Expeditions: Fifty-Inch Minimum

The words “unmitigated disaster” spring to mind.

Story and Photos by Terry Wieland

The trail out of camp led through a tangle of pines skirting the riverbank. Moss, perpetually soaked and matted with pine needles, muffled the hooves. The only sounds were the creaking of saddles, the rattle of bridles, and the horses’ breathing in puffs of steam.

The Nenana River wound its way through the valley in a skein of tributaries, flanked on both sides by the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range. In September, with the water low, the river sought only the deepest channels, and from the air they looked like sparkling ribbons.

The Alaska Range stretches from east to west, 100 miles south of Fairbanks. When you’re driving toward it, it resembles a line of wolf’s teeth with its snowy peaks glinting in the sun.

At ground level, however, the riverbed—a mile wide in places—was a deceptive expanse of hard flats, sudden banks, slippery gravel, and, occasionally, quicksand. Riding back across late one afternoon, Colton and his diminutive mount, Smurf, suddenly plunged flank-deep in a patch of what appeared to be solid ground. With a three-foot bank in front, immersed to his tail in the back, Smurf plunged once, twice, three times, going deeper with each plunge but gaining a bit each time until he was able to dig his hoofs into the bank and haul himself out.

Colton was wet to his knees and Smurf stood with his sandy flanks heaving. My horse, Berry, a solid strawberry roan with a finely honed sense of self-preservation, pulled back the instant Smurf went in. We watched the struggle from a safe distance, and then picked our way around the quicksand. Getting et by bears ain’t the only way to die in Alaska.

Sitting, waiting, and watching are a major part of hunting moose in Alaska, whether you are perched on a mountainside or glassing across a broad riverbed.

Sitting, waiting, and watching are a major part of hunting moose in Alaska, whether you are perched on a mountainside or glassing across a broad riverbed.

The first morning out, Colton and I rode a couple of miles upriver toward the glacier, then crossed the wide riverbed to climb into the mountains on the other side. From camp it didn’t look all that far. It never does. We could easily see where we’d be hunting, but it was a three-hour ride each way, and the river crossing was the least of our worries. Tougher by far was picking our way up through the timber along a path that was a trail in name only, consisting, in roughly equal parts, of mud, sharp and slippery rocks, downed trees, and rattling creeks, all angling sharply upward.

We were a camp of moose and grizzly hunters, although that particular camp also accommodates Dall sheep hunters earlier in the season. By late September, however, the upper peaks were clad in snow. Where we broke out of the timber onto the lower slopes, the snow was knee-deep, wet, and clinging. We left the horses with their heads down in a brushy draw away from the wind, and ventured out to look for moose.

The Alaska Range stretches from east to west, 100 miles south of Fairbanks. When you’re driving toward it, it resembles a line of wolf’s teeth with its snowy peaks glinting in the sun.

The range is famous for its moose, and the Alaska game department decrees that any bull taken must be a minimum 50-inch spread. That’s four feet two inches wide. The particular subspecies here is the Alaska-Yukon, largest of the various moose that occur in North America, from Newfoundland in the east, across Canada, south into Idaho, and northwest onto the Alaska Peninsula.

Size is all relative. In Newfoundland, a 50-inch moose is huge, a hopeless dream; in Ontario, it’s an extremely fine trophy. But in the Alaska Range, it’s merely the legal minimum.

Guide Colton Hodson with a moose rack that measures approximately 65 inches across – comfortably better than the 50-inch legal minimum.

Guide Colton Hodson with a moose rack that measures approximately 65 inches across – comfortably better than the 50-inch legal minimum.

The game department backs up its dictum with severe penalties. Shoot an undersized bull, and they fine hunter and guide $3,500 each, as well as confiscate the animal. Needless to say, the subject of trophy estimation gets a good workout around the table in the cook tent. Back in camp, we had a half-dozen heads taken by clients this year, ranging in size from the low 50s to the mid-60s. The widest was a 64-incher taken the week before I arrived.

Moose antlers are as individual and varied as a fingerprint. Some are complex, some are boringly simple; some are deep-dished, others wide and flat. This is where an arbitrary trophy minimum like a 50-inch spread perverts the spirit of trophy hunting, where the goal is really to take old bulls, past their prime. A really old bull may be very heavy, complex, and deeply dished, but no longer terribly wide, while a young bull in its prime may have a great, flat spread of antler. These aren’t the bulls that should be removed, but they’re the ones the game department says you must take.

These are generalities, and any regulatory requirement will have limitations, but they do begin to dominate your thinking. Instead of asking, “Is that an old bull that’s had his day?” you ask instead, “Is he legal?” When the answer is “Gee, I just don’t know. He’s sure close,” hunting for trophy moose becomes a whole new ball game.

On the edge of the rut, as we were, about the only way to hunt them is to ride high onto a mountainside, settle in, and wait quietly, hoping to spot a bull when he comes out into the open from the lower-slope timber.

