The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear, Part I

My good friend and hunting buddy Stephen and I have been talking about going on an Alaska hunt for years.  We’ve debated the quarry (caribou, moose, bear, sheep), the method (do-it-yourself, guided, float hunts, foot hunts) and the timing, which always seemed to be “maybe next year…”  This past January, we decided that this would be the year and we settled on going moose hunting.  We, being avid Colorado do-it-yourself hunters, checked into the pro’s and con’s of going it on our own.  It seemed do-able, and definitely less expensive than a fully-guided hunt where the guide stays right by your side the whole time, well, guiding.  There are shelves full of books about what a person needs, where to go, and how to handle all the logistics.

After a little (although my wife might disagree) research, we found that we could either do everything ourselves completely unencumbered by any local assistance, or hire an outfitter/transporter to handle some or all of the logistics before and after our actual hunt.  This decision sent us to a deeper level of research, separating the costs, locations and other pros and cons of various outfitters.  In January, we went to the International Sportsmen’s Expo in Denver in hopes of meeting some outfitters the old-fashioned way:  face –to-face.  There, in addition to finding all manner of gadgets that separated us from a good portion of our saved-up hunt money, we found two different outfitters who seemed to fit the bill.

One gent offered float hunts and a fairly high success ratio of about 75%.  Another offered drop hunts with small boats for getting around with a lower success ratio of approximately 50%.  The four-hour road trip home from the Expo provided us the debate venue for about the last lit bit of discussing that each of us could tolerate before just flipping a coin.  We decided (provided his references checked out) on the second guy, PaPa Bear Adventures with Steve and Carl Powers out of Bethel.  The first guy’s float hunts did sound fun and we kept him as a first runner-up should the Powers references bonk.  But the more we chased out the details, the more those float hunts sounded like a hell of a lot of work with three or four camp setups across the two weeks we’d be out.  Then, if you get a moose, you might have to drag the meat along with you until you get to a spot suitable for float-plane access.  PPBA seemed to have the best of all worlds:  a drop camp that we just set up once, a boat should we feel the need to float around the lakes, and a pretty no-nonsense but Mom-and-Pop feel about their operation.  He even offered float hunts too if we still wanted to go that route when time for the hunt came.  The half-and-half success ratio we could live with.  As with most things, we figured the hunt results we got out of our adventure would reflect how much effort we put into it.  Turns out, our decision would prove correct!

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PPBA’s references, several even from Colorado, all checked out with good stories and gear recommendations.  One guy said he shot his bull using the antlers of his dads (dead) bull as a rifle rest! The Powers brothers’ pilots’ licenses checked out as unblemished.  The local wildlife officers also gave their operation a thumbs-up, so we sent off our non-refundable deposit in February.  At that point, we were committed!  We had until September to not break a leg or suffer any other manner of hunt-canceling tragedy.

Our wives breathed a sigh of relief that we were finally done with our outfitter research.  You see, Stephen’s a land surveyor and I’m an engineer, so there is a whole lot of left-brain activity that goes into our technical planning.  I’ve heard the phrases “anal retentive” and “overboard” muttered on more than one occasion from my lovely bride.  I still need to look up “O.C.D.” that must be some outdoor gear company that I’ve yet to find.  Little did our better halves know that now we had to move on to the “must-have” gear selection phase!  And she says I don’t like shopping…

The gear…oh, the gear.  I made a pact with myself not to buy any outdoor/hunting gear that I wouldn’t use on this hunt.  But that didn’t reign in my shopping much.  Part of the reason I wanted a cheaper, non-guided hunt was so that I’d have more room in my funmoney piggybank for gear!  Good gear is an investment since I’d be using it for years to come on all my other hunts.  Well, most of it anyway.  New tent…gotta have it.  New daypack…absolutely, I’d been meaning to try out an Eberlestock scabbard-pack.  New meat pack, no question there.  I had to have the most ergonomic backpacks due to the old war injury, you know!  New sleeping bag…definitely, because having the wrong bag in bad weather can kill you!  And, while I’m at it, the old sleeping pads just wouldn’t cut it compared to the new snazzy insulated air cores out there these days.  Why stop there, those cute little lightweight cots that only stand a couple inches off the ground looked like just the ticket.

