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Amid a deluge, hunters say goodbye to Moose Camp

Rick Sinnott
Courtesy Rick Sinnott

Frances found Moose Camp years before she met John. She used to park her Jeep at an overlook on the Denali Highway and watch bull moose, at the far range of her binoculars, sparring across the river. That was more than 30 years ago.

John laughs now when he recalls Frances’ desire to shoot a moose. He once asked her, “What would you do if you shot one? You’re too small to lift one of its legs.” But Frances was nothing if not determined. John admits now that she had plenty of sharp knives, and she would have carried the moose back to her vehicle in 10-pound chunks if that’s what it took.

Frances established Moose Camp -- a small knoll with a panoramic view of willow thickets and mountains -- with a previous husband. Now she expected John to take her back every year, and he did his best. I was first invited about 20 years ago.

Frances died last winter. She asked John to take her ashes to Moose Camp.

Moose Camp

I hadn’t hunted with John and Frances for about six years. He asked me to return to Moose Camp with him this year for four days during the last week of hunting season. He told me the trip was mainly about Frances, but if we could find a legal bull, so much the better.

He also warned me to expect changes. He and Frances had also missed the annual trip in several recent years, but two years ago he had noticed new four-wheeler trails and heavier use of the old trail.

The best thing about Moose Camp is the near absence of moose, especially legal bulls. The paucity of legal moose was a disincentive to other hunters, and we didn’t want to see other hunters.

By hunting hard we could usually find one legal moose in a week. These were often yearling bulls, with a spike or a single fork on one side. We could also shoot bulls with at least a 50-inch antler spread or at least three, later four, brow tines on one antler. We shot no more than one moose each year. Once we had a chance to shoot two bulls at the same time. We left one standing.

In the beginning, John and Frances traveled to Moose Camp by boat, but John eventually began using a four-wheeler to get to camp, in addition to a boat. Initially, I wondered why more hunters didn’t follow the same trail. Walking into camp the first year, I realized two mid-sized rivers had to be crossed.

I knew the trail to Moose Camp and the surrounding country well. After a few hunts, when I pulled into camp and revisited old haunts, my heart lurched. Would this be the last time? Each year, before leaving, I memorized details -- not just the lichen-encrusted boulders or the broad sweep of gravel bars, mountains, and sky, but the more ephemeral arrangement of wolf tracks and porcupine-gnawed antlers, of rusty dwarf birches punctuated by dark green conifers.

Combat hunting

The trail was a little worse for wear, but most disconcerting were the new trails branching off the old route. Four trails in a seven-mile stretch, all created in the past six years, were as deeply worn as the old trail. We met only two other hunters riding six-wheelers on the trail, and we’d never met anyone before. But obviously, the trails were getting more use.

The two river crossings were unremarkable. The first river, draining a large plateau, is relatively slow to rise and recede. The water level was near normal, nearly two feet deep in the middle. The second river is closer to the mountains and glacier fed; hence, it’s liable to rise and fall rapidly. It was as low as we’ve seen it, perhaps 18 inches in the middle.

We pulled into Moose Camp shortly before dark. The next morning I hiked to a nearby observation point. For nearly 15 years this was a pleasant stroll along a game trail through waist-high dwarf birch shrubs. But four-wheelers had followed that faint trail right up the hill to the observation post. Some hunters clearly don’t like to leave their machines in camp.  

Looking over about five square miles of willow flats during the morning hunt I watched a party of six hunters in three jet boats roar downriver. Before they were out of sight, three more hunters in two other rigs -- a four-wheeler and a six-wheeler -- muttered down the trail past Moose Camp. Two other hunters on four-wheelers crossed the willow flats along the braided river, heading home with a caribou.  

Shaking my head over the traffic, I heard a low growl growing louder behind me. I stood up with my hands in my pockets. Another six-wheeler rolled to a halt 20 yards away, and two hunters stepped out and started to pull out their rifles. Either they didn’t see me or they were planning to shoot me. I walked closer. They hadn’t seen me; somewhat chagrined, they apologized for disturbing my reverie. I told them no problem, that’s why we wear camo.

I waited until the mutter of their machine faded and walked back to camp along a double-rutted, mud-slick trail pioneered by the hooves of caribou and moose.

People have different tolerance levels, and perhaps spotting 13 hunters in a single morning wouldn’t be a big deal to another hunter. But I don’t combat fish, and I don’t combat hunt.

Wind and rain

I haven’t mentioned the wind and rain. The Nelchina Basin caught the ragged edge of the same storm that hit Anchorage and other parts of southcentral Alaska in mid-September, stranding and killing other hunters. We had driven through heavy rains along the Parks and Denali highways, had a brief respite the first evening, then more rain all night and the first day of hunting. The second night, a driving rain pounded the tents all night.

Nearly everything we owned was at least damp and some outerwear was soaked. More discouraging, rain obscures visibility, and the wind, gusting from 20 to 40 mph, kept moose hunkered down in the timber, where they were difficult to see.

But the final straw was the river. John, with an eye on the rapidly rising torrent below us, suggested that we cut the hunt short. When John says a river is going to be difficult to cross, I listen. We packed and broke camp an hour or so later.

Coming out

The normal ford across the braided river was already impassable, the current in the first channel running fast and deep. Both John and I are careful in the field. We rode downstream, looking for shallower series of braids that we could cross one at a time. We worked our way slowly across several channels, often wading into the turbulent, silty water before committing the more-vulnerable machines. The final channel was just below camp.

We rejected several fords we’d used in the past. The water wasn’t too deep, but the current was powerful and the far bank was just steep enough that, given a little trouble getting out, we might find ourselves upside down under a four-wheeler.

