Alaskan / Yukon Moose Hunt – Living the Dream

Another “Living the Dream” Article by David G. Duncan

 

The Alaskan / Yukon moose are the largest deer that roam North American, with a height at their shoulder of over seven feet.  Alaskan / Yukon moose are at least 20% bigger than Eastern moose found in eastern Canada and northeast United States.  These monsters of Alaska and the Yukon can reach weighs of over 1,800 pounds.  The antler spread of these largest members of the moose family can typically measure over six feet, with top record trophy antlers reaching an amazing 7-foot in width.  That’s enough to make anyone want to go on a Yukon Moose Hunt.

 

Photo part of Dewhurst Collection Alaskan / Yukon Moose in Chugach State Park, Alaska

Going on a guided moose hunt had been one of my life long dreams.  A dream that took root while I was a 14-year-old boy, listening to my Dad telling stories about his horseback guided Elk hunt in the mountains of Wyoming.  My Dad had always wanted to go on a moose hunt, but never managed to make his dream come true.  I was determined not to let this happen to me.

So, when I booked a moose hunt, with Koser Outfitters located out of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, I was doing it (in part) as a tribute to my father.  My Dad had giving me his prized Springfield 30-06 hunting rifle sometime before he passed away.  A rifle he had personally customized, by hand crafting an oil finished walnut stock and glass bedding in the barrel.  He purchased this bolt-action army rifle for $20 through the NRA back in 1958 and I recall clearly the day his rifle arrived at our house.

The rifle had be dipped in hot grease, and then wrapped with gaze by the manufacturer, an apparent standard used by the US Army to keep these WII vintage rifles in pristine condition.  Actually, he received two rifles, one for himself and one for me.  He had the barrel turned and the receiver cut down on his rifle, but pretty much left my rifle the way it came, with its original wood stock.  I still have both of these rifles and use them every hunting season.

There can surely be nothing more prized to a hunter, than the rifle his father used to hunt big game.  This 30-06 rifle embodied a lifetime of father-son hunting memories for me.  So it was with great passion, when I told my Native American moose-hunting guide James, “I want to kill a moose with my father’s rifle”  He simply nodded, but I sensed he understood and appreciated the significance of my comment.

 

 Two Monster Bull Moose in the Denali Park

 It was in the summer of 2004, when my wife and I headed to Alaska, pulling a 17-foot utility trailer setup for camping, behind our GMC Suburban truck.  It was a do-it-yourself rig, but I was very proud of all the innovations I had built into the trailer to make our two-month vacation traveling in Alaska an enjoyable adventure.  I told my wife, “I want to capture the spirit of the old time pioneers that first braved the Alcan Hwy.”  Being the adventurous wife she is, she supported me whole-heartedly.

There have only been few occasions, during my life, that I have felt the spirit of the wild talking to me.  Each of these times, a strong and clear feeling or premonition, about an upcoming event, had calmly settled over me .  The photo above, of the two monster moose taken in the Denali National Park, came about as a result of one of these magic moments.  I have real difficulty explaining it, other than I believe the spirit of the wild can speak to us, if we listen closely.

On this day in mid August I had completed a 160-mile long round-trip bus tour into the Denali Park.   I had wanted, in the worst way, to see some moose.  I did see eleven grizzly bears, several big horned sheep and caribou, but no moose.  I had left the park headquarters on the first bus to leave on a tour that day.   When the later buses caught up to us at the turn-around point, I took the opportunity to quiz the passengers, on whether they had seen any moose.  Almost immediately, I learned a monster bull moose had been seen near mile 16.

It just so happens, you can drive your personal vehicle a short distance into the park and mile 16 was just before the point where private transportation is restricted.  So, that evening, my wife and I parked at an overview near mile 16, in hopes of seeing the bull moose.  Over the course of several hours, we saw beaver swimming in a nearby pond and a cow moose silhouetted against the skyline as she walked along a distant ridgeline, but no bull moose.  As darkness began to approach at about 10 PM, my wife grew increasingly impatient; especially since there had been no new visits stopping at this overview for at least the pass hour, she waited to leave.

In response, I pointed across the valley, just beyond the beaver pond and told her, “Keep your binoculars pointed toward that heavily wooded ravine, because that is where a bull moose will appear”  It was with a feeling of calm certainty, that I spoke these words, not just wishful thinking.  So when, right on-que, two monster bull moose slowly walked out of the ravine, I was not in the least bit surprised.  I do wish now, I had had a proper telephoto lens to capture these magnificent animals.  Watching them, we could easily estimate the spread of their antlers at seven foot, just by comparing their antler spread, to the distance from the ground to the top of their shoulder ( 7 ft.).