***Shameless plugs for Colorado companies and their great gear:  Raingear, Loki of Grand Junction; Sleeping bag, Wiggys of Grand Junction; Sleeping pad, Big Agnes of Steamboat; Meat pack, Kifaru of Golden.***

The piece of the gear puzzle that I vacillated longest over was waders.  I had never worn waders in my life.  Chest waders?  Waist waders?  Hip waders?  Insulated?  Non-insulated?  Neoprene duck hunter style?  Nylon?  Canvas?  Nobody says “Made just for moose hunting” on any set of waders that I could find.  Most advice told us chest waders would be too hot.  Yet other advice indicated hip waders might be too short if you’re, umm, vertically challenged.  Getting one’s hip waders flooded sounded like an adventure that, at best, would cause you to lose a day of hunting.  At worst, a good soaking in the wrong weather could be dangerous.  I decided that I probably fell into that group of hunters.  Not that my 5’8” is short, but I figured my fireplug stature might encourage the swampy terrain to suck me in a little deeper than I first might anticipate.

So I decided on waist waders, the nylon non-insulated kind.  I figured I could always don more longhandles if I needed the insulation, but it would be darn hard to make them any cooler if I started to overheat.  That decision then drove the need for fancy wader shoes!  The Simms company makes a nice pair of wader/hikers that only cost as much as it takes to change the oil…in my diesel truck.  And, as luck would have it, when you’re 5’ 8” waist waders are chest waders.  If your buddy’s Ed Grimley jokes get to you, you can always roll the waders back down around your waist.

While signing that Cabelas credit card slip, I thought of yet more justification:  I’ve only been twice, but if I ever go on a third fly-fishing venture with my neighbor, I’ll have a snazzy wader setup just like him!  I would no longer need to endure near-hypothermic conditions standing in a river for hours wearing shorts and Tevas.  These waders would surely catch me more fish.

The February to September wait was not without hiccup.  Stephen was laid off for a time but stayed strong and never considered canceling since he really had been planning on this hunt for most of his life.  I probably should be thanking Mrs. Stephen for that.  My wife got assigned a trip overseas for the second week that I’d be hunting.  Thank you, Grandma and Grandpa for visiting and wrangling our herd through its school-homework-church-soccer-football-dance-band-three-kid-two-cat-one-dog-one-turtle weekly circus.

The calendar finally crawled to a point when we were about a month away from departure and we held a gear-packaging party in my garage.  Our charge was to limit all of our gear to 125 pounds each, or 250 between the two of us.  Initially it sounded like a lot, but we quickly filled up four Plano tubs with about 60 pounds each.  That was just fine, except we still needed to include our rifles and daypacks!  So, out came the cots…and stools…and rollup table…and some food…and, well, you get the idea.   We wound up paring the whole ensemble to about 220 pounds and shipping them north to the outfitter.  We figured after arrival, we could ditch three of the tubs and pack our wares into drybags, saving the weight of those three tubs.

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The last month of waiting was brutal.  I found myself compulsively checking the news and weather around Bethel.  Turns out, there wasn’t much of either.  I checked with a taxidermist about the various logistics of getting antlers and a cape from the Alaskan wilderness back to him here in Colorado.  That took lots of discipline to overcome the fear of jinxing myself out of a moose by planning on dealing with antlers.  Luck always plays a part in hunting, anyone who says differently is not entirely connected with reality.

D-day minus one finally arrived.  I suffered through one last day at work, we each packed our carry-on, rifle, and piled in Stephen’s truck for the road trip to Salt Lake City where we would begin our flights the next day.

Checking in at the airport was fairly smooth.  Checking our rifles turned out to be the easy part.  Checking the hunters proved to be different.  When you book a flight nearly eight months in advance, there is a fair chance that the itinerary will have changed at some point between booking and boarding.  This was our case and it was a good half hour for the gentleman behind the Delta counter to bang away at his keyboard and produce our boarding passes.  I sensed he was about to ask to use one of our rifles on his computer.  I would have happily obliged!

