Finding a hunting partner can be as difficult as finding a spouse. There are always folks who want to go bird or rabbit hunting locally if you’ve got good dogs. You will turn people away if you’ve got great deer and turkey habitat on your farm. The exact opposite is true if you are going to journey to the ends of the earth for big game in country with dangerous predators. Those hunting partners are rare. No regular Jimmy, Joe or Jane will do and their willingness to try means little or nothing if they’re a liability. They must be capable, skilled, strong and level headed to begin with. Then they must have the resources and be willing. These people usually start out as friends, but if you do it right, they end up as family.
I’d wanted to hunt Alaskan moose ever since I saw one during my Alaskan grizzly hunt in 2013. A mature bull appeared on a lake shore as if he’d grown up out of the Earth. We were waiting on the bank of an unnamed lake for a float plane the morning after I killed my grizzly. It was grey light and quiet, impossibly quiet, the kind of quiet only Alaska gives you. The lake’s surface was a perfect flat oil slick calm and as the bull ambled along the shore of the far side, there were two of him, one right side up and his reflection, upside down. The whole scene was framed with mountains that rose into the grey sky like the edge of a serrated knife. The bull certainly could smell us, but acted as if he owned the lake and his rolling gait was royal. Sitting here now in my warm dry office, I can still smell the grizzly blood on my hands as I watch that bull walk across the lakeshore in my mind. That memory visited me, on and off, for years. Each time the memory ambled into my consciousness I thought about hunting moose in Alaska.
The hardest part remained, finding someone who wanted to go with me. This couldn’t be just anyone. They had to be a hunter. They had to be smart, skilled, strong, capable, reliable and have a level head. They also had to want to do it the hard way, on a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) remote drop camp, like I did. Many folks want to kill a giant record book animal and I will never turn that opportunity away, but I am turned on by the adventure. So, the moose hunt was a means to an end with me. I really wanted to see how being dropped off by a float plane in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness felt, to experience the feeling of the float plane flying away and knowing that we were on our own. Then to not only survive, but thrive. That was my goal. That was to be my trophy.
Another year went by, but the memory didn’t fade. During quiet moments, that bull moose would amble into my consciousness on his ever-present silent lake shore. Yet, I still had no partner. I am a career infantryman, moreover an Airborne Ranger. I could do it myself. So, I went so far as to ask the outfitter if they’d drop me in by myself. The answer was short, “No, absolutely not.” I figured as much. The silent search continued. There’s no app for it, like dating. There are no arranged marriages like they do in the far east. You simply keep a quiet, vigilant lookout for anyone you run into at conservation organizations or in hunting camps. You watch them and think, “Could they do it? Would they do it?” You quietly evaluate all your current hunting buddies and they have no idea you’re doing it. If you’re lucky like me, you’ve got two or three who could do it. The problem was they didn’t want to. So, the search continued.
That summer, my new friend, Dave Roesler, decided to go elk hunting with us for the second time. Dave had a good hunt his first time, arrowing a bull on public land. I knew he was capable. I took stock of Dave on the drive out to Colorado. He is a pilot, a self-made man, a father, husband, strong, smart and a good hunter. I decided that at some point in the future I’d ask him to do the moose hunt. I’m not sure why I didn’t just come right out and ask. I think maybe the prospect of having a friend who could do it was so good I didn’t want to ruin it by hearing him say, “No.” When Dave didn’t get an elk that year and I saw how cool and level headed he was about it, I was convinced he was the guy.
On the way home from Colorado to Kentucky there was a period where we were the only two awake. The twenty-five-hour drive took its toll on my wife Aline and our other buddy, HB. They were sleeping. I took the opportunity to tell Dave about my moose, the one that walked across the lakeshore during my grizzly hunt. The one that still walked through the lakeshore in my mind. I explained that before I saw that bull, I didn’t want to hunt moose. But now, it was something I had to do. When I was done, I didn’t have to ask. Dave said, “I’ll go with you.” I smiled ear to ear and said without thinking, “Well all right then!” The next few hours, driving through the darkness in Missouri, was all about moose hunting. By the time the rest of the crew woke up I was sure we would do it.
