This sheep hunt was now a moose hunt.
We prepared our bodies by carb loading on extra rations while we discussed how we would stalk the moose. Once we were satisfied with our plan, we crawled into our sleeping bags to enjoy one last comfortable night before it was time to go to work.
The next morning, the animals were still bedded down and we were betting on them staying that way or at least not moving too far in the time that it took us to close the gap. While our plan was solid, there were still several variables that we needed to mitigate in order to pull off the approach. The bull was almost exactly 5.5 kilometres away from where we had stashed the canoe, and we decided this would be the absolute maximum packable distance. Because of this, it was imperative that we avoided spooking him any farther up the mountain, forcing us to be completely stealthy on our approach. Second, we would need to make a perfect shot. Anything less than a heart shot could give the bull a chance to run farther up the mountain, which, again, could put him outside of a packable range. Even tagging him in the lungs, an otherwise desirable kill shot, would not be enough to guarantee that we dropped him where he stood. To mitigate this risk, we decided we would need to exercise extreme patience and only pull the trigger if we had a comfortable shooting position and a perfect broadside view. Our approach had us going up the mountain and side-hilling across the scree, way above the two moose. They were bedded down and facing the creek, which allowed us to sneak in behind them, out of sight. With perfectly still winds, we slowly worked our way up, over, and down the mountain, using extreme caution not to dislodge any rocks and give away our position.
It took us over two hours to reach the shooting vantage that we had scoped out earlier that morning. As we peeked down below, we were thrilled to see that both moose were still there, and even closer to us than we expected. With Steve as my spotter, we laid down on the rocks and got set up comfortably in a prone shooting position. A quick yardage check determined that the bigger bull was 187 yards downhill from us, a perfectly comfortable distance for the shot we needed. Because the younger moose was lying close to the larger bull, we needed him to get out of the way before we had a clear shooting lane. We would also need the bull we were targeting to stand up, turn broadside and offer up an opportunity for me to zero in on his heart with my crosshairs. Rather than letting emotions get the best of us, we resisted the urge to try to stand the two bulls up by letting out a few grunts. Instead, we opted to wait patiently for them to stand up on their own, to reduce the risk of spooking them. We had already waited several days to be in this seat, so waiting a few more hours wasn’t a big deal. After a little over an hour, our patience was finally rewarded.
The younger bull stood up and began to feed, eventually moving out of the way. He offered us a clear shot as he stood broadside for several minutes, but our hearts were set on harvesting the older animal. Twenty minutes later, the bigger bull stood and slowly turned. With my crosshairs placed directly on his armpit, he stepped forward and exposed his vitals. I steadied my breathing and slowly applied pressure to the trigger. Bang! The shot was clean, and the bull didn’t take more than two steps before he swayed and then collapsed in the willow. It was over in seconds. We gathered our knives and kill kits and waited the standard 15 minutes before approaching the downed animal and going to work.
With ultralight sheep-hunting tools at our disposal, it took us over five hours to do the butchering. Once the animal was processed, we built a meat rack (for the quarters) on a pile of rocks, a little ways away from the kill site. We then covered the quarters with tarps, to ensure they would remain cool and dry in our absence. Once this was done, we loaded our hunting packs with 100 pounds of prime and off cuts, each, turned on our headlamps and began the first of the three journeys down to the creek and off the mountain. After a few hard kilometres, we reached a densely treed area just below our alpine camp. We hung the meat there and hiked up the mountain to spend one last night on the ridge. The next morning we packed up our tents and hiked down to set up a new base in the trees. Once gear was stashed, we grabbed the meat from the night before and finished carrying out the first load. While it felt good to get the off cuts secured at the lake, our victory was short-lived.
Spirits remained high as we laughed and joked while we hiked our way up the mountain to grab the four quarters. I still remember the feeling of taking those first few steps, with the moose hind on my back. Even with limited supplies, it felt as though I was carrying out a person rather than a quarter. I looked around at the guys as they adjusted the straps on their packs and grabbed their hiking poles. The expressions on their faces told me that I wasn’t the only one that was feeling the weight. The next thing I remember hearing was Rory breaking the tense silence with some words of encouragement, “Let’s go, boys!” We began marching down to the creek, one laboured step at a time. Our two biggest concerns, with this phase of the pack-out, were either bumping into a grizzly bear, or one of us rolling an ankle. With a fresh gut pile, not far away, and plenty of bear signs in the valley, we knew that running into a bear in less-than-ideal circumstances was a real possibility. Fatigued from the weight of our packs, our reaction time would be slowed in the event of a charge. To mitigate this risk, we made sure to have both our rifles and our bear spray
accessible and strapped to our chest. Anecdotal reports say you usually have three seconds or less to react when charged by a grizz, so having our guns and spray on our packs simply wouldn’t do us any good. We were fortunate enough to have learned this lesson before (the hard way) and were lucky to have gotten away with a hit. If you’re a hunter and haven’t already switched to a chest-mount system for your rifle and spray, we highly recommend it. To reduce the risk of rolling an ankle, we defaulted back to our mantra: Slow is steady, steady is safe, safe is fast. We took breaks, when we needed to, and used what battery was left in our cellphones to play music, keeping us motivated. Our legs screamed under the weight, but we stayed together and kept one another in good spirits.
For the first few kilometres, everything went smoothly. In the final two kilometres, we had to pass through some low-lying, swampy habitat, and that’s when I felt the mood begin to change. Under the weight of our packs, our feet sank deeply into the spongy ground, with each step we took forward. While we were at less risk of rolling our ankles than on the sketchy hillside, this post-holing effect nearly doubled our efforts. Coincidentally, it was at this time when the last of our phones died, leaving us without music to distract us. There were no more jokes … no more laughter.
