by Ron Spomer - Monday, August 19, 2013
A guide led some hunters into the high country of northern British Columbia between the Prophet and Muskwa rivers. They rode, camped and hunted for more than two weeks before one of them, Lee Chadwick from Ohio, shot a Stone sheep for meat. The ram did not impress 61-year-old Chadwick. He thought the body was awfully small. But the horns were big. Each taped over 50 inches. This was enough to set a new world record for Stone sheep horns. It stands to this day. Many consider the Chadwick ram the finest trophy of any species ever taken from North America.
That was in 1936, a long time ago, and the place was wilderness. It still is. Last fall I went up there.
Unlike Chadwick, I didn’t have to ride horses for nearly two weeks just to reach the mountains. And the only ram I saw was the Ram truck I drove up 1,400 miles from Idaho. That’s a lot of driving, but a truck is the best way to get a moose home. Yeah. No meat ram for me. I was after a meat moose.
Wild mutton edges out moose meat as my favorite, but it’s a close contest and there’s a lot more flesh on a moose. For the cost of a hunt and four days of driving, I like to get my money’s worth. Some hunters are more impressed by antlers, and I can understand that. The world’s biggest deer has antlers that can spread 6 feet and weigh 70 pounds. But that meat! You don’t donate moose meat to the local food bank if you have any space in your freezer.
Once I got up there, Sean Olmstead of Prophet Muskwa Outfitters landed his bush plane on a small, grass strip along the highway and gave me a ride 50 or 60 miles west into the mountains. We flew over trees, lakes, bogs, rivers, rocks and mountain goats clinging to those rocks like tiny patches of snow. Then Sean spiraled down into the Prophet River Valley between a couple big, gray mountains. We landed on an uphill gravel strip beside a handful of log cabins. The cabins seemed to cling to their toehold in the wilderness like those goats clung to their mountain.
Tents are usually all the shelter you get on wilderness hunts, but log cabins are better, especially when there’s a gal there who makes the best pies north of Dawson Creek. This one did—and other stuff, too. Naturally, Jordie Maurice, my guide, made sure we rode away from this smorgasbord the very next morning. This wasn’t easy because in addition to the dry, comfortable cabins and all that food, elk bugled all around us. We could have hunted them instead of moose. I watched a big 6-point bull roaring and ripping up the foliage at sundown, but in the morning I stuck to my guns. Off to moose camp.
Now, a horse ride is adventure to some folks. They’ll pay money just to go on the ride. Dude ranches and bridle trails. I wouldn’t recommend taking any bride up Jordie’s trail, bridal or no bridle. It’s pretty enough for a wedding, but none too gentle. We climbed and pushed hard for 10 or 12 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain through some pretty country—the kind that slopes away and then climbs up and up as if each mountain is clamoring to see over the others.
You can see real far once you’re above the fir trees. After that it’s all golden tundra and blueberries, marmots and eagles, creeks and waterfalls. Funny thing was, for all the willow basins and valleys we crossed, we never saw a moose. We spotted a grizzly plodding over a pass as if it were late for dinner and flushed ptarmigan off the trail, but the moose must have heard we were coming.
“Not to worry,” Jordie said. He said it like a classic, laconic cowboy. Just those three words. Not all cowboys are laconic, so I like it when one is so I can use “laconic” in a story.
“Why not?” I asked, egging him on.
“Always moose up here.” Progress. He was up to four words.
The next morning there were moose right below camp. Our camp, by the way, was a plywood shack, or what parts of it the squirrels and porcupines hadn’t eaten. There was a roof that kept the rain off the floor, a wood-burning stove and a couple wooden bunks for our bedrolls. Good enough. Jordie had to stomp the floor a couple of times a night to silence the gnawing porcupines, but nothing ever got into our gear.
This cabin perched on the flank of a long ridge where a few stringers of firs provided firewood and a comfortable, homey feeling you don’t get on bare tundra. Right from the doorway we could see 8 miles to the west, a couple miles south and 3 or 4 miles north. It was a good lookout. I glassed up that first bull before sunrise with a little binocular, an 8X Swarovski with 30mm objective lenses everyone says are too small, but it carries easy and the lenses are sharp and more than bright enough to find moose. The things stand 6 feet tall at the shoulder. And they’re practically black—except for their white antlers.
The black of this one was what caught my eye. Like I said, it was right below camp, right out in this big, dull meadow, but when you looked closer you saw it was a mix of yellow sedges and brown tundra plants and green willows just starting to yellow and then those low-growing, tangled dwarf birches turning rusty. He was in those, turning his white palms this way and that, flashing big and bright as he fed right toward us. He looked big. But Jordie said he was 2 miles away and he was the first one, so we should ride out and look over some others—like the three crossing a ridge 4 miles to the west. After breakfast we did.
Some folks are happy to go to their old deer camp and sit in their old stand and watch their old trails year after year. They like to remember when Grandpa got the three-horned buck and that time old Jimmy missed the Ghost Buck five shots in a row. Stuff like that. And that’s good. But I like discovering new country, even if it’s only new to me. I like seeing a hazy horizon and riding toward it then crossing the far side and feeling even better when what’s there is as wild and undefiled as the country I’d just experienced. Country where you’re more likely to see a wolverine track than a boot print. Country where men have hunted for hundreds of years but you’d hardly know it because it’s still the same and those moose and caribou and grizzlies they saw, you see too. It’s all there, over and over again, year after year, generation after generation, reborn and eternal.
