Island Hopping For A Bull

Photos by Bixler and Krystin McClure

The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY KRYSTIN AND BIXLER MCCLURE 

Abe, we aren’t going to make it,” I told the transporter I had hired for this coveted Nunivak Island muskox hunt. 

We were stuck in Bethel, and after spending the night listing to the wind whistle against the B&B we were staying in, I knew the hunt was hopeless. It was raining, snowing, foggy, and turbulent along the entire Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta.

“Well,” Abe David said after a pregnant pause, “come back in March.”

“I don’t think that Grandma wants to have our little guy for another night,” I replied. “I guess last night was pretty miserable for her.”

“Bring him,” Abe said. “My wife Mona can watch him.”

I had pretty much written the hunt off at that point as we boarded the plane back to Anchorage, despite Abe’s efforts to convince me otherwise. The hardest part of a Nunivak Island muskox hunt is simply getting there, and the cruel Alaskan weather seemed to be trying to prevent every village flight from leaving Bethel that weekend.

We returned home and I lamented my decision. I hate giving up on hunts, especially dream ones like muskox, as it takes an average of 25 years to draw a tag for the species.

But as February came to a close and March rolled around, I started to take Abe’s words to heart. The weather started to improve in Bethel and in Mekoryuk, on Nunivak.

“I think we should try again over my birthday weekend,” I told Bixler.

“What about Lynx?” he said, noting the pushback from his mom as we discussed the idea of leaving Lynx with her for a few days.

“Let’s just bring him,” I replied. “He’ll love it.”

Bixler texted Abe to avoid the delay from the bush cellphone network and Abe booked us over my birthday weekend. 

 

WE HAD HARDLY UNPACKED when we headed back to the Anchorage airport, this time with our toddler in tow. Unlike our first flight over, everything ran smoothly. Our plane was on time and the weather was pleasantly sunny in Bethel, with a fresh layer of snow.

We landed in Bethel and checked in. To our surprise, all of our tubs and gun case were immediately loaded onto a Caravan bound for Mekoryuk. Lynx enjoyed running around the tiny terminal in Bethel and making friends with kids of all ages. A little boy came up to me and jokingly asked if he could take Lynx back to his village and teach him Yupik.

We were a little late but landed in Mekoryuk, the only village on Nunivak, a volcanic island in the Bering Sea. The island is completely treeless and fresh snow covered the gentle slopes. The runway was the only feature on the landscape and appeared tiny on the vast island.

We taxied to the turnaround and a procession of people started to unload the plane and greet the passengers. Bixler, Lynx and I met Abe and Mona David, who have lived on Mekoryuk their entire lives. They immediately fell in love with Lynx and arranged for Lynx and I to catch a ride with the quiet village public safety officer while Bixler hopped on the snowmachine. 

The short drive led us to the David’s house. Abe and Mona showed us to our room and brought out toys for Lynx. Their daughter came by to drop off their grandson on her way to work and soon he and Lynx were playing with the Davids’ variety of kid’s toys.

While the two played, Abe and I talked about the hunt and where to go. As a transporter, he can’t guide me to a location, so we talked about routes around the island. 

During our discussion, Mona prepared a delicious meal. The hospitality of the Davids was wonderful and we happily enjoyed our evening in their household.

 

THE NEXT MORNING, THE fog had rolled in over Mekoryuk and Abe suggested we wait until it broke. Lynx played with David’s older grandson while we waited. Almost immediately, the sunshine rolled through the front window and Abe wasted no time in getting us going.

Bixler and I jumped on Abe’s two-seat Bearcat. I waved one last goodbye to Lynx – he started to cry – and soon we sped off from the village. We navigated the drainages and treeless hills along the deep blue Bering Sea. We stopped at one point to take a break near a cinder cone, a good vantagepoint along the expanse of Nunivak.

“This is like snowmachining on the moon,” I told Bixler. We watched foxes run around in the distance, feeding on remnants of muskox harvested by the villagers and hunters like us.

We went clear across to the south end of the island and skirted frozen sand dunes dotted with the occasional buoy washed ashore by the ferocious Bering Sea storms. I was in such awe of the landscape that I didn’t spot the muskoxen off in the distance. I felt the snowmachine lurch to a stop as Bixler spotted some muskoxen relatively nearby.

I readied my rifle and pursued the animals on foot. At first, we were positioned upwind and they ran, surprisingly fast for an animal that looks like they lumber along the tundra. 

I ran around to the downwind side and crouched down behind a tussock and inched closer on my knees, cocking my rifle and extending the bipod. The muskoxen were huddled together, their defense mechanism against predators. Immediately I identified all three as bulls and noted that I would simply shoot the first one that stepped away from the herd. 