For the next two hours, none of us said a word. Half-way through the swamp, I could feel my legs cramping up, and every muscle in my body was telling me to quit. Refusing to be the first one in the group to throw in the towel, I fought with everything I had to ignore these feelings, and I forced my mind to travel deeper into the pain zone. It wasn’t until later that night, back at camp, when everyone admitted fighting this exact same battle at this stage of the pack-out. We got a kick out of each other’s stubbornness and exchanged stories of what we were going through mentally, earlier on that day.
All in all, it took us six hours to get the quarters to the lake. We hung them up by the canoe and hiked back up the hill, in the dark, to find our camp. We were exhausted. The next morning was the third and final day of the pack-out. We woke up at sunrise and split up so that we could cover more ground. Sean and Steve carried camp down to the lake and began ferrying meat with the canoe to our pickup point. Rory and I laced up our boots and began the final journey up the mountain, to grab the head and the hide. The last trip up the hill went smoothly.
Just before reaching the kill site, we stopped and glassed the gut pile, to make sure it hadn’t attracted any predators overnight. The coast was clear. After putting the binos away, we nearly tripped over a big moose shed that was lying in the alders along the creek. We figured that it might have been from the bull that we harvested just a few seasons ago. We used paracord to tie up the hide, and we managed to stuff it into Rory’s large mountaineering pack. I used the meat shelf on my Mystery Ranch bag to secure the moose head and antlers to my back, and without wasting any time, we set off for the lake.
While my load was significantly lighter than it was the day before, hauling the giant moose rack through dense willows wasn’t easy. The antlers seemed to grab on to every bit of brush and alders that we passed, adding significant resistance. Once we reached the treeline, I had to be strategic about how I weaved through the timber. I remember empathizing with these ungulates and thinking about how hard it must be for the big bulls that have to spend most of the year walking around with all that head gear. We were beyond relieved when we finally passed the swamp and got eyes on the lake. While descending the steep embankment to the water, I quickly realized that the moose rack projected too far off my back for me to walk forward down the steep hill. Instead, I was forced to descend backwards for the last 600 metres of the journey. Using the thick alders and trees, as holds, I did my best to repel down the 45-degree slope. Half-way down the descent, we spotted Steve and Sean paddling by in the yellow canoe. We roared at the top of our lungs, and after a few minutes we managed to get their attention. Twenty minutes later, we punched through the alders to the fringe of the lake. We made it! I’ll never forget the look on Sean and Steve’s face as Rory and I emerged from the trees. We helped the guys do the last meat run and then paddled back to set up camp at our pickup point. At the back of the lake, we cut more poles and got the meat hung up, tarping it off for one last time. We set up our more-robust Tipitent that we had stashed at the lake on day 1, and then rewarded our efforts with a round of fresh backstrap steaks. Despite our plans to stay up late and celebrate, the fatigue had finally caught up to us. Within minutes of finishing off the last steaks, we found ourselves crawling into our sleeping bags to enjoy an early night’s rest. The next morning, we woke up fresh, made a few casts and waited for pickup from our pals at Alkan Air. Once back in Whitehorse, there was still plenty of work to do.
We spent the next two days butchering the moose and getting him packed away in our freezers.
There are moments from this trip that will follow me forever. Eating fresh moose backstrap with a few of my best buddies, after a rigorous three-day pack-out, in full view of the mountain that we carried it down from, was a powerful experience. When I’m lucky enough to share these moments with friends, the feeling of camaraderie, as well as the deep satisfaction that I get from being connected to my food, delivers far more than what I could get from any restaurant.
It is this feeling of a deeper, more meaningful connection to the land, as well as to the food we eat, that I believe transcends not only who we are as hunters, but as humans. Moose are an incredible species and an important food source for people who live in the North. Having the opportunity to hunt moose in the Yukon, with an over-the-counter tag, is a privilege, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do so. Sharing the land with, and having the opportunity to get close to, these giants is a humbling and rewarding experience. It is one that I will never get tired of. Killing an animal is never easy. I think the more time a person spends on the land, observing and interacting with nature, the better they come to understand its complexities—the daily hardships these animals face, the intricacies of dynamic predator-prey interactions, and their struggles against the elements, which so many people are so far removed from and only ever get to witness through their big-screen TVs, from the comfort of their living rooms.
We watched this beautiful velvet bull for three days before we went after him, observing where he slept, where and what he ate, his interactions with other moose in the valley … everything he
did. Taking this magnificent bull out of the valley he called home did not come without emotional cost, and it is something I still think about today.
It is only when we eat those first few steaks and get home to process over 500 pounds of fresh, organic meat, that the means become justified. The meat from this hunt continues to
feed us and our loved ones nearly two years after the harvest. While the last packages of meat will soon be gone from the freezer, and the last steaks cleaned off of our plates, the memory
of this beautiful August bull will live on forever in the minds of the four of us who laboured to get him off the mountain.
If there was one thing I learned on this hunt that I could pass along to anyone hunting moose for the first time, it would be to do it under controlled circumstances. Hunting moose from
boats or canoes can be a great way to get in a little deeper and away from the roads, and can make getting the meat home, safe, a lot more manageable. Even if you’re lucky enough to drop
a bull right on shore, it’s still a ton of work to get them properly field dressed, into the boat and then hung up properly back at camp. Despite the fact that I have no regrets from this outing
and will cherish the memories of this trip forever, it’s not the type of physical undertaking that I will go out of my way to attempt again, any time soon.
The story of this hunt will be the subject of our first film project, which we plan on airing later this year. Check us out on Instagram at @YukonUnguided for updates on the launch date of
our website and for more news about our upcoming video debut. Thanks for reading, and …Happy hunting!