I had meant to post this last week, but obviously stuff came up and I didn’t get around to it. Hunting season is upon us so it seems only appropriate to share with you my first adult hunting experience (I went on a caribou hunting trip with my dad and sister when I was about nine, and while it was exciting in its own way — I wrote a poem about part of it, which appears at the end of Uneven Lanes — I was mostly a bystander).
This story first appeared in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman on Sept. 20, 2014, under the following headline:
No moose — but not empty handed
SKWENTNA — They say some days you get the bull, some days the horns, but the truth about moose hunting in Alaska is this: some days you get a whole lot o’ nothing.
Nothing, that is, in terms of a kill — or even a sighting — but there’s always a story.
On Saturday, Sept. 13, I scurried home after work to embark on my first moose hunt. I found that fact hard to believe myself, as I’ve grown up around guns and hunters in the Mat-Su Valley, having spent most of my life in Wasilla. My older sister, Erin, for example, shot a caribou near Lake Watana when she was 10 or 11, and my parents went on a “hunting moon” in Montana after they married.
For a number of reasons, I think it’s safe to say I knew what I was getting into. I became “certified” through a hunter education course in high school, and my dad had told me time and again not to get my hopes up about killing a moose, even though my permit was for any bull. It might be difficult, he said, to find one in the area corresponding to my permit — unit 16 B, Skwentna South — or maybe I might miss the shot if the moose was too far away.
In any case, all the preparations had been made the week before. My dad helped me sight-in my rifle at the new Knik River Public Use Area range; we took out the packs and all the hunting clothes in the house, and stocked up on dehydrated meals, oatmeal, granola bars and ammunition. Dad bought me some much-needed rain gear and all our other camping or hunting trip necessities, and we finalized plans with our friend and pilot, Grant Van Bavel.
Despite several weather- and traffic-related hiccups on the way to the rifle range — my first time shooting in a year, I should add — and some initial worries about transportation due to a “bothersome” oil leak in our pilot’s airplane, everything was in order come Saturday evening. The three of us took off from the Wasilla airport into the sun toward Skwentna by about 6:40 p.m.
As I dozed in the front seat of the Cessna 185 near the end of our smooth flight, we circled around Eight Mile Creek, my dad and Grant discussing possible places to camp the next evening, to be closer to the moose (hopefully). It looked a bit wet out there, but Dad pointed out an “oxbow” in the creek that looked promising.
We arrived at Skwentna airport about 7:15 p.m. One of the Skwentna residents was there to greet us with his grandson — they had been out shooting grouse — and a four-wheeler with trailer attached was ready and waiting for us. Goodbyes were barely spoken before we loaded everything up and drove away.
Once we arrived at the cabin, we tossed everything inside and hotfooted it back to the Skwentna Roadhouse. The plan was to spend one night in the luxury of the cabin — complete with a Memory Foam mattress — and “tent it” the next couple of nights.
At the Roadhouse, greetings were exchanged and some introductions were made to those we hadn’t met before — I had only visited Skwentna once, earlier this summer — and my dad sat down to a big bowl of soup. Even though the flight had gone better than expected, I usually don’t have an appetite after traveling, so I opted for a packet of spiced apple cider and a mug of a hot water. Just like old times, I thought, recalling memories of drinking cider, eating Cup O’ Noodles and Mountain House meals, playing cards and wearing flannel shirts during Erin’s caribou hunt all those years ago.
As the Roadhouse crew talked on and my dad sipped a beer, I grew sleepy and started to wonder why we still lingered.
Oh right — the motor.
Earlier this summer, the recoil on the Evinrude motor attached to Grant’s little green skiff had been broken after some 20 minutes of yanking on it, trying to get it started. The recoil hadn’t been fixed since then, so the plan was to borrow the 35-horsepower Johnson from the Roadhouse.
Eventually — probably around 9 p.m. — Dad asked about the motor, and it was decided that we would make the switch the next morning.
So we rolled on back to the cabin for the night, only to realize that the generator to power electricity inside wouldn’t start. One quick phone call — yes, they even have cell service out there — told us the only working generator on the property was now connected to the house being built about 100 yards away, which didn’t have the amenities of the cabin, like a stove and a water pump. Not wanting to move all our stuff again, in the dark, we gave up and went to bed just before 10 p.m. Things could always be worse, I said to myself.