Things got rock solid after we sent in our deposits and started planning in earnest. We decided to hunt the second and third week of September in order to hit the start of the rut. We also decided to rent a boat and motor as part of our drop camp. We would stay at a fixed camp, but we would hunt by motoring up river, stopping to call and hunt where we saw moose sign along the river. We spent the spring going over packing lists and get the gear together. We also arranged all the travel from Kentucky to the little town of McGrath, Alaska. By the time summer rolled around, we were dumping our bags and going over equipment in extreme detail. The last thing we did was sight in our rifles out past three hundred yards. That day I knew Dave was a damn good choice, because he managed to get a nasty “scope bite” right between the eyes. It was deep and bleeding bad. Dave just laughed, took his shirt off and used it to apply pressure to the gash. When the bleeding stopped, he continued practicing with his rifle. Every shot from his rifle opened his forehead back up. Each time he just laughed, took his shirt back off and held it to his forehead. Earlier in the summer, while working on our first aid kits, I told Dave that in the backcountry I didn’t bring sutures, but superglue. I explained that I often get so dirty, that poking a needle deeply through the skin multiple times brings as much risk of infection as the wound itself. When we were done shooting, I joked that I could fix the gash in his forehead with superglue. Dave agreed. So, back at his kitchen table, with his lovely wife Jenn watching, I disinfected the gash thoroughly and carefully applied pressure to both sides to have the smallest scar possible. As I closed the hole in his face, he never flinched and I know that glue burns. After it was done Jenn reminded us that we were, “Not right.” We just laughed and cracked a beer, which is way better than pain pills anyway.
Travel to the little town of McGrath was uneventful, but we were inspired and ready for the adventure. We made a deal that we would hunt every day until we got Dave a moose. I made it clear that my aim was to have an adventure and that if I got a moose, that’d be “icing on the cake.” Dave was thankful and nothing more was said of it. Just as we planned, we were in McGrath a day early and did our final packing and weighing of our gear. We were allowed 150lbs of gear and provisions each and using the scale in the tiny little flight terminal, we were right on the money. That afternoon we left the B&B and went over to the McGuire Tavern. I still wonder why it’s not the McGrath Tavern. McGrath is a famous stop on the world-famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race, but this time of year it is a ghost town, except for moose hunters. We were the only two guys in the tavern for a long time and I asked the bartender about the bar. It was covered with inscriptions and many travelers had scrawled their initials in it. “What do you have to do to be allowed to carve your name in the bar?” He replied, “You need a knife.” The bartender was not much for conversation.
The next morning, we had a tremendous breakfast at the B&B and spent the morning talking with the other moose hunters. We were not scheduled to leave until the following day, but the pilot told us to be ready. The normally wet weather in this part of Alaska was dry and the skies were clear. They were getting everyone lined up to get into the backcountry, so we got our stuff together and waited. We watched other groups get ready to go and realized the pilots had their own scales. The group in front of us was thirteen pounds overweight. They got rid of some potatoes, onions and Canadian whiskey. We were eleven pounds underweight, so we took their stuff. Even after that we were still six pounds under. Then the pilot said, “Lets go.” Dave and I couldn’t believe it. We were going to get an extra day in the backcountry for our hunt. We had each brought twelve days of food for a ten-day hunt and now we had extra potatoes, onions and whiskey. We jumped in the back of the little rusted pick-up and sped off to the river.
The feeling of flying over the Alaskan backcountry is unexplainable. You’re exhilarated, yet there is a foreboding feeling. It’s beautiful country, but the enormity and remoteness of it is also striking. If the plane went down and we had to get out, it would be near impossible with the number of river crossings and mountains. Your only choice would be to wait for help. Still, I was smiling ear to ear, until I was shaken back to reality when the plane suddenly turned slowed down. It only took a moment to realize we were okay. We were at our destination. The pilot was slowing down to land and doing so by flying circles around the small lake he intended for his aquatic runway. The pilot explained that our camp was on the small rod of land that separated the little unnamed lake and Iditarod River and that our, fold up Porta-bote was down there in the trees. The little plane slid across the lake’s surface. We jumped out. We off loaded our gear. The pilot helped us assemble the boat and just like that, he was gone. It was real. We were on our own.
In Alaska, you cannot hunt on the same day you fly. So, there was no rush to make camp. We took our time and did it right, taking all the normal precautions against bears to insure we could sleep easy with both eyes closed. We established a sleeping area a few hundred yards separate from out fire pit, meat poles and cooking area. We scouted the bank and found a good place to get our boat into the water of the steep bank of the Iditarod River. We even made a little dock-like area where we could keep it secured overnight. Then we double checked our rifles were still accurate and got our gear ready for the next morning. With great anticipation we retreated to our tents and waited there until morning.
Days came and went. We saw moose sign and wolf sign, but no moose and no bears. We hunted hard, using all the techniques we’d researched and the outfitter taught us. Every day we motored up river in the pre-dawn light, stopping to hunt where we saw good moose sign. We would do bull moose calls and rake trees until early afternoon.
