Yukon Giant

Two adventurers go toe to toe with a monster bull moose.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The glacier loomed at six miles, an earth-churning ice machine that supercooled the coming rain. Fifty-knot gusts lashed the cloud of sleet at us, over the last blue ice at the moraine, across a river silver with silt and salmon, across tens of thousands of acres of mud flats, flooded meadows and tag alder jungles separating the glacier from the Gulf of Alaska 12 miles to our rear.

"Hold on tight," growled Marcus East, a sinewy, dour man with a red beard and an uncanny ability to locate game in cold rain forests.

East and I were 60 feet up in a moss-coated spruce tree that towered over a 2-mile by 500-yard oblong maze within the greater swamp. It was madness-we had no safety belts and no time to climb down before the microburst hit. Following East's lead, I hooked my arms around branches and braced my legs on two stout limbs.

The wind reached us first, whipping the alder crowns into a raging olive sea far below our perch. Seconds later the sleet pinged off the Gore-Tex and commercial fishing gear we wore head to toe. The top of the spruce, still 20 feet above us, began to lurch and buck and I wondered what in God's name my wife would say if she could see me now.

Common sense dictated that we turn our backs to the wind, hug the tree and pray. Instead, we jammed our spines against the spruce trunk, dipped the brims of our hoods into the wind and squinted against the frozen rain, focused on one particular swell in the alder sea, 80 yards out and 60 feet down. We had good reason to take such risks: One of the biggest deer in the world was right there in that little patch.

Inside the chaos of the swirling alders, we kept seeing flashes of him: his blackened hump scarred from fighting, the pendulous bell below his chin, one monstrous left antler, at least 17 points, 5 of which jutted off the brows, one of which lobbed off below the paddle. A drop-tined Alaska-Yukon bull moose.

When the big gusts struck, East and I thought of nothing but hanging on for dear life, though a few times I wondered just how I had gotten myself into such a predicament. Then I remembered a photograph of my great uncle.

W hen I was eight, my mother got a Christmas card from her uncle that included a black-and-white photograph of him and an Indian guide crouched beside a giant moose in a foggy swamp. Both men looked exhausted but happy. I've never seen a picture that evoked more of a sense of adventure than that one. I was born into a whitetail-deer-hunting family, but right then I knew someday I'd go to Alaska as my great uncle had and hunt the biggest deer in the world.

For the next 35 years, I read up on Alaska-Yukon moose, their territory and the men who specialized in hunting them. By the time I was ready, my attention was focused on the country around the Bering and Tsiu rivers, east of Cordova, Alaska. This region accounts for roughly 20 of the top 100 Alaska-Yukon bull moose scored in the Safari Club system (total inches of antler with no deductions), including the number-one moose in this category.

In 1999, on the Okalee Spit west of the Tsiu River area, within what is known as the Bering Unit, Michigan hunter Debra Card shot the largest-racked Alaska-Yukon bull ever measured. Card shot her bull on the season-opening morning. The bull's rack was 75 inches wide, had 56 points and measured an astounding 7311/8 inches. Marcus East was Card's guide.

Few men know the behemoths of the Tsiu country as well as Sam Fejes and Marcus East. Fejes, an Alaskan Master Guide and outfitter, has been flying and hunting the Tsiu since his early teens. His uncle flew the mail route across the vast sodden wilderness between the Chugach Mountain Range and the Gulf of Alaska and would drop his nephew off for days at a time. Soon Fejes's knowledge of the Tsiu country and the animals it held became legendary among serious hunters. So there was nouestion about whom I'd hire to organize the hunt when I pulled a limited-entry tag for bull moose in the Bering Unit of the Tsiu River country.

Fejes picked me up in Cordova in late September and we flew east in his DeHavilland Beaver, one of the classic Alaska bush-pilot aircraft, toward his base camp near the Tsiu River. We soared across miles of mud flats and river courses, over bays choked with floating ice, over flooded thickets thousands of yards wide. To the north, glaciers swept down from 13,000-foot mountains. To the south, surf pounded a gray-sand coastline that was deserted for 40 miles.

