HOW IT CAME TO BE.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a short essay for a contest sponsored by the Foundation For North American Wild Sheep. A long story short, I won that contest and the Mountain Caribou hunt that went along with it. That fall, I had the opportunity to experience the Arctic for the very first time and the northern mountains made an impression on me that has driven a 20-year quest to return.
Through all the twists and turns my life has taken, through the ups and downs, gains and losses, I have never stopped dreaming (and saving) for another northern hunt. Since the day I left Arctic Red 20 years ago, I promised myself that I would return to hunt an Alaska Yukon Moose and Dall Sheep. For me, the caribou, moose and sheep are the pinnacle of northern big game hunting.
On that hunt in 1993, I met and hunted with a man that would turn out to be a life long friend, Tavis Molnar. Tavis helped me take a great caribou at Arctic Red River that fall and today he owns and operates Arctic Red River Outfitters with his wife Rebecca and two young sons. Over the years, Tavis and I have shared a few laughs and even a few more adventures, both in the U.S. and Canada. But, in that time, I just couldn’t find the opportunity to hunt the Arctic Red again. On many occasions, I was close. I even had my name on the hunt list a couple times. Tav would joke with me that my name was on the hunt list in pencil and one day, when I could get my act together, he would write my name in ink.
Well, this was that year. Everything in my life came together and on the 20-year anniversary of the day I submitted the essay that would start Tavis and I’s friendship, I made a phone call to Arctic Red and had my name written in ink.
ARCTIC RED RIVER OUTFITTERS
Alaskan Moose and Dall Sheep: September 8-18, 2013
These were the exact dates of last hunt I was on at Arctic Red. 20 years to the day that I first met Tavis. A bit sentimental, I know, but worthy of note.
My dad was with me in 1993 for the caribou hunt and there was no other person I wanted along for this adventure. We are waiting here on the tarmac in Norman Wells. Waiting…and waiting…and waiting. After 20 years of waiting and 2 days of travel I was very ready to get to base camp but, the fuel truck driver slept in this morning and apparently forgot to turn on his cell phone. He was two hours late and lets just say I was forcing that smile.
Finally, we are on our way to the Arctic Red River base camp. The Mackenzie Mountains are truly amazing, and I found myself imagining rutting moose in each of the basins below. What a sight those mountains are.
The picture above is the runway at base camp and the weather looks promising.
A total hip replacement would prevent my dad from actually hunting with me for the next 10 days but, what a father I have! This man came all the way to the Northwest Territories and stayed in base camp for the duration of my hunt just so he could be there when I reached my dreams. If I turn out to be half the man he is I will be doing pretty good.
All of my family and friends were supportive of this hunt. My two sons wrote short notes on each of my cartridges for luck. Some of them were simply colored by my three year old and others had short notes like “Luck, Dad” “Dream” and “Moose Magnet”. Even on the hunt of a lifetime my family is always with me. It was comforting to have their support in my hip pocket. Thanks, boys.
THE HUNT BEGINS.
I met my guide Kevin Wheale in base camp and we spent the entire afternoon preparing our gear for the hunt. Mostly, the time was spent packing Mountain House…A little more Mountain House…and then finally, the last of the Mountain House. For those that may not have ever experience the culinary delights of freeze dried meals in the mountains, I can tell you that the Mountain House may be the best among the brands available but, they are no home cookin.
Late in the evening, Tavis flew Kevin out to a strip called Alex Camp and I followed shortly behind. Ironically, this was the same strip that I flew into 20 years ago on this same day.
The mountains were beautiful and on the flight in, I spotted a number of bull moose, a grizzly, and 6 Dall rams from the plane. With a smile and sly voice, Tav said “Yep there’s alot of meat in this country, you just have to find it.” It was going to be a very long and anxious night.
Sadly, the fog was so thick on the first morning of the hunt, Kevin and I were forced to stay in camp. We wore a solid path in the tundra as we paced between our tents for 12 long hours. At one point we used a little redneck engineering and built a shelter in a spruce thicket out of an old camp structure. The camp fire that afternoon was welcome company in the rain but it was solemn comfort for the loss of the first day.
The only excitement we had were a few curious caribou and a young grizzly on the air strip. The bear was WAY too close to camp for my comfort, but he didn’t stick around long. Its surprisingly hard to sleep when the fog is so thick you can’t see 20 yards and you know there is a Grizzly on the same ridge.
The fog lifted sometime during the next night and Kevin and I spent the second morning glassing the area around Alex Camp. Kevin was checking out a couple cow moose in the willows below camp but, there was no bull in site. By about 10:00 a.m., Kevin and I decided to move camp to the east about 5 miles and get some glass on the area were the 6 rams were seen, as well as in our target moose drainage.
We found this nice shed on top of a high ridge overlooking a valley that seemed to be full of moose. About the time we were admiring this shed, I spotted antler tips moving on the skyline only 100 yards away.
I still can’t believe that I decided to pass this bull. Kevin was convinced it was a Boone and Crockett class caribou, but I already have a nice caribou to my name and taking this bull would cost me a day of moose hunting. Kevin just shook his head is disbelief.
We made camp on top of that open ridge for the second evening and enjoyed a perfect glassing position above the willow valley further east. We spotted 11 moose this evening, including a number of bulls, but none of them were what I came north for.
Shortly after this picture, Kevin and I made a long hike to find water in the creek below. On the way, I spotted a Wolverine at very close range. It was funny that I had just been giving Kevin a good old fashion ribbing over his side burns letting him know he looked like Wolverine in the X Men movies. For a split second, Kevin thought I was still joking when I was shouting, “Wolverine!!” We were both pretty excited over this critter and Kevin was sternly urging me to SHOOT!… I won’t forget his look of disbelief when I informed him that a Wolverine tag was the only license I neglected to buy for this trip.