Then we got back on the boat, found a place where the wind would keep the bugs off us, and cooked a hot meal. After that we would drift home listening and calling for the three or four hours it took us to get home by dusk. Back at camp we’d call until it was dark and then we’d eat a cold dinner and collapse. We hunted so hard I noticed we weren’t even eating all our rations. Our hopes and motivation ran high. We were undaunted by the lack of moose, the mosquitoes, the biting flies and the daily grind.
Finally, we heard our first cow moose call. We were excited. We’d been told not to use a cow call until we heard one. We were sure that cow calls were what we were missing, but they didn’t help. The next few days were more of the same. We heard a few more real cows calling and actually one bull grunting, but the dense forest in the river bottom limited visibility. There were no hilltops to glass from. There was no other way to hunt than to find small openings, bogs or ponds and try to call a moose into us. We kept at it and never once believed it wouldn’t happen. Our positive attitudes coupled with proper planning and the right gear meant that camp was efficient and pleasant. We just needed a moose.
Halfway through the trip, the outboard motor started to sputter and quit. We did some initial troubleshooting and made one small fix, but decided not to waste hunting time. We simply hunted the best moose sign we’d seen close to camp. We were undaunted. Dave’s bull was out there, we just knew it. That evening, back at camp, Dave took the motor apart and did what he could. The next morning, it worked better, but it wasn’t right. Just as soon as it warmed up, pushing against the current running upstream, it conked out. We had to hunt upriver. If we tried to go down and the motor failed, it would be nearly impossible to get home. So, we hunted the best spots close to camp that day and drifted back to camp by dusk. That night it started to rain.
The rain continued into the next day, steady and unending. We were hunting in ultralight chest waders and wading boots, with our wet weather coats on. We hunted in this gear every day. It works great and you’re not constantly taking hip boots off and putting on your hunting boots to get in and out of the boat. But even in this gear, we were getting wet. Rain on the river just has a humidity to it and eventually some drops run down your neck. After a few hours, you’re wet, that’s it. I recommended we go back and get under the tarps we’d put over the empty meat poles and call moose from camp. Dave agreed.
It rained all night and the next morning it was hard and steady. We stayed in camp and called. The hunt was nearing its planned conclusion, so I called the outfitter. He said the pilots were backed up. He was still working his, “First hunters in, first hunters out” plan. We remained hopeful. We had extra food. We could sit relatively dry and call from camp. We’d heard cow moose calling from camp. A bull just had to appear across the river from camp at some point. We did our best to remain positive. As we told stories I thought it would be great to have a smaller fire under the tarps. We’d found an old moose camp less than a quarter mile away. In the detritus of that camp, I found a coffee can. I brought it back and turned it into a little woodstove. I was trying to get some twigs burning in it when Dave showed up with birch bark. Eureka! That’s right, birch bark burns wet. So, there we were for the last two days of our hunt, under the meat pole tarps, burning bark in our little stove and calling moose from camp.
We also debated going back out in the rain to hunt, but we decided against it. It was a hard call to make. I normally refuse to hunt in the rain, but we were in Alaska on a moose hunt. Rain can be bad for multiple reasons. There’s always the chance you’ll get hypothermia, but what’s worse – the rain washes away blood trails. Because of this, I’ve always believed hunting in the rain was unethical. Knowingly hunting in conditions that could prevent you from finding your animal after you shoot it, is simply wrong. We compromised. If we were to get a moose, it would happen right here in camp.
Late in the day we got a big fire going. We used the boat motor fuel, because we had extra to get it started. We chopped as much dry wood as we could out of the center out of dead trees. Then added as much spruce as we could, because the pitch burns hot. I was chopping wood when Dave said, “Mike! Mike! Moose! Moose!” I ran to the river bank and right across from camp was a bull. Dave grabbed his rifle and I grabbed my binoculars. Before I could give Dave the bad news, he said, “He doesn’t have four brow tines on either side.” I added, “Yeah brother, he isn’t fifty inches wide either.” Dave sat his rifle down and through a quiet laugh said, “Well damn.”
We spent the next twenty minutes standing on the river bank, with a bull moose directly across the river from camp, not one hundred yards. We called to him and he became furious. He raked a willow. He grunted. He rolled his head and shoulders. He even pawed at the ground like a raging bull. When he tried to leave, we threw a cow call at him and he came back. This was confirmation that our calling was good enough to get the job done. We simply hadn’t had a rutting bull in range of our calls, until now. It was great fun, but it was time to let him go and we did. That evening we decided to break out the onions, potatoes, bacon bits and whiskey. We’d been saving them for a moose kill, but just seeing this bull was cause for celebration.
It rained all night. We called the outfitter, “I’m gonna try to get you out, be ready.” The rain abated in the morning, but the clouds were still very low in the sky. Still, we pulled the boat out of the river, disassembled it and put it on the lakeshore. We then moved all our gear up from the tents to the meat pole tarps. Then the rain started again. Then it began to pour harder. I scrambled to get our extra tarp over the gear, as the rain was blowing in sideways under the meat pole tarps.
