Wild Gifts: Yukon Moose Hunting Guide Curtis LaDue Has a Foot in Both Modern and Ancient Worlds
Like many in his Kaska tribe, LaDue is working hard to retain his connection with his Yukon homeland, one bag of moose meat at a time
CURTIS LADUE rolls a cigarette, lights up, and turns in his saddle to put into words what I’ve been thinking for the last hour: “Gus is a shithead.”
Gus is the only unsaddled or unpacked horse in our string, and the 3-year-old gelding is flaunting his freedom, trying to nose ahead of the working stock or veering off the trail through spruce trees too narrow for the packhorses carrying wide pannier boxes. Every time we try to catch Gus, he throws his head just out of reach.
This isn’t only bothersome; it’s dangerous. We’re four hours into a daylong ride to our moose-hunting camp in the Yukon’s Pelly Mountains, and the packhorses and saddle horses are getting agitated by Gus’ frolicsome behavior. If a horse breaks a pannier by smashing into a tree, or a diamond hitch works loose during a river crossing, repacking will cost us precious time, and we might lose some of the provisions that we’ll need for the 10 days we’re scheduled to hunt.
I nudge my horse, Rascal, closer to LaDue. “Why did we bring Gus, anyway?” I ask.
“He’d have gone crazy if we left him behind, but he’s too green to do any work,” says LaDue, from somewhere behind a veil of cigarette smoke. “I guess I have a soft spot for him. He’s young. He’s wild. But he has a good nature. After this season, I’m gonna lake-break him. Next time you come here, I bet he’ll be the best horse in the string.” Lake-break?
“It’s something Terry taught me,” says LaDue, who was raised maybe 50 miles downstream of here in the Kaska village of Ross River. A cousin, Terry Otto was a longtime wrangler and guide for Deuling Stone Outfitters, which operates this sheep-and-moose concession. LaDue’s extended family hunted and fished here long before this was a Canadian territory, before Ross River got a hockey rink or government-run hospital, and before the village was nicknamed “Ross Vegas.”
“You lead a green horse belly-deep into a lake and then you work with them,” explains LaDue. “If they want to buck you off or fight a saddle, they have to fight the water too. Plus, when you get bucked off, the landing is a lot nicer than the ground.”
By this time, Irf and Jasper have caught up to us, and we kick our horses up the trail, hoping Gus falls into line.
Less than a day into this hunt for an Alaska-Yukon moose, the four of us have already settled into roles that might be familiar in any family. Irf—somehow short for Glen Irving—is the head moose guide, and he has the quirky benevolence of a gentle father or the principal of an alternative high school. Jasper Richer, only 20 years old, is the little brother—this is his first season working as a packer and wrangler for Deuling Stone.
Then there’s LaDue, a hand-rolled smoke punctuating his mischievous smile. At 26, he’s a veteran of Deuling Stone. He started packing here at age 16, himself the apprentice of his cousin, Otto. Otto taught LaDue the intricate art of packing, lashing hemp rope around canvas tarps to create a lattice of webbing sufficient to secure the panniers that are the boxcars of a pack train.
This is LaDue’s first year back with the outfit after he “went ghost,” as outfitter Jarrett Deuling described it.
“He’s the most competent, capable hand I’ve ever had when he’s in the bush,” Deuling said. “But when he gets back to town all bets are off. He kinda falls back.” Later, it occurs to me that Deuling might just as easily have been talking about a young, headstrong horse.
Over the years, Deuling has posted bail and appeared at court hearings to testify about LaDue’s strong character and work ethic, but when LaDue failed to show up for work one fall, Deuling wrote him off. Until this past summer, when the two ran into each other—LaDue was fishing off a bridge—and Deuling brought him back provisionally.
“[LaDue] reminds me of Otto in the best ways and the worst ways,” Deuling told me. Terry Otto’s name comes up frequently and reverently. Otto was a celebrated Kaska guide with eyes like an eagle’s and the stamina of a caribou. This is the first season without Otto; after a decade as the outfit’s lead guide, he died last winter of a drug overdose. Deuling plans to spread Otto’s ashes at the base camp at Carlton Lake, the camp where I landed in a floatplane and that is the jumping-off point for our hunt.
“He keeps his nose clean,” Deuling said of LaDue, “he always has a place here.”
