MOOSE HUNTING AND MURPHY'S LAW
By Sam Wood
I really love reading Alaska hunting adventures in magazines. The hunts sound like tales from Camelot--everything according to plan (except maybe the weather), lots of time to choose among the trophies that walk through camp, and good friends and fellowship around the campfire at night.
I read those stories hoping to find the secret of how they do it. I've never had an Alaska hunting trip that went even remotely according to plan. (That's not to say my plans are realistic. I always plan to arrive at the hunting area, pitch camp, spend the night sharing old stories with a partner, and the next morning spot, stalk and shoot that winter's food supply.) Every hunting trip I've been on has been a major undertaking where something unexpected always happens. And by unexpected, I don't mean the trophy bull walked into camp. I'm talking about the wind storm that blows the tent down, getting stabbed by the partner eager to help with skinning, or getting lost at midnight and being unable to find camp.
For most people--the ones Shakespeare has speak in prose rather than poetry--an Alaska hunting adventure is a test of endurance and patience which occasionally ends in success. The hunt is conducted within a narrow set of parameters governed by the laws of the tundra and Murphy's law, "what ever can go wrong, will."
In an effort to help others achieve hunts of Arthurian quality, I would like to relate what happened to my hunting partner, Darrel, and me a few years ago. The good news is laws of the tundra can sometimes offset Murphy's Law. The bad news is Murphy always has another law.
In preparation for the September hunt, Darrel and I regularly flew over the Tanana flats south of Fairbanks during July and August looking for moose. One area to the west of Blair Lakes always seemed to have moose, either eating lily pads in a small lake or browsing through the new growth in an area which had suffered a forest fire a few years earlier. Our intense study of the areas where we found moose led to our first revelation.
THE TUNDRA LAW OF EDIBLE DYNAMICS: Moose gravitate toward the best food supply.
This may seem obvious, but to us it was a stroke of genius. It added cause and effect to our earlier and more primitive observation that "moose are where you find them."
As September approached we gathered our gear and made final plans. I had bought a new Weatherby .340 magnum and was eager to try it out. The weekend before we left, I mounted the scope and sighted in the big bore rifle. What a kick it had! It made my 30.06 feel like a pop gun.
The nearest usable air strip which my Cessna 170 could handle was a nearly level piece of dirt between the two Blair Lakes. Landing there meant we would have to hike a few miles west over a couple of ridges to get to where we would make camp.
A few days before we were to leave Darrel had the brilliant idea of dropping our sleeping bags, tent and other unbreakable items in the vicinity of our intended campsite. We would then have an easy hike with light packs. I was skeptical, but didn't relish carrying a heavy pack any more than Darrel did. What the heck. Let's give it a try.
MURPHYS FIRST LAW OF AIR DROPS: The clearing you see from the air, isn't.
The hill was shaped like a squatty salamander, a single curved spine from which smaller ridges extended. I lined up on one ridge and flew toward the crest. Darrel, riding as loadmaster in the right front seat, slid his seat full aft, and pulled the first bag from the back seat to his lap. The cockpit suddenly seemed crowded, and Darrel struggled mightily to keep a bag the size of a small hippo off the flight controls. Taking his cue from my screams he realized quickly that the forward pressure on the yoke created a less than desirable flight condition.
Until then, I had not realized that my plane's seat backs, like car seats, were adjustable. Darrel lowered his seat to its full reclined position, thereby clearing the bag from the flight controls. He then pushed the door open with his right foot and waited for my command to drop. I was a little busy re-establishing our approach and calculating the ballistics of the air drop right then to appreciate his little discovery about the seat.
MURPHY'S SECOND LAW OF AIR DROPS: The distance between target and impact point increases exponentially with the importance of accuracy.
"Ready, now!" I yelled over the wind and engine noise. Grunting with effort, Darrel pushed the door further into the wind stream. Within a mere five seconds the bag was out the door and falling to earth. I rolled to the right and fed in left rudder. We watched the bag hit, roll and come to a stop only two football fields beyond the "clearing."
"You released a little late," I observed.
"Memorize where it landed so we can find it," Darrel said, undisturbed by my caustic comment.
"Right down the ridge from the clearing," I said, and pulled the plane around for the second pass. Learning from our experience, we dropped the second bag short, and got the third one on the money.
"Remember where they are?" Darrel asked. "I was too busy to watch exactly where they fell."
"Sure," I answered. Darrel looked at me and cocked an eyebrow.
"No problem," I said.
We landed without incident, tied the airplane down, unloaded our packs, estimated the cost of welding the seat back to its former position, and hiked toward the happy hunting grounds. As we expected, the light packs made the hike into a pleasant afternoon walk. We followed the lake until the trail turned toward the first ridge.
