The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear, Part III

We took a few pictures around that bull moose and I sent out a SPOT satellite beacon message, “Critter Down!” for the outfitter and the folks at home. After a quick walk back to camp to call Powers, eat, and grab knives, a saw and tarp, we came back to the bull and butchered until midnight.

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Stephen and his bull

The next morning, we treated ourselves to sleeping in until 8:00! Then we got up and resumed butchering again since we were only about a third complete. Alaska hunting regulations require you to remove the quarters with the bone-in AND still bone out the rest of the animal. You have to remove all useable meat. Performing all of this on a carcass laying in the brush, with thousands of mosquitoes in the pattern all around you, AND keeping one eye out for bears takes a while.

We split up all the meat and quarters in eight pack loads plus the skinned out head. Stephen was planning on doing a European mount if he could get the antlers back home in one piece. Most hunters split the moose skull down the middle and then reassemble it back home for mounting, so doing a full Euro mount on an Alaskan moose would be a trophy indeed!

Stephen and I had packed out a lot of boned out Colorado elk in our day so we figured this would be just like packing out two elk. This proved to be somewhat true, except for the packaging. You see, we’re both about 5′ 8″ tall, while some moose stand that tall just at the shoulder. Imagine a four-foot long bone-in moose quarter weighing easily over 100 pounds strapped to your back. Doing the math, you’ll realize that a good two feet of meat and bone protruded above our heads while we packed the quarters! Walking around on that tundra wasn’t easy with just a daypack. Packing one of these super-sized quarters made us look truly comical. Plus it had the added bonus of producing a rolling sweat for the entire half-mile pack down to the lake. If it was easy, they would not be called “trophies.”

We got all the loads packed to the water just in time for Shane the pilot to arrive in the Supercub plane. He loaded the meat in two trips so he could drop it off at a larger nearby lake, load the entire load, and be able to take off with the whole load using the longer takeoff area. This got him out of our hunting area quickly, quieter, and safer than either trying to load the whole thing at our lake or running clear back to the lodge with each half load. Given all the work we knew handling that meat was, we really appreciated Shane’s efforts and decided on his tip amount right then!

That night we cooked up some tenderloin. This was my first taste of moose meat and, I’m not sure if it was because we were starving or not, but that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Again, the word “awesome” gets used alot, but I’m certain those chunks of fresh tenderloin cooked up in butter, seasoned salt and pepper would have brought a tear to the eye of even the most experienced Parisian chef. We were so beat that we skipped any more hunting that evening and just went to bed.

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Alaskan sunset

Saturday morning came. We were a week into our two-week hunt and had our tags half-filled. We went back over to the knob west of camp and called. After a half-hour, we heard bull grunts from the treeline north of camp. After more calling without bringing him in any closer, we tried to maneuver into a closer spot without pushing the animal away. We kept this chess game up for another hour but could not get the bull to show himself.

We walked back over to the kill site in hopes of possibly seeing a bear, but nothing besides birds and bugs had been visiting.

At this point we still had not yet used the raft that Powers provided us, so we decided to give it a go. It aired up pretty easily, so we donned our waders and set sail. ‘Set paddle’ would probably be more accurate. We two land lubbers got the hang of it quickly, it was easier than it looked to simply straddle the side of the boat and paddle away. We got to the far side of our camp lake in about 15 minutes. That same trip on foot around the lake would have taken well over an hour. Needless to say, we were hooked and would be floating this country whenever we could!

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We stopped at a beaver slide that worked pretty well for humans too. We climbed up the far side and found a nice open clearing filled with blueberries. This high clearing provided the best vantage point around, so we sat down and called a bit. We saw a cow and calf moving about 350 yards away and heard one bull grunt way off, but never could get any more grunts after that. After over an hour here, we went back to the boat and paddled around to the far north end of the lake.

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Blueberry fields forever

Here the country was thicker and more rolling and we hiked around in a big loop calling and exploring. It was mainly Spruce forest with a few small ponds mixed in. We started to hear a big ruckus in the next pond over but the trees were so thick we couldn’t see. It sounded for sure like at least one moose, maybe more, splashing around in the water! I’m not sure how much horseplay moose engage in, but I swore we’d find one rolling around in the water doing calisthenics.

We crept up to the edge of the treeline with eyes peeled and ears on high alert…I was really itching to fill my tag now. We got close enough through the thick brush to catch glimpses of the water and hear more of what was going on. About 50 yards from the pond we hit the realization that this was no moose, but a flock of about 80 very noisy, very active ducks. They were splashing, diving, flapping around, I’d never seen such a thing. It seemed like they were having a party. We each felt pretty stupid.

