This past weekend, I went moose hunting.
I’m lucky to have made friends with Tonya and Rich. They’ve been instrumental in more than one of my authentic Alaska experiences: commercial fishing in Ekuk and now moose hunting on the Snake River.
After hearing all the locals getting excited about the beginning of moose hunting season on August 20th, I expressed my interest in moose hunting to Tonya. She told me that Rich was going moose hunting the first weekend of hunting season. I got invited along with her, the girls and Rich down to their cabin on Snake River, which comes off Snake Lake.
I’d been to Snake Lake before in the winter on a snowmachine, but I had never been all the way out to the lake in the summer. Let me tell you, it’s a pretty big difference from the frozen, snow-covered lake that I’d seen before.
In preparation for my hunting trip, I packed a backpack full of old clothes and made sure I had soft-point bullet for my Mosin rifle. Then I went down to the N&N Market and bought my resident hunting license for $25. (Hooray for being here a year and finally being a real “resident”!)
Now there are actually two moose hunting seasons in the fall in Dillingham. One is a regular harvest hunt, which requires you to take a bull with at least 50 inch antlers. The other is a Dillingham-resident-only hunt that starts earlier that allows you to take any bull moose. To participate in this hunt, you have to get a permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Under the permit hunt, you have to report back whether you kill a moose or not so they know how many animals were harvested and how many people hunted. I picked up my permit for free at the ADF&G building.
While I was preparing to hunt, everyone I talked to seemed to think that it was a foregone conclusion that I’d get a moose, since I was hunting with Rich. Apparently he’s got a good reputation for getting his moose. I already knew from talking to Rich that he is a self-described lazy hunter. Moose often weigh hundreds and hundreds of pounds. Shooting one deep into the bush is a nightmare once you realize that it all has to be cut and carried out of the woods. Most locals try to shoot one as close to their boat as possible so that the packing is minimized. Rich doesn’t want to shoot a moose any farther than a few hundred yards from the river. That sounded perfect to me.
You may be wondering why I bothered to get a permit for a moose. After all, Samara and I don’t have a big deep freezer and we couldn’t possibly eat an entire moose. Well, to be honest, I didn’t expect to harvest a moose for myself. Rich was planning to get one for his family, but he’s done enough hunting in his life that he didn’t care if I did the shooting. I got a permit just in case I got to be the one that dropped the hammer on the moose.
On Friday, Tonya and I cut out of work early and did some quick shopping before meeting Rich at the landing at the end of Snake Lake Road. We had just enough time to stop on our way over the mountain so that I could sight in my rifle. At 25 and 50 yards, three quick aimed shots resulted in groups small enough to put a bullet solidly in a moose’s vitals, so I was good to go.
We got to the landing and met Rich and the girls in the skiff. It’s a small aluminum skiff with a outboard jet motor. It steps across the lake pretty well, even when there’s a bit of whitecaps. Where it really shines, though, is when we get into the river, which is pretty shallow. Without a jet, you can’t run the Snake River without running the risk of tearing up your outboard’s prop.
Rich and Tonya own acres of land out along the Snake River. They’ve built a cabin right on a small bluff overlooking the river.
They laugh about how rudimentary it is, but it is actually pretty comfortable. It has a main floor and loft, with a wood stove for heating. There is a nice gas grill outside for cooking, as well as being able to cook over the fire. There an outhouse (with an actual toilet seat) and plenty of chairs to lounge around in. When you’re relaxing in the wilderness, what more can you ask for?
Of course, Rich has his big boy toys out there. Not satisfied with just a 4-wheeler, he actually has a D3 bulldozer for blazing trails. Besides the skiff, he’s also got a canoe for paddling the river.
