole any hope we had for moose hunting that day. On the second
morning the fog was still hanging low but periodically lifted enough to see the lower slope of the mountains. Both Kevin and I figured that was enough visibility for us to hold a general direction and shortly after breakfast we began hiking east along a creek bottom with our fifty-pound packs. Most of the pack’s weight was necessary camp supplies and I was glad my rifle didn’t add much to the load. For this hunt I carried a 300 Winchester Magnum custom built by Proof Research that included a carbon fiber stock and a carbon fiber barrel. Topped with a Vortex scope, this rifle is the most accurate firearm I have ever owned. It’s rugged and durable in any environment and light enough that I nearly forgot it was strapped to my shoulder during the hike.
All day Kevin and I slogged through tundra marshes and across the boulder fields of washed-out creek bottoms without ever seeing past a couple of hundred yards. Throughout the hike the only time the view changed slightly was when we switched who was hiking in the lead. For seven hours we hiked through the fog along the base of mountains and finally reached the crest of a flat-topped ridge that provided a level camp site.
Both of us were tired and intensely frustrated that two full days of moose hunting had passed
with no hope of spotting a bull. But that frustration was short-lived. As Kevin and I set up our
camp the fog began to lift slowly exposing a large open valley below and the towering peaks of the Mackenzies beyond. In the haze, Kevin and I had placed our camp in the front row of a
wilderness theater with a spectacular view. On one side of our camp the jagged crags of the
Mackenzies rose up to spectacular heights. Their treeless peaks stabbed at the rising clouds with serrated edges of ancient granite. On the other side, gentle rolling hills covered with dense spruce stretched out to the horizon. In between, as if Mother Nature herself struggled with indecision, Kaleb Creek rumbled through a sharp cut on the near side of the valley, and beyond that the valley flattened out to a two-mile wide rolling oasis dotted with spruce groves, shallow lakes, and willow thickets. The view was enough to make the adventurer in me stop in awe and the hunter in me smile with anticipation. Our camp overlooked an expanse of prime moose habitat that held enough promise to quell the frustration from the first two days of the hunt.
In the evening the weather continued to change for the better. The fog dissipated, the wind died off to nothing, and the temperature began to fall. A large bull caribou fed across the ridge within 100 yards of our camp and his appearance indicated animals were on the move after the last two days of rain. Kevin and I knew the next day would finally provide perfect conditions for moose hunting.
Regrettably, my anxious anticipation for the next day’s hunt made sleep nearly impossible that
night. Now that the fog had lifted, the first real day of moose hunting was approaching and I lay in my tent imagining giant bulls scattered across the valley below camp. It didn’t take long for me to become frustrated with the long night, even angry at how slowly the minutes passed by. For the first few hours my only company was the distant hiss of Kaleb Creek rumbling through steep canyons and the occasional sounds of rock fall in the far reaches of the mountains. But later, maybe four hours past my first attempt at sleep, a gentle glow slowly illuminated my tent and gave me something else to focus on. At first, I was confused by the strange green light so far in advance of sunrise. The inside of my tent was lit up bright enough that I could read the brand name on the wall and I checked my watch to make sure of the time. It read 2:30 a.m. and I realized that the Aurora Borealis was the explanation for the glow. At the time, anything was better than lying on my back staring at the blank ceiling of one-man tent so I quickly dressed for a rare chance to witness the Northern Lights.
That night, the lights outside my tent were an unexpected gift. In the twenty years of planning for a moose hunt I thought I had prepared for every scenario, but never had I imagined a light show on this scale. Directly above my tent and then on all sides, emerald green streaks twisted across the sky and touched each horizon. Fluid formations of pale green with orange fringe hung over the Mackenzies like glowing curtains. They fell over the peaks engulfing our high camp from all sides and moved in churning waves as if fighting their own tide. By nearly impossible chance, a meteor shower started at the same time and the flashing tails of countless falling stars shot through the faded glow from every direction. I watched the lights for over an hour and the quiet glow took my mind off moose hunting just enough to allow a short sleep.
The next morning, the air was clear and cold. A light dusting of frost lay on every surface,
including the inside of my tent, and the temperature quickened my pace getting dressed. While Kevin prepared breakfast I hiked to a vantage point near camp with my binoculars and within minutes I had spotted ten moose, including three young bulls, across the Kaleb Creek valley. None of the bulls were mature but they were the first spotted on the hunt and it was a good start to the day.