"It's rugged country," Fejes said. "But it takes big, rugged country to hold an animal this big."

Upon arrival at his base camp, he cautioned me not to expect to see many bulls during my hunt. Despite Alaska's reputation as a hot spot for big moose, the Alaskan government does not categorize the Bering Unit as a trophy hunt. Instead, the state allows 25 residents and 5 nonresidents a "subsistence" or meat hunt in the area. To get their moose meat, hunters are allowed to use Everglades-style airboats to go deep within the Bering unit after moose. Fejes vehemently opposes the use of the boats, calling it "unfair chase," but he has not been able to convince the government to discontinue it. The airboat hunters had killed 20 moose in the nine days before I arrived. The big bulls, Fejes said, were hiding deep in the alder thickets with their cows, behaving like whitetail deer.

"It'll be tough," he said. "But if you're willing to hunt hard the rewards here can be big."

That afternoon, I hopped into a Super Cub and East got into another and we went flying. Within an hour, we spotted a very big bull deep in the northern part of the Bering unit. He was not particularly wide by Tsiu standards-in the mid-60s-but he was massive, with many points and a drop tine off the left paddle, and I wanted to hunt him.

Before twilight, Fejes flew East and me to a sandbar in the Bering River, several thousand yards from where we had seen the bull. We waded to the shore in hip boots, our gear held high overhead. Then we climbed the riverbank and used machetes to hack our way through the thick, dank alder jungle that lined the river.

By dusk we had set up a spike camp with tent, fly and tarp. At dark it began to drizzle. Within an hour, the drizzle turned into a downpour that lasted all night and by dawn it was a deluge. Around nine the next morning, the rain abated several degrees and we donned fleece, wool, Gore-Tex, hip boots and commercial fishing bibs, coats and gloves and began to slither, slop and chop our way northeast through the dripping alders toward the bull's last known position.

An hour later, we reached the edge of a flooded, foggy meadow miles long and again as wide. Here and there across the vast expanse we could make out other alder jungles to our north, at least 2,000 yards across the bog.

East pointed to a nearby spruce and whispered, "We're on as flat a piece of ground as you're likely to see. The only way to spot moose is by climbing."

And so it went throughout the day. We'd climb a tree, take a long look around with our binoculars, then forge out into the flooded reeds, heads bent against the driving rain, peeking into the fingers of the vast meadow. Where the airboats had crossed, our legs sank in the stirred-up muck. We walked for miles in the stuff. At dark, we returned to the camp exhausted and drenched. We'd not seen or heard a single moose.

It rained harder that night but slowed before dawn and once again we set out. East was interested in a line of spruce trees that towered over the alder tangle 4,000 yards northeast and we headed toward it. Some hours later, we found ourselves in a glen where the ground and the trunks of the gnarled spruces were covered in spongy, black-green moss. Winding through the moss were trails beaten deep and muddy by hooves as big as a Clydesdale's. The alders that lined the glen had been stripped by giant antlers. East sniffed a musky perfume in the air.

"Moose," he said.

We left our guns and packs at the bottom of the biggest tree and climbed it. The breeze was strong but the rain had stopped and we had a clear view of a second flooded plain that ran out toward the Bering Glacier. East spotted our bull almost immediately-the moose was traipsing after a cow in the alders 150 yards from our tree.

We dropped down to a finger meadow that ran from the spruce glen to the alder thicket. East used a moose shoulder bone to rake the tree branches and called to the bull. But the breeze had become a steady wind and our calls were drowned out within 50 yards.

