This month sees the start of a new mini-series with some of our regular contributors recalling their most demanding hunt. Senior correspondent John Dunn gets us under way with a gripping tale in pursuit of moose in the mighty Alaska Range.
In late August 2010, I flew into Vancouver from Sydney then caught a connecting flight to Anchorage in Alaska. From there I travelled by bus to Denali and on to Healy where the following day I was picked up for a short flight into the Yanert Valley for seven days of hunting in the Alaska Range. It sounds so matter-of-fact when you write it down sequentially but organising and preparing for the trip took considerable time and effort.
Knowing the country would be tough, I spent as much time as I could over the preceding six months walking and climbing the steepest terrain I could find around home and also had at least one day a week horse riding around the hills, getting used to being in the saddle and preparing for whatever Alaska would throw at me. It was time well spent.
Rain was hammering down as we flew out of Healy, the little Cessna 850 pitching and rocking in the wind. Towering cloud banks swirled along the tops, some already covered by early season snow and as we crossed to the Yanert side, the pilot pointed out a band of Dall sheep rams, the first I’d ever seen. Lower down he showed me moose in the spruce forest and on the river flats proper, a small herd of wandering caribou.
The bed of the Yanert River itself was more than a kilometre wide, veined with braided streams of grey water laden with glacial silt. The mountains were spectacular as range after range of serried peaks extended in all directions, some of them rising to more than 2130m (7000 feet) with glaciers hanging in the folds of their flanks. From the alder thickets and spruce forest along the bottom of the valley the vegetation graded away to bare rocky peaks, knife-edged and weathered by the passage of time.
About 20 minutes after take-off the Cessna dropped on to the valley bottom and bounced to a halt on a tyre-worn strip of river gravel. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to be out. As much as I’d enjoyed the birds’ eye view of the country, boots on the ground have always been my favourite mode of travel. With Montana-based outfitter Mike Colpo there to greet me, we had coffee and a feed, met some of the other hunters in camp then spent a leisurely afternoon settling in, forbidden by statute to hunt for 24 hours after I’d arrived.
The following morning Mike and I rode across the river. Pushing up through the spruce we rode into a small group of cows and immature bulls who weren’t the least bit disturbed by our intrusion. Above the tree line we settled down on a rocky knob where we spent the day yarning, alternatively looking through the spotting scope at Dall sheep in the valley behind us and trying to locate a moose which was big enough to hunt. We found him late in the afternoon, 17km upstream according to the map, his antlers flashing in the sun.
With a cold breeze in our faces Kiwi guide Brian Elwarth and I left camp the next morning, following a meandering trail up the valley, splashing though clearwater side-streams and winding our way around the remnant mounds of ancient moraine walls. We plodded through cathedral-like stands of whispering spruce and back on to the gravel of river bars pocked with the marks of moose, caribou, wolves and grizzly bears. Though I was finally living the dream I first subscribed to as a kid in another country half a world away, none of it seemed real.
Around mid-afternoon we pulled up and pitched our tent on a red willow bench high above the river. We tethered the horses, had a feed and a rest then climbed up to a rocky prominence out of the wind to sit and wait and watch for the moose of yesterday. It had been a long day and I was beginning to feel the strain when Brian calmly announced he could see the paddle of a moose antler sticking up above the willows below us. He set up the spotting scope, we looked hard then set off on a hurried stalk designed to put us ahead of him. For more than half an hour I followed Brian through the willows as best I could, tired and tripping over in the rush, breathing hard and no longer sure I still wanted to shoot a moose now the moment had arrived.
He was upwind when we saw him again, almost side-on and slightly below us a couple of hundred metres away. I unlimbered the .338, found a not-so-steady rest on the monopod Brian handed me and touched off my shot when all my wobbles felt co-ordinated. The bullet sailed over the moose’s back and out across the wide expanse of the valley and while he twitched his ears at the wind-muffled sound of the shot, he didn’t budge.
Willing myself to calm down I reloaded and fired again, the bullet chugging into his rib cage behind the right shoulder. The bull rocked and tottered, took a couple of shaky steps forward then realised it was all too much and toppled out of sight. He lay head down among the willows, an impressive large-bodied beast with a wonderful spread of dished antler. For several minutes I found it difficult to speak, the lump in my throat threatening to choke me as I soaked up the realisation I’d finally achieved a long-term goal in my hunting life.
In the fading light of the midnight sun we took the photos I had to have then began the task of caping my prize and breaking him down for every scrap of edible meat he could yield, a sensible but onerous requirement under Alaskan game laws. It was 1am when we struggled back to camp for a long-overdue sleep and it took us almost two days with the packhorses to carry my trophy and all the meat down to the valley floor, where it could be collected by the Super Cub and flown back to base camp.
I was out of bed at daylight, helping Brian pack the horses. With three hunting days left he thought there might be enough time to ride to the head of the Dean Creek catchment down the river and maybe find a Dall ram. It took more than seven hours and the afternoon was fading by the time we set up camp and fed the horses. While I rested and marvelled at the country around me, Brian headed up the other side of the terminal basin in search of rams, returning a happy man as there were four on the mountain side above camp. One of them looked like a shooter and was our best prospect for a morning hunt.
We left camp early just in time to see the rams disappear over the range into the next catchment. With no other animals in sight we went after them, slowly and carefully picking our way across the faces and on towards the skyline. I still regard that climb as the hardest day’s hunting I’ve ever endured – dangerously steep in places with loose shingle underfoot and nothing but rotten rock for handholds. At one point I thought I’d had enough but managed to keep going.
On the knife-edged spine of the ridge we stopped and rested, eating dried fruit and chocolate to replenish energy levels. A shower of rain swept over us followed by a snow squall before the sky cleared and we could see a group of rams further along the ridge. Moving as fast as we safely could we went after them. Within a kilometre or so we found yet another band of 11 rams, two of which were legal and as we watched they stood up and began to feed away from us. We scrambled along in their wake and in crossing a little saddle we spotted two more rams feeding below us. They were closer and easier to reach so we slid down into a cross gully, stopped to look at them again then crept down to a little bench above them.
The larger ram had a broomed horn on his right side which meant his left horn had to be full curl to make him legal and it took an hour of watching and waiting to confirm that. At a ranged 290m I settled down behind my daypack rest and fired one of the longest shots I’ve ever taken. The ram buckled and rolled down the mountain towards the creek line. As I’d been with the moose a few days earlier I was overawed with my trophy, worn out by the effort involved in securing him but pleased I’d persisted to the end. That night Brian complimented me for being so determined – he knew he’d been pushing me hard but hadn’t reckoned on how pig-headed I could be.
A week or so after returning home I had a spell in hospital recovering from some essential surgery I’d decided to postpone until after my moose hunt. It changed my life and slowed me down for the best part of a year, an inconvenience at the time but nowhere near as challenging as my Alaskan hunt. Both were experiences you only need once in a lifetime.