White water roared and frothed around the raft in a deadly caldron. Willow branches reached with Medusa-like fingers, stirring, grasping then heaving the front of the packraft into the spray above the roar. Icy water lapped hungrily at the back and side of the raft, straining to get inside it. There was a slurp then a rush, and I watched as the back of Greg’s packraft was forced underwater while willows lifted the bow with a lunge. I battled the frothing current to keep my own packraft free of the sweeping madness as my hunting partner was forced into a slow-motion backflip and disappeared beneath the water.
“Sure, I’m in,” Greg had replied to my inquiry months earlier. His voice came clear across the phone line, confidence mingled with just a hint of trepidation. Excitement was present, too. Such emotions were restrained by wisdom birthed by years of backcountry experience. Greg was getting a trifle long in the tooth for an adventure such as the one on which I had just asked him to join me—in fact he would turn 61 alongside a smoky campfire deep in Alaska’s moose country. But he was spry and savvy, which counts for more than the number of winters a man has seen.
Nearly 20 years earlier I had climbed a tall power-line structure deep in “somewhere” Alaska. It was not the wisest place to improvise a treestand, but I wanted a vantage point overlooking a willow swamp. It paid off, showing me a glimpse of a bull moose with antlers that looked like twin four-masters sailing above the Alaska willows. I tried to get closer to the bull, stalking through the tundra and head-high brush. I never saw him again. Twenty years had passed, 20 years with scarcely a week gone by absent thoughts of that moose, my bones aching for another chance.
Now that chance was mine, but the price might be too high.
Floating the Trickle My good friend and Alaska resident had dropped Greg and I alongside a remote Alaska trickle. We’d have to line our packrafts downstream until it turned into a creek large enough to float. Once that happened, we would hunt for moose.
That was the plan, anyway.
Our research indicated no one had ever float-hunted this creek for moose before, and we couldn’t be sure what to expect. My first real hint of trouble came when my friend hung around like a worried mother hen as we inflated our rafts, finally giving us a big hug before leaving.
I looked at Greg: “He’s worried about us.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too,” my float partner replied.
A half-nervous chuckle completed the discussion.
Lining our rafts down the meager stream was tough, but fun. A few hours later, it was just tough. Evening grew near, and we still had miles to go before our rafts would float with us aboard. A gravel bar beckoned and we set up camp, studying the surrounding mountainsides for sign of bears or moose. Nothing moved, nothing at all. We ate and then slept, the noisy creek rushing by on its way toward the distant Yukon River.
Frosty sunshine greeted us from beneath the edge of a lead-capped sky the next morning, giving us a cheerful few minutes before disappearing for the day. We loaded our boats, still trying to figure out the best way to distribute weight. Lashing down everything seemed to take forever, but I wasn’t willing to risk losing all my gear if my raft overturned. Finally, we were ready. Down the stream we went, intermittent rain flurries chasing each other across the northern sky.
The stream was getting wider and faster now, with occasional pools and channels deep enough to allow us to hop into our rafts for a few seconds of floating. Then we rounded a swift, timber-edged corner and the stream was gone.
Gone, that is, under a tangled mass of contorted logs, piled high by floodwaters. We dragged our rafts onto a small sandbar and stared at the logjam. Sitting on a big rock, we ate our lunch. Still we stared, as though if we glared at the offending mass long enough it would disappear. Logjams had been expected, but the ferocity of the water roaring though the sharp and shattered wood was mesmerizing and fearful.
Bellies full, we began the tedious task of unlacing, unstrapping and unloading our rafts. We portaged our boats and our gear around the logjam then loaded, strapped and laced everything back together. Our downstream progress lasted a half-mile before we encountered another jam. Greg and I looked at each other, an unspoken thought loud in the Alaska air: If this continued, there would be no way to float moose meat down to our pickup point. We would have to spend every day fighting downstream just to get there in time.
We unloaded, portaged, reloaded and continued. The stream was still too shallow to float much of the time, but the grade had increased and tributary creeks had boosted the flow. The water was beautiful but volatile, placidly meandering one moment and ripping around sweeper-infested corners the next.