The majority of the moose were feeding about three miles east of our camp and were
concentrated around a large willow flat near the entrance of a small canyon. This canyon in
particular was a long narrow cut about 400 yards wide that was choked with willows at the
bottom. It extended about a mile to the east and connected our valley with a small basin
honeycombed by shallow lakes. The narrow canyon had steep sides and was a natural corridor for moose traveling between our valley and the far basin.
When I returned to camp, Kevin had prepared a breakfast of freeze-dried scrambled eggs with hot coffee and sitting down to eat gave us a chance to discuss our plan for the day. The moose activity was generally focused in one area and we both thought that hunting in the direction of the narrow canyon was our best option. The only problem was getting there. We would have to break camp and descend from our high ridge toward the far side of Kaleb Creek. From there we could find a new place to camp and continue the hunt with lighter packs.
“Well,” said Kevin, “we won’t get a bull from this ridge. Let’s hit it.” Within the hour we were loaded and headed down a steep ridge toward Kaleb Creek.
At the creek crossing we cinched our rain gear over our boots with short tie straps and charged across twenty yards of fast water. The slick rocks and rushing water up to my knees tested my balance under the fifty-pound pack but the certainty of wet boots if I slowed or stopped moving was a much greater concern. Wet boots would either require a significant delay in our hunt to dry them out or I would face cold and blistered feet over the next days. Kevin crossed first and by the time I arrived on the other side he was waiting for me with a serious look on his face. Quietly he whispered, “Cody, we’re putting our camp in moose country today. We have to keep our profile and voices as low as possible.”
I nodded and quietly responded “Ok, Kev. Are you telling me that when a grizzly is chewing on your foot you’re going to whisper at me to shoot him?”
“Well,” he whispered, “there’s always an exception.”
It took us half the day to move our camp to a low ridge on the far side of Kaleb Creek. Even though we had hiked under the load of our camp gear for four hours we wasted little time grabbing light gear and a few candy bars before heading off across the remaining two miles between us and the narrow valley we had seen that morning.
Within a few hundred yards of the new camp our ridge melted to a long tundra flat and I realized that the Mackenzie Mountains had played a cruel trick on us. The inviting valley floor we had looked over that morning turned out to be a maze of tussock grass. Knee-high grass clumps, randomly spaced over soft muskeg, extended in all directions. Similar to walking on a giant sponge covered with bowling balls, a few steps were solid, but the rest sank in to the knee and burned hip muscles with each pull. Add dense willow patches with flowing water in between and the hike became more of an obstacle course than a hunt.
Luckily we found solid footing on rocks and short caribou moss as we finally climbed the south rim of the narrow canyon. Now, three miles from the tents and with a commanding view, Kevin stopped to scan the willow bottom to the north and I eased past him for the first look into the canyon ahead. Immediately my eyes caught the white glint of moose antlers over a mile up the canyon and I excitedly whispered, “Kev, there’s a bull.”
At first glance we could see this bull wasn’t like the others I had spotted that morning. His
massive body towered over willows that could swallow my six-foot frame. Above his head, huge white antlers, freshly stripped of their velvet, reflected the afternoon sun and grabbed our attention enough that Kevin quickly whispered, “Yep that’s a big one!”
Spotting a big bull changed our demeanor from frustrated hikers to focused hunters and we
immediately started searching for stalking routes. The bull was feeding in the bottom of the
narrow valley and the wind was cutting a sharp angle across the top. After a short discussion we decided our best option was to wade through the swamp at the lower end of the cut and traverse the steep canyon wall on the far side. From there we could use the rim of the canyon as cover to close the distance from the downwind side. “Time to go,” said Kevin and he quickly led the way off the west rim.
Our plan seemed simple but the Mackenzie Mountains are much like an attractive woman.
They’re never as approachable as they seem from a distance. When I reached the swamp at the bottom of the canyon Kevin was already halfway across and struggling to get over a beaver dam. I saw him sink to his hip in a mud hole and thought to myself, “The best laid schemes o’ Moose an’ Men, often go awry.”
