It’s that time of year. Summer is halfway over and the freezer is almost empty. The fish and game I harvested last season are all but gone…filling me with a sense of urgency to get ready for the hunting season, which is coming fast! In just five short weeks I’ll be heading to the mainland of Alaska for an archery moose hunt. If successful, my grocery shopping is pretty well done for the next year or two, as far as lean, healthy, organic meat, which I eat a lot of! As I begin the process of organizing gear and getting mentally and physically prepared for the big hunt, I can’t help but think back to my first Alaskan moose hunt many years ago. It seems like only yesterday that I was finishing off the last of the meat from that magnificent creature. As I slapped six gigantic steaks on the charcoal grill (gas would have been a sin) the roasting flesh sent a plume of billowing smoke into the air, like fragrant incense rising heavenward! As yes! It was a special feast indeed! While the vital juices began to emerge from the meat, I smiled and said, “So long big fella! Thanks for the nourishment and the memories. I will be forever grateful.”
Such a connection with one’s food is at the heart of what we do as hunters. The fruit (or in this case, the “meat”) of our labor should always inspire within us an attitude of gratitude. This spirit of thankfulness is not just about the food we eat and share though, but equally so, a deep gratitude for all the elements of the hunt: before, during, and after. As I shared those moose steaks with good friends, the kind who appreciate such things, I was reminded, yet again, of the blessedness of that particular hunt. It was beyond a dream come true!
Remembering the Hunt
It all began on a dismal December day in Missouri during the winter of 2007. On that particular afternoon, I found myself sitting in a well-worn easy chair, however, I certainly did not feel so “easy” at the moment. I was dripping wet with a fever-induced sweat, semi-delirious from dehydration and the numbing effect of a cocktail of otherwise ineffective medications. Yes indeed, I had a full-blown case of the flu, and it was not pretty!
Somewhere in-between a round of indignant retching and bowel churning diarrhea, the idea hit me, “I think I’ll start planning a ‘do it yourself’ Alaskan moose hunt.” And with that, I summoned forth just enough strength to carry my germ-ridden, feeble body across the room to the computer where I began the long journey of educating myself in the ways of the mighty moose. That was the beginning of a year and a half of studying what I called “mooseology.” I was not an Alaska resident at the time and I knew nothing about moose hunting. I had a lot of work to do. I read everything I could get my hands on about every conceivable aspect of moose and moose hunting. I talked to experienced hunters. I studied lots of vital statistics from the Alaska Fish and Game Department, and I essentially exhausted every avenue of information. It was either that or cough up a tremendous amount of money (that I didn’t have) for a guide or outfitted hunt, which I really didn’t want anyway. I’ve always relished the challenges of “self-guided” adventures, and this would certainly be a true test. I have long been a believer in the notion that a lot of study, hard work, determination, diligent preparation, and yes, a reasonable chunk of cash at times, are all it takes to fulfill outdoor dreams and goals.
All that work and preparation finally came to fruition, when on September 13th of 2009 my hunting partner Greg and I hit the road (and the sky), north to Alaska! It was a long, round-about two-day journey from St. Louis, to Houston, to Seattle, to Anchorage, to our moose hunt launching point: Bethel Alaska. The next day we eagerly loaded up the Beaver floatplane and headed into the wild blue yonder across the vast expansion of the Yukon Delta, in route to the area we would be focusing our hunting efforts on.
Keep in mind, when one lives out of state, and does not own a float plane, he or she cannot obviously get out into the field on a regular basis to do some pre-season scouting. So, on such “self-guided” hunts, a reputable, experienced bush pilot has the job of dropping hunting clients off in a general area where there has at least been some game spotted. But the more detailed, on the ground scouting, and naturally, the actual hunting and the rigors that come along with it, are all up to the “self-guided” hunter. Once the plane drops you off, your survival and the success of your hunt is in your hands alone!
Welcome to the Yukon Delta
As we flew for an hour and fifteen minutes or so across the Yukon Delta, Greg and I marveled at the landscape below. The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is 19.2 million acres of mostly flat land, peppered with countless pothole lakes, ponds, sloughs, swamps, and tundra. The delta is, as one can imagine, a host to a great variety of fish, birds of all kinds, especially waterfowl, and all sorts of critters from small rodents, to foxes, lynxes, and the much larger contingent of wildlife such as black bears, grizzly bears, caribou, and yes…the Alaskan Yukon moose!