Hell’s Brooms A sweeper, for the reader unfamiliar with the term, is a creek-edge tree from which the bank has eroded beneath it, or a tree that has simply fallen across the stream. It may be alive or dead, its limbs reaching with clawing fingers down to the rushing water. Dangerous is an understatement—if your raft gets swept into those limbs they will halt your progress, the water will surge over and around your raft, perhaps flipping, tumbling or submerging it. Sharp branches may puncture your vessel, leaving you without transportation in the wilds of Alaska. Worst case, you will be flipped under your raft, your waders will fill with arctic water, and you will be pinned in the depths by the sweeper and hundreds of pounds of moose meat and gear.
One of the more dangerous elements of a sweeper’s personality is that one is usually found where the rushing stream forms a corner, eroding the bank. Not only does that make every sweeper a sudden and sinister surprise, the angry current does its best to carry you beneath it. The heavier your raft, the harder it becomes to maneuver shoreward and avoid dangerous sweepers. Willows also can form sweeping mats of branches reaching across frothing corners, shorter and limbless, but often many yards in extent.
Point is, sweepers of any sort are hellishly dangerous. We encountered too many to count, but in most cases were able to avoid them by circling around the tip, or sawing a path through the limbs wide and high enough for our loaded rafts to slip under and through, or simply by heaving the end of the tree high enough to float our boats beneath them. Some, though, were big and bad enough that we had no alternative to unloading and portaging.
Pushing On Another large stream plunged into ours, doubling the size. This was the place we had planned to camp and hunt, having assumed the water would be deep and calm enough to float big, heavy loads downstream from this point. We talked. We beached our rafts and scouted downstream. We watched the current. And we both agreed big, heavy loads would be deadly. We needed to travel downstream until the water calmed and we could float full loads with a modicum of safety. With grim hearts and intent faces, we climbed back on our rafts and pointed the bows downstream.
Our research had rumored of a huge logjam a mile or so downstream from the confluence of the creeks. We watched the water with hopeful hearts as we floated and lined our boats down-canyon. Yes, it was fast, much faster than we had anticipated, but there seemed to be enough water to float heavier rafts. Perhaps we could kill moose after all.
Rounding a long corner we spotted the logjam. Thank the hunting gods we had ample time to beach our packrafts—this jam was many times bigger and wider than any we had seen yet. A craft swept into the snarling mass wouldn’t have the chance of a snowball in Hades. We beached our rafts on a gravel bar and went to work.
Hours later we had bushwhacked a portage around the jam, loaded our rafts in the charging current below and leapt aboard. The same intelligence that had forewarned us about the big jam indicated it was the last of its kind between our pickup point and us. It was time to go hunting. We knew the potential dangers that awaited us along the float out, but we had traveled several thousand miles to hunt, not just float down a creek.
We would kill only one moose, though. We reckoned we might float one moose split between two rafts and still hope to make our pickup point alive. Not two, though—there was no way we could make it down this volatile creek with two moose.
We found a good gravel bar wrapped in a sweeping creek bend and beached our rafts. Pushing our way into the willows, we discovered a small opening. At the center lay an old moose antler, shed in this spot long ago. A pile of thumb-sized, bean-shaped moose scat lay nearby. A good sign, I thought to myself, and suddenly I had a premonition: I would kill a bull moose here. We unloaded our rafts, set up camp and prepared for the hunt. Just before dark we forded the creek, climbed a steep bluff and performed our first recital of the moose calls we had practiced for months. Dark found us back in camp, sitting by a smoky fire as rain pelted our diamond fly tarp overhead. By the light of my headlamp I crafted a crude moose call megaphone from birch bark and para-cord.
Moose Grunts and Hunts Ungh: I froze, hands inside the pack I was prepping for my morning hunt. Dawn was spilling across our canyon, gray light illuminating our willow patch. Greg was gone into the willows, and I could see his rifle leaning near the tent. Had he bull-grunted? Seemed unlikely. I cupped my hands around my mouth and did my best imitation of a bull grunt.
Unghhh: The answer was immediate, closely followed by another, nearer this time. Greg came flying through the willows and into the clearing, a roll of toilet paper in hand and a wild look in his eyes. Rifles shouldered, we knelt and waited as the grunts drew closer. But the wind was wrong; moose don’t have those big noses just for show. The bull vanished, leaving nothing but big, soupy tracks along the water’s edge. How big had he been? No telling. He’d stood only 40 yards distant in the willows, and we’d never seen even a glimpse.