Finally, FINALLY we boarded and began the flights.  Salt Lake City to Seattle to Anchorage to Bethel.  The fun of slugging each other in the shoulder and saying “Hey, we’re going to ALASKA!!!”  never did wear off.  We had to knock it off by the time we arrived at Bethel and met up with the Steve Powers at baggage claim in Bethel.  Well, with the size of Bethel’s airport, the baggage claim area was also the waiting area, check-in area, and half of the security check-in if you moved the ropes around just right.  I think the airport terminal was one of the five largest buildings in town, and that’s not saying much.

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Steve drove us to the grocery store to pick up the couple odds and ends we needed to round out our gear, butter, salt, pepper and another tarp.  Turns out that store had a healthy supply of camping gear and one aisle even held ATV’s.  I decided then and there that I loved Alaska.

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We got to the lodge (it was really a three-bedroom house on a lake decked out with enough pictures, mounts, antlers and bear rugs to make grown hunters weep) and unloaded all our gear.  After a good hour of gawking at all the trophies and checking out the float planes, we began consolidating our gear into plane-suitable piles and doublechecking the weight.

Shane, their main pilot came back with a load of moose meat and head from one of the camps.  The antlers were about 36 inches wide and the other locals kept asking “why’d they shoot a little one?”  Soooo, that gave me a good frame of reference for “little” anyway.  Apparently the reason the hunter shot that “little” one was because he thought he was going to get run over by the bull!  The moose kept coming close in even after the hunter quit making noise.

We got to visit with Steve Powers a bit more about how to hunt moose.  We’d been reading everything we could get our hands on about chasing, finding, calling, shooting and packing a moose.  But there was just no substitute for face-to-face advice from someone who made his living at it.  He said the newbies who do the best are typically whitetail hunters who are very good at minding their scent, just sitting and calling for hours.  He didn’t have much to say about elk hunters actually.  Apparently one earlier group showed up in their bluejeans, big belt buckles and Stetson hats.  They would not listen to much advice and went home empty-handed.

The whole sitting and calling thing was something we knew would give us trouble.  Elk hunting at home involves a whole lot of hiking and glassing but not much sitting.  We do fairly well, but usually wind up backpacking our elk meat a couple miles back to the rigs.  So the hard work part didn’t bother us much.

But one of Steve’s phrases stuck in my mind like a firebrand.  In his thick Kentucky drawl, “You don’t want to pack no moose no two miles!”  For one thing, packing moose meat would be several times more meat than we normally get off an elk.  The second reason to leash oneself to camp with a half-mile tether was that the ground in Alaska was like walking across a stack of mattresses.  There wasn’t much in the way of solid ground to carry the 100-ish-pound load across.  Walking across that semi-solid terrain was a workout even without a load on the back.  Hmm…staying within a half-mile from camp or boat compared to our usual hunting regimen of 8-10-mile days…the next two weeks would be an exercise in discipline indeed.

Sleep still didn’t come easily after finally getting to the brink of our adventure. Sunday morning we woke and got ready way before the Powers got to the lodge.   We got our gear loaded into a truck for transport down to the Kuskokwim River on the other side of town.  With the weight of us and our gear, the float planes needed more takeoff length than the lodge’s little lake offered therefore the loaded planes had to take off from the river.  On the way out to the plane, we stopped by Subway to grab some lunch to go.  It felt a little weird standing in line wearing waders, but nobody batted an eye.  This reaffirmed my love for that State!

Loading the plane at the river’s edge was a group effort.  We manage to cram all our gear, Stephen, me and our Subway sandwiches into their yellow Beaver aircraft and taxied out to the center of the river.  I fly a lot in little Cessnas for work, but this was my first trip inside a float plane and it felt a little weird.  I’m used to nice cleared public-use (land) airports and taxiing in full view of about five or six boats motoring up and down the river was a little unnerving.

Throttling up the aircraft for takeoff felt a bit like trying to take our work Cessna off in mud, it was a little slow.  Then, after gaining some speed, I felt the airplane glide up onto the top of the water just like speeding up in a boat or jetski.  That was a really cool sensation, plus it felt a lot more like the paved runways I was used to.  Next thing I knew we were airborne and banking left over town…North, to destinations unknown.

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