 Outfitter Pete Koser and his family

Shortly after our trip into Denali National Park, my wife flew back to Michigan from Whitehorse.   Now on my own, I boarded a turbo-charged 1,000 hp Otter, on floats, to fly to one of Koser Outfitter’s five hunting camps.  Their five hunting base camps are strategically spread out over their hunting concession, which totals over 10,000 square miles.  They hunt a different camp each year, which ensures there will be plenty of mature bull moose to be harvested, when they return to hunt after a five years absence.

The camp I would be hunting out of was on a beautiful lake teaming with Grayling.  This base is located near the South Macmillan River system and approximately 150 miles north of Whitehorse.

An aerial view of base camp.

It takes the outfitter three days and two nights to travel by horse from the closest town of Ross River in late July.  They packed in supplies with a string 30 packhorses.  The outfitter’s family and all the hunting guides would remain at base camp until late September.

Base Camp

There were five hunters, including myself, who made the flight into this base camp.  Three hunters from Pennsylvania, a father, son and uncle along with a 70-year-old hunter from Colorado made up the rest of the hunters.  The older hunter elected to remain at base camp and hunt the lake from a boat, while the rest of us would hunt by horse back, in two separate parties.

I was assigned my own personal hunting guide, by the name of James Dick.  James was part Athabasca and part Tlingit Indian.  Also, in our party was a 16 year old First Nation youth, by the name of Terry, who lived the town of Ross River.  Terry’s duties were primarily to wrangle the 8 horses, we were using on our hunt.  We had three horses for riding and five horses to pack our supplies; and eventually the meat, hide and antlers of a bull moose.

Our Pack Train

The plan was to leave base camp and hunt our way back through the Yukon wilderness, roughly along the same route used by the outfitter when he packed into the base camp back in July.  Our hunt was the last hunt of the season and in this way all the horses would be back at the trailhead, 20 miles north of Ross River.  The horses are then turned loose to find their our way back to the outfitter ranch located near Ross River.

We saw five bull moose on our first days ride from base camp, prior to setting up our first spike camp.  James estimated the last bull we saw to have a 55-inch spread, which was plenty large enough for me to call a trophy.  But unfortunately, before we could get off our horses and to position for a shot, the bull spooked.  He quickly disappeared into some thick pines.  James turned to me and said, “Once a bull heads into thick cover I will not be able to call him out”  So we mounted up and proceed down the valley about 1/2 mile to a camp site near a small stream.  The fact that there was a good supply of dead willow to burn in our camp fire, made this location doubly attractive.

Once we got our tents set up and camp situated, I told James, “I would like to see if we could walk back to where we saw the last bull moose”  I had a strong feeling the bull might still be hanging around looking of a cow moose to romance.  James said, “Sure, let’s give it try, it is an easy walk from camp and we have plenty of time before dark”

We perched ourselves just below the ridgeline on a knoll near where we had watched the big bull disappear into the dense woods.

James made a long low pitched cow moose call, “Eeeeerrrrr”, by simply pinched his nose with sides of his thumbs and cupping his hands over his mouth, to produce this realistic imitation of the sound made by a cow moose, in need of a bull.

Sure enough, almost immediately a small bull moose came trotting toward us.  I gave this little bull, only a halfhearted glance, which I am sure was not well received by James as evidenced by his disappointing glance in my direction.  It was clear he wanted me to be duly impressed with his outstanding moose calling abilities.

I was intent on locating the where a bouts of the big bull and not at all interested in watching the antics of this dinky bull.  However I was some what shocked to see just how effective calling moose can be.  We could have easily hit this prancing sex driven adolescent with a stone, he came that close to us.

My attention remained focused up the mountainside to my left, as James continued to periodically calls.  Then suddenly I pointed up the mountain at a large bull, standing there intently looking down at us.  After studying this bull through my binoculars I was sure he was the same bull we had seen earlier.  But unfortunately, he was out of range at over 2,000 yards up the side of the mountain.

As we made our way back to camp I told James, “If that bull continues along that ridge line in the direction he is going, he will likely come right into our camp”  In the usual fashion of a native guide, with a habit for not wasting words, James simply gave me a half hearted nod of agreement.

We had finished eating our supper and I was sitting beside the fire, but could not stop thinking about the bull moose.  I was sure he would be coming into camp any moment.  My eyes were fixed on the mountainside overlooking our camp.  Sure enough, I saw the bull moose making his way along the mountain side just above us.  I point up the mountain and softly called to James, “There’s the bull”  James quickly put out the fire and grabbed an axe and began loudly chopping on a nearby tree, to mimic the sound of a sex crazed bull moose taking his frustration out on a tree with his antlers.  Intermittently James chopped and let out a guttural call, made by a lovesick cow moose.