In the Saddle
This is a backcountry horse hunt. The plan, Irf told me, is to ride to our spike camp, which is situated in a series of high valleys, and venture out either on foot or on horseback in search of a big bull. I struggle to contain my enthusiasm. In mid-October, the rut should just be cracking open, so my expectation of having my pick of brawny, rut-addled bulls is as high as Irf’s horse, a strawberry roan tank named Trump.
My expectations are matched by the activity of bulls during our daylong ride to camp. Long into our ride, we spot a wide bull in a distant patch of dwarf birch. I try to assess it through my binoculars as Rascal heaves and shifts his weight.
Wide, good front points but narrow paddles, which Irf calls “pans.” I’m about to kick Rascal up the trail when Irf rides up, more animated than I’ve seen him.
“What do you think of that?” he gushes. “That’s a 60-incher. Good bull. Shooter bull.”
I’m strangely unmoved. It’s a big bull, for sure, but I’ve set my sights higher, on a bull pushing 70 inches. I haven’t told Irf that this isn’t my first hunt in the Yukon. A decade ago, I hunted Dall sheep in the northwest part of the territory, spending memorable days riding, hiking, and glassing an empire of sheep country. Over the course of two weeks, I never saw a legal ram, but I did see several magnum bull moose and a handful of 30-inch sheds, evidence of bulls well over the magical 70-inch antler spread, the benchmark for a trophy Alaska-Yukon bull.
Camp No Hope
As the days pass, my hopes dwindle with our stock of dry firewood and Kraft Dinners. We endure whipping winds and blinding snows, and the moose have vanished. As the temperature drops and the snow accumulates, we see more caribou than moose as little herds of mountain caribou trail down from the high plateaus above our valley. My head tells me that the moose are here and that we need only to see a bull tending a cow in the timber in order to turn our fortune. But my eyes see only empty valleys, desolate swamps, wind-bent willows.
In our spruce grove, the nights come earlier every evening, both because we’re losing daylight at an astonishing rate and because we’re so tired from hiking and calling and glassing that we don’t want to stay out in the wind and the coat-burning sparks from our campfire. But neither do we want to turn away from each other to the dark of our tents. So we talk. About our families and our experiences. Jasper tells me about the great gift given all British Columbians, the chance to hunt wild sheep every year with a general tag. Irf talks about the global economy, the parliamentary election, and the inscrutability of Japan, where he worked for nearly a decade as a college music instructor.
LaDue talks about life in Ross Vegas, about hunting caribou and moose in late winter, when they’ve been pushed by snow out of the mountains and are abundant along the rutted old mining roads. He’s one of the designated hunters for the village, and he says meat is for sharing. He has stories of Native hunters who keep the best cuts for themselves or refuse to share.
“Those people get what’s coming to them,” he says. “They always get found out. In our culture, if you don’t share, you don’t survive.”
Then LaDue tells me the greatest reward for sharing moose meat: one night or maybe more with a favorite “auntie.”
Later, I ask LaDue what will happen to the meat from my bull if I’m lucky enough to kill one. I flew to Canada, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t easily haul hundreds of pounds of moose meat back home. Can I donate some? Would his aunties accept my gift? LaDue lights up a smoke and beams at me.
“I’d take your meat. Yeah. I’d like that.”
Encounters With a Bull
The next day, we spot a bull way up a valley. It’s too far, even with our good optics, to judge it well, so we point our horses that way.
The bull, it turns out, is a dandy. We think he’s one of the “shooters” we saw and assessed on our ride to camp over a week ago. He’s close to 60 inches wide with massive front points and decent pans. He’s not a 70-incher, but now I don’t care. We have only two days left, and I’m eager to put my gear to work.
I’m shooting a .300 Win. Mag. and Federal Premium Ammunition’s Terminal Ascent 200-grain bullets. As I was packing for this trip, it occurred to me that my two other moose had all fallen to Federal loads, first the venerable Trophy Bonded Tip and later the Trophy Copper bullet. The prospect of leaving the Yukon without firing a shot, or without testing the bullet’s performance on the biggest game, seems shameful.
We tie our horses in a spruce grove and huddle to talk strategy. The wind is blowing toward the moose, but maybe if we climb the ridge and approach from above, our scent will blow over them. Irf agrees, but then he pulls me close.
