The Moose at Castle Rocks

The following is backcountry hunting story by Alaska BHA Member, Mike Rogers.  The original version can be found on Mike's blog.

thumbnail.jpg"Daddy, isn't that a moose?" queried my young son from our perch he had nicknamed "Castle Rocks". The Rocks were a series of abrupt rocky spires and scree jutting from the ridge face about halfway to the 3500' summit. The spires and their connecting cliffs and scree fields made a roughly continuous wall, some 1/2 mile long and 300 feet above the more gently angled lower slope that led to a wide Arctic Valley a mile across. It was easy to see how his young imagination could fill in the blanks with a buttress or two and a shallow pond at the foot could easily be a moat. For our mission this evening we couldn't have been in a better place.

We had climbed up here some two hours earlier to glass the broad valley for moose. While crossing the valley floor we noted some respectable sign that moose inhabited the valley- several tracks, a denuded spruce tree that had provided a rubbing spot for a bull's velvet, several piles of scat. In two hours of glassing methodically we hadn't seen much except a pair of hawks hunting over the valley- diving sporadically and emerging seconds later with an unknown mammal in their talons. Between glassing the ground over and over and restless fidgeting, Evan had discovered a sparse campsite with a 6' diameter shallow pit ringed by a 6" tall wall of broken rock- its purpose unclear and its age (modern or ancient) imperceptible. Humans didn't generally camp here on the exposed spaces and expanses of high tundra, preferring the friendlier river valley some mile and a half distant. A search for artifacts revealed nothing except a Great Grey Owl pellet that Evan seized with relish- his school curriculum called for finding and dissecting an owl pellet this year and this was his first find. I was impressed he could even identify an owl pellet- so much older than I think he should be.

"That's a cow, Ev- we're looking for a bull." I replied. With my subsistence tag I could shoot any antlered moose instead of relying on the sport hunts more complicated system of antler width and brow tine counts. I was hoping for a young bull; a spike or yearling before the rut. With a small family, a small bull would provide a year's worth of excellent table fare with minimum waste. It was also preferable since I was hunting in a non-motorized zone- all the meat would be carried out of here on my pack frame via the heel-toe express. One doesn't get trophy greedy when you have to haul it out by yourself.

At that magical moment in time, when all the moose's internal alarm clocks went off, they began to slowly rise from their beds and moose began to appear throughout the valley like stars appearing in the sky at dusk. We scrutinized each one, looking for the bull that we knew would be here. Seeing a large moose in some scrubby timber we launched a stalk on what I supposed to be a bull- a half mile of progress would reveal a very large cow standing near a dead alder tree. We stopped in mid descent and glassed some more. One moose after another appeared until at last I saw what I hoped. A bull had stepped out into an alpine clearing some two miles distant and through the 10x binoculars I could see his antlers clearly skylined every time he raised his great head. The hunt was on!

 Evan and I quickly made a plan. I desperately wished we hadn't made a false start after the cow on the opposing drainage- we had given up the high ground advantage and we were out of time to make another ascent given the rapidly vanishing sun. What lay between us was two miles of open tundra interspersed with several drainage creeks; each a thick tangle of alder and willow- impossible to cross quietly or quickly. Up high these streams are smaller and the brush beaten low by the fierce wind, but on the valley floor these streams created small marshes and quagmires, much wider, with alders that were as impenetrable as an African boma and some 10 feet high. Evan is very new to hunting and this would be just his second stalk. I considered abandoning him here- to watch as I crossed the valley at speed; but I erased that thought quickly. He had performed to perfection in a practice stalk on a caribou just last week and we closed to 75 yards with a dozen shooting opportunities before calling it off.

As we started moving behind a screen of low bushes I felt a breeze on my face- that was one thing in our favor -at least our scent would be going the opposite way. I stopped at the first drainage course, the brush was lower than I expected and we crossed in a moment. I studied the bull through the glass- he was unalert but had been joined by a young cow in his clearing. In the rut that would have been a good thing, something to occupy his apple size brain while we snuck death upon him. But now she represented another set of ears and eyes and a nose to detect our presence. We made a steady and determined move across the valley in the failing light, the moose apparently uninterested or unaware of our movement, and arrived at our next obstacle- another drainage.

I studied the bull now- we had closed to something on the order of 800 yards in the last hour and a half and his antlers were now fully visible to the naked eye. The white of the bone and shredded velvet visible in the glass. I'm no great shakes at field judging moose but I guessed him in the mid 40s and very big in the body- probably a three or four year old just hitting his mating prime and we were stalking him through his harem. I desperately searched the wall of alders to the front looking for a passage and found a faint trace of a game trail. I checked the moose and the wind one more time, adjusted my daypack to keep it from snagging on the brush and with Evan eager on my heels, plunged into the brush as quietly as I could. We belly crawled and picked our way through the head high tangle as quietly as possible. I couldn't tell how far we'd go but this drainage was marshier than the previous ones and supported more robust alders and several willow thickets. Visibility was mere feet and I desperately hoped we didn't spook a lounging moose in this jungle or worse yet, a bear. After a half hour we emerged on the far side, soaked from the marsh and shivering from adrenaline.

