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A dream moose hunt on the Innoko River
Watching the small bush plane take off from the makeshift gravel runway in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska, leaving us with our rafts, gear, and archery equipment seemed like a dream a year and a half prior when we started planning this adventure. It had been that long since Doug walked into my office and confidently stated that he was going to hunt moose in Alaska soon if I wanted to tag along. If I hesitated to say yes at all, I don’t remember it.
He described how he had just found out that someone on his delivery route had unexpectedly passed away. He recalled how the gentleman always took care of himself and seemed to be very healthy. It was that realization for Doug – that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow – that catapulted him to start making preparations for one of the hunts that was on his bucket list; a self-guided float trip for Alaskan Moose. He just needed a willing and able partner, and I was his huckleberry.
We flew from Boise to McGrath, Alaska on September 8th. There wasn’t much to this little town nestled next to the Kuskokwim River, but the friendly people and modest accommodations seemed an appropriate starting point for our 12-day wilderness adventure. Scheduled to fly out to the bush the next morning, we spent the rest of that day organizing gear and preparing for the dreaded weigh-in we kept hearing about. Each person was allowed 150 lb of gear and there were no exceptions for Willow Air, the outfitter that was our shuttle service for the trip.
Stuffing all of our gear onto that little plane on the bluebird day of September 9th followed by the picturesque flight out to the little gravel runway went by in a blur. It went by so fast we almost didn’t notice how noisy and flexible the 70s-model bush plane was, but we were pretty sure it was a little out of warranty. Watching it buzz down the runway, lift above the trees, and bank back towards town leaving us all alone made me both a little anxious and very excited to begin.
Having to wait until the next day to start hunting, morning couldn’t come fast enough. We hit the water early and stopped several times to perform calling sets and to explore the amazing country we were in. We floated five or six miles that day to an oxbow we found that looked like an amazing spot to explore. It did not provide us with any moose, but it did give us a place to camp and one of the most amazing sunsets that I have ever seen.
When we hit the water on day three, we were reminded that we were in Alaska. The rain was that reminder. We floated for a while and eventually tied up the boat, took shelter in the trees, and started calling from the edge of a beautiful backwater pond. A couple of hours later and much to our surprise, our spirited communication attempts were answered from the other side of the river. We jumped up and ran towards the sound. When we saw the bull swimming the river towards us, Doug grabbed his bow and I began to grunt at him. Now on our side of the river, I could see the animal swaying his head back and forth to challenge me as I continued to grunt at him and sway my outstretched arms in an effort to copy his display of aggression. Unable to confirm the required 50+ inch mark, we decided to pass but enjoyed the ongoing flirtation for a little while until he ultimately disappeared into the dense forest.
Our renewed excitement gave us a boost of energy to get back in the boat and head down the river in the continued deluge. We floated on and off for the rest of the day, until about 6 PM when Doug spotted a bull cruising the left-hand side of the river moving away from us. He was a definite shooter! As I drifted us into the bank, Doug hit the ground running with his bow in his hand.
As I caught up to Doug, he motioned that he could hear the bull off to his right. I began to grunt in that direction and could tell shortly thereafter that the bull was coming back our way. Eventually I could see him materialize through the thick scrub. I continued to call and challenge him with my outstretched arms and an opaque bull horn we had acquired for the trip. With Doug about 20 yards to my right, the bull arced around us, trying to get downwind. Doug repositioned himself to find an open window in the thick vegetation. I saw him draw back out of the corner of my eye and could hear the bow go off along with the familiar sound of the arrow hitting its mark.
A day and a half later, with one-half of our objective now complete and a much heavier raft, we pushed off again and resumed our journey downriver. To say that the action was light for the next couple of days would be an understatement. It was so slow, in fact, that my mind started to reconcile the fact that I was probably going to return home with only fantastic memories and a hunting partner's fulfilled bucket list item. I told myself that I was ok with that.
Those thoughts made it hard for my brain to register what my eyes were telling me on September 15th when I first saw the giant-bodied moose laying on the river bank in the morning fog. It was only after a double take that I believed what I had previously seen and ignored. That suspicion was confirmed when he stood up and stepped into the deep river off of the upper bank. My eyes felt even more foolish as I watched him ford the strong current like it was nothing.
Once I realized that he was going to come directly in front us, I grabbed my bow and prepared to shoot. As the bull squared up to our raft, Doug expertly treaded water and held us steady. Trying to balance myself on the bow of the swaying raft definitely increased the difficulty level of my shot which careened low on the bull’s broadside chest when my string grazed the sleeve of my rain gear. Luckily, I reloaded quicker than the bull could process the hit and was able to place another arrow perfectly behind his quartering-away right shoulder.
I would love to say that the second arrow did its job instantly, but all I can say is that both of these animals proved to be tougher than anything I have had the pleasure to pursue. A little while later, one last well placed arrow anchored him in the middle of a fairly large shallow pond. The emotions of that pursuit and ultimate bounty were both difficult and rewarding; a dichotomy of feelings that only another hunter will empathize with. Those highs and lows seemed to find me throughout the adventure, teaching me lessons about myself that I might not have learned elsewhere.
Getting the final piece of meat back to the river’s edge was a testament to teamwork and determination. So exhausted from the process, that night we set up a lean-to with one of our tarps in front of a fire and crashed side-by-side without eating dinner. Awakened by more rain in the middle of the night, we simply wrapped ourselves in the tarp like a human burrito and continued to sleep off one of the longest days I have ever experienced.
The warmer and wetter-than-normal September days and nights motivated us to try and get to the extraction point earlier than we were scheduled to in hopes of getting the copious amounts of delicious meat out of the backcountry and into a cooler somewhere.
A Long Haul
We covered more than sixty miles over the next three days, bringing our trip total to somewhere around one hundred and sixteen. Scheduling and adverse weather did not make an early exit possible, so we spent the next three days guarding and sheltering the meat to the best of our ability.
Despite the worry and tension that plagued those few days along the banks of the Innoko River, all would work out in the end. Seeing the two float planes circle overhead and swoop down to land on the smooth river surface made it all worthwhile. Doug’s hands eventually started working normally again from all of the butchering and rowing and the fifteen pounds I lost found their way back to me fairly quickly. All in all, I wouldn’t change any of it now that time has smoothed the edges off of the memories. As a matter of fact, I’m more than ready to check another adventure off the bucket list anytime!
By: Israel Walls - Alaska Moose