I was accustomed to the friendly click my pack made with each step. I always assumed it was a loose clip that made the sound and never really noticed it. After an hour of walking, I noticed an added clicking sound. Thinking it strange, I looked down at my rifle. At first I concluded the rifle was touching my pack frame on each step. Holding my new rifle away from the pack would fix it. That would also save the shiny finish from getting marred. The click continued.
Well, this has to stop, I thought, and called for a brief halt to investigate the problem. Taking the rifle off my shoulder, I noticed the windage knobs had worked loose from the scope mount and the scope was swinging freely from its forward ring.
MURPHY'S LAW OF SCOPE MOUNTING: He who doesn't secure the mounting bolts with fingernail polish has a screw loose.
Darrel was kind enough to point this out to me. Not wanting to expend too much ammunition, I settled on bore sighting the rifle and shooting twice at a nearby stump.
"Are you sure you don't want to sight it in at a hundred yards?" Darrel asked.
Thoroughly disgusted with myself, I answered, "no, this is good enough."
DAD'S LAW OF SHOOTING: The only bullet that will hit a target is one which has hit a target.
COY'S LAW OF AMMUNITION: Always carry twenty extra rounds--you never know when you'll have to re-sight your rifle.
Unfortunately, I never listened to my Dad and didn't meet Coy until the following year.
We arrived in the drop zone two hours before sunset. Two hours later we were still searching through the bushes for our bags.
"Are you sure we dropped our bags along this ridge line?" Darrel asked in the waning light.
MURPHY'S LAW OF PLANETARY CONVERSION: The view from the heavens bears no resemblance to real life on Earth.
"Pretty sure," I answered. Where else could they be? I flew right along the ridge...they ought to be right around here somewhere.
MURPHY'S LAW OF PLANNED PERCEPTION: The bright international orange streamer used to mark an air-dropped bag will invariably be hidden beneath the bag when it comes to rest.
Of course, had the bags been any color other than olive drab, they might have been easier to find. It was looking very much like a plastic poncho and a handful of lemon drops were going to have to last until morning.
"I'm going to check this other ridge anyway," Darrel said.
"You're just wasting your time. They have to be around here," I answered. I watched him walk away, silhouetted against the pink horizon. It would be totally dark in minutes. I returned to the search.
"Over here!" Darrel called. "I found one."
I rushed over to where he was standing. Sure enough, he had found our first bag. It was hidden under a bush, on the wrong ridge, completely out of place. There was no way it could be here, unless... I ran to the top of the hill and looked over the valley. It was the same view I had when I was pulling away after the first air drop. Of course! Darrel was on the right ridge after all. He had found the one we dropped short of the target. Within five minutes we found the other two bags.
So much for Murphy's Law. We had defeated him through sheer persistence. The dinner of freeze-dried something, a tiny two-man tent and a warm sleeping bag were as good as being at home.
I dreamed I was at home in bed and the alarm clock was ringing. Then I woke up and realized the alarm clock was not a dream. Darrel had actually brought one. On a hunting trip! I checked my watch. It was four a.m.
"You have got to be kidding," I groaned.
"We have to eat breakfast before dawn," Darrel explained. "I want to be scoping the valley as soon as it gets light.
The warm sleeping bag felt so good compared to the cold outside air. But Darrel would not be dissuaded. I knew from experience it would be useless to try. He was like a kid on Christmas.
"You heat the water," I said. "I'll be out in a minute."
It was below freezing outside, and dark as the inside of a moose. We ate our oatmeal and waited for the gray light of dawn to come to the valley.
Dawn came late. It was delayed by low clouds and snow. That didn't bother Darrel a bit. He had his spotting scope set up and binoculars ready for the first hint of light.
Our valley was really a shallow bowl surrounded on three sides by low hills. Even though we had scouted the area and expected to see moose, what we saw came as a surprise. It must have been opening day at the annual bull moose convention. We counted eleven bulls within the first few minutes of measurable twilight. There were two just down the hill from us, not more than a half mile away. They weren't trophies, but they were respectable, and represented enough meat to feed a family of four through the upcoming Alaska winter.
"Darrel, let's go get those two," I said.
"Wait a minute, there has to be a big one out there."
Oh, how I hated those words. We had been through this before. Even if we took the two close ones, we would still have to pack the meat three miles back to the plane. Darrel was looking out across the valley, and without seeing his eyes, I knew they were glazed with anticipation. He wanted the sixty-plus incher. He wanted to see some antlers so big he could roll his sleeping bag out between the palms. It was an incurable illness only the strongest of hunters can resist.
I knew better than to argue. I could only hope the grand-daddy of all moose wasn't out there.
"Holy cow, look at that one!" Darrel exclaimed.
My heart sank. Across the valley, at the farthest corner, just having emerged from a thicket, was the king of moose followed by an entourage of princes.
We grabbed our rifles and packs and bounded down the hill.
