A 2,000-milejourney to game-rich B.C. leads to amazing opportunities for moose and elk
I THOUGHT SURELY I WAS DREAMING. I could hear a dog frantically barking and the unmistakable bawling of a grizzly bear. I lay there in my sleeping bag trying to sift through the sounds, gradually becoming aware that it wasn’t a dream at all. It was really happening, right outside my cabin. Then I heard a shot. Then another shot, followed by the sounds of footsteps and shouting voices. Something was very wrong.
Because I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t dare venture outside. An enraged grizzly and excited men with rifles was a recipe for danger. So I stayed put, even after everything quieted down. Better to wait for daybreak to discover what had caused all the fuss.
Grizzly on the Prowl
At first light I strolled over to the dining cabin, where a group of guides and camp helpers were drinking coffee and discussing the previous night’s ruckus. All of the men were Indians, hardened woodsmen who were born in the area’s small villages and were used to the ways of the wild, including commotions caused by wayward grizzly bears.
Danny Descharleis looked up at me and grinned as I approached. A full-blooded Cree, he was the head guide. He was eager to fill me in.
“You hear all that shoutin’ and shootin’?” he asked.
“Couldn’t help but hear it,” I said. “Sounded like there was a little problem last night.”
“Problem solved,” Danny said. “We had to kill a grizzly. Otherwise he could have killed one of us.”
As it turned out, the bear had approached one of the men as he was walking through camp. The camp dog, a husky, charged the bear. In turn, the grizzly swatted at the dog and then came after the man. Several shots from the other quick-thinking guides followed until the bear was no longer a concern.
I wasn’t surprised. When I had arrived in camp the day before, Danny had told me there were several bold grizzlies prowling the area. They’d already broken into cabins and made off with several moose and elk quarters. War was formally declared when one of the bruins made a threatening bluff charge at Nancy, Danny’s wife, as she walked from the shower cabin. Bears brazenly strolling through camp in search of food were almost an everyday occurrence in the area of British Columbia where I was hunting. It was accepted, but the more menacing bruins weren’t tolerated for long.
The northern region of British Columbia is my favorite place to hunt in Canada, which explains why this was my 20th hunt here. For years I’d heard about the superb big-game hunting in the Prophet Muskwa area but had never been able to set up a hunt. Then I met outfitter Kevin Olmstead. His area, stretching over thousands of square miles, has an incredible variety of big game, which has helped earn this Canadian wilderness the designation “the Serengeti of the North.” Yet whereas the chief predators in Africa’s game-rich Serengeti plains are lions, in the northern reaches of British Columbia grizzly bears are the toughest customers around. In fact, bears seem to be everywhere in B.C., especially in the enormous mountain ranges that stretch throughout the province. I can’t recall a single hunt in B.C. where I didn’t see grizzly tracks, and on most hunts I saw the bears themselves.
Canadian law requires a lot of paperwork detailing the events of a grizzly incident (the paperwork and the bear’s hide and skull would eventually be surrendered to the provincial wildlife agency), and Danny got to it. When he finished, he tossed me a sack lunch. It was time to go moose hunting.
In Chadwick’s Shadow
Soon we were guiding our horses along the trail up the Prophet River. Danny and another guide, Roy Napolean, rode with ease through the spruce and fir forest that grew out of a glistening blanket of snow. I followed, lost in admiration for this special place, until Danny pulled up and slid off his horse. We had traveled about two hours from camp, finally breaking into an opening where the forest abutted a sparsely timbered area.
I slipped on my day pack, shouldered my rifle and started up the trail behind Danny and Roy. Looking down, I saw the tracks of moose, elk, caribou, grizzly bears and wolves. When I started glassing the area, I spotted game in all directions. Even at the higher elevations, stone sheep and goats were going about their daily routines.
The soft, powdery snow let us move quietly. Danny kept checking the landscape through his binocular, but I was temporarily distracted. I remembered something that had occurred 70 years before, not too far from where I was hunting.
