The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
PHOTOS BY LEW PAGEL
To be honest, I wasn’t in the mood to shoot a muskox on that day; I was more in just-looking mode.
The weather wasn’t the greatest and the hill we were sitting on wasn’t the most comfortable, especially with the wind whipping us in the face. The climb up was treacherous too. When we did sit down to glass, I had a difficult time finding anything through my Leicas.
But we were there and in the right place for muskox. We glassed for several minutesm, my buddy Lew looking in one direction and me in the other. Then I spotted something on a far mountainside about 5 miles away. I thought the dark spots were rocks at first, until one moved.
JANUARY IS A LITTLE early for me when it comes to filling my muskox tag. But like most things here in the Arctic, you go when you can go. We do the same with everything else – whether it’s cutting wood at minus 20 degrees or chasing bears at plus 40 degrees, if you can see across the sound it’s a good day to ride.
The weather had been difficult recently, though maybe weirder is the word I’m looking for. The up-and-down temperature variation had been crazy. One week it was below zero, the next I was in a T-shirt. Maybe it’s climate change? I don’t know, but I’ll leave that to the experts.
I do know that it seems to only get bad (snow and wind) on the weekends, the only days available to those of us who work during the week.
But this day was decent. The wind in town was calm and you could see the hills in the distance. Lew texted me that he would be over about 11 and for me to pack my bow. If you’ve read my stories in the past and stay updated with our muskox adventures, then you know that each year I get a tag and our annual hunt becomes more of a ritual than anything else.
This is an event, if you want to call it that. It usually takes place in February, though, when the days are longer and the sun is a bit warmer for my taste. You also know that I love to bowhunt, so taking another muskox with a bow was something I really wanted to do this year.
I love bowhunting, as it’s something I’ve been doing up here for years, especially during the fall when Lew and I go camping and hunting upriver. It’s easier than – if such a thing exists – spot-and-stalking big game in and out of the willows and the spruce. It has become second nature. I’ve even taken ox during the fall as well. Believe me, being on foot without snow and ice to deal with does make it easier.
Bowhunting during the winter is quite different, though. The cold isn’t the problem, and even shooting a bow in the extreme can be done with little difficulty. It’s the wind that’s a killer. Being in places that aren’t ideal for making a good shot is not fair to anybody, the animal included.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve taken the bow on winter trips, only to leave it strapped to the snowmachine or sled and grabbed the rifle instead. It happens just about every time these days. But that’s hunting.
I once was a purist and would not take a rifle along, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve changed my focus. It’s not so much about the bow or rifle but the adventure and ultimately filling my tag and putting meat in the freezer. Yet there have been times that a rifle was the only choice and all I had with me was a bow.
I remember once I was hunting muskox during March on the next to last day of season. I made it to the top of a mountain that looked, at first, to be not climbable. I made it, though, only to come face to face with four bulls, which all looked identical.
It was a hard climb and the temperature was at least minus 30. I got close, but not close enough. They were just out of range. Even though I thought about launching an arrow, I decided not to. I did have a rifle, but it was leaning up against my machine halfway down the mountain. Darkness was setting in too and I knew if I climbed back down and up again it would be dark by then.
All I could do was watch, which sometimes is enough. I climbed down and went home, but came back the next day and took one of the bulls with a rifle. So, in the end it all worked out. It was a memory that I will never forget.
NOW I WAS ON A hunt that was much different. Lew arrived at 11 and we were off. The hitch on my sled was broke, so Lew towed his big red Siglin behind his Ski-Doo. As we pulled off the mainland and onto the ice, I was dreading the ride across the sound.
The last time we’d crossed it, a wood-cutting adventure, it was rougher than a cob. The windblown trail, capped with snow hills and chunks of ice, pounded us for two hours instead of the normal 30 minutes it takes to get across. It was miserable.
This time was much more bearable. It was relatively smooth and effortless. We flew across and once we made it to the other side, we stopped at our usual spot to have a little coffee and discuss the strategy for the day. The skies were blue and the sun was well lit behind us, but up ahead the fog had started to roll in and I wondered if we would even be able to see anything on the mountaintops. I started having doubts and thinking this might be a short day for finding a muskox.
We ventured forward and found ourselves in the mountains. I followed Lew closely. He busted through fresh snow and made his way to small hill overlooking the Noatak Valley. It’s a great spot to glass, open and wide, allowing a hunter to see for miles.
We parked our machines and climbed to the top, leaving me huffing and puffing for air. The terrain was treacherous and my bunny boots had a hard time finding traction, but I finally made it and sat down to glass.
