Mulchatna Madness

Hunting moose in back-country Alaska is always an adventure. Do it in September, when rut-crazed bulls come calling, and it's just plain wild!

Outdoor Life Online Editor

"So there we are, cruising along in the Supercub, heading back to Port Alsworth. I'm flying and Steve's behind me, when all of a sudden the plane starts to shake violently. We're being jarred so bad my eyes can't focus. Dust from the floor is bouncing off the inside of the roof."

Jeremy Davis pauses to kick at a smoldering log in the campfire.

"I instantly hit the kill switch to shut the engine down before it rips out of the mounts. Steve's in the back with no controls. He's screaming, 'Push the nose down! Push the nose down!'

"'I did! I did!' I yell back."

Jeremy laughs and swaps grins across the fire with fellow bush pilot Steve Hakala.

"So now the plane is nothing more than a big hang glider."

"A grossly overweight hang glider," Steve adds.

"I push the stick forward to keep the airspeed up. We keep following this winding stream. I figure we'll just flair her out into the aldersÐno problem. But there are big rocks everywhere. At one point we thread our way between two the size of a house. I don't know how we made it. Then the stream suddenly takes a hard left turn. I knew we couldn't make it."

"When I saw we were going to hit," Steve says, "I slid down as far as I could in the backseat and cinched the shoulder harness down as tight as it would go. Later on I had two huge bruises where the straps bit into my shoulders."

"We cleared the bank," Jeremy says, "but it caught our pontoons. They ripped off and we pitched over on the nose. I yelled back at Steve to see if he was all right."

"I was afraid of gas and a fire," Steve says. "So we just kicked the window out and climbed down."

"The crash had ripped all the radio antennas off," Jeremy continues. "So I did a MacGyver and duct-taped one up on the bottom of the fuselage. We radioed a buddy with a helicopter who diverted and picked us up. An hour later we were back at the bar in Port Alsworth drinking rum and cokes. "Turns out ten inches of the prop had sheared off." He shakes his head in disbelief. "And that prop had less than a hundred hours on it."

"How much did it cost to recover your plane?" I ask.

"Oh, about $6,700 for the Huey to come in from Anchorage and pick up the plane. Then another $30,000 to rebuild it. Pretty expensive training," he says, his voice trailing off.

None of this was lost on me the next day as Steve lowered flaps and turned onto the final approach into camp. The dirt strip was carved out of the alders on an old gravel bar that ran parallel to the Mulchatna River, which was running high and fast from recent rains. I looked over Steve's shoulder at the rapidly approaching ground, and the hairiness of the landing (and the seeming lack of runway) were glaringly clear. Land too short and you're in the trees. Land too long and you're in the river.

"What about crosswinds?" I asked, yelling above the engine's roar.

"No problem," Steve said, as calm as if he were pulling into his driveway.

He goosed the throttle and dropped the nose. I scooted down in the backseat and cinched the shoulder harness until it hurt. Then we were flaring out and the big balloon tires were bouncing along the gravel strip. The golden alders stopped zooming by as Steve idled back and gently applied the brakes. Powering up to a neat row of tents, he spun the tail around and then killed the engine.

"Welcome to Moose Creek Camp," he said as the magnetos wound down.

It had been 17 years since I had hunted in Alaska. Stepping out of the cramped Supercub onto the gravel bar, the first thing I noticed was the silence. This was the Alaska I remembered. Maybe it's the vastness of the place or knowing that a grizzly bear might be as close as the camp latrine, but I get a feeling of freedom and solitude in the Alaskan bush that I get nowhere else. My biggest worry in rurning was that it wouldn't be as good as I remembered, but it was.

Though I've been fortunate enough to have hunted big game in many places, this would be my first hunt for Alaskan-Yukon moose, even though Alces alces gigas had been at the top of my list for a long time. For one thing, the country these incredible animals inhabit is some of the last true wilderness left on this continent. And while they can be found on the open tundra, the bulls I planned to hunt along the backwaters skirting the Mulchatna would be in thick swamps and spruce cover. Shots would probably be at 100 yards or lessÐperhaps much less.

