Tread Lightly and Keep Rowing,
An Alaskan Adventure
The mountains are my sanctuary and my teacher- my place to reflect, ponder, and put my life in perspective. Little did I know what life lessons my September 2015 Alaskan Adventure had in store.
As I watched my floatplane fly away, any previous taste of humility seemed diluted compared to how small I truly felt at that time. Never before had I been in a spot that my hiking boots could not provide a way back to civilization. I was dropped off and I was dependent upon my floatplane to provide my return.
This trip was four years in the making. In September 2011, we buried my aunt. While her death was a day of mourning it was also an opportunity to reunite with cousins. Because my father is 10 years younger than his older brother, my relationship with his children and grandchildren was indeed distant. Thankfully, our shared interest in the outdoors and in hunting provided a platform for conversation which led to this adventure of a lifetime.
As spectacular as Alaska and the wildlife are, it is not meant to be tamed but rather to teach and tutor its inhabitant. While on this journey, I encountered significant challenges and difficulties which became tolerable as I relied upon the many lessons I had learned from the “mountain” and the strength I found in my faith.
My hunting companions each came for their own reasons. I came to explore, to wander, and to scout for future hunting opportunities with my four sons. Cory Collins, my tent buddy, came to fulfill a lifetime dream of both he and his father. Unfortunately, his father only joined us in spirit as he was killed in a tragic fishing accident years ago. My cousin Mark Rigby and his son, Brandan, had hunted in many states and had yet to experience their shared dream of exploring Yukon moose country.
Our chosen outfitters for this journey had given very specific directions as to our fly-in weight limit. We had elected to hunt self-guided on a 10-day river float consisting of 30-miles in 2 rafts. Brandan performed exhaustive research on the hunt area and the needs of each hunter (each hunter was allowed only 100 pounds of gear). This weight restriction ensured that once each hunter that harvested a moose, he would be able to make the return trip on the floatplane.
Unable to hunt the same day of arrival in the field due to Alaskan wildlife regulation, we set up camp on the bank of the river and anxiously waited morning. Mark and Brandan were given the opportunity to select their desired hunt area and Cory and I explored adjacent wilderness. Being rookies in the art of moose calling, our call of choice became a wooden boat ore used to imitate bull scrapes. Unlike western big-game hunting, moose hunting in this unique and beautiful terrain was unlike anything I before experienced. Fresh sign was difficult to find and moose sightings very limited– nothing like deer and elk hunting. We were instructed that the use of a good book and comfortable sitting pad were the best hunting strategy, a strategy that my nerves and cold feet would just not allow.
After several miles, Cory and I returned to camp for lunch. Lack of glassing success for Mark and Brandan helped Cory and I determine that there had to be “greener grass” on the other side of the river. Adjacent to our tent, we immediately found fresh sign, but still no moose. We were all relieved when Mark closed his hunt when coming face to face into a young bull while walking quietly upriver on a trail. Astonishment at the size of this young animal further altered our hunt strategies due to the effort required to field dress the bull, transport it to camp, and care for the enormous and heavy game bags.
Exhaustion allowed the night to pass quickly. Beaver slaps and wolf howls were the only reason for us to stir. I arose early while Cory slept. I found myself nervously paddling across river and hunting solo down river. The wilderness consisted of forest and willow habitat adjacent the running water with open tundra about a mile from the river. Several miles on foot led me into the open tundra then back to a bend in the river about two miles from camp. Fresh willow scrapes indicated a mature bull was in the area. Cow calls and scrapes resulted in a single sound of a broken branch across the river. The depth of the river prohibited me from crossing without the raft. I was forced to head back to camp where the others had encountered native fishermen. The locals had instructed us not to cow call and only use short bull grunts which we later found to be very productive. My find resulted in us breaking camp the following morning and floating down river about 3 miles.
After setting up camp within several tall pines, Brandan and Cory were directed to the mile-long river bend where the bull was located. After splitting up, the direction of the wind sent Mark and I down river in the opposite direction away from our hunting companions. The further we walked down river, the smaller amount of fresh sign we encountered. We eventually made a wide two-mile loop across the tundra back toward the area that housed the bull. The hike was at times like walking on saturated sponges. Soil could not be seen anywhere but along the river due to the overgrowth and moisture.
Unaware if Brandan and Cory had covered the area, Mark and I sat on the riverbank. With the wooden ore in hand and Mark with his fiberglass moose call, he let out a couple grunts and I raked some willows. With Mark’s poor ability to hear, I excitedly communicated that I had heard some branches breaking a couple hundred yards away. Mark insisted that I rake the “%@!#@#” out of the willows and he continued to grunt. The growth across the river began to move back and forth as a deep grunt responded sporadically as if someone was hitting a base drum. Moose paddles appeared waving slowly back and forth through the willows. A deep dark body followed as the bull walked into the open along the river bank. My 300 magnum unloaded hoping to keep the enormous and majestic animal from running into the river. Mark and I were ecstatic and could not believe what had just happened.