We crawled back up the big spruce and relocated the bull just as the microburst of sleet and gale hit. For more than an hour we rode the tree, petrified, trying to keep track of the bull's location. Once, we lost him for nearly 15 minutes, only to have him appear in an opening right out in front of us at less than 60 yards. Just as suddenly as it had come, the wind died and the glacier emerged from the gray clouds again. East motioned to me to get down from the tree. We stood at the bottom, weak from the experience, and then eased forward to where we could look out at the narrow meadow and alders where the bull hid.

East grunted and used the shoulder bone to rake another tree. We heard a tremendous crash in the alders and then nothing. East scrambled back up the tree, and then came down fast. "He's a lover, not a fighter," he said. "He's moved off about a hundred yards. Maybe if we can get your gun up the tree, you can shoot him from up there, whitetail style."

It took us 10 minutes to get the .300 Winchester safely into position. East stood behind me and held onto my jacket while I rested the rifle over a branch. All I could see was the bull's neck and drop-tined rack. Under ordinary conditions I would have attempted the shot, but the wind had stirred again, I could not keep the sights steady and the bull disappeared.

We didn't see the drop-tined bull the next day or the morning after that. By then it had been pouring off and on for nearly four days. Our equipment was so wet it was unusable, a dangerous situation that made the difficulties of coastal moose hunting profoundly clear.

At noon Fejes flew us back to the base camp. We took a hot shower and then dried our equipment in a shed designed for the task. By late afternoon, Fejes was urging us to finish our hot meal and grab our gear; he'd been flying all afternoon and had seen the bull again, lying out in the flooded meadow northwest of the big spruce.

We flew back to the Bering River the fourth night of the hunt and re-erected our cough the moss were trails beaten deep and muddy by hooves as big as a Clydesdale's. The alders that lined the glen had been stripped by giant antlers. East sniffed a musky perfume in the air.

"Moose," he said.

We left our guns and packs at the bottom of the biggest tree and climbed it. The breeze was strong but the rain had stopped and we had a clear view of a second flooded plain that ran out toward the Bering Glacier. East spotted our bull almost immediately-the moose was traipsing after a cow in the alders 150 yards from our tree.

We dropped down to a finger meadow that ran from the spruce glen to the alder thicket. East used a moose shoulder bone to rake the tree branches and called to the bull. But the breeze had become a steady wind and our calls were drowned out within 50 yards.

We crawled back up the big spruce and relocated the bull just as the microburst of sleet and gale hit. For more than an hour we rode the tree, petrified, trying to keep track of the bull's location. Once, we lost him for nearly 15 minutes, only to have him appear in an opening right out in front of us at less than 60 yards. Just as suddenly as it had come, the wind died and the glacier emerged from the gray clouds again. East motioned to me to get down from the tree. We stood at the bottom, weak from the experience, and then eased forward to where we could look out at the narrow meadow and alders where the bull hid.

East grunted and used the shoulder bone to rake another tree. We heard a tremendous crash in the alders and then nothing. East scrambled back up the tree, and then came down fast. "He's a lover, not a fighter," he said. "He's moved off about a hundred yards. Maybe if we can get your gun up the tree, you can shoot him from up there, whitetail style."

It took us 10 minutes to get the .300 Winchester safely into position. East stood behind me and held onto my jacket while I rested the rifle over a branch. All I could see was the bull's neck and drop-tined rack. Under ordinary conditions I would have attempted the shot, but the wind had stirred again, I could not keep the sights steady and the bull disappeared.

We didn't see the drop-tined bull the next day or the morning after that. By then it had been pouring off and on for nearly four days. Our equipment was so wet it was unusable, a dangerous situation that made the difficulties of coastal moose hunting profoundly clear.

At noon Fejes flew us back to the base camp. We took a hot shower and then dried our equipment in a shed designed for the task. By late afternoon, Fejes was urging us to finish our hot meal and grab our gear; he'd been flying all afternoon and had seen the bull again, lying out in the flooded meadow northwest of the big spruce.

We flew back to the Bering River the fourth night of the hunt and re-erected our c