Fortunately for me Kevin did a test run on every hazard in that swamp, which enabled me to avoid them when I crossed. I wasn’t so lucky on the far side however. The steep face of the opposite canyon wall was challenging for both of us. The soft wet moss on the grade was poor footing and each step my foot slid back over half the distance it was intended to gain. Short willows provided some traction but they were sparse over the slope. Climbing up through the areas with few willows I lost count how many times my feet slipped and I fell against the hillside. Our climb was twice as difficult as I expected it to be and by half way up my quadriceps were shaking from the extra strain.
Reaching the top of the ridge we eased though scattered spruce and more tussock grass,
constantly checking the wind as we moved. Two hours of careful progress along the rim passed before we slipped over the lip of the canyon and spotted the bull below. Our stalk had been perfect and we found ourselves 200 yards above and down-wind of the moose. During our approach the bull had bedded down and at that moment was sound asleep at the bottom of the canyon.
“Lucky” is a good way to describe the bull’s position when we found him. Lucky for the moose because he was lying with his head twisted back against the hillside and his right antler covered his chest like a bullet-proof vest. Lucky for me because his position allowed me to slide down the hill unnoticed and find a clear shooting lane about ten feet below Kevin. The steep hillside fell away from my feet and from the sitting position I stood my pack up below me and rested the rifle over the top. A more stable rest couldn’t be found at a shooting range. Quietly I chambered a round in my rifle and prepared for a shot opportunity. That particular cartridge was decorated with blue magic marker by my children and carried the words “Moose Magnet.”
Kevin and I sat hidden by low willows on the ridgeline and waited over twenty intense minutes for the bull to stand. In that time we studied every inch of the bull’s antlers. Each of his wide palms, lined with tines, swept back past his shoulders and left no doubt that this was one of the mountain giants Tav had often spoken of. When the bull finally did stand I was ready, but he quickly turned and started feeding away from us without ever presenting a decent shot angle.
Usually feeding animals will present a broad side shot as they randomly turn to grab mouthfuls of what they are grazing on, but this bull was feeding on a strip of willows that led straight away from our position. There was no reason for him to turn as he fed and it quickly became apparent that the bull would show us nothing but his tail before moving out of rifle range. Kevin saw this and when I started tracking the bull with my rifle he asked if I was ready. Before I could answer he let out a long, guttural cow call, hoping the bull would respond and turn broadside.
Instantly the bull did respond. He stopped feeding and twisted his head around to look back in our direction. Most of his body was still facing straight away from us and I didn’t have a clear shot at his chest. He stood there motionless for a few seconds trying to locate the source of the call and that gave me the chance to settle my breathing. When I saw his front leg step back slightly I knew he was turning to the right and I settled my cheek on the rifle stock. Through the scope, I watched the bull turn broadside into my sight picture but before I could squeeze the trigger he continued to turn all the way around and began walking back toward us, grunting with each step. Now the bull was straight on and once more I didn’t have a good shot at his vitals.
The bull plowed through the tall willows straight toward us and closed about fifty yards before Kevin asked again if I was ready. This time I answered “yes” but the bull now focused on sounds from our location, heard those words. Immediately he stopped short, whirled, and began trotting across the valley angling away from our position. I wasn’t interested in shooting at a running moose, especially not at one moving through thick brush, so I lifted my head off the rifle and waited. When the bull reached the middle of the valley floor, about 250 yards away, he crossed an area covered with shorter willows that just reached his belly. With the bull in the open Kevin let out another long “WHAAAHH” and this time the bull stopped quartering away just enough to expose a narrow section of his chest.
I knew the bull wouldn’t pause long, maybe only a few seconds before it realized Kevin wasn’t a cow moose and continued its run. Quickly I snugged the rifle against my cheek for the third time and concentrated on the narrow crease behind the bull’s shoulder. At that sharp angle, the margin for error was small but that was the only chance. I settled the crosshairs low in the crease over the bull’s heart and gently squeezed the trigger.
I heard the unmistakable thump of the bullet hitting home and before I could reload the bull was down in the short willows. The entire sequence lasted only a few moments but they were a roller coaster of patience and action that left me shaking with adrenalin. I reloaded the rifle and tried to stay calm for the few minutes necessary to make sure the bull was down for good. With each passing second the certainty of my shot grew and so did the trembling in my hands. When I saw the bull kick for the last time, euphoria overtook my composure and I leaned back against a soft cushion of moss and willows letting the hillside support my shaking arms.
