In the fall of 1970, I took a class from Seattle Pacific University on “Positive Image and the Educator\”. As part of the class, we were asked to make a \”wish list\” of anything we wanted to own or accomplish in our lifetime. The instructor encouraged us to be extravagant, dream big and think beyond our current belief barriers. Boy, did I do that… Hidden in the midst of my long list, I wanted to own a two hundred thousand-dollar home, travel to Europe, go to the Rose Bowl and go on a moose hunt in Alaska. Making just over $6,000 per year as a new schoolteacher, I didn’t hold much hope of this happening, but I was completing an assignment and dreaming big.
On August 21, 2001, I boarded a plane for Alaska to fulfill the final dream on that list. The flight to Anchorage went smoothly and we arrived on time. Rob Merchant and Wayne Jones met us, two guys my brother-in-law, Dave, knew from working with Lennox. Introductions were made, luggage was picked up, and we were off in Rob\’s Dodge Ram. The first stop was to pick up the 6X6ATV that we were renting at $75 per day. Rob has a six-wheeler and Wayne a 4X4, but we needed one more. It was loaded into the back of the truck and we headed to do our grocery shopping. One cart, four hungry guys and a store full of goodies… We ended up with way more than we could ever eat. Then it was off to a restaurant for a late night dinner. As we walked out of the eatery, it was 10 PM and still light. We finally hit the sack somewhere around midnight.
Wednesday morning we loaded our gear and headed North. The drive to Rob\’s cabin consumed a bit over four hours, sandwiched around a breakfast stop and the final fifteen miles at a slug\’s pace on a road resembling a war zone. I think we finally got to the cabin sometime after 2 in the afternoon. Rob and his dad have built a rustic 16 X 24, two story cabin in the back country on the banks of trout-rich Croto Creek. The only way to the cabin is on ATV\’s through some mighty deep mud and muck. It was my first introduction to the swamps of Alaska. We unloaded our gear, put up cots and laid out the sleeping bags. Time to go hunting!! Time was a\’wastin’.
By about 5 PM we were ready for our first hunt. This was it….. A hunt I had waited 30 years to happen. We loaded supplies onto our ATV\’s, put a seat on the back of Rob\’s 6X6 for Dave to sit on, and we were off. Dave resembled a bronco rider as we bounced our way through the woods. Imagine my surprise and reluctance when we came to the first muddy bog and a small rickety bridge made of some dinky logs that spanned a deep, sloppy mud hole. Was I really supposed to drive this $7,000 ATV over that bridge?? Being second in line, I watched Rob whiz over it like it was nothing. I eased up, pointed my front tires at the widest log, hit the throttle and held my breath. To my surprise, I made it over that wobbly mess unscathed. Within forty-five minutes I had gotten the hang of this stuff and was feeling pretty good about myself. We drove for about an hour and according to my Garmin G.P.S., were a bit over six crow-flying miles from the cabin. We came to the edge of a small lake and what a view!! There were lily pads floating nearby with a pair of regal swans working the shallows for dinner. Beyond the lake was the most spectacular view of Mt. McKinley you could imagine. We just sat there soaking up the warm rays of the sun, in awe of the beauty. If I didn\’t see a moose on the whole hunt, this scenery was worth the trip. We took some pictures and video footage hoping to capture just a fraction of this incredible scenery. From nowhere, a canoe with two men glided silently across the lake. They got out on the far side and proceeded to undress and skinny-dip in this cold mountain lake. Where were the women??? Time for some serious hunting…. Rob had picked a three-mile trail to cover; saying several nice bulls had been taken there last year. We slowly poked our way up the trail, straining to catch a glimpse of moose in the shadows of the darkening forest. Several times one of us stopped for a better look through binoculars. Rob and Dave were in the lead, followed by Wayne on his four-wheeler and me on the rented 6X6. At about five past nine, Rob slid to a halt and backed up. He piled off and grabbed Dave’s 30-06 that had been strapped to the front. As if on cue, I hit the ground clutching my 338 and started searching for the moose I knew must be there. The glow of the fast-fading sun cast heavy shadows through the thick foliage, making it extremely hard to see. How can 1200 to 1400 pounds of moose be so invisible? I searched through my 10X42Leica binoculars and suddenly, there he was…. A magnificent beast with horns spreading out endlessly on both sides. I waited for Rob to signal that he was a legal animal. To be legal in Alaska, a moose must have either 50-inch antlers or three or more brow tines on one side. Bullwinkle got tired of this peek-a-boo game and merely faded into the shadows. Dang!! I was sure he was over 50 inches and we had just let him stroll right out of existence. Rob and Dave sneaked their way up the trail looking for a final glimpse before he vanished forever. Rob pointed and said he saw him again. As the bull turned his head, Rob counted three brow tines on one side and I\’ll never forget those words as long as I live, \”Take him!\”
Dave and I were frantically trying to find an open shot. I looked through my binoculars, then my rifle scope and back to the Leica\’s. Dave was struggling as hard as I was to see an opening. The moose turned to leave and I saw my chance. I quickly centered the cross hairs on his massive neck and squeezed the trigger. He hit the ground instantly. Did we wait 30 minutes before going in to find him? NOT! We didn\’t wait 30 seconds to hit the woods. Picking our way through the tall, thick underbrush, we first caught sight of antlers sticking high in the air. You would have thought I had just won the big one… the lotto… Powerball, something. I pumped my fist into the air and yelled, “Yes, Yes!!” Rob was slapping me on the back as Dave and Wayne extended their hands to congratulate me. As I walked back to the rig for my backpack with knives and camera, I thanked the Lord for this incredible animal and felt a rush of emotion as it sunk in what had just happened. I looked up into the stars and breathed a heartfelt \”Thank You\”.