So we backed off to a point where we could hear without being overpowered by the duck-a-palooza, sat down, and ate dinner. By the time we got to the bottom of our bags of backpacker meal, we realized we weren’t the only ones in the wilderness interested in that duck party. A fluffy red fox walked past us at about ten yards. We made a few mouse squeaks and got him to stop and look our way. That was pretty fun, we speculated that we might be the only humans he had ever seen.

Mr. Fox lost interest in the ugly 200-pound mouse who smelled like rehydrated noodles and continued down to the pond. About 10 minutes after he departed in that direction, the duck ruckus really picked up and they all flew off. It really sounded like that fox just had dinner too!

We paddled back to camp and arrived right at dusk. We decided that paddling around the tundra beat the heck out of walking, it was definitely the way to go. I also decided that I should have brought some sunscreen along this trip. The weather was much nicer than we had anticipated with no rain and full sun most days. My nose and cheeks were sunburned and my only option was a nice greasy chapstick coating.

The next day we kept up the same routine while heading out in a different direction. We paddled across the camp lake, hiked and called around, portaged to the next lake and repeated the process. We came across a few cows and calves. At one point we met a cow with two calves on the same game trail we were walking. We all stopped at 15 yards out and stared at each other for a minute before the moose simply turned direction and walked away. I still don’t think the moose cared much about the smelly two-legged aliens in their forest.

Monday was day nine and we embarked on the same routine as the last few days. It was starting to wear on us a bit as the weather was not great for hunting. It was actually too nice, it was sunny and clear most of the time and the afternoon winds were starting to pick up. Wild animals that rely on scent more than sight or sound do not generally venture out much in windy conditions.

We paddled again over to our beaver slide and blueberry field. We tied up the boat near the slide and I climbed up the small rise toward the blueberry clearing. I came over the rise and there, right where I figured we’d sit…BEAR! A good-sized black bear was munching away on the berries. His head was down and he was feeding away from us.

I ducked down and quietly racked a shell into my .300 Ultramag. I turned to Stephen and signaled to be quiet. If it were a good bull moose, I would have signaled with hands above my head like antlers. We did not, however, have a bear sign worked out. So I made like a clawing motion and pointed up to where the bear was. The look on his face told me he just thought I was plain crazy, but he hunkered down too.

I turned back around and peeked over the rise. The bear was still there, quartering away now at about 80 yards. I searched around for any cubs, I didn’t want to shoot a sow with cubs tagging along. No cubs were around and the bear looked as big as any I’d seen in Colorado, so my mind was made up. I rose up, flicked off the safety, put the crosshairs a smidge low (I keep it zeroed for 250 yards) on the offside shoulder and squeezed…

BOOM! The bear dropped. He gave one quick nip at the entrance hole and then lay still. We high-fived each other and went up to see my first bear. He was a pretty nice boar, coal black, and didn’t have any rubbed spots on his hide. We figured he’d probably weigh a bit over 300 pounds.

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My bear

After we stopped for a few pictures, we started skinning. He had definitely been tearing up the blueberries. He had purple lips, tongue, teeth, and kind of a big purple grin not unlike Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. And anyone who’s skinned an animal knows that while the teeth around the critter’s “in-hole” are fun to look at, you have to do a fair amount of knife work around the animal’s “out-hole.” This fella was bright purple from all the blueberries at that end too. Between this aftermarket dye job and the field we found him in, he was…The Blueberry Bear.

Most bears, this one included, are super greasy. The oil was literally running down the skinned carcass. Our hands were soft and supple after working off the hide and butchering out the meat. My waders now a have permanent bear grease coating down their front to make them extra waterproof.

We packed the meat and hide the easy 150 yards back to the boat and paddled back to camp. We laid the skin out under a tarp, made a sat phone call to Powers, and whipped up a dinner of bear and moose steaks.

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Bear in a boat

It wasn’t quite as tasty as the moose, but it was still very good. I’ve heard horror stories about bear meat, but this was good stuff. It was a bit tougher than the moose, but really took on the flavor of the seasoning. It was a little bland, almost sweet, compared to the moose. We figured this bear must have been living his whole life on berries and fish. Many of the bears back home in Colorado get into a lot of garbage and their taste reflects it.

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Wild blueberries.  Yumm!