Much to our delight, Greg, myself, and our pilot spotted quite a few of these massively majestic creatures in the outlying vicinity of where we were about to be dropped off for the next ten days. In fact, there was a cow moose bedded down right where we would later set up our camp. Thus, after a heroic landing of the plane in a narrow, rather winding slough, we pulled up to the biggest beaver lodge I’d ever seen, unloaded our gear and watched the sleek aircraft once again become airborne as it left us behind.
Greg and I both later reflected how we thought it would be an odd, creepy feeling to watch that plane fly away and leave us in the middle of an enormous, unwelcoming wilderness with no hint of civilization around for well over a hundred miles, but that feeling never came. After the aircraft was out of sight and the buzzing of the propeller was replaced by a deafening but wonderful silence, we simply got to work. Very quietly (as one must be on a moose hunt at all times) we set up our small, but cozy, moose camp home. Our camp consisted of a sleeping tent, a smaller tent for gear and provisions, a rain tarp that we set up over a small camp table as sort of a multi-purpose area, a folding chair and bucket to sit on, and that’s about it. We had all we needed to live and survive for the better part of the next two weeks in a relatively tiny, compact area.
One cannot hunt on the same day they are flown in and dropped off in Alaska, so it was the next morning, September 16th (my 36th birthday) that we began the actual hunt. It’s a long story, but the plan would be to hunt outward, that is, to start our efforts close to camp and slowly expand from there either on foot or venturing to other areas by traveling the maze of surrounding sloughs, with the aid of a small inflatable raft.
Almost everywhere that we explored during our hunt was littered with moose tracks, droppings, and destroyed patches of brush from rut-crazed bulls thrashing their antlers. And even on that first outing, after finally finding a relatively open area that we could actually see for about 85 yards or so and do a few calling sessions, we heard a cow responding to our bull grunts and brush thrashing sequences. She never showed up though, and more significantly, a bull never showed up either. As we found, this would pretty much be the routine for the next several days.
During those ten days, we experienced the famous ever-changing weather of Alaska. The first two days it was very warm, with hoards of pesky, biting insects. The next few days we thought we would be blown into never-never land by the chilly, merciless high winds. And the final few days ushered in a good dose of rain, sleet, snow, and temperatures in the 20’s. It all made for terrible hunting conditions. But, it was the rut, and we didn’t come to Alaska to kick back and sip fruity drinks on the beach. We hunted on!
Again, it’s a long story, but finally, on the second to last day of the hunt, Greg and I awoke to a wonderful sound…the sound of nothing! At last, the blasting, relentless wind had stopped! After beating the ice off the tent doors, we emerged to a cold, frosty, ice and snow-dusted morning. The long-awaited break in the weather recharged our enthusiasm, and after a quick breakfast, we got to it! Those last few days Greg and I were hunting separately (while well aware of the other’s location at all times) in order to expand our chances of success. Both of us had some exciting encounters with bulls on that glorious, cold, quiet morning. However, though we could hear them…very close by…grunting and trashing in the brush as they moved in closer…they never made an appearance. The bulls that were in the area held tight to the thick, jungle-like brush.
All became still and mooseless for the next couple hours while both Greg and I continued calling and hunting from our perspective areas. Then, around 11:00 AM, as my feet were freezing into blocks of ice and I was shivering and shaking within the confines of a little ground blind that I built, I suddenly spotted a bull about 200 yards away out on the edge of the wide-open tundra/swamp. I gave a few soft cow calls and the bull came aggressively busting out of the brush and began to walk along the edge of the clearing. He was not the king of the Yukon Delta, but it was easy to see that he was a nice, medium-sized moose with a respectable rack. I’m not a trophy hunter and I had decided long before the trip began that I would be happy with any legal bull that came my way, which this one was. Don’t forget that golden rule of hunting, “Never pass up on the first day what you would gladly take on the last!”