I got my first look at a bull moose up close. Wow!! What in the world do you do with 2/3 of a ton of beast? In answer to that, the last camera shutter hadn\’t clicked shut when Rob had his knife out and was starting the arduous task of cleaning that animal. Two hours later, a lot of sweat, some blood-covered clothes and a lot of straining and grunting, we had the bull cleaned, cut in half and loaded onto the backs of the two 6-wheelers. Rob expected me to drive that machine, loaded with over 600 pounds of moose carcass, and Dave sitting on the seat behind me, back through all those mud holes and over that rickety old log bridge. Right! Believe it or not, we made it back to camp without anything worse than Rob tipping his rig over twice. The weight of the front half with those 56-inch antlers made him somewhat top-heavy and he dumped his six-wheeler two times going back. But who cared? We were in pretty high spirits! When we reached the cabin, we cranked up the generator and hung a light over the meat pole to finish our work. As the others skinned and quartered the back half, I caped the front for a shoulder mount. As I worked my way up and over the head and down that endless snout, Rob started quartering the front. It was well after 3 AM when we finally finished hanging the last piece and went to the creek to wash up. Rob was covered with blood and looked like he\’d been mauled by a grizzly. As we climbed into our sleeping bags, the last thing I heard was someone say, \”It just don\’t get no better\”! I fell into an exhausted slumber. We had planned an early morning hunt, but after all that work and just two hours of sleep, no one had the energy to roll out. We slept until 8 and I got up and fixed some buffalo gravy over u-bangie biscuits. It felt good to relax and rejuvenate our bodies. Rob and I decided to do a little fishing in Croto Creek, aiming to catch some dinner. Rob caught four nice trout and I got one, about 17 inches long. We kept enough for a late night meal.
Around 4 PM, we headed back out for the evening hunt. It was back to the same trail and a trip to the lake. We saw no moose but as we came back toward my kill sight, a beautiful 8-foot grizzly was standing in the road. He had his nose in the air, searching for a free meal. Wayne grabbed his camcorder and we got some footage of this magnificent animal. (The next day we would see where he tore the ground up while burying his cache. It looked like a bulldozer had gone through the area.) Seeing no moose, we went back to the cabin for a dinner of fresh trout and buffalo, and barley soup.
The next morning we loaded my moose and drove back into town to get it into a cooler. The weather was much too warm to leave that meat hanging any longer. On the way in, I harvested a spruce hen with my little Savage22/410 over and under. We also stopped at a car wash to power wash the velvet off the antlers. The trip took most of the day and we didn\’t get back to camp until 6 PM. After changing clothes, it was back down the trail for the evening hunt. Nearing the kill site of two nights before, we decided to see what the grizzly had done to the gut pile. As Rob, Wayne and Dave dismounted, I glanced down the road and saw something big and black. It didn\’t take this Jose long to check it out with binoculars. Holy-moly, it was a bull moose! They grabbed their rifles, I fished out the camcorder and we were off on the fast track. We walked in single file so as not to draw too much attention and spook the bull. He was a lot farther away than we had first guessed. When Rob stopped for a look, I\’d catch a few feet of footage. By the time we closed in on rifle range, more bulls started showing up. My goodness gracious, how many of those monsters were there? I was alternating between rolling film and looking through my binoculars. I counted three brow-tines on a big fella and told them to shoot. I didn\’t even have time to raise the camcorder before two shots rang out and the bull crashed into the woods. Another bull strode into the trail and Rob took a quick look and said, \”He\’s legal.\” I snapped the camera up just as two more shots rang out. The bull staggered and fell. We slipped closer and a large bull stood in the woods and looked at us. Was he legal? He didn\’t wait around for us to decide. Two more steps and there was another bull on the other side of the road. He wasn\’t hanging around for this party either. My oh my, but this was happening fast!