The alternative is to depend on pure dumb luck, such as riding around a bend in the river and running into an old bull that’s lost his way. I’ve had it both ways, and the former is vastly more dependable. So Colton and I found ourselves high on a windy slope, huddled in the snow, watching. Around noon, we spotted a lone cow, 400 or 500 yards below, browsing quietly in a patch of brush.

Another way to hunt is by calling, which sometimes works very well and other times not at all. Every moose caller has his preferences. Some use a commercial plastic call like a megaphone, others use the old-fashioned birch bark; still others simply cup their hands and grunt, mew, whistle, and moan. Some set up a continuous racket while others like to call once or twice, then withdraw into coy silence.

Colton cooed, and the cow’s head swung around. We froze until she returned to browsing. I’d set up a tripod and spotting scope with a camera, in the hopes that I might get a good picture if a bull came along; meanwhile, we glassed, measured distances for our own edification, discussed the practical killing range of a .358 Norma, and otherwise whiled away the hours.

The courting couple, in the privacy of an alder thicket. He was trying to get her attention, she was trying to judge if Colton was a better prospect, and Colton and I were debating whether he was 50 inches wide. Everyone, more or less, decided no.

The courting couple, in the privacy of an alder thicket. He was trying to get her attention, she was trying to judge if Colton was a better prospect, and Colton and I were debating whether he was 50 inches wide. Everyone, more or less, decided no.

Early in the afternoon, a half mile away across the ravine, we spotted the antlers of a bull moose rattling the shrubbery as he made his way out into a clearing. Against the snow, he was black as coal, long-legged, with the weight lifter shoulders that make moose so impressive. He began pawing a bed, circling, arching his back and urinating into it, circling and urinating some more, and finally lying down.

Having completed the romantic preliminaries of a moose in the rut, our bull settled in to await results.

“Too bad that doesn’t work with girls,” I whispered.

“You’ve never been in a Wyoming cowboy bar.” Colton was studying the antlers, mentally calculating.

“Think he’s big enough?”

“I don’t know. He’s sure close to fifty.”

The bull was about 600 yards away. Every so often he would get up, circle, roll, and revel in his bed some more, to make sure he was fully redolent of eau de moose, then lie down again. Our cow was still in the bushes below, unaware of the swain who was in the market for a mate, a few hundred yards away. At least, if she was aware of him, she gave no sign of it.

The bull had a beautiful rack—one of the most interesting moose I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t terribly wide, and that was the problem, but he had long tines all the way around on the main palms, as well as elaborate brow tines. He’d put his antler-growing efforts into tines that went up, rather than palms that went out. Smart boy.

“You get some pictures,” Colton murmured. “I’m going to try calling. Maybe there’s a bigger bull around.”

As I trained the camera, Colton commenced making moose noises. At the sound, the bull rose to his feet, the cow came alert and muttered, and the bull started toward her. Clicking furiously, I tried for every angle as he approached. Then he and the cow ambled off together down into a draw and out of sight.

“Get some?”

“I think so.”

“We’ll see what they think in camp. He may be fifty, but he’s just too close to risk it.”

“Great antlers.”

“Yeah. I don’t think he’ll go far. And I don’t think there’s anything bigger.”

Colton’s thinking was that if there had been a bigger bull in the neighborhood, our boy wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with his performance. Ergo, anything else around here would be smaller. Also, our boy would still be here tomorrow.

We mounted up and headed down. Near the river we dismounted again, set up on a knoll overlooking a big beaver pond, and waited for moose until sunset. I glassed the woods while Colton studied the mountain up behind us.

“Look there!” he whispered. “A grizzly!”

On a high slope, a large, chocolate-blond grizzly was ambling through the bushes. He was a half mile distant, and in between lay a thickly wooded ravine that was, according to Colton, impassable.

“We’d never get up there in time. He’s moving too fast, and sunset’s too close.”

We sat and watched as he meandered, pausing every so often to savage a berry bush. Winter was close, and he was fattening up.

Finally, with the wind rising and the temperature dropping, we got our horses and headed down to the river, and the long ride to camp.

Among the other guides, the consensus was that our bull probably measured between 49 and 51 inches, with most opting for 49½. We magnified the images and got nowhere. While I might have been willing to take the chance—and I wasn’t, much as I admired the antlers—Colton most assuredly was not.

That first day, aside from our bull, cow, and grizzly, we’d seen two smaller bulls off in the distance and several other cows. All indications were that our bull was the dominant one on that particular mountainside. If so, it was pointless going back. While the bull might stay in that area, the grizzly probably would not.

My other problem, which flared during the ride up and became excruciating during the ride down, was a lower back strain from an overly enthusiastic training program. Every time Berry broke into a trot, it felt like someone applying a cattle prod to the base of my spine. Once, when he bunched up and jumped a creek instead of picking his way across, I thought I was going into orbit.

It was at that point, after a very promising beginning, that the whole expedition became an object lesson in how not to plan a hunting trip. The back problem got progressively worse, eventually dictating what we did each day. But that was really the least of it.