By weaving between several low islands and gravel bars we made it across, but both of us had plunged into a deep hole, parting water as high as the handlebars. John, with a slightly larger and more powerful machine but pulling a trailer, stalled in the hole. He was able to restart after I towed him out, but his machine’s winch, our only electric winch, was inoperable.

That was going to be a problem. We’d needed the winch several times to get John’s four-wheeler and trailer up steep and muddy inclines on the way into camp. Fortunately, John believes in redundancy; he’d packed a come-along, a hand-operated winch, on my four-wheeler.

After more than an hour we were little more than a stone’s throw from Moose Camp. The rain was still pelting, the rivers still rising. But at least we’d crossed one of the two biggest hurdles. And neither of us had overtopped our hip waders or taken a swim.

The next four or five miles were remarkable only in the amount of water inundating low portions of the trail where we’d never seen water before and the axle-grease slipperiness of the trail.

The second river was deeper than we’d ever seen it, nearly a foot deeper than two days earlier.  Its water flowed fast in a single channel with a muscular smoothness that hid most boulders. The trail led to the only ford we knew. We had a choice. Wait, perhaps for days, until the water level dropped. Or launch ourselves into it.

I went first. Plunging in and out of several holes that swamped the seat of the four-wheeler, I thumbed the throttle hard. A little over halfway across, within 10 feet of shallower water, my engine flooded and died.  

Getting the machine the rest of the way across involved the come-along and 50 feet of rope. John waded into the river to keep the machine from slipping farther downstream while I racheted the come-along, winching the heavy machine an inch at a time. It took us more than an hour, and by then I was wet to the waist.

On the bank, John conjured up a dry sparkplug and a can of starter fluid and we restarted the machine. He told me he didn’t think his machine could make it across the river, especially pulling the trailer. A possible solution, however, was to tie the 50-foot rope, extended with another short rope, to his 50-foot winch cable. I could then give his machine an additional boost by towing. Suffice it to say, the rope broke and John’s four-wheeler died about a third of the way across.

And then along came Steve

We were almost out of options. John volunteered to ride the smaller four-wheeler to the highway to borrow 100 feet of rope, cable, or chain, or bring someone with the gear back to the river. Before he left, he noted the four-wheeler’s transmission sounded like it was failing.

I had been wet for several hours. I could easily imagine John taking hours, if not a day or more, to return. Time to gather dry wood for a fire.

The four-wheeler’s engine stuttered and stopped several times before John was out of hearing range. But within minutes he returned with another hunter, a fellow named Steve. Steve was destined to rescue us four times in the next hour.

After his third or fourth rescue, the song “Along Came Jones,” originally performed by The Coasters, popped into my head. I haven’t been able to shake it since.

Steve had a 50-foot tow strap of webbing. By extending his winch cable, the strap almost bridged the gap to John’s winch cable. John and I waded back into the river and used 10 feet of his weaker rope to connect the parts. Steve winched the four-wheeler out of the river. We thanked him profusely.

John’s machine was flooded. Rather than attempt to replace the sparkplug, considering the unlikelihood we had enough starter fluid left in the can, John chose to tow the larger four-wheeler and trailer back to the highway with the smaller machine. Steve said he’d follow us through the upcoming boggy area.

When our leading machine slid sideways into a muddy hole only slightly smaller than a tank trap, and died, Steve worked his way to the front of the convoy. But the trail was too slick for his machine to pull both four-wheelers and the trailer.

Just then, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, another hunter appeared. Contemplating our four-vehicle lash-up, I give him lots of credit for not laughing. The combined horsepower of two machines yanked us out. We thanked Steve again and restarted the smaller four-wheeler.

With the bog behind us, all that remained was a relatively short uphill stretch followed by another mile or so to the highway. Steve said he’d follow us a ways.

John stopped at the bottom of first steep grade, only about 60 feet long. He didn’t think the ailing four-wheeler had enough power to pull the larger four-wheeler and trailer. He proposed pulling the trailer first. As I recall, this was when I first imagined hearing the percussive clip-clops that introduce “Along Came Jones.”

And then along came Steve. He offered to tow the trailer back to the highway.

John almost didn’t make it up the hill anyway. I leaped off the trailing four-wheeler as his started to labor and ran alongside to lessen the weight. The next steep slope was only 40-feet long. Just as I stood to jump off my machine, the tow rope broke. We both locked our hand brakes to avoid cartwheeling backwards. Neither of us could release the brakes, to retie the tow rope, and trust that our machine wouldn’t roll backwards.

And then along came Steve. By now I was humming King Curtis’ tenor sax riffs.

Steve retied the rope and we proceeded to the last steep grade, a 30-foot rise at best. But once a rope breaks, it’ll keep breaking. And this one fulfilled that prophecy. This time John backed downhill until his machine rested against mine, so he could use both hands to retie the rope.

Visceral sense of loss

Because we were careful and prepared, I don’t believe our lives were ever at risk. But seemingly inconsequential things -- like the loss of a winch, a broken rope, wet clothes, getting in too much of a hurry -- have killed people before. More likely, with the river rising and having suffered a soggy cascade of equipment failures, we might have lost the second four-wheeler and had some gear swept downstream.

For this reason, I readily acknowledge that we were saved by some of the very hunters whose ubiquitous presence ruined my trip to Moose Camp. And they can have it. Because this will be my last trip. I don’t want to start my morning hunt with a footrace to the nearest observation point. I don’t want to see more hunters than moose.  

I’ve always understood the anger and resistance of Native Americans to the successive waves of European explorers, trappers, ranchers and farmers. After all, we were not only stealing their food, we were carving muddy ruts into their heritage. That is to say I’ve understood their loss intellectually. I never experienced the visceral sense of loss until now.

It’s a little like losing a friend or a loved one.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at  rickjsinnott@gmail.com