“If it’s OK with you, I’d like LaDue to lead this,” he whispers. “He’s never actually guided, but I think he’s ready.”
I’m quick to agree. LaDue is steady and strong, covers ground faster and more quietly than I do, and seems hard-wired to the currents and cues of the bush. I can’t wait to hunt with him and to help him ascend to the level of guide, just like his cousin Otto.
Everything goes right for the first half mile. We spot the bull, bedded at the end of a stringer of spruce. As long as we can keep him in sight, we can triangulate into range, keeping our wind out of his nose.
But then we flush a young bull out of some willows, and he runs up the valley directly below our target bull. A quarter mile later, LaDue spots a cow. She has made us, and her laser focus is unnerving. For 20 minutes, at over 300 yards, she doesn’t move. Then, quicker than I can write this, she turns herself inside out and runs away. The bull leaps out of his bed and joins her. I have a split second to make a broadside shot, but I don’t have his range. And then he’s gone. He stops once at 600 yards, but that’s too far to take a chancy shot. We watch him run out of sight.
LaDue and I are silent, sitting on the open slope above the valley. We’ll have to head back to the horses soon if we want to make camp in daylight, but LaDue is in no hurry. He unwraps a sandwich and chews slowly. More to fill the silence than anything, I tell him that I’m shocked that cow was so spooky.
“I’m not. We were whispering too loud, and we were careless. We didn’t respect that cow near enough.”
We ride back to camp mostly in the dark, and I’m sure I’ve had my last chance at a Yukon bull, lost to a ragged whisper.
On the next and final day, we return to a promontory over that small valley. To me, this is pro forma. We’re just putting in the time. We’re talking too loudly and glassing too casually when I spot something up the valley. It’s a bull moose, marching along the stream as if late for a meeting. I glass him, see the big fronts and short bell. It’s the same bull as last evening, though missing a point from a fight or a collision with a tree in yesterday’s flight. He’s a half mile away but coming toward us. If I’m going to have a shot, I’ll have to cut the distance in a hurry. Before I can confirm that Irf is behind me, I’m off, hurdling birches and postholing through bogs. I intercept the bull at 330 yards, steady my rifle on my tripod, and take the shot. The bull goes 4 feet—straight down.
There’s a timeless merriment to taking apart a big-game animal, each of us working on a quarter, all trading jokes and friendly insults. We’re loud and boisterous and bloody and mindful of the grizzly sign all around us. We bone out all the quarters and lay all the meat on spruce boughs atop a tarp. They’ll stay here overnight to cool—hopefully unmolested by a bear—before the wranglers pack them back to Carlton Camp. LaDue is particularly interested in the ribs, which he hacks out of the carcass with our camp ax.
“These we’ll boil and make soup, or we’ll barbecue them,” he says. “They make the best dry meat. A little chewy, but that’s OK because it lasts longer.”
Dry meat, a type of air-dried jerky, is a favorite with the aunties, LaDue says with a quick wink. He asks for the heart of the bull. He’ll save that for village festivals held in the darkest months of winter. He puts a few choice pieces to the side, and when I ask him what they’ll be used for, he’s quiet for a moment.
“Mrs. Otto,” he says. “Terry’s mom. I told her that as long as I work in the bush, I will bring her meat. That’s what Terry did, and that’s what I’ll do.”
Back at Carlton Lake, LaDue and Richer hack the moose meat into portions that will fit into 50-pound horse-feed bags, sized to fit in the belly of a plane. We’ve all had a good night’s sleep, and we’re about to separate, me on a floatplane back to civilization, the wranglers on a three-day ride with all the outfit’s horses to a mining road where Deuling will meet them with trailers. LaDue will spread Terry Otto’s ashes before hitting the trail in the morning.
LaDue has a wedge-point Sharpie, and he writes a name on each of the bags. There are a couple for Mrs. Otto, another bag for a favorite auntie, ribs with his own name on them, a couple for me, and two bags with his father’s name. I’ll be flying back to the village with all the meat, and LaDue says I should insist that the bags go to their rightful recipients.
“There are people in my village who will ignore those names, and they’ll just take that meat for themselves,” he says. “Your meat.”
It occurs to me that it was never my meat, not when it was just the idea of a Yukon moose, and less so once the bull was on the ground and giving up its blood to the willows and its heat to the sky. This was always LaDue’s meat to share.