After completing my first tour of duty at Elmendorf AFB I had no idea that I would be returning to and retiring in Alaska fifteen years later. It was a dream come true.
Back in the seventies, I became hooked on sheep and goat hunting, almost to the point that I wasn’t interested in hunting anything else. Most of my hunting buddies wanted to do caribou and/or moose hunts, so we took a few successful caribou hunts on the Alaska Peninsula. I must say I actually enjoyed caribou hunting. Then somewhere in the mid to late 70’s, we tried to do a combo moose/caribou hunt on the Peninsula that went south because of a flying service problem. I was done with that, or so I thought. But then I got to thinking about my first fly-in trip back in ’67. Fog Lakes was a beautiful area with good moose hunting and the possibility of a caribou so in 1980, we planned a moose hunt.
I went with my old time hunting buddies Earl Boucher, Ron Watts and Mike Herbert. We used Gulkana Air, owned and operated by Ken Bunch. He used his Widgeon which was a great aircraft for four hunters and their gear but would require at least one or two extra trips on the return depending on how many moose we harvested. Everyone was hoping for a 60 incher but me and I was going to hold out for a 65+. I had taken a 48 incher in ’67 and didn’t want to waste my time and energy on anything less than 65 inches.
But things had changed over the last thirteen years. There was a cabin on the hill now, where Gary and I had camped on our previous trip. I think a guide used it once in a while, but I don’t remember anyone around while we were there. We set the base camp up close to the lake. We had a good four-man tent with a Coleman stove and lantern which was very different than what Gary and I had used, see “My First Fly-in Hunt.”
I couldn’t believe it but on our first day Earl spotted a moose that we felt was in the mid 60’s. We made a stalk and got to where we thought was fairly close, but not having a range finder we misjudged the distance. Since Earl spotted the moose he had first shot. The bull was standing on the hillside giving Earl a good shot. Again I think it was the distance but Earl missed and the moose moved up the hillside into the thick brush. Every time he was in the open we all fired shots but the moose went over the ridge never being hit. I’m sure he was over 400 yards away as we blasted our last shots. We went up the ridge to check for blood but found nothing. The main reason I didn’t care for moose hunting was I felt it was too easy to spot them and once you did, it wasn’t much of a challenge to slip up and get them. I had always said, “Spot a moose, kill a moose.” So much for that theory.
The next day we didn’t spot anything to the east so we decided we would set up a spike camp on the ridge which we called Blueberry Hill, about a mile and a half away. We brought visqueen, our old standby shelter material, to use for the spike camp. It was a great place to spot from and was closer to the main mountain. I think it was on the third day that Ron spotted a bull with a couple of cows about three miles from camp. We all thought he looked close to 60” so we took off. Overall the walking wasn’t that bad and after a successful stalk, Ron used his .300 Weatherby to put him down. He was a beautiful 60” bull. We took pictures and then began the enormous task of butchering the moose. Just rolling a moose over takes two or three people! That’s why after my first moose kill I always went with three other hunters. It was also better for packing especially when you shot one over a mile from your pick-up point. We would take this one to the spike camp first then on to our base camp next to the lake. It was about dusk when we started out with the meat. Ron and I each had a hind quarter. The tundra was fairly swampy in places and sometime after dark Ron ended up stepping into a hole and the suction held him so tight two of us had to grab his arms to pull him out. We made it back to camp around 1:00 AM. Another night of bad memories, but as always with God’s help we made it. We went back for the final loads the following day.
I think it was on our fourth night (we were sleeping under the visqueen) when a loud noise woke us up. We all thought it was a grizzly at first but as we were looking around we could see the silhouette of a big bull moose “grunting” and thrashing around. I had never heard that sound before and with him being so close to the shelter it gave us all a scare.
It was day five and we were moving the last loads of Ron’s moose to the lake when we spotted a really nice moose. We moved in closer and Earl made a good shot on a nice 56” bull. Two down and two to go! Back at base camp that night we made a big fire and really enjoyed the comradery and the beautiful evening.
Two moose for four hunters made a good hunt and it would have been really tough packing two more moose out of there. I was glad I didn’t get one.
After all of that work you would have thought our desire for moose hunting was out of our system but Earl kept thinking about the “big guy” that got away and I thought maybe by the next year he would be approaching 70” so we decided to go back the following year.
The fall of ’81 Earl and I were on our way back to Fog Lakes with my next door neighbor Dave Brotherton and a young airman named Mark Torrey. Mark had heard many of my stories and had watched my movie presentation that I did at some of our Branch parties. He loved hunting and was eager to experience all that Alaska had to offer. It was always fun having a young fired up hunter along.