I watched, as the bull immediately turned and began to make his way in our direction.  In my excitement, I asked James, “Can I go up the mountain a short ways, to position myself for a better shot?”  James’ reply was, “You better stay put.  If that bull sees you he will definitely spook”  After the fact I believe James’ call was motivated by safety and a requirement for the guide to always be at his hunter’s side.  This is a reassuring attribute for your guide to possess, especially since we could easily be in danger of being charged by a rut crazed bull moose or even possibly a bad tempered grizzly.  Later in the hunt, James shared with me the fact that a bull moose had been killed one of his relatives during the rut.

Our plan was working as the bull came to within 150 yards of camp, but I was unable to close the deal, due to the failing light.  So ended my first day of a nine-day moose hunt on horse back in the Yukon wilderness.  If this was an indication of what lay ahead, I could not be more pleased.

I went to sleep that night, with the feeling that “Living the Dream” does not get much better than this, while being serenaded to sleep with sound of wolves howling in the distance.  Earlier, while we were making camp, James had pointed out a pack of wolves on the sky line of a ridge, approximately one mile to south of us.  If the opportunity should present itself, I hoped to be able to harvest a Yukon wolf on the hunt, in addition to my moose.

Box Canyon Camp being overseen by Outfitter Peter Koser

We broke camp at first light the next morning and headed south toward a rendezvous point called Box Canyon.  It would be a long days march to reach our next campsite.  At the Box Canyon camp site we expected to meet up with the outfitter, the three hunters from Pennsylvania and two other hunting guides.

Making our way up and down several mountains, we alternately waded through knee-deep snow, only to be followed by tricky scrambled over loose rock, where both required us to dismount to lead our horses.  I could not help but compare this trek to one possibly made by some pre-whiteman Indian hunting party or war party making its way through a trackless wilderness.  I was relishing every challenging moment of this arduous dash to make the Box Canyon camp before nightfall.

As we made our way over the last mountain pass, we suddenly encountered the full force of what the Yukon can dish out in terms of bad weather.  A gale force wind drove a mixture of snow and rain horizontally into or face.  Pete Koser, the outfitter, had given all us hunters some important advice, which I had fortunately taken to heart.  Pete told us, “Make sure you roll up your rain gear and tie it behind you on your saddle.  The weather in the Yukon takes no prisoners and it will hit you without warning”

For over 12 hours we never stopped to rest once.  We shared light snacks between us, by tossing them to each other, while the horse kept up their steady five mile an hour gait.  James did all his navigating, without looking at a map or using a GPS, it was totally by dead reckoning.  His ride into base camp in July had been the first time he had traveled through this part of the Yukon, but his ability to recognize familiar landmarks, was uncanny.  His skill at reading the land was true testament to his abilities as a wilderness guide.

We travel through this unspoiled wilderness, following well-worn game trails where possible and bush whacking the rest of the time.  About 3/4 of the way through this trip we ended up in the middle of a beaver pond, but fortunately without any serious mishaps.  Finally, James steered his horse over a four-foot bank and into the middle of a gravel bottomed stream.  We followed James’ lead in single file; with me in the middle of the string of horses and Terry bring up the rear.  The pack horses were without lead ropes and were trained over years of experience on the trail to stay close behind the horse ahead of it.  After about a half-mile of middle of the stream riding, we broke out into a valley that funneled us right into the Box Canyon camp.

Glassing for moose from the back my favorite horse Tiny.

A complete article could be written, solely about the athletic abilities of these Yukon breed horses.  These horses are truly amazing!  Their ability to survive off the land in the wilderness, by grazing each night, is hard for me to understand.  The hunting guide did have a small amount of grain along to feed them, but it was only use to hold their interest.  It was hoped a periodic handout of grain would overcome every horse’s instinct to head out on their own, hightailing it back to the barn.  It would be a big problem for us to be horseless 75 miles from the nearest road.

Each night a couple of the lead horse had to be hobbled to ensure that they did not travel too far from camp during their nightly foraging.  Terry’s job, each morning, was to head out at first light, to find the horses and herd them back to our spike camp, where he saddled them and/or packed them for the day’s hunt.

The entire outfitter’s herd, of over 30 horses, are turned loose each winter into the wilderness to fend for themselves.  Some don’t return in the spring and it is assumed they were eaten by wolves.  The outfitter told us about a 30 year old mare, that did not return to the ranch the previous spring, with the other horse.  He stated that he figured she had perished over the winter.  But to his amazement, she appeared a week later, being followed by a newborn foal.  The strength to endure the hardships of this Yukon wilderness, with winter temperatures falling to -50 degrees, is a trait that you quickly come to appreciate in these unfaltering four legged ATC’s (All Terrain Critters).

