For those pursuing the subsistence lifestyle, fall is the busiest time of the year. Gardens that were planted in early summer are ready to be harvested and stored, final preparations and additions are made to the wood pile and people go out in the country searching for game. Without a garden to harvest and a decent wood pile, I began hunting in late August in an effort to fill my freezer for the winter season. The process was both intimidating and overwhelming. The only mammal I had killed was ground squirrels and I hadn’t killed an animal larger than the size of a goose. Now I was attempting to scale magnitudes larger to sheep, caribou or maybe even a moose.
In Northern Alaska, August is the most precipitous month and this year was no exception. Rain fell steadily throughout the month, yet temperatures remained warm enough to keep most of the mountain tops free of snow. I spent a few days on the North Slope, in an effort to find caribou. My search was fruitless, with the only excitement being an attempt at stalking a band of 5 bulls, before losing them in the landscape. Rams were difficult to find as well. I intermittently looked at or glassed every mountain top along the roadway from Wiseman to Galbraith for weeks without finding a single ram. A group of 12 sheep piqued my curiosity 7 miles west of Wiseman, but they turned out to be ewes and lambs.
A potential work opportunity drew me outside the Arctic to Fairbanks. After it fell through, I hung around, visiting friends, helping others with projects and pursuing my own. September continued on and each day led closer to the end of the hunting season in most areas for sheep and moose. Without a steady income, I can’t afford not to hunt. In rural communities, hunting and fishing is often the cheapest way to put large quantities of food on the table. Limited income sources and a lack of well stocked stores (or stores at all) turn rural residents towards the land.
I was still without a moose as the season nearing its close towards the end of September. A few days prior to its end, I found myself arriving at an island within the Interior a few hours outside of town. Rain fell steadily upon our arrival. Quarters and game bags full of meat hung from the meat pole outside the tent. A large set of antlers sat front and center on a table outside. The party I joined had killed one moose earlier in the week, but hadn’t had any luck since. Safe within the confines of the nylon walls, the whiskey bottle was passed around and we drank beers while we played cards and whittled away the evening hours, waiting to hunt the next day.
Morning broke, a few hours after first light the rain had ceased. After the previous night’s escapades, movement was slow inside the tent. I was anxious to get going. We had a limited time and I wanted to use every opportunity available to hunt. Moose are typically most active in the early morning and evening hours. During the middle of the day, they often bed down, making it almost impossible to successfully hunt. A strong wind blew consistently through the trees and after a short walk I had found most of the brush to be dry.
After a round of pancakes and bacon, we finally got underway. Will and I set out towards the forest, where we’d find a spot above to glass the surrounding area. A half an hour of glassing yielded nothing and we stood in preparation to try another location. “Holy shit, there’s a huge bull right there.” I spun around and caught a glimpse of the moose no more than 300 yards from our location. He had been bedded down while we were glassing, invisible in the tall grass.
Over the next couple hours, we proceeded to play the game of trying to draw the bull closer to us, while moving closer ourselves. Initially, the bull was receptive to cow calls and moved as close as 240 yards distant. There was a clear shot, but I thought that such a long range shot wouldn’t be prudent for my first time. The bull eventually decided he wasn’t interested and moved away from us into a stand of trees. Changing tactics, we rushed down the hill into the forest. Moving across the swampy ground, we found a clear position and scraped an antler against a tree, to imitate the sound of another bull. Antlers raked beyond the set of trees ahead. The moose was there but out of sight. After half an hour of inaction, we couldn’t be sure and headed back up the hill to look further.
There was almost a clear broadside shot. A hunter couldn’t ask for anything better. The rear of the moose was exposed, but the front was obscured by a spruce tree. Will set up a rest with a pair of trekking poles as I loaded a shell into the chamber, set the crosshairs behind where I believed the front shoulder to be and waited for my opportunity. The moose moved into a clearing and I pulled the trigger. “Load again! Load again!” It stumbled as if it was hit but otherwise stood and began walking away. I rushed across the slope, through the brush, attempting to find another vantage point. About 120 yards out, I set the rifle against a birch tree, and fired again. The moose reared up on its hind legs and crumpled to the ground. Will and I exchanged high fives and celebrated as another shot rang out from another member of our party.
Over an hour later, we approached in search of the moose. Waiting in the rain, I had heard its labored breathing. We were prepared to head down earlier, but were surprised to see the moose stand up and decided to wait. With a round in the chamber, I approached the area we had last seen the moose. Rounding a group of willows, I found him dead on the ground amidst spruce trees. One of my shots, likely the second, had pierced through both lungs behind the front shoulders. There was a bullet hole in the chest, from the other member of our party who had seen the moose standing while Will and I were celebrating (not visible to us). With a larger group, we made quick work of dressing and packed the second and final load into camp after dark. Like the other moose, this one was hung up on a meat pole and the job was complete. Meat for the winter.
I had not wanted to take a moose when I set out hunting at the beginning of the season. The process seemed overwhelming to me, whose only understanding of dressing out large animals had come through reading and various videos on Youtube. The group changed that though. With plenty of advice and assistance from others, I never felt too far out of my comfort zone and managed to learn a lot. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to put my newfound knowledge to the test later this winter looking for sheep and in the spring for caribou.