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"Northern Exposure"
Written by Paul Felski

Northern Exposure
My adventure north to the Yukon started out much like my last trip to Alaska ended, grounded by the weather. I flew into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory under sunny skies and moderate temperatures on the 25th of September with the intention of flying into moose camp the following morning. As you might have guessed by now that wasn’t going to happen. Two days and six inches of snow later, I was on my way to the Upper Nisiling River camp.

The floatplane had no problem maneuvering after the snow, as long as the visibility and cloud ceiling remained high. We landed without incident and I climbed into the 14 foot jet boat with my guide Sam White. Sam is a 21-year old First-Nations native of the Yukon who has been guiding for several years. We hit it off immediately and I knew my decision to hunt with Kluane Outfitters was going to be the right choice. I soon learned why the other guides affectionately called Sam “Log Jam Sam” as he adeptly dodged the fast moving logs and debris up rooted by the flood high waters.

An hour and twenty bone chilling minutes later we arrived at the Lower Nisiling camp in time for dinner and a quick hunt up river before dark. We had decided on the ride up river we would wait till the following afternoon to travel to the upper camp, thus not missing any prime hunting hours. The first evening went by uneventful except for the amount of snow that began to fall, it was difficult seeing all the obstacles on the river with tears in your eyes caused by the large fluffy flakes stinging you at full throttle.

The next morning we awoke to a light snow and a renewed energy. We decided to float hunt down river to a favorite moose area of Sam’s. We pulled the boat into a backwater pool and looked back across the river in time to see a giant bull disappearing into the willows. He was a TOAD! Sam immediately tried calling with no response from the bull, we figured that he must have seen us. We quickly pulled down and across the river to try and pick up his tracks in the snow and do some more calling. The bull must have turned back up river when he hit the willows because we saw or heard nothing. I did however manage to go for my first Yukon bath on the way back to the boat, slipping off of a snow-covered log and crashing through the ice into a river tributary. Wow… that was fun! But a little on the cool side for my taste.

The snow started picking up again so we headed back for some lunch and a dry change of clothes. After loading the boat with our gear and groceries we climbed back in for the 2 hour tour to the “Upper” camp. By the time we had stashed our stuff and got fires going in the wood burning camp stoves, winter was really getting serious outside. We made a quick moose-less hunt up river before dark or hypothermia could set in.

The next morning we woke to 8 inches of fresh snow, with more coming down all the time. We once again headed up river and had several great calling sequences in very “moosey” looking bogs. The moose obviously didn’t realize they were supposed to be in these great looking areas and we had no sightings or responses. We pulled into shore to build a fire and warm up while munching on our candy bar lunch. With feeling beginning to creep back into our extremities we began the long float hunt back to camp hoping that something might of came to investigate our earlier calling. No such luck. We drew a big zero for the long cold day.

At the risk of sounding inexperienced when it comes to northern adventures what happened next took me by surprise. Serious surprise! The weather cleared off beautifully that night with an awesome display of the northern lights. The only problem with this was the temperature dropped. Did I say dropped, I meant plummeted down to -21C. That is COLD when you are a native California boy like myself. While I have been up that way several times in the past I was still unprepared for those types of temperatures at that time of year. I had to wear every stick of clothes I had with me just to ride in the boat; the closest thing I can describe myself to be dressed like that was the “Michelin Man”.

As we were boarding the boat that morning the only thing I could think of was, I hope we don’t see a moose. I was picturing myself trying to shoot with the five layers of clothing I had on, or trying to undress enough to shoot while the moose waited patiently. I didn’t think either was going to work. I did however make it down to four layers after we chopped the boat out of the frozen lagoon we had moored it in. The ice was already an inch or better thick so we had quite a little adventure just getting to the main river.

While the main river was flowing, the amount of “ice burgs” that were floating downstream posed a serious problem to the jet motor on the boat. The jet would suck some ice into the pump and we would lose most of our power, causing the boat to slam into the banks and log jams uncontrollably. It didn’t take us long to realize that the river was un-navigatable and not to mention a little dangerous. With the water so high and moving so fast, it was quite conceivable we could be ran into a logjam and flipped over into the icy water. With this in mind we decided to hunt the bogs behind camp.

That night proved to be the same as the night before, clear and very cold. We checked the river situation out that morning with no better results. We had tied the boat up on the main river the day before, so we were in pretty good shape there. The problem was the amount and size of the ice floating down the river. We made a quick assessment and decided to head for lower elevation and hunt out of the first camp. The river could be navigated downstream by floating and using minimum power to keep the boat out of the logjams. So we packed the boat and closed the camp down for the winter, boarding up the windows and disconnecting stoves.

We hunted all the way to the lower camp and the only thing we saw were flocks of geese heading south for the winter. Maybe they knew something we didn’t…. The moose had turned off completely, a huge change from the week before. Sam believed that they were taking their girlfriends and heading for the high country, still I couldn’t be convinced. Not yet anyway.