“They say that’s where they got the Chadwick ram, back of that mountain,” Jordie said. He was growing talkative. “Jack O’Connor hunted here, too.” That’s what I mean about over and over again.
We rode about 6 miles west that day, through creeks and bogs, past mountain lakes, over tundra ridges. We stopped six times to glass and found a dozen bulls. Twelve moose might not sound like much when you’re used to seeing a couple dozen whitetails in a small cornfield, but mountains of wilderness are more scenery than nutrition. It takes a lot of it to keep a moose alive. We watched one bull ruminating at the base of a fir-covered hill where a series of springs watered a green sedge oasis that oozed down to an alpine lake where a flock of common goldeneyes was diving.
Just before lunch Jordie saw a big bull walking over the skyline toward a spattering of fir hummocks to the north. After lunch I found three bulls lying on a hogback ridge up the creek to the west and another no more than a mile from them in a patch of willows above a side creek. Jordie spotted a pair walking through a distant basin gone orange with birch.
We studied each through his 65mm spotting scope, turning the 20X-60X eyepiece as high as atmospheric conditions would allow so we could study the antlers. Bulls weren’t legal unless they had 10 points or at least three brow tines on one antler. That scope saved us several miles of riding for nothing. But one bull looked as if he might qualify.
“Let’s get closer.”
We did, tying the horses in a little island of firs then sneaking within 40 yards of the sleeping bull, just his antlers showing over the hogback. He had 10 points, but two maybe weren’t as tall as they were wide at the base, which meant they wouldn’t count, so we couldn’t chance it. Just for fun we grunted and cow-called, but the rut wasn’t quite close enough. He looked but wouldn’t get up to check out what we were.
The elk rut, however, was in full swing. As we explored yet another valley, a young bull mistook our horses for potential mates and hurried over, neck stretched and bugling. In another week, moose would do the same thing. Humans aren’t the only species in which testosterone has proven an antidote to intelligence.
On our ride back to camp we found a bull feeding near three cows at the edge of a copse of firs far in the distance. Jordie thought it carried the best antlers we’d seen all day, but it was too late to ride over for a closer look and, even with the scope cranked, he couldn’t be certain it had enough points. “We can head that way tomorrow.”
A rain squall swept in just as we got to camp, a gray wall flying in from the west. Several more whistled in behind it. When I got up at midnight to check the stars, it was snowing—just enough for atmosphere but not enough to stick.
“Rise and shine cowboy!”
Never mind it was full dark. Jordie was up rattling the stove. I waited until it started glowing orange before sticking bare feet to the floor. It was a Merino wool long johns and GoreTex kind of day.
Just as we rode out, the sun broke. The autumnal splendor had intensified overnight. Leaves glowed yellow, orange, red and scarlet as if plugged in and even the moose were feeling the change. Two young bulls were now in the sedge meadow by the lake. Jordie watched them.
“Let’s head north and look for that big one,” I said.
“Wait. Hear that? One’s grunting,” said Jordie.
I lifted the fleece cap from my ears and turned out of the wind. Sure enough—bull grunts.“There he is coming over the top.”
Tall, wide, dark and full of himself, this bull was the epitome of a rutting moose. He didn’t walk. He swaggered. He turned and rocked his palms. He was a mammalian peacock, and he headed right for the smaller bulls. We forgot all about the big bull to the north.
“This is the same bull that was lying down here yesterday,” Jordie said. “He’s no record, but he’s got three brow tines on each side and pretty palms. Nice balance. And he’s a lot closer to camp.”
Hint hint. Well, my goal was adventure, a wilderness hunt and moose meat. The first two objectives were already met. The third stood 400 yards away.
“Let’s sneak closer.”
As we slipped through the birches and down the slope, the two biggest bulls raked a young fir then clunked antlers together and pushed. The rut was starting. In another day or two they’d scrape shallow pits, urinate in them and roll. Cows would start moaning. When one with an intoxicating odor caught their noses, they’d fight in earnest. But this day they were just sparring in their summer prime—fat, tender and perfect for taking home to the table.
I sat against a small tree, elbows inside my knees. The bulls were 200 yards away and partially blocked by young trees. I was shooting a Blaser R8 chambered in 7mm Remington Magnum with three Winchester bonded, 150-grain Power Max spire-points in the magazine. I quietly bolted one into the chamber and waited. Back home this combination easily punched bullet after bullet into a 10-inch circle at 300 yards, but something was different in this Prophet Muskwa country.
Thinner air, I think, had me breathing harder. I tried to break the bull’s spine with a high shoulder shot. Too high. He merely stumbled. I lowered my aim and that knocked him flat.This is where most hunting stories end, but not most hunts.
Jordie and I sat quietly and watched the remaining two bulls trot up into the trees behind a light shower of snow. After they left, we picked our way across the bog and reacquainted ourselves with the enormity of a dead moose. There would be work. But with two of us skinning and cutting and lifting and joking, we soon had the surrounding logs festooned with meat.
When thirsty we stuck our faces in the spring that arose amid the mossy rocks and drank. You can’t do that back in the whitetail fields. We took half of one tenderloin back to camp for a feast.
The next morning we returned and loaded everything onto two pack horses then started the long ride back to the cabins—a ride some folks would pay good money to take—a ride through the high divide between the Prophet and Muskwa rivers in northern British Columbia that was wilderness 75 years ago. It still is.
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