Chasing Solitude By: Mike Mitten
While waiting for the cloud ceiling to rise so I could get flown into a remote moose area of the Chugach Mountains, I killed time in the hanger by watching Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. There was a conversation between the two where the psychiatrist (Williams) asked the mathematics genius (Damon), “So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel… I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. ” You see, the only way to know these answers are to live and experience them.
That is how I feel about bowhunting. Even my words in this article can’t begin to stimulate all the senses of a solo moose hunt in Alaska’s wilderness.
While planning my fifth Alaskan solo hunt, I pondered, “Was I tempting fate?” But I found solace in knowing that even in solitude, I wouldn’t be alone. After all, I would bring with me, woodsmanship, “knowledge through experience,” and a relationship with God and friends. This was to be a tribute hunt to my friend Bart Schleyer who chased solitude in the wilderness from Wyoming to Montana, to Alaska, and to the Yukon, where he died on a solo bowhunt for moose - similar to the one I was embarking on. Bart was a naturalist and bowhunter who I wrote about in the article Solo Spirits and Cherished Friendships (TBM, Aug/Sep, Oct/Nov, 2007). My hunt was planned for 20 days, including Sept. 14, 2014; the ten year anniversary of Bart’s passing. He would surely be with me my every step.
Comforted by the Bible verse, Genesis 21:20 “And God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an expert archer,” I knew it was ok to go it alone and make the wilderness my home. The Scripture also inferred that the bow and arrow were not solely the tools of tournament or games, but the instruments for taking great beasts, and to nourish myself in the Chugach Mountains.
After unloading my 70 pounds of gear including food, I watched as the pilot throttled up the Super Cub, pointed its nose into the wind, and lifted off from the remote landing strip. The wide wings soon became a dot on the horizon, and disappeared behind high mountain peaks. I was technically alone, but it didn’t feel that way to me. The familiar sights, sounds and smell of this upper valley brought back memories of past hunts as I engaged in the task of setting up camp. While pounding in the tent-floor anchors with a fist-sized stone, I heard the familiar grunting of a bull moose. He was above me, and apparently responding to the crashing and thumping sound of the stone. I smiled; recalling previous trips where the similar rhythmic act of chopping wood called in bull-moose during the rut. Scanning the hill side, I saw the deep chocolate hide of the bull’s flank disappear into the alder brush, leaving me no confirmation of his antler size.
After camp was set, it was time to scope and glass the valley walls for signs of moose. While tethered to camp by game laws requiring no hunting on days being air born, the grunting bull from earlier in the day finally revealed himself to me above camp. He did not have four brow points, a pre-requisite for a legal bull in this game management unit, but his antlers exceeded the 50 inch width, which was an alternative requirement. I watched the legal bull disappear into an avalanche chute.
This base camp location allowed me the chance to explore the high elevation part of the valley early on, and hopefully catch moose still in the summer portion of their range. Visibility was exceptional, but the draw backs were as bold and formidable as the river snaking below. If bulls were bachelored-up high in the valley, I was golden, but as the rut begins, I knew that most of the moose would congregate down in the spruce swamps along the river, leaving me with an up-hill pack-job. A drop camp does not give the versatility that a float hunt provides, so I prepared for a tough adventure, knowing I may have to bring the hunt to them. From previous hunts I learned to vary my tactics between glassing in open country, and calling when visibility diminished. Calling bulls consisted of using my vocal cords to imitate bull grunts and long drawn out cow-in-heat calls. I like using fiberglass megaphone funnels over traditional birch bark calls, because I can really lay into the side of a tree or scrape heavy brush while imitating a bull’s thrashing antlers without worrying about destroying the call. Combining all this with the flashing of a scapula, old shed, or anything white and palm-like should aid in bringing a bull to me. However, I have learned many times that it doesn’t always work that way. Moose have great hearing and can pin-point the exact location of the caller, so their eyes must then confirm what their ears tell them. The flashing of white may be all that is needed for a rut crazed bull to come charging into bow-range, but when some do hang up, I have found I have to truly make them think I’m another bull. Movement is the key. Using my portable antler decoy mounted on my head may give me just that mobility to move into them. My first recourse is to call or decoy them to me, but when all else fails, I move in.
I got the idea from Bart, who mounted deer ear liners used in taxidermy to his hat, allowing him to approach Sitka deer on Kodiak Island. My friend Brian Smith printed the photo of my 2002 bull on corrugated plastic. The image of the rack spanned 47 inches, and the palms were removable for transport in my day pack. A decoy is of no use if you don’t have it when needed.
The fake antlers are attached to a head strap which allows drawing and shooting with the antlers on. I can also mount the antlers quickly to a bush or tree and back away, if the bull advances. The use of grunting and posturing while wearing the antlers, may grab the attention of a rut crazed bull enough to allow my approach. Again there may be hazards related to this tactic, should the bull charge. A moving decoy is key to a triggered response. If the response to do nothing allows me to move in among a harem of cows with a bull, that’s perfect.