In 1936, L.S. Chadwick had set out on horseback and spotted three huge rams up on the skyline. Chadwick, 62, hiked with his guide, Roy Hargreaves, a mile and a half to where they had first spotted the sheep, only to find them gone. As Chadwick later recounted, “We sighted them down in the Muskwa Valley, two thousand or more feet below. Then down over the rock slide, with sore feet and trembling knees, we went, until we got to within two hundred yards of them.”
Chadwick shot the biggest ram of the bunch, which has since become an icon of big-game hunting history. The sheep remains the only recorded ram ever taken in North America with horns that measured more than 50 inches long. According to the latest edition of the Boone and Crockett Club’s Records of North American Big Game, Chadwick’s ram is “widely regarded as the best biggame trophy this continent has produced.” The story of Chadwick’s famous Muskwa hunt appeared in the February 1937 issue of OUTDOOR LIFE.
Moose–Is It Good?
Danny broke my trance when he suddenly stopped and threw up his glasses. “Moose,” he said. “Big bull, but I can’t tell if he’s legal.”
I trained my binocular on the large bull. He had his head down, and his antlers were partially obscured by willows. A legal bull had to have a minimum of 10 points on one antler, or three on a brow tine.
We quickly eased behind some trees and made our way toward the moose. By the time we narrowed the distance to 200 yards, he was gone. With the wind in our favor, we struggled on, circling high over a ridge in snow that was 2 feet deep. The bull appeared again, this time heading for a stand of short firs. We still weren’t able to count his points.
We had a full view of the area he entered. When he didn’t exit for a half hour we assumed he had bedded. The sun was high in the sky and we hadn’t spooked the animal. It was time for him to quit moving around for the day.
Roy went back to get the horses while Danny hatched a plan. We’d try a drive. I had been on more than a dozen moose hunts in my life and thought I’d used every tactic possible, but I’d never attempted this. Roy would ride his horse through the trees while Danny and I took up a position along the spooked moose’s likely escape corridor. I felt good about the strategy.
As we sat there, I studied the towering peaks painted white with snow, so numerous that many of them bear no name. Their jagged spires seemed to tear at the brilliant blue sky. I reflected on where I was and how I got there, comforted with the thought that the nearest road was at least 100 miles away. It had been a long and sometimes perilous journey, but that only made the trip more meaningful.
I’d driven more than 2,000 miles from home to get here. Upon arriving at milepost 222 on the Alaska Highway, I was picked up at a small airstrip. From there I flew to the main lodge 30 miles away. Next came a 50-mile jet-boat ride up the raging Muskwa River, followed by a six-mile horseback ride to a spike camp, and finally another 12-mile ride to the main camp. The last leg of the journey had been especially tense, since we barely beat an oncoming blizzard to the high mountain pass that we had to cross. Had we been caught there in a whiteout, the results could have been disastrous.
Tagging a moose on this trip would be almost anticlimactic. Facing down the small elements of suspense and danger that had accompanied my journey and getting to stand in an untamed country was the real adventure. At journey’s end, the payoff would arrive from what we saw, smelled, felt and heard in this wildest of all lands.
Time to Shoot
“Here he comes,” Danny hissed, jarring me back to the mission at hand. “Get ready!” I propped my rifle onto the shooting sticks and found the bull in my scope. He was trotting out of the trees as I waited for Danny to confirm that he was legal.
“Ten points on one side,” Danny said. “Shoot!”
As if on cue, the bull stopped and looked at us. The bullet took him in the muscle crease behind the shoulder, missing the shoulder bones and taking out both lungs. It was my favorite type of shot. No wasted meat and a quick, humane dispatch. The palms of his rack were high and wide, 54 inches across with 10 points on one side and 8 on the other.