First, a nine-day hunt became six days through a combination of carelessness and Alaska’s regulations regarding hunting and flying. You cannot hunt the same day you fly, in or out. We were right at the end of the season. One of our number, who was responsible for booking the charter from Fairbanks into the camp, left it until the last minute, by which time the charter company was booked solid. We had to go in a day later than we intended and come out two days earlier.

Both moose and grizzly are crapshoot animals. A lot of luck is involved, and their size makes them logistical headaches. Nine days was little enough time; six days was hopeless.

I was included in the trip at the last minute, and sorted out arrangements with the outfitter by phone as he was hauling his horses up the Alaska Highway. Because the other guys were primarily hunting moose and I was mainly interested in a grizzly, he said he’d guide me himself because his guides “weren’t really bear hunters.”

When we arrived, however, that was all forgotten. The outfitter left camp with two other clients, while I was assigned to Colton, a Wyoming cowboy in his early 20s for whom guiding in Alaska was “my day job.” This isn’t to say that Colton wasn’t a good guide, because he did his best, but he wanted to be on horseback more than my back injury would allow.

From that camp, there were several trails up several mountains, but the rule was “one mountain, one client,” and the others were taken. Since we didn’t think there was a big bull on my mountain, on the second day we elected to stay down on the river and glass from afar. Comfortably ensconced on the bank with my crystal-clear Zeiss spotting scope was a lot less painful than the saddle, and we didn’t do too badly.

We saw our bull from the day before, wandering the lower slopes in search of love. Alas, he hadn’t grown another inch overnight. And we saw a sow grizzly with a yearling cub. They were off-limits, of course, and from her relaxed posture, we were pretty sure the big male wasn’t in the vicinity. So Colton and I sprawled in the moss, glassed, and discussed everything from literature to personal heroism while the Nenana gurgled by.

It occurred to me that if I didn’t want to ride, I could try the trick whereby Jack O’Connor got his first moose, in Alberta, in the 1940s. Fed up with sitting on mountainsides, he took a day and still-hunted a creek bed, creeping along, just him and his .270. He spooked a bull, and down it went. I suggested something similar for day three, and we set off on foot to circle a big chain of beaver ponds that flanked the river several miles up from camp.

At least we got some exercise. Then our outfitter departed for a spike camp, with the advice that we try an area downriver. That was worse, from my back’s point of view, but Colton did spot a bull high above us in the timber. We made it up the trail—longer and steeper even than the first one—and put ourselves right above a nice, young, juicy, sweet-tempered bull whose antlers were 45 inches at best, and not particularly attractive at that.

Being up there, we skirted the snow line for a few miles, dogged by a dozen caribou that kept coming over for a look. Finally, with the combined pain-killing pharmacy of the camp beating a retreat before what turned out to be a pinched nerve, we headed back down. The highlight of the ride was Colton’s encounter with the quicksand.

And that, folks, was pretty much that.

That night, an Arizona client rode back into camp with a moose that ran 65 inches, taken at the top of what was reputed to be the worst trail, leading to the best moose country. There was at least one other bull up there just like him, he said, but the ride’s a killer. We were contemplating a spike camp, which at least would cut the riding to a minimum, when the outfitter returned. His two clients had collected one big bull between them—64-and-a-bit—that was just shaded by the guy from Arizona.

With that, the season in Alaska drew to a close. They were already breaking down the camp when our plane took off for Fairbanks.

My first-day, almost-50-inch bull was the best moose I saw, and was a prettier trophy than any of the four 60-plus-inch fully legal heads we had in camp. So I wasn’t sorry. If that sounds like the fable of the fox and the grapes, well, we landed safely in Fairbanks. Look on the bright side. 

Another year, another adventure. An eight-day drive to Alaska, six days of hunting, a nine-day drive back with a large, suicidal dog on the Alaska Highway and an abscessed tooth getting progressively worse from Whitehorse, in the Yukon, to Fort Collins, Colorado. Hunting is supposed to be memorable. This was memorable.

> If You Go

The Alaska Range has some of the best game animals and most spectacular scenery in North America, if not the world. It’s worth the trip even if you don’t pull the trigger.

As our story shows, though, there are pitfalls. First, every arrangement with an outfitter should be hammered out in a written contract before you part with a penny. The days of honorable outfitters, who seal deals with a handshake and keep their word, are a thing of the past.

The reason we haven’t named the outfitter is that the business was for sale, and apparently changed hands in the off-season.

The second pitfall involves charter flights, trusting others, and doing it yourself. When someone says “Don’t worry, I’ll look after it,” check the dates and confirm the arrangements, especially if the person making the promise is distracted by tweeting and Facebook 23 hours a day.

In big game hunting, there are last-minute bargains to be had when someone else cancels, but, as I found out, that doesn’t mean you should relax your vigilance. Quite the opposite.

Finally, a sunny note: Dealing with the Alaska game department on matters of tags and licensing was a high point. One of our number (he who booked the charter, in fact) left his licenses at home and we had to visit the game department in Fairbanks to get them replaced. The people there were so nice, it almost makes me forget the rest of the trip. Almost.