THE TUNDRA LAW OF CONSERVATION OF ENERGY: Proceeding from point A to point B in a straight line in Alaska is not only impossible, it is the least desirable route.
The innocuous looking second growth of birch trees concealed a maze of deadfall timber. With the wet snow, each log was as slippery as salmon slime on a rubber glove. We had to make so many switch backs that after an hour we were completely disoriented. The hills around us were hidden in the low clouds so we couldn't get our bearings. I climbed the only tall tree in sight and, surprisingly, found we were less than a hundred yards from where we wanted to be. We carefully made our way to the edge of the birch growth.
Ahead was what remained of a copse of spruce trees. The forest fire had left only their blackened standing boughs. The ground was still dark with the ash. We still hunched over and sneaked from tree to tree. On the opposite side of the narrow burn area was green, delectable foliage, with four moose browsing through the breakfast bar.
The moose were completely engrossed in their repast. We studied them carefully, and looked up and down the long clearing. King Moose was nowhere to be seen. We discussed what to do. Should we look for the big one and let these four get away? Which way would we go? These aren't too small. Two of them are over 36 inches. If we go walking around we'll probably scare everything away. But the big guy can't be far.
HOMER'S AXIOM: You can't eat antlers.
Crawling on our stomachs over the wet ground, we reached a fallen log about two hundred yards from the group of four. Since I had had the first pick the previous year, Darrel chose first this year. I took the second largest bull. We got ready to fire and waited until we both had broadside shots.
"I'm ready," Darrel whispered.
"I'm not," I said. My bull was facing straight away--a Texas heart shot. A moment later, mine turned.
"I'm ready," I said.
"I'm not," Darrel replied. His moose had turned away.
These moose had choreographed a dance. We went through this drill three more times before we both had clear shots.
"On three," Darrel said. "One, two, three." Boom! Boom!
Darrel's moose wobbled drunkenly, wandered a few feet into the brush and dropped. Mine stood there. I ejected the spent shell and chambered another round. Boom! Somehow, through the haze of my adrenaline soaked brain I realized my rifle was not shooting straight.
Boom! Boom! The moose still stood there. At least he had stopped eating. Maybe he realized I could be a threat. I loaded three more rounds.
"Could you see where my shots were going?" I asked
"I'll shoot to the left." Boom! Nothing.
"Now to the right." Boom. Another miss.
"Over his back." Boom! I was determined to use my new Weatherby. Reload again.
"At his feet." Boom! The moose seemed to understand he was safest where he was. The other two smaller bulls must have disagreed. They ran off.
"Want to use my rifle?" Darrel offered.
"No!" My next two shots went somewhere, but the bull still stood perfectly still, not daring to move.
"Here, use mine," Darrel urged.
I took his rifle and a deep breath. I was shaking like a leaf. This was terrible.
"Calm down. Take your time."
I closed my eyes for a second, took another breath and willed myself to be calm. Boom!
In the scope I saw a spray of mist splash off his shoulder. The smack of the bullet hitting his side came back a split second later. The bull seemed to collapse in slow motion, hind legs relaxing and his body settling as if he was lying down to sleep.
Looking back, I should have borrowed Darrel's rifle after the first shot, but that was then and this is now.
The hunt phase was over, and the work began. There were to be four days of packing 85 to 115 pound packs back to the plane before we would get home. We got it all home, and lost nothing to spoilage or bears. We attribute that to how we cared for the meat in the field.
We didn't gut the moose, but skinned them, removed the quarters, neck meat, back strap, rib, brisket and flank meat. We only opened the abdominal cavity with a slit behind the ribs next to the spine to reach the tenderloin. By butchering this way were able to do the job without wading through a couple hundred pounds of stomach and intestines, and not pollute the countryside with the bear-attracting odor of moose guts. I believe this is why we didn't see a bear all week. The following week two friends hunted nearby. After gutting their moose the traditional way, they returned for a load of meat the next day and found it buried under a pile of tundra.
After butchering, our first priority was to keep the meat clean and cool. The nights were freezing, but day time temperatures reached into the sixties. Pillow cases made a great game bags. They kept the dirt, leaves and flies off the meat, while still letting it breathe, drain and cool. With no shade trees, we had to get the meat out of the sun. We built tepees over our meat piles using dead pine boughs for the structure and the moose hides for the cover. It worked beautifully. The only loss we had was to an anonymous (starving, I presume) hunter who liberated a steak from one of my hind quarters.
That missing piece of meat, although I did not begrudge the man a meal, really made me realize the value of moose meat. All winter long, with each tasty bite I relived the sweet memories of sweat, insects, pains, aches, and the lessons Mr. Murphy and the Alaska tundra taught me about moose hunting...and I knew the meat was priceless.
--Reproduced with permission from author and publisher