As I mentioned earlier, they weren’t rocks; they were muskox. I watched carefully through watering eyes to make sure the rocks were moving, and I wasn’t seeing things. Finally, I motioned to Lew to come over and have a look. He confirmed what I was seeing, then looked at me and grinned.
“We didn’t dress up for nothing; let’s go,” he said.
Like I said I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot a muskox, but what I wasn’t really in the mood for was to snowmachine across 6 miles of tundra, river and rocks to get there. They didn’t look that far, but in the Arctic distance is deceiving.
I knew that even though we picked them up while glassing, they were still a long way off and probably in a place that wasn’t easy to get to.
I also knew we would have to take time into consideration. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and it would be getting dark around 5:30.
We went anyway.
WE MADE IT TO THE river and then cruised to the base of a hill that led up to where the herd should be. Coming off the river and heading into the tundra can be a tough move. But you can usually find an old trail, or at least a cut or flat spot where the snow isn’t too deep.
The shortest route to get there was over a bank into the trees. Lew went first and made it with ease as his big machine barreled through the deep sugary snow. As was normally the case, I watched until his return, allowing Lew to cut us a trail.
It was coming back where we had a problem. Coming over the last rise, the bottom fell out and Lew buried his machine in 6 feet of snow. An hour later, now soaked in sweat and breathing hard, we finally dug it out.
We continued upward towards where we thought the ox would be. We went on forever across the tundra field – until we met a steep embankment packed with hard snow. We had to go up – there was no way around – so we did. But once we got to the top it was nothing but rock. There was windblown, sharp shale as far as the eye could see. The wind was ferocious and blowing so hard we could barely stand up.
Lew and I got off our machines. I looked at my bow, but again I knew that in this weather it was going to be a rifle hunt. I grabbed the .300 Win. Mag. and we headed toward a small rise to get a better look and to see if the muskox were still there. They weren’t.
The muskox herd had moved off in the distance and was a mile away, but all I could see was one. I told Lew that my machine was already hot and would for sure overheat in the rocks, so I would continue walking towards the herd and hopefully get into position.
I told him to walk back to get my camera and a box of shells, then maneuver his air-cooled machine through the small amount of snow that was there and meet me at the bottom.
I walked into the unknown. I didn’t know where the animals were exactly, and I didn’t know how many there actually were. Trying to keep one eye on my footing and another ahead I made it to the base of a snow hill where a lone willow stood.
The muskox were out of sight, and I knew the wind was in our favor, so I decided to catch my breath and wait for Lew to arrive. He did and with careful anticipation we walked around the snow-covered base to have a look.
We saw nothing at first, but all at once the whole area opened up and there were muskox everywhere. The only thing we had in our favor was that we were on the low side of a rise and could move pretty much undetected.
We were stalking our way towards them when a cow spotted us, but she didn’t seem to care much. The herd itself was around 20 or so and the animals were to our right. They were feeding up the side of a hill. To our left was the prize we were looking for: two lone bulls feeding together and trying to catch up with the others.
It was incredibly perfect. The bulls were a couple hundred yards off and moving towards the rest of the group. Lew whispered to me for us to try and make it to a large snow-covered tussock that was ahead of us about 90 yards.
I was sure we would get busted, but we made it and the tussock ended up making the perfect rest. The bulls had no idea we were there. Now it was time to relax and just watch.
The bulls fed along and the decision became which to take. I looked at each through the scope. It was nice actually, as it was so much different than any other hunt I had been on. Lew and I actually got to talk about it – something we rarely do – even after all the times before.
Finally, I decided on the bigger-bodied bull on the left. He was an old warrior with a busted boss and looked to fill the freezer quite well. Carefully aiming and accounting for the wind, I felt the recoil from the big rifle slam into my shoulder.
The big bull was down and the ritual over. We had our muskox. It’s always surreal for me once I walk up to an animal I’ve taken. I think it has something to do with the moment and how fast things go down sometimes.
For me it’s the fact that I know what I did and what I’ve got, but you’re still not 100 percent until you actually lay your hands on the animal. I always say a little prayer and thank the hunting gods for a great animal and a great opportunity once I get there.
We got the bull field-dressed – which is a whole other story, especially in a hard wind on a flat surface – and loaded it into Lew’s sled for the ride home.
It was 4:30, but it felt much later considering how long it had taken to get there. Plus the hunt itself felt long. We grabbed my machine and made it down just in time. The weather gods said that was enough and it decided to storm.
Luckily for us we took the river back and followed the marked trail. If we hadn’t, the whiteout would have made things much more difficult. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.