We weren’t going home today. Later in the afternoon, the rain slowed once again and we discussed going hunting. Dave abhors failure. He’s a self-made man who applies himself in layers of hard work until he wins. The discussion circled back to the same point – the outfitter will always fly the moose meat out before us, as spoiled meat brings a hefty fine from the State of Alaska. We were also not number one on the list to get out, remembering the rule, “First in, first out,” if we had a moose down it might be a few days until we got out. We agreed that discretion is the better part of valor and we’d only shoot a legal bull if he showed in camp or across the river from camp. Putting the boat back together to cross the river, then butchering and ferrying the moose back to our side of the river in the rain was as far as we were willing to go. We resigned ourselves to burning birch bark in our woodstove and waiting under the meat pole tarps.
The next morning, midday, afternoon and evening came and went. The rain never ceased. The next two days came and went in the same manner. We kept our spirits up and tried to remain positive. We were out of whiskey, but we still had a little food. We were mostly dry and we had plenty of gasoline to keep the fire going, thanks to our crappy motor. We told stories and retired to our separate tents randomly to read and nap. The following morning Dave reported that his tent was leaking. I loaned him the tent and felt responsible. We decided to go back to the old moose camp and take one of the tarps the other hunters left. The plan was to string it up over both tents to provide a rain fly above our normal rain flies. It worked and it lifted our spirits a bit. The rest of the day came and went. The rain never stopped.
Pitter patter, tip, top, splat…pitter patter, tip, top, splat…all night long. There’s no need to look outside when you’re living in a tent to know if it’s still raining. When the sun rose and brightened the world through the grey clouds and lit up the inside of my tent a wonderful reddish yellow, I got moving. I also thought about how silly it is for tent manufacturers to make a red tent. Red light is an angry thing. The light penetrating the red walls of my tent was not helping my mood one bit.
I rose and headed up to the firepit to get a warming fire going in the soft steady rain. I called the outfitter to get the inevitable bad news. After he told us that no one was flying today, he asked, “Have the guys from the remote float showed up yet?” I replied, “No haven’t seen them.” He said, “Well your camp is the end of their float, so keep an eye out.” I told Dave the news. We were going to have company. Then we went about our routine of telling stories, burning birch bark in the coffee can woodstove and trying to stay dry. When we lowered our food bags out of the tree that morning, we took stock. We were trying mightily to keep our spirits up, but the lack of food was now serious. It was time to begin rationing. Today’s total ration per man would be: two cereal bars, one ramen noodle packet and two quarts of soup made from tobacco sauce and garlic powder. The only good news, we were almost done our books and could exchange them, so we had something to read.
I was reading Mutiny on the Bounty. The following morning our patience finally ran out. We both became a reincarnation of the mutinous leader Fletcher Christian. Screw the outfitter! Screw the pilots! We are hungry and want to go home! A better pilot could fly in this! We complained for the first time and we were loud and raucous about it. Had Captain Bligh been there we would have set him in our little fold up boat with the crappy motor and forced him to drift down the Iditarod River alone. Suddenly we were both laughing hysterically as Dave made a joke about the movie, “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The one where Bill Murray keeps getting something wrong and so he wakes up and it’s the same day over and over. We really needed to get that out of our system. After our poor meager little breakfast Dave retired to his tent to read. Shortly thereafter, the rain stopped. I wanted to enjoy the breeze and the big fire, so I moved over to the firepit and began to stoke it.
As I sat facing the river, a welcome breeze blew across the lake from behind me. The smoke billowed up toward the grey sky of the same color. Just then, a human head popped up over the riverbank and looked right at me. The face of exhaustion belonged to Orrin. I stood and immediately said, “Welcome to camp.” The expression of relief was instantly evident on his face. I moved to shake his hand and saw his partner Jesse climbing the river bank. As I shook their hands I said, “The fire’s warm, why don’t y’all take a break.” They were both soaked to their bones and exhausted. As I looked down the steep river bank to their fourteen-foot inflatable raft I saw two moose racks lashed down tight over a tall pile of meat bags. The two young men moved to the fire and slowly, as they warmed themselves, you could see their energy return. Dave heard their voices and joined us. We learned that they took their moose on the third and fifth days of their hunt and had been rowing hard to get to our camp. About the time the color returned to the faces of Orrin and Jesse, they decided to get to work. All four of us pitched in and we soon had their raft unloaded and tied fast with a long rope to a tree on the top of the steep bank.
