Fifty-Inch Minimum

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, chocolateblond 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 stillhunted 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 painkilling 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.