An hour later we sat on our bluff-side perch, alternately calling and glassing with our binoculars. As my Vortex Fury HD binocular swept slowly across a distant bench my eyes caught a tiny white flash. Riveted, I watched as long minutes drained away. Then, suddenly, another white flash showed briefly beside the first then vanished. It was what I had been waiting for: A bull moose lay bedded a mile and a half across the canyon, and when he moved his head just right his antlers flashed twin signals: “A big bull moose lies here.”
A brief argument ensued, my ambition debating with Greg’s wisdom whether we should go after the moose. It was a long way from the creek, and it would be a brutal pack out, should we be fortunate enough to make a kill. Ambition won and late morning found us working in on the moose’s position, trying unsuccessfully to call the bull, our sounds stolen by a whipping Alaska wind. We stalked closer.
The bull was gone, but as we worked our way toward the timber Greg caught a flash of him running. “He’s big,” Greg stated, and I knew the bitterness of a ruined hard-core stalk. I grunted a couple times, with the faint hope that it would stop the bull. No response. We waited, the wind whipping the brush around us into a frenzy. Finally, we snuck into the timber, hoping to get a look at the bull’s bed and read the sign left there.
Ungh: We froze.
Ungggh: The bull was coming, apparently intrigued by the sound of branches beating against our pack frames. Perhaps it sounded like antlers against brush. Whatever the reason, he was coming, and in a mad rush we cleared the timber and crossed a small opening. Taking cover, I grabbed a bleached, bear-chewed moose scapula that I’d picked up from the creek bank the day before and rubbed it on a small spruce. A stroke down, then up. Another stroke down.
“There he is! He’s coming!” Greg whisper-shouted. I spotted a heavy antler and an eyeball, not 35 yards away. The eye was locked on me, the bull hidden behind a tall evergreen. Slowly, I raised the moose scapula, bright white in the Alaska sunshine. Above and right of my head, I swayed the bone back and forth, imitating a posturing bull moose. The bull’s response was immediate, disdain for my little white antler obvious as he strode broadside into the open. I don’t remember how my rifle reached my shoulder, but there was the bull filling most of my Leupold VX-6 scope with his bulk. The crosshairs wavered then steadied over the tremendous vitals.
My rifle crashed, and the bull spun faster than anything that big should be able to spin. A second 200-grain Hornady ELD-X crossed the path of the first. The moose lunged ahead, my third bullet clipping a small green branch on its path to vitals. The bull spun again, and a fourth, altogether unnecessary shot intersected with the previous three just as he collapsed. His heavy antlers made one last powerful twitch, and the monarch lay still.
Never before have I experienced the conflicting surge of emotions I felt as I approached my bull. On the one hand, I had just fulfilled a 20-year dream, and with a beautiful, heavy-antlered bull to boot. On the other hand, here we were a mile and a half from the creek, and 25 miles of dangerous floating from our pickup point. Jubilation and apprehension create a strange mix. I knelt beside the bull, ran my hands over his shaggy hair and his massive antlers. We gave thanks.
Meat, Packing and Greg’s Hat A couple hundred elk have been reduced to meat under my knife, but the sheer size of that moose was staggering. “It’s gonna be big—bigger than anything you’ve ever killed” sounds good while you’re sharpening your knife in the man-cave pre-trip. Reality is far more convincing. Nonetheless, Greg and I skinned, quartered, trimmed and bagged all the meat, and cleaned the skull, in two and one-quarter hours. Then, one huge hindquarter on my pack and all our gear on Greg’s, we staggered back to camp.
I’d like to tell you of the brutal, mind-numbing, 130-pound packs back to camp, about every step through brush, deadfall-infested swamp and loofa-like tundra. The prickly, rifle-safety-off, spine-tingling sensation of approaching a pile of moose meat in grizzly country would be fun to describe. I’d enjoy detailing the trip downstream, rafts loaded and soggy with weight. Maybe someday we can sit around a smoky backcountry fire, and I can tell you those stories. Until then, you’ll have to use your imagination. Make it good, and it still won’t be as good as it really was.
You’re probably wondering what happened to Greg when he swamped under the willow sweepers. He bobbed to the surface, caught his raft and lined it to shore. He was madder—and more scared—than a little wet rooster. But we dried him out, cheered him with a campfire and big lunch, re-packed his gear and moose meat on the raft, and headed down the creek. All he lost was his hat.