As soon as one stepped out, I fired the shot. I saw the muskox lurch from the impact and all three began running. The one I hit faltered and reset to brace for a second shot. The second shot was perfect and the animal dropped. 

Bixler and I yelped with joy as Abe joined us from afar and we gathered for an array of pictures. The horns and horn boss were very pronounced; this was a large bull. I stood for a moment staring at this creature straight from the Ice Age as Bixler began to ready the knives for field dressing the muskox.

“Happy birthday, honey,” he said as we started to part the long hair to skin the animal. 

“Thanks!” I replied excitedly. “This is the best present ever.”

FIELD-DRESSING THE MUSKOX took longer than expected. The skin was so thick that the first shot had hardly penetrated the hide, but the second was right through the lung. Bixler and I bagged the quarters, tenderloins, backstraps, ribs, plus the odds and ends. We saved the heart and some of the bones for the locals. The skull and hide was tightly wrapped in a tarp and would go into a bag for the flight home.

We packed the entire animal on the sled trailer and then used the satellite phone to call Mona to say we were on our way. Abe explained that we would go over the middle of the island to home. We sped off up the gentle slope, running into the other two muskoxen on the way home. 

Abe stopped to show us a giant crater left over from the island’s volcanic beginnings. The sun was setting and the pure white horizon was slowly being replaced with hues of blue. We pressed onward and finally returned to Mekoryuk at about 10:30 p.m. under bright stars on a moonless night. 

Lynx was happy to see me. He had had a stellar day meeting the rest of the Davids’ grandkids and others from the village. Mona greeted me with a purple birthday cake – the only color they could find at the store – and a huge meal. We were all exhausted but happy about the successful hunt and great company.

I put Lynx to bed and Bixler and I stood outside in the cold deboning the meat to fit them into the tubs. In total, the muskox produced a little more than 350 pounds of deboned (minus the ribs) meat. The hide/skull combination weighed in at 164 pounds and had to be air freighted back to Anchorage. The bones went to local residents.

Packed and ready to go, we waited for our plane out of Mekoryuk. I tried to compare my muskox to the one on Abe’s wall, but he never really told me much about what a big muskox versus a little one was during our conversation about the hunt. 

I had told him in the beginning that I wasn’t big on trophy hunting and was happy with anything, but he insisted we should get a big one.

The plane signaled over the village VHF that it was inbound and we all were whisked to the airport. We loaded up the meat and hide onto the Caravan and said our goodbyes to the Davids, who were wondering when we would return. I went to thank Abe for his transporter services and hospitality and the last thing he said came as a surprise:

“That was a big one.” ASJ

Editor’s note: Krystin and Bixler McClure own and operate Seward Ocean Excursions, which offers boat-based adventures on the Kenai Peninsula. For more, call (907) 599-0499 or go to sewardoceanexcursions.com.

 Sidebar: IF YOU GO 

 

Congratulations! You are one of the lucky few to draw the Nunivak Island muskox tag. 

I happened to talk on the phone with a winner who had called Abe to inquire about the same hunt we made. I told him it would be expensive and daunting, but he should do it. 

The following offers some advice and lessons learned from our experience to turn a hunt of a lifetime from a headache into pure joy. I still tell people that nothing will ever top this muskox hunt; it was the best birthday present a sportswoman could want.

This hunt is expensive. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will send you a letter with your tag saying the cost is around $10,000 for a hunt with just a transporter. They are right. We spared no expense in making this hunt work for us between the refundable tickets, checked baggage, freight, taxidermy and transporter fees. Be prepared to spend a little to make this all work.

Hire a transporter. This hunt can be done unguided/untransported for residents, but ADFG (and we) highly recommend hiring a transporter. Nunivak Island is owned by a Native corporation and going unguided or transported may cause some tension among the residents of Mekoryuk. There are no hotels on Mekoryuk and coming back to a warm house and nice meal is a great way to end a hunt, not to mention getting to meet amazing people.

Get refundable plane tickets and be flexible. Winter weather in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta can be hard on flights, so make sure you build some flexibility into your schedule in case you plan on spending a few nights in Bethel or can’t get out of Mekoryuk. The only airline that flies to Mekoryuk, Ravn, is very aware of the tight schedule most muskox hunters are on and will work with you to change flights.

Know your animal! ADFG has a great slideshow on muskox identification and I encourage hunters to take a peek at it. The easiest way to identify a cow versus bull muskox is by the boss – the base of each horn. When the animals are on the move, you better be sure you can spot the bull among the cows.

Enjoy a slice of village life. We had heard that one of the biggest complaints of this hunt was the accommodations. Most of those people apparently are used to staying in five-star hunting lodges with lavish meals and all else that goes with it. 

For this hunt, you will stay with your transporter/guide, so come with an open mind, empty stomach, and enjoy the hospitality, good food and a glimpse of life in one of Alaska’s remote villages. KM

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