Not finding the first bull, we spread out and combed the forest. I somehow became disoriented and was not a happy camper. Did I have a compass? You bet! Did I have a G.P.S.? You bet! I never leave home without them. Both of them were in my backpack on the 6-wheeler. Where was the 6-wheeler? How in the world did I know? I had nothing but the camcorder with me, and had visions of spending the night out there. Without a gun, I couldn\’t even fire a signal shot. Slipping through the darkening woods, I saw what looked like antlers. It was! Way to go, John! I at least found the other bull. I walked to within 15 yards and started to whistle loudly. No answer. Crap!! I took several more steps and those antlers got up and just walked away. He was not the bull we had been looking for. Where were the guys with rifles?
After several rounds of high-pitched whistles, Rob finally answered me. I made my way to his voice and we met up to walk out. NOT!! What do you think of two of us being disoriented? Neither one of us could find the way out. We whistled, yelled and even shot Rob\’s 44 magnum, but no one answered. It was quite some time later that I finally heard a faint yell off in the distance. Turning left, we made our way to that wonderful trail. We had been walking parallel to it for a long ways. We came out far below where we thought we were. It was sure nice to see that trail again. Pointing the ATV lights on the downed moose, we started the cleaning job. It was close to 4 AM by the time we cleaned, halved, hauled him out, skinned, quartered and hung that bull. We were hammered but happy. I cut off several slices of fresh tenderloin and we had a feast. Oh my goodness, that was good!! We even ate the spruce hen. And all of this fine culinary cuisine had to be washed down with a glass of homemade blackberry wine I\’d brought just for this occasion. Yep, we had a celebration. And then it was off to bed. We woke to the sound of Rob\’s dad and brother-in-law\’s ATV\’s coming in. We had gotten four good hours of sleep. We chuckled at the looks on their faces as they looked at the bull facing them. Rob made sure his dad couldn\’t miss it as he drove up. His dad broke into belly-shaking laughter when he saw what Rob had done. After recounting the previous evening\’s story a myriad of times, we decided to go look for the bull we feared was wounded. It must have looked like a convoy as all five ATV\’s snaked their way through the muck and mire on the way back to the scene. Still half a mile short, we stopped to see what the bear had done at the first kill site. My goodness, it looked as if a roto-tiller had gone through. That bear had decimated the tundra in a twenty-foot diameter circle and piled it over his cache, leaving huge tracks in the freshly tilled soil. We approached the scene with respect and caution, each one carrying a weapon. After recording the landscape on camera and videotape, we drove on to search for the bull. We spread out about 30 yards apart and slowly worked our way through the trees. I anxiously looked for the telltale sign of an antler protruding above the undergrowth. About 20 minutes later, I was startled by a single shot fired from somewhere to my right, followed by a whoop of exaltation. Like marching soldiers, we simultaneously made a left face and made our way through the tangle of underbrush toward the shouting. Jim was doing a little square dance in the middle of the woods, without music or a caller, and he wasn\’t missing a step. He had sneaked up on a big bull and shot him behind the ear as he rose from his bed. Hot dog!! We didn\’t see evidence that he\’d been hit before but that all changed when we removed the first entrails, still bloodshot from a recent wound. By the time the job was finished, we had found two bullet wounds from the night before. The mission had been accomplished; we had found the wounded bull and nothing would be lost or destroyed. In the span of four days, God had blessed us with three bull moose, several trout and one spruce hen. Top that with seeing a grizzly and it just doesn\’t get much better! We skinned and quartered the bull and hauled him back to the cabin. The unseasonably warm weather dictated that we transport the meat to a locker. We packed and loaded our things, drove the ATV\’s up onto the trailer and headed for town. Our hunt was cut short by a day, but what more was there to do?
We met the butcher in town and hung the meat in his locker for processing. It will be cut and wrapped, frozen and shipped to Washington. The antlers were to be shipped as well so I could take them to the taxidermist. Rob rolled my cape into a ball and it was frozen for the trip home.
Dave and I had a safe and happy trip home on Alaska Airlines. As we ate the small, pathetic dinner provided by the airline, we thought of fresh moose tenderloin, and thumbed through five rolls of pictures we\’d taken on one of the best hunts of my life.