After we watched the Wolverine crest over the ridge, there was a long silence between Kevin and I. He finally broke with, “Let me get this straight…You just passed a book caribou and a Wolverine in the same evening? Are we on a photographic safari here?” After a good laugh, I assured him that was not the case and I would prove it in the days to follow.
That evening the fog had lifted, the wind had calmed, and the conditions were perfect for a show of Northern Lights. At 2:30 a.m., I watched the greatest show of Aroura Borealis I may ever witness. They were stretched out in a line from west to east and literally filled the night sky. The colors danced in all direction and seemed to flow over the mountains like rain. On top of all this, there was a meteor shower at the same time and I actually caught a photo of a shooting star going through the Aroura. Now that…is unforgettable.
THE START OF A NEW DAY.
We moved camp a couple miles east by noon, and it was time to find what we came here looking for. We headed toward the mountain in the photo above that is hiding the sun.
We hiked hard for a couple hours across some serious sponge and spotted this old boy about 3:00 p.m.. Kevin pegged him right off as a good bull but we had to get closer to really judge him. The bull was bedded down in a narrow valley that was choked with alder and willows. Our only chance was to cross the swamp about a mile below and work our way along the down wind rim of the canyon.
It was late afternoon before we found a good position above the bedded bull. In all truth, the moose was sound asleep about 200 yards below us. Not only is Kryptek apparel perfect for a northern hunt, the Highlander pattern is perfect for this environment. The caribou and this moose had no idea I was there.
Kevin and I studied the bull for a long time before he stood and started feeding straight away. We gave a cow call, and the bull turned back toward us and started grunting.
I am sure the bull heard Kevin and I discussing the matter and just as I was making the decision to shoot, the bull turned and began trotting across the narrow valley.
Again, Kevin stopped the bull with a cow call and I made my decision. The photos above and below are taken just before and just after the shot. If you look close at the photo below, the bull is down on the valley floor just over my cap. That one round labeled (Moose Magnet) from my sons was all it took. My PROOF Research rifle worked perfectly. The carbon fiber barrels and custom rifles made by this company set the new standard for the backcountry hunter. This moose is PROOF.
It’s very hard to describe in words the emotions that run through a person when they reach a goal they have worked toward for 20 years. I stood over this magnificent bull for the first time and struggled to keep my heart from leaping out of my chest, my knees from shaking and even as reluctant as I am to say, a tear from falling. In the end, I simply sat in silence next to this great bull. Maybe it was reflection on my 20-year endeavor to get to that moment or maybe it was respect for a great trophy. Some of both I believe.
MOOSE…ARE HUGE CRITTERS.
A few tidbits on the size of these animals. The bull stood over 7 feet high at the shoulder. I don’t know what he weighed, but I sat on the bull and my feet didn’t touch the ground on either side. This would only be a guess (and I am sure everyone has their own opinion) but by my reckoning, there was 800 lbs of boneless meat from this bull.
We certainly had our work cut out for us. Evening was coming on fast and we were about 3 miles from camp with a moose on the ground. 3 1/2 hours later we had the moose boned out and our packs loaded for the first trip out.
I told Kevin that I wanted to pack the horns out on the first trip. I didn’t even finish the word horns and Kevin said “You bet man, they are all yours!” He was very willing to give me that job and it only took me about 10 steps to realize how awkward those horns are on your back. The first pull out of that canyon was the hardest my legs have ever worked…straight up the canyon wall after a long day and with all that weight. I don’t know how steep that hill was but I could stand up and reach to my side and touch dirt. You do the math. This is Experience the Hunt and I wont forget that one.
I knew it would be a long night after I shot this moose. It’s about 10 pm here and I am still a couple miles from my camp. There really is no better feeling than the weight on your back a great set of horns puts there, but after 15 hours of straight hiking (the last three of which were under a 100 lb load), I was ready for a break.
The Mackenzie Mountains and a heavy pack can take your breath away. That’s something every big game hunter should experience.
From where the moose fell, it was 3 miles back to spike camp and the nearest place Tavis could land a plane. That means that Kevin and I moved 800 lbs of moose meat and then the cape and horns a LONG WAYS.
Please don’t take this as bragging, but I am very proud of the fact that the two of us moved nearly 1,000 lbs of moose in 4 trips. Under tremendous loads, my Kifaru pack performed perfectly. It was a head down, one foot in front of the other, kind of pack out. Besides the pain, the one thing I remember from that job came during a long stretch of packing across sponge on the second day. Kevin broke a long silence with ” Hey Cody, instead of “Moose Magnet”, maybe your kids should have written Slim Fast on one of those bullets. Once you pull the trigger, its the greatest weightloss plan ever.” We both needed a good laugh about then, and come to think of it, after working that hard, he was right. That Kevin Wheale is the strongest backpacker I may ever meet. Thanks for the help and sharing this hunt my friend.
It took us two solid days to pack my moose to the closest air strip. It felt pretty darn good to have accomplished a backpack hunt for Alaska/Yukon Moose, but I wasn’t done yet. The next part of my adventure would be after Dall sheep in the heart of the Mackenzie Mountains.
Unfortunately, one of the other guides was injured by a horse during my hunt and he was out for the season. This meant that Kevin and I would part ways here and he would guide two caribou hunters for the remainder of the hunt. Who would guide me for sheep? I would have to wait to find out…..
FOR NOW, IT WAS BACK TO BASE CAMP.