In northwest Alaska, where I hunt, we have some magical country – mountain ranges to the north with deep valleys and creek drainages lined with spruce trees, alders and willows. Wildlife is abundant in the fall, but without a careful eye it cannot be seen due to the camouflage created by the dense foliage. The winter, however, is a bit different. The landscape is frosted white and animals stand out. It’s quite a sight to see these ancient beasts with shaggy coats plowing through the deep snow.
Over the years I’ve taken several musk oxen in this terrain, and each hunt has been a unique experience lined with a number of difficulties. Whether it was climbing rocks or simply braving the wind and cold to get into position for the shot, hunting musk ox in this extreme terrain offers bowhunters the ultimate challenge. You will most definitely have the snow and ice to deal with, and the prospect of getting close can be quite dangerous, especially if the bull doesn’t like the fit of your snow pants.
A few years back we were sledding up a familiar drainage when we cut a fresh set of tracks. It was evident by the rounded groove of the track that it was a musk ox. What we didn’t know was how many were in the group or if this was just a wandering loner.
We followed the tracks toward the mountains, but as we made our way past the first summit, something – veteran musk ox wisdom I guess – told me to stop and look back at the jagged rocks we’d just passed. Sure enough, nestled between two boulders like a tick was a lone bull watching us. I couldn’t believe it. We actually passed by him the first time, and these creatures aren’t small. This should give you an idea of the sheer size and magnitude of this country.
My partner and I quickly turned around and headed to the backside of the mountain. Upon getting into position, I quickly untied my bow case, grabbed my Bowtech and started the climb. Though I’d shot and stored my bow in these brutal conditions before, the almost-unbearable-even-by-Alaska-standards cold kept the thought of equipment failure at the forefront of my mind.
I eased my Bowtech back – it came back smoothly – and settled my 20-yard pin a little low on the bull. Carefully feeling for the trigger on the release, I squeezed and watched the fletching all but disappear into the bull’s massive body. Musk ox hair is thick, believe me, but the 100-grain fixed-blade did exactly what it was supposed to do. In less time than it took to load another arrow, the bull was down.
Last year’s hunt didn’t follow suit. We began in early January, facing temperatures at or below -38 degrees Fahrenheit. The ride across the frozen ocean was painful, and if it hadn’t been for my beaver hat and the electric warming grips on my snow machine I would have probably stayed home.
We finally made it to the area where I had taken ox before. We stopped and glassed the surrounding hills only to turn up snow and more snow. We traveled forward, glassing as we went, and finally spotted a musk ox. Looking through the spotting scope, the bitter cold biting at my eyes, I could see four cows and one bull. The quintet was near the peak of a sizeable mountain. We needed to get closer.
We inched our snow machines up the side of a steep mountain, parked them and then made the stalk to the top. Unfortunately, the wind was head on and getting through the knee-deep snow was miserable. Reaching the peak we peered over. They were right in front of us. Surprise! Our eyes locked with theirs, and instantly, like all oxen do, they formed a military-like line facing us. I nocked an arrow, but there was no shot. The standoff lasted only a few minutes before the group turned and skirted the top of the ridge away from us. That ended our hunt.
This year has been a tough one, too.
Our most promising 2015 outing came on an extreme-weather day. The temperature outside was near zero, but the wind, which can be killer even with the slightest breeze, was whipping across the ice. I had barely made it out of town when the familiar burning sensation settled in below my right eye. Yep, frozen flesh. Not wanting to turn back I adjusted my facemask and we continued onward toward the mountains. I was pulling a blue Siglen sled, which is 14 feet long and made of hardened plastic. Sleds are essential here in the Arctic and give hunters the ability to haul gear and transport game across the frozen ice and tundra. Using loop rope, my soft bow case and archery gear were carefully packed in blankets to keep it from being jarred.
We made it to a draw where we had reports of musk ox being seen only a few days earlier. Finding a high point, we reluctantly sat down on the ice and began to glass. We were there only minutes when I spied torn up snow below me. After careful examination with my Leica, I could see it was ox tracks. I had turned to my hunting partner to announce my excitement when I noticed a whole herd of them walking up the side of an adjacent hill. We quickly made a plan.
I could tell my hands were starting to freeze through the cotton shooting gloves I had on. My eyelashes were frozen as well, and the thought of having to draw back a bow in such cold weather started to enter my mind. I knew the musk ox in front of me weren’t going to wait, so wrapped in several layers of clothes and with sweat building up underneath, I carefully peeked over the rise.
They were close, maybe 10 yards, and all looking away from me. I glassed them quickly, but not seeing what I wanted to see, I glassed them again. Nope, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make out a bull. The winter ice and snow had built up on the oxen’s heads, making it difficult to distinguish bull from cow. Carefully, I glassed again, but by this time they all knew I was there. They formed their old familiar line and stared me down. There were 12 in all, and now standing up on a rock, I determined one was a bull. He was young and his boss was barely visible. I drew the 65-pound bow back with ease and aimed but quickly let down. He was too small and even though musk ox meat is fine table fare, I elected to pass. I wouldn’t get another chance.
The Arctic is big country with vast spaces of ice, snow and extreme temperatures. Hunting musk ox is challenging, and finding a bull in some areas can be about as tough as it gets. Being able to bowhunt in these conditions might be a burden for some, but for me it is the ultimate challenge, a blessing I hold dearly. Now if I could just figure out how to make this tag taste better.