After we got our stuff unpacked and dinner started, we went back up the river a little ways so that the girls could do some fishing. This river has lots of red salmon this time of year, which don’t tend to bite much, and tons of world-class rainbow trout, which definitely will bite when you use salmon eggs as bait. I actually managed to catch a few fish myself on this trip (which we threw back, of course). I caught some rainbow trout, which put up a good fight. I also got a red salmon on the line, who seemed to just want to give up once I hooked him. One of the girls hooked a silver salmon, which made Tonya pretty jealous. She’s always wanted to get a silver salmon on a fishing line, as opposed to the way she normally catches them in a big commercial net. This 6 to 7 pound silver wasn’t going without a fight through, and finally broke the line before Rich could get it in the boat.
After a dinner of pork loin and potatoes, we got to bed. I slept in my sleeping bag on an army cot next to the wood stove. It was pretty cozy. The dogs, two big labs, slept downstairs with me.
Rich set the alarm for early Saturday morning and we got up before the sun even rose. We got our gear together and took the canoe down to the river. I was hunting with my Russian surplus Mosin Nagant, but Rich hunts with an old 7mm mag Savage bolt action. His rifle looks rough. The bluing is practically gone from the barrel and there’s an old sock wrapped around the stock that he uses to cover the scope. To get it ready for hunting season, he douses the thing in Marvel Mystery Oil and lets it drain off.
He’s had a lot of people laugh at that rifle, but he can make some amazing shots with it. He says the first two shots are always extremely accurate, and after that, the pencil-thin barrel starts to heat up and the shots wander all over. He told me that he once won a few bet with a customer that he was helping his brother commercial guide by hitting a wounded brown bear just behind the ear from over 500 yards away with his ratty old rifle. Still, I thought it was pretty funny that my half-century old surplus rifle looked like the prom queen leaning next to his old Savage.
Saturday was a rainy morning.
We paddled down the river, watching for moose in the trees and over the tundra. The rain seemed to be keeping them all bedded down, though. Rich saw a cow in the trees at one point, and we found the spot a little farther down river where she’d crossed and left tracks.
I got a great picture of Rich with one of his classic expressions on his face. He looks like I just asked him how many legs a moose has.
A little past the nest, we turned off into a slough that went back up and let out near the cabin. It was a long and winding waterway, and there was plenty of chance to watch for moose as we paddled along in the spitting rain.
After a while, we hit a beaver dam, and had to portage the canoe across. We took that chance to look around a bit, and saw some bear tracks, as well as a bunch of moose tracks. Rich figured they weren’t very old, and indicated a cow, calf and a bull. That’s when he decided they must all be bedded down because of the rain. There was a beaver swimming around the pond behind his dam, and when he saw us, he slapped his tail on the water and dove.
Rich and Tonya sure do eat well when they’re in Ekuk or out at the cabin. We had bacon, eggs, toast and southern-style hash browns. After a nap, we decided to take a little fishing trip. We packed up the twins and Tonya, then headed up to the lake to another fishing spot.
We found a better fishing spot and threw a few lines in the water. The girls really enjoy fishing, especially when it’s so productive. They catch plenty of nice rainbow trout on the Snake River. It’s always really easy to spot the red salmon as well.
When he got back, he said he’d seen a bull off the tundra, but when he tried to stalk closer, a swan took off and blew his cover. The bull disappeared into the woods. Since we weren’t likely to get a moose that night, we did a bit more fishing and headed back.
That second night, I was plenty tired and slept well! Sunday morning, we got up early again and Rich and I took the other twin, Shari, with us on the moose hunt this time.
We floated down to the spot where Rich had seen some moose before and got out to look around. Rich found a shed antler, so he scraped and banged it on a tree for a while. That got one bull curious enough to peek his head out of the woods, but he was still way too far to shoot. We waited for a while along the shore for moose to show themselves, but didn’t have any luck. There was one seriously pissed-off beaver hanging around our skiff, slapping his tail in the water, so we headed back up the river and did a bit more fishing. Then it was back to camp for breakfast.
That afternoon, we got all packed up and headed back across the river to home. It might not have been a productive hunting trip, but it was a pretty good fishing trip, and the views of the mountains and Alaska wilderness were amazing. I really enjoyed getting a chance to get out into the bush and away from the hustle and bustle of Dillingham, such that it is.