February 2018 – Moose Meet on the Kuskokwim

Mark Stopha with Moose from hunt in AlaskaI got the heads-up call the second week of February from Doug in Bethel. The next week was forecast for colder weather and snow. The plan was to go hunting for moose or muskox on snogos. I immediately sought approval for the trip from my boss at work and my boss at home.

Doug called the following Wednesday and said they planned to go out for muskox on Friday. He had a tag and I could have lots of meat since his freezer was full. I threw everything together, bought a one way mileage ticket from Juneau to Bethel, and was in Bethel about noon the next day. Mileage tickets are my best friend for short notice travel in Alaska.

When I got to Bethel, I realized I forgot my fur hat and snowmobile pants, but otherwise looked good for proper clothing. Doug lent me a beaver hat and I planned to use rain pants in lieu of snowmobile pants if it rained.

We had a dinner of crock pot moose roasts, potatoes, canned green beans and salad. That Dougie can cook. Val made brownies for us to take on the trip. And to have with ice cream for desert.

Later in the evening, word came of a change of plans. Instead of going to the Bering Sea coast for muskox, we were heading to the Yukon River for moose because the weather was poor on the coast. Many years ago I’d sewn up a bunch of XXL game bags from used sheets, and now they might get some use.

Doug and I were both up the next morning by 430 am, excited to go, packing and checking gear and drinking coffee. When we met the rest of the hunting party – Pat, who I met the year before and took hooter hunting in Juneau, – Chris, Sam and Robert- I could tell they were excited too. It’s not everyday you take a trip 75 miles to the Yukon River by snogo to hunt moose, even if you live here. We left town in the dark at 815 am. Everyone had a 10’ heavy duty plastic sled in tow behind their snogo except me. In the sleds were tents, sleeping bags, camping gear, extra fuel and food. We were prepared.

We traveled all morning in the fog north to the Yukon River. Across tundra and lakes. Although we couldn’t see the surroundings, the fresh snow the night before made for good riding, and all the tracks we came across – wolf, fox, lynx, wolverine, rabbit and moose – were, of course, fresh.

We’d stop every 5 or 10 miles to check that loads were still tight and everyone was not getting frostbite. Even though the temperature was about 20 degrees, you make your own wind chill on the snogo and everyone had fur hats and facemasks.

I was last in line when I saw a red fox taking it’s morning constitutional out on the tundra. I’d heard the fox were big in these parts, and the sighting confirmed that.

We got to the Johnson River about 1100 am, and found fresh moose tracks leading to an isolated stand of willows. Chris and Robert turned back and followed the tracks around the stand. Chris saw two moose and got both of thm. We all drove up to the downed moose, and it was like a nascar pit crew. Pat and Sam led by making the first cuts in the moose. Pat instructed the newbies on what needed to be done after that, and soon we all found a part to butcher and our roles for future sessions the rest of the day. By 1145 am, we had both moose butchered.

The moose hides went fur side down in Chris’s sled. Then the moose parts – neck, sternum, ribs, pelvis, hind quarters, and front quarters – went on top of the hides. The forelegs and head also went in for trapping bait. The moose parts were then covered with a tarp and secured to the sled with ropes and rachet straps.

The only thing left at the site were the entrails. In a day or two, all that would be left on the ground would be the willow materials inside the moose stomach after the ravens, crows and other scavengers ate their fill. What a day already. No worry about getting the meat dirty. Just hang onto a piece while it’s cut away and toss it in the snow until it’s time to drag it over to put in the sled. No blowflies or bears to worry about in February either.

The Johnson River is still in the Kuskokwim River drainage. We traveled about an hour longer, traversed the divide into the Yukon River drainage, and made camp in a copse of small spruce trees where the group had camped before. We passed 2 others on their way back to town with a sledfulls of moose- the only people we’d see today.

As we set up camp, Chris offloaded his moose parts onto the snow. Even in the cold, the meat holds a lot of heat and can start to spoil if piled together too long under a tarp. We had the tents and camping gear in place at a leisurely pace. Then we were off to the Yukon River- another 10 miles or so.