They had successfully taken two bulls in probably the most physically demanding type of hunt possible. Their float trip covered well over one hundred river miles. One of them had to man the oars and keep the raft in the middle of the river, while the other called and glassed for moose. They had to make camp every night and tear it down every morning. After they killed a moose, they would have to load and unload five or six hundred pounds of meat, in addition to their gear. In the evenings, before pitching their tent, they had to build a meat pole and tarp it, to hang the meat. They had two moose, which means over one thousand pounds of meat was now part of their cargo. The work required cannot be understated. However tough it is to float a river for moose, it is also one of the best ways to be successful. You cover so much country and finding at least one rutting moose is almost a certainty.
They were happy to see us and we were happy to see them. We had a semi-dry camp, with tarped meat poles already up and a warm fire. They had food and we were hungry. Jesse oversaw cooking for them and still had some Mountain House dehydrated meals to trade for sweets to ease Orrin’s sweet tooth. All we had left were cookies and a few ramens. So, the trading began in earnest. Jesse was also nearly out of cooking fuel. They had been boiling their water, not filtering it. So, they were rationing the remaining fuel to make drinking water. We had an eight-liter filter system and plenty of water. We also had enough cooking fuel to last another two weeks for all four of us. They complained they’d been without coffee for a couple days, due to rationing their fuel. I fired up the stove and put an end to their coffee problem. Jesse told us, “You guys help yourselves to any one of the Mountain House meals you like.” Dave and I were not starving, but we were damn sure hungry. We didn’t wait. Orrin and Jesse had coffee and sweets. Dave and I had a Mountain House meal. In short order, we were all sitting around the fire as content as we could be, under the circumstances.
That night around the campfire we learned all about them and their hunt. They were accomplished young men in their mid-thirties, easily a dozen years younger than Dave and I. Jesse was a surgical technician. Orrin was a logger who owned his own company. Both were career hunters and tough guys. They never once complained about the work and hardship associated with their float hunt or the rain. They described a river that was hot and cold, night and day different. They floated sections of river that were teaming with life. They saw seven legal bulls and harvested two of them. They also described sections of river that were quiet and devoid of life. They asked us how far up and down river we hunted. We explained that we never hunted down river, thanks to a crappy motor. We told them we made it about four miles up river on the longer days. They said they last moose they saw was more than ten miles upriver and the only thing they’d seen in the last two days was wolf tracks. With the hunting stories complete the conversation shifted to eating and Dave, who is a good cook, volunteered to help them cook some moose.
That night we shared a true hunters camp. A scene that has played out for thousands of years of human history. Hunters sitting around a fire, grilling meat and sharing stories of the hunt. Dave and I were so grateful for the food and the new campfire stories. Dave and I were about as well acquainted as two friends could be at this point and were nearly out of stories to tell. We’d started talking about favorite movies and nonsense before Orrin and Jesse showed up. To hear Orrin’s stories of being a logger the old-fashioned way and running his own company was almost as cool as hearing Jesse’s stories of assisting on amputating human limbs. Somehow, Orrin and Jesse also brought a break in the rain that lasted all evening.
Overnight the rain started again, but I slept well with a full belly. The next day was rain and more rain. But the morale in camp was high and we really enjoyed each other’s company. We talked of hunts we’d done, family, hunts we’d like to do and shared camp like our hunting ancestors. I had a weird feeling that day about my hunt. I started to feel successful. I was no longer angry at being stuck in the Alaskan bush for days. I’d made a life long friend with Dave and been blessed to have a hunting partner I knew I could count on. Now, we’d made new friends and were talking about hunting with them in the future. The rest of the day we shared camp chores between the four of us and did so without having to ask. Dave and I pitched in helping put the game bags back on the moose meat, a real chore with over 1,000lbs of meat. You must take the bags off at night to help the meat cool and develop a rind. Then put the bags back on during the day to keep the flies off. Orrin and Jesse helped gather fire wood and such. Camp ran well. We ate well.
Late in the day, we took an inventory of gear and made plans to leave Orrin and Jesse all the additional gear we had that they could use. They would mail it back to us in the future. The day came and went quickly, not like many of the previous days that dragged on to the constant din of rain drops. Before I knew it, we were grilling an entire rack of moose ribs over the fire. We ate like kings, told stories and retired content to our bags for the night.
I am always up early. I suppose a couple decades in the Army burns certain behaviors into the marrow. I said a little prayer and moved up to the campfire meatpole area, a couple hundred yards down river from the tents. I said another prayer of thanks we had extra gasoline to help me start a fire in the rain. I spent a great deal of time the previous day peeling birch bark and showing Jesse how I fed it into the little coffee can woodstove under the meat pole tarps to keep warm and spirits up during the rain. I had a large quantity of the bark left over to build the morning fire. I chopped out some dry wood from the inside of a dead birch and put that in after the bark, then covered it with a large quantity of green spruce bows, added the gasoline and lit it. WOOOSH! I love a fire.