We were always pleased with Ken Bunch’s flying service so again we used Gulkana Air. We had a great trip in and set up our base camp in the same area as the year before. We were all looking forward to shooting some big moose.
I don’t remember for sure but it was either the first or second day of the hunt when Mark spotted a bull to the east of the lake. Mark and I took off at a fast pace and closed the distance to with-in 100 yards. Mark made a good shot using his .300 Winchester Magnum and the moose went down. Mark had his first moose, a really nice 53 incher. His excitement was very evident as we took pictures and butchered the moose. Now the really hard work began. Neither Mark nor Dave had ever packed out a moose before and my rule was that the person harvesting the moose had to pack one of the hind quarters and I would pack the other. The other two guys would pack the front shoulders. The hind quarters on a mature moose weighs between 100 and 150 pounds. Front shoulders will vary from 75 to 125 pounds so both are a heavy load to throw on your back, but hey that’s moose hunting!
We decided to pack the meat to the opposite end of the lake from camp because it cut two-thirds of a mile off of the pack. It was still going to be close to a mile pack with a few swamps to deal with. Mark was quite a trooper; however Dave had a difficult time especially in the swamps. He said it was so hard packing the front shoulder that he knew for sure he couldn’t pack a hind quarter. He decided right then and there he wouldn’t shot a moose.
The next few days we didn’t spot any bulls which was so different than the year before. What a difference a year makes especially with animal populations in Alaska. The winters are hard on the animals, especially the males after the rut.
It was day four or five when we spotted a big black bear out in the open eating blueberries. Mark was the shooter. We made a great stalk and slipped within 70 yards. Mark dumped him with the 180 grain bullet from his .300 magnum. He was a beautiful bear squaring 6’7”. We had only seen one other black bear and that was on the hunt the year before. We had seen lots of grizzly signs on the three hunts but never spotted a bear. After taking some photos we skinned out the bear and got prepared for the two mile hike back to camp.
We were losing light and I was hoping to get back by dark. It didn’t look like that was going to happen. At our first break I could see that Mark wasn’t doing well. He had the heaviest pack so we all traded around so he would end up with the lightest. I was hoping the change would help us make better time. I had been walking at a fast pace and we were on our last light when I stopped for a break so everyone could catch up. Earl and Dave caught up but Mark was nowhere to be seen. I asked Earl and Dave when they saw Mark last. They both thought Mark was close but didn’t remember how long it had been since they had last seen him. We started yelling Mark’s name but got no response. I could still see without using a flashlight but we didn’t have long. I dropped my pack with Earl and Dave and headed back trying to retrace our tracks. The area had numerous game trails with scattered open areas and black spruce intermingled throughout. I continued to yell for Mark. I probably went back close to a half-mile before I spotted the orange pack and Mark slumped over. I gave another big yell but got no movement or response. I walked over to Mark and reached down and touched his shoulder and at the same time loudly spoke his name. He looked up but didn’t respond. I asked, “What are you doing?” He just looked at me weird and said, “I just thought that I would sit down.” It was like he was in a daze. I asked if he was okay and again he just sounded incoherent. I told him to get up, we had to get out of there! I grabbed his pack as he got up and we headed back to Earl and Dave.
Once we made it back to our packs, Dave had a large bag of candy that Mark devoured. I asked Mark if this had ever happened to him before and he said no. He was really pale and clammy so I wasn’t sure if he was suffering from hypothermia or maybe he had a blood sugar problem. We were fairly close to camp so it didn’t take us too long to get back. We got the stove going and got him into his sleeping bag so he could warm up. As he became more normal, we gave him some hot chocolate. Within an hour or so he seemed to be fine.
I have to say that gave me quite a scare but the good thing was I found him. In his condition and with the cold tempentures he might have not made it through the night. Mark told me years later that it happened to him again and he found out that it was from a drop in his blood sugar. You guys might remember that this happened to one of AAA’s clients, who was a diabetic, in the story, “Our Most Challenging Client.” So, I think it is always a good idea to keep candy in your pack and stay fairly close together.
The next day Mark and Dave stayed around camp. Earl and I should have done the same thing since all we did was hunt in a downpour and got nothing but soaked. The next day Ken picked us up on time and we headed back to Anchorage. Once we were in our vehicles heading home Dave told me he couldn’t believe that he had made the decision not to shoot a moose. I agreed, but it was his choice.
That was my last moose hunt before I started guiding. My second client killed a 65 incher on the Alaska Peninsula, the moose that I always wanted. Over the years I guided one other client to a 65 incher and have never personally killed another moose.
Thanks to Earl, Ron and Mark for refreshing my memory on some of the facts in this story.