We arrived at the Yukon River and crossed the river to an island covered with willows. Normally, willows sort of look half moon shaped from the side, with the middle stems of the tree reaching up 30 feet or more. This stand looked like a fine trimmed lawn about 7 feet high. I remember seeing the same thing in Gustavus years ago when my niece Mellissa got a moose there. Seeing willows trimmed to this level is a sign of lots (and sometimes maybe too many) moose browsing.

Soon after arriving on the island, some in the front were motioning to me that moose were ahead. I soon saw moose heads moving above the willows. There were 6 or 8 moose moving. Pat motioned me to come forward for a shot. When I caught up to him, all I could see were legs in the willows. Lots of legs. It was like looking at a herd of wild horses in the brush. I kept walking forward and there lay a moose on the ground. Robert had shot it, yet I never heard him shoot. For some reason the 30 caliber rifles we were shooting seemed to make little sound out on the wide open tundra, unlike the boom they make when hunting in the mountains of Southeast Alaska.

I moved past Robert’s moose. Others were anxious for me to get a moose, but I wasn’t in a hurry. I wanted to have a clear broadside shot with a good rest and not too far a shot. Then I saw it – a moose offering me a clear shot broadside at under a hundred yards. I got a rest, put the crosshairs a third of the way up from the bottom of his sternum and behind the front shoulder like the ADF&G site recommends, and fired. The moose just stood there. I fired a second time, and still nothing. Pat said to fire again. Then I saw the moose waver a bit and it just tipped over. It never flinched or gave any sign of being hit.

Pat moved on to stalk another moose that was initally alongside this one. A few more shots fired not far away, and we now had 3 moose on the ground.

Doug and Pat and I started butchering my moose, while Robert, Chris and Sam worked on Robert’s moose. After we were a good way along in the process, Pat and Doug told me to go look for my second moose. I did. I made a loop around a section of the island and back to them. They said to keep looking.

Sam and Robert had finished up Robert’s moose and came by, so I went with them for a ways, when we decided to split up. Sam and Robert crossed the river to another island, while I “kept turning left” as Sam instructed until I would return to Doug and Pat. I ventured left into a patch of willows and got the sled stuck. I was spinning out in deeper snow. I tried to lift the back of the sled up and out of the hole I’d made like I used to back in Bolivar as a kid. Turns out sleds are bigger now. And I’m not a kid. I strained my back trying to get it out. I tried whistling and yelling to Pat and Doug, but got no reply. I finally shot 3 times to alert them I needed help, then started walking back to find them.

Doug soon came on his sled and we returned to my sled. He showed me how to get it out by leaning the sled on it’s side and shoveling snow under it with your boot. I thought to myself I’m not going off on my own again like that since I’m not familiar with getting myself out of these situations and could easily get lost or separated from the group.

We got Pat’s moose and my moose butchered and down on the river as the sun was setting. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself when you’re standing on the Yukon River in the middle of winter watching the sunset with your first moose in a sled.

Pat and Chris went to look for Sam and Robert, who we figured got another moose when they crossed to the other island, although we never heard any shots. Doug and I stayed with the sleds of moose meat. Chris soon returned and said Pat sent him back to get me because there were 6 moose just down the way. Pat wanted me to get a second moose. When I got there, I saw three moose standing in a line broadside to us, and 3 others that had moved off into the brush out of sight. A huge moose was on the right, with what looked like a yearling in the middle and a calf on the left. I asked Pat which one I should shoot. He said the little one, which I did. Pat now decided he’d take a second moose, too, and so shot the yearling. The big one walked off. When we got up to our moose, it turns out they were not a yearling and calf, but adult moose. The huge one just made them look small.

The four of us rolled my moose onto the sled whole and Chris ran it up to the other sleds we’d left with butchered moose on them. He returned and we did the same for Pat’s moose. It seems like it takes a bare minimum of 3 people to roll a whole moose at all, and even then it’s iffy.