Then there's the fact that these moose hang out on the same street corners as grizzliesÐsomething you're constantly aware of. But most exciting to me is that these giant members of the deer family are just so darned big. Trophy bulls stand six feet at the shoulder and can weigh 1,800 pounds. Even an immature bull will outweigh most elk. Their antlers are equally impressive and can reach 70 inches or more in spread, although anything 55 inches or better is considered a nice trophy. And while trophies are always fun to hunt, the flesh of the Alaska moose provides some of the best table fare anywhere.

Most guides place the .300 Winchester Magnum as a minimum caliber for Alaska moose. I hoped to take mine with Marlin's 1895M, a variation of the company's "Guide Gun" chambered for the new .450 Marlin cartridge being introduced by Hornady. This would be a shakedown cruise of sorts to see just how well this new rifle/cartridge combo would work on one of the biggest animals in North America.

The Guide Gun is ideal for the kind of hunting I'd be doing. With shots at 100 yards or less, the rifle's iron sights would certainly have sufficed, but I was happy to top mine with a fixed 2X scope on a stout rail-mount, simply because I've grown up shooting scope-sighted rifles and feel more comfortable with them. It also occurred to me that while my moose would hopefully be in close, I might have to take a longer shot across a swamp or open meadow.

While the rifle is certainly capable of minute-of-moose accuracy out to 200 yards, my 40-something-year-old eyes and open sights are not. The fixed 2X would be perfect. Guide Jeremy Davis, owner of Lake Country Lodge, runs a tight little operation with good food, well-maintained equipment and top-notch guides. The beauty of the area he hunts, however, is that it is beyond the range of any of the drop-camp hunters who charter air taxis out of Anchorage and hope to stumble into a caribou or moose. You really have to want to get to Jeremy's camp, and the hunting and fishing that surround it are superb.

Alaska law dictates that you can't fly and hunt on the same day, which allowed me an afternoon to sample some of the great grayling fishing the Mulchatna has to offer and run a round or two through my gun. A quick sight-in session at camp happily confirmed that my rifle had not shifted zero on the trip in.

Booking a moose hunt in mid- September adds an extra element of excitement because bulls are at the peak of the rut and, just like whitetails, will come readily to a call. The problem is, with so much country to cover, bulls can be anywhere, so you really need to use the river to get yourself to likely places and then hike in and fire up your call. That's where having a guide who knows his area counts.

I figured calling a moose would be similar to rattling up a whitetailÐ make a huge racket and wait for the fireworks to start. I had the racket part right because you start your calling sequence by making a long, moaning bellow to mimic a lovesick cow. What I didn't expect was the bull's reaction. Instead of screaming back like a rut-crazed elk, the Alaskan moose responds with a very short, quiet callÐso quiet I didn't even hear it the first time a bull answered Jeremy's call on the second morning of our hunt.

We had hiked about a half-mile back off the river into a large swamp that Jeremy knew was a magnet for moose. We stalked in quietly, each of us constantly testing the wind and keeping one eye peeled for bears. We worked a wide circle on the downwind edge of the swamp. When we stopped to call, Jeremy let fly with a long moan from a fiberglass megaphone he carried. He then used the megaphone to rake a nearby spruce. Sure enough, from far off, he heard a muffled "ooof!" followed by the sound of antlers raking trees.

"That's him," Jeremy said, cocking an ear to listen.

A moment later the lone bull called again. This time I heard it, still not believing how soft his response was. You'd think an animal that big would sound like Godzilla in the woods, but these bulls were deathly quiet, which may explain why they live so long and grow to such size.

For the next 10 minutes we played a circle game. Each time we'd call, the bull would try to circle us on our downwind side and we'd have to move to keep the wind in our favor.