I surveyed the landscape ahead and looked at the moose. We had 200 yards of relatively open ground to cover until we hit the next drainage and the bad news was those alders were fully 12 feet tall and the expanse was a true quagmire in a deep ravine some additional 200 yards across. The pair had been joined by another cow- this one older and they were still feeding in the clearing. I could detect a rise on the far side of the ravine and the bull was about 200 yards from the far side of the alder band. 600 yards to go and Evan was wired so tight he was practically vibrating. We took a moment and prayed for success. A mosquito bit me on the back of the hand and I gently blew it off. "A mosquito?", I asked myself. "They don't fly in the wind."

And then I noticed it. The wind had died as the sun had set behind the western mountains and we had dead calm. The bugs emerged and flew around us as we stared at the bull through the glass. This was not good.

We crossed the remaining 200 yards as quietly as time allowed- one eye on the moose and another on the terrain ahead. Whenever one of the moose would raise its head we'd freeze in place, afraid to even breathe. Evan was reasonably concealed at a scant bit over 4 feet tall and wearing a camouflage jacket; I was not so well dressed at six foot in blue jeans and a blue windbreaker. I remembered I had a brown shirt on underneath and I quietly shed the windbreaker, my bare arms becoming a buffet line for the bugs. We stopped at the wall of brush on the ravine edge a little over 400 yards from the bull.

This is where most stalks get tricky and this one was no exception. I was pretty sure the younger cow had spotted us because she looked in our direction every few minutes. I looked hard at the bull and eyed the ravine nervously- no way I could cross that 200 yards of green hell and not spook the moose. I might as well have played a trombone or fired a revolver in the air for all the noise I'd make getting through there. I only had about 15 minutes of useful light left and we were quickly running out of options. I looked at my son, still hanging tough for a nine year old, and then at my watch, 11:50pm. We had been stalking this bull for nearly three hours.
\I was sitting there pondering the "what to do of it" when I knew we were in trouble. A slightest breeze started cooling the heavy perspiration on the back of my neck. Mountain hunting often sees bizarre, swirling wind currents and this was pretty common. As the sun set and the earth cooled that all-day steady easterly breeze was replaced by doldrums and as the earth radiated its warmth away further the cooling, contracting air of the mountains began to pull the air westerly.

Right toward our bull.

We were about to be busted and when our scent reached the already skittish cow I was pretty positive she'd vacate and take the bull with her. I contemplated the unthinkable, shed the daypack and pushed it in front of me. I slowly assumed the prone position, flipped up the lens caps and chambered a round as quietly as the mechanism would allow. Firing a 180 grain bullet from my 300 magnum with a 200 yard zero I would be about 20 inches low at 400 yards. The bull was 400 yards, right? I looked through the crosshairs and held the horizontal wire right on his backline, estimating that the round would drop into the realm of his vitals. Evan was now lying down with his fingers in his ears waiting on the shot and holding his breath, he wanted this bull so bad he could taste backstraps for breakfast. I watched the bull react through the scope as our scent filtered through the brush and reached his nostrils.

His head snapped upright and he looked straight at me while broadside, suddenly aware that the meat-eaters had come calling. I could see his gears turning and his flanks rippling, this was going to be over in a couple of seconds one way or the other as I slipped the safety off and took up slack on the trigger.

"What the hell was I doing?", my mind raged. "You don't shoot past 300 yards."

The bull was wonderfully large in the 4x scope and I was confident from years of practice at extended ranges. The classic "angel and devil scenario" was being played out inside my head at high speed. If the wind hadn't shifted he would have likely fed closer allowing a solid 200-250 yard shot. If we hadn't wasted time stalking a cow we'd have come in on this old boy from above and hammered before he knew we where there. If I had been alone instead of taking the kid with me I could have made better time... If I had a rangefinder...If....

I would love to tell my readers that I made a single, stunning shot and anchored that bull in the clearing. But that's not what happened. I'll leave the lie telling to the paid gunwriters, they apparently need the money more than I do. A last light shot, at long range, at a good size bull, surrounded by heavy brush while escorting a nine year old? Not hardly smart. Discretion became the better part of valor and I put the safety on and rolled over on my back- exhausted from hours of stalking this grand animal. As the adrenaline drained from my system, my legs turned to rubber and I dug through the pack to retrieve my canteen and eat a handful of blueberries I hadn't noticed I was lying in. I couldn't imagine how awful the feeling would have been to be stumbling around up there in that brush, in the dark, with a single LED headlamp. Looking for a wounded bull with one of my bullets in its guts; explaining to my child how Dad had rightly lost his mind for a minute and shot at a set of horns.

I felt better as we sat there and the sky turned its last stages of orange and pink from the setting sun. We talked a little about ethics and hunting and what it means to kill responsibly. Why Daddy hadn't start banging away like an artillery barrage over a set of antlers that nobody ate.

What it means to hunt.

What it means to love what you're about to kill.

What it means to give your quarry a good death.

Not some abstract lesson from a book or a lecture from a teacher about doing the right thing. But something played out in the wilderness, written in sweat and wind and tension and oddly enough disappointment. A lesson for my son to carry through life about what it means to tell yourself, "No". It had been a long day as we shouldered our packs to start the long hike back to the Jeep in the dark, our feeble lamp lighting our way.

"This was the best hunting trip ever Dad.", remarked my son, "Do you think that bull will stay here so we can try again?"

"I'm betting he will, the season has just begun." I replied as we wound our way down the far side of the ridge. "I'm betting he will..."

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