In this day and age, is it still possible to hunt 100 miles and not see a human footprint, a sawn log or a cigarette butt? My September moose hunt in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge proved that it is.
As a young man, I worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and still try to return every couple years. This year, I joined a couple friends from Fairbanks — Larry and Mark. Our plan was to fly to a remote lake in the southern portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drag our gear a quarter mile to a small stream, and float 106 miles in two 16-foot rafts, looking for caribou and moose. In spite of a lot of research, we could find no one who had attempted this float in modern times.
Our float was nine days of hard work — but well worth it. We took on this adventure in hopes of finding a few moose. We did, and we also found that you can still find true solitude when you know where to go and are willing to work for it.
Our rafts were built with exceptionally shallow draft, so we were able to float in just a few inches of water. Still, moving downstream was a combination of rowing, pushing and dragging. We climbed high knolls, glassing for caribou. We saw a grizzly bear at a distance, and watched a lone wolf shepherd a small band of caribou. It was the first wolf I had ever seen.
Abundant sign told us that the big caribou herds had already passed south. The stream left the tundra behind and entered a stunted forest of spruce. Here, we found moose tracks, scat and signs of rut on every gravel bar.
On about day three we really began to “float.” The creek went from narrow and shallow to wide and shallow. Braids and rocks slowed our passage, but the water continued to get deeper. Mile after mile we floated. Spruce trees fell into the river, creating sweepers, strainers, and logjams. The scenery changed, but always remained beautiful. We saw martin, otters, ermine, and a boreal owl. Bear tracks were abundant.
We tried calling, but the bulls did not respond. Larry took the first bull of the hunt on the fifth day, with a spot-and-stalk along the stream bank. He dropped his bull 300 yards from the water, requiring a short but strenuous pack.
Alaska moose are just huge — the largest deer in the world. I had seen them from a distance, but to see one up close was truly amazing.
Weather was constantly overcast and cool, with a low temperature of 22 degrees F and warmest days about 45 F. We had no wind or storms, but some rain and light snow.
I had my opportunity on day seven. We were fixing damage done to the raft when a bull appeared on our gravel bar. By law, I could only take a moose greater than 50 inches across.
“Is he legal?” I asked my Alaska companion. When he replied. “He’s more than legal,” I shot. The bull died in a shallow riffle, thankfully on firm cobble and not a mud bog. His antler spread was 63 inches. It was an emotional experience to kill something that big.
Mark tried to kill a bull with a bow, but was not able to connect. So on day nine, just four miles from the take-out, Mark killed the third bull of our trip with a rifle. That evening, we met our pilot on a gravel bar and began shuttling meat and gear back to civilization.
One moose is a lot of work, and three is an enormous endeavor. We had at least 1,500 pounds of meat on the bone. We all wanted meat and we also wanted to donate as much as possible to a large family in Fairbanks from Mark’s church. Their father had died of brain cancer and the family could use the meat.
As the float neared an end, I spent more and more time reflecting on how special it is to enjoy this kind of solitude and the vastness of nature. I thought about how far it is to the halls of Congress, where politicians were plotting opening up portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and all the pollution and trappings that go with it.
Would I go again? I have probably shot my last moose, but you bet I would. There are still other “no named” creeks in Alaska just waiting to be explored.
Andrew Lewis is a senior financial advisor in Portland, Ore., and former commercial fisherman and Grand Canyon river guide. He says Alaska moose meat tastes a lot like beef — and he should know as he has a freezer full of moose.