But of course, they did take a turn that direction.
The next morning, we were able to switch out the motors and get the 35 to start, but when we got to the boat launch, it wouldn’t rev up. Some of the Roadhouse crew happened to be there too, helping load a small barge carrying a busted airplane wing to the “mainland” to be repaired, but no one could say what was wrong with our motor.
So we returned to the Roadhouse to try another. And another. None of the four motors available to us were sufficient to get my dad and me and our gear out to Eight Mile, and certainly not to get us back with a moose. The 9.9 we tried had a long shaft — probably too long for that part of the Skwentna River, and definitely too long for the creek — and would just be too small. The 20 had an even longer shaft, and the recoil wasn’t catching well enough for us to feel comfortable using it. The river was high, and we weren’t about to be caught out on the water with no motor, and no paddle.
Uncomfortable with our company, unsettled by our increasingly “bad luck,” and doubtful of our chances of calling a moose into the cabin, my dad and I decided to try and get a ride out of Skwentna that day and try another area with the regular restrictions. Grant was scheduled to take a trip to California that evening, and his son Ethan, our return plan, couldn’t fetch us until Tuesday.
When all was said and done, our best bet seemed to hop aboard with the Roadhouse crew on a bigger skiff with a bigger and better motor to Deshka Landing, since they were heading that way. We snatched up all our gear and hurried back to the launch, anxious to get home for the evening.
By about 3 p.m., the five of us clambered into the boat and sped away down the Skwentna to the Yentna River, then turned onto the Susitna and up to Deshka. I sat in the rear with the gear for most of the trip to snap some photos of the passing landscape, and I was not disappointed. Despite my discouragement at our serious lack of results and the cold spray of the river, I found myself very much enjoying the fall colors of the trees, the mountains, and the river. I might even say I felt blessed.
When we arrived at Deshka Landing, however, that feeling dwindled a bit as I watched a young couple loading bloody game bags into their truck — then seeing a big pair of caribou antlers in the bed of another truck on the Parks Highway later — but there was nothing to be done.
My mom came to pick us up at the Landing around 5 p.m. and took us to dinner at the Cadillac Café, Mile 49 of the Parks. Although I suddenly felt starved and rather exhausted, I felt spoiled — I hadn’t even spent 24 hours in the field, hadn’t had to skin, gut or haul an animal five times bigger than myself.
So we decided to go through with Plan B. Scrapping the permit idea, we woke up at 5:30 the next morning and hit the road to Sutton by 6:15, on the hunt for a bull moose with a spike or a fork. We worried a little over the weather and the wet Glenn Highway, but the rain looked closer and heavier out over our other choice, Point MacKenzie, and it turned out that we made the right one.
When we arrived at Coyote Lake Recreational Area about an hour later, the air was cool and the parking lot fairly dry, so we took care of business, grabbed my rifle and camera bag and Dad’s shotgun and pistol and set off into the woods.
On a little hill not far from our little white truck, we stopped to call for a while, but with no luck. Somehow, though, I felt significantly more accomplished. We spent about two and a half hours tramping through brush, following four-wheeler trails and squelching into swamps without seeing a trace of moose — except for an old track or two near the truck and a few clumps of last year’s droppings — but I felt much happier on returning to the truck than I had the day before. I wanted a moose, sure, but I found I could take pride in the fact that I had honestly tried to find one.
I suggested we try Point MacKenzie the next morning over brunch at the Valley Hotel in Palmer, but it just wasn’t in the cards. I woke up almost an hour and a half late, my right hamstring was strangely very sore, and with an 8.5-mile race coming up this weekend, I didn’t want to push it. My dad, also, wasn’t feeling 100 percent, and as he always says, “It’s not a good idea to force things,” especially on the water or in the woods.
But, I’m young, and for a first hunt, I don’t feel too bad. I had heard of a friend shooting a young bull 3,000 feet up Matanuska Peak a few days prior, and I commend him for being willing to pack that animal out from there, but I can’t say for sure that I am willing or able to do something like that.
This year, anyway. I got a taste of moose hunting in Alaska, and for now, that is enough. We’ll see what next season brings.
I haven’t been hunting since then, and I’m not saying I never will again, but it seems I have less of an interest in — and fewer opportunities to go — hunting anymore.
Do you have a hunting story?