We finally caught a glimpse of him a hundred yards off, silently walking parallel to our position, his big head turning slowly from side to side. Seeing one of these bulls for the first time is simply awesome. They loom up out of the understory like magic, their massive antlers flickering white against the deep green of the spruce forest.

"Just stay calm," I tried to tell myself. "And don't look at those antlers." (Yeah, right!)

By now the bull had pulled up and was focused on our position, his great nostrils probing the air for our scent.

"He's a legal bull and a good one," Jeremy said. "Take him."

I slowly crouched down, hoping to close in on the bull before taking a shot. I hadn't gone more than five yards, however, when I changed my mind. A bull's eyesight is not its best defense, but these animals can certainly see movement. Taking a quick peek I realized that the bull had us pinned. About 80 yards separated us. He hadn't moved, but he was now locked onto us. One small eddy of scent and he'd be history.

The last thing I wanted to do was take an off-hand shot, but there was no other choice. I could see his shoulder clearly through a tiny window in the thick spruce trees, but it would be tricky. I quickly wrapped my left arm through the rifle sling and pulled the Guide Gun up tight to my cheek.

Never have I been more happy to have a scope to look through. His shoulder was clearly visible, and as the crosshairs steadied I touched off the shot. The big bull dropped as though he'd fallen through the trapdoor on a gallows. "Too fast," I thought.

In the next instant I was busting through the trees to get to him, fearing I might have merely stunned him. Sure enough, in the few seconds it took to reach h second morning of our hunt.

We had hiked about a half-mile back off the river into a large swamp that Jeremy knew was a magnet for moose. We stalked in quietly, each of us constantly testing the wind and keeping one eye peeled for bears. We worked a wide circle on the downwind edge of the swamp. When we stopped to call, Jeremy let fly with a long moan from a fiberglass megaphone he carried. He then used the megaphone to rake a nearby spruce. Sure enough, from far off, he heard a muffled "ooof!" followed by the sound of antlers raking trees.

"That's him," Jeremy said, cocking an ear to listen.

A moment later the lone bull called again. This time I heard it, still not believing how soft his response was. You'd think an animal that big would sound like Godzilla in the woods, but these bulls were deathly quiet, which may explain why they live so long and grow to such size.

For the next 10 minutes we played a circle game. Each time we'd call, the bull would try to circle us on our downwind side and we'd have to move to keep the wind in our favor.

We finally caught a glimpse of him a hundred yards off, silently walking parallel to our position, his big head turning slowly from side to side. Seeing one of these bulls for the first time is simply awesome. They loom up out of the understory like magic, their massive antlers flickering white against the deep green of the spruce forest.

"Just stay calm," I tried to tell myself. "And don't look at those antlers." (Yeah, right!)

By now the bull had pulled up and was focused on our position, his great nostrils probing the air for our scent.

"He's a legal bull and a good one," Jeremy said. "Take him."

I slowly crouched down, hoping to close in on the bull before taking a shot. I hadn't gone more than five yards, however, when I changed my mind. A bull's eyesight is not its best defense, but these animals can certainly see movement. Taking a quick peek I realized that the bull had us pinned. About 80 yards separated us. He hadn't moved, but he was now locked onto us. One small eddy of scent and he'd be history.

The last thing I wanted to do was take an off-hand shot, but there was no other choice. I could see his shoulder clearly through a tiny window in the thick spruce trees, but it would be tricky. I quickly wrapped my left arm through the rifle sling and pulled the Guide Gun up tight to my cheek.

Never have I been more happy to have a scope to look through. His shoulder was clearly visible, and as the crosshairs steadied I touched off the shot. The big bull dropped as though he'd fallen through the trapdoor on a gallows. "Too fast," I thought.

In the next instant I was busting through the trees to get to him, fearing I might have merely stunned him. Sure enough, in the few seconds it took to reach h