When the bull was closing in to 150 yards, I got ready. I eased my 300 Win Mag into a kneeling shooting position and hunkered in (a little too close) on the scope. Though I was trembling from both the cold and the adrenalin, I did my best to slooooow my breathing down and go over my mental pre-shot checklist. Finally, two years of preparation and planning all came down to the grand finale, the epic “moment of truth” was here and now! I took one last deep breath as the bull stopped for a few seconds, let half the breath out, put the crosshairs on the mark and gently squeezed the trigger. The blast of the rifle broke the cold stillness of the delta, and the recoil rammed the edge of the rifle scope into my forehead, producing a blood gushing gash. But in the midst of all that, I saw the moose drop instantly! Blood continued to pour out over my face and clothes, but I wasn’t too concerned at the moment. I looked at where the bull was lying motionless and let out a victory holler as I fell to my knees and thanked the Lord with all my heart!
After the initial shock and the moment of thanks was over, I began sopping up the blood from my head wound with a handkerchief and slowly, ever so cautiously, made my way over to the moose. If for some reason the moose had not been fully expired and decided to get up and charge me, I would have been in big trouble! There was no place to run and hide, and moving through the spongy tundra is difficult when walking, much less running, at least for a human. As I took the last final step in from behind the fallen giant, it was obvious he was done. It was an ethical, instant death. I placed the rifle in a safe direction, knelt down in front of the massive animal and thanked God once again. I also promised the spirit of the moose (as crazy as that might sound) that his meat would not be wasted, that I was thankful for his life and that I would never forget him…which I have not.
From Field to Table
I don’t need to tell you how difficult it was to field dress and pack out every last shred of edible meat of a critter that goes well over a thousand pounds! To add to it, the first half of our packing trail was through knee-high, to at times, waist-high marsh. With every step I took, while loaded down with a good back-load of moose meat, I would sink down into the icy tundra. It was without a doubt the most physically exhausting thing I have ever done in my life. I make it a point to stay in the best possible shape I can year-round, but I have to tell you, that ordeal about killed me! Thankfully, I made it out alive though, with only temporary nerve damage to my right foot and that nasty head wound.
When it was all said and done, Greg and I made it home in one piece and the moose fed hundreds of people. Along with donating some of the meat to the locals, I put on a big moose burger dinner for the folks at my church back in Missouri. The rest of the meat was savored for months to come…all leading up to that final meal of grilled moose steaks.
That evening, as a group of six of us enjoyed our delectable table fare, most of the conversation had nothing to do with the creature we were eating or the experience of the hunt, as they all heard it before. But I must admit, with every bite of medium rare moose steak, my mind drifted away from the conversation, back to the Yukon Delta. While the sun was setting outside the dining room window, I had overpowering flashbacks to those magnificent, otherworldly Alaskan sunsets we beheld while out in the bush, hearing the distant moaning of cow moose as the hunt ended for the day.
As my eyes wandered around the room, focusing on friendly faces, shiny tableware, tall glasses of red wine, and interesting pictures on the wall, I couldn’t help but recall the vivid fall colors of Alaska that came to life each morning in the golden glow of the reflecting waters. It was a beauty that brought me to tears of joy on one particular sunrise out in the delta. While relishing the final bites of moose loin, my only thoughts were those of gratitude. I did not want to take anything for granted. There was so much to be thankful for. There was my dad, who first planted a love of the outdoors in my heart as a youngster. There were those who mentored and inspired me throughout the years and taught me so much about the woods and the waters. I was grateful for those who so willingly shared their knowledge of moose hunting with me, and for the quality time spent with a good friend in such a beautiful, wild, unforgiving land.
As I slowly savored the last morsel, my mind continued to race with images of flying across the Alaskan tundra in the afternoon sun, the glow of moonlit willows at night, the steam emerging from freeze-dried meals, and the defiant, angry slap of a beaver’s tail as the fog lifted off the slough in the mornings. I thought back to the hours and hours of super-sized field dressing and meat packing through the swampy terrain, and the near-death exhaustion that set in afterward.
With the final chew of tender meat, I offered up a silent prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of life and the incredible blessings that I’ve been able to experience. As I often tell folks, it’s so easy to focus on the negative, on the things that are not going well: the many gut-wrenching trials and tribulations of life that often suck us dry and leave us as an empty shell of humanity. But for every one thing that is going wrong, I’d be willing to bet that there are at least a dozen things that are going right, that we have failed to recognize, give thanks for, and fully appreciate. Hunting, for me, in the grand scheme of things, is a rather small part of my life. But the taste of gratitude that it fosters is something that fully possesses and overflows into every aspect of my existence. It is a taste that one should never tire of.
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