Steve Powers showed up the next day in the Supercub to take the bear skin back to his lodge freezer. Over the last few days, we kept up the same routine, paddling, hiking, calling, portaging to the next lake, paddling, hiking, calling, etc. We got into moose every day, but never did call in another good bull.

At one point, we selected a portage, or boat drag, from one lake across to another. We failed in our recon of the length of land we had to cross and it turned into a pretty strenuous drag. As we took a break about halfway across, a small plane came buzzing over, likely going north to the town of Russian Mission. It was low enough that we could make out a couple passengers’ faces looking down on us. I can only imagine what they thought at seeing a couple guys sacked out on a rubber boat parked on dry land clearly farther from water than any sane person would drag a boat!

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A small drag across the tundra

We knew we were to get picked up on day 13, so I we quit hunting at noon on day 12. We didn’t want to risk getting a moose down and not have enough time to pack it and our camp out while still making all of our flights back home. The morning of day 13 we broke camp and lounged until the plane showed.

Shane arrived in the Beaver and told us that Steve Powers wife had to be rushed into surgery to have her appendix removed. That had thrown some of their hunter pickup plans into disarray, but we all made it back to the lodge just fine. I consider myself as manly as the next guy, but I could not wait to get a shower. Back at the lodge, we unpacked all our gear, threw a load of clothes in the washer, and got cleaned up.

Then came the packing up of our gear for transport back home. We decided to just check all our gear as baggage on the flight, rather than try and ship any of it. Alaska Airlines is kind enough to allow each passenger six checked items. We did the math and that allowed us to take home four 50-pound boxes of moose meat, all our gear, and we were going to attempt to get Stephen’s antlers home in one piece.

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Our gear

Its antler spread was just over 51 inches. Most hunters split the skull, fold the antlers over, and package it for transport in a compact package. Stephen is not most hunters. He had a week to ponder this dilemma and had a plan. He desperately wanted to get the skull and antlers home intact so that he could do a European mount like several of his elk. If we could find or fabricate the right box, we could check this baby home whole. The search was on…

Again, Alaska Airlines had rules. Any checked back dimensions could not add up to more than 62 inches length+width+height. On a trip into town with Powers, we secured a couple giant cardboard refrigerator boxes and thus began our sculpture.

At this point, it’s probably worth reminding everyone that Stephen is a surveyor and I am an engineer. We work with numbers day in and day out. A mandate of “L+W+H=62 or less” with a 51-inch rack plus skull was a worthy challenge indeed. We got to work with our box cutters, duct tape, foam packing, tape measures, and imagination.

After a few hours of sweat, blood, and cussing, we had our masterpiece. It measured 61.5” inches when you added up the dimensions just right. We decided we’d have to coach, persuade, and possibly even bribe when it came to actually checking in. We needed to make sure the future airline employee understood the definition of “length, width, and height” exactly how we did. I decided to keep the tape measure and a couple big bills handy.

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Stephen’s moose gets ready for transport

We got all our gear bundled up and into the truck and they took us to the Bethel Airport. Steve Powers hung around to make sure we got checked in all right. The regular bags, rifles, and boxes of meat checked in just fine. The TSA, in their infinite wisdom, could not care less about the rifle cases. But they were very interested in my mostly-frozen bear skin, head, and paws rolled up inside my action packer. That case drew a TSA search and a swab down.

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Bethel Airport

That bear that had been so tasty had apparently kept his nose clean of everything besides blueberries. The swab turned up negative for all things nefarious including explosives, poison, and illicit drugs. Good bear. Our intrepid TSA agent actually looked a little disappointed.

Last came our seven-sided cardboard-and-duct tape monolith. That one earned us a frown and a head shake from the lady checking us in. She had a tape measure, too, and was not afraid to use it. We instructed, cajoled, and finally begged her to measure it up the way we had measured it. She finally called in a supervisor. We gave him the same schpeel. I was starting to visualize those big bills not seeing me to the lower 48. He finally said, “I don’t know, let’s ask Billy, he loads the planes” and called for Billy on his radio.

Hands in pockets, toes making circles on the tile, we waited for our judge and jury, Billy, to appear. Finally a gentleman of about 19 years old appeared through the swinging doors. Supervisor asked, “Billy, can you get that thing in the plane?” Our blood ran cold. The fate of how we were going to get this home, whether or not Stephen would get his European mount, if we would have to break out a saw and cobble together a cardboard monolith 2.0 right here in the airport lobby, laid with this young Alaskan in an oily blue jumpsuit.

Billy looked at it from a couple directions, looked at us, and said “Sure” without even giving it a measure.