In years past, I have laid awake after being blocked out from a great bull by his harem that physically won’t let him advance to my calling. It’s very frustrating and as emotionally draining as a missed shot. Many times I have seen large bulls chase small bulls away from their harem, but a midsized bull must be treated with respect. I’ve seen large bulls posture, thrash brush with their antlers, and present their broadside body mass to a respectable bull. I hope that respect will be granted to my 47-inch-wide decoy rack.
Wanting to catch bulls in their summer range, I hunted the high valley basins and tributaries first. Shortly after leaving camp in dawn’s gray light, I spotted three bulls with engaged racks sparing in the low dwarf birch about a mile up valley and on the opposite side of the river. Once they broke apart and started thrashing willow brush, they all appeared mature. I charged through the pucker brush along the terrace to get closer, not wanting to loose sight of them. Keeping the wind in my favor, I stopped at 800 yards to watch them separate. The largest bull headed uphill into a finger of spruce. I hurried down, but lost visibility in the alder brush that lines the river. Wading icy water, the river repeatedly tried to sweep me off my feet. Once on the bank, the formidable barrier of alders and pools of water slowed my progression as I frantically tried to regain eye contact with the bulls. Finally breaking through the alder’s grip, I eased out into the low dwarf birch patch, but the bulls were gone. Hearing rocks clunking against each other from the force of the river current, I realized one of the bulls was wading across the river. Shortly, I could see him moving up through the pucker-brush, so I quickly fought my way back to the river, and crossed. After gaining elevation and visibility on the bench of dwarf birch, I glassed for the bull. The roar of the river drowned out the sounds of my calling, so I climbed higher, but my attempts were futile and I lost him.
I moved up the side hill and glassed over miles of new territory that was being exposed on the opposite valley wall. At 1 PM I sat down on a ridge and ate jerky and protein bars, supplemented of course with blueberries that were at arms reach. Lying on my back while using my day-pack as a pillow, I closed my eyes to rest. My mind wandered while thinking about Bart and if he would have chose to go up after the first bull. I recalled Bart tell of making simple survival bows out of willow or alder limbs during his down-time during a hunt. The thoughts of grizzlies inhabiting this valley also conjured up memories of Bart, who was an expert at live-trapping bears for the Fish and Game Department… Abruptly, I sat upright to confirm a familiar sound. Yes! It was a bull grunting and raking in the next groove above me, and he was coming closer. I wasn't sure if he was just now searching out my previous calling, or if I was luckily in his line of travel. I grunted at him in hopes he would turn and avoid my trailing scent. It worked. Quickly, I cleared a shooting lane. The bull grunted as he stopped to thrash brush – it was his answer to my confronting grunts. Finally he topped my ridge and stood there looking for cow and young bull he heard. He had palmated brows with three high-reaching points per side and about nine points riming his palms. The mature bull was ready for action as drip after drip of nasal discharge fell from his nostrils. I smiled when I realized how my calling evoked his inner beast.
Excitement soon faded after concluding that with only three brow points and beam edges that turned quickly inward, I was not able to make a definitive conclusion on the 50 inch width legality of the bull. Lowering the bow, I trained my video camera on the bull. He approached 20 more yards and continued to grunt until my swirling scent reached him, and he quickly dropped into the ravine from which he came.
With the bull gone, I headed upward toward the right fork of the drainage to glass the hidden valleys at the foot of the glacier. There was a lot of aged and fresh moose sign in the area spiced with the occasional pile of grizzly dung. The late afternoon sun shone majestically down on the valley floor before me. There were no spruce trees this high, but the golden-brilliance of willow leaves was awesome. Lush fireweed and good grazing for moose was everywhere. Four cow moose with calves fed far below, while two black bears foraged the upper hillside for ground cover blueberries. Glassing the main drainage, I could see the tops of aspen trees that marked the location of my tent. It was time to hunt toward shelter.
Threatening hypothermia that loomed on the darkness of cold nights pushed me quickly downward. Suddenly, I caught an antler flash about a half mile past my tent at just above the same elevation. At first I thought he could be coming to my frequent calling, but with less than 1 ½ hours of daylight left, I knew I had to reach the draw he was in. At 100 yards the bull came to full view and I could tell he was the same one I passed up nearly two miles south at lunchtime. My disappointment with the borderline bull was short lived as soon as additional antler palms materialized below the first. I whispered, “Two bulls.”