Slowly my hunting comrades emerged from their bags and as they gathered around the fire something happened. The sky opened and a brilliant sun shown through. The rain completely stopped. The clouds rose. The ceiling, a pilot’s weather term Dave educated me about, was lifting. When Dave reached the fire he looked up, smiled and said, “We are getting out today Mike.” I smiled and kept working on the fire. We knew the pilots rarely fly first thing in the morning in this region. They must wait until the ground fog burns off in McGrath, so they can see the mountain passes to the west. So, I kept working on the fire and didn’t get motivated to pack my stuff. I was making a helluvalot of noise trying to fan the fire, when Dave said, “Mike shut up. Mike shut up! Mike shut the hell up!” I stood and said, “Man there’s no call for that crap! What’s your problem? I’m trying to keep the fire going.” He said, “I hear a plane.” I shut the hell up.
It was a plane. It was our plane. I dropped everything and sprinted down to my tent. Packing involved throwing everything into bags, didn’t matter what went into a bag or what bag it was. Then we hustled it to the lakeshore. By my second trip, the pilot had the plane stopped on the beach and Jesse was holding the mooring lines. Orrin was helping us get our stuff loaded, handing it to the pilot as I made Jesse aware of the things we were leaving and where they were. It probably took twenty minutes, but it seemed like one minute. Before I knew it, we were airborne and headed east, back to McGrath. Our hunt had been over for days, but the adventure continued as we camped in the rain. Now the whole thing was over. The first part of the flight was sunlit and beautiful. I started to reflect on the fact that we didn’t get Dave a moose. It was the only regret I had. As we reached the low unnamed mountains between the Iditarod River Valley and McGrath, I realized we were not, “out of the woods yet”. This was not going to be a clear pretty day, all the way home. The pilot was running through a small window in the rotten weather. The ceiling was dropping. We were losing sight of the mountain tops. Now the pilot was flying through openings in the low clouds and around the mountain peaks. I said a little prayer and took a couple deep breaths and tried to relax.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been in an aircraft and it got dicey. At least no one was shooting at us this time and if we went down there weren’t enemy patrols to fight. Thirty minutes of the pilot necessarily showing off his skills passed and the good Lord delivered us through the mountains. We were safe over the river systems to the east. I bowed my head and another deep breath and a prayer of thanks passed over my lips. When I looked up, I could see McGrath on the horizon.
As we were unloading the plane, the old grizzled maintenance man nodded toward the mountains to the west, from the direction we came. Looked me right in the eyes and said, “You boys were fortunate he came to get you.” I turned to look and saw the clouds had covered the mountains. The Lord had opened a window for the pilot to get in and out. The good Lord had also closed it right behind us. No one else would get out today. I was grateful, very grateful. Later that day, we learned that it was one of the most active typhoon seasons ever in the Pacific Ocean. We were hunting only eighty miles, as the crow flies, from the Bering Sea. So, the remnants of multiple storms were lined up battering the coast of Alaska and stranding us in camp. Before we got off the ramp and on dry land the outfitter’s wife said, “We still have twenty-six hunters out.” I heard myself say, “Dear God” under my breath.
This is a longer more complicated dish to prepare:
____ A willing soul, a stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless
____ A good hunting partner – priceless
____ Time Off – up to three weeks, start to finish, including travel, weather dependent
____ Alaska annual hunting and 14-day fishing license $1,065
____ Hotels in Anchorage $400
____ McGrath B&B; room and meals $700 (everything is flown in; thus everything is expensive)
____ If you don’t have proper gear already for a hunt like this buy the very best gear you can; Alaska will test it and you’ll need it; plus it will last a long time $$$Unknown$$$
____ Round trip plane tickets Kentucky to Anchorage $600
____ Round trip plane tickets from Anchorage to McGrath including a “cargo block” for 300lbs of gear $900
____ Per person outfitter costs $6,800; includes flights in and out of the bush, plus any additional flights to move moose meat and antlers back to McGrath
____ Satellite phone and bear fence rental $250
____ Twelve days of food, fuel and provisions $225
____ Rifle and ammunition; you should already have it; .30-06 and larger calibers with good bullets will do just fine
____ Fishing gear; you should have it as well; depends on where you go what you’ll need
____ Transport of your moose meat and antlers to the lower 48 $850
____ Processing of your moose meat $350
____ All the little expendable items you’ll need; up to you and no idea on the cost
Total Cost of this adventure: $12,140
Dave and I were never in any real danger. We didn’t have any bear or wolf trouble that we know of. There was only one night we know of that an animal prowled around out tent or campfire areas. The rest of the time it was raining and we couldn’t hear them if they were there. We made smart and conservative decisions after the pilot dropped us off. There was a real risk of hypothermia, certainly. But proper gear choices and finding a way to keep a fire going, even in a coffee can under a tarp helped. You’ve got to have the basic skills of a woodsman to attempt something like this, if you’re not capable I don’t recommend you try. Work on it and do it only when you’re ready. Alaska is beautiful, but it can be brutal and ruthless. A single slip into deep cold water could be the end of you, doesn’t have to be a grizzly bear or plane crash. I went on a mountain goat trip right after this one, that story will follow soon. While I was on that hunt two pilots my guide knew crashed their planes. Everyone killed, everything lost and the cause was rumored to be, simply overloading the plane.