As we were offloading Pat’s moose to start butchering, here comes Sam and Robert. Sam HAD got moose, which he and Robert had butchered and had on their sled. They joined in and the six of us soon had the last two moose butchered by headlamp and onto the sleds. It was now about 930 pm and we’d shot and butchered 8 moose in the 14 hours since we left Bethel. Pat said he’d never done this many before. The first moose of the day was a cow, and the rest were bulls. Of course, all bulls had dropped their antlers so we didn’t know what sex we’d shot until after the fact, but that’s the way it worked out. It looked like the bulls were in bachelor groups and I’m not sure why there seemed to be no cows here. Maybe just chance.

We were bushed but very satisfied on the journey back to camp, which took about an hour. Everybody got the moose they came for. Doug didn’t get one, which was what he wanted. Doug lit his coleman lantern and hung it on a tree, and the rest of us had our headlamps on as we took the tarps off all the sleds, and pulled the moose parts out of the sled and into the snow to cool overnight, just like Chris had done with his moose. We were too tired to cook anything for dinner and ate snacks and sandwiches.

Doug had borrowed a tent from a friend but we didn’t check it before we left and the little woodstove that went with the tent did not come with it. Doug, Pat and I had no stove and so slept in our sleeping bags in our hunting clothes. Doug brought in the lantern to heat up the tent before we went to sleep, then turned it out. Doug was the subject of extensive ridicule and verbal abuse the rest of the night by Pat and I, but we all seemed to sleep just fine in about 15 degree weather. I got up once to take a leak, and when I got back in my bag, I could hear a critter bothering Chris’s moose meat, which was laying in the snow next to our tent. Pat went out to look and saw it was a red fox. He tried to shoot it but his gun jammed and the fox ran away. As soon as Pat got back in his bag, the fox came back, and Pat again went out but could not get a shot. When Pat got back in his bag, the fox returned and we conceded that a fox could not eat all that much in one sitting. We let him have his fill and went back to sleep as a couple of snowgos came through in the dark on their way to the Yukon River.

We got up about sunrise I guess – 9 ish. My back was killing me. I could hardly stand up. It was either from the strain trying to get the sled unstuck, sitting on the sleds driving for 5 or 6 hours, bending over to butcher 8 moose, or being 54 years old. Or all 4. In any case, I was a hurting puppy. As the others slung meat back onto the sleds, I started to take down the tent to at least do something. And I could hardly do that. I tried doing the cow-cat yoga exercise but it didn’t help. I then laid down flat on my back on a tarp. At first I couldn’t even lie flat, but eventually the muscles relaxed until I could lie flat, and then I lie there in the snow for about 10 minutes. That was all it took. My back muscles let go, I got up, and was a new man.

As we broke camp, a trio of camp robbers – gray jay birds- showed up. Some of the boys started cutting off pieces of moose meat scraps and tossing it in the snow in the woods. The gray jays seemed to know this game, and soon were carrying chunks weighing almost more than they could carry up into the branches to stash, and then returned for more.

The trip home was under a high overcast and the temperature in the 20’s. It was like a new trip. After fog all the way in yesterday, now we could see for miles. It hardly seemed possible we only came in the day before.

About half way home, we found a guy wandering around on the tundra. Turned out his sled conked out and he was trying to get to a trail where he could flag down a snow go, or perhaps walk to a village. We fed and watered him and took him to town with us. He was lucky we came along. He had on jeans and had no food with him.

Moose Meet - hunters on snowmobiles

We passed a total of 21 people going out while we were coming back We didn’t see anyone hunting when we were there and I was glad not to be there with a lot of other people in the fairly small area where the moose were. The whole trip was lucky like that. The new snow, the moderate winter temperatures, moose everywhere, and a group of guys who could take care of a downed moose quickly.

We came back to town on a different trail – ending up on the Gweek River. When we got to the confluence with the Kuskokwim it was rush hour. Snow mobiles and SUV’s and trucks and 4 wheelers using the frozen river as a highway to go to other places or to go fishing. Doug pointed out willow trees seemingly growing out of the ice in pairs about 30 yards apart and said the willows held gillnets under the ice for pike. When we got to town, a dog sled passed in front of us.