Terry, our young horse wrangler.

It was the day follow our arrival at the Box Canyon camp, that I was able to harvest a trophy 58 inch bull.  James did not want to spend any more time than necessary in the company of this large party of hunters camped at the Box Canyon.  So early the next morning, we headed south over the mountain to a valley that feeds into a lake call Poison Lake.  The first photo in this article is a view of our camp at upper end of this valley.

It took us half a day to travel from the Box Canyon camp to the Poison Valley camp.  After doing a quick set up of our spike camp, James prepared a lunch by cutting thick slices of ham and cheese to fit between slices of home made bread the outfitter’s wife had provide us.  (In the course of a hunting season Mrs. Koser baked over 400 loafs of bread)  We each devoured these Dagwood sized sandwiches in a fashion that would have put a hungry mountain man who had just finished wrestling a grizzly to shame.

The only other firearm in our party, besides my Dad’s 30-06, was the 30-30 lever action rifle that James carried.  It was his practice, to leave his rifle with Terry, so he could protect himself from a possible attach from a rutting bull moose.  We said goodbye to Terry and James and I mounted up to head down the valley on a mid afternoon hunt.

We only traveled about a mile, when we spotted a bull flashing his well-rubbed antler in the sunlight.  He stood at the edge of the tree line, at the foot of the mountains on right side of the valley.  We gave him a good looking over through the binoculars and James estimated the bull to be 55 inches.  I had told James, after seeing five bull moose on the first day, I wanted a bull with at least a 60-inch spread.  So, we continue to ride down the valley and after a short ways encounter a couple of cow moose making their way through brush that reached the height of our horse’s shoulders.

Stopping on a high knoll, in the middle of the valley, we began glassing the valley down toward Poison Lake.  It was only a minute before James said, “Look down there.  See that bull moose racking his antler on a small tree”  It took me quite a while to find what his experience eyes had found, but finally I got the bull fixed in my binoculars.  The bull must have been a good three-miles away!  I told James, “He looks like a nice bull and must be at least 60 inches, if his rack stands out so well from that far away”

James gave a series of cow moose calls and we both watched to see if the bull would respond.  It was amazing to see him raise his head and start moving in our direction.  It was a sure indication that we had his full attention.  We mounted up and rode about half the distance toward him and tied our horse up out of sight.  Then we sat down on the side of a knoll to watch the unfolding drama.

James instructed me, by pointing 200 yard down the valley at a small pine tree saying, “When the bull gets to that tree you can shot him”  I had my rifle setup on shooting sticks and racked a shell into the chamber.

Just before the bull reached the pine tree, he made an abrupt turn and disappear behind a knoll that blocked our view in front of us.

It seems like forever, as we waited for our next glimpse of this bull.   We both imaged the bull might sudden top the knoll in front of us and stand a mere 40 yards away.  Finally, I caught sight of just the top of this rack, as he walked along a game trail below us and to our right.  James grouched behind me, immediately exclaimed, “Stand up!  Stand up and shoot him!”  I know I hesitated for a few seconds, for fear that standing up would spook the bull, but as ordered I stood up to make the off hand shot.

I had a full view of the entire bull once I stood up and he immediately stopped to give me a broadside shot at 80 yard.  He stood motionlessly, staring directly at us.  I place the crosshairs of my scope on his chest, just behind his shoulder and fired.  He lurched ahead about three steps and stopped.  I racked three more shells into the chamber in rapid succession, with each of these 180-grain A-Frame bullets finding their mark in the side of his chest.  My rifle was empty and I was digging for more shells, when James yelled, “Stop shooting he is going down”  At that moment the bull turned sharply to his left to head back in the direction he had come, only to crash in a heap after a few steps.

James pounded me on my back and excited exclaimed, “You got your moose with your Dad’s rifle”  Yes, I was on cloud nine and shaking with excitement.  We quickly made our way down to the bull, with our horse and to my total surprise James dug a satellite phone out of his saddlebag and asked me, “Do you want to call anyone?”  I said, “Sure, I will give my wife a call”  It was the twenty second of September, a date I will always remember, as the date my biggest “Living the Dream” moment became a reality.

 My Guide James and the “Dream Come True” Yukon Moose

Pete Koser sold their hunting concession in 2009 to Deuling Stone Outfitters, which is owned and operated by Jarrett Deuling.  I will always owe a debt of gratitude, for the superb hunting experience, made possible by Koser Outfitters.  A farm boy from the state of Michigan got to bring home a trophy of a life time.

 

Trapper Dave / Dad’s 30-06 / Alaskan – Yukon Moose

 

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