The luck of the hunter in the lower camp was about the same; the only moose they were seeing was in the magazines in the cook cabin. Sam and I were determined to change this. I gave him no rest, we were constantly on scan mode for a bull. We would hunt downstream while Vincent the other hunter in camp would hunt upstream or vice versa. Vincent had traveled from Spain with his wife, and had taken a beautiful Dall ram out of the main camp while we were grounded due to the weather. So even though the moose hunting was tough he was still in good spirits and made a great camp partner.

After another moose-less hunt up river Sam and I decided to head for the “look out” and glass the surrounding area in hopes of spotting a bull that afternoon. The first day of my hunt we had spotted two small bulls from the look out and were hopeful that some of the big boys might have moved in. It wasn’t even ten minutes after we had reached the top and I had spotted “my bull”. Even from three miles away the bull looked huge, his palms flashing in the sunlight looked like radar dishes. We quickly set up the spotting scope and confirmed his size, not only did he have large palms; he also had great fronts with long points. That was enough. Come on Sam lets go!

Northern Exposure
The location of the bull was about two miles directly behind our camp so we slipped back down the mountain and climbed into the boat. After heading back upstream and arriving at camp we removed a couple of layers of clothing for the race ahead of us. We had about an hour and a half of daylight left so we were going to have to hustle if we were going to have a chance at this guy. We had two more strikes against us that we didn’t realize when we left camp. With the water level in the rivers being at flood height, two of the streams we had to cross were also running fast and deep. Oh no not another log crossing….This time the moose gods were on my side as I made it across both of them with dry clothes intact.

After we reached the giant muskeg bog the moose we had seen from the look out had disappeared. We climbed one of the well-positioned tree stands and still could not find the bull. After several minutes of panic and glassing I spotted something white moving through the trees on the other side of the bog. I was thinking what could be white and move that fast out here, then it hit me. I was looking at the snow frozen in the antlers of the bull we had spotted from the look out. Relief crept back into me, until I realized how far away he actually was.

The bull had escorted a couple of his girlfriends out of the timber and was feeding on the edge of the bog. We tried calling from across the muskeg meadow but we were either too far away or he was simply not interested in this seductive cow up in a tree. Go figure. We tried grunting at him with similar results. Sam! We have to go over there and get him… Sam’s reply was; do you know how far away they are, we will never be able to sneak up on them is this frozen snow and get there before dark. Of course my standard reply was I have traveled to far not to try. As we were climbing out of the tree stand I thought I heard Sam mumble something about dumb bowhunter’s, but I couldn’t be sure.

In all realization we probably didn’t have very good odds, but then again math was never my strong point anyway. Thirty five minutes later we were pinned down fifty yards away from the cows, with the bull being about 125 yards away. The cows had spotted us trying to creep past them to get in between them and the bull. I was sure the game was over. After a ten-minute staring match the cows began to feed away from us and we were in business again. The bull began to follow his friends, unfortunately we were unable to close the distance.

As the bull strutted up the little incline following the cows we had to make a quick decision, take the shot offered or hope we could find him again the next day. Well that was an easy decision, since we had not been seeing anything and that I had spent long hours practicing for just this situation. How far is he Sam? “The range finder says 68 yards”. Good enough, grunt at him when I get to full draw. Uggghhh! Uggghhh! The bull stopped turning broadside, the pin settled and the string slipped from my fingers. I lost sight of the arrow about half way there....But that familiar thud was reassuring along with the bright orange fletching barely visible behind the front shoulder. Quick Sam grunt at him again! The bull was walking away as I was snapping another arrow on the string. Uggghhh! Uggghhh! The bull stopped and looked our way again, but only for a second before he collapsed to the ground.

WOW! Was about the only thing either one of us could say for the next few minutes. Sam could not believe how effective the bow can be with a well-placed arrow. We figured the elapsed time was about twenty seconds and it was over. For six years and three moose hunts I had been dreaming of that shot, I was drained. We walked over to the bull and I was numb-struck at the sheer size of him. This was the first moose I had seen on the ground. I have seen my share of big bull elk but this was amazing. Sam just laughed at me and said you wanted to come all the way over here after that bull bowhunter, now what? I seem to have this type of problem with all my hunting partners before they have mysterious back problems or leg cramps as they sneak back to camp.

We quickly field dressed the bull and marked the area well so we could approach carefully the next morning. After all this is Grizzly country and we had seen two big bears from the lookout. Lucky for us we were able to get the camp four-wheeler across the frozen bog to the bull. As Sam would make a run with the meat I would continue working on the cape. Of course I had to stand up every few minutes to take a peek around, relieving the cramps in my back and the prickly sensation in my neck. Five hours and two trips later we had the bull safely in camp.

The next couple of days were spent trying to find a bull for Vincent and a bear for me with little luck for either of us. The other problem I was experiencing was it never did warm up enough to melt the ice out of the river so that the float-plane could land. This meant an eight hour boat ride down three rivers to get to a point where a truck could be met. I did mention that I was a California boy right? The wind chill factor made the ride a bit chilly! Just another typical northern adventure!