We said our goodbyes one at a time as each person peeled off to their homes. When we arrived home, I helped Doug build hanging stands in his shed out of two by six lumber and stud hangers. We hung the meat on the stands to cool and age the meat. The temperatures were just right- in the 20’s at night and 30’s during the day.

The quarters took two of us to hang, as they weighed close to 100 lbs each. After all the meat was put away, we ate a dinner of muskox steaks, potatoes and salad. That Dougie can cook.

The next day, Doug sent me out with Pat, Sam and Chris to check Chris and Pat’s trapline. We met at the gas station. As we left for the river, Pat was in the lead with me bringing up the rear. When I got to the river, I saw Pat’s sled at a slant into the water at the river’s edge. The sled was in the water about half way up the skiis and just covering the hood. Pat said he was done for the day because the engine had taken in water and would need to be drained before it’s run again. Sam tied off a line to the back of Pat’s sled and pulled it out of the water and back up onto the parking lot. Pat called Doug, who came and got him with a trailer to take the sled to the mechanic. Sam, Chris and I continued on to another spot to get on the Kuskokwim river and were soon on our way across the river.

We rode about an hour and came to a village seemingly out of nowhere – Kwethluk. A 10’ sled was in front of town on the Kwethluk River with about half a dozen spruce logs about 8 inches in diameter destined for sale in Bethel, where there are few trees bigger in diameter than an inch or two. We continued on til we turned off into another tributary. We rounded a bend and stopped. The spot was Chris’s favorite place to fish in the summer for coho salmon, trout and pike. I see a hole in the river ice with blood around it and wonder what made the mess. Later, out of nowhere, two girls on a fourwheeler pass us. Where did THEY come from I think? I soon realize there are villages not far off but we can’t see much running the river bed. We stop every 5 miles or so like we did moose hunting, and have a bite to eat or sip coffee as we like. We’re in no hurry.

We continue on and we’re soon checking sets for wolverine, wolf, fox, otter and lynx. Most of the sets are snares. I’ve primarily trapped with conibears in or near the water, so this upland trapping is great to learn. We get nothing in the first few sets, and then I see a fox in a snare set for wolverine. The fox is not happy to see us. Sam shortens up the leash of the snare lead, conks the fox on the head to stun him, then kneels on it’s chest till it expires. A quick death.

We get one more fox on the checks. We get to all the traps but the one furthest away and can’t get to that one because there’s too much overflow on the river ice. We’d gone 67 miles when we turned back to town.

When we get back to Chris’s favorite fishing spot, there are a bunch of four wheelers and people fishing. Some are are fishing in the hole that I saw blood in, and there’s a live pike in a little puddle of overflow. That answers that question. Another group is across the river checking a whitefish net set under the ice. Everybody is happy. Winter time is fun time here. It seems like the season people look forward to here, as long as it’s cold enough for the rivers to freeze. Winter is when the most country is accessible, and when snow conditions and fish and game populations are good, it seems like a happy time to hunt and fish.

We return to town. Sam leaves me with the two fox at Doug and Val’s, and Doug takes the two fox to the skinning shed for Pat to take care of. I start butchering the moose after a dinner of specklebelly geese stuffed with apple and raisins. That Dougie can cook. I butcher till late in the night listening to old country songs on KYUK.

The next day was blowing and raining. A perfect day to butcher. Doug and I cut meat all day. We carved the meat from all the bones except the ribs and put it into game bags. Pat’s wife wants the femurs. The rest of the bones we rehang to keep clean in case someone wants them for soup. We break for lunch and eat chili with muskox burger. That Dougie can cook. We continue cutting into the night, listening to the Yupik language call in show on KYUK. We both enjoy the show, especially the laughter, even though we don’t know the language. We finish the meat cutting after 10 pm. Then we get a scale to weigh each bag so we can load the boxes near to their maximum allowed weight of 100 lbs each. I’m lucky to find waxed fish boxes at the AC store, and buy 7 of the last 8 in town the next day. We decide I’m leaving day after tomorrow, and I order a one way mileage ticket to Juneau.