After skinning and quartering the carcass, we rode the six miles back to camp. As the sun descended toward the western horizon, the mountains took on incredible hues of pink, rose and purple. I fumbled for my camera and managed to snap a few pictures in those quiet moments of pristine beauty.
We returned the next morning with packhorses to transport the meat and made an interesting discovery. A grizzly had buried the quarters in the snow and left, leaving the gut pile and rest of the meat untouched. Danny suggested that I stand guard with my rifle as he and Roy worked to load the meat. I manned my post, constantly sweeping the underbrush with my eyes, looking for any movement that spelled trouble. I was happy once we rode out with our treasure. That bear had to settle for moose innards.
The ride out was as fascinating as the other rides. Game abounded, and I took a mental inventory of what I saw. I spotted a half dozen more moose, including a bull nearly as big as mine, and a couple dozen elk, all of them very high up the mountain. It would have taken a full day to hunt them. In the upper reaches of the slopes I saw dozens of stone sheep big and small, a caribou pair and, even higher, a trio of goats moving among the treacherous peaks. Then came the crowning glory. The cabins were just coming into view when I detected an unexpected animal romping in the snow a few yards away. It was a wolverine, one of the very few I’ve ever seen, despite a lifetime of hunting in the North Country.
More Bear Trouble
We had barely ridden into camp when I heard a shot, followed by two more. I quickly tied my horse to the hitching post and ran over to where a small group of people stood gathered. On the ground at their feet was another grizzly. Like the bear shot earlier, this one had threatened one of the camp helpers.
“I hate it when we have to kill one of them,” Danny said. “But what are we gonna do? Go somewhere else? That won’t help. There are grizzlies everywhere up here.” He was right. We encountered fresh tracks wherever we rode and hiked.
“People who say the grizzlies in B.C. are decreasing should come here and have a look,” Danny said as he helped move the bear. “They haven’t got a clue. I’ve lived here all my life and have never seen a time when there were more than there are now.”
Next Up: Elk
The following morning, I hurried out of my cabin when I heard excited voices. Nearby, another hunter and his guide took turns glassing an elk from the porch of an adjacent cabin. The elk was on a slope a mile away, and eventually the pair decided to give it a try.
I watched the stalk from my cabin through a spotting scope. I was still watching three hours later when the bull suddenly hunched up and dropped to the ground. The sound of the shot arrived soon afterward.
Once Danny had taken care of the dead grizzly and helped build a meat cache that hopefully would be more secure, we decided it was our turn to hunt elk. That afternoon, we rode from camp up the valley for just over a half mile. As the trail ascended, we stopped and glassed herds of elk that were scattered along the slopes around us. One bull looked especially interesting, but he was still two miles away.
“I think he’s worth a look,” Danny said. “We can ride to within a mile of him, and then we’ll walk from there.”
It took a full hour to work the horses through the alders and evergreens. By the time we made it through, the bull was nowhere to be seen.
“Figures,” Danny said. “He’s probably bedded up there somewhere. It’s fairly open. We might either spot him or flush him out.”
With the horses tied up, we worked the contour of the slope a third of the way up the mountain. Danny knew a spot where elk normally bedded. We had walked only about 20 minutes when a bull suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Another 30 yards and we’d have stepped on him. I dropped to one knee and quickly positioned the shooting sticks as Danny blew a cow call. The bull stopped and looked just long enough for me to take the shot. It was his last look.
He was a nice 6 by 6 bull with good mass to his antlers. I was happy with my trophy, Danny was happy and the bears would be happy when they feasted on the remains. This time there would be no offering of meat lying in the snow, however. Anticipating the need to remove game meat quickly, we had brought packhorses with us, and we hauled the quarters back to camp that evening. There would be no need to return the next morning.
As we headed back to camp, I felt content. I had a sizeable cache of meat to take home with me, but more important, I had just completed one of the greatest hunting adventures of my life. I knew I would sleep well that night, though not too well. When you bed down in this wild country, it’s always best to do so with one eye open.