Cory and Brandan immediately radioed hearing the shots and graciously agreed to retrieve their raft from camp. After hauling and rowing the raft upriver, numerous hours were spent properly caring and transporting the meat, hide, and antlers back to camp. We were ever grateful that the bull had retired just yards from the river making the task much more manageable.
Brandan was able to fill his tag a couple days later while sitting quietly eating a peanut butter sandwich accompanied by an occasional grunt call. Cory was able to spot a yearling bull that managed to survive due to an unfortunate failure to take his rifle off safety. Mark was the lucky charm as he seemed to enjoy “first chair” in each moose harvest. Mark was even able to catch his prized grayling fish as well as some impressive Alaskan pike.
We were upriver when we had harvested three of our four moose- 22 miles from our pick up point. At which point, we contacted our outfitter by satellite phone and were instructed to hurry to our predetermined pick up point due to an incoming storm. Unfortunately, this left Cory without a moose and his life-time dream unfulfilled.
This early departure necessitated that we float the remaining 22 miles in one day. Our outfitters told us this was “doable.” However, what neither we nor the outfitters considered was that the river dropped only 2 feet over a distance of 17miles. The seemed to turn into a long winding lake. Furthermore, we were moving against the incoming storm’s headwind. Loaded with over 2,800 lbs of moose and all our gear, we began to row and row and row. For 15 straight hours we rowed. At least, the rowing kept our blood and limbs from freezing.
The rain turned to snow then to sleet and then to rain again. River tributaries increased the distance to the shore and the protecting tall pines began to disappear. The darkness began to envelop us as our concerns began to heighten as our destination seemed unreachable. We simply did not have power to set up camp and unload the moose only to load everything back onto the rafts hours later. It was too cold to stop. We somehow received strength to arrive at our destination, unload gear, and prepare the tents and sleeping bags hours after dark. As the sky began to lighten, rafts were deflated, meat was rotated, and preparations made for the arrival of our ride. Optimistically, the first day ended with no sign of a plane. The second day there was no plane. That left us two nights in the Alaskan wilderness gathered around a small campfire built with saturated drift wood and willows. Delicious moose and Alaskan pike meat lifted our spirits and provided some warmth. However, rain and snow continued making heat from flames unavailable. The two days turned into three and then to four. Communication to the outside world was limited due to a poor battery in the satellite phone. Our food supplies were running low as was the remaining propane supply.
The final days of this adventure were both cold and miserable. Due to the specified weight restriction, my layers and sleeping bag were insufficient. Nighttime produced shoreline ice and frozen feet with spinal shivers. I sought creative ways to stay warm which were often unsuccessful. This prolonged cold was a painful postlude to an unexpected rowing marathon. These final days were what I would call an “I’m not prepared to meet my maker” experience.
Now in my comfortable office, I can certainly recall the troublesome moments. Brandan needed QuikClot and antibiotics to stop bleeding and infection. Cory had a severe fear of the river and painful hiking rashes. My feet and heels were affected for weeks after our return due to the severe and constant cold. We were often in great discomfort. However, I find myself focusing on those cherished moments of finding my first fresh scrape, seeing Cory’s smile in the light of the camp fire, hearing Mark’s comforting words that turned concern into gratitude, recognizing the friendships gained with my cousins, and witnessing the Alaskan beauty and power of the creator. This Alaskan sanctuary tutored me in much more than I expected and the cold nights were filled with long prayers overflowing with faith and a reassurance that my wife and five children were praying for our safe return home.
On the morning of day five, I poked my head out of the small window of my tent due to the hum of a small engine. I signaled to the pilot that we were ready to be picked up and he flapped his wings as a return signal. My cousins were taken first by the float plane leaving Cory and I several more hours wondering if we would have to experience a full Alaskan winter. It was not until Cory and I were loaded upon the plane with our gear, moose and frozen selves that I finally believed we were leaving the Alaskan Bush.
While I came home with a trophy moose and moose meat to rival any cut of beef, I also came home with renewed perspective. I had been to my “mountain.” I had been tutored. I had learned the brevity and beauty of life and that God was found in all things. The Mountain had taught me that. It had also taught me respect and reverence for mother earth. My hiking boots have been places, climbed mountains, reached vistas, crossed ravines but my heart had felt the hand of God and his eternal beauty that night on the river rowing for 15 hours with frozen feet. It was if my “mountain” had shadowed me, enveloped me and then let me go to share its story. The earth is God’s and man is its visitor- tread lightly and keep rowing. You’ll find my hiking boots back in Alaska sometime soon!
Most often, I experience adventure only vicariously. Such was the case with my husband's moose hunt. I stayed home to shuttle children, do homework, laundry, cook, clean, attend football games as well as assist our eldest in his endeavor as high school student body president to put two 100 foot letters ( CV) on the high school's neighboring hill.
More often than not, I am the "Story keeper." I treasure this story--- the moose hunt that could have been tragic- And I share it gratefully.