The next day, we checked Doug’s trapline near town. As Doug and I check empty trap after empty trap, I yelled words of encouragement like “Is this your first year trapping”, “Do you know what you’re doing”, and “Are we ever gonna catch one”. It was a beautiful sunny day. Part way through the trap checks, we cross the Kuskokwim and travel through Napaskiak, with it’s beautiful Russian Orthodox Church and graveyard of brightly painted crosses and lettering nextdoor. We cross a small river and travel through Oscarville, with it’s above ground outdoor basketball court made of wood. We check several more traps on the way to town, and Doug takes me up on a hill where we can take in the vastness of the lower Kusko and surrounding wilderness. It’s a whole lot of the middle of nowhere here.

We travel through willow patches looking for ptarmigan on the way back to town, but the birds apparently haven’t migrated through yet as we see no birds or tracks. When we reach the house, I walk down to Pat’s trapping shed. I watch as Pat deftly skins four fox, fleshes them, and puts them on stretchers to dry. He does it methodically, with no wasted motion. He could do it in his sleep. We talk as he processes the hides without thinking. It was interesting to see how few cuts/slices are actually made when skinning a fox. There are a few cuts getting at the hind end, pulling out the tail, then working the hide down the body like a sock with only hands, pulling the ear cartilage through with a screwdriver, then cutting through the eyes and nose. Pat’s caught about 140 fox for the winter, and gets most of them right near town. He said some years there are 700 fox taken within a few miles of town. He described how they come through in waves. He’ll get double digits after opening day, then nothing for several days, then 8 more, nothing for a few days, then 6 more, and so on. Sounds a lot like salmon trolling.

When he finishes pinning the last fox on a stretcher, we head for Doug and Val’s for dinner. We sit around and yak for an hour until Pat’s significant other, Louise, can join us. We have salmon patties, cold canned green beans with Italian dressing, and salad for dinner. That Dougie can cook. Val breaks out her favorite desert – ice cream – and Doug brings on some chocolate syrup and pecans

On the last day, I got up a little after 630 am and got to packing all the meat. I got 6 boxes filled to between about 85 and 95 lbs, and the 7th box was about 30 lbs of ribs. I return to the house about an hour later and get some coffee on. Doug stirs and comes downstairs and we drink coffee in the dark. A little after 8, we load the back of the truck and go to Alaska Air cargo to ship the meat.
Like everything here, it’s all casual. The two agents are cousins and Yupik, and one says the other acts a little blonde sometimes so you have to excuse her. She sees I have about 550 lbs of meat to ship and says – “That’s a big moose”. I tell her it’s two moose. Doug asks her if her mother needs any meat and the daughter replies they’ll always take meat. Doug says he still might go muskox hunting and he’ll drop some off if he does. Then I think of all the bones we kept clean at Doug’s and ask her if they’d like the bones for soup and she said they’d love them. I pay for the air cargo – about $350 – and we returns to the house happy we have a home for the moose bones.

After I pack my gear to leave, I help Doug dismantle the hanging racks and we put the bones on the sled for the granny and her daughter. There’s a pile of meat scraps trimmings and bone cartilage to store for trapping bait. We pull up the tarp that was under the hanging meat that apparently wasn’t all waterproof, and Doug puts water on the shed stove, then pours it onto the blood stain, then puts sawdust ontop of that to soak it up. I ask if I should scrub it with a brush. He says it’s a shed. For butchering. Don’t worry about it.

A week in Bethel and I feel like I’ve been to a paradise. Climate warming is bringing changes to the area. Willows are growing in more abundance, making more feed for moose. The houses built using permafrost construction techniques are sagging because the permafrost is melting, creating headaches for homeowners. Less snow and warmer winters mean less snow, sorter winters, and probably more dangerous river ice conditions than in the past. Who knows what it’ll look like in another couple decades. My guess is people there will adapt as they must always have.

Doug and Val and I head to the airport after Doug makes us salad omeletes for breakfast. That Dougie can cook. We say our goodbyes and I pass through security. I look at my air cargo bill and note that under contents it reads “moose meet” and think – it sure was.