Okay, let’s discuss cost. You can save money on hotels in Anchorage and cut some corners, certainly. But the fact is, adventure hunts are expensive and there’s no getting around it. You’ll pay the outfitter over an 18-24 month period. So, it won’t seem like it’s that expensive, but when you add it all up – it is. When people ask me about doing hunts like this and say something like, “$6,800 for an outfitter to just fly you in, drop you off and provide a boat and motor seems expensive.” Well it isn’t. The outfitters are working in dangerous remote country. They must have to best equipment they can afford for your safety and theirs. In Alaska, guides and outfitters must be licensed. Their licenses are on the line when they make decisions, so be prepared for them to make very safe and conservative decisions. All in, all done you should expect to spend 100% more than you pay the outfitter when it’s all said and done on any hunt to Alaska, Hawaii, South America or Africa. So, if the outfitter charges $5,000, plan to spend $10,000.
Next, let’s discuss travel planning. It’s long and messy, because it’s weather dependent. Here’s what it looks like all at once: home airport > Anchorage > McGrath > Bush flight to hunting area > and back.
Seems simple right? Wrong. You must plan for weather after Anchorage, which means adding days to the plan. You should buy your food, fuel and other items you cannot take on a commercial plane from home to Anchorage in Anchorage. There’s no guarantee that what you’ll need will be available in little remote towns like McGrath. Even if they have it at the local general store it will be expensive. That means you’ll need at least one day in Anchorage to shop and repack, prior to taking the flight to McGrath. You’ll also have to be very cognizant of the weight of your gear and provisions when leaving Anchorage to McGrath and McGrath to the bush. Remember, the planes only get smaller. There’s a science to it and if you’re a first timer the only way to get it right is to check, recheck and check again.
So, here’s what a daily plan might look like if everything goes well:
Day 1 – Travel to Anchorage
Day 2 – Anchorage day to shop and repack
Day 3 – Fly to McGrath
Day 4 – Day in McGrath to make final arrangements and prepare
Day 5 – Fly into the bush…weather dependent
Days 6 through 14 – Hunt
Day 15 – Fly back to McGrath…weather dependent
Day 16 – Arrange for the butchering and transport of your moose to the lower 48
Day 17 – Fly back to Anchorage…weather dependent
Day 18 – Overnight in Anchorage and repack for the commercial plane
Day 19 – Arrive at your home Airport
There are more ways to do it than this. Some people send all their gear and provisions to McGrath via FedEx or a similar service. The McGrath B&B will store each package for a small fee. But then you really need to add a second day in McGrath, just in case something doesn’t get there and you have to figure it out. When the weather gets bad like it did for us a 19-day trip can turn into 25 or 26 real quick. Your travel plan must be just as well thought out and flexible as your hunting plan.
Finally, let’s talk about the article you just read. It’s a hunting buddy story. I didn’t talk about tips, tactics and techniques for moose hunting for a couple reasons (1) I’m a novice at moose hunting and (2) hunts like this are far more involved and complex than hunting – they’re adventures. After this adventure, the moose in my memories, the one from my grizzly hunt, stopped visiting me. That’s how I know we did it right. I will be forever thankful for Dave and the adventure. There will certainly be more to come, in fact we just started to discuss a Roosevelt elk hunt with Orrin and Jesse.
If you’re a first time moose hunters like Dave and I, here are some lessons learned that we captured:
1. Pay your deposit early and get the latest dates you can; Alaska’s moose season for non-residents is basically the pre-rut and rut; it’s a short season, but later is better.
2. Start talking to all the references the outfitter provides you with. Soak up all their lessons learned on hunting moose, food, provisions, meat care, etc.