Crawling toward the moose was my only chance to get close without being seen. The upper bull had the visual drop on me, so laid my bow out in front and crawled to it. Occasionally, I periscoped the brush line so as to never loose sight of my prey. I only relaxed when their preoccupations of sparing gave me the chance to bear-crawl, and eating up real estate. Positioning myself behind small spruce trees, I rested muscles while getting a better look at the second bull. He was much wider than the upper bull, sporting long palm tines, and three brow points on the right and two on the left. The downward swoop of his beams as they left his head and the outward flare of his palm tips were evident as he moved downward. Ducking back down, I and crept with even more purpose. “This could be it!”
Both bulls descended the draw and were now only 50 yards away. Crouching on all fours, I felt like a real Alaskan predator. Realizing I had more ground to cover, I placed my arrow back in its quiver, and removed my pack to get a lower profile. Belly-crawling forward another 10 yards, I reached yet another strategically placed spruce sapling. Freed from the day-pack, I eased up and stretched my shoulder muscles. The upper moose was at 50 yards away, but I was confident he couldn’t make me out in the pucker-brush, while the wide-antlered one was at 40 yards. When the upper bull lowered his head and came down toward the second bull, the wide one decided he had broken his private space, so he turned away which put him closer to me. With my arrow firmly pressed to string, I was apart of that scene. Sweat flowed simultaneously down my brow and neck. Slowly raising my hand, I wiped my forehead and dislodge a mosquito from a pore. Smells of sphagnum moss and spruce boughs filled my nostrils, and like the rutting bull earlier in the day, it was my nose that now ran. Resting my butt on my heels, I braced my back as the cool descending air chilled my damp skin. With the sun’s fire behind me, I was invisible to these great beasts.
The further bull lowered his head to browse while the one I wanted came closer, lumbering up a trail elevating from the swamp. My transformation from canine to human predator came as soon as his movement was obstructed by a spruce tree, allowing me to stand. Scanning for a clear path ahead of the bull for which to fly my arrow, I talked myself out of the existing shot due to a few deflection limbs. One last quick glance at the first bull revealed his head still down and eyes relaxed. Filling lungs with cool air, I focused all attention on the prey bull. My bow-arm was up as his massive form filled the envisioned shooting lane, while I thought to shoot low on his chest. Not thinking about distance, but knowing that neither animal knew I was there, gave me an instant calm. I felt the weight of the recurve, and then nearly simultaneously the flash of white fletching closed the distance striking the side of the bull just behind the shoulder at brush line. The crack of bone sent a quick harsh feeling of uncertainty – the kind that haunts a man for life. But, it was quenched in twenty seconds as the bull lunged forward, gained momentum, and crashed to the earth after spanning only 30 yards. The first bull stared in the direction of his no longer visible, mortally-wounded partner. The dwarf birch swallowed his form.
After photos were taken, I once again thought of Bart as I removed game bags, knives, sharpening steel, meat-saw and flashlights from my pack. I declared, “Bart, this one’s for you,” as my first incision was made to collect the meat. On previous bulls, I would skin down and remove the meat from bone and fill bulging game bags. However, this GMU requires packing meat out on the quarters with bone in. So, I approached it as I would a whitetail buck and sawed the lower front legs off at the elbow and hind legs at the hocks. This kept excess hair off the meat, but was a huge mistake as I lost the great leverage these long limbs would have provided when trying to role the bull for skinning and sectioning. None-the-less, after several hours, the quartered meat, including both rib sides, was bagged and left to cool under a clear sky.
In the morning the packing began. Each load was a blessing and a gift from the wilderness to my family. It did not relinquish freely, but was pried from its grip through muscle and joint pain; the pain expected from a remote Alaskan experience.
After all meat was in camp and protected under tarps, I enclosed it with an electric fence to help detour marauding bears. It was only then that I could appreciate my earned accomplishment and live in my surroundings. The similarity to past hunts was astounding as memories became the reality of the current adventure. I could still feel the sweat roll as I toiled to remove flesh from bone, and shouldering heavy meat from the carcass. I remember feeling the splintered edge of broadhead-cut ribs, and probing exit holes. The faint smell of moose was all about. Not the poignant odor of a rutting bull, but that of a fine early season specimen free from urine stench.
For me, the solo wilderness retreat doesn’t become spiritual until sometime into the middle of the second week. The void in human contact gets filled by the majesty of God. Experts on moose habitat and behavior, or extreme back country hikers, can’t know the true essence of a bowhunt for moose without living it as Bart Schleyer and I have done. Peace to you my friend.
Mike Mitten is the author of One with the Wilderness (Passions of a Solo Bowhunter), and co-producer of the films, Primal Dreams and Essential Encounters. www.brothersofthebow.com
Equipment note: The author used a Schleyer model recurve from Stalker Stickbows at 66 pounds pull to shoot his 2219 aluminum arrows mounted with Tuff Head broadheads. Total arrow weight was 790 gr. The author used Alaskan Express to affordably transport all his meat and antlers to his home state of Illinois.