I lay there silently watching orange willow leaves dance in the light breeze above my face and felt warm tears well up in the corners of my eyes. As the tears ran down my cheeks and turned cold in breeze I thought back over the twenty years of dreaming and determination it took to get to this moment. I wasn’t at all ashamed by the emotion. My tears were pure respect for a great bull, the sheer wildness of his home, and the struggle that embodies moose hunting.
As I lay there Kevin was silent as well. While he makes his living guiding hunters to northern game he doesn’t do it just for the money. Like me, he carries a respect for the animals and an admiration for the experience of the hunt that overshadows the kill. Kevin let me have those moments all to myself and when my hands had stopped shaking the two of us gathered our gear and made our way down to one of the finest trophies I have ever taken.
In the bottom of the canyon Kevin and I struggled to push through a tangle of willows that stood above our shoulders. These were the same willows the bull had towered above and charged through a few minutes earlier and the comparison had me wondering how big this animal really was. When I finally pushed through the last willows and stood next to the moose, the sight of him lying there answered the question. This bull was huge. His antlers spread over sixty inches wide and each palm carried sixteen points. I stood dwarfed by his massive body that stretched twelve feet from nose to tail. His chest alone was four feet deep and his long legs had helped him stand over seven feet high at the shoulder. He was a trophy by any measure.
Kevin and I spent over an hour admiring the bull and taking pictures but the reality of our
situation was rapidly sinking in. In front of us was a 1,200 pound moose and behind us lay a vast sea of tussock grass and thick willows. It was late in the afternoon and the sun had just disappeared behind the mountains. We were facing a three-hour job cleaning the moose and then a three-hour hike back to camp. Neither of us needed to look at our watches. The lengthening shadows in the bottom of the canyon caused us to put down the camera and pick up our knives. We had to get the meat off the bull and our packs loaded in time to climb out of the canyon and get a line of sight on our camp before dark. There were no lights on our tents to guide us three miles across the valley.
Kevin started skinning the shoulders of the bull while I skinned the back half. I was surprised again at the size of his body and found it impossible to lift a hind quarter by myself. Kevin and I had to strip the meat off one side of the bull as it lay and then roll him over to continue on the other side.
It took us three hours to complete the job and secure all the meat in game bags. Then we faced the difficult decision of picking a route back to camp. The sun had already set and the long shadows meant we didn’t have time to travel down the gentle grade of the valley and climb out before dark. Our only option was to hike straight up the steep wall of the canyon toward the ridgeline above. I mentioned to Kevin that I wanted to pack the antlers out on the first trip and didn’t finish the word “antlers” before he said, “You bet man, they are all yours!” He was surprisingly willing to give me that job and it didn’t take me long to realize that moose antlers are terribly awkward on anything except a moose.
Our path took us up 300 yards of unforgiving canyon wall. The grade was steep enough that I could stand, reach forward and touch dirt. For most of the climb, I had to crab walk up the slope on all fours and fight swaying moose antlers to maintain balance. Before I reached the ridgeline my legs were cramping and my shoulders burned under the load. My body reminded me that I had already moved my camp off a high ridge, crossed a large stream, negotiated swamps and tussock grass, and now faced the same all over again. It’s times like this, forcing one foot in front of the other, that are often overlooked by they who dream of experiencing a northern moose hunt, and are never forgotten by those who have.
We reached the rim of the canyon just in time to catch the last hint of alpenglow on the peaks. The Mackenzies rested in a purple hue that crept down the ridgelines and engulfed the fall colors on the tundra below. Standing on that ridge, feeling the weight of moose antlers firmly on my shoulders and watching last light fade over the mountains was one of the most intimately powerful moments of my life.
I looked three miles across the valley at two tiny orange dots that could only be our tents and I was reminded of some words from Theodore Roosevelt who said “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” While I may have been a tiny speck in the expanse of the mountains, right then, on that ridge, the credit belonged to me. Twenty years of dreaming and planning had culminated in the events of a single day and I began to realize, as my grandfather had, that it’s determination and the physical effort of a moose hunt, more than the kill, that’s at the heart of the adventure.
In total, Kevin and I made four trips over two days to that canyon and back. Together we hauled 800 pounds of moose meat, antlers, and cape over three miles to a ridge long enough to accommodate landing a Super Cub airplane. Each load, significantly over 100 pounds for each of us, did more than strain my shoulders and bruise my hips. The weight pushed permanent boot tracks into my memory that will always remind me I am alive.
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By Cody Voermans. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.
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