3. Get the very best gear you can afford; you’ll need it and it should last you.
4. Drop camps are easier than floats, but they are hit and miss. Moose are regional critters and predators have an effect. You need to have terrain you can glass and then cover on foot or you’ll need a reliable boat and motor to get up and down a river. At this point, we believe that float hunts have the best odds of harvesting a moose, because of terrain you cover, but they’re damn tough.
5. Consider bringing a larger tent in case you get stuck in it. We brought two tents, one for each of us and it was a blessing. Also, the bugs can be horrendous so a tent with an integrated bug net is a plus.
6. Thermocell devices stop working once the weather gets cold. Ours quit working and all we had were head nets and gloves to keep the bugs off our exposed skin – it sucked.
7. We tried to bring dry good and make meals, but discovered that Mountain House type freeze dried meals are better for many reasons: (1) you can simply carry more of them because they weight very little (2) they’re already complete with spices etc. (3) you can bring your favorites by testing (4) they’re more cost effective in the end (5) they’re easier to prepare and (6) they’re easier to clean up.
8. Don’t bring food that hardens when it gets cold.
9. Birch bark burns wonderfully.
10. Lightweight chest waders and wading boots are the only way to hunt rivers. The only draw back is you must roll them down to go to the bathroom. We discussed with Orrin and Jesse when they showed up soaked to the bone. They had some of the best expensive rain gear made, but it’s just not enough when you’re in and out of the river in the rain.
11. A coffee can with holes poked low on the sides makes a great impromptu woodstove.
12. Moose in the rut are very susceptible to calls. If they’re in the area they will come. If nothing is responding to your calls, 99% chance there’s no moose in your area.
13. If you leave the airfield 11 pounds light, you’re a fool. Being overloaded can kill you, but that’s the pilot’s problem. The weight limit they give you has a buffer built in, so make the most of your limit. We did not and got stuck in the bush. The worst part – the McGrath grocery and liquor store are 25yds from where we weighed in our gear. All we had to do was run over there and get 11lbs of food and whiskey, which would have gone a long way when we were stranded.
14. Don’t bring too much clothing. A very tough reliable well-made set of layered clothing is all you need, yes one complete 5 or 7 layer set, depending on what works for you. You’re better served using that weight for other gear or provisions. Bring a sewing kit and some shoe-goo to fix what you’ve got. Then just add the appropriate number of socks and underwear. This is a place to save weight.
15. Bring 2 or 3 bug nets for your head and neck. They are a life saver, but they get caught on everything when you’re walking through the busy and if they rip, they’re worthless. Spray works a little bit, but you’d need about a can a day if the weather is warm, so that can be a weight issue. Going later in the year means less bugs, so there’s another reason to go late. Just remember the later dates book up first, so book early.
16. Bring a small gun maintenance kit with some gun oil – rain takes a toll on metal.
17. Baby wipes are backwoods gold.
18. Consider spraying your tent fly with a water repellant to make it work better. I used one of the best Hilleberg expedition grade tents made and it didn’t stay dry. There’s only so much rain a tent can keep out.
19. Consider bringing one extra very large tarp and pitching it over your tent.
20. You cannot bring enough 550 cord/paracord.
21. You cannot bring enough Firestarter; my favorite and it worked every time is cotton balls soaked in Vaseline – I was able to light them in the rain every time and they burn for a long time, especially if you set them in a little cup of foil or some type of metal lid.
22. A frying pan or flat skillet is a great thing to have.
23. Oil, spices, onions, potatoes and such are a luxury and can really brighten up a camp after a bad day; we made “hobo” meals by cutting up potatoes, onions, carrots and dumping in real bacon bits with a little oil, then wrapping it all very well in layers of foil and throwing it in the fire. But be careful you may have to run to the bathroom at midnight if you eat too much real food after the freeze-dried stuff.
24. A large mouthed plastic bottle makes a great latrine in a tent.
25. Solar chargers are almost worthless in Alaska.
26. If you have the weight to spare, bring an ax and a saw, real ones.
27. The Garmin inReach device is a life saver to keep friends and family informed; especially when things don’t go according to plan, but it is NOT a replacement for a satellite phone when you’re on your own DIY.
28. A good solid battery back up like the one from Dark Energy is a must to repower your devices.
29. Consider bringing the biggest most comfortable camp chair you can afford by cost and weight.
30. Always get the bigger sleeping bag; the size that fits you is too tight.
31. Consider buying a brown bear tag when hunting Alaska; especially on a guided hunt. You can downgrade tags in Alaska. So, the biggest most expensive tag is the brown bear tag. If you’re on a guided moose hunt and it’s that last day and you see a brown bear, well you can shoot it. It’s also true if you see a caribou or black bear, but don’t see a moose.
32. Finally, pace yourself. Alaska will kick you ass one way or the other – it doesn’t need any help.