7 Jun

High Country Swamp Donkeys

We had just finished receiving a royal beating from Mother Nature in sheep country and already I was packing for my next adventure- a mountain moose hunt with Zack Knaebel of Tok Air Service. Zack had invited us for a backpacking expedition into the high country and told us upfront: this hunt is not for the faint of heart. There are different types of do-it-yourself hunts, of course, and this one would land on the more difficult end of the spectrum. "But if you think you're tough enough, you should give it a try," Zack said.

It did not take long to accept the challenge and book the hunt with him. We packed, unpacked and packed again, trying to meet the 50-pound weight maximum for our Super Cub flight out. For a 10-day hunt, it is harder than a guy thinks to meet the 50-pound mark. I have done enough sheep hunting to know every ounce counts, and it all adds up faster than we would like, However, going later in the year, we knew we would need warmer gear, which means more weight. The snow had hit hard and early this year, leaving many hunters stranded for days in the mountains. We needed to be prepared.

My hunting partner was Dean Larson, an old whitetail-hunting friend who wanted to try a new Alaska adventure, tackling his first moose and hopefully losing 15 pounds in the process. I told him we could make that all happen in one week in Alaska.

In the end, it was much easier for me to meet the 50-pound threshold with my Kuiu gear and pack, but it took the Wisconsin boy a little longer. The hardest decision for him was how many beers he could or could not bring, but he ended up having to choose Mountain House instead.

Soon, all the pre-trip preparations completed, we were airborne and on our way to moose camp. After a fantastic flight, during which we saw a few moose and caribou, we neared our intended landing zone. It was a tight strip, and only the best pilots could manage to get planes in there. Zack did a great job. We were headed to places up-high, areas the hunters using ATVs could not access.

Once on the ground we grabbed our packs and began to ascend the mountain, looking to find a place to set camp and call it a day. With a nice vantage point picked out, we began calling and glassing for moose until dark. We woke to sunshine and frost on the tents. Our water bottles were frozen and the moose were up and moving. We were treated to a few bulls sparring for a while across the ravine. They were too far away to go after, but it was a great sight to see. We began calling and racking the brush with a nice shed antler we found. As we watched the sunrise, I saw antlers flashing like gold pans in the willows off in the distance. The bull was pretty wide and had great palms. It didn't take long for Dean and me to decide to attempt a stalk.

The big bull was moving away from us, so we had to move fast. As the stalk continued, he laid down in a large alder patch. All we could see were the antlers and his large ears. The steam from his warm breath drifted in the wind like fog rolling across the ocean shore. Dean was getting excited; we were in range and only needed the bull to stand up. After a long wait and a few soft bull grunts, the large swamp donkey stood up and began coming toward us. Dean was ready, and after a few shots, the bull was down in the thick brush. Success!

On opening day we had a moose down. Dean could not get over the size of the animal as we approached. It was a great bull, particularly as a first moose. The hunt had seemed too easy, I felt I needed to explain to him that it's not always so simple in Alaska, usually taking a lot more time than just a few hours of opening morning. But as usual, it's better to be lucky than good.

After we took a few pictures and realized just how far we had traveled during our stalk, we began to see what Zack was telling us. It does not take long to cover ground when you are in pursuit of a giant bull, but it takes a lot longer to bring the bull back to the strip. Hunting moose in the mountains on a backpack hunt separates the men from the boys. Well over a mile from the strip, we began filling game bags with delicious moose meat. It took us awhile to get the bull deboned, cleaned up and ready for the pack out, but once we finished the real work was about to begin. As we filled our packs with the first load of meat, I spotted another bull bedded down across the valley. It looked like a decent bull, but we already had our hands full packing meat. Still, I would keep an eye on him as we packed meat to the airstrip.

As evening approached, I took another load of meat back to the strip and decided that although I was tired, I wanted to go check on that other bull. After hiking up the drainage and doing some calling, I found another nice shed and started racking the brush while grunting. Dean headed back to camp, as he was worn out and his feet were ready to fall off. We still had over half a moose to continue packing in the morning. As my legs continued to burn, I decided to get back up the mountain to camp before it got dark. About that time I heard a loud grunt and instantly I was energized. I was focused and forgot all about the packing we did that day. The bull was coming fast, and I had to act quickly to get out of the brush and into position to get a shot at him.

In the back of my head, I heard a voice of reason telling me not to shoot another bull with one on the ground that still needed to be packed out, but it's not every day you get a chance at a nice bull. A few more cow calls and he was trashing everything in his way, coming and coming. The bull stopped and made a wallow; he rolled around like a pig in mud. It was exciting to watch. Finally, he came down through the brush grunting and racking his horns.

The bull started to move downwind, so I knew I had little time to let the Blaser .300 Win Mag bark. The bull took a few 180-grain bullets and died in the only mud hole on the entire mountain!

I worked my way up to the bull and found him in a hole covered in water and mud. I knew I had my work cut out for me, and I worked into the night to get the moose skinned out so he could cool for the night. It was a long walk back up the mountain to camp in the dark through the dense alders. When I finally arrived, Dean had written me off as a bear kill. With a hot Mountain House meal and a new pair of socks, I began to feel better, and after a very short night of sleep, we were up and ready to being our death marches. It took some time, but we got both bulls cut up and into game bags, air-drying nicely. It worked out great that we could see both kills from the top of the mountain, as we could easily keep an eye on the meat. With a lot of hard work, we continued to pack up and down the mountain. As Dean was taking a break to throw up his only Snickers of the day, he looked up and yelled to me as I was dropping off a load of meat. There stood a good bull 100 yards from the airstrip. He looked at us as if he knew he was safe and casually walked up the mountainside. We just shook our heads and laughed.

After three days of packing 80-120 pound loads of meat to the strip, we just had our antlers to pack out. Fighting the alders and willows with a 60-inch moose rack can be harder than just taking a heavy load of meat back. However, there is something special about the successful hunt that makes you, as a hunter, not mind playing linebacker with alder branches and working up a sweat for five days straight. Once all the meat, antlers and gear were at the strip, we gave Zack a call and he said he would get us when he had a chance. It was good feeling, knowing all the work was almost done. We had two nice bulls ready for the freezers. Zack showed up early the next morning with his brand-new Super Cub and started shuttling meat for an entire day. He earned his money that day and even got his new plane a little dirty.

With a lot of hard work and dedication, anyone can accomplish a moose hunt in the high country. Pack good gear and make sure you have a dedicated partner and things will work out. For this type of hunt, I have really enjoyed my Kuiu gear, from the clothing to the sleeping bag. The Kuiu gear is very durable and lightweight and has really helped me meet the 50-pound limit.

Getting an opportunity to hunt areas that have not been hunted much in recent years can be rare even in Alaska. So take advantage of the land and knowledgeable pilots while you still can. Don't be scared to put in the extra work to get into these hard-to-reach areas; the payoff is very rewarding. We will definitely be back someday to chase mighty swamp donkeys in the high country of Alaska.