We were elated! But that lasted about five seconds until another thought crept in. So we asked, “What about when we get to Anchorage and switch planes? Will we have to go through this same exercise?”

That answer was no. Once an item is in a plane, it’s assumed that all the subsequent planes will be able to manage it.

We shook Steve Powers’ hand again and he left us there with our giant grins, two-week beards, and boarding passes.

After the plane began boarding, the young lady with the airlines who first began checking us in called us over. She said “Let me see your passes.” We handed them over, and then she TORE THEM UP! I was horrified.

“Umm, what are you doing?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Here, have a good flight.” She said as she handed over our new FIRST CLASS passes to Anchorage!

We got situated in the plane but still had a few lingering doubts about Billy’s assessment of the cardboard prize. We kept peering out the window, watching as the baggage trailer came under the plane and we could hear the clunking of the loading efforts below us.

We kept looking and it seemed to be taking longer this planeload should take. Finally the captain came on, looked around the passenger area, and landed his gaze on us.

“You guys, that big funky cardboard box is yours, right?”

We nodded “Yep” with a little of that now-familiar load terror creeping back in.

He grinned, “We got it in the plane just fine. You can relax.”

Between this guy, Billy, and the first class upgrade, I decided right then and there that Alaska Airlines was my new favorite airline.

An hour and a couple free drinks later we landed in Anchorage where we waited for the red-eye flight to Salt Lake. We dined in the airport where we chatted a bit about our adventure with the waitress. She appeared of Asian descent and got visibly irritated that I had left the bear’s gall bladder out in the wilderness. We spoke of how good its backstraps had tasted after cooked in butter and seasoned salt. But I got the distinct feeling that, had nobody been watching, she’d have whacked me with a menu. Repeatedly.

We slept most of the way to Salt Lake and arrived there in the early morning. We had to hunt around the baggage claim area for the special doors from where our rifle cases and “big funky cardboard box” would appear.

Ever taken a red-eye flight? The sleep isn’t real great, especially when you’re coming off two weeks in the wilderness. Hold that thought.

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Back at the Salt Lake City Airport, waiting to load into the truck

We carted it all out to Stephen’s truck and began loading. We debated a bit how best to pack everything, especially the moose. We decided it should ride just fine protected inside the box, but jammed in the bed off the truck with all our other gear holding things snug. Light loads can sometimes fly out the back of a truck if you’re not careful, but we figured everything was a tight enough fit to hold all the items in. We pulled out of the airport, fueled up, and picked up some ice for the bear. We got on I-15 and began the long drive back to Colorado.

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Road-tripping back home to Colorado

We got out of Salt Lake City proper and started up the Point on the Mount. I looked back on the gear from time to time and Stephen checked it in the mirrors. Things were wiggling a bit, but seemed to be fine.

Just before the crest of the hill, he and I looked back at the same time. We both saw it. Have you ever wondered what a bullet looks like as it’s fired from a gun, from the perspective of the bolt face? I no longer have to wonder. I’ve seen it firsthand.

He was on the brake trying to slow down from our top speed of 75 mph, but it wasn’t enough. We both yelled “OH @#$%!” as that big ugly box levitated up, quivered a bit, and shot straight backwards out of the truck! Aaaaaaah!

It landed right side up and skidded along in our middle lane for another 20 feet before coming to rest right in the road. By that time we had pulled over to the shoulder. We got out and I yelled at Stephen to watch out for the traffic. One semi swerved around the outside of the box, an SUV passed it on the right.

Even though this was a six-lane interstate, there was surprisingly little traffic. Then, as we were pushing it over to the shoulder, it hit me. “Thank God for Mormons!” I told Stephen.

This was 9:00 on a Sunday morning just outside of Salt Lake City. No other stretch of urban interstate highway anywhere else in the country would you find that little traffic at 9:00 any morning. Most of the faithful were at church and thankfully not bearing down on us at top speed.

After we un-boxed that miraculously unscathed head right there on the shoulder, repacked everything, and got back on the road, we decided on a name for that moose. We were very proud of ourselves for getting that rack to fly back through a combination of our creative packaging and the benevolence of Billy the Bagthrower. Now, however, we felt like complete morons having witnessed that same box nearly get decimated by flying onto on the highway. This, after we both knew way better than to ever pack a large light box in a moving truck bed!

We made it the rest of the way home, uneventfully, to Colorado with The Flying Moose and the Blueberry Bear. Plus, since a big moose rack in the back of a truck draws